The edits have arrived. So I’ll be back to Juliet for one last think before the copy editing stage. And you know, I’m feeling ready to say goodbye. I’ve been working away at the new book, and discovering new characters, and writing in a different way than I did with Juliet. It feels more free-flowing, less controlled, and more plot-oriented, but that’s okay. Different is good.
As I start this new book, and finish Juliet, I’ve been inspired by Miriam Toews’ career so far. I just finished reading Swing Low, her biography of her father, written and imagined in his voice; and before that gulped down Irma Voth, which was set in Mexico, in a Mennonite compound where a movie was being filmed. A couple of points here. Miriam Toews played a lead role in a movie made by a Mexican director set in a Mexican Mennonite compound (compound might not be the right term, but my sense is these farms are not like villages or towns). And her father died of suicide after a lifelong struggle with depression. What inspires me is that she found ways to incorporate real-life experience into her work. There is no straight line between fact and fiction; it’s threads spun and wound and sewn into beautiful fictional patterns. I suspect that she could not do otherwise. Her creative life is necessary, and can’t be separated from her life. I get a sense of urgency, poignancy, and necessity when reading her work.
And I also experience overwhelming gratitude: that her work exists, that she works so hard to create it, and that I get to read it.
She writes the kinds of books I hope to write … hope that I am writing. Not that I want to mimic her voice, but that I want to build a career out of the things that matter to me, and write books that are heartfelt, maybe even heartbreaking, but also hopeful. That I not fear the insistence of life experience nosing its way into my fiction; but that I not limit my imagination either. I aspire to variety backed by consistency. Which is not the same as predictability.
“Be careful, Carrie. You’re becoming predictable.” I remember a mentor telling me that, many many years ago. I would have been eighteen. I remember thinking that she had a point; and it frightened me. I knew she didn’t mean I should become erratic; no, she was cautioning me to stay creative, to continue to push my limits, not to rest easy.
Many years later, and I don’t rest easy. Except at night, when I sleep very deeply indeed. (Except for last night, when I didn’t. I didn’t rest easy, either metaphorically or literally. Too many thoughts — work, deadlines, food, scheduling — whirling through my mind).
“So this is it,” I wrote, on August 14, 2008. “Publishing as I type.”
Three years ago, I started this blog. Those were my opening lines. I couldn’t have guessed how it would expand my world, but on that first day, I wrote three separate entries, so it’s safe to say that I took to it quickly.
Here’s an excerpt from my second entry, on that first day, published at 11:46am:
I have three hours a week right now to write. I’m down to my last half hour of the week. I’ve rewritten a couple of poems and started this blog. I think I’ll be heading downstairs feeling distinctly disappointed, restless and aimless. Kevin’s had a hard morning with the kids. There has been a lot of conflict. Right now the kids are in the room next door “cleaning” up the girls’ room and Kevin is in and out of my working space with the baby in a sling, my working space being the changeroom/toyroom/soon-to-be-baby’s-bedroom/my computer on tiny computer table; and now Kevin is speaking with great frustration to the kids: “This is worse than before!” Time-outs and threats and warnings. We have four children ages seven down to four months, two boys as bookends, two girls in between. It feels, today, like I’ve been unable to shut out the mundanity and get to work.
Okay, resolve for next week’s writing day to go better. Next week I will start a new story instead. I’m afraid of the new story, that’s today’s real problem. I’ve written two in a collection that was previously a novel, and it’s material almost too close to my heart, and too painful, and I am terrified of failure. That makes working on it with any level of success very difficult. Requires more bravery than apparently I’ve got today.
Ear plugs out. Sigh.
Wow. How many changes can I count three years on? It’s quite amazing. Not just the growth of my children (baby now three-year-old), but the growth of my relationship with my family, and my growth as a writer. That story I was afraid of writing? In one form or another, it’s part of The Juliet Stories; I just sent the line edits back to my editor last week. Next up: one more round of back-and-forth discussion with my editor, then copy edits, and cover design, and, in March, the launch of that very book.
And even as I complain about not having enough time for myself this summer, it puts it into perspective to consider all the time I didn’t have for myself three years ago. Nursing a baby, caring for small children, three hours a week for writing (!?), disrupted sleep, and I hadn’t even discovered yoga.
I’m so grateful for this blog. It was a leap to go public, and it’s been a learning experience — learning out loud — but am I ever glad I didn’t get to that story three years ago, and instead decided to publish as I typed.
So here it is. Another morning, another August, another post.
There’s a post I wrote awhile ago, a year and a half ago, to be precise, to which I keep returning. (Read it yourself, here, if you’d like).
The question I was asking then (and which I continue to ask) boils down to what kind of life I’m seeking to live: is it a life with unexpected twists and turns and seemingly disconnected variety, or a life of intense and singular highly focussed work; or is there perhaps a third way, a way in between those two extremes?
A year and a half after articulating that question, I can’t say an answer has appeared. Has life, as it’s been lived since then, spoken? Not in any expected way. Not loudly. Not directly. But also, have I been listening to the universe in the same way? Expecting it to reply? I have not. And I’m not sure why.
Instead, I’ve been running.
Is that a metaphor? Have I been running away? Or toward? Or is running a question and answer contained in itself? This morning, I woke up a bit later than usual, but realized that without a run, my day would be consumed by negative energy, and that I needed to run as far and as fast as I could in the time available, in order to burn that energy off.
Where is this negative energy coming from? It manifests itself in a general grumpiness, irritability, sometimes in a muddled mind, or I get lost in thought. Not practical, useful thought, but distant drifting foggy thought in which I cannot find my way. There is something about running (or biking or swimming or any exercise that gets me working physically) that burns off the fog, that releases me, even if only briefly, into a happy state. Afterward, I feel productive. Alive. It’s like an energy exchange: bad for good.
What will you do with your life?
My youngest starts school in a year. A year, therefore, is my self-imposed deadline. Deadline for what? For direction. For the universe to point me wherever I’m meant to be going, or for me to point myself, to step off, to launch, to turn around, to choose. I type that as if it were absolute, as if I might choose the wrong path, as if there is a right path and a wrong path; and there’s not. I believe many paths could be right. Success (happiness? contentment?) is dependent on how I walk the one(s) I choose. Nevertheless. My youngest entering school carries the pressure of a deadline. I’m at an age when it feels like, to paraphrase a character in The Juliet Stories, I’m holding in my hands a diminishing collection of possibilities.
So. I have a year to figure this out. I don’t know about you, but a year doesn’t feel as long as it once did. Turn your head, laugh, and it’s vanished.
“You did a good job of keeping everyone busy this week, so you could write your book, Mom.” — AppleApple
I’m a bit of a beast when it comes to getting things done. I should modify that claim: it applies only to things that matter quite a lot to me. But when I set myself a goal, I figure out how to get there. No procrastinating. No excuses. Obsessive? Single-minded? Something of a perfectionist? And yet I’m extremely lackadaisical in other regards. You should see the living-room floor right now, for example. Apparently, clean house is not one of my goals.
Getting through the line edits for The Juliet Stories was.
Here’s how it was accomplished. 1. A blog-friend put me in touch with her babysitter, who was able to entertain four children for several hours on short notice, so I could go over my editor’s notes in detail. 2. Another friend took all four children for a morning of play at her house, and fed them lunch, so I could have a phone conversation with my editor before beginning the edits. 3. Kevin took Friday off, and spent the entire weekend with the kids, on his own, while I holed up in the playroom to work. 4. The two older kids agreed to go to soccer camp this week. 5. A friend babysat the little kids on Tuesday and Thursday, and another friend did the same on Wednesday: lunches, snacks, outings. 6. I sat in front of the computer and forced myself to concentrate on the minutiae.
The only part of the book that remains unwritten is the acknowledgments. I’m saving the writing of them for a rainy day, as a treat. Sometimes I find myself drafting all the thank-yous in my head, with a kind of dreamy gratitude. Because the above paragraph represents only a fraction of all the help this book has received from friends, and family, and babysitters who have come to feel like family. It’s been a group effort.
And, lest I dare to compare, it’s been different from the first time around, when I wrote Hair Hat almost secretively, and with a deep unwillingness to identify myself as a writer, almost as if I couldn’t believe it myself. (Impostor syndrome, perhaps). This time around has been messier. The process has taken longer. It’s involved way more people. I’ve had to ask for more help. And, thanks in large part to this blog, I’ve gone public with all the mess and agonizing and stops and starts and work and luck and gratitude; and that’s made it all easier, actually.
Maybe it’s gauche to go so public with the ups and downs, airing my dirty laundry; or maybe it’s like opening the front door and inviting the neighbours in. I hope it’s the latter. But it’s a fine line.
Thanks to all who’ve accepted the invitation and walked in to my untidy house.
I am working again today, my third consecutive day, though perhaps with less enthusiasm and energy than on days one and two. Friday, I ploughed with confidence through the first two stories, slow and steady, and with the phrase “take heart,” in my mind.
Yesterday, I tackled my nemesis and felt satisfied. I wrote a new scene for another story and felt calm. And then I spent hours waiting for a couple of words to arrive: dialogue that must say enough but not too much, that will illuminate, leave space for mystery, and not confuse the reader. Oh, and complete a story with a few final rhythmic beats, too. Harder than you might think.
And this is the easy stage. Except maybe it’s not. Maybe there isn’t an easy stage. Yes, the stories are structurally sound. They are thoroughly imagined. That intensive and demanding work is long since done. But we’re down to the details, the nitty-gritty, the word here that could be stronger, the paragraph there that is too vague, the stray fluff that if left in might distract a reader, might sap energy from the larger story.
It’s work that makes me feel like pulling my hair out, like running for hours (in the opposite direction). I know these stories all too well. Can I walk through such familiar terrain and observe with fresh eyes? I cannot. It is impossible. The best I can do is force myself to pay attention, slow down, creep along, praying for a depth of concentration that will allow me to finish what I’ve started. To see it through to the end.
It should be easy. A word here, a word there. Grace notes.
That’s a musical term, but I’m hearing it differently all of a sudden. Notes that grace the whole; but also, notes that arrive by grace.
That sums up the work I need to do today, and the work I’ve been doing. Waiting for grace. Sitting with my stories, picking slowly through them, hoping for grace. I can’t rip the words out of thin air. I have to invite them over. And be here when they arrive. They’re whimsical, fickle, unreliable guests. There’s no predicting how they’ll surprise me.
Which is why I’m still hanging around waiting, I suppose. It’s tedious. But somehow I trust I won’t be bored, in the end. Neither will you, dear reader, I hope.
I’ve sorted out the first few weeks of August.
Yes, that feels worthy of the headline. I just could not get my head around the planning, but with some help from Kevin, and from friends, have marked out a number of solid consecutive days, starting next week.
I also talked all of the kids into a week-long, morning VBS program at a church down the street (Vacation Bible School, that is). It’s, um, free. (The photo above illustrates the enthusiasm expressed by all the kids toward this proposed plan; I think they’ll enjoy it more than they expect).
And all of this should tide me over until my babysitter returns. My only regret is that I’ve had to cancel some fun summery week-day plans during the next two weeks. But if work goes smoothly, I hope to reschedule fun at the end of the month. Fun is always more fun when a weight has been lifted.