Archive for the ‘The Writing Life’ Category
I recently read a post from novelist Linda L. Richards, and her words about writing a new novel were especially timely, as I am in the desperate, despairing, wonderous, challenging, exciting, maddening process myself. When I came across her conversation with Margaret Atwood about writers and their new projects, I thought: Aha! That’s it. We all feel the same thing, we all have the same struggle, we all wade in the same waters:
I went around asking writers the following question — and these were mostly novelists. What is it like when you go into a novel? And nobody said: What do you mean, go into a novel? They all said: It’s dark. It’s like a dark room. It’s like a dark room full of furniture I can’t see. It’s like a tunnel. It’s like a cave. It’s like going downstairs into a dark place. It’s like wading through a river. It’s like entering a labyrinth. Isn’t that interesting? … Nobody said: It’s like skippity-hopping around on the clouds. Nobody said that.
I’ve been in the dark tunnel with this novel for a little over a year now. I started it before my daughter was born, believing I would have ALL THIS EXTRA TIME to write while I was on maternity leave. I know, just typing that seems incredibly stupid even to me. But, honestly, I didn’t know. I didn’t know how much time, effort and attention a newborn required. I thought, I’ll write when she naps. I’ll write when my husband is home. I’ll write when her grandparents babysit. Turns out, I slept while she napped. I wanted to spend time with her and my husband when I was home. I wanted to go out for dinner, to take a long bath, to watch a movie, to do anything but WORK while grandparents babysat.
So, this novel is taking longer than any other I have written. I’m about 1/3 in, but feel like I have been there for months on end. I’m stalled, paused, plateaued and it is a strange and slightly unnerving feeling. And then I realized, everything has changed in the last year of my life–new baby, new job, new house–and I am still moving around that dark room that is the novel, trying to feel the furniture. Turns out, I forgot I put the chaise by the window. These are the small details that I need to get back into the novel, to stop thinking about it and worrying about it and just WRITE IT.
I’m planning some extra hours at my campus office, huddled there in the dim light, thinking only about the novel, about the characters who will not get out of my head, about all the furniture that now needs rearranging, dusting, and a little airing out.
I’d like to say I am not a superstitious person. I’d like to say that I am logical and clear-headed and capable of reason beyond all else.
But, then, anyone who knows me would call me out, screaming in that way of children, Not it!
I’m more superstitious than I would like to admit. I write with a certain kind of pen–always longhand, unless editing–and I throw spilled salt over my shoulder, and I avoid putting shoes on tables, and I knock wood, and I believe in signs, and I think I have a couple of guardian angels, and I don’t walk under ladders, and…..and….and…..
So when my grandmother’s bracelet broke tonight, I wondered what this meant. A break from always looking to the past? A reminder that she is here with me, as I write? A moment to consider the long line of women in my family [the line not yet broken, three generations and counting of baby girl daughters, only]? There are so many options, that my mind momentarily paused: omen? Good fortune.
In the end, I decided it meant that my grandmother was near me, reminding me to do the things she most wanted me to do: write stories, take pride in my work, be honest even when no one else wants to hear it. And so I stare at my stack of papers, my newest novel, and believe in honesty and, most of all, the spirit sitting at my wrist, urging me to write.
This last year has been an incredible, strange, busy, wonderful one for me–I took a permanent position as Creative Writing Professor at the University of the Fraser Valley last September, and three days later had a baby girl and went on a year-long maternity leave [thank you, UFV, for a wonderful maternity leave!]. Having a year to be with my daughter–who is currently sitting on my lap, babbling, as I type one-handed–has been an incredible gift, but has also left me floundering as September, and the end of maternity leave, becomes a reality.
What does September mean to me? My daughter turns one and I go back to work to a position that has seemed something like a ghost to me. Accepting the position, yet not having actually worked it, is an odd limbo. I’ll be taking on new responsibilities at work, which I am excited about, but it’s been months since I even thought about classes, course development, student assignments, committees, marking, texts, department meetings, etc, etc, etc. I’m not sure what this means in terms of practical application–how to balance teaching with writing with motherhood–but I suspect I will become close friends with my campus office desk…..and late nights.
With all the new funding cuts to the arts, you might wonder what the arts will look like. How better to express it than with something visual? Thanks to artist Perry Haddock for forwarding this beautiful, if tragic, view of the arts.
My poem, directions for sleep, has been awarded first runner up in the Short Grain Literary Contest. Congratulations to all the winners! Read more about the contest, poems and magazine at Grain Magazine.
Why the Orange Prize is important
Robert McCrum writes on why the much-derided prize, accused of everything from discrimination to ghettoization, has accomplished its goal of bringing female writers to readers (read: women), and so much more.
In 1996, I was not alone in wondering how long this quixotic attempt to redress the wrongs inflicted by generations of literary turkey cocks would last. For instance, would an upstart mobile phone company indefinitely squander a massive publicity budget on champagne and canapes for a bunch of pushy metropolitan literati?
Yet Mosse and her friends had a point. In 1996, no question, literary London was a boy’s club. The imprints were run by men. The books they published were mainly written by men and the critics who reviewed them would mostly pass in the catalogue as members of the male gender. Sex is a poor basis on which to evaluate a work of art, but the dominance of the male in the book world was hard to overlook.
Yet here was the puzzling thing. None of this bore any relationship to the truth about the reading public. Everyone in publishing knew it was women who were the devoted fiction buyers, women who avidly read and discussed novels and women who kept the business ticking over.
Chicken or egg? If fiction by women came into vogue, was this a cause or an effect of Orange?
A selection of my poems from Away appear in the new anthology, How the Light Gets In.
“John Ennis, chair of the Centre for Newfoundland and Labrador Studies at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland, will launch his newest anthology. How the Light Gets In, just published in Ireland, is a significant advancement of the ongoing literary exchange between that country and Canada. The volume contains generous selections from some of Canada’s major established and emerging poetic voices. Poets Mary Dalton and Tom Dawe will read from their works in the collection; Randy Drover, Monica Kidd and Leslie Vryenhoek will read some of their favourite poems in the anthology.”
I’ve been in the end-of-winter, grey days, too much rain blahs for the last few weeks–and not getting any writing done hasn’t helped. The winter term is wrapping up, so there are literally towers of journals, chapters, poetry packages and revisions stacked all over my office on campus, and my office at home. I am literally drowning in papers and words.
UFV hosted a reading with Marilyn Bowering this afternoon, and I went feeling tired, ready for the day to be over. The crowd was intimate, Marilyn’s reading engaging and poised, and the whine of the bookstore doors annoying. And then a strange thing happened: I got that familiar, just out of reach desire to pick up a pen and write something. Anything. A note about a novel I’m working on. A line for a poem. An image, even, that came to me suddenly about a woman at a sink and the thick curves of soapy water. I can’t pinpoint exactly what did it, what brought back the urge to write, what made me remember that it’s what I’ve always wanted to do, what I need to do to feel sane and complete and whole, but something in the act of hearing another author read from her work and discuss the process–the often demanding, frustrating, brilliantly satisfying process–of completing a project sparked that light in me again.
I shouldn’t be surprised. I tell students to read, write, surround themselves with anything that might inspire them. Perhaps it’s time to follow my own advice.
This week is reading break for most colleges and universities in BC. It’s also the first year UFV has had a whole week, instead of the typical two-day break, and I am very thankful for the change.
I really enjoy teaching, seeing new work from students, talking about the process, offering advice on manuscripts. I enjoy a lot of it. What I don’t enjoy? Becoming so consumed with that aspect of my life that I find I don’t have time for my own work. I’ve had an idea for a new novel percolating since last August and an auspicious holiday, but I haven’t found the time to start it until now. I’ve had moments, of course, to scribble notes to myself, maybe even lines that I will include, but no solid block of time to sit down and write.
I completed two novels and two poetry collections by the time I was 30. Since then, I’ve finished [maybe finished? close to finished?] a draft of a new novel and worked on some poems, here and there. What was I doing with the time that I used to save, greedily and unabashedly, for writing? I taught four classes of Introductions to Creative Writing, four English Composition classes, two Children’s Literature classes, three classes of Short Fiction, two Poetry classes, two Historical Fiction classes, two Novel writing classes and three Directed Studies. And that was at one institution.
So this week off seems like a dream–the dream, once, of what my career would look like: at home, in front of the computer in my office, working on a new project. Researching, writing, drinking excessive amounts of tea. I know it’s not plausible [yet?] for this to be the way my career looks every day, every month, every year, but for this week it feels perfect.