Whenever I float the idea of not blogging anymore (and it’s an idea that keeps bubbling up, with somewhat alarming frequency, actually), I know exactly what I would miss most: connections. A friend texted after my last post to say it had reminded her of a cartoon she’s kept for years: a woman stands alone, thinking, “I wonder if I would be happier if I put as much effort into accepting myself as I do into changing myself.”
That got me thinking.
What if I were to focus on accepting myself? What would that look like?
It would mean I wouldn’t shame myself for wanting to share my thoughts out loud. I would stop calling it a compulsion (a pretty judgemental word).
It would mean I might see my writing in simpler terms. I would accept what I’m able to create and do.
It would mean, maybe, too, that I wouldn’t be so frustrated during these rough patches (like right now) when I’m squeezed for writing time and my days are spent looking after sick kids, out of routine; because these days are gifts too, and my work is not only to write write write, but to live live live. To be alive is to be with others, to be interrupted, to fail, to be frustrated, emotional, achy, tired, weak, and surrounded by the fruits of your labours, which sometimes feel really heavy. If I accept myself, I accept that my days are broken. I accept that I have limits and limitations. I accept, too, that I’m on a path of my own choosing and virtually everything I do is in service to something or someone I care deeply about–how fortunate is that!
I have a question for myself: if I focus on accepting myself, would I discover that I am an ambitious woman, or a woman who is content with muddling along? Can I be both?
This morning, when the plumber arrived to hopefully fix our toilet before our annual scotch party this Saturday, I was on the couch by the fire with the dogs, enjoying the last minutes of my nap. I answered the door, trying to appear not to have been recently asleep. We exchanged pleasantries and I showed him the problem, then removed myself to chastise and crate the dogs, who had threatened to remove the plumber from his leg. Then I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Now, I tell myself that the plumber has no idea what I ordinarily look like, so perhaps he wasn’t as frightened as I was by the sight of me.
My hair had dried funny and a sizeable clump was standing straight out over my left ear.
And I looked approximately a decade older than I actually am due to raccoon-like, circular, darkish, bruised-looking dents around my eyes. Goggle eyes!
Evidence of early morning swim. It lasts longer some mornings.
The good news is this: I got up to swim.
I’m managing to rise early every single week-day to exercise. More good news: I was able to run intervals at an indoor track yesterday. Very very slowly. When I tried out the running a couple of weeks ago, it’s possible I was going way too fast. Oops. That’s not like me at all. Ahem. But even a slow run is thrilling when it’s pain-free. Add in the daily walking at my treadmill desk, and I’m actually covering a lot of kilometres these days.
And I’m trying to meditate, just the tiniest bit. Ten minutes a day. It reminds me of swimming laps. I do a lot of counting and controlled breathing while swimming laps.
Today, AppleApple wondered why I don’t swim faster; this was not exactly a critique. Despite being a quite damning critic of the inefficient swimming styles she observes in the lanes all around us, she says my stroke actually looks like it’s being done correctly. But with such a proper-looking stroke, she thinks I should be going faster, and I agree. So perhaps there are unseen inefficiencies. Next time, on her suggestion, I’m going to try rotating my shoulders more — stretching forward on the glide like I’m making myself as long as I possibly can. (Why do I always imagine that I can improve, no matter what I’m trying to do? Is that a really irritating trait?)
The plumber has left. The dogs have calmed down.
It’s time for meditation, followed by walking and writing. Nobody will be here to see the goggle eyes or to judge the sticky-out chlorinated hair, not even me. I’ll be gone too; that’s what it feels like when I’m writing, like I’ve left the room, left this season and place and time. Away: inventing imaginary memories for imaginary people who seem so strangely real.
(Note to self: check mirror before picking up kids for piano lessons.)
It’s a long week, this one. I’ve had a lot on my plate, and therefore have been unable to put into practice, with regularity and insularity, my word-of-the-year: WRITE. The first two weeks of January stand out as this kind of cocooned ideal, during which there seemed just the right balance of, well, everything. Early mornings, quiet concentration during school hours, busy after-school activities, family suppers, time to unwind late in the evening. Add onto the schedule, and something has to give. And that something is so often this: WRITE.
To write takes inward focus. Publicity work pulls the energy outward. There’s attention, and there’s attention: two different meanings for that word. I can’t and won’t complain about receiving attention for my writing, because this is what sustains a career. But how to receive attention and also remain vigilant and protective of my quiet time? I haven’t figured it out. I’d like to ask someone who would know better than I do, someone who’s received far more attention and yet continues to make space and time to write. Someone like Miriam Toews. I wish I’d asked her last fall when I had the chance, when we were in the same place together, on several occasions.
It’s winter. This is good inward-delving time, always has been. The pull is to this keyboard and screen, which take me into my mind, into scenes that surprise and intrigue me, chasing characters I’ll never meet, yet who feel completely real. I don’t know why I want to do this, nor what practical use it could possibly serve, yet here’s where I’m drawn: into the imagination.
Maybe because real life is hard, sad? Maybe I’m seeking symmetry and wholeness and the balance only fictional framing can offer.
I wasn’t going to blog this morning, because I didn’t want to disappear into internet-land, where time melts away. But I wanted to share a morning thought, a fireside thought, so I’ve set my timer for 15 minutes, and here goes.
I spend a lot of time taking care of myself.
I didn’t always.
I spend a lot of time taking care of myself and my family seems to have benefitted, too.
Mothering doesn’t mean never doing anything for yourself. Okay, this is easier to state and to claim once your babies are weaned, potty-trained, sleeping through the night, and going to school full-time. Much much much easier. And maybe that period of mothering did mean never doing anything exclusively for myself, and maybe I didn’t feel like a martyr because I found the involvement in my babies’ lives so satisfying.
But now–now. Now, I wake up early to exercise. I don’t have to. No one’s making me. But it makes my whole day better. So I do it.
I do it even though the only way I can manage it is if I nap to compensate for lost sleep. So I do. I prioritize napping. Today I napped a little longer because last night I was at a book club in a restaurant, speaking and reading, and that took more energy than my usual evenings demand. And I wanted to get up early and meet my friend and go for a walk this morning. So I did.
I walked, I did physio exercises by the fire, I napped extra long. Tonight, I’ll be at the same book club, only with different ticket-holders. (4 minutes left on timer! Agh! The pressure!)
This morning, I also helped with violin and piano practice and getting kids off to school. I was pleasant and calm, without having to remind myself to be pleasant and calm — I was pleasant and calm because the walk was good, talking with a friend was good, the feedback from the book club was good, and even though I was extra-tired, I knew I could nap extra-long.
Does my life seem ideally rather than realistically organized? Maybe so. I’m extremely fortunate not to be working outside my home during school hours. And that I get to take my laptop to gymnastics and soccer and work at odd hours. And that I get to write for a living. I don’t know whether I deserve any of this (probably not), but I know that it’s taken deliberate work to arrange my days and hours, given life’s many variables, in a way that allows me to take care of myself. I’ve thrown out a lot of bad habits along the way.
And I’ve (noooo! 15 minutes gone by. Setting timer for another 7…)
What was I going to say?
Take care of yourself, people, that’s what I was going to say. Recognize what feeds you, what makes you feel good, what makes you feel cared for and loved, what challenges you to be your better self. Recognize it. And do it. I know this isn’t realistic advice for everyone. I know not everyone has support or financial resources or time. Maybe you’re in a whirl of despair or depression. This will sound naive and blinkered, this advice. Or maybe you’ve already figured all of this out!
What’s your recipe for self-care? What are the things you do that make your day better?
Here’s my recipe, right now, January 2015: wake up early, exercise, naps, friends, being with the kids, music while driving, Friends episodes while doing boring physio exercises, books, writing, and the phrase “I accept”
PS Timer totally went while I was typing that last sentence …
Sunday morning. Family reading by the fire. The French horn being practiced, drowning out the radio. Smoothies and eggs for breakfast. I’m sitting in comfy pants at my desk looking at photos I took yesterday afternoon out in the wintry countryside, for my brother and sister, who are the band Kidstreet.
I got up early every morning this past week, but not on the weekend. I wrote every day.
I write during the day, but because my working hours are foreshortened due to children arriving home from school, or music lessons, I’m always looking for additional time slots, especially useful if I’m in the flow of a project; less useful if I’m trying to manufacture a scene or story from scratch. On Tuesday I took my laptop to gymnastics and wrote, and on Friday I took my laptop to soccer practice and wrote. I even took my laptop to piano lessons, and wrote, although that was more of a challenge, as I had bored children waiting on the bench beside me, angling for snacks and chat. I couldn’t use the ear plugs I usually do, while writing. (I even use ear plugs when I’m home alone with the dogs in the middle of the day; it’s a physical cue that helps me focus.)
On Friday, I had a fascinating correspondence with my Dutch translators, who sent over a series of questions about the nuances of words and phrases in Girl Runner.
The coming week will be different, as I’ve got three book club appearances on three consecutive evenings — two involve a meal in a restaurant for a book club called “An Appetite for Reading.” Will I be able to get up early every morning? I’m going to try. But no running. I was going to say, no running, sadly, but you know, I have to accept where my body is at, and be grateful that I’ve got options: spinning, yoga, swimming, walking, strength-training. I tried doing run/walk intervals this week, and the pain re-appeared immediately. It had been gone, even through heavy spinning and swimming, so it appears to be running-induced. Which means that for now, I’m a runner in spirit only … religiously doing my physio exercises and testing out running shoes on the treadmill, while walking and writing. (Ironically, I just got a new gig testing running shoes for a running magazine and boxes of shoes keep arriving at the door.)
And now, I think it’s time to write a poem, before another Sunday morning vanishes. Piano being practiced. Swim lesson prep has begun. Ear plugs in.
One of my editors asked whether I’d be willing to be interviewed by her daughter, who is 16 and an aspiring writer. I’m totally recycling and being efficient, but I’m thinking there might be others out there with similar questions (or, if you’re a writer yourself, other answers): here is our exchange.
1. What is the best part about being a writer?
If you love to write and to read, if you love language, if you love living in the imagination this is the best job in the world. When I sit down at my desk, I never quite know what’s going to happen, so every day feels like an adventure. There’s something magical about using text to communicate complex ideas, to share imaginary characters, places and times with readers, and perhaps most exciting and daunting is the ability to draw emotion out of a reader — to cause someone to feel something simply by giving them words on a page.
There are many ways to be a writer — that might be something you want to think about, as you consider a career as a writer. I primarily write literary fiction, but I’ve also worked as a freelance writer, writing reviews, doing more journalistic non-fiction and memoir-type non-fiction (for newspapers, magazines, and online).
2. What is the worst part about being a writer?
There are many worst parts, to be perfectly frank.
Right up front, let’s be honest about money: writing is a tough career in which to make a living. Many (most?) literary writers survive on grants and small advances, or paid appearances; or they write freelance, which requires lots of networking, pitching, and constant scrabbling to keep steady work coming in the door; or they teach creative writing; or they have day jobs.
It takes years of practice to hone talent, and to master the craft to a degree that you can make these words do what you want them to do. (Of course, that’s also an exciting part — there is always more to learn; I’m still learning!) Especially during the early years of being a writer, you face a lot of rejection. You either accept this as a natural part of the job, carry on, and try to learn from critique, or you’ll become despairing. You’ll need to grow a thick skin to protect yourself, which is hard, because most writers are sensitive people — attuned to emotional nuance. Even established writers face rejection, self-doubt, and criticism. It’s part of the job.
Personally, I find it difficult to move between the quiet interior work of actually writing to the necessity of publicity, when a book comes out — readings, appearances, panels, interviews, etc. Public speaking draws on a different part of my personality, and I find I operate better if I’m in one mode or the other, not trying to do both at once. That isn’t always possible to arrange.
I think one thing that isn’t often admitted is that writers are plagued by anxiety and self-doubt. This is not something you outgrow. I’ll never be absolutely certain that I’ve achieved what I intended to with my work — in fact, I think I’m quite certain that I haven’t, and never will. I don’t mean that I feel like a failure, or that I’m not happy with what I’ve created; just that I always believe it could be better.
But I don’t write simply to create a finished product. I write because I love the process itself. And I write always with a good deal of hope and optimism that I’ll achieve something new and different in each project I undertake.
3. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write. Read books that challenge you, books that teach you the long history of writing that we’re all building on, books that you admire. Read the writing you yourself would want to write. Don’t worry about losing your voice or not being original. If you write regularly you will develop and find your voice. I recommend writing as widely as you read, too. Write daily. Every bit of writing counts and can teach you something. Write in a journal. Write poetry in the margins of your school notes. Write academic essays. Write for your school newspaper. Write a blog. (This advice is based entirely on my own writing path: I took English lit in university, BA and MA, and filled journal upon journal with thoughts, dreams, stories, ideas, poems, etc. I still write every day, whether it’s writing for publication, or just for myself.)
4. What is the one thing that you would like to achieve through writing?
I don’t think I can narrow my hopes down to one particular achievement. I use my writing to communicate many different things, in different ways, in different forms. I would like to entertain readers, to catapult them into a parallel world, and take them out of their lives for a little while. I would like also to pour empathy into the world. Beauty and light, stories that may cause readers to look at their own lives differently, or to look at others differently. I do think about this. I think about what I’m putting into the world when I write. I want to add depth and understanding to human interaction, not subtract from it or be harmful. I try to write with an openness of spirit and heart and mind — and I try to live that way too.
5. Why do you think writers are important to society?
Words are powerful tools. Ideas can be powerfully communicated through them. I have a theory that all conflict and therefore the possibility of peace boils down to two ingredients: land and stories. Land is obvious: humans have been fighting over land (resources, territory, wealth) since the beginning of human history. Stories are less obvious, but no less important: a nation’s stories about itself can include or exclude, bury or illuminate, and these stories are narratives about belonging and power. All stories are. Maybe I’ll go back to your previous question and say that if I hope to achieve anything with my writing, it would be to illuminate stories that have been forgotten or left untold.
But I’m also interested in narrative and emotional complexity rather than myth-making: this complexity is usually lost in policy-making and politicking generally, and I think that’s where writers come in. Writers are not politicians. It’s our job to show the complexity of individual human experience. It is only by seeing “the other” as complex that we see him or her as human, which is a necessary imaginative leap toward understanding.