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.
Wisdom from Diana Fitzgerald Bryden, here.
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.
There was a time, when I first found out I was pregnant with twins, that I saw only a state of conflict. When I looked at theater and parenthood, I saw only war, competing loyalties, and I thought my writing life was over. There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me (truly you have not lived until you have changed one baby's diaper while another baby quietly vomits on your shin), and finally I came to the thought, All right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow. And then I could breathe. I could investigate the pauses.
It's been a week of brick walls. Of wheels spinning in ruts. Of other stagnation cliches.
Good writing comes from a mentally relaxed place: the mantra I repeat to myself, first gleaned a few years ago from Susan Swan's essay in Dropped Threads. So simple, so basic. Good writing comes from a mentally relaxed place.
I've been approaching the work lately from an uber-analytical place. I'm revising a novel. I'm looking at it with judgmental eyes, mapping it out, finding its holes, determined to get a hold on this thing once and for all. I'm trying to maintain rigid control of my material because I want to get it right this time, dammit, I want all my characters and plotlines to add up to the right thing, to work. Before I even begin, I want to control the outcome of every sentence, to be sure that each paragraph and scene is going to make the book better and never be edited out. I'm really tired of devoting a lot of time and mental energy and emotional focus to stuff I end up editing out.
I need to rediscover, I realize from this brick-wall place, that space of freedom to meander, discover, fail.
Approaching a revision of a novel that I've been convinced more than once was finished and then realized was not, permission to fail (again) is not something I've been all that gung-ho about allowing myself.
But today, a start. A few hours in a cafe, a comfy chair instead of the hard table, a notebook and pen instead of the laptop. I deliberately relax, let my mind wander, release my charts and outlines, and explore.
I write multiple pages of rambly scenes that will probably never end up in the book.
I keep my pen moving.
I wanted to be a writer before I wanted to be a parent, and my greatest fear in having children was that I would no longer be able to write. I knew few mother-writers. I was terrified it couldn’t be done, and that in choosing parenthood I was sacrificing my artistic goals.
That fear drove me, and instead of losing my writing I became more disciplined, more efficient, and more dedicated as a writer, bypassing inner resistance and procrastination and the paralysis of perfectionism because there wasn’t time for that anymore. Motherhood turned me into the writer I had striven for decades to become: a writer who shows up (at 5:30 in the morning, if need be). A writer who just does it. A writer who writes.
Becoming a mother required a huge metamorphosis and opened up a deep layer of thought and inquiry in me, and so it's also become a richly inspiring topic for my writing. Much of the creative non-fiction I’ve published since becoming a parent has focused on this journey: maternal ambivalence, grappling with what it means to be a mother and an artist, choosing to mother in the unconventional way that I did—namely by becoming a biological and adoptive mother simultaneously—and finally my evolving relationship with the two precious humans I am privileged to call my daughters.
I spent a morning this week thinking about the ways in which being a parent has inspired and challenged my creative life. This thanks to the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which is a fantastic non-profit I learned about only recently whose mission is to support artists and writers with families. Given that being a parent has inspired and challenged my creative life a whole heck of a lot, I am beyond appreciative that somebody out there is actively working to help artist parents flourish. As they say:
Too often, creative impulses are set aside to meet the wonderful, but pressing, demands of raising a family. The foundation's goal is to encourage parents to continue pursuing their creative passion, and to rekindle it in those who may have let it slide.
How much do I love this? I love this very much.
If you're a writer or visual artist who is also a parent of a child under 18, they have a grant deadline coming up Sept. 8.
I'm honored to be the inaugural interviewee in writer and editor Erika Westman's brand new video series with emerging authors, ever-so-cleverly called Pre-Authorized. She aims to capture the thoughts, experiences, and wisdom of people who've been writing for years but whose debut books are still on the cusp of representation or publication. We sat down together in her dining room a couple Saturdays ago and I answered her questions about my novel, my writing process, and how I got to where I am now.
I wish my glasses weren't covering my eyes for most of the interview, but Erika assures me that a person's IQ jumps from highly intelligent to genius when wearing glasses.
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.
It's been rough, the last couple weeks. Writing on the new book isn't going so well. There is floundering. There is uncertainty. There are writing sessions that consist of me writing "This is crap this is crap this is crap" repeatedly. There is also the completed novel, the one making its rounds in the please-want-my-book-osphere. I put so much into that book--years and years and tremendous devotion and energy and grueling work. I know what it takes to bring a book to fruition, and I look at my notebook of "this is crap" writing and wonder whether I have that much in me for another round. It seems ludicrous to start all over again, absent any evidence that any of this, ever, is going to pay off in any sort of tangible way.
But this morning I got up and I took my green smoothie to my backyard bistro table and I meditated and I wrote. Just a tiny bit. And then I got up and looked at the scene in front of me:
1 - New novel notebook (the big one).
2 - Writing prompts notebook (spiral).
3 - Spiritual (for lack of a better word) growth notebook, notes on challenges and inspirations toward the person I want to be.
4 - My husband's Complete Works of Shakespeare, through which I'm currently immersing myself in The Tempest because my character is playing Miranda. (Twelve years with an actor have finally caught up with me.)
5 - Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, a novel that's providing some structural inspiration.
6 - Dani Shapiro's Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. (Looking for help.)
And I thought, we're stuck with each other, writing and I. I don't know any other way to live. These books and these notebooks and these pens...how else could I possibly be? For better or worse, it's who I am.