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Pickle Me This

April 16, 2011

A stop on the Sarah Selecky virtual blog tour (with prizes!)

Sarah Selecky’s writing has been published in The Walrus, Geist Magazine, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly, Event and The Journey Prize Anthology. Her short story collection, This Cake is for the Party, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize, and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award.

Thanks to Sarah for making Pickle Me This a stop on her virtual blog tour. It has been truly lovely having her stop by.

I have taken a leave of absence from Toronto this winter. I’ve been lucky enough to hide myself away in one of my most favourite parts of Ontario: Prince Edward County. For two whole months, I have been house sitting in a beautiful home, all alone, with a big bathtub and a fireplace and a view of the river. There is nothing for me to do here except write.

My plan was to come out here and write every single day. I let all of my students know that I was on sabbatical and I put a hold on my editing and teaching work. I am working on something new – a book about writing – and I was sure that I would be productive and focused while on retreat. I thought that by the end of my time here, I’d have a good chunk of my first draft written.

The truth: I have not written very much while I’ve been on my writing retreat.

When the glittery carnival that was the Scotiabank Giller Prize happened last fall, it was a complete surprise. At first, I thought I could keep up with my regular life, that it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But my days quickly became busy and strange. There wasn’t enough time for me to do Giller stuff and keep my regular life running smoothly. With all the interviews and phone calls that came each day, I could barely keep teaching, let alone do any writing. I started taking Gravol at night so I could sleep (thank you Susan Swan for that advice). Eventually, I succumbed to bi-weekly meltdowns (likely due to the aforementioned sleep deprivation) where I would cry my eyes out for about ten minutes and then get up, wash my face, brush my hair, and answer the phone or go to a cafe for an interview with whatever journalist I had an appointment with that day. I felt like the media could find me everywhere. A television crew spent twelve hours with me one day. My husband took that day off work so he could be in the footage, and then he ended up taking a few more personal days, just to make sure I remembered to eat and drink while I was doing other interviews. He also answered my phone for me and took messages. He made a little clipboard with my schedule on it for each day of the week.

Those autumn weeks were one hundred percent nutso. And amazing.

But I was just so – unprepared for it all. So by the time December came around, I felt depleted, exhausted, and completely out of touch with my family, my friends, and myself. I felt like a soggy orange rind that had been totally juiced – I was just the pulpy skin left over. Now, when I think back to last fall, many of my memories are blurry and unformed, like I wasn’t even there. It was official: I’d hit burnout.

So I packed up my suitcase, my laptop, and a box of books and I moved out to Prince Edward County for this writing retreat.

As I write this, I am watching a pair of swans float in the river just out the window. I realized today that I have only five more days left on retreat.

So, what have I done for the past two months?

I watched the entire Friday Night Lights series on DVD, knitted a purple hat and scarf, learned how to make sauerkraut by hand, finally read a book by Malcom Gladwell, attempted to write a song on the electric piano, wrote long handwritten letters to friends in faraway places, went cross-country skiing on the frozen river, checked my Twitter account, developed an addiction to raw cacao, learned the names of the three species of woodpecker that come to the bird feeder (Hairy, Downy and Pileated), listened to coyotes howling at the Supermoon, took long drives on country roads, stared into the eyes of cows, canoed in the river during the spring thaw, and drank shot glasses of locally-made maple syrup straight up.

Have I wasted my time out here, or what? I’m a writing teacher. Every day in my work, I try to help people develop a daily writing practice. I’m all about commitment to the craft: that’s my thing. I’m supposed to be writing about writing, for crying out loud! So, why didn’t I take my own advice? How can I tell people to write every day, when I don’t even do it myself?

Here’s the thing: I know I’m not going to have the energy to write another book unless I take some serious time off from writing. Not writing is important: it’s restorative. Taking a break from the work is also a part the work. Nobody really talks about that part of being a writer, and I know why they don’t. It’s scary. When I’m writing, I feel plugged in and energized and in sync. But when I’m not writing, I feel out of it. I have the very real fear that I’ll never be able to write anything ever again.  When you look at the stiff, dark branches of trees in the winter, isn’t it hard to imagine those same trees all lush and full of leaves?

But winter happens. Then spring comes.

Yesterday, I sat down and wrote a rough outline for my new book. Five days left to write, and I just sat down and did it. I’m not going to come close to finishing a first draft in five days, but that’s okay, because after taking half a year off, I finally feel like writing again.

Leave a comment, and you will be entered for a giveaway to win a free copy of This Cake Is for the Party. And one lucky person who visits all of the participating blog tour stops will win an e-reader.

21 thoughts on “A stop on the Sarah Selecky virtual blog tour (with prizes!)”

  1. Deborah says:

    Thank you, Sarah, for the post – simple, honest; it charmed me! And I feel such a sense of expectation and even relief as I come to know of young Canadian writers like you and Kerry, and many others, who are carving out a place in Canada’s literary life and being so personally generous in your connections to your readers, the community. It’s brave — thank you!

  2. Carla says:

    Sarah really enjoying reading all your posts on the different blogs…..very interested to read your book.

  3. Aidan says:

    I’ve often fantasized about a little getaway house where I could do nothing but write…I feel certain that I would only let myself down with procrastination. But maybe that’s okay, right?! Congrats, Sarah, on the outline, and being recharged! I’m really enjoying your posts on all your blog stops.

  4. Heidi says:

    I’ve noted a cycle of fallow and flourishing times in my writing life and am gradually learning to trust every part of the process. It’s definitely better than the self-flagellation I used to inflict, scary as it is to not be writing. Thank you for talking about this, for a beautiful and honest post. I’ve just started reading This Cake and it’s pulling me in powerfully.

  5. Kim says:

    I really appreciate the honesty in this post. Yes, writing can be a wonderful, peaceful thing. But it is also draining. I thought that writing wasn’t for me, because I was so in tune with my need to take a step back every once in a while (while everyone continued to say that all real writers write every day!). Maybe I just needed that break too. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I read this with a wistful sigh, thinking how lovely it sounds – the bath, fireplace, view of river. Then realised I already have that – what I never seem to have (and what I am really wistful about) is time to write. It sounds like you are having a well deserved break – sometimes the chance to just unwind and remember who we are when we’re not a writer(or mother/employee/volunteer/friend/daughter…etc) is more important.

  7. Since finishing the Imagining Toronto book I’ve taken a similar hiatus from literary-type writing. In large part this has been due to a very busy teaching schedule and the need to spend time on other kinds of research-related writing.

    But writing has its own season. Your analogy — of lifeless trees bursting suddenly into bloom — is a beautiful one and entirely apt.

    I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t yet read This Cake is for the Party. I’d love to win a copy, though!

  8. JK says:

    Sarah, I think even Coach Taylor would recognize this break was deserved and necessary! Thanks for taking some of your time off writing to pen such a lovely post! I felt a little restored myself just reading it.

  9. Kerry (Ryan) says:

    I’m so heartened to read this post, and during a phase of my own writing life that feels particularly crowded with vague pressures, frantic flailing, lingering worry about what will come next. Thank you Sarah!

  10. Britt Gullick says:

    Love this post (and also really loved This Cake Is For The Party, which was part of my own mini-break from breastfeeding and diaper changing and the tasks of new motherhood). If all anyone ever did was write, then what would one write about? Writing? Any artist has to just walk away from the art and live a little. Almost all of the good ideas I ever had occurred to me in a place other than at a desk in front of a computer. While I agree that writing takes practise and discipline, I think a person is far more likely to find inspiration in the eye of a cow than from a blank computer screen, or while rushing to the next interview. Thanks for a great post!

  11. Julia says:

    Awesome post, Sarah! So honest and beautifully written! (and I love the reference to the woodpeckers… I feel like learning to distinguish and name woodpecker species is a minor feat in and of itself!)

  12. m says:

    This was great. It’s somehow refreshing to read about writers needing a break. As wonderful as creative work is, it is draining. Loving it isn’t enough. You need a time to recharge, especially after the crazed whirlwind of being part of award season.

    My husband won the GG for Drama back in 2002. It was a wonderful, joyous time, but very much exhausting and nowhere near the madness that the Giller is!

    I haven’t picked up The Cake is for the Party and would love very much to have my own copy. Fingers crossed!

  13. Jen says:

    Good for you! I have my best ideas & creative thoughts when I unplug from deadlines & forced creativity (“Okay brain….I am going to write something brilliant….now…..no…now”). Thank you for your continued blig updates!

  14. Julie says:

    Great post Sarah! It is so refreshing to hear from a writer that taking a break when needed is just as necessary as developing a writing habit.

  15. Semido says:

    I completely agree with what she is saying here: sometimes writing too much – and even the external things that come along – can become ‘creatively taxing’.
    You can’t force writing, you can’t force creativity.

    PS – that shot of maple syrup sounds interesting!

  16. Kerry says:

    (So grateful to Sarah for this gorgeous piece, and to everyone for these thoughtful comments.)

  17. Sarah says:

    Thank you everyone for reading, and for these lovely, careful comments. It was such a pleasure for me to read your thoughts on this! Yours in creative rest, Sarah xo

  18. Denice says:

    I am not a writer but totally get where you are coming from. I have spent the last three and a half years training to be a counsellor. I have only one paper left. At the end of last year I completed the required number of hours for my practicum. I have spent the last three months doing anything but counselling. For the first month I felt pretty much cabbaged. I had no choice but to listen to my body. Through my experience I have come to appreciate and value the idea of creating space to be me. In the last three months I have put that idea into practice and it feels wonderful. I am beginning to remember what it feels like to be energised and interested in the world I inhabit.

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