“‘Prose’: the word signifies not only a nonversified language; it also signifies the concrete, everyday, corporeal nature of life. So to say that the novel is the art of prose is not to state the obvious; the word defines the deep sense of that art.”
–Milan Kundera, from The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts
“We do literature a real disservice if we reduce it to knowledge or to use, to a problem to be solved. If literature solves problems, it does so by its own inexhaustibility, and by its ultimate refusal to be applied or used, even for moral good. This refusal, indeed, is literature’s most moral act.”
–Marjorie Garber, from The Use and Abuse of Literature (Pantheon Books, 2011).
What a day! We have a cover for How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenthood and Loss. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to reach this point in the process. Thanks to Shawna Lemay for the beautiful cover image!
To celebrate, I’m posting the list of our fabulous contributors (below):
Jennifer Bowering Delisle
Sadiqa de Meijer
Fiona Tinwei Lam
Lorri Neilsen Glenn
Gail Marlene Schwartz
Maureen Scott Harris
Chris Tarry Foreword by Kim Jernigan
I started this blog a little more than a year ago. Would you like to know why? It’s because I had failed, for the umpteenth time, to get any of the various jobs I had applied for in my field (this time I had applied for a creative writing instructor position at a university in Toronto, and for two writer-in-residence positions). I was waiting anxiously for the results of all three competitions for approximately a five month period. My youngest was barely more than five months old at the end of this period, so it was a time of strange inner division between the fog of new baby parenting, on one hand, and yearning for my own competence, signalled most clearly/easily by external work/pay, on the other.
By this time last year, I knew I had not gotten any of these positions, though I had been shortlisted for one of the writer-in-residence positions (in Saskatoon). My disappointment, which was acute, gave way with surprising speed, though. What replaced it was a sense of ease I didn’t expect. An understanding that I would not move to another city; I would live here. That I would not get another job; I would have this one. That I would not be a Writer-in-Residence; I would be a writer, in residence (i.e. “at home”). Hence, this blog.
A year later, this still feels like the right thing: a fit. I’m relieved to not be vying for jobs, scouting for open positions, hustling for external work. Trying to make a life (if not a living) of writing while acting as the primary caregiver to young children is, as anyone who has tried it can tell you, not easy. But it is meaningful work, as meaningful as it comes.
And there has been plenty of external work involved, as it turns out. I’m still teaching creative writing, if sessionally (and only very part-time). And, most excitingly, I’ve recently finished up work on a new anthology that I’ve co-edited with my dear friend, the artist and writer Jessica Hiemstra. The anthology is called How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenthood and Loss, and it will appear with Touchwood Editions in Fall 2013. This fall! I can hardly wait. It’s going to be amazing, and I can say that without ego or embarassment because it isn’t mine but ours, a collaboration in the truest sense. An amazing, perhaps life-altering, and certainly at times arduous, but in the end vision-surpassing collaboration with a longtime friend. And also the truest collaboration with our amazing contributors, all of whom brought their minds and their hearts and their stories to the writing of incredible essays–literary, deeply personal, generous essays. The absolute best kind. I’m sure I will be telling you more about this anthology in the next little while. I want you to be as excited about its arrival this fall as I am. It is a heartbreaking, beautiful, inspiring, consoling, and, yes, a difficult book. I promise: it will be worth its weight.
Co-editing this anthology has been more work–and of a more rewarding kind–than I ever could have possibly imagined. And I am so inspired, after working with these writers, about the possibilities of community. Because here’s the thing: I’ve only met a few of the people in this book in person. And I feel I’ve made real friends.
All of this has me thinking about connection, as so many people are these days. I recently read Seth Godin use the term “connection economy” (presumably to displace “information age”). I like this idea(l). I’ve had enough doomsayers for the moment (though lord knows we do need doomsayers, too)–and am on the lookout these days for people embracing the changes taking place all around us, especially those of us in the arts, for whom (as Neil Gaiman points out in his wonderful talk, below) the “modes of distribution” are rapidly changing.
A few weeks ago I came across this TED talk by Amanda Palmer. I love people who are unafraid of change (and of each other). I aspire to this. There’s also this talk, which is about parenting, but the thing that stands out to me is the idea of “building in a system of change.” Isn’t this what we all have to do, all the time? In a recent post, I talked about “octopus wrestling.” But maybe “building in a system of change” is a better way of imagining the long-haul work of writing a novel–and many other things, too.
What I love most about the Neil Gaiman talk–beyond the brilliant imperative he gives us toward the end–is this idea of heading toward your own mountain. Everyone has her own mountain. My mountain, it occurred to me as I was falling asleep last night, isn’t writing, as I once thought it was. Early in my mothering days, I felt a division in my heart between writing and mothering–a profound ambivalence. I felt mothering took me away from writing, and vice versa, and so I always felt I was away from something important. Some time passed and it occurred to me to accept that ambivalence, instead of trying to overcome it. I thought: I’m going to turn my ambivalence into a source of strength–an advantage, like ambidexterity.
Now, a few years later, I’m pretty ambidexterous–enough that I’ve made it past the trailhead. More than that: I’m adjusting to the altitude. I’ve begun the ascent and my legs and lungs have found a rhythm (though I’ll admit the pace isn’t always comfortable).
So here’s the revelation, nearly five years in: for me, writing and motherhood are thesame mountain.
What a revelation! A metaphor I will spend a lifetime changing, adjusting. A mountain I hope to spend a lifetime climbing.
The other thing I’ve really taken to heart about Neil Gaiman’s talk is this idea of sending out a hundred bottles for every one or two you get back: the idea that as a writer you don’t actually want to get back every message-in-a-bottle that you cast into the sea. Otherwise, you become, as Gaiman says, instead of a writer, someone who “professionally replies to email.” Ouch.
I really get this. For the past several months I’ve been feeling the fatigue of over-extension in too many directions. Most of them very good directions. But, to return to the mountain metaphor, well, I want to make sure I’m not changing direction so often I’m just walking around in circles.
So all that brings me to this blog. I’ve been ambivalent about this blog! I’ve loved it, and I’ve wondered whether the time I spend on it isn’t a direct suck from energy I might put into “my own work.” Lately, I’ve been wishing to retreat, to cultivate my own private thoughts, my inner life–to give myself the space I need to do my own best work.
But this week, my favourite blog went into–and then came out of–hibernation. And I’m reminded how much we need community, whatever it looks like.
A blog post is a message in a bottle for the 21st century. A blog is perhaps the most visible site of that complicated collapse of community and privacy we are all experiencing, the hallmark of the digital age. And maybe the gift of this confusion of community and privacy (confusion, from the verb con-fused, “to mix together”) is the realization that this division, too, might be a false binary. A site of ambivalence, sure, but one with inherent potential for learned dexterity.
So I’m considering, today, that privacy and community might also be “the same mountain.” As with writing and motherhood, I expect this to be a complicated–even at times painful–negotiation. But I hope it will ultimately be rewarding, like all such work almost always is.
That’s the work of the year ahead. I want to cultivate my inner life, negotiate that boundary between self and other, learn something more about community, about connection, as well as about my own particularity–what I have to bring, to give, to others when I enter community.
So, because I love an extended metaphor, I’ll end with this thought: maybe this is the year I discover this mountain is part of a range.
Here’s the Neil Gaiman talk, in case you’re interesting in listening.
When we were kids, my twin sister and I loved playing with and inventing forms of communication that involved the imagination–the tin can on a string telephone, an ice cream bucket we passed between our bunks as a conveyor of notes (an email prototype). Having a twin, I never suffered for lack of a playmate, and almost always had someone to read my missives and reply. But while my twin sister is still a willing reader for my poems and drafts, even sisters have their limits. Writing is a solitary thing, nor am I the first to notice. But here’s the great thing: sometimes, just when those of us who continue to spend our adult lives hollering into tin cans or tucking notes into ice cream buckets on strings start to think there’s no one at the other end of them, someone hears us and hollers back, or a note shows up in the ice cream bucket (or inbox).
In Banff, nearly a decade ago, I took a walk on a Sunday with a couple of other writers. At the “trailhead,” a white piece of board nailed to a makeshift post bore the words:
A lovely discovery for writers off duty (as if writers ever are). I haven’t forgotten that sign, that trail. And so I find myself thinking this morning of the poorly defined trail. That lovely path of uncertain duration, destination.
This month, life intervenes and little writing (I suspect) will happen. At times like these, I think of the closing lines of David Bergen’s essay in the Pen Canada anthology Writing Life: “There was no writing in those days, but they made the writing that came after possible.”
The only path I can see through March is poorly defined. How will the work happen? Will it happen? A friend wrote recently, “Writing is never really about writing, as we know.”
I hope Bergen’s words and the words of my writer friend will be true of this month, this trail. I trust that, one way or another, they will. After all, I’m still carrying around that water, those rocks, the backs of Gabriella’s hiking boots, those grey skies, the interior life that inhabited me then. How long do we carry the things we carry? Perhaps, for writers, it is until we have figured out what they are for. Until we know how to use them.
Margaret Atwood says, “Novels are about time.” These days I’m trying to teach myself to write a novel. Writing a novel, to me, feels like wrestling with time in a way that other writing doesn’t. It feels like an impossible task–the proverbial octopus with five arms tucked in just as the first begins to make its escape again. And one can’t draft the whole (not even a very rough or poor version of the whole) in a single sitting, or a week of sittings, as one can with a poem or essay. So a novel requires some form of continuity and steadfastness across a great duration of time in quantities it is difficult to sustain while one is also bearing and parenting small children. Not only does it take time to write a novel, and time to read one, but novels are, in some important way, about duration in time (as Atwood says) and also about extension in space–these very human problems. I’ve found trying to write a novel is complicated and difficult in many of the same ways life is complicated and difficult: novel-writing in some way (at least for me) seems to mimic or reproduce the problems of being embodied–of experiencing the world necessarily, as Kant had it, in space and in time.
Of course, we know octopus wrestling is never really about the octopus. My novel-writing problems are peculiar to me in important (and potentially instructive) ways. But even though everyone’s poorly defined trail looks a little different, I’m always on the lookout for models–particularly other mothers of small children writing novels (other mothers of small children doing anything of their own that requires sustained focus, really). I’m willing to find my models anywhere, to learn from anyone. There’s a story of an octopus wrestler of the 1940s named O’Rourke who succeeded where others failed by conspiring to have himself lowered into the water as live bait, staying there until an octopus was “sufficiently wrapped around him,” at which point his partner waiting in the boat above would haul him to the surface.
We all need such partners–those who can tell, even at a distance, our triumphant splashing from our desperate flailing. A writer needs someone at a distance waiting in a boat, ready to haul her out when the moment is called for. Sometimes we have these happy companions available. But inevitably, we will sometimes need to split ourselves apart in space and time and do this for ourselves, dive down and wait above, let the octopus find us and also haul ourselves hard and fast out of the water, in success or in failure.
I think this is wonderfully literal. And I also can’t help but hear it as a metaphor for novel-writing, and also for mothering, and certainly for the attempt to do both in the same life, the same space and time. I love what O’Rourke knew–it’s not that the task is impossible, only one must have the courage to surrender to the inevitability of being overcome by one’s mark, at least for a time. One must be prepared to go beneath the surface, to stay there.
And so, this month I will be off duty, but not off duty–never off duty. I’ll be following this poorly defined trail, looking for the footprints of others who have walked this way, while practicing the crotch hold on my 19 month old.
I came across a two-line poem today, in an anthology I don’t remember requesting from the library (it seems strange that I should have requested it, but here it is: Leading from within: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Lead, Eds. Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner). The poem encapsulates something I want to consider in more depth. Here is how the poem goes:
The entire world is a very narrow bridge
The entire world is a very narrow bridge.
The essential thing is to have no fear at all.
Now, perhaps for you this poem is not especially fear-inspiring. But for me, that’s precisely what it is: equal parts fear and inspiration. I’m terrified of heights, actually, despite being married to someone who has tried earnestly for more than a decade to increase my zone of comfort when it comes to heights (or at least to nudge me firmly into the “zone of proximal development”). Our little family went to Jasper for New Year’s this year, and I said to my partner, Please, not Maligne Canyon or Athabasca Falls this time, and please no middles of lakes. Because, yes, I’m also afraid of falling through the ice. And normally I make an effort. But this time, thinking of our last excursion, the adrenaline shuddering its way through my system for hours afterwards, I didn’t want to. I’m in no mood for the sublime, I said.
So I spent the morning of the first day of 2013 standing on the ice at the edge of Pyramid Lake watching my kids smash snowballs on a protruding rock and getting nervous when my daughter ventured too far out. I don’t think fear, unlike the other emotions , responds all that well to being noticed–or maybe it’s the kind of attention that makes the difference. In any case, I looked up at the top of Pyramid mountain–my partner had climbed to the top with his dad a year or so before we’d met–and I quietly admitted to myself I’d never get brave enough to climb it. Some cross-country skiers stopped to take our picture. I watched them glide away into the distance and thought how beautiful it would be to head off across the lake like that, and how terrifying. No, I’d never do that either.
Thing is, Nachman’s poem makes me want to change my mind. To find my way, if not to the top of Pyramid mountain, at least to the other side of that lake. The other side of all that fear–not just the idiosyncratic phobias but the larger existential wounds the minor fears tug on.
Though perhaps the point is not to get “to the other side” at all, but simply to glide out into it, like the skiers. To set out across the lake, or up the side of the mountain, or onto the narrow bridge, or wherever we want and don’t want to go. Because, God, this world is way more than beautiful: it’s bracingly sublime.
I spent the morning in happy disconnection. But now I’ve heard about Newtown, Connecticut. What can be said? What except be kind. Be kind with a steely resolution. Be kind when it isn’t easy, be kind when it hurts. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to each other out there.
So in answer to my question earlier today (the question I had walking home from my own daughter’s school on what I still thought was an ordinary day), the answer is yes, we need it. The answer, which is another way to say the response, is yes. We need art’s openness to this tormented, spectacular world. We need the will and the heart and the kindness. We need to make art and to reach out for it. We need to have something to give to each other in times like these, when so many hearts are breaking. All our hearts break, are breaking, have broken, will break again. We need the willingness and the resilience to make something of all of this. Art is necessary–even if it isn’t sufficient. It’s part of our responsibility, because we’re here.
Forgive the sermon. Here’s a prayer to go with it, from Paul Simon.
Do we need art? This is the question I found myself thinking about (not rhetorically) as I walked home from dropping my daughter off at preschool this morning, pushing my littlest in our chariot through the snow (we’ve gotten a lot of snow this year). One person who lives between our house and the school only shovels a narrow strip of sidewalk so I have to either go around, into the road, or push my 60 pounds of progeny at a 45 degree angle on one set of wheels through the narrow bit. Not really that big a deal, but I chose to go home through an alley today rather than repeat the morning’s lopsided gesture.
And I had one of those moments in the alley when everything feels exactly like itself, and I felt completely present. Available to the moment. Even the wood grain of the electrical pole seemed distinct and interesting–it was that kind of morning. If you live in Edmonton, you might be familiar with Kari Duke’s winter landscape paintings–that’s the kind of light we had early today. And it was warm enough to let my little guy play in his blue snowsuit and rainbow monkey hat in the snow in our yard for a while before we came inside. I wish I had a picture.
Anyway, about the time I got to the electrical pole, and the spruce just past it, I found myself thinking about whether life needs art, or whether this kind of experience of absolute presence could do. I try to get there, by various methods, as often as I can, but it seems to me that trying doesn’t usually get us all the way. Presence is a gift. (Or, if you want to put it less mystically, it’s not completely under our conscious control).
In any case, it occurred to me in the alley, wondering if life requires art to be meaningful, that what life requires of us is that we make some kind of response. In this sense, art is a form of responsibility.
Not the only form, but an important one, one I value deeply but can imagine getting on without under duress as long as I had certain other things–love, compassion, a sense of shared humanity, the kind of joy that children have which appears spontaneously and without terrible regard for what happened a few moments before. Presence. I keep circling back through these same words and thoughts these days, these months–presence, resilience, response, responsibility, the given. What we can give, and what we can’t. What we can accept. What is unacceptable.
What arrives, what departs, what is too precious to keep to oneself–what can’t be found or if found can’t be held forever, no matter the will for it, the desire.