A few paths up the same mountain

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 the same mountain. A metaphor I will spend a lifetime changing, adjusting. A mountain I hope to spend a lifetime climbing.

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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.

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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.

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