Category: Writing

Lingering in between

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I had another physio appointment this morning. It’s hard work retraining these muscles. My physio says she expects it to take another four weeks of work (and that means daily exercising at home too) before I can run without pain. And only when I’m running without pain will she begin to address some of the more technical problems with my stride. I’m grateful to be running again, if only for 20 to 30 slow-paced minutes a couple of times a week; but I’m frustrated by not being able to push harder, to run faster, to challenge myself at the pace and speed and distance that I could just a few months ago.

So I feel in between. Very much in between. In a kind of quiet zone I’d never planned to visit let alone linger in.

It occurred to me this morning that I’m in a similar place with my writing. Last year I worked so hard on the specific project of Juliet. In parallel, I worked so hard to become a long distance runner and triathlete. I achieved both goals. And then I fell into this in between zone. And I’m lingering. And I’m impatient. And I’m anxious to get training and working hard again.

For my writing, the in between zone is the launching of the book. It’s done. It’s ready. Here is its chance to enter the world and sink or swim on its merits. I feel a great responsibility toward it, and toward those years of effort. I want to help it find its way. It’s my job, too, to spread the word, to share the words. And that takes time. And mental energy. And painstaking work that feels a little bit like those strength exercises I’m doing every day now. Tiny repetitive muscle motions that are much harder to do than it would appear.

What I hope for, with both of these lingering lulls, is to emerge on the other side stronger and fitter, with muscles retrained and fresh ideas gained and the pent-up angst of a forced rest period channelled into positive energy and drive. Writing a book and training for a marathon are similar exercises. Both require intense commitment to a goal, and the ability to keep working toward that goal even on off days, even when the point of the goal feels temporarily lost. Will this forced wait renew my commitment? Return me afresh to work that can seem, at times, tedious and interior?

I don’t know for sure. But I can hope.

Declaring a mental health day

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I quietly declared yesterday a mental health day. And so I did not blog. Not that blogging negatively affects my mental health. It’s just that it’s one of the many things I try to do every day. And yesterday, it felt like there were perhaps already too many things on the must-do list and that I should therefore ease back, breathe, take a long nap.

And then the power went out. For hours and hours.

CJ ran around the house trying every light switch and reporting back. “Not even the cold cellar, Mommy!” “Not even in my room!” Meanwhile, I cooked supper in an eerily quiet kitchen over the blue gas flame. Partially cooked, would be more accurate. I’d started preparing it rather late, and planned to warm ingredients in the crockpot, leave everything simmering on the counter, and race back home to eat in between piano lessons and “Performing Arts Night” at the kids’ school (see: already enough things to do). I was sauteeing onions when everything but the stove stopped. This is one of those situations when it is extremely handy to work from home. Dump still-frozen ingredients from crockpot to stove. Thaw. Beats arriving home to a chilly house and an unfinished supper waiting on the counter.

Mental health day really only lasted an hour. But it was a good hour. I napped peacefully while CJ watched a movie. He had minor surgery yesterday morning (and it was very minor, no worries), so I kept him home from nursery school. Sleep is good. So good. And it is something I’ve found lacking post-launch-party. Something about coming down off the mountain. Too much oxygen down here. The clutter of the every day. The feeble human mind whirling as it tries to absorb all the good stuff and keep it–and exhausting itself in the process.

After a truly restorative nap, it was back to work. More movies for CJ. Plus some playtime on my office floor. I find myself fearing that what my children will remember of this time in our lives is their mother saying in a voice tinged with the frantic: “Just a minute, please, I’m trying to finish some work!” Or: “Wait, wait, wait, I just have to get this work done!” Or: “Mommy’s working, can’t you get a glass of water yourself?”

You know, that’s not the worst thing ever, come to think of it. A little water-fetching independence never hurt anybody.

This morning the girls were wondering when I might start baking again. It’s true. I bake bread on the weekends, but my cookie and treat-baking has fallen right off the map. Fooey was browsing longingly through a kids’ cookbook from which we used to like to bake banana muffins — together. And I looked at the girls, sitting side by side at the breakfast counter, and I said, “Hey, you’re big enough to try baking together!” “Really? Can we?” “Of course!” (If they’re big enough, I should be big enough, too: to let them learn by trial and error; ie. make a mess, and possibly bake something inedible.)

I’m not going to declare today a mental health day. Nap: check. Power: check. Blog: check. Kids safely to school: check. Supper planned: check. Early morning exercise: check. Discovery of a new blog (by me!) up at the amazing Canadian literary hub The 49th Shelf. The house is quiet. It’s not even 10am. And I’ve got messages like this waiting for me in my inbox:

“I finished reading The Juliet Stories this afternoon. That ending!!!—I’ve read it over and over.”

and this: “My 90 year old mom finished your book. She said something to the effect that you “have an absolutely incredible way with words”.”

and this: “Just wanted to tell you how much I’m enjoying Juliet. In fact, it’s hard to put down! It’s a gorgeous book.”

(If any of you are moved to write such kind words to me, please also consider taking time to let Amazon and Chapters know how you feel too. You don’t have to buy the book from them, but as Tuesday’s post explains, personal reviews and good ratings move the book higher in the rankings.)

Okay, now it is 10am. What am I going to do with my one precious life today? And you, what are you going to do?

Better than dreaming: launching Juliet

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party venue, yesterday afternoon, pre-cleaning

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party venue, one hour later

Let me tell you about the party. Ah, the party. The party!

All of my dreams last night were an extension of the party. It was like I got to drift through its pieces again as I slept, moving around the room, standing on stage, hearing the song being played to a still room filled with people. What I’d hoped for was to create a moment we could all share.

Good grief. I was so nervous before it was time to read. So nervous my teeth were chattering. Every clump of people I greeted, I blurted out “I’m so nervous! Gah!” or some variation on the theme. I was grateful for the distraction of laughter and silliness. And then it was showtime. My publicist introduced my editor who introduced me. My editor’s words had a weirdly calming effect. I stopped shaking. I could feel myself preparing — and prepared.

Stepping on stage. I was surprised by the lights. I couldn’t see anybody. I could hear and sense and feel, but not see. I felt so happy to be there. There is no other way to express it. Pure joy. As I read the words, I felt as though I was also standing apart, observing, watching, savouring. I thought about the years of work. But I also thought about how it had seemed this occasion might never happen, how I’d fallen down and gotten back up again, considered giving up, but been somehow unable to. I thought about the friends who believed in me — many of whom were there last night. I thought about how lucky I was to be reading these words out loud, to a room full of people who had come just to hear them. Actually I can’t even express my feeling of great fortune.

On stage, I felt like I was doing my job. That sounds pedestrian. It’s not. I felt like I was doing the job I was meant to do. My job is to bring everyone along to a different place, in their imaginations, all of us together. A writer standing on stage and reading is asking of her audience a huge favour: have faith in my words, take a leap with me, come along.

That’s what I wanted. And it felt like that’s what happened. Thank you, generous room of listeners.

Afterward, signing books, only occasionally forgetting a name, I kept wondering at how effortless it felt. I mean — everything. The nerves beforehand were as they always are. It’s been a long time, but I used to act in high school and university. I’d feel the same way. Eaten up with anxiety, just get me on stage, please. There is something magical about being on stage. I feel so free. Free to be myself, or some comfortable projection of myself. I can hardly remember anything from the hour or so before reading, though everything was perfect, the room was insanely beautiful (thanks to the incredible efforts of my party planning committee — Zoe, Rachel, and Nathalie), so many people kept arriving, drinks were offered and many well wishes, yet it was a total blur.

But time on stage was so different — it seemed to stretch and expand. I could relax into the moment, drink it all in. I can’t explain it. I guess that’s what I mean when I say it felt like I was doing my job. The very definition of work/play.

When I came off-stage, I was greeted by an absolutely bursting AppleApple, whom we’d let come along. The pride in her face — I wish I could have stopped time and drunk it in. And then it was on to book signing. The bookseller (Words Worth Books) sold out — every last Juliet. The party planning committee seamlessly took down our event’s decorations and packed up, and at 10pm the club opened the doors and their DJs started spinning, and those of us who felt like dancing stayed and danced until finally the place was completely changed. From intimate candlelit book launch to grinding club floor. And then it was time to go home.

“You throw a good party!” someone shouted to me on the dance floor. And it felt like, yeah, this was a good party. Listen, I will happily throw a party like this, say, once a year, if you’re willing to come. As far as readings go, it will be hard to top. I ended the reading by playing the song, the lullaby I wrote for my character Gloria, who is a musician and performer herself. I didn’t say it was me singing; I introduced it as Gloria’s song. One of the most thrilling parts of the evening was hearing from so many people that they LOVED the song and could not believe it was me — and where could they get a copy? I don’t have an answer to that yet, though the song is embedded in the ebook, within the story to which it belongs. Frankly, I’d like to record more Juliet songs and put together a little EP and make that available in conjunction with the book. But that’s still a dream.

Last night. Last night wasn’t a dream. But it felt like one. I couldn’t have imagined a better celebration for the book, the perfect punctuation mark for all those years of work.

:::

I didn’t take my camera along. But my friend Nancy was snapping photos all evening, and she promises to send me the best and I promise to post them here for you.

Scores of crows in the trees overhead

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We’ve got flocks of crows in the neighbourhood. Occasionally, they choose the trees in our yard and gather in the bare branches. Even when they are silent, their wings rustle heavily, a sensation of suspended watchfulness. It’s hard not to think of them as being a sign. Though of what? I often hear them calling loudly in the early morning. On a less poetical note, their poop is everywhere.

This early morning my alarm went off, and I thought, no, I don’t feel like swimming. I’m fighting a cold that has claimed part of my voice, and I’m on the mend, and somehow submerging my head in cold water for an hour didn’t seem terribly wise. So, as my friend Nath would say, I “logicked” myself out of getting up, turned off the alarm and napped restlessly for another twenty minutes. But I couldn’t return to peaceful sleep. Apparently I’ve now trained myself to be AWAKE at 5am, alarm or no alarm. Exercise every day was the mantra that shoved me out of bed. I didn’t feel like going to hot yoga, but went anyway. I wanted to be doing something that amped up the lungs and the heart, rather than strengthening and stretching and being all zen and calm and whatnot.

This will be good for you, I told myself.

And I won’t deny that it was.

Sometime in the future, however, I can imagine rising early to write. Yes, it’s early, but I feel so AWAKE. The house is so PEACEFUL. I could write for four hours and it would only be 9:30 or so. Then I could nap. Then I could meet someone for lunch. Then I could exercise. Then I could write some more. Then someone would make me supper. And do the laundry and the dishes. (The children would be able to care for themselves.) Wait, this is turning into full-fledged fantasy.

Clearly something at which I excel.

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small crow

Here is the crow just landing, or just taking off, from the larger photo above. The wings are a blur. There is something about the colour and tone and the scratchiness of the branches that looks like brush-strokes on mottled paper. The density of the silhouette.

This morning I’ve been taking pencil to page and crossing out words here, pointing arrows there, timing myself reading passages out loud and noting the times down. I’m turning this copy of Juliet into my reading copy. I’m not sure whether I’m just landing, or just taking off.

Is this what Alice Munro would do?

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People are starting to read The Juliet Stories. I know this because of the odd unexpected message appearing in my inbox, arriving in out-of-the-blue moments, an old friend saying, Hello! with excitement. Part of me wants to share the messages with you. Part of me feels awkward and reticent. Is this what Alice Munro would do? (She is the height of writerly grace, in my opinion.) Um, no, is the obvious answer. But then, publishing is such an altered world, altered even since Hair Hat came out eight years ago. Eight years ago, who had heard of “social media”? I’m a writer who works in an old-fashioned medium: the Book. But I’m also a blog-writer. Occasionally I’ve wondered whether blog-writing itself is my accidental calling — this brisk, confessional, and immediate form of communication.

The writing of a book requires such different mental mechanisms than the writing of a blog. It requires patience to somehow co-exist with impatience. There are intricate pieces to be held inside the mind, waiting for a chance to be written out, puzzled out, put together. Blog-writing, for me, is freeing. It’s like opening a window. Book-writing is exhausting. It’s like mining underground with a trowel.

However, the reading of either book or blog should not be exhausting. It should be compelling, thought-provoking. Perhaps in different ways, and on different levels. A blog is more like a snapshot. A book is more like a movie.

And this writer is awful fond of ye ole simile.

In conclusion (she pontificates), I’m glad both mediums are available. I love blogging. And I think, yes I do, that the book is nevertheless my form, too. And I hope you will read The Juliet Stories and agree. Therefore, I will do as Obscure CanLit Mama would do, and share some of this out-of-the-blue love with you. It’s too sweet not to.

:::

It was approximately 5:30am this morning, and I was wearing bike shorts and eating peanut butter on toast in preparation for a spin/weight class, when I opened this message from a friend, sent at midnight:

I’ve just finished [Juliet] and my head is reeling. It’s marvellous. I could not put it down. It’s the best book I’ve read in a very long time. I read 150 books last year, and this stands out above all of them.

You know what the best thing is? I feel like it was written just for me, like it’s bespoke fiction. It’s all the things I love, Munro’s Del and Gallant’s Linnet among them.

Glorious, Carrie. Just glorious. I can’t wait to tell people about this book.

:::

And I was in the whirl of supper prep, taking a quick breather in my office, when I discovered this message yesterday evening:

Good lord, Carrie. I know I should wait until I’m done, but I’ve just finished the first part of the book, and am exploding to tell you how splendid it is! I guess when I start a book by someone I know & care about I am always a bit nervous. What if I don’t like it, what if I think it could be better. But THIS book is a revelation. Carrie, it is just so damn good. Each story is vivid and gripping, and filled with tension and wonderfully flawed and alive characters. The prose is smart and crafty and clear and evocative …

:::

And I was sitting down at the computer with my cherished morning coffee, today, when I read this tweet from Sheree Fitch, an accomplished writer for children and adults, about whom I blogged not long ago:

Finished #TheJulietStories. Rhapsodic,original,heart-piercing,luminous #novel. #brotherlylove in allways #Thankyou.

:::

How does this make me feel? I don’t even know, honestly. Relieved. On the verge of tears. That feeling of it was worth it. I’ve got to confess, I was feeling nervous about the launch party on Saturday, but with these messages fluttering in my mind, I’m feeling the excitement. I’m feeling it!

Oh! And at the party, we may even debut the new song!*
*not live; my voice is not up to that

:::

One more thing before I sign off today. The New Quarterly has a lovely post today about The Juliet Stories. As you may know, four Juliet stories debuted in TNQ, in somewhat altered earlier forms, and the magazine has packaged them together in digital format. It’s like Juliet memorabilia. (!)

They also have three writing contests on right now, one for Occasional Verse (ie. a poem written for an occasion, like a birthday, or a book launch …), one for Personal Essay, and one for the Short Story (hm, maybe I should enter?). Each prize will bestow upon the winner $1000. Details here. Spread the word.

Today and yesterday

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my view, bedtime

I’ve been reading A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh to the kids before bed. Lights have to be out by 8:30 in the little kids’ room, so some nights that means we don’t get much read. When the big kids were little, we read through the classics before bedtime: the Little House on the Prairie series, Charlotte’s Web, Roald Dahl, some Narnia Chronicles, the entire Harry Potter series (Kev read those to the kids), Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and more I may be forgetting. The little kids are now getting old enough to hear these stories too, but our schedules are so different just a few years on. Evenings have shrunk to make time for extracurricular activities. Sometimes bedtime rituals amount to little more than toothbrushing and tucking in. Lights out.

So when I picked up Winnie the Pooh a few weeks ago, it seemed like the bare minimum. The bar was set pretty low. What I’ve seen is how all the kids crave this time. Crave being read to. It started with the two littlest. The older ones were just passing by in the hallway when they heard laughter: “What’s going on in here?” Room was made in the bunks for them too.

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When I looked up from the page last night I saw the most beautiful picture. The photos do not do the scene justice. CJ likes to lie facing me, hands holding chin. Albus brought homework, listening in with one ear. AppleApple was giddy with laughter. Fooey was half-asleep, content and warm under the blankets.

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“What time does the clock say?” I ask the kids, and one of them will usually tell me honestly. At 8:30 the last paragraph gets read, the page turned down, the book set aside. Lights out. When we’re done with Pooh, I will pick out another book, for sure.

Aside: Albus is bored with the books he’s been reading and re-reading, and I want to tweak his interest again. Any suggestions? He’s ten and a half and capable of reading quite complex chapter books.

:::

Today I spent an hour at physio, working on strengthening exercises. I also ran on a treadmill for 8 minutes and oh my goodness how I wished it were longer. But I’m supposed to continue doing what I’ve been doing — slow, short runs — for another week.

Today I did not get up early for a swim. I read for an extra hour last night, and slept for an extra two hours this morning (7am versus 5am; makes a big difference). While I regretted not starting the day with momentum, I need to get work done, and with physio knew I’d be hard-pressed to squeeze in a nap too. Brain must function.

Yesterday, I read this post from the Afterword on the fraught business of publicizing one’s book, by fellow Anansi author Robert Hough (and now I must read his new book!). Today I am working on posts for the same venue, to run next month. Topics are wide open, which is rather daunting.

Also, today, I am thinking about the time I have to write. The actual literal time that is available to me. Next year CJ starts kindergarten. But it won’t change my life very much. Except for Tuesday afternoons when the two of us are home together, he is either in nursery school (mornings) or with a caregiver (afternoons until 3pm). My work day ends at 3pm. That will change very little when school starts, or going forward for years to come. The school day is really very short. Several afternoons a week, I pick the kids up for after-school activities that require me to organize and ferry them around (swim lessons; piano lessons). On the other afternoons, perhaps I could shut my office door, lay out snacks, and let the kids fend for themselves until 5pm, in order to gain a full working day, but … would that work? Here’s the thing: by 3pm I’m revved up and working well creatively. It’s painful to shut it down at that moment, day after day. Starting earlier is not an option, not if I want to work out before dawn and see the kids off to school.

How do people work full-time? How? I want to know. I want to be able to do it too. I’m sensing there are no easy answers, just more compromises. So I will count my blessings and be grateful for the time I’ve carved out. (This is worthy of a larger post. When I finish the biography of Mordecai Richler, which I continue to read as if mining for hints and clues to writerly success, I will get to that larger post.)

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