Category: Writing

Catching a glimpse of the wild writer

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how the dogs spend their days

Tomorrow I’ll be at Waterloo’s brand-new Wild Writers Literary Festival. Click here to see the program. Appropriately, I’ve buried myself in writing today, although I regret to report that glimpsing the wild writer in her natural habitat would make for very dull viewing indeed. I’m fully dressed, have not imbibed anything stronger than coffee, and have no apparent signs of insanity, mania, or spontaneous outpourings of poetry. More wilderness may be just what this writer needs.

This morning I walked

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This morning I walked my littlest to nursery school. He desperately wanted to walk, not catch a ride with Kevin. The walk seems to be a critical feature of his transition from home to school. I walk him to the bus every other day, and Kevin usually walks him to nursery school (today he was off to Toronto for work, and couldn’t spare the time). I could see how important it was to CJ that he walk, not drive.

So I said, hey, I’ll walk you to nursery school today.

On our walks, we play a game that CJ makes up on the fly. Today we were making juice out of foods of a certain colour, say, red, or blue. “Blueberry juice! What else is blue?” I’m pretty sure the juice gave us special crocodile-fighting powers. Or maybe it was leaf-fighting powers. Fallen leaves feature pretty regularly in these games as objects that must be avoided or danced over (he has a special sideways zig-zag to defeat the leaf powers).

This morning I was glad to feel willing to relax into the moment. To walk my son to nursery school.

Yesterday, by contrast, I was completely miserably resistant to the demands of the day. It felt like a day designed to thwart any sense of autonomy and independence. A long list of must-does barked at me all day long, and I raced to keep up, and barely managed. Dentist appointment, groceries, bank, voting, piano lessons, cooking, laundry, dishes, cleaning, dog walking, putting children to bed. I didn’t have a moment to spare in front of this computer. I resented it.

I wonder: is it okay to resent days that are clearly brimming with privilege and wealth and health and opportunity? Is it okay to resent being able to care for my family and my teeth and my house? When such a day is evidence of a full life rich with fortunate responsibilities? I don’t know whether or not it’s okay. Maybe it’s pointless to judge an emotion.

I guess it just means I’m human.

But the day did improve post-dentist. And by the time I was walking our yappy dogs around the block with two chatty children in tow, I was pretty much okay with it all. The house was clean. There was still time to read to them before bed. We’ve finished Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and are moving on to Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, one of my personal favourites.

(During this reading, I’ve been trying to figure out why Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has had such success and longevity. It’s quite awkwardly written in parts, and has these long rather boring songs, and Willy Wonka is a strange and scary man with peculiar prejudices against things like gum-chewing, and the way he stole the Oompa-Loompas from their own land and brought them to work in his factory makes me deeply uncomfortable. And yet. My theory is that it’s the unromantic sympathy and clarity of the opening chapters, and Charlie himself, which save the book.)

I’m going to write for the rest of the day: the quiet hours that belong just to me. I’m not going to worry about writing a perfect book. No books are perfect. I’m going to follow my own advice and write in order to discover what I’m writing.

And then I’ve got supper, laundry, a kid with swim training, another with soccer skills, a visit to a book club, and a party in Toronto: Anansi’s 45th birthday bash. Wow, hey. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming …

Vancouver Writers Fest: I was there! And now I’m home.

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over the Rockies

Is this going to be a long post? I have a funny feeling that it might be. However, the process of writing it is being somewhat interrupted by a very chatty four-year-old who is sitting in the rocking chair in a patch of sunlight beside me. And so I am attempting to compose this post while simultaneously maintaining a conversation on a variety of topics. Right now we are on the seasons: “And it goes round again and again, again.”

Don’t it, though.

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Granville Island hotel

Travelling is such a strange thing to do. Being somewhere else. Being away. There is the transition, the waiting, the getting there; and then there is the being there, when home feels like a dream. Travelling solo is particularly strange, and, I must admit, quite easy to get used to, at least for short patches. On my own, I’m only myself, with only me took after. The responsibility seems so light.

It was an especially lovely trip, from beginning to end. It seemed blessed with lucky moments. I walked into the airport in Toronto on Thursday morning, and the first person I saw was my friend and former boss Noah Richler. What are the chances? He was off to Alberta (have you heard? — his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About War, is a finalist for the GG in the non-fiction category). I then met up with Heather Birrell, another literary friend (Mad Hope); but that had been pre-planned. We were on the same flight to Vancouver, and managed to get seats near each other. Neither of us are happy fliers, and our flight experienced a lot of turbulence. She was seated behind me and she reported that every time we hit turbulence, my head would pop up: apparently my spine stiffens when fear strikes. But we survived. I brought headphones and watched three movies. I’m not ashamed to report that two of them were children’s movies: Brave, and Madagascar 3. Brave was EXCELLENT, plus I cried (I was in the middle seat; and I think we’ve now established I may be the kind of fellow passenger you’d rather not be stuck sitting beside, what with the weeping and the palpable terror). I dozed off during Madagascar 3, after which I started a very long melodrama called People Like Us, but then the plane landed and I missed seeing the last ten minutes (and it wasn’t the kind of movie I wanted to experience twice). Heather filled me in on the plot.

We were in Vancouver!

Okay, let me interrupt to explain that nearly an hour has passed since I first began typing this post. Maybe this should be a two-parter, a multi-chapter saga? I’ve only just gotten to Vancouver, for heaven’s sake. And it’s nearly time to pick up my swimming child from the pool.

I’m going to speed this up by doing some name-dropping. Walked into the hotel, first person I saw was Sheree Fitch (Night Sky Wheel Ride): big hugs. (But then we didn’t see each other again; this happens at festivals, with people coming and going.) Good thing I had Heather to introduce me to some more writers: we were soon headed for dinner with Jessica Westhead (And Also Sharks) who was travelling with her husband and their brand-new seven-week-old daughter (whom I never got to hold, dammit). We were also joined by Emily Schultz (The Blondes), whose book I’d reviewed for the Globe back in August.

After dinner, Heather and I went to see Anne Perry and her biographer Joanne Drayton being interviewed on-stage. We were both toast at this point, our bodies telling us that it was nearly midnight, so we debriefed in the morning over breakfast at the Granville market, after which we got very lost, after which it was time for our morning events. I’d woken at 4am, been unable to fall back to sleep, and got the front desk to open the exercise room for me so I could run/spin.

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outside my hotel room, Friday morning

My first event was with Riel Nason (The Town That Drowned) and Marjorie Celona (Y), moderated by Shaena Lambert (Radiance). I had a moment of panic while prepping and felt incapable of choosing the right section to read, but it all turned out fine. We spent the hour and a half reading and talking about child narrators, among other things, and the feeling in the room was just lovely. Afterward, I signed books, and one of the women who sat down to talk to me said, “I’ve never wanted a character to win an award before, but I just really want Juliet to win.” Nice, hey.

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Chris Cleave, me, and Annabel Lyon, backstage (photo taken by Marsha Lederman)

I had about twenty minutes between events to freshen up and eat a banana, and then I was back at it. This one was in a large theatre with Annabel Lyon (The Sweet Girl) and Chris Cleave (Gold). We were each interviewed by Marsha Lederman, and then came onstage together at the end to answer questions. What can I say about this event, other than it confirmed for me that I really love being onstage. I’ll admit it. Onstage is a great place to be. It requires the burning of lots of energy, and there’s an element of risk to it, but if you know me, you’ll know I like burning energy. The risk part, well, maybe I’m drawn to that too, a bit.

Something else about being onstage: I’ve learned that it’s no good wishing I were different. To be comfortable, all I have to be is myself. I love watching those performers who are quick with witty anecdotes, but that’s not me; and that’s okay too. We’re all different. When I’m in the audience, I want to see a real person up there, not someone pretending to be someone they’re not. I think that’s the only secret, honestly.

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outside my hotel room, Friday afternoon

After that happy shiny event, I went for fries and a beer with Marita Daschel (Initiation Trilogy); we met through the blog a few years ago, and though we’d never seen each other face-to-face, nor spoken, it was like being with an old friend.

Walking into the hotel, the first person I saw was Sarah MacLachlan (my publisher at Anansi). We were meeting for dinner in less than an hour. I grabbed a quick rest, took a hot bath, and let myself come down from the day’s excitement, to unwind, though not completely.

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this is how much I unwound

Sarah had invited Anansi people out for dinner at the Sand Bar. I knew no one except for her. Seated around the table were (more name-dropping ahead): Rawi Hage (Carnival), Madeliene Thien (Simple Recipes), Anosh Irani (The Song of Kahunsha), Pasha Malla (People Park), a young woman named Thea whose story collection with be published by Anansi soon (sorry re lack of details), me, A.L. Kennedy (The Blue Book), Graham Gibson ( The Bedside Book of Birds; he’s also known as Margaret Atwood’s husband; she was stuck in transit and couldn’t be there), and Dennis Lee (Alligator Pie). I was seriously crashing at this point, glazed eyes and brain, and thankful for light conversation from the women seated near me. After dinner, Sarah and I dashed off to hear A.L. Kennedy read (and I do know her name is Alison, but can’t help but think of her by her initials).

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at dinner; and an accurate illustration of how my brain was behaving, at this point in the day

The evening ended in the writers fest hospitality suite where thankfully Heather came after I texted her an SOS — I knew no one and was feeling like a wilting wallflower. But I also didn’t want the day to end. Of course, it finally had to (I’d been up since 4am after all). All that was left was a short night’s sleep, a morning walk in a hailstorm to fetch breakfast at the market, and the packing up.

I spent yesterday travelling. I enjoyed a quiet peaceful flight with no spine stiffening moments. On the ride home from the airport I met an international trade specialist and an expert in honeybees. And now I am holding my sad four-year-old whose sister just stepped on him, probably because I am writing this blog rather than paying attention. So it is time to stop typing and to pay attention.

Tomorrow (Monday) I’m in Toronto for a reading at IFOA. Anyone coming?

On being a professional writer who also provides free content

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October hosta

For about 48 hours after the GG announcement, I found it very amusing to narrate my life by captioning all activities with “GG finalist, Carrie Snyder …”, as in “GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, is going to finish these supper dishes before anyone gets a bedtime snack,” or, “GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, would like a cup of tea and a back rub.” I’m not sure anyone else found it quite so amusing.

But it amused me this morning too, as GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, stood on a stool in the downstairs bathroom attempting to remove spiderwebs with a wad of toilet paper, and a giant nest fell down her sweater sleeve. (“I told you that bathroom is infested, Mom!” “Yeah, there’s definitely a weird looking nest above the sink.” “That’s an orb spider.” “A what?!” “Don’t worry, it’s not poisonous.”) It continued to amuse me as GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, trudged upstairs to clean the bathroom floor. (“Someone peed on the floor!” “There’s pee in the upstairs bathroom!” “Somebody missed the toilet!”) And the fun kept on rolling as GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, sorted a dark load of laundry while repeatedly shouting up the steps, “I’m in the basement, come down if you want me to zip you up!” Apparently, GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, had misheard the request. “He said that he wants you to pick him up from nursery school.” “Oh.” Sorry kid, but GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, is leading a writing workshop for high school students this afternoon, and can’t. GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, also has a vague toothache in the very same spot where the dentist put in a filling last winter (remember that?), which seems like ominous timing given she’s flying to Vancouver in two days. GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, is also panicking slightly about what to pack for her trip (how many shoes can she fit into a carry-on bag?). GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, got up in the middle of the night to turn off her alarm and did not go to yoga this morning. Despite getting extra sleep, GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, did not look fabulous in the mirror this morning; she really should have gone to yoga.

GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, is putting the hammer down. Stop this now, GG finalist, Carrie Snyder.

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This feels like a miscellany day. I’ve been having some random and more serious thoughts on a related subject.

It’s the subject of being paid for one’s writing. The Globe and Mail (a newspaper in Canada) is going to attempt a “paywall,” by asking subscribers to pay for content; apparently, readers are not pleased. The New York Times does this as well, and the truth is, ever since it did, I’ve stopped reading NYTimes articles online. And I’m a writer! I get that writers and editors need to be paid for the work they do, and I respect the work that they do; so why not pay for quality online content? I think the answer is three-fold: one, I’m lazy and it seems like too much work to set up an account and try to remember passwords, etc.; two, I still get most of my news from the daily paper and from CBC radio; and three, there’s a ton of free content online.

Let’s address that final issue. I write a blog. I provide free content, practically every day! I understand why professional writers dislike bloggers — professional writers would like to make a living doing what they do, thanks very much. Most bloggers, like me, do this in our spare time. I have no desire to monetize my blog, nor to figure out how to make money off of it, mainly because I do it for fun. It would change everything to try to blog for a living.

That said, here I am, trying to write for a living. It’s dismal to report, but freelance rates, per word, have actually gone down since I first started freelancing, over a decade ago. I’m not sure freelance writing (for magazines and newspapers) was ever an excellent money-making occupation, but in today’s climate it’s an excellent way to sponge off your spouse. So, is being a writer a sustainable occupation?

GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, has yet to figure out how to make it so.

And it isn’t for lack of trying. I’m beginning to wonder whether being a writer, a serious writer of fiction with hopeful freelancing on the side, is in actual fact a hobby, or an act of volunteerism, or of love, or of obsession, rather than being what one could legitimately call an occupation. A job.

This isn’t meant to be a pity-me rant. I don’t feel pitiable, not at all; I’ve been doing exactly what I want to do; and I do make (some) money at it. Nevertheless, I feel prepared to look at coolly at my options and draw some fairly harsh conclusions. Our four kids need more than I can offer them as a writer; and I don’t believe the burden should be carried unequally by Kevin. The question is: what, then? Well, I’ve got some ideas, to be revealed in good time. For the immediate present, I’m sticking with the status quo, doing the freelance jobs that come in, working on a new book, applying for grants, hustling, and jumping up and down for The Juliet Stories. And blogging.

I love writing. I never started writing fiction thinking that it would earn me a living; and that wasn’t why I started blogging either. With my writing, every step along the way has felt like a gift: the first time I had a poem accepted for publication; the first time an editor at a magazine wrote back to tell me she liked my story (even though she was turning it down); the first time I earned a grant for an unfinished manuscript; the first time an editor called to tell me that she loved my book and wanted to publish it; and on and on. In between all of these steps were innumerable impersonal rejection letters, fat self-addressed envelopes stuffed with rejected stories, and, once I’d acquired an agent (another exciting step), calls of reassurance that also brought news of “no, thanks.” None of this could have been undertaken if it weren’t answering an extreme personal call — a deep probably irrational desire — to keep writing, keep learning, keep practicing the craft. None of this would have been undertaken if I hadn’t loved doing it.

Certainly, none of it was undertaken with an idea of dollar signs dancing in my head, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I’m a highly impractical person, and I encourage my kids to dream impractically too. To pursue doing what they love, no matter what it pays in monetary terms.

But the thing is, we also have to figure out how to pay the bills. That’s where I’m at right now. I’m doing what I love, and I’ll keep doing it forever; but I’m going to have to do something else, too. My word of the year, this year, was actually two words: work and play. An interesting, difficult, troublesome choice, I think, and prescient.

A wild autumn wind

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When I woke up from my nap this morning, the word that came to mind was “replenish.” But now the same word sounds a little bit suspicious, like the advertising copy for a facial cream or something. Nevertheless, replenishment is on my mind. Or maybe just napping. That was my second nap of the morning, truth be told. I went right back to bed after my early morning run and slept until the kids had be dragged up, too; and after walking CJ to the bus stop, I came home and crawled back into bed again, and let myself sleep for as long as I wanted. Which would seem to suggest I have no deadlines pressing.

In fact, I’ve just met a couple of deadlines, so I am feeling the relief of that; and giving myself permission to take some extra rest.

My inbox is quiet.

This week is a quiet interlude sandwiched between several very busy ones.

One of the questions asked yesterday evening at the book club I visited was: what changes now that your book is a GG finalist? And I had to say: well, nothing very obvious, really. Like any opportunity, you make of it what you can. I think (though I’m open to argument) that this nod is meant to acknowledge work done, not to fix my feet in any literary firmament, nor to launch me in some way. What really matters is the work I’ll continue to do. Maybe this will make that work more possible to continue, but then again, maybe not. Whatever I try to publish next will have to stand on its own merit, not on what came before.

I’ve been wondering: why are we drawn to books with stickers, or movies that have won awards? I’m as guilty of it as the next person. I know it’s not a guarantee of excellence, and yet I’m still willing to take a chance on something that has some kind of communal stamp of approval on it. I may not even mind if I don’t ultimately like the book or movie–it won’t feel like time wasted–because at least I’ve participated in a cultural conversation, just by showing up. And so, it occurs to me that perhaps the most tangible benefit of having one’s book stickered is that it gives the book (briefly, at least) the opportunity to enter into a wider conversation.

Wow, that’s some autumn wind today. It’s wild out there.

Sometimes I think what I’m hoping for, and maybe waiting for, maybe in perpetuity, is not replenishment, but a strong wind to blow clean the mind.

(But replenishment sounds so much easier.)

Tuesday hodgepodge, with a recipe for green tomato relish

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So it’s already Tuesday.

I’m visiting a book club this evening to discuss The Juliet Stories. I’ve got beans soaking for supper. And the sky looks white from where I’m sitting. The dogs are sleeping on top of each other on the couch. I searched the attic for winter hats and gloves this morning. And I ran 6.5km in half an hour, but my watch told me I’d run 7.8km, so I was a little disappointed (even though I realized that it had to be off — I’m not an under 4 minute/km runner).

The turkey was fabulous this weekend, but I took no photos. The last-minute prep got a bit hairy, so I forgot to use my camera altogether. But I spent the better part of Saturday in the kitchen, cooking a feast for family, and I can’t think of any other way I’d rather spend my holiday. On the menu this year: turkey, gravy, traditional bread stuffing, garlic mashed potatoes, mashed squash with brown sugar and ginger, brussel sprouts with pecans, and green salad. Pumpkin and apple pie for dessert (not homemade), with freshly whipped cream. I stuck with the basics. What could be better? There were 13 of us around the table, and we ate almost an entire 14 pound turkey; cleaned up the leftovers for lunch the next day: turkey and cranberry sandwiches, with green tomato relish.

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Which reminds me, some of you have requested my green tomato relish recipe, which I hesitated to post until ensuring it was good. Well, I’ll be darned, it’s good. We ate almost a pint of the stuff for Sunday’s lunch. Here’s the recipe (and be warned, it involves a lot of weighing — we actually dug out a scale from the basement for the purposes of making this relish; and then we all weighed ourselves too, just for fun.) Also observe: we canned spontaneously and had to make lots of substitutions.

Green Tomato Relish (from Joy of Cooking)

Combine in a large bowl: 8 pounds of green tomatoes, thinly sliced, and 2.5 pounds onions, thinly sliced, sprinkled with 1/2 cup salt. Stir well, cover, refrigerate for 12 hours. (Confession: We were short on time, so ours sat for about 1 hour.) Rinse the tomatoes and onions in cold water, drain.

Now, in a large nonreactive pot, bring to a boil and dissolve 2 pounds of brown sugar in 1 and 1/2 quarts cider vinegar. (Confession: We substituted at least a pound of white sugar, and 1 quart of white vinegar. I added some extra sugar before canning, too, to taste.)

Once sugar is dissolved, stir in the following: 2 pounds green bell peppers, sliced; 1 pound red bell peppers, sliced; 6 cloves garlic, sliced; 1 tablespoon dry mustard; 1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt. (Confession: We didn’t have enough peppers, so I added chopped zucchini and eggplant to make up the difference in weight.)

Add tomatoes and onions and stir together well.

In a moist square of cloth, tie together the following ingredients, and add the cloth to the pot: 1 tablespoon whole cloves; 1 tablespoon ground ginger; 1 and 1/2 teaspoons celery seeds; 1 cinnamon stick broken into pieces. (Confession: We had no celery seeds. We made no substition for that lack.)

Simmer, stirring often, for about an hour, or until tomatoes become translucent. Can while hot in a boiling water canner: 15 minutes per pint or half-pint, 1/2-inch headspace.

:::

I’m putting up a link to the Wild Writers Festival, which is a brand-new literary festival here in Waterloo, coming on November 2 and 3, and bringing to town a really fabulous line-up of writers, including Diane Schoemperlen, Russell Smith, Alexander MacLeod, Helen Humphreys, Alison Pick, Merilyn Simonds, Miranda Hill, Elizabeth Hay … see, I don’t want to stop listing names, they’re all so terrific. Personally, I’m hoping to pop in to Kerry Clare‘s blogging session, which is right before my panel discussion. Spread the word! And come if you can!

(And if you’re in Toronto, please know that Waterloo is closer than you think, and that you’re coming to one of the prettiest parts of the city, which just happens to be my neighbourhood — the festival is being held at the Balsillie School of International Affairs.)

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