This has been a peculiar week for Obscure CanLit Mama. I refer to myself in the third person because the literary facet of my life usually feels exactly that compartmentalized, like it belongs to another person. I wonder whether this is healthy; perhaps it is even self-defeating. Would I pursue my chosen career more aggressively if “writer” were more integrated into my identity? As I type that previous sentence, a broad smile breaks across my face; the words chosen and career look affected, and pursue and aggressively are downright fraudulent, not within my character, not in that way. If a writer is someone who writes, then I am she. It’s the extra elements, the bruising elements of being a working writer that I cannot seem to cope with, that I’m downright allergic to. (Sentences ending with prepositions, gah; there’s subtext in that there grammar, ladies and gents.)
Here’s what I like about writing and publishing: the relationships that are formed, the shelter of finding mentors who appreciate and care deeply about the words set on the page, who shine a light between the cracks. Here’s what I dislike about writing and publishing: seeking out those relationships. The fear of rejection is ever-present. There is such sadness when a relationship fails or is lost. I wish my carapace were tougher or my confidence overwhelming; or, perhaps, I don’t wish that at all, because how could I write with passion and vulnerability if either of those things were true?
I’ve been thinking about the word “gift.” It seems true that we are born with–are given–unique gifts; what we do with these is our choice. Translating experience into words on the page comes naturally to me; I’m introspective, and an observer; I love language and a story well-told. But there’s another element to the gift: it’s given to us, not chosen by us. Ever received a gift that you didn’t quite know how to appreciate? Ever received a gift, smiled with strain, and wondered, now what the heck am I supposed to do with this? At the end of all my days–and at the end of every day–I want to know that I’ve done all that I could possibly do, that I’ve acted in this world for good, that my life has intersected with the lives of others in positive ways. And I remain unconvinced that writing is the way to do this. (She says, while writing). Because writing requires solititude and interior concentration, because it takes one out of the world rather than into it, and because the end-point of creativity is an artistic product that has no absolute value, and that may indeed remain largely unappreciated, it can seem, as a way to live a life, well, self-indulgent.
Not unlike this post.
Which is, promise, coming around to that window into an Obscure CanLit life.
This week, I had the lovely and surreal experience of having my photograph taken by an artist who will be painting my portrait. He was commissioned for the project by The New Quarterly, which will publish the portrait, along with a reflection on what it means to be a subject, as part of a series that includes other Canadian writers like Russell Smith, Diane Schoemperlen, and Sharon English. I dressed up in a swingy summery dress and posed in our backyard, feeling possessed of an unexpected confidence, and not-unexpected humour; if you can believe it, several large trees were being chopped down on our property and thrown into a viciously loud chipper while this was going on. What a funny life. Children racing about, Kevin home to help, men with spiked boots wielding chainsaws, the aroma of freshly baked banana bread, a shouted conversation in our living-room … and myself, posing for a portrait as a writer. Come to think of it, it didn’t feel that far-fetched, as if I were dressing up in someone else’s identity, it felt just exactly like my life.
So perhaps all of this anxiety and doubt is emerging from the other, and disappointing, literary occurrence of the week: a rejection letter on a manuscript of poetry. How heartbreaking to discover the fat package in the mailbox, and to read the kind and thoughtful letter from the editor, saying that this might have been an acceptance letter in a different year, that she believed several of the poems were “truly brilliant,” and that the collection was strong. But.
It’s such a familiar heartbreak: the hope for a new relationship, not to be. And the hope for those words, too, to find a home.
I stuck the manuscript into the kids’ scrap paper pile. It made me feel somewhat better this morning when they noticed the new paper, and wondered if it came from one of my books (yes, I frequently recycle drafts in this way; sorry, imaginary future archivists). The kids didn’t see it as failure. They read some of the words with interest, then turned the pages over to colour on the blank backs. I look forward to coming across these scraps in the weeks to come–the transformation of what might have been into something that no longer belongs to me, the odd word or phrase jumping out and grabbing me, a sweet reminder.
Finally, I should add that I still believe in this manuscript of poems, and still have hope of finding it an Obscure CanLit home. Someday. (Maybe writer is more integrated into my identity than I recognize. This post is making me think so–see, I had to write it out in order to discover it.)
This little fellow is sick. No wonder he was so grumpy around suppertime last night (though he was THIS happy earlier in the day, when he insisted I clip this into his hair). We spent large portions of last night nursing, and just holding him in bed. It’s a reminder of those early infant days, when night-time does not equal sleep-time. He’s napping right now and I’m watching the monitor for rustlings. There he is.
Albus is playing with a transformer, pretending to blow things up. The girls are reading quietly (Apple-Apple is trying out Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, one of my all-time favourites).
I want to thank everyone who expressed support and interest in the Nicaragua writing project. I’ve had encouraging comments, public and private, from a variety of friends, family, and even my former editor.
Uh oh, there he is again (baby, that is). Better run.
Back again. Thinking about time management … that could be my biggest stumbling-block in writing anything (she says, typing one-handed, feverish babe on hip).
Weekends are chore times, and four busy summery weekends had passed without us being here to do the picking up. The kids’ rooms were particularly disastrous. I made several mid-week attempts, with children helping, to tidy their rooms, without getting much of anywhere. Finally, yesterday, we awoke with the gleeful knowledge that we had nowhere to go and nothing much to do. Can one clean gleefully? If you’re Obscure Canlit Mama, yes, yes, you can. There’s something so satisfying about cleaning when it’s really beyond dirty: moving furniture, organizing, purging (don’t tell the kids). Under the couch in the girls’ room I found: fuzz, fabric, dead bugs, a spider’s web with large unhatched egg, crayons, pencils, hair bands, toy cars, Little People figures, several bouncy balls, a nightgown (!), a bath toy, and that’s just what I can recall. Didn’t take any before pictures, but see above … the rooms: floors cleared, shelves tidied, everything in its place and a place for everything. It took hours. And the kids didn’t help (which was helpful in and of itself; thanks, Kevin).
After supper, we hitched up the new bike stroller–yes, we did! After contacting the manufacturer directly, Kevin discovered that the necessary parts were living in our basement (we’d had them all along). So we went for a family ride, all the way to TCBY for frozen yogurt, and then a bit further, too. After jogging with the stroller these many weeks, biking with the stroller didn’t even feel like real exercise. Which was pretty nice.
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Obscure Canlit Mama has news. It’s kind of good news/bad news, except I can’t separate the two. My agent called on Friday afternoon. To set the stage, we’d just gotten home from Nina’s buying club, CJ was pounding on a wok with a barbeque tong he’d dragged out of a bottom drawer, and I was preparing a baked mac-and-cheese for the kids’ supper so that Kevin and I could go out to celebrate our anniversary, so my hands were kept busy during the conversation. My agent hates to give bad news (who doesn’t?). Listen, there’s bad news and then there’s bad news. Along that spectrum, this was disappointing but not unexpected. She doesn’t think the stories will sell (to a publisher). She’s read the earlier novel version, and feels the stories leave too much out, all sorts of research and context; besides, she says, it’s grim out there and publishers aren’t buying novels these days let alone a difficult-to-sell, almost-certainly money-losing dreaded short story collection. But. She said, Let me just toss an idea out there … have you considered writing this material as a memoir?
She said she’d give me a few weeks to mull it over, and call back.
So, let me ask you: if you could choose, would you rather read a short story collection or, hmmm, let’s call it “creative non-fiction,” set in Nicaragua in the early 1980s, during the contra war, told from the perspective of an American child living in Managua, whose parents are peaceworkers? In other words, would you rather read what could have happened, or what really did? Be honest.
Here is the other thing my agent said (to paraphrase): You are meant to be writing, this is what you’re supposed to do.
It’s a tough thing for me to believe, sometimes. I know the work that will be involved, maybe. But I also know I could write what she’s suggesting. I could do it. And it wouldn’t have to mean giving up on the collection of stories, because the two would be quite different beasts.
The real problem is that contemplating taking on this project would be like moving that couch. What awaits beneath? Do I really want to know? And the things I’d choose to purge or to arrange on the shelf: are they even mine, or do they belong to too many other people, too?
**written at the “new” cottage, The Treehouse, Seeley’s Bay, Ontario**
Afternoon. Too beautiful to sit indoors. Shadows of leaves, the bay water, wind, Fooey watching videos, CJ asleep, big kids and Kev trying out a round of pitch-and-putt golf. I spent yesterday and this morning reading, all in a big sustained gulp, The Girls, by Lori Lansens, a book found here in the cottage. Couldn’t resist (despite bringing along two library books, now untouched). This was not deep literary fiction, though well-crafted and appealing. Lightish. I appreciated the small, quiet observations, such as how the most extraordinary situations don’t seem bizarre while they’re happening, it’s only afterward that one has to cope with them and reflect upon them and place them, name them–not just experience them–that the reverberations are felt. The narrator wonders whether perhaps we never get over our losses. It is funny how we’ve accustomed ourselves by that phrase to believe that human beings “get over” things, as if we could ascend a loss and then descend on the other side, walk so far we couldn’t see or remember it anymore. It’s more like the effects are embedded within us. Not that we’re doomed to spend our lives sad and ruined, just that life doesn’t permit us to be the same.
Is reading a distraction, or does it pull me into a different kind of now?
I worry often that I’m not present enough. And then wonder what presence really means.
Wondering–what will make me happy, satisfied, content, or is that mining false gold even to seek such ephemerals? Wondering–what will I choose to do with my days? Is it enough to cook, clean, preserve, parent? What more, exactly, am I craving? I want to fill these days absolutely to overflowing with meaningful actions; and feel a simultaneous and contradictory pull to let my days fill themselves naturally.
I used to think that writing was a way of seeking and perhaps finding permanence; certainly it’s been for me a form of solitary meditation. I’ve begun to think, however, that it leaves something out: the body. And I wonder–is doing, experiencing, being present oddly more permanent? I think about the families I got to know through doula’ing, and how my life and theirs are, for that speck of time, embedded with each other’s–because we were present and together at a significant moment of transition and becoming. My part was small, and it wasn’t my story, but I bore witness. Bearing witness … that may be where my talents lie.
Writing is one way to bear witness: the private distillation of experiences, physical and emotional, into words. It can feel intimate, but it’s also crushingly lonely. Reading may be another way, opening oneself to a larger world, to different stories. Also solitary. The appeal of the doula experience, upon reflection, is the shared human interaction; yes, it’s a way bear witness, but in a physical, corporeal way. It happens and then it’s over. You can’t write about it afterward (I can’t, anyway, not descriptively). The fact of it happening is enough, more than enough.
Come to think of it, that’s a lot like parenting.
Okay, that handwritten scrawl of a self-indulgent text required way too much editing. Writing directly to blog is much more efficient. And I didn’t come around, at the end, to any satisfying conclusions. Sorry folks. Above, an inundation of photos. Sorry, again. Guess I really really really missed blogging.
Consider signing this petition, which protests the federal government’s plan to cut grants to small magazines (those with an annual circulation under 5,000). Or, consider subscribing to a favourite Canadian arts/literary magazine, because geez, how pitiful is it that virtually all Canadian arts/literary mags fit into that category?
First, news. The New Quarterly will be publishing not one but THREE new stories from this (nearly) completed collection in their upcoming fall issue. I will notify you and harass you at that time to go forth and purchase said truly lovely literary magazine. And because you are patiently accompanying me on the writing journey, here follow a few encouraging words from the editor on these stories: “I’ve read all three stories now and am excited about them, about these characters which have both complexity and mystery, and about what you are doing with the narrative structure and the language … to get at the complexity of human relationships and feelings which are seldom simple and straight-forward but more often ambivalent and contradictory. You put it so well yourself in one of the stories: She wants every moment to yield to possibility. She wants every moment to remain in motion, to admit that it is many things, all at once.”
It is lovely news indeed, both to be anticipating publication, and to hear from an editor that she is reading these stories as I have written and intended them.
Second, I feel myself coming around toward a decision (how’s that for muddling) about this coming year (by which I mean this coming school year, since that’s when the new year really starts for those of us who are parents). I am seriously entertaining the idea of babysitting another child, close in age to CJ, two days a week. That would mean I wouldn’t be doula’ing, which has given me pause; but this most recent doula experience (which I didn’t blog about) really clarified the difficulties of committing to that work at this time in my life … and more importantly at this time in my children’s lives. Look at that kid up there. He’s 14 months, active, energetic, busy, animated, bursting with New, open like a sponge to learning, and I have the opportunity to stay home and share this time with him. As I’m envisioning it right now, I will commit to two full days at home, very child-focussed; and at least one full day of writing; and one more day when I’ll exchange childcare with a friend. That will leave one day free and unscheduled. I also plan to take one night class this fall toward the eventual re-education plan.
Life will be easier and I’ll feel less muddled, less distracted, when I commit. But I take commitment pretty seriously, which is why I want to be certain, gut and heart.