Category: Writing

Warning: This May Cause Side Effects

A couple of morning thoughts.

1. Writing week appears to have had an unexpected effect: it’s crippled my ability to do small-talk. This is a serious problem. I like small-talk. It’s comfortable and puts others at ease. Living so deep inside my head means I’m surfacing slowly, and find myself blankly waiting for a nice ordinary response to float through my brain in answer to questions like: how are you?
It kinda sucks; not kinda, totally. I’d forgotten about that side effect, or never connected it to the writing portion of myself. And honestly, I miss my small-talking self. I like trusting that I’ll know what to say, which is really about being present and listening and having fewer filters–and, frankly, bothering with much much much less reflection.
It’s possible, though I haven’t thought deeply about it (ha!), that my brain operates in an either/or fashion: either verbal, or written. If I’m operating in writing mode, my brain can’t access the words, at least not efficiently, in verbal form. And apparently I can’t turn off writing mode with the flick of a switch. Friends, forgive me in the meantime.
2. I continue to long for a practical profession. The friends I met up with last night are women close to me in age, whose children are now off to school, and who have chosen such interesting and practical directions for their post-intense-mothering lives. Midwife. Nurse. Youth counsellor. Hands on, directly affecting the lives of others in need, being physically and emotionally present, interacting, connecting, empathizing. With real people. In real time. In my work, I do an enormous amount of emotional empathizing, but with makebelieve characters. Gah! I am laughing and shaking my head as I write that. It seems like such a bizarre way to connect with other humans.
Kevin’s response to my morning whine of “I should be doing something practical!” was “strongly disagree.” He suggested I should take my attitude and join Stephen Harper’s conservatives and stop funding the arts and go live in a world where everyone wears grey overalls and does nothing but work work work. You can see why I married him.
3. This Globe and Mail article on David Mitchell helped me finish writing a story earlier this week. I have not yet read him, but must; it’s on the post-Wolf Hall list, which is growing ever longer as I joyfully wade through the gorgeously written Tudor underworld.
Notes on David Mitchell: a) There is such a thing as literary stardom: he’s there. b) His fascination with, and commitment to, obscure and self-imposed rigorous structural limitations really resonated with my writing/creative mind. c) He advocates a strict, disciplined lifestyle: no tv, no distractions, work. “Living this life, ‘you acquire the pleasure and the discipline of geekdom,’ he says, launching into an animated account of the way ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’ strike the eye ever so slightly differently, and confessing that ‘Oooh, I spend long, luscious, sweaty nights thinking about this kind of stuff.’ ” Brilliant! I get it. And I love how happy he sounds. d) He lives in a tiny village in Ireland and he sees his wife, two children, and “about three friends.” e) I wonder how he does small-talk.
4. Funny how a couple of posts back, I said I wasn’t going to write about writing. Have I written about anything but, since?

Meta-Musings

In answer to Krista’s comment yesterday, asking why I’ve decided not to write about writing … well, I have at least one defensible reason, along with several indefensible ones; and fully expect none will matter anyway, and my vow will prove an entirely temporary whim, because writing about writing, for a writer, is kinda like enjoying several glasses of wine when you know you should stop at one. Sometimes, it’s just too damn pleasurable and you don’t care about the inevitable hangover.

Here is one good reason not to write about writing: It’s a procrastination technique. I fear becoming a writer who neglects her writing while writing about the process of writing. And the process is fascinating–for writers, if for no one else–and the corollary of this is becoming a reader who neglects fiction and poetry and memoir to read essays about writing.
But here is one not-quite-so-good reason not to write about writing: When you’ve put something down on the page (or into the ether that is the internetten), it stands as if it were truth. But I am the kind of writer more interested in experiment than truth; in flux, in a transitory moment. At the same time, I write with conviction. I am entirely committed to the transitory experiment I’m placing on the page; even while I’m aware, underneath, that this too shall pass. How does one express that duality to a reader without appearing insincere or downright fraudulent? I play with possibilities. I am hyper-aware that everything I write down here, every scene that I paint, is constructed and subjective, even when it points toward an essence that is true. It would be terribly annoying to remind a reader of this at all times; besides, I think we’re all aware on some level that this construction is going on, even here in Blogland (or perhaps especially here in Blogland) where we present ourselves and our families and our lives in a very particular way, through the lens of the blog, to the world at large.
It isn’t a perfectly accurate picture, in other words. It cannot be. It’s impossible to capture the mundanity. We are constantly making choices, conscious or un-, about what to keep and what to forget.
When I write about my writing, especially in the midst of a major project like the one I’m currently hurtling through, all I can see afterward are the flaws in my logic, the mistaken paths down which I enthusiastically trod blindly, and the many ways in which things did not turn out how I’d intended.
In writing about writing, in other words, I create a record of my own failures. It can be, frankly, a little disheartening. I need to believe absolutely in the thing that I am creating, or my courage would fail. If I were reminded, too bleakly, of how often a creative idea does not bloom to fruition, or grow as hoped, I might fear the work ahead. Except, even as I type this out, I think, TOTALLY NOT TRUE!
Because of course I’d do it anyway–I do indeed do it anyway–even knowing the inevitability of failure–failure to realize fully the original vision; rejection letters; a bad review; the variety of opinions and personal tastes and the impossibility of pleasing most; my own wish to be just that inch or two more accomplished at my craft. I am intimately acquainted with all of that knowledge. It does little to impede my attempts.
But, in truth, I’d rather no one else knew. That’s the indefensible reason.
Heavens. I’m in a confessional mood. I had a neighbour, an older woman, when she heard that I was a writer, tell me that it had once been her dream to be a writer, too, and that she had in fact written a book for children, sent it to one publisher, and received a letter of rejection. “So I knew I wasn’t a writer,” she said.
I’d say it’s quite the opposite. You know you’re a writer when you receive a letter of rejection, and with blissful or dogged or determined optimism, you send out your manuscript again. And again. And you rewrite it. And you edit it line by line. And you seek the opinions of others. And you throw it out. And you write another. And you send it out. And through it all, though you question and doubt and your energy dips from time to time, you are filled with purpose and hope.
But you’d rather no one else knew too much about the naysayers.
And that’s why I am not going to write about writing. So help me.

Don’t Be Frightened, It Won’t Last

This is Kevin’s story, not mine. Yesterday evening, while I was out exercising (mental health), Kevin was home with several extraordinarily grumpy children. He set them up with a movie, went outside to water the plants, came back in and sat down with the newspaper thinking he’d grab a minute of calm for himself. He had just read the “thought of the day” in the Globe and Mail.

“There are moments when everything goes well; don’t be frightened, it won’t last.” – Jules Renard

As those words hit his eyeballs, he heard crying from the basement. The movie was over (though he hadn’t realized, it was a very very short movie). The older children were complaining vociferously. And CJ was covered from head to toe in permanent marker (his own doing). He was the one crying. Kevin said he just stood there in horror. Then he popped CJ directly into a bath and the permanent marker proved not so permanent after all. He introduced me to the subject by having me read the quote, then showing me the photo (above) and saying the words “permanent marker.” Needless to say, all my zen calm went out the window till I’d heard the end of the story.

Seriously. I was imagining that child striped with permanent marker ALL SUMMER LONG.

A couple more things, unrelated to permanence.

1. I’ve decided (for now) not to write more about writing. It’s too risky; I’m too superstitious. Everything that I write about writing has the potential to be a complete lie. In the moment, or immediately afterward, I might feel that something I’ve written is wonderful–or terrible–and time might prove it to be quite the opposite.

2. However, I will say that writing and yoga/exercise go together extremely well. I was in a muddle over a story that wasn’t working (there I go, writing about writing), and instead of giving into anxiety, I thought, hey, I’ll take this to yoga. For those of you sick of hearing me blither on about yoga, you can insert the word “meditation” instead. It’s where I go to find meditative space. I haven’t found a more effective method of removing the self from myself than through guided movement that is challenging to breath and body. So, I took the story to my meditative space. And then I didn’t think about it for the entire practice. And at the end, I had a calm reflective observation to take home again: the story wasn’t working because it was trying to do too much. And it was expressing something that I didn’t want expressed through my character. So I scrapped it, and started over completely afresh. It was a relief not to waste more time muddling.

3. Meditative calm: is it a selfish pursuit? Sometimes, when I leave behind a pile of frantic children and kind generous husband, the impulse to go off on my own feels hideously selfish. But here’s what yesterday’s practice brought to me, in calm reflection: self-knowledge is not the same as selfishness. If I did not take time to recognize my own motivations and know my own desires, my boundaries would be muddier, my actions murkier; I would risk carrying anger without knowing why, or bitterness, or fear. I would be more likely to blame my circumstances and my loved ones for anxieties of my own creation. There is no perfection. I might come to know things about myself that are uncomfortable and unflattering. It’s not a route to happiness or contentment, either. What it brings me is access to calm.

4. I’m still looking for ways to find calm within noisy moments. The other evening, this is what worked: I said, “I am not going to start shouting.” No one could hear me saying it, because in order to be heard over the cacophony, I would have had to start shouting. But when I start shouting, whether or not it is in anger, my body interprets it as distress. Even if I am shouting in a calm way, just to be heard, my body hears upset, and emotional escalation is inevitable. So. I just repeated over and over that I would not start shouting–as much to remind myself as to inform the kids. Eventually, I found a break in the sound, and was able to communicate: time to brush your teeth. The evening progressed with remarkable calm (Kevin was at soccer; those evenings on my own are evenings when I really do need to remind myself not to shout).

5. What I like most about meditation is something I resisted strongly at first. Stop telling yourself your stories, my favourite instructor told us. I was like–yah, right, that’s my job, that’s what I do. I’m not about to stop. Slowly, with practice, I got braver. I realized the stories weren’t so fragile that they would get lost; though in truth, they do change. I began to let go of the stories, the interior narration, during the practice. Madeline L’Engle, in one of my favourite books for teens, A Ring of Endless Light, wrote about letting go of “very me,” to make room for “very God.” In other words, make space for illumination. The mind is a miraculous place. Just because you’re not consciously thinking about a problem or a worry or a story doesn’t mean your mind isn’t sitting with it somewhere deep and low. When I practice emptying my mind, afterward amazing unexpected observations (I hesitate to say solutions) come flooding home. There is space where before there was not. And the space is compassionate and open and loving, so there’s room for ideas that I might not accept at other times. How often have I refused an idea out of fear or laziness?

For example, I wanted that story to work and kept muddling over it because it was a story already mostly written (an older story) and it seemed easier to work with something that already existed than to start from scratch. It was a barrier impossible to recognize without calm reflection.

6. I know yoga isn’t the only route to calm, though it happens to be mine, right now. Kevin says he finds that kind of quiet, deep, meditative thought while gardening. I wonder where you find yours?

Warm-Up

I wrote a scene yesterday. And more. I’m pleased. Since it seemed to warm up my typing/thinking self to blog yesterday, I’ll start this writing morning the same way.

Yesterday afternoon, Kevin came home early with a movie for the kids, so we could watch the Germany-Spain game together; I turned down a beer, but then changed my mind. My plan was to go to yoga over the supper hour, and I didn’t want to go with beer in my system. Or two, as it turned out (I was thirsty; and Germany lost). But after a restless indoor hot and sticky day, I discovered that despite the two-beer afternoon, I had the unbearable urge to exercise. So I went anyway. And here is my conclusion: beer is less toxic than coffee. It was a great class, and I suffered no ill effects. (Note: this is not a recommendation; nor do I plan to practice under the influence in future).
Today, I’m travelling back in time to the age of nineteen. I’ve got earplugs in. Having the big kids home all day definitely makes for more of a writing challenge; I’m debating right now whether I should intervene, as AppleApple and Albus are squabbling downstairs …. (Is it crazy to have air conditioning and not to use it? We have air conditioning. But I’m only turning it on at bedtime, to cool the upstairs rooms as the kids fall off to sleep. Is the heat contributing to the short tempers? Would we be happier with cool air falling upon our heads?).
In a week and a half, I’ll be taking a writing week–something that Kevin and I haven’t arranged for awhile. He looks after the kids, and I write non-stop, sometimes even through meals and past bedtime. That will be the sprint portion of the Juliet marathon. My goal for that week is to frame the three stories. It’s the most labour-intensive work, writing a first draft; after that, the work continues, but it’s being done on top of something–which I can build on or tear down or rearrange, which I find easier to cope with. I can rewrite and edit till the cows come home. That’s my favourite part of writing: reshaping, restructuring. Or, wait. My mind just said, nu-uh, your favourite part is when you’re writing something new and you find something you didn’t even know you were looking for. True. I love stumbling over something much better than I could have planned on finding. But that takes greater effort, harder labour, deeper focus; and it’s rarer. You can’t just demand that it occur.
Today. I’ve got to shut out the noise of the grumpy kids and work my way back towards the beach, the ocean, and, maybe, a grand concert hall.

I’m Melting

Help! I can’t write. I can’t think. It’s too hot. My butt is sticking to this giant exercise ball that I use as a desk chair. There are four (4) children in the house (Albus came home from camp along with AppleApple, but they both had a great time and are thinking about going back in August). There is also one (1) babysitter here, and one (1) neighbour girl who is reading and/or writing with Fooey and/or Albus. And I am upstairs sweating and unable to think clearly and having the smallest of panic attacks that I may never finish these three stories, that I am without talent or ambition; and then I take a deep breath and think, ‘k, but it’s hot. All I want to do is sip a shandy and lie under a palm tree and have somebody fan me (Kevin, honey, are you busy?).

Good thing all three of these stories are set in tropical locales. You’d think that would inspire me. Two hours remain. I can do this, right? Small goals: perhaps one paragraph and an outline? Perhaps one small scene? On a beach? By an ocean? With yoga? I want to put yoga into a story. This may be the day that I try.
:::
Speaking of small goals, I must report that last week I did not quite fulfill my goal of two yoga classes and two runs/week; but I did manage two yoga classes on back-to-back days, plus one run, and felt good and fit. Started this week with one yoga class on Monday (it was packed, despite the heat), and went for one ripping good run yesterday evening after spending most of the day in the truck driving to and from camp, with children in tow. It was a long solo trip–the longest I’ve ever attempted, actually–and we had fun. Video players are wonderful inventions. But, man, did I need to run when I got home; it was like medicine. I had the words “Unbearable Lightness of Being” looping through my mind. I jogged slowly for the first half, then wondered what it would feel like to push myself faster and faster on the way home, and by the end I was burning it up. It reminded me of being a kid and running heedlessly, experimentally, for fun. It’s rare to take that opportunity as an adult. I realized that my usual runs are very light and gentle, pleasantly paced, and my breathing isn’t the least bit challenged; and that it feels very different to run hard and breathe hard. I wonder how long I could keep that pace up? (I’d estimate I ran hard for a little over 1 km). People run marathons in a kind of a sprint, don’t they? I can’t imagine how one would train for such a challenge.
:::
Onto my own private marathon. It’s been a very very slow race. Patiently paced. Maybe what I need is a good hard sprint here at the end.

Midwife to Stories

Friends may have noticed a slight up-tick in the writing time, or a sense of greater urgency to get to work, and it is true: I am working on a specific project that is occupying my mind.
I would like to describe exactly how my mind is being occupied by this book, because it feels like a new experience. I am calmly, joyfully, quietly, peacefully occupied.

I have blogged here before about my Nicaragua project, and the Juliet stories, several of which were published last fall in The New Quarterly.
And I have blogged about my attempt to write some of the material as memoir, since there is overlap between what my character Juliet experiences and what I experienced as a child. (I lived in Managua, Nicaragua during the contra war, in 1984 and 1985; my parents were peace workers).
But the memoir did not get very far. I found myself frustrated by what was–by the intransigence of fact. Life unfolds in a dreadfully under-plotted fashion. There is a narrative arc to it, but it is not always the arc one wishes for, as a writer. For reasons I can’t analyze, I find more truth and symmetry and meaning in fiction than in non-fiction (this is true as a reader, and as a writer). In fiction, anything can happen; but the things that happen have to make sense. In non-fiction, everything has happened; and some of those things do not make sense. The Juliet stories play with that line between fiction and non-fiction: I’ve created a fictional world rent with the holes and spaces created by memory.
:::
This all sounds too theoretical. There’s nothing theoretical about writing a story. I am at a loss to describe how it’s done. When I have an idea for a story, it is very general, and sits in my mind in a visual and emotional way. I hold a particular emotion at the front of my mind that I want the story to contain. And I see the story’s structure, the physical shape of it, in a very visual way that is almost impossible to describe. I don’t think up the structure–I see it, as if I am discovering something that already exists, and then translating it into words.
The story I am writing right now is about a young woman visiting her grandmother, and I have a sense of time slowing down within the grandmother’s apartment, which I think relates to the grandmother’s physical difficulty moving, the slow pace of her life, and her stretched-out understanding of time. I see the entrance into the story like a wall with an arm reaching through it and making a tunnel, down which Juliet is travelling, and Juliet is glancing down side tunnels and being reminded of other things, and letting her imagination sneak off, but she continues to be pulled along this tunnel, and as I get further into the story, I see that the tunnel is the hallway of her grandmother’s apartment building, and I see that Juliet wants to reach her grandmother’s door (yet, Juliet is already also inside the apartment–so the story must belong to two separate times, must be in part a reminiscence). I sense that she cannot enter her grandmother’s apartment again. I sense grief, and a desire to be let in; but I also sense Juliet’s curiosity; it will rescue her, and the story.
::::
Weird. I’ve never tried to do that before–to explain the strong visual sensations I have while working or thinking about a story. The structural visuals have very little to do with what turns up on the page (the story has neither floating characters nor tunnels, I promise); though I wonder whether a reader might sense their presence underlying the story. Every story has a shape, and a texture, and a flavour. The flavour can be the hardest to get right. Often a story resists being turned into something that it’s not. You just cannot change the underlying mood, which is why I think this invisible structural patterning is so crucial to what turns up on the page.
::::
I would like to write three more stories for Juliet. I have them in my mind, and when I think about writing them, I feel a combination of fear and great purpose and excitement.
I began working on this material in 2006. I applied for and received a Canada Council grant, based on an entirely fictional idea, nothing whatsoever to do with Juliet; part of the grant went towards travelling to Nicaragua for research. I took my family, and my mother and one of my brothers along on the journey. While there, I began to understand that the story I wanted to write was not the entirely fictional one proposed; the story was closer to autobiography. I’ve never wanted to publish stories about myself, and took care in Hair Hat not to. But I’d written and published a story in 2005 set in Nicaragua, and I realized it had potential to belong to something larger; I just had to leap over my fear of the autobiographical.
It would be tedious to recount all the different forms this material has taken in the years between then and now. The character of Juliet has always been a part of it, though in the first story I wrote, she was named Mary. At first, I thought it was the mother’s story (her name is Gloria, and always has been). But the further I got into the project, the more I began to see that it was Juliet’s story–the child’s story.
It was only this spring that I discovered something new, and it came as a hallelujah moment: the stories stretch beyond Nicaragua and into Juliet’s future. My Juliet now gets to be a mother, herself, and to reflect on that. She gets to be a teenager. She gets to be single, and she gets to be married. She passes through all of the awkward stages to adulthood. She is fluid in age and understanding, and time itself is fluid, and in many stories she is a child and an adult.
:::
This year has been one of calm revelation. I’ve moved away from my parallel dream of becoming a midwife, and accepted that I am a creative person, and that making things is my gift. I can’t change who I am, and it doesn’t matter whether the world generally assigns value to it. In the years since my first book was published, I’ve told myself that I would keep being a writer if only … fill-in-the-blank. If only I’d get this grant, or publish that story, or win this award. In other words, I was hoping for visible affirmation of my choice to keep slogging away at what is a quiet, interior occupation often plagued by doubt. But every if-only achieved proved too temporary, too easily knocked down by every if-only not achieved. I began pursuing more seriously my interest in midwifery. I am so glad that I did. Had I not, it might always have teased at me–the what-if, the could-I-have-been? The deeper my exploration, the more I discovered (to my deep disappointment) my interest waning.
My interest in writing has yet to wane. May it never. Slowly, I’ve come to understand. Being a writer is not about achieving if-onlys. It is about accepting that one is a writer–and not necessarily a good writer or a well-known writer or a celebrated writer or a successful writer. It’s about being what one is, regardless of outcome.
What the Juliet stories have taught me is that some stories just long to become. They feel necessary. I am not a midwife to babies, but I am a midwife to stories, and I have been a midwife to this character.
(Thanks for the thought on being a midwife to moments, Janis; that helped me pull this idea together).
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