Three days in the country in an old farmhouse with stone walls 3 feet thick.
Two writer friends (thank god--writing is a hard, lonely business).
Brand new drafting on a new and unformed novel after months of revision and line edits on an almost-done novel.
How do I do this again?
One of the friends suggested paint.
So I painted. Mostly as a way to put off actually writing.
I have zero expectation of mastery with this art form, and that, obviously, is what’s liberating about it. I really can just make crap, because I know nothing about painting, crap is the only thing I’m capable of, and I don’t care, because I’m not a painter. I lost myself in it--in the colours, the texture of the paper, the tactile, physical action of dipping brush, squeezing colours, stroking the brush along the page.
I started winding words into the painting. A voice came out.
And I had it. The voice. I picked up my notebook immediately and I began writing.
It wasn't easy, exactly. But I stayed with it for the whole 3 days--the notebook, the pen, the voice--and I'm proud of myself for that.
I have sat beside this book, my own books and I, in cafes and at retreat tables and at more cafes, when it was pen scratches in a notebook and a Word doc on a laptop. I read it as a red-covered ARC, I voted on the cover (this one!) and I even, in one wintry week snuggled on my comfy couch, had the privilege of scouring its proofs for typos and inconsistencies. Now it is a book between covers on a bookstore table, and I spied it today at Queen Books and took a picture and sent it to Sarah and said, "Look! Look!"
It is intense and thrilling and provocative and hard and good. I lived this book, the first time I read it; real life felt out of focus; nothing was of any importance until I could get back to the reality of these characters and their world.
"Timely and brilliant," says Kirkus Reviews. Read it.
Last night, my girls and me, the launch of Marissa Stapley's new novel Things to Do When It's Raining.
How to Write a Novel in 10 Years: Total Rewrites, Massive Scrap Piles, and Persistence Through the Long Haul
I had a great time as guest speaker at the Brockton Writers Series a couple weeks ago, speaking on a topic I am chagrined to be very familiar with. It was not, initially, a topic I wanted to open up about, and that resistance is part of why I said yes.
Because I've learned that resistance usually means there's something I need to examine. And that if I feel a thing, I'm not going to be the only one. And if people are feeling a thing, somebody should probably open a conversation about it.
My favourite response to the evening was from an older woman who told me she'd taken 22 years to write her novel--so long that by the time she finished and published it, it was classified as historical fiction.
I am delighted to report that since giving this talk, I have finished my novel.
A FEW CHALLENGES INHERENT IN WRITING THE SAME NOVEL FOR 10 YEARS:
The world moves more quickly than your writing process.
You’re forced to rewrite scenes because, in the time since you started this book, answering machines have become obsolete and giant multi-million dollar construction projects have rearranged the landscape in which your story is set. Three hundred kilometre highways blasted through rock are built more quickly than you can write.
Other people might think you’re delusional about the merits of the book you persist in writing.
Closely related: you will fear that other people think you’re delusional about the merits of the book you persist in writing.
At literary events you have to account for yourself with “Yup, still working on the same novel. I’m almost done! For the eighth time.” Fellow writers with whom you once walked side by side will pull ahead to achieve completion, a literary agent, a book deal, a second book deal. When they say, at these literary events, “Wow, you must really believe in this book,” your mind will hear, “Wow, you must really be deluded about this book.”
Over a decade-long process of striving for and failing to achieve a goal, your own insecurities and the struggle not to compare yourself to others will on occasion ambush and derail you.
Being still in the process of writing a book at the 10-year mark—no matter how much you’ve learned through it, no matter how the book has deepened and grown, no matter how grateful you are that you didn’t publish the 2-year or 5-year or even 9-year version—can feel more like failure than success. If you consider writing to be your primary purpose and identity and if it is the only thing you have ever really wanted to do with your life, and you have also written other books that you didn’t finish or publish, you will feel, sometimes, like you have nothing to show for your very hard work, your dreams, and your existence on the earth.
A FEW REASONS IT COULD TAKE 10 YEARS TO WRITE A NOVEL:
You are not writing the book in a vacuum.
You must earn money, a necessity that sucks up the prime hours, energy, and brainpower of each day. You might have a life, which could involve marriage, divorce, houses, children, births, deaths, and a myriad of crises in between.
Anyone who truly wants to write will make the time. But also, anyone who has tried to maintain a consistent, productive writing practice while (for example) working 40 hours a week at a day job while freelancing on the side while parenting two young children while having a partner who works outside the country for months-long stretches knows that “It’s hard to make the time” is not merely an excuse. It’s pretty damn real.
It takes time to learn how to write a novel, and it takes time to learn how to write the particular novel you are writing.
This can mean full drafts that are almost nothing like the one(s) before. It can mean hundreds of fully fleshed-out pages going to the scrap pile. Characters and plot lines developed extensively, over years, with arcs that span the entire book, in scene after scene meticulously envisioned and set down and revised and finessed: scrap pile.
You can have a stupendous inspiration in Year 2 and just know that the right thing to do is leap back in time to your characters’ childhoods and then you can write and develop that for years and it can become the deepest and truest and most beautiful part of your book but it can not belong, not at all, in this particular book that you are writing, and you can chop it all out one night at 4:00am in Year 7 because you have finally admitted to yourself that it stalls the momentum of the book and that you kind of have no idea how to create forward-moving plot. Then you have to go back to the beginning to figure out what is your story, if that’s not your story.
That can happen.
Writing a novel can be a cyclical rather than a linear process.
Each pass reveals another layer. You’re peeling an onion. You’re plumbing the depths. You’re sculpting a slab of marble—only first you have to make the marble, then you get to sculpt it.
It can take half a dozen drafts to arrive at the heart of a scene, a plot, a character, a relationship between characters. It can take years to see that actually she doesn’t just go to the door and listen, she opens the door, she walks through the door, she makes the terrible decision, she’s plunged into the results of the terrible decision.
HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL IN 10 YEARS:
Believe in it.
Love your characters enough to stick with them, care about their dilemmas enough to keep following them, and hold onto that inner flame of knowledge that this story is worth telling. If you don’t believe in it, abandon it and find a new novel that you do believe in. (And don’t be ashamed of this choice; it can be the correct choice.) Or, find something to do that is less excruciating.
Experience the process as its own reward.
You and the page and the story unfolding under your pen: this is the best part. If you don’t feel energized or moved or challenged or fulfilled by the process, if you don’t at least sometimes feel that you’re doing what you came to the earth to do, you probably gave up long before the 10-year point.
Receive enough genuine encouragement to bolster you when your inner belief-flame dims.
Share it with trusted early readers, other writers, and eventually some agents and editors and publishing insiders who will probably, if it isn’t ready yet, reject your novel but might give you invaluable insight into what is working and what isn’t and why. They don’t hand out positive comments just for fun, so if you get some you will feel that you are not delusional, there is value here, and it is worth it to keep going.
Write and publish smaller pieces.
The satisfaction of completion and the affirmation that comes from someone else’s stamp of approval will make you feel like you’re an author, not just a wannabe, and will help sustain you through the long haul of your novel. Winning contests and receiving grants works too.
Buy The 90-day Novel. Keep it on your shelf like a gleaming reward and a promise of another way…for when you’re finally free to start writing your next book.
Originally posted on the Brockton Writers blog.
This was me all by myself for 5 whole days. (Full disclosure: after 3 I couldn't stand the solitude anymore and made my family come join me.)
(But I also met my 5-day writing goal in 3 days.)
Negotiations successful. Due to new bunk bed, children delighted to share a room.
Mama delighted to have a writing studio again.
I'm proud to have helped inspire one of my husband's first-ever pieces of published writing. "Chekhov, Words, and the Long-Distance Relationship" is up at Intermission Magazine. Richard is currently playing Anton Chekhov at the Tarragon Theatre in a beautiful writerly play that unspools in letters.
A lot like our courtship.
Here's a sneak peak into Richard's piece:
“I find it nearly impossible to respond to what I’ve read. I think it’s like watching a good play. I don’t want to talk about it until I have given it a chance to be absorbed entirely. Your words are utterly compelling. I hear your voice so clearly…and it moves me.”
I wrote this to my future wife, a writer who I barely knew. Over the course of many months, I had become addicted to her words.
Heidi Reimer and I met, briefly, in 2002, and for the following nine months we wrote each other letters, our courtship unfolding through words on a page. Or rather the very first letter, sent by her, was on a page—an actual page written on with a pen and mailed with a stamp—though the subsequent letters were emailed. But they were long, thought-out documents, with days or a week between each as we took our time composing and responding, carefully unveiling ourselves to each other.
Artists are used to long-distance relationships, relationships that are hard to sustain. The words used in communicating become important. Actors and writers use words, treasure words, mould words. Words are the clay of their art.
Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper wrote to each other. He was a writer, she was an actress. They were frequently separated by her work and his health. Their love story unfolds in their letters. The play based on these letters is called I Take Your Hand in Mine…
I am playing Chekhov in this play, in a mirror image of my own experience. This time I’m not the actor, but the writer.
Chekhov met Olga for the first time at the Moscow Art Theatre for rehearsals of his play The Seagull. He was immediately attracted to her even though he mistrusted actresses. (“Actresses are cows who fancy they are goddesses … Machiavellis in skirts.”) Olga was ambitious, impulsive, talented. She loved life and threw herself headlong into her all-consuming passion: the theatre.
I also met Heidi for the first time in a theatre.
Read the rest over at Intermission Magazine.
Family reunion, intermission at the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival (it's a costume--he isn't actually wearing a nightgown, nor joined a cult). And family trip to Ottawa. And so much river time.
Nine years of marriage (five years together before that), and I know and love this man more deeply and fully than I ever have.
I first begin to ponder the idea that creative success--that elusive thing I have been driving toward since I was 8 years old and first decided I wanted to write books--might come with a best-kept-secret shadow side when I finished the novel I'd been working on for many years. I was supposed to be happy, I expected to be happy, and I found myself devastated. Depressed, actually.
The shadow hit again when I won Chatelaine's creative non-fiction contest and, preparing for a publication more visible than any previous publication, I experienced a dose of fear, dread and shame at least as big as the joy and pride.
I was in my shady back garden at the end of last summer when I emailed dear writer friends Sarah Henstra and Suzanne Alyssa Andrew: do you think this is a thing, this idea of a shadow side to creative success? Is this just me? And do you think anybody besides me might want to talk about it?
Fast forward nearly a year, and you will see us above, along with Carrie Snyder and Maria Meindl, talking about this very topic at the Canadian Writers' Summit to a standing-room crowd. The energy was honest and vibrant, with a real feeling that we were hitting a nerve and speaking things that needed to be spoken. There was a lot of head-nodding. There was a lot of note-taking. It was so good, so real, so resonant. And I was awed and delighted and humbled that an idea I'd wanted to explore for myself had (as usual, of course) turned out to be an idea that others wanted to explore too, that a woman who'd come from Rochester, NY would tell me afterward had been worth the trip to the conference all on its own, that people would be drawn to from other tents just to see what all these people were so engaged by in Market Tent B. Oh, it was good.
And there is to be a Shadow Side part 2: the written version. Maria, Carrie, Suzanne and I have created a written interview piece, which will appear in The New Quarterly likely sometime in 2017, and I'm very excited about that.
And until then, writer Melanie Marttila put together her notes from the panel and has generously shared them here if you want to check them out.
She learned to read like she learned to crawl. On her own, voracious for the world, and mostly while my back was turned.
'I lost it,' she said again. 'Sorry. I lost it.'
I am not, gratefully, at this stage of new motherhood anymore, but Bethan Roberts captures it wonderfully in Mother Island. It's really hard to write about the early days of motherhood. Who wants to read about sleep deprivation and crying for pages on end? How do you convey the depth and disorientation and total identity-rearrangement of it all without boring readers and yourself? I'm coming up on a new-motherhood section in my work in progress and I think Bethan Roberts has just given me a clue: you do it succinctly.
I had a fantastic time reading from The Mother Act, my novel in progress, in the Readings at the Common reading series on Monday night. Thank you to Josef Hochleitner for capturing me in action! And to everyone who came out and gave such a warm response.
Writing a novel is terribly solitary, and it's rare to get the opportunity to witness your readers' responses in real time. Also terrifying. And also affirming. Someone other than me finds these characters engaging! I'm continuing on with renewed energy.
After months of waffling between ballerina and streetcar driver, she has made her announcement: she wants to grow up to be a writer.
My husband and I met, briefly, in 2002, and for the following nine months we wrote each other letters, our courtship unfolding through words on a page. Or rather, the very first letter was on a page, an actual page written on with a pen and mailed with a stamp, though the subsequent letters were all sent via email. But they were long, thought-out documents with days or a week in between each as we took our time composing and responding, carefully unveiling ourselves to each other. I'm embarrassed to reread some of them, at the vulnerability I expressed so early on through the safety of written words. I didn't have internet access and had to save mine on a disk and bring them to the computer lab at my university. Over those nine months I fell in love with his words, and with him.
He is an actor. I am a writer. Throughout our relationship we have been frequently separated by his work, my schooling, our different nationalities. We have never returned to that intense period of letter-writing--Skype is generally the long distance relationship tool of choice--although occasionally, beautifully, one of us will send a missive that reminds us of those days. The connection, the expression, the love in time taken to write out here is how I am feeling about you. Here is what I have been thinking. How do you feel? What do you think?
One Christmas after we'd been together 8 years, I compiled all the letters and had them printed and bound in a book with a title taken from one of his early letters: I Hear Your Voice So Clearly...
Anton Chekhov and his wife Olga wrote letters. He was a writer, she was an actress. They were frequently separated by her work, his health. Their love story unfolds in these letters. The play based on these letters is called I Take Your Hand in Mine...
My husband is currently playing Chekhov in this play.
It's a sort of literary romance, and you can see it April 1-4 at the Red Sandcastle Theatre in Toronto.
My Chatelaine essay is now online here.
And my favourite comment so far: "Frankly, I found this story very hard to believe. True to life? True to a good imagination more likely."
What can I say?
Wisdom from Diana Fitzgerald Bryden, here.
The first thing--after "Congratulations"--that my mother said when I told her I'd won Chatelaine's personal essay contest and it would be published nationwide to a circulation of 3 million was, "So...is this a particularly honest and raw and personal personal essay?"
That was four months ago, and it took me almost to the eve of the issue's appearance on newsstands last week to process and be ready for the fact that, yes, it is a particularly honest and raw and personal personal essay, and I am putting it out into the world more visibly and on a larger scale than anything I've written or published before.
This is what we want as writers, right? This is part of why we make art--for the pleasures and challenges of the work itself, certainly, and for the drive that makes it impossible for us not to do it--but also, if my query and submission charts are any indication, for the publication. For the audience. For the desire to be read. But I was recently amused to discover, looking through a list I wrote a year ago, that I'd identified as one of my needed areas of development: Comfort with being visible.
Amused, because this Chatelaine win has shown me just how not-comfortable I am with visibility--with the stated intention of all this work I do. With a huge component of my life's goal. I received the proofs a few weeks ago, opened the PDF on my computer and recoiled. Physically pushed myself away from my words, all laid out pretty, awaiting my final approval. Last stop before 3 million readers, and all I wanted was to close it up and run away.
"Be fearless. Write the things that scare you. Go there," says Ayelet Tsabari in an interview that was among the numerous places where I took courage on the path to publication. This has long been my guiding principle. I have written the things that scare me. I have gone there. But it's one thing to go there in the privacy of your writing nook, in your quiet back garden, on your front porch in the rain--chasing the essence of what it is that wants to be said through you, or of what you need to say, listening and groping and reaching and refining until the story becomes the story it needs to be. It's one thing to do this, also, for your nice little literary journal audience, or your anthology that will need to be sought out by interested readers in the specific places where it is sold. I've never been published in something that can be bought at the grocery store check-out. I've never been read by an audience measured in millions. It turns out I like to be able to hide.
Learning I won the Chatelaine contest, I was amazed, I was thrilled, but I also felt like I'd taken a snapshot of myself with my pants down and was sending it to the whole world.
It was surprisingly painful.
It took me a while to realize what in particular was freaking me out about the Chatelaine essay's large-scale publication, about telling my parents anything beyond "I won a contest." Was it the sex? The leaving behind the faith they reared me in? I've written about these things before. And then I realized: a crucial part of what I write about in this essay is the depression my dad suffered throughout my childhood, and the deep ways that it affected me and my future relationships with men. In a light bulb moment I recognized that freaking out over this publication, I was responding from my little-girl self, eight years old and under no circumstances supposed to let anyone outside our immediate family know the secret of Dad's "dark seasons." (The first time I ever told, and the first time I uttered the word depression--and even then I wasn't sure it was the right word, because it'd never been spoken--I was 19 and braving therapy over this very issue.)
And now here I was, telling the secret, and telling it big.
Once I realized that, I felt freed. Taboos need to be broken. Mental health needs to be talked about. I'm no longer a little girl. This is my story and I have a right to tell my story. I wrote my dad a letter, printed out a copy of that PDF, and mailed it to him a couple weeks before the issue came out. He responded with a text message that made me cry. He said the essay was beautiful, that he was sorry, that he is glad things are better now. It was healing I didn't know I needed. My mom said similar things--you've fit so much into this piece, you're a beautiful writer, we're so proud of you. I was bowled over by the warmth and generosity of these people who raised me, by how lucky I am to have their support.
After that, my fear of visibility dissipated.
"The stuff that causes me anxiety...is usually a road map to where my creative growth can be found," said Merrill Markoe in another piece that gave me courage.
Because this is what we have. This is where we need to write from. If we are writers, we don't really have a choice.
Last summer a friend forwarded me Chatelaine magazine's "Write for Chatelaine" contest, a call for "deeply personal stories about love, loss, friendship, marriage, dating or family." They wanted "creative, compelling and soul-baringly honest."
I thought, deeply personal stories that are soul-baringly honest (slash revelatory slash embarrassing)? Love, loss, friendship, marriage, dating, family? My specialty.
I wrote the first draft by hand, just exploring for fun, a break from the full-length novels I'd been mired in. Riffing on ideas to see what would come out. A couple writer friends convinced me that what had come out was worth pursuing. It was the best kind of writing process, the essay I started referring to as the one I wrote by accident. The final draft I refined while on vacation at my parents' lake home. A first reader prodded me to go deeper into territory I'd been happy to skim over. That's when it became emotionally arduous, and I found myself on the night of the deadline, after a busy day full of family and activity, after my kids were finally asleep, sitting up at my parents' kitchen table facing details from the past and seeking a way to comprehend and reconcile them. The deadline was midnight. My parents' rural internet is unpredictable. At 11:30 I was writing brand-new paragraphs. At 11:50 I was trimming earlier paragraphs to make room for them. At 11:58 I hit send. Then I checked the rules again and saw that the deadline was actually 11:59.
And in the fall I received the news: the essay I wrote by accident won the contest.
It's on newsstands now, a deeply personal story that is soul-baringly honest, about my best friend and me, our relationships with men and how they impacted our friendship, mixed in with some father wound and some emergence from religious repression and into fledgling feminist fervour, and how these things affected the two of us differently and affected our interactions with men differently and affected our approach to our relationship. Meeting and falling in love with my husband is in there too.
It's been an exhilarating and terrifying experience, preparing to be published with such a personal piece to an audience significantly huger than any I've ever been exposed to. Googling Chatelaine's circulation--3 million--gave me a heart attack, and not in a good way.
I needed all the months between the win and publication--to become comfortable with this kind of visibility, to talk with (some of) the people I've exposed in the piece, to accept that this is my story and the story has a right to be told. On Thursday I checked a newsstand and they were still carrying the February issue, and I experienced a small moment of relief, reprieve--for one more day, the essay is not widely available out in the world. But then I started getting texts and tweets from friends who'd gone to different newsstands, and it is indeed, widely available out in the world.
And I'm ready. I'm happy, and I'm grateful, and I'm enjoying the ride.
Just in time for Valentine's Day, the folks at Little Fiction/Big Truths have compiled a bunch of their past stories about "everybody's favorite four-letter word." Check out The Love You Love, which includes my story Firebombs. "Granted some are more heartbreaking than heartwarming, but that's love, right?"
Every time I engage with words in a tactile way--the letter I wrote to my dad this week with a pen and paper, this book I'm editing in Track Changes that became too hard to see clearly until I printed it and physically spread it out on my floor--I'm reminded how much I love the embodiedness, the connection, the physicality of leaving my screen behind. Of touching with my hands, of seeing the words end to end in physical form. Of handling them. My eyes see differently and my brain engages differently. It's a difference I'm trying to remember to explore more often.