"A story is a medicine that greases and hoists the pulleys, shows us the way out, down, in and around, cuts for us fine wide doors in previously blank walls, doors which lead us to our own knowing."
-Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Writing instructions by poet Jane Kenyon, as quoted by writer Dani Shapiro in her book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, as read by me today at the bistro table in the back garden:
Be a good steward to your gifts.
Protect your time.
Feed your inner life.
Avoid too much noise.
Read good books, have good sentences in your ears.
Be by yourself as often as you can.
Take the phone off the hook. [These days: Disable the internet.]
Work regular hours.
I read these instructions and I recognized them. I recognized them because they are the principles by which I live my life now, or at least (on the less great days) am striving to live it. And I recognized them because I've read them before, somewhere, sometime in the last decade or two of my circuitous journey to get to where I want to be. And I knew reading these words today that the last time I read them--whenever exactly it was--they did not resonate with me in this affirming, satisfying, yes kind of way, because I was not at that time following most of them with any regularity or even any understanding that they were important. I was desperate to be a writer and I was lacking a practice--I did not work regular hours, I did not protect my time, I yearned and tried and talked about being a writer, and I gave up when it was hard and when I was afraid of the blank page and the blank screen and the great empty swaths of time all by myself in the quiet.
And I'm pretty sure, sitting here now at the bistro table, that I owe everything to the fact that I eventually stumbled and struggled and landed into the way of being and living and writing outlined in these simple instructions.
It's a pretty powerful list.
My friend Julia Zarankin, writer and fellow contributor to The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, has tagged me in a literary blog tour that's been going around, and I'm happy to finally sit down and think about the answers to these questions. Julia is a talented and entertaining writer whom I recently had the pleasure of hearing read from her memoir-in-progress at the Draft Reading Series, and it was fantastic. As is her essay in The M Word, and the various other essays of hers that I've read around the web Her contribution to the blog tour is here.
And now...here's mine.
What am I working on?
I'm writing a novel about a conflicted mother-daughter relationship. It's also about theatre, conservative Christianity, and the question of whether it's possible to be a devoted mother and a devoted artist. It grew out of my previous novel, which has a lot of coming to terms with the kinds of mothering my main characters were or weren't given, and in the middle of writing it I became a mother myself (with a bang) and woke up to a whole other side of the equation. Namely what it's like to be the provider rather than the recipient of that mothering. I wanted to explore the challenges, losses, and conflicts from both sides.
The book takes place in a theatre over the course of one opening night, with much of the story being also the story performed on the stage. That element is thanks to twelve years with an actor, a life I have not lived firsthand but to which I have been granted, so to speak, a front-row seat.
How does my work differ from others in the genre?
I grew up out of step, shall we say, with my generation. Consequently I have a bit of a skewed outsider perspective that I like to think is useful instead of detrimental as a writer. Freedom and equality with men are hard-won personal gains for me, not something I ever took as my birthright in the way that most girls born in North America in the 1970s did, so I approach the questions of women and feminism with maybe a bit of a fresh take. There is also just the particular me-ness that any writer brings to her or his work--the particular workings of brain, the ways that language occurs to us, the experiences and struggles that comprise who we are as people and therefore as writers. I don't have an MFA, either--does that make me unique these days?
Why do I write what I do?
I find the questions of women's lives fascinating, rich, complex, and important. The models of womanhood that are handed down to us, the struggle to emerge into a self of our own making, the expectations and constraints from outside and within ourselves, the identity-exploding choice to mother, the choice not to, the ambivalence either way, the oft-confusing navigation of relationships (of all sorts) with men, the friendships (and otherwise) between women. So much of my life has been defined--in wonderful and constraining ways--by the fact that I'm female, and so I find myself constantly grappling on one level or another with what it is to be a woman. And what I grapple with, of course, I grapple with on the page.
I love novels. I love their breadth and depth and scope, sinking deep into a character or characters and staying there for a long time. There are few things (maybe nothing?) I find more wonderful.
How does my writing process work?
I'm a morning writer, starting ideally around 6. These days, I feel compelled to confess, I'm stumbling out of bed closer to 7 or 8, but I'm trying to work back to earlier because it's so productive and nourishing for me. I love this time, when I am not yet alive to the world but am very much alive to the world of my book. It's best if I do nothing else first. Turn on email or phone or internet and I'm sucked away. It is death to the world of the novel. Wake up children, and the effect is similar. The hardest part is getting into the work, and it's easier if I can put as little time, distraction, and input between my unconscious dreaming self and the writing.
I write a combination of longhand in my notebook and typing in Word, depending on what stage I'm at. With this new book I originally wanted to try writing solely in a notebook, but either I couldn't hack the discomfort of all the lack of control and the circles I was writing in, or it actually wasn't proving effective in a sustainable way. Now that the book--or at least the early part of it--has found its feet, I tend to switch back and forth a little erratically: a new scene by hand, then the next day typing it up and expanding and shaping it on the computer. Or, if I'm stuck, switching to whichever method I'm not currently using. Sometimes if I'm in need of a third format to jog myself out of a funk, I use OmmWriter, which is a trance-inducing single-tasking writing environment that can really help me enter the zone. I start most writing sessions by hand to loosen myself up and connect with a more playful and embodied state, sometimes with some free writing or a writing prompt, often with a self-pep-talk/affirmation. I also meditate first, just for a bit.
I'm a reviser. I write fairly messy (a la Anne Lamott's Shitty First Draft) and sometimes don't discover the essence of a character or relationship or plot until many drafts later. It feels like all the layers along the way were necessary to get there. Which doesn't mean I wouldn't be grateful to stumble onto a shortcut.
I save my late mornings/afternoons for freelance editorial work, activities with my girls, administration, scaring up income, life stuff. I try to keep the early mornings sacred. I take Sundays off. Otherwise, I try to write Monday to Saturday. My commitment is 15 minutes a day, which means I actually achieve it on even the busiest and hardest of days, but two to four hours is what makes me happy. I've learned through hard experience (depression, desperation, loss of self, wanting to go jump in a lake) that a non-negotiable commitment to writing every day but Sunday is necessary to my well-being. So I pretty much try to just make myself do it.
Over the last year I've also added partnered writing to the mix, meeting in a cafe with two fellow writers once a week (or more, or less), and that has proven nourishing in a way I never imagined before I did it. To have colleagues, coworkers, people who understand intimately what it is you're doing, who are doing the same, who hold space with you across the table--it's invaluable. There is, granted, a lot more chatter and interruption, but those conversations are also nourishing in their own right.
And that leads me to tagging the next two writers in the blog tour, who happen to be those very writing partners. I introduce to you Sarah Henstra and Suzanne Alyssa Andrew, two writers and two women of immense talent and heart. I'm a little bit in love with them, and so grateful for their support. They both have debut novels coming out in 2015: Suzanne's is a literary novel called Circle of Stones, coming out from Dundurn Press in the spring, and Sarah's is a YA novel called Mad Miss Mimic, publishing with Penguin in the summer.
And check out some of the other great contributions to the blog tour:
Rebecca Rosenblum * Julia Zarankin * Maria Meindl * Ayelet Tsabari * Angie Abdou * Kathy Para* Theodora Armstrong * Eufemia Fanetti * Janie Chang * Lorna Suzuki * Barbara Lambert * Matilda Magtree * Alice Zorn * Anita Lahey * Pearl Pirie * Julie Paul *Sarah Mian * Steve McOrmond * Susan Gillis * Jason Heroux
It was cool this morning at 6:30 at my back garden bistro table. I wore fingerless gloves, a hoodie, wool socks. Pleasant for July, this coolness in the air, and the mourning doves cooing, and Junction trains in the distance thumping along. Birds, train--it was noisy for how quiet it was. And I was happy at my bistro table. Not happy--content. I was there, being myself, doing what I do.
All the rejections, all the setbacks and disappointments, all the pressing forward for years with so little to show. All the No's, and the Not Right for Us at This Time's. And I was content, this morning, because this is what it comes back to: the words and the pages, the early mornings alone in brisk cool air, the showing up despite. The doing what I do. It is--it really is, ultimately, elementally--its own reward.