snow on the roof, yesterday
New experience #1: I marked my first assignments this past week. My goal is to reward effort and engagement, as well as skill and effect, and I erred on the side of generous, which is probably a rookie mistake. I have my students handing in a finished piece along with two drafts and discussion of the editing/writing process, with comments supporting their revisions. The projects that showed greatest improvement between drafts were without exception those critiqued by friends or peers. I thought that was interesting, and shows the importance of sharing work, and of editors, even if your editor is your roommate. Even if you disagree, another perspective gives you something to argue against, and more often than not provides insight into weaknessess that are impossible for the writer to see in a time-crunched situation. I explained that I’m very private with early drafts (which are terrible, let’s be honest), and I set my work aside for a month or even longer, and then return with fresh eyes; but my students don’t have the luxury of time. I have a system of trust worked out: my first reader is always Kevin, who has to say (mainly) nice things, and of course the book never comes near publication without having been first seen and commented on by my agent (who is my second reader), and by professional editors, including copy editors and proofreaders. That’s a lot of eyeballs! And I rely on them to lift my work.
Lately I’ve been happily re-reading favourite books to find stories to share with the class, partly to add variety to the evening (I read passages outloud), and partly to demonstrate the different ways writers successfully do what they do — particularly in terms of technical considerations. Last night, I read the opening to Eden Robinson’s “Traplines,” what has very flat, stark delivery and description, with a rare punch of a metaphor to shock the system: the reader is tipped immediately into the action. I wanted to show them that, too. Then I read the opening to Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?,” which begins with a long section describing furniture, zero dialogue, no flash, yet is highly suspenseful. How does he manage it? The furniture is outside on a man’s front lawn and driveway, set up like it would be inside the house, with everything plugged in, and it’s clearly no garage sale. Why? Wouldn’t you like to know? Again, even though it’s done with seemingly straightforward description, the story tips the reader immediately into the middle of something.
dog crate as end table, in living-room
I find myself talking about plot, especially in stories, as something that can be found most naturally through setting and character, through relationships, through characters’ reactions to situations; suspense is created by partial telling, by those bread crumbs dropped on a trail. Too little, and the reader is confused; too much, and the reader is bored. It’s a balancing act. A student asked me to provide a rubric for story-writing, but I can’t. You can’t go down a checklist and write the perfect story. (Besides, forget perfection!) I have the feeling I might not be a great creative writing teacher, in all honesty, because my thoughts on the subject tend toward broad and vague rather than prescriptive, but my goals, as the course has progressed, have changed slightly: I want them to get time to write, in class, because writing is all about practice, and I want them to hear/read good writing.
Yesterday, before class, I read a fascinating essay on Raymond Carver’s relationship with his first major editor, whose name was Lish (I’ve forgotten his first name). Lish, a writer himself, claimed to have rewritten the early Carver stories so thoroughly that he felt he should have been considered a collaborator or even co-author rather than an editor. The essayist, who reviewed archived materials, had to agree that Lish’s fingerprints were all over Carver’s first two collections, which were lauded for their minimalist style. Carver’s style changed in his later collections; not coincidentally, he’d distanced himself from Lish at that point. The essayist felt that Lish’s changes (which included actually writing new endings, and removing up to 70% of the original text) strengthened Carver’s work — at least, his early work.
At the end of the essay, for comparison, were two Carver stories: the same story, but very different, and published at different times. The first version (“The Bath”) is striking for its brusque almost brutal style: it’s short, clipped, and has an ambiguous ending. The second version (“A Small, Good Thing”) is more than twice as long, and striking for its flirtation with sentimentality that allows it an ending of enormous emotional power. Guess which one I liked better? Yet it can’t be denied that Lish’s influence took Carver from obscurity and brought him to a level of fame and success — and confidence — that allowed Carver to drop Lish and head off in his own direction.
Long tangent. It’s kind of a puzzle, isn’t it. What would I do if a student handed in a finished story that had been essentially rewritten by another student? Yikes! Don’t do that, students! That’s not the kind of editing I’m advocating. And yet, Carver’s stories exist and I’ve loved them ever since I started reading them: does it matter how they came to be? I’m not sure, actually. I found myself wondering if it was Lish I was reading rather than Carver as I read “Why Don’t You Dance?” to the class last night, and did Carver have a different version somewhere else that maybe I would have liked better (since I rather like stories that flirt with the sentimental).
New experience # 2: I spent Tuesday evening marking in my office on campus. When I checked my mailbox, look what I found: actual mail! My friend Nath sent me a postcard from England, where she’s living this year. I was touched. And excited. And I must admit that I approached my mailbox with slightly more expectation before yesterday’s class, but found it once again in its natural state. As an aside, I’m really liking my office. It’s a weirdly comforting place to come to. I’m essentially unplugged there, and undisturbed by technology. It has no personality except for that fabulously awful brown easy chair, which I can’t look at without thinking “bacteria,” but I will miss it when the term ends.
Friday night, full moon. I went for a walk/run while AppleApple had soccer, and my ratio was down to 1:1. One minute of walking to one minute of running. Yesterday afternoon, I ran again, again while AppleApple had soccer, and it actually felt like running, as I upped the ratio to 1:2. One minute of walking to two minutes of running. Boy did I fly on those two-minute stretches of bliss.
This morning I woke up early to stretch. On Saturday, we moved the dog crate out of my office and installed it in the living-room, where it takes the place of an end table beside the sofa. Classy, I know. But it means I can unroll my yoga mat on the office floor, turn on some kundalini music on YouTube, and stretch. I didn’t want it to end. The only irritatant was that YouTube played ten-second mini-commercials between songs, which sort of broke the vibe. Drink milk! Soothing spiritual music. Special K breakfast shakes! Chanting and flutes. More milk!
It’s a packed week. I needed to start it off with chanting and flutes. And apparently a breakfast shake (I went with egg on toast instead).
she’s in the purple suit: 100-metre IM
Saturday evening saw me standing for four hours in the steamy warmth of a pool observation deck, watching AppleApple’s first meet. I still don’t quite get swimming as a spectator sport, but I completely get it as an individual challenge. It’s so different from soccer in that way. As a swimmer, AppleApple chooses for herself how much effort to pour into her practices, and how much pain she can tolerate in races. As a soccer player, so much depends on your team, on your coaches, on ephemeral unquantifiables like chemistry, and equally ephemeral quantifiables like politics. You can pour enormous effort into practices, work and compete fiercely in games, but your fate is ultimately at the mercy of other people’s opinions. I suppose it’s a bit like a writer’s career, now that I think of it. The work is an enormous part of the challenge, but not everyone is going to like your style, no matter your technical skills or intensity of focus; in a strange way, success is not up to you, as the writer. And it’s not up to the soccer player, either. You do your best, and hope it pays off. But as a swimmer, the responsibility is all yours. Assuming you have access to quality coaching and the financial support needed to train hard (a big assumption, I recognize!), the only barrier (and this is huge) is your own body, and your own mind. You earn the time you’re able to earn. Period.
Amazing news yesterday: two Canadian women have broken the Canadian women’s marathon record, which had stood for an astonishing 28 years.
Ok. I just got totally side-tracked reading Lanni Marchant’s blog. She doesn’t post often, but had written a play-by-play from her marathon at the World Championships this summer, which didn’t go well for her. I’d like to read her play-by-play of what worked in her record-breaking race yesterday. Fascinating stuff (to me), even though I can’t call it research anymore, the book having been already written. My next area of research, I think, is going to take me to the U.K. Someday. Optionally, I may start in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, that being easier to access while still getting home for supper. If it’s still possible to get back and forth to Toronto, an open question given Toronto’s major traffic woes: I’ve got two possible trips to Toronto planned in the next week and I can’t figure out how to get there and back in a reasonable amount of time. Tips, anyone? I’d love to see Aleksandar Hemon’s interview at IFOA on Saturday afternoon, and am this close to buying a ticket, if only I can figure out how the heck to get there and back. (I’ve got my class reading an essay from The Book of My Lives.)
I’m a bit distracted this week.
I’m up early, I’m exercising, I’m napping, I’m ferrying children to activities, I’m sitting with good intentions at my desk, I’m making lists and plans, but my attention is a wanderer. I’ve found myself dissolved in tears. I’ve found myself bizarrely flat with calm, and the next moment zapped with elevated emotion.
It was a year ago, tomorrow, that I got the news about Juliet being a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. Strange that this same season, a year later, should occasion another, altogether different heightened career moment. I note also that apparently it’s been a year since I last got a haircut. What with all the glamourous travel, I splurged. But I haven’t had a good excuse to get one since, and may have inherited a few parsimonious personality traits that will prove impossible to kick. The children enjoy mocking me for my regular (and joyful) 50% off purchases at the grocery store (“Really, Mom? Fifty-per-cent-off yogurt?” “What? It’s organic!” “When does it expire?” “Everyone knows expiry dates are inaccurate!”) Which is a roundabout way of saying that I’d like a haircut, but need to convince myself that there’s a good reason to get one.
This morning marked the start of what promises to be a new era in our lives. AppleApple has begun early morning swim practices, thrice weekly. I woke her at 5am on the dot. She was excited, ready to go when her ride arrived (thank goodness for carpooling). I set off through eerie fog on a brisk walk, punctuated every eight minutes by one blissful minute of running. I was alone in the neighbourhood except for the man on the bicycle who was scavenging bottles from people’s trash. He said good morning, and I felt ashamed for having been afraid, momentarily, of someone up so early, working so hard.
I managed an hour’s exercise. A shower. A breakfast of poached eggs on buttered toast. All before picking up my swimmer and her friend from the pool. AppleApple devoured two bananas on the (short) ride home. She had to leave for school, and running club, while I went for a nap. Oh boy, did I need that nap.
I’m worried about her. I hope she will learn to nap, or to go to bed early. This is a big challenge, and much as I love early rising, it works only when lost sleep gets replaced.
Other sports currently being practiced by my children: football (Albus, who’s up at 6:30 twice weekly for practice); karate (Albus); swimming (CJ: “We did dolphin jumps!”); gymnastics (Fooey). And we haven’t even started soccer.
So … distractions. Work. Edits. Revisions. Readings. Reading. Teaching. Ferrying. Truck needing repair (again!). Vertigo. Permission forms. Agendas. Signatures. Homework. Piano practice. Field trip volunteering (what was I thinking?). Local food (why am I irresistably drawn to ordering a half-bushel of eggplant for pickup on Friday? Along with a half-bushel of tomatoes? Talk me down, someone?).
Tonight, the start of what I can only hope will become a mini-tradition. I’m taking my family out for hamburgers to celebrate selling the US rights to Girl Runner. We should have celebrated the Canadian rights with … pancakes and maple syrup?
“squirrel-ducks” by Barry Lorne, newly hung in living-room
I’ve got news. I’ve got really big news. I’ve been sitting on this news for a few days because it’s the kind of news you have to share with family and close friends in person, and because, too, I needed time to process it, and because, honestly, it didn’t seem real.
Here is a milestone. X marks the spot. I stood in my living-room on Monday afternoon with the phone pressed to my ear, and it seems it was sunny, as I struggled to absorb what my agent was telling me: that we’d had a pre-emptive bid for my new novel, Girl Runner, from HarperCollins in the United States. The terrific editor to whom I’d spoken earlier that afternoon wanted to buy the book. Now.
Yeah. My agent had told me I’d want to be sitting down. I told her, no way, I’m too jittery, but she was right. I had to sit down. Then I had to tell Kevin before anyone else. I texted him to come home right now. The kids, who’d been listening in with interest in the background, had to wait, but Kevin hurried. Maybe he actually ran. (As there’d been a fair bit of whirlwind build-up over the previous week, he guessed what my news might be.) Albus was so excited he hugged me spontaneously. AppleApple wanted to take photos to mark the occasion.
it was really sunny
I felt weirdly calm.
And then there was supper to make, and swim team practice, and gymnastics, and by the time all of that was done, and the kids were tucked into bed, it was after 9, and Kevin, buzzing with excitement, was off to a soccer game. I was glad to see that he and the kids were excited, because I felt … well, I suppose it was shock.
It was the shock of a long-held dream becoming reality. In an instant. I couldn’t take it in.
I slept surprisingly soundly that night, and woke early to meditate. (Side note: so far, I’m really bad at meditating. My brain seems to think this is useful planning and organizing time, and it’s damn near impossible to get it to alight for more than an instant on my chosen mantra. But I won’t be discouraged!)
After a night of processing the news, and after my agent convinced me afresh that this was really happening, I was able to come around to two overwhelming emotions.
I’m helping to support my family. I can see the burden lifted off of Kevin. It’s almost like something visible has been lifted from his shoulders. Most critically, and here is where relief and gratitude mingle most strongly: I’m getting to do what I love. That’s what all of this means. I’m going to sit here and write books. That’s all I want to do. I’m not even very good at much else.
I loved writing Girl Runner. My mind is already teeming with another book idea, although there are more edits and revisions to tackle first. I probably can’t quite comprehend what it will be like to be part of the publicity push to bring Girl Runner to an audience, especially in a new market. I’ve never even been to New York! I sound like a little country mouse. Maybe I am. But I’m ready. I’m more than ready. I’ve been working my whole life for this, and whatever comes, however it tips me sideways, lifts me up, knocks me down, challenges and changes me, my arms are wide open. My eyes are wide open. My mind is wide open.
You’ve been part of this, too, you know. All who’ve read and commented and emailed encouragement, support, worry, kindness. You’re here, too. Thank you.
When I was growing up, I planned to be a writer. I would say that I dreamed of being a writer, but that’s not entirely accurate. I did dream of it, but not in the fantastical way I dreamed of owning a horse farm or of living in a straw bale house off the grid with a homeschooled brood of offspring. Instead, I planned for it. I would become a writer. I remember a very particular moment of clarity, in my parents’ house, in the bathroom (where as a self-absorbed teenager I spent many an hour gazing into the mirror), when I declared to myself that this was what I would do: I would write books.
I aimed myself at the goal with relative consistency after graduating from high school, though I floundered around a bit, seeking the right degree (theatre? music? playwriting? history?), and it took me until I was 19 (almost 20) to declare a major and work away at it like a person possessed: English literature, of course. At night, I would compose poems on my pre-Windows laptop, eyes closed, drumming out the day’s events through my fingertips and transforming the swerving emotions and experiences into imagery, metaphor, allusion, relishing the splendor of language.
I am often asked for advice on how to become a writer. Write, is what I say. And read. Write because you love to. Write what you love. Write as often as you can, doesn’t matter what: dream journal, cooking blog, poetry scribbled in the margins. And read read read for the love of it, too.
Reading for a degree in English literature can kind of kill the love, for a few time-crunched years, pencil clutched to underline key sentences and scribble down themes for future essays and exams. Nevertheless, reading widely, reading work you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, can only be a good thing in a cumulative way. I finished the degree, applied for grants, and went happily off, like a heat-seeking missile, to do graduate work, also in English literature. I was thinking I would do a doctorate and secure myself a job. But things were looking pretty grim for doctoral candidates in English literature back then, and I swiftly grasped that there was only one valid reason to go on in my studies: if I really loved it, then yes, I should. Otherwise, it was time to thank academia for my two excellent degrees, and figure out how to become that writer I’d planned to be.
Skip ahead. Skip over the boring bits, the hours and days and months and years spent writing and reading, and, of course, believing. At the age of 29, my first book was published. It took another eight years to write a second book worth publishing. By that point, I’d lived out the reality of being a writer. I’d been home with young children for years. I’d found paid work here and there as a freelancer and “mommy blogger,” which afforded me babysitting, which afforded me writing time.
I kept circling around the question: do I want to be a writer?
Wrong question, as it turns out; misleading, distracting. I already knew the answer: yes, I wanted to be a writer, and had proven that I could be. The real dilemma, the one much harder to face, and more personally painful to articulate, was whether I wanted to continue being a practicing writer if I couldn’t make a living at it. And the answer to that, I began to recognize, was no.
Last fall, I decided to switch career paths. I applied to midwifery school. (I also worked frantically on a new novel, feeling the urgency of time ticking down.) This wasn’t a decision taken quickly or lightly. I knew what it would mean: I wouldn’t be writing books, at least for the length of the degree, possibly longer. A book is the product of time and space and does not simply appear in a burst of inspiration; it’s a long-term gamble, is what it is. That’s what being a writer is, too. And my appetite for gambling was waning. This does not seem strange to me. The timing seemed ripe for a change. My youngest would be going to school full-time. I’d put my eggs in one basket for two decades, practicing a particular craft, gaining experience and technical skill, and earning praise from peers, without ever making a living at it. In most professions, this would be a bizarre and depressing outcome: imagine a doctor with two decades of training being unable to earn a living. It would be a sign of personal failure; this would have to be an exceptionally bad doctor. But in the arts, it’s practically expected, and we all understand that, even if we don’t speak openly about it. It’s the price of admission. You get to be a writer, but it’s for love, not money.
I love writing. But I wanted to support my family. I wanted to give us some stability, to take the pressure off my husband as sole provider, and, yes, to experience the reward of working in exchange for a paycheque. It was time to a get a job-job (or, more precisely, to train for a new career). I was excited and I was ready for a change — eager, even.
And then the novel I’d been working on sold here in Canada. This happened literally on the very same day I received my acceptance letter from midwifery school. I was kind of a mess.
It felt like the intersection of two possible lives. In one, I was a writer, still doing work that would seem relatively unstable to anyone with a job-job, but many steps closer to earning a living. In this version, I would be building on the foundation I’d worked so hard to lay. In the other possible life, I was starting from scratch, a student in the process of becoming a midwife, also a long-held dream. The decision was agonizing. It took weeks of “discernment” (read: long circular conversations with friends and family; thanks, friends and family), and I questioned myself repeatedly after turning down my place in the program. But there was fresh work to be done. I rolled up my sleeves and revised my new novel. I prepared for my first teaching job.
Summer trundled by. I loved sitting my office and working all day. It felt right, as it always has. It feels right.
At last year’s Wild Writer’s Festival, I was on a panel that included Alison Pick, and she was talking about her decision to work as a writer. She recalled that she’d just been hired at a job-job when her first book sold, so she was able to turn down the job-job and keep writing, and she’s never looked back. Every time she’d start thinking, uh oh, I’m going to need a job-job, something new would come along.
As far I’m concerned, that’s living the dream. Keeping at bay that wolf at the door.
So I’m publicly updating the plan I had as a teenager staring at herself in the mirror. Seems about time. What I’m planning seems no more unlikely, delusional, or ambitious than the original dream, which was, I’ll be the first to admit, highly unlikely, delusional, and ambitious. So here goes. Dare I say it out loud? I want to be a writer whose living is sustained by her writing. I want to be a writer who keeps getting to sit in her office and write, day in, day out, day in, day out. Oh, the places I’ll go in my mind.
This morning, I walked. It wasn’t a run, and it didn’t flood me with world-conquering endorphins, but it was sanctioned by a health care practioner, and I was glad to be moving through the world, no matter how slowly. “Try a thirty minute walk,” the physio said. “And if you feel fine after 24 hours, bump it up to thirty-five. When you get to an hour without symptoms, you can try 5-10 minutes of easy jogging.” He didn’t have to tell me twice. I’m on it!
This is progress. And the pace, on this misty-moisty morning, suited me just fine. Everyone who passed on the sidewalk said hello. I noticed people sitting on their front porches, quietly observing, one of the many details I miss when running down an early morning street.
I’m still humming after yesterday’s creative writing class. As I sat there, in our acoustically challenged bunker of a classroom, listening to four different animated conversations rising and falling, and all of them about a poem, I just felt good. I saw why the teachers I know love doing what they do. My mushy general goal for the class is engagement: with words, with language, with emotions. Beyond that, I’d really like it if on occasion we were all transported just a little bit, to somewhere not quite ordinary. Maybe I’m secretly trying to recreate my poetry book club in classroom form: a safe place to talk about big ideas, like mortality and love and what really matters to us, and why.
I discovered another fascinating, inspiring and moving obituary in yesterday’s paper: Anne Goodman, a professor of adult education and community development at OISE, and a woman who was many other things, too, in a life cut short by cancer. She led the kind of life I admire, shifting her energy to different work as she felt called, with deep engagement at every step, always true to herself. The title of today’s post is a quote from the obituary. In 1999, a pivotal experience altered Dr. Goodman’s life’s direction. She met a man, a stranger, on a path somewhere in Toronto who needed immediate help. The remains of his murdered teenage daughter had just been found, down that path — he was going there, now, he told Anne Goodman. She walked with him, listened to him, and stayed with him when they came to the place where the police were. She said that she couldn’t let him go alone.
I am struck by this story. So often all we have to offer is a willingness to walk along with someone else. Maybe we’re the listener, or maybe we’re the one talking, but without a shared willingness to connect, we can neither give nor receive. One more thing: that we really don’t know what’s ahead, we just don’t. So prepare a carefully plotted path, but stay open.
All of which is to say: I loved saying good morning, this morning, to strangers on the sidewalk. I did not wish I were running instead, because I was thrilled to be walking. There is agency and there is circumstance, and right now, circumstance is ascendant: I’d love to be waking early, racing trails, and swinging kettlebells, but instead I’m doing less, not more, and reflecting on stillness rather than motion. You know me. It’s not what I’d choose, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth exploring and embracing while it lasts.
Side note: I will be reading at Word on the Street tomorrow afternoon, 4pm, an event that’s paired with Doors Open. So you can tour a heritage site (I’ll be at the Walper Hotel) and pause to listen to some readings while you’re at it. Lots of terrific, big-name authors are coming to town.