Category: Writing

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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).

Too tired for anything but blogging …

I want to write about writing, but it may be that I’m just too tired tonight to write about anything at all. Therefore, insert photos! This 365-day project has had the unexpected effect of being like a tutorial in portrait photography (don’t know why it took me till day 150 to figure that out). Last night, Kevin and I watched The Young Victoria (a very pleasant romance, if you’re into Victorian costume drama), and what kept diverting my eyes? The lighting. How is her face lit? It looks like natural lighting, but is it? And if not, what is the director using to give the appearance of natural lighting? Etc.
:::
It’s nearly July. The big kids have one day of school left in grades two and three. And my Fooey has completed junior kindergarten. (See photo, above, of her getting ready to go to school this morning).
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Last week, I only exercised one day out of seven. Wow. That was not good. And I felt it. I felt tired, which made me feel less like exercising … which made me feel even more tired. So, with great intentions I went to bed at a reasonable hour last night and set my internal alarm for early morning yoga. Slept without stirring for approximately seven hours, and woke when my husband tapped me on the back. Apparently his internal alarm had sounded. Mine, not a peep, not a polite brrrrng-brrrng; nothing. Which meant I woke just as morning yoga class was about to begin; but, being awake and well-rested, I hopped out of bed, ate a banana, and headed for a run. It was surprisingly less tortuous alone than I’d anticipated. I even heard a rooster crow in the park’s zoo. I didn’t think about much, just ran. It wasn’t super-early, so people were out and about, lots of construction workers heading to sites in the area, friendly hellos from other runners and cyclists. And I enjoyed the endorphins, and felt ready for my day in a way I hadn’t all last week.
My goal is to exercise four times a week: two runs, two yoga classes. I will report back. I enjoy setting goals; don’t always meet them, but enjoy setting and re-setting them. Life is flux.
:::
Photos above include AppleApple on her last day of horse lessons (at least for this round), with Sunman, who was her regular ride. I love how comfortable and affectionate she is with all animals, even ones that are so much larger than her.
We also had some awesome rainstorms this weekend; guess I was over-optimistic about the laundry-hanging on Sunday.

Why Have I Not Felt Like Blogging?

Why have I not felt like blogging, this past week? I’ve had a moment, here or there, that could have been turned into time to blog. But I chose not to.

Because …

1. My head is full. Too full. Which makes it hard to zero in on a subject. I’ll be honest with you. My head is full of Life, good and bad, dark and light, hope and despair, grief and excitement. Sometimes I just want to sit and let myself feel what I’m feeling, quietly. Without trying to put it into words.

2. This hasn’t been conscious, but I’m finding some balance in my days and hours. In a sense, I’m making compartments for different tasks, different identities. This morning is quiet and interior: I am writing. The house is empty. My mind homes in on this other world I’m making. There’s some of the source of excitement: making something, gathering up the disparate pieces and sensing that it’s coming together, even if it’s not quite there yet. (I abandoned the memoir awhile ago–did I ever write about that? I am working on the story collection, the Juliet stories.)
After school, I’ll enter into the noisy chaotic compartment of motherhood. I’m trying harder to check email less frequently, sit down with a kid in my lap more frequently; that also means not squeezing in a blog post while a child stands at my knee and screams for attention.
Whatever it is, it seems to be working. The full-on mothering days feel sweeter because I have these other days and opportunities to express other parts of myself. I am luxuriating in the freedom I have within every day. I just have to accept its seasoning and flavour. Say, freedom to go out for lunch with a friend. Freedom to bake sweet treats for/with my kids. Freedom to walk rather than drive. Freedom to volunteer at the school fun fair.
It is amazing to discover that commitment to an activity offers up space for real relaxation and enjoyment.
Example … I volunteered at the school fun fair. Yes, I left clothes hanging on the line and it poured rain and I couldn’t run home to rescue them; guess what–they stayed on the line overnight and dried the next day, having enjoyed a lovely soft water rinse. Yes, I had to bring along all four kids; guess what–they had a blast helping out. Yes, Kevin was stuck in Toronto; guess what–AppleApple missed her soccer practice and the world did not end; plus, everybody rose to the occasion, and the big kids were able to do activities with the little kids. Yes, I applied fake tattoos for several hours; guess what–it was a blast chatting with the kids who streamed through, and their parents. I didn’t waste a minute worrying that the evening wasn’t going precisely as planned, or that we were staying longer than anticipated, or that the kids were going to be grumpy the next day.
I am a naturally impatient person, and I’m just beginning to grasp that conceptualizing any time as a waste is itself the biggest waste of all. I don’t have a lot of spare time, so it can be easy to resent time spent doing something that isn’t my first or second or even third choice; I am finding myself more relaxed about that. Inside every moment is a potential discovery.
What comes at me so strongly this week, as I sit inside quiet and some sadness, is that this is my life. I am alive. I am breathing, in and out, and I am living this present moment whether or not it is the moment I want to be living. Can I embrace each moment? Probably not. But the more moments I embrace–chosen and otherwise, going according to plan or going hay-wire–the more moments will embrace me.
You know it when you find it. You likely won’t recognize it till afterward. But you’ll know–an hour, an afternoon, longer, those moments when you are out of time and inside the experience, just being within it. Often, you have a sense of not wanting this–whatever this is–to pass. Or even no sense at all of time passing. You blink, and hours are gone. You wonder where you’ve been. You’ve been inhabiting yourself, that’s all. For me, these moments seem to come more easily when connected to something physical, walking, running, kneading, drinking, laughing, sometimes with company, sometimes alone.
:::
Guess I was ready to blog …
This is what happens when I get up early and exercise. I didn’t even set my internal alarm this morning, it just decided to go off.

She Took Notes

I keep finding scraps of paper around the house with paragraphs in tiny printing: AppleApple recording and making up stories about our daily lives. This overwhelms me with happiness. A child who loves words! I do hope she’ll finish her newspaper; however, she’s currently sidetracked by a school project on orcas, which she is typing up on my computer.
Here are excerpts from the writing I’ve found; I’ve corrected some eccentric spelling and grammar.

This one is from a school assignment, asking, If your mom told you the three most important things to remember, what do you think she would say? Why? “Keep earth clean. Stay safe, and have fun. I think she would say this because she wants to be environmentally friendly she doesn’t want to worry about us and she likes us to have fun.”
{side note: YAY! Talk about affirmation. I think she’s bang on.}

Here’s an advertisement she wrote for a school assignment, selling a candy of her own invention: “Have you ever tasted a yummy healthy morsel that will last forever? Would you like to try one? Is your wish to fly? Well you will get it if you eat this. Is your wish to talk to animals? Well you will get your wish if you eat this. You know how mom says don’t play with your food? Well you can with this and it won’t get dirty. Do you get bored of going over and over in the same swimming class? If you eat this it will make you swim better. Are you worried that you will waste your money? That’s not a problem because my special candy comes with ten and multiplies twenty. So amazing saving 20 dollars! Now you must try this now. Come on kids. Don’t sit there. Come and buy it now.”
{side note: re doing the same swim class forever: She passed, FINALLY! Unfortunately, her brother did not. And somehow, Fooey managed not to pass after having already passed the level three times previously (which likely says more about her instructor’s standards, than Fooey’s accomplishments).
Also, it would appear that AppleApple has her mother’s head for math …}

“Things I like to say at lunch. Can I fill my water bottle? Can I have your autograph? Can I go to the bathroom? Can I get a drink of water? Can I get an apple?”

And this might risk scooping her newspaper, but here’s an excerpt from the notes she’s taking toward that project: “Dad’s crazy about the world cup. Right now he’s watching the world cup. It’s the main subject at home today and yesterday.”
{Totally and completely true. He’s “cleaning up the living-room” right now.}

I Took Notes

Thoughts come to me while I’m hanging laundry. Do yours strike during particular activities?
On an evening out with friends, recently, we came around to talking about chores (we’re all moms or moms-to-be), and one friend mentioned that she genuinely enjoys hanging laundry on the clothesline–she didn’t mean that she finds it a chore she can tolerate, or doesn’t mind doing, but that she genuinely takes pleasure from it. She described hanging the napkins together so they flapped in the wind like a prayer flag. And those of us who regularly hang laundry realized we often do something similar: making patterns, following interior rules about what goes where; in essence, creating something that pleases us aesthetically. Do you have rituals you follow, or patterns you make; or does another chore bring you a similar kind of aesthetic pleasure? I think it points toward the artistic impulse.
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Lately, I’ve been thinking about a particular philosophical dilemma, which is related both to parenting styles and parenthood generally: I think all parents are occupied, whether consciously or otherwise, with finding a balance between individual pursuits and collective responsibility. (This is a societal question, too, and where you land on the scale is probably indicative of your political beliefs).
This balance comes into play in virtually everything I do. Do I push my son to practice piano, or do I hope he will come to develop his own talents? Probably a bit of both, right?
Maybe I need to explain this idea in more concrete terms. I’m thinking about how families work. How very much I would like my children to walk to school together, and to take responsibility not only for themselves, but for each other. However, my eldest wants to walk with his friends: they have made a thoughtful plan for meeting and walking together. I am proud of his initiative, and glad that he has strong connections with friends. But I want him to be a helpful big brother, and I’d planned to have the three kids walk to school together next year. What’s the balance? This one is easy, because we’ve already worked it out. Albus will walk with friends. We have other options for getting his two sisters to school. In this case, we went with the individual, because it did not harm the collective.
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I don’t think the balance between individual and collective is ever perfected. It’s an ongoing challenge. For example, I’ve also been thinking a great deal about how spiritual and artistic practice requires uninterrupted time. There’s no short-cut for this. In order to go deep, you need to enter into yourself while letting yourself go. This isn’t necessarily selfish, but it might appear to be, and certainly can feel selfish, when one is a mother (or father) to small children. Children are notoriously good at pulling you out of wherever you’ve gone–if they need you. And mine seem to need me a lot.
But there’s another issue: If I’ve arranged childcare and freed up time to work, what guilt I feel if the work that ends up getting done is invisible, even to me. If it makes next to nothing. If I sit and stare out the window. Writing a story sometimes appears to be a quick process, but I believe there is a great deal of invisible unknown work going on beneath the surface that makes the story possible.
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One final thought from my laundry-hanging philosophy session. Practice, and consistently doing something, makes that thing easy to do, so that that what appeared impossible or even merely inconvenient proves otherwise. I am thinking of the snack-making. Nothing in the cupboards to pull out, so I whip together cheese and apple slices and raisins, in individual containers, and the kids love it. Nothing in the cupboards, so I pull out the popcorn popper and everyone watches the process, and devours the results.
Yes, it takes more time and effort, but not that much more. The difference is actually inside my own head. Does it feel difficult and hard, or possible and simple?
(I did not get up early most of this week, and I missed it a great deal. So, this morning, I did again, and went to yoga, and appreciated both the effort and the ease).

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