I often set myself a project that spans the full year. This year, I’m considering chronicling my daily writing life, but I haven’t figured out how best to frame it. Should I keep it short, as in a daily tweet? Today’s would read something like …
Tired, late night @ Edna King’s show in Guelph. Writing group cancelled this AM; I miss them, we haven’t met in a month. Fell asleep on couch reading Song of Achilles. Drew self-portrait, wrote What’s on Your Mind + blog post. Next, continue revising new novel. #writinglife
But in all honesty, one day is going to look a lot like the next, and a tweet has limited space for the animating details.
The long-form version of today’s chronicle goes something like this …
Today, I’ve been staggering around like a zombie after getting 4 hours of sleep last night; not conducive to clear-headed composition. I went to my sister’s show last night, an intense experience (EDM) that sent me into a form of dance/trance, which I spent thinking about my character, Bess, from the new novel I’m writing, set in the 16th century. My eyes were closed much of the time, and I kept gazing into my mind’s eye for Bess, trying to see what she was seeing: the image of darkness and enclosure, the image of an open night sky.
I’m reading Song of Achilles, historical fiction, and this morning, I fell asleep within ten minutes of picking up the book.
I was disappointed that my writing group meeting was cancelled again, as we’ve struggled to find time to meet this year. Our aspiration is to meet every other week, but we’ve only gotten together once in 2020 due to illness, travel, and other meetings and complications. I look forward to those mornings so much. It’s one of the only spaces where I have neither need nor compulsion to explain anything about #writinglife. We’re all in the industry, struggling, staying hopeful, doing the work, and encouraging and believing in each other. I’m missing that medicine.
While walking the dog, I thought about this blog post. I thought: what if I were honest, publicly, about this path I’m on? I’m giving myself a year; one year, in which to research and write with full commitment. January was blissful. I spent many hours of many days simply sitting and writing. It was blissful and it was filled with anxiety. I also sent out six grant applications at the beginning of last month, and four were rejected earlier this week. Truth! Ugh! Painful! Shameful! Humiliating!
But, on the other hand, also in January, I learned that my short story, “16-Century Girl,” published last winter by The New Quarterly, had been submitted for a National Magazine Award.
And, I filled another notebook! I’m working on two separate and very different fiction projects. One is historical fiction, and I’m close to completing a first draft (“close to completing” could mean 6 weeks or 6 months, or even longer). The other project is very new, and I’ve only been working on it for a few months; too new to discuss, though it does have a name: I’m calling it Two Women. I work on Two Women by hand, composing with pen and paper, and I’ve filled three notebooks so far. I’m working on Bess in Scrivener, and I’m composing it as if amassing a great heap of loose scraps, writing forward until I reach the end.
This week, I reached an end, of sorts, for Bess, and started back at the beginning, preparing for a slow, careful, thorough revision by setting up the Scrivener file beside a Word doc with the same text, and going through line by line, scene by scene, deleting, rewriting, composing new scenes. Don’t ask me why I’m taking this route. I’m writing this novel completely on gut instinct and dream-like visualization. The manuscript is short but dense. I’m curious to see whether it wants to be fleshed out further, or whether its structure and tone demands that it remain short and dense.
Also while walking the dog, I had a thought about the auto-fiction short story collection I’ve mostly completed; could each story be punctuated by one of my 4-panel cartoons, as a way of creating a breath between the stories, which are heavy and kind of demanding, and I don’t think anyone would want to sit down and read them all at once? Something needs to ease the transition between stories; maybe the meditative cartoons I’ve been drawing would fit there?
So that’s today, as of 2:03PM. As soon as I press publish on this blog post (if I do indeed decide to publish it), I’m setting up Bess in the side-by-side format, to work through whatever scene comes next. I have to pick up kids at 2:45, but I can return home and keep working on Bess till it’s time to make supper.
The other writing I’ve done today was in my notebook. As is my habit, I answered the question: What’s On Your Mind? as a means of dumping out surface anxieties before getting to work. I also drew a self-portrait — dancing last night — to Lizzo’s “Juice”.
Lastly, I will report that I continue to wait, with seemingly perpetual hope, patience, and possibly delusional optimism, to hear from my agent about two completed manuscripts (one for children, one for adults). Would you like to wait with me? We could be here awhile. But in the meantime, while I wait, I’ll be writing and dreaming and writing and dreaming, in full-on bliss, stealth-attacked by anxieties, and holding dear to prayers and visions. Truth.
I wasn’t in a good cartooning mood yesterday. But I wanted to capture this quotation from Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton, which I was reading. So I sat down and wrote it out, arranging the words on the page as if they were a poem. I started by writing the words in non-photo blue pencil, and inked them in afterward. I was quite sleep-deprived, and realized only later, when reading over my efforts, how many “typos” I’d made. So it wasn’t a good cartooning day. To cartoon, you need patience, focus, concentration. In keeping with my word of the year, I’m trying to pay attention to what manifests, in order to understand what’s underneath. In all honesty, I might not have noticed I was lacking those traits yesterday if I hadn’t tried to cartoon.
In conclusion, I need more sleep. I have been trying to get 7 hours of sleep each night, consistently; trying and failing, I must add. I’m addicted to early morning exercise. It’s my bliss. And that means getting to bed earlier. Which means turning off my phone earlier, and climbing into bed with a book. Like the one in which I found the words I felt compelled to record, above. But I confess it’s a hard habit to change — to read a book instead of scrolling though social media feeds. The latter offers the illusion of connection, and sometimes, in the case of Twitter, a steady stream of outrage that temporarily livens my brain; but also drains me of real purpose, or the desire to act in real, tangible ways.
When I read, especially fiction, I transcend the body I’m in and become familiar with other bodies, other realities, through immersive sensory perceptions. I see through other eyes. And in this exchange, I often feel seen, or feel able to see myself more clearly. That is how I felt reading the passage above: It says what I cannot.
Reading it, I wanted to write out the words so I could keep them in tangible form. The words called out from me a response. Which led me here. Which is, where, exactly? Sitting at my desk on a dull Saturday afternoon, the first day of February, my fingers smelling of peeled garlic, not vacuuming or cleaning the bathrooms, composing a small gathering of thoughts for release, winging out into the ether.
One final thought: I write fiction to know how others are, in large part because “I realize I don’t know how others are.” But one of the oddest things I’ve discovered while writing a collection of autobiographical stories, is that I also don’t know how I am. Fiction is a necessary construction, and sometimes it becomes a mirror. A fictional character, like Lucy Barton, can say what we cannot because as a projection of her author’s imagination she is elaborately protected from the particular dangers of human pain, and this makes her free, as a character, to reveal what our human minds protect us from most vigilantly — her ambiguities, confusion, contradictions, the places where she gets stuck, the ways in which she hurts others, her lies and her truths. We see her, and we see ourselves more clearly for a moment, too.
There are times, unexpected —
My word of the year is MANIFEST.
I chose this word despite feeling discomfort about its complexity, and despite recognizing that I don’t completely understand its multiple meanings nor how the word will be useful in shaping or framing my outlook this year.
Sometimes a word just wants to be used. This word kept coming up. I kept seeing it and hearing it. And it arrived with a clear image. A manifestation is what’s visible. To make manifest is to show. Within the word is its reason for being, its implicit shadow: everything that is latent, hidden, unconscious, unseen, unknown and mysterious under the surface. The image I see is of surfacing. I’m in a deep body of water, carrying an offering to the surface. My offering is small, no bigger than a grain of sand, and I have a long way to go from the ocean floor to the open sky. But I enjoy the work. I’m swimming happily toward the surface with my grain of sand. When I pop through, I’ll float on the surface for a little while, resting, holding my grain of sand up to the sky in case a bird wants to carry it away. It won’t be long till I dive down to the bottom, again, to find another grain of sand.
Something that is manifest is readily perceived by the senses; it is what’s shown.
A manifestation can also mean the spiritual made real.
There are things that are declared, or announced, before they spring into being; to make manifest is to bring into being that which did not exist. My life’s work, I think. Because I also believe that what isn’t yet seen does exist, just not in tangible form. My life’s work is to go underground and surface, again and again.
When I frame my work as a spiritual quest rather than a career, it makes sense in a way that soothes and comforts me. It makes sense in a way that other framing does not and never has; I’m left cold and anxious, seething with envy and practical concerns, when I try to frame my work as a career, something that is transactional in nature, something I do in order to receive something in return—money, success, fame, or even simply a decent living. Nope. That’s asking my work to be something it fundamentally isn’t.
Accept what is before you. Be led. Open pathways for others, but don’t be angry or worried or dissatisfied if the path you see for them is not the path they see for themselves.
A story should call us, should lead us, we should follow it; if we’re dragging that story behind us like a dead weight, we know it’s not alive. It makes sense to me to visualize and live my life, as much as is possible, in this way—being called, following where I’m being led, whether or not it makes sense or is logical or dutiful or practical or immediately rewarding. I can’t know what I’m making. I can’t know what I’m doing in the moment of doing it. I’m just swimming, swimming, swimming toward the light carrying this little grain of sand.
This is a gift from a friend, from Iran. She gave it to me on Wednesday evening. While I had the words to thank her for the gift, I felt tongue-tied and incapable of properly expressing my grief and horror for what is happening in her homeland. I have felt submerged and helpless by the news of the plane shot down near Tehran, and all those lives senselessly gone; 138 people on that plane were coming to Canada, some were citizens, others were permanent residents or students. Young and old. The wealth of talent they had brought and were bringing to Canada speaks to how fortunate we are, as Canadians, to be blessed by the knowledge and skills and gifts of people from around the world. I hope we live up to expectations, though I know for sure that’s not always true. I wish we would be the country we aspire to be, and that we often tell ourselves we are.
This coming week, my life fills up again with extra activities, beyond writing and parenting. Soccer starts on Monday, with practices and exhibition games to plan; and The X Page workshop starts on Wednesday, twelve weeks of adventure and potential and hopes and challenge, leading to a performance on April 3. Click here for more information (you can already buy tickets!).
Meanwhile, I’ve been writing and writing. Let me tell you what that feels like: BLISS.
The release into another way of being feels so effortless while inside of this state. This is bliss, I’ve said almost every day this week, by which I mean transcendence, by which I mean, entrance into this other realm of existence where I am open to mystery, filled with wonder and delight, delighting in not-knowing, as if on a perpetual adventure and also feeling deeply powerful — feeling certain that it is a worthy undertaking to attempt to bring forth and make manifest and visible the spiritual, the otherwise unknowable and unknown world, through stories, through fiction.
How to connect that world to this one? That way of being and seeing and existing to this one? I don’t know. How to make sense of this escape when all around me is need, responsibility, confusion, and how can I live both there and here?
I wrote the two paragraphs above at my writing group, yesterday, and after I’d read the reflection aloud, one of my friends said: This should be our manifesto. We spend a lot of time talking, in the group, about why we write, what matters, what draws us to this discipline. How can we live both there and here?
One last curiosity: this morning, I opened a notebook that I thought was blank, and discovered several entries, scribbled in pen, dated not long after the birth of my first child. More than seventeen years ago. I was in my twenties. I was pregnant with my second child. Here’s something I wrote, in between describing teething, exhaustion, and anxiety dreams: “have felt mildly depressed after getting no writing time all week, no breaks from mothering & cleaning & cooking, etc. i need it, it feeds me. i think it is this other world for me, an escape, a place where things make sense and have significance or can be made to seem so.”
What a remarkable reminder: I’ve needed it, it’s been feeding me, for as long as I can remember. I don’t know whether I can make sense of what’s happening in the world right now, and I can’t make sense of grief, nor fury, nor fear, and I can’t explain why terrible things happen, nor why leaders behave irrationally, cruelly, impulsively, and without regard for human life. I don’t know why. I don’t know, I don’t know. But I know, on a very small scale, that writing helps. Telling stories helps. As necessary as bread.
Today is my birthday. It’s family tradition that we get to do what we like on our birthdays (within reason). Among my wishes was that I wanted to go to church: my dad’s band was playing at the service. I love the band’s mellow folksy sound — Dad plays the piano, and there’s a banjo, guitar, fiddle, and voices in harmony. The whole family came along, which was also my wish.
It was the last service of the year, and instead of listening to a sermon, the congregation was asked to reflect silently on two questions: what experiences in your life this past year have been life-giving; what experiences in your life this past year have been life-draining? I found myself turning away in my mind from labelling any experience as negative, or draining. Why? Because there is a part of me that remains forever hopeful, optimistic that any conflict or trial could be transformed by attention and care, or could be transformative in ways that can’t be guessed in the painful, hard moment of its happening.
But in truth, some experiences are draining. And I do try to pay attention to those, too.
Life-giving experiences this year: as I let my mind wander through memory, I saw images of connection. Sitting at the end of the dining-room table, poring over the novel I’m working on, feeling like an antennae connected to the universe, pinging with focus and energy. Eyes closed, doing yoga, sitting cross-legged on soft sheepskin surrounded by music. In my body, running in the early dark morning. With my family, around the table. With my soccer team, outdoors on summer evenings. With my writing group sitting at the table. With my word-of-the-year group. Listening to stories being shaped and coming alive. We are all raw material, and yet we are also all capable of transforming into exactly what others need, at any moment in time.
Life-draining experiences: I did not dwell on these heavily. But I acknowledge these were also a part of my year. I would call them: broken connections. Relationships in flux or turmoil. The distractions of the constant stream of information and news, the scroll of social media, disconnecting me from my body and mind, and from those who are present with me. Times when I lacked focus. Days when I was unable to write for lack of focus, or care. Frazzled energy. Fears too dark to name. Times when I felt overwhelming anxiety, paralysis, over everything I can’t control (which is, let’s be honest, most everything).
Connection / broken connections.
To be grounded is to be rooted, is to feel oneself sturdy, energy flowing directly to and from an idea, a cause, a project, a desire. To be grounded is to feel connected to place, connected to self, to body, to spirit, to feel whole. It may not be possible to feel this way always. But even to feel like this sometimes is wonderful. It’s good to remember that it’s possible to feel this way, at times and on days and in hours when I don’t.
Connection / broken connections.
There will always be broken connections. Broken connections remind us that we are needed, that our creativity is needed, that our love is needed, our attention is needed, that our hope is needed, crucial, essential. We can’t fix a lot of things that are broken. That’s a hard human truth to learn. Maybe we aren’t meant to do that, we humans — go around fixing things all the time. This isn’t to discount the importance of policy-making in shaping our lives; what I’m talking about seems more personal. What I’m talking about is loving awareness. Maybe loving awareness is about acknowledging hurt, pain, brokenness, and making connections despite our fears, despite the risks. Maybe it’s letting go of the expectation that we can fix anything at all, and just listening, trying to hear and feel underneath to what this broken connection is telling us. (Put down your phone? Go for a walk? Write in your journal? Sit with yourself? Hold someone’s hand? Ask someone to hold your hand?)
Letting go of the idea that you can control what happens doesn’t mean you give up hope.
Hope is not the same as expectation. Hope seems much richer, much deeper, much more flexible and open to the air. Emily Dickinson says it much better than I can.
Hope is the thing with feathers
“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —
And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm —
I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet — never — in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of me.
My word-of-the-year group met last week for the last time in 2019. My word this year, SPACE, was resonant and practical, and has met me where I’m at in terms of my goals and aspirations. Essentially, a year ago, I determined that I wanted / needed / craved more space, specifically more space to write. Space and time are inextricably linked. They can’t be separated.
But so are space and discomfort. (As far as I know, Einstein didn’t weigh in on this theory.) Let me explain.
What I’ve come to believe is that I am the source of my own space. If I feel crowded out of my life, it is because I have chosen to be a person crowded out of her own life. I am the biggest obstacle in the path to my own contentment, and enlightenment; conversely, I am also the person capable of removing said obstacle. The expectations of others are not holding me back — my own expectations are the source of my unhappiness. What I’m sparing myself, by building a life that is crowded and that crowds me out, is discomfort.
Anything I give space to will cause me some discomfort, and the opposite of feeling discomfort is so often, instead, feeling resentment. It’s something we don’t think about much. But the fact is, we are much more comfortable feeling resentment (and anger, annoyance, irritation) because it is an outward emotion — we can send it toward the object of our resentment. Discomfort is an interior emotion that asks us to be responsible, to accept the cause of our discomfort as our own choosing.
Any choices I’ve made that I value have caused me to feel discomfort. Giving space to listen to opposing positions — discomfort. Saying no to people and opportunities — discomfort. Waiting with a writing project as it forms and develops — discomfort. Allowing a child to wrestle with their own problems — discomfort. Taking a leadership role and being responsible for decisions that affect others — discomfort.
What I’ve learned this year is that when I allow myself to focus more fully on what I’ve named as my desire — time and space to devote to my writing — I also have to confront my insecurities, which come crowding into all this open space. It’s uncomfortable. I feel vulnerable. Exposed. Teaching was easy to talk about, pretty much universally understood and accepted as a positive and recognizable undertaking. The ambition of developing an ongoing career as a literary fiction writer in a market that is facing serious existential challenges: not so easy to talk about. Even that sounds like an excuse, as I read it over. And so I’ll revise: It’s not so easy to talk about my ambition to continue developing my craft as a literary fiction writer in the absence of new publications. But it’s true to what I’m doing.
And I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to name that desire, and pursue it, at least for the time being. I do feel discomfort being here. But I know discomfort is here because I’ve given it space to be here. In a sense, I’ve actively invited discomfort to be my companion. I also know that I wouldn’t feel better in the throes of resentment, overwhelmed by commitments, wishing and longing to pursue my deeper ambition; I would feel different, yes, running on fumes, exhausted, stretched thin, maybe full of certainty and outward purpose, maybe not; but definitely not better.
In conclusion, my year of making space has somehow turned into an examination of discomfort. And I’ve realized that I’m unexpectedly comfortable with discomfort. I have a pretty high tolerance for feeling it. I think, if deployed under the right set of circumstances, this might even be a super-power.
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