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Pickle Me This

August 29, 2016

The Art of Blogging begins again…

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My very favourite part of my blogging course is week 6ish when we talk about what blogging has to do with cake, getting lost, Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty, and hope in the darkness. If you care to take a crash course, you can do so here, but if you feel like joining us, I’m pleased to let you know that The Art of Blogging starts on October 3 and runs until the end of November at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. You can register now, and I do hope some of you can make it.

Register online.

July 28, 2016

Against Christmas in July

I took this photo at the farmers' market. Yesterday.

I took this photo at the farmers’ market. Yesterday.

“I think maybe I should quit trying to teach people about blogging,” I said to my husband yesterday. “I think I’m no longer qualified.” Instead of qualified, I’m become a curmudgeon, ruing change and despairing at the form. And what had brought all this on was a theme in my various social media feeds this week, bloggers being invited to attend holiday season previews for various companies and brands. In the magazine world this is certainly a thing, I understand, because magazine people are perpetually living six months in the future. But with blogs, surely with blogs, surely it would be different. The very point of blogs being their immediacy, what they tell us about life as it is being lived, about the moment. Right now.

Right now where I sit, temperatures are in the high twenties. Birds are chirping. I’m listening to cicadas buzzing. It is definitively not Christmas.

I am fully aware of the fact that I am something of a blogging luddite. I’ve made futile attempts to monetize my blog, but my heart isn’t in it. I can’t think of a way of monetizing my blog that wouldn’t compromise my practice. The point of my blog is that I like doing it, and that is reward enough for me. The point of my blog has never been to “work with brands” because I think that’s weird, but then I think a lot of things are weird that plenty of perfectly respectable reasonable people find totally normal (like shopping at Costco) so my own priorities might just be a bit skewed. But they are what they are, and the point of my blog is that they reflect this, that I write posts like this to make sense of the things in the world that flummox me, and a handful of dedicated readers continue to keep reading.

The very best thing about blogs, of course, as I tell people every time I teach a course or workshop, is that they can be anything. The elasticity of the form and capacity for evolution is why they still matter after 20 years, and so for me to declare that anybody is doing blogging wrong is totally stupid. (Especially when those bloggers probably receive far more traffic than I do, and hopefully get compensated for their labours beyond pastries consumed at industry events or shoe samples.) But I do wonder if the blogger mightn’t take heed and consider the nature of her project, what she’s getting out of it exactly, when she’s blogging about holly wreaths with the humidex in the high forties. Who is she serving exactly?

But then what do I know. I can’t even bear advance copies of new books. Summer books arriving in March, and I don’t want to read them then. Being an industry insider is all fine and well, but I want to be a reader. I want to read the books when everyone else does, to share in online enthusiasms, to write about the book while it’s fresh in my mind. For me, this is the very point of my blog, and of blogging.

Not tinsel. Not now.

Not when there’s so much to say about summer sun.

June 16, 2016

On Process, and Progress, and Living in the World

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When Princess Diana died in 1997, I was on Weight Watchers and watched the funeral coverage for hours at a time whilst weeping and riding an exercise bike. I know that feeling things is very important, but will forever be grateful that I ended up married to an English person who taught me the value of composure. Remember how Joni Mitchell taught Emma Thompson in Love Actually how to feel? It was my cold hearted English husband who taught me the opposite, how not to spend weeks at a time weeping on an exercise bike over the death of a stranger. That drama comes around in time, and we don’t necessarily have to go out and court it. (While I am only being partly sardonic here, full disclosure necessitates that my husband’s is the warmest heart I know. I also know that learning to feel for many people is a ticket to sanity, but for me, some restraint was certainly in order. For most of us anyway, it ends up being a balance.)

Which doesn’t entirely relate to my next point, but alas. Which is that this has been the most distressing week I’ve encountered in a a long time, a cumulation of world events and my hormones, I’m sure, but I feel the weight of it all in a way I’m usually more adept at shouldering. Orlando, Stanford rapists, UofT’s lockdown, so much hatred and anger. Also, and this sounds shallow but it’s not, Instagram is ruined for me, changed in the last few days, and now full of ads and posts not in order, and I miss its goodness, the immediacy of the engagement. I really have found Instagram good for the soul, and feel like I’ve lost something. I’ve been driven back to Twitter, which is not good for the soul, although I actually had tears spring into my eyes this morning when I saw #OCanada trending and learned that MPs had in fact changed the lyrics to our national anthem, against the fervent efforts of many to uphold the supposed inclusiveness of the word “sons.” (Possibly yes, “sons” was a general term, back when women had no status, and the language reflected that. Further, “all our sons command” was not even the original lyric, so it’s not like historical preservation is order of the day. I taught my daughter to sing “in all of US” when she was very small, because she is a daughter and nobody’s son, and I think that if we continue to insist that things a national anthem matter, then at least we should make its lyrics meaningful.)

Anyway, when I clicked on the trending term, I found one woman declaring that she will never sing the gender inclusive Oh Canada. “Why not?” I asked her, because the resistance is baffling to me. She explained that she is “not one to bend or sway” (why is rigidity a virtue, I ask myself again and again. What kind of a person never entertains the notion of changing her mind?) when someone finds something offensive and also that the “son” in the lyric is actually Jesus, and we can’t “gender neutralize” him. And I just really didn’t know where to go from there. Her argument is founded on not only nonsense (surely we are not commanding “true patriot love” from Jesus; I’m not sure we’re meant to command anything from Jesus at all, never mind, why is Jesus in our national anthem anyway, except he’s not) but a rejected stand against empathy (refusing to try to understand when someone is bothered by something she’s okay with, to see that another point of view might be as worth considering as her own, even if it’s a different one). Anyway, it’s exhausting. She can sing her song and I’ll sing mine, but it’s worth noting that I was curious about understanding her point of view while she was categorizing the people calling for the lyric change as “wimps.” Which is pretty much where we left things.

And then I read that British MP Jo Cox had been critically injured by someone reportedly shouting slogans regarding the British referendum. And when I heard about that, it took me back to my post from Monday about politicians spouting divisive and dangerous rhetoric with so little regard about the license their words gives some unstable people in our society to go out and commit horrifying acts of violence. I also read Jia Tolentino’s interview with a woman who has recently had an abortion at 32 weeks, a really sad, hard read but an essential one, particular for those people who have no idea what the reality is behind “late term abortion.” As I tweeted afterwards, I am so grateful for these women who share their sad and terrible stories, and I am so sorry they have to and are not left alone to grieve their tragedies. That these woman must make themselves so incredibly vulnerable to prove a point to people who are completely ignorant and full of hatred. It is very easy for women like me to share our simple, painless and uncomplicated stories of abortion, and I only continue to do so because life is rarely so simple or complicated, as Tolentio’s piece makes clear. The most tremendous part of the interview is when the woman says: “Like it or not, all of our rights are intertwined. Maybe there’s some woman who has had four abortions and maybe that feels really wrong to you. But my rights are wrapped up with hers, so I have to fight like fuck for her to have as many as she wants—not just for her sake, but for mine, too.”

I hate that there are people making this, people’s pain, into a fight. We’ve all got better things to do than fight. We’ve got lives to live. And now Jo Cox has died, which is so devastating, all that it stands for, especially in terms of women in politics. I can’t stop making everything about gender, because everything is about gender.

There was a story in the news this morning about a Catholic school trustee who has finally around to the province’s new sec-ed curriculum after a revelation that her own son had been abused as a child, that perhaps it is necessary to reframe the way that sex and sexuality are discussed. While it is irritating once again to have somebody celebrated for realizing what seems blatantly obvious to many of us (see Tabatha Southey on Michael Coren), I think it’s good when a public figure is celebrated rather than denigrated for changing her mind (which is not to say that changing one’s mind puts one above scrutiny. I still think it’s rather too convenient when a politician rejects a previously controversial stance, and wonder why we’d want anybody in power who’d ever held those views).

This is, the changing of minds, is of course, the thing called progress, which is not as simple as I once thought it was—an arrow pointing forward, things getting better and better. The last fifteen years have certainly underlined that this is not the case, and that progress is not our inevitable direction. “Progressivism” isn’t even really a thing, as it is peopled by people who seems to understand themselves as its embodiment and are unaware that their own progress too has to be part of the process. It’s a process of self-examination, of being open to changing, to growing, to learning something new. It’s about bending and swaying, and learning from each other, learning how to work together. It’s collaborative, but it’s also not meaningful unless it’s intensely personal. The line that struck me from the Guardian’s Jo Cox editorial: “What nobler vision can there be than that of a society where people can be comfortable in their difference?”

I have learned so much about the world by thinking hard about blogging, and that last point makes me think about what May Friedman writes about the blogosphere(s) as a radical space “because of the implications of all these narratives coexisting, and the endless unspooling dialogue that therefore emerges.” Blogging too has taught me about how to embrace process rather than looking to an endpoint, because the complexity of the world means that progress is never fixed, that it’s not a place to arrive at. Instead it is the way that we figure out how to travel through.

May 4, 2016

No big scheme

IMG_20160503_191746It’s interesting to me how social media has changed the way I blog. I use Twitter to share other people’s stories, whereas I used to collect these in link round-ups here, and Instagram to capture moments of domestic mundanity thereby rendering them a little less mundane (which is arguable, of course. And I still take care to keep it pretty mundane around here too). Instagram is also a good place to tell my own stories, but it takes me ages to type on my phone so I do less of this. An exception is the story of slut sign, which I shared last night, but it got a really nice response. Anyway, maybe it’s clearer to say that social media hasn’t changed the way I blog, it just has had me spreading my blogging wider, across platforms. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook—it’s blogging, all of it. (But what about Snapchat? I don’t know. A blogger can only spread herself so wide.)

Which brings me to this article about the end of the blog, Bookslut, which was one of the first book blogs I read years ago when my blog wasn’t a book blog and I could only dream of such a thing, along with other bloggers like Lizzie Skurnick and Maud Newton. The interview is so candid, smart and pointed, and embodies so many of my own ideas about blogging and its inherent wildness (and messiness!) and the fact that blogs and making money were never ever compatible (and that if you’re making money with your blog, it’s probably ceased to be a blog) and that blogging in search of a book deal is a sad sad pursuit and an insult to the form.

Anyway, I already shared the article on Twitter, but I want to share it here too, along with some of my favourite bits:

  • “Well, the only reason why Bookslut was interesting was because it didn’t make money, and when I realized the sacrifices I was going to have to make in order for it to make money, it wasn’t worth it.”
  • ” There was no big idea, no big scheme. I just wanted to talk about books with my friends.”
  • “There’s always space to do whatever you want. You won’t get as much attention, but fuck attention. Fight for integrity.”

Now go and read the whole thing. 

April 18, 2016

In Praise of Messy Blogging

IMG_20160417_093145I have started unfollowing all the people on Instagram whose corporeal selves are represented sole by a pair of legs. Not necessarily because it’s repetitive, because certainly they change up their knee socks and stripy tights, but because it’s just weird. How are we to know that these people are not (part of) an octopus? How much do you ever know a person when you know her only from the mid-thigh down? And what are these disembodied limbs (that are not entirely distinct from the kind you’d find at a crime scene, albeit a carefully arranged, colour-coded crime scene with impeccable lighting) telling us about the way that people are decided to construct their selves online?

I’ve been thinking about writing this blog post since reading Melanie’s Instagram post on social-media burnout a few weeks ago. She’d been contacted by someone wondering why she didn’t separate her bookish Instagram posts from ones related to her personal life, her family and her health, and become “a real bookstagrammer.” It’s advice I find so baffling as someone who’s been sharing my life online for nearly sixteen years, as well as reading about other people’s lives. Because for me, these windows into other people’s worlds has always been the most remarkable thing about web 2.0 and beyond it. In the very best book blogs, it’s not necessarily the reviews themselves that are so compelling, but what they tell us about the person who is writing them, and how the books fit into the larger narrative of the writer’s life. And I end up having a better understanding of where the writer is coming from and how their reviews work because I’ve read the posts in between (and between their lines even) and have a sense of who these people really are.

IMG_20160417_104717Partly this is a question of medium, of course, of platform. Superficially, old school blogs and Instagram are different, though I would argue that the latter is definitely informed by the former. And because there is no character limit on captions, Instagram has the same potential for in-depth posts which is followed up by the kind of community engagement we haven’t really seen on blogs for about a decade. But there is not the same sense of ownership of an Instagram account that one has of a blog, a “homepage,” and more of a tendency toward conformity and memes. With the immediacy of Instagram, it’s simplest to learn how it’s done by watching others. The community connections resulting from hashtags and memes are as such that Instagrammers are less inclined to operate beyond the lines of wider experience. Blogging was about being on the margins; Instagram is about being central. And of course, the platform is image-driven, and so how things look will always take priority over how things really are.

For me, a blog has always been a little bit like a selfie. (I don’t mean this in a bad way. Selfies are wonderful. Nothing tells a story like the human face, though it’s true that a little less duckface would go a long way.) This was the case even back when I started blogging, when platforms didn’t support images and no one’s phone even had a camera. The appeal of the blog has always been its human face, even with blogs as divergent as those lists of links that were essentially internet filters or those that functioned as online diaries. Whatever the material and how it was presented, a blog gave the reader a sense of the human being that was behind it. (Now whether that human being was an accurate representation of its writer is another story; I also love May Friedman’s suggestion that a person being about to construct their own online identity is not particularly a bad thing.)

IMG_20160418_194059Sometimes I get the sense that Instagram is about obscuring the humanness though. Pip Lincolne has written a terrific post about virtuous intentions and true character—that one is about becoming while the other is about simply being. She posits that true character is less easily displayed through visuals and more likely to be found on Twitter or long-form blogs, while Instagram is the ideal platform for these people striving to be their best selves. Which can be kind of crazy-making. Which can have the effect of reducing a person to a pair of limbs, because everything else is too complicated.

(I love Instagram. Have I made that clear? It enriches my life exponentially, and has connected me with amazing people, and inspires me immensely. It highlights that beauty is everywhere, even in the most curious corners. I also find it fascinating that Instagram, like blogging, is impossible to generalize about. For every pair of legs, there is a girl tight pants doing complex yoga poses on the beach or posing in the bathroom mirror showing off her fantastic outfit. I love the radicalness of Instagram accounts that give fat women or non-binary people the chance to construct their identities and be seen. And if the human face is what I’m looking for, there are many Instagram accounts that feature nothing but…though these accounts come with their own questions and complications.)

IMG_20160413_203419Blogging is about process. This is what I tell my students, and for many of them their biggest challenges involve overcoming notions of perfectionism and letting their unpolished selves show, using a blog post as a kind of working-though (which is what I am doing right now). But Instagram, and more visual-driven blogs, are about results. It’s about polished veneers and flawless skin tones. There’s less room for nuance, for delving into the realities of being, warts and all. Instead, there’s just a photo of a wart. And who would ever want to look at that? And now it seems I’m getting confusing because if blogging is about process, then isn’t that the “becoming” that I connected with Instagram two paragraphs back? What’s the difference between becoming and process? But I think the distinction is that with blogging, process itself is a way of being. It’s accepting life itself as a work-in-progress, and the destination is never ever the point. (Arriving at your destination, of course, would only mean that you’ve finished blogging; it would only mean that you’re dead.)

In blogging, process means showing your work and necessitates a bit of a mess. You’ve got to be a bit vulnerable, which goes against all the general advice these days about building a brand online. But the reasons for not positioning oneself as an online guru are tenfold, least among them that you’re totally lying (and if you weren’t, you’d probably have a platform that wasn’t a blog), although ultimately it’s just not sustainable. As I explain in my blogging course, if you’re writing only about those things on which you’re an expert, you’re probably limiting yourself, whereas if you’re willing to explore all you don’t know, the possibilities are infinite. It also means that if you’re making your online project an act of discovery, you’re getting something out of it beyond the (likely) pennies of ad revenue coming your way. Anyone who has ever read a novel too knows that discovery is so much more interesting to read about than somebody who knows everything already.

I also think that the pressure to know everything and be everything all the time is a lot to put on a human being, one who is doing unpaid work at that. And that allowing that human to be human is healthy and therapeutic. When a person is feeling lost and alone, there is nothing more heartening than learning there is somebody else out there who’s been there, who understands…the amazing miracle of human connection that has always been the best part of blogs anyway.

IMG_20160326_125202Letting humans be human then means that a person is not simply a pair of legs, or only a bookstagrammer. But rather that a person is a bookstragrammer with an actual life of which bookstagramming is simply a facet, and there are also friends and family, an interest in wildflowers and bundt cake, messy bedside bookstacks, children with dirty faces, an obsession with The Bachelor and Little House on the Prairie fan fiction—do you know what I am saying? Also, when you’re scrolling through photo after photo of impeccably arranged books on tea trays with sprigs from the garden and an artful jug against a painted wooden floor, don’t your eyes kind of glaze over?

Hybridization is the best thing that blogs have on their side—in terms of form and technology. And I am convinced the same can be true of content, no matter who’s out there persuading others to becoming “real bookstagrammers”. And who, by the way, are the people doing that kind of persuading? I do suspect their marketers looking for the peddling of their own wares, and it’s far more simpler and salubrious to have your products marketed (without pay, no less) by people who have no human foibles and are wart-free. It also makes me sad that there are people living who’ve never known a time in which the central experiences of being online were not selling stuff and being sold stuff. In the words of Bonnie Stewart, “forget agency and voices and relationships. if you are using your network solely to sell the message of a corporate entity, what you are doing is NOT social media, no matter your platform. what you’re doing is at best a marketing job, and more likely something akin to Amway.”

I am hopeful though. I’ve been noticing a trend among Instagrammers to show their faces once in a while, with various hashtags attached to this, latching onto some kind of meme, and positing the whole thing like some kind of revelation. With these big reveals too have come some genuinely fascinating insights: one woman explained that she’s been dealing with a debilitating skin ailment for the past while and she’s been terrified to show what she really looks like. Another reviewed the new book, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, and wrote about being fat, something she’d never dealt with in her blog before and which never been clear in her carefully positioned photos. And I can’t help but think how liberating it must have felt to finally admit these things, to own one’s imperfections, to put these things out there for everyone to see and discover that the world still likes you anyway. And for readers I am sure these posts were most remarkable too; certainly here I am still thinking about them weeks later.

March 29, 2016

Someone put a photo of a craft I did on Pinterest

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I suppose I was expecting something more transformative. You know, that I’d turn into Gwyneth Paltrow, or be a mermaid, and have organized spice jars at the very least, but there was none of that. At the end of it all, I was still only me, and I still had to empty potties and make lunches and try to stuff my weird three-years-post-c-section stomach inside a humble pair of pants every morning. My kids didn’t care what had happened—to them, I was still their mom. My husband was happy for me, but it didn’t exactly reframe his perception of my place in the world (i.e. put me behind the frame of a recycled vintage window from a farmhouse or something made out of birch twigs). And all of that was kind of a blessing, really, even if it didn’t seem so at the time, because these are the things that kept me real.

14885707333_20f4d24d15_kIt’s easy to lose touch of what really matters when you live much of your life online, to be duped into aspiring to LIKES and followers above all things. It’s not hard to become the sort of person who screams at small children for knocking the table and upsetting the oh-so-carefully placed scattering sea salt over avocado toast, interrupting the flow of twitter threads, or casting a shadow over a teacup just as you’re about to Instagram it. It’s terribly frustrating to have your five year old go into hysterics because you’re adamant about refusing to Instagram their artwork, which is actually a toilet paper roll tube scotched taped to the phone bill. “Do it, Mommy! Instagram it,” they insist, no matter how patiently you explain that aesthetically it’s just not consistent with your brand, even if the paper phone bills suggests a vintage vibe that you’ve been trying to cultivate. You tell them, “Honey, you don’t even know what an Instagram is. It’s a noun, not a verb, and it comes with a whole lot of impedimenta, with ramifications you’ve not even begun to glimpse at your age.” Serious adult matters. You start to explain about the new algorithm, and requiring followers to turn on notifications, and by the time you’ve stopped speaking, the child has put himself to bed. So there is that. It’s easy to get thrown off course.

6851755809_85cf31347e_oBut some of it matters, it does, so you really can’t blame me for carrying myself differently after the fact: holding my head a bit higher, swinging my hair from side to side. People started commenting on my glow, and that wasn’t all due to goddess bowls and kale smoothies. I started thinking a whole lot more than usual about doing handstands on beaches and antique birdcages. About wicker. I wanted to install a chair that hung from the ceiling, fill the floor with throw cushions, and wear glasses in order to look serious. My hair in a bun secured with two pencils. Or chopsticks. Wooden floors with well-worn paint. Creative ideas for nail art.

It’s different now, from when I used to pursue these things for leisure. The stakes are higher and I claim it on my taxes. I’ve published an e-book, twelve pages long but who’s counting? I’ve got a social media strategies e-course available on my blog, and the testimonials are amazing. And for a long time I’ve been grappling with an advanced case of Imposter Syndrome (in both lungs, no less), carrying on as best I could, but nonetheless afflicted. But no more. I once was blind, but now I see. And what exactly do I see?

Only that somebody went and put a photo of a goddamn craft I did on mother-rucking Pinterest. 

IMG_8917A craft. On Pinterest. Me! Me, who tried to glue a cotton ball to a pinecone on Sunday in order to make an Easter Bunny on my mother’s porch, but the glue wouldn’t stick so I turned the whole thing into a game of, “Can You Throw A Sticky Pinecone Into Traffic?” (and I could, in case you were wondering). Me who invented the party game, “Disappointing Pass the Parcel,” the parcel packed with citrus fruit (and the one at the end received a lemon). At every birthday party my children have ever had, we’ve tied pipe cleaners stuck with styrofoam balls to cheap plastic headbands, which has suited every party theme that I can think of (Aliens! Insects! DIY Radio Transmitters!). I honestly thought I’d gone as far in my life as I was meant to go.

But this. Saved to a page called Library Craft Ideas 3. I once made a dollhouse out of a shoebox and now it’s up there for the whole world to see, alongside peg dolls, repurposed lightbulb air balloons, and a rocket made from a paper towel roll. Egg cartons spiders, FTW.

I’ve published a book, created actual humans inside my body, and wrote a letter to the Prime Minister in 1988 imploring him to save the pandas, but none of that means anything in light of my latest achievement unlocked. Somebody put a photo of a goddamn craft I did on Pinterest, which makes me officially the person I always wanted to be.

March 22, 2016

Blogs to Watch

IMG_20160322_130809Since writing about blogs and blogrolls last fall, I’ve returned to being avid about blog reading, using my Protopage reader to keep track of blogs I love and ever looking forward to updates. And happily, I’ve been adding new blogs to it, revelling in the writing and inspiration, in the serendipity of experience and connections made. Here are three to watch out for:

  • Homeward Odyssey, by Christine Nielsen: Christine was a student in my blogging course last fall, and I’m so pleased that she’s continued blogging into the new year. After years of travelling the world via her career in journalism, Christine is becoming preoccupied with notions of home. Her writing is wonderful, and each of her posts is its own journey, rich with twists and turns and unexpected astonishments.
  • Creative Critique, by Margrit Talpalaru: I know Margrit from Twitter and her blog is brand new, and while usually I’d wait a bit to make sure a blog has legs before jumping on the bandwagon (for do you know how many abandoned blogs litter our internet?), I want to spread the word about this one in the hopes that an audience will inspire her to keep going. Posts so far are about hair and running, and they’re terrific.
  • The Huron Playschool Blog: Our playschool has started a blog to increase the visibility of our website and our programs, and I am excited to be tasked with keeping it because our school has a really great history (nearly 50 years long) well linked with our city and amazing neighbourhood, as well as a great community and excellent programs, and it will be nothing short of fun to write about it all. Hope you’ll check in once in a while!

December 11, 2015

The Places I’ve Been

IMG_20151208_145301The best news is that I’m finally getting better, and I’ve even been to a place lately that isn’t my bed—last night I ventured out to Harriet’s holiday concert to hear her sing in the Primary Choir. This weekend, we’re planning to hang up the Christmas bunting, and the plan is that by mid-next week, I might be up and about in the world again. But until then, and even after, we’ll be taking it slow. The nice thing about the Christmas holiday is that it’s a perfect time to have that happen.

But other things have been happening as well, perhaps sustaining the illusion that I’ve been more active lately than I actually have been. First, the Winter 2016 issue of U of T Magazine is being mailed out soon, and it includes a short piece I wrote about the curious trajectory of my life in blogging. I wrote about how I started blogging at a point when blogs were poised to take over the world, which never quite happened, but for me (and for many others) blogging has played an enormous role in my career and evolution as a writer and a person, even. Blogging has sustained me during periods of high and lows, and through the throes of literary disappointment, and it’s now integral to my process—so much so that my forthcoming novel is about the secret life of a blogger. I was really grateful for the opportunity to write this article, and you can read it online here.

For Understorey Magazine, I got to be part of a conversation with Ali Bryan, Alice Burdick, Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Natalie Corbett Sampson, Natalie Meisner, Shalan Joudry, and Sylvia D. Hamilton about whether it’s possible to be both a mother and a writer at once. (Spoiler: I say YES). There’s lots of great advice, stories and wisdom from women who’ve been there, and I love the effect of so many voices together. I love this line from Sampson: “Shutting the world and your experience out in a ‘no diversion’ and ‘no intrusion’ approach leaves you open to missing things that can be shaped into stories. ” Naturally, I encourage women to let their children watch Annie all summer long in order to get that novel written, which worked for me. Read the whole thing here.

And finally, I took part in a very fun conversation with Corey Redekop about what happens when a wonderful writer turns out to be a terrible human being. Examining my own bookshelves, I really couldn’t find a single horrible human being among them. My authors are mainly crotchety old women, which many people construe with horrible human beinghood, but crotchetiness is these writers’ entitlement, I think. I love them better for it. Anyway, we talked about whether being an asshole was a male writer thing, I refer to Barbara Pym’s Nazi sympathies, we discuss what red lines are for us as readers (not Nazi sympathies, apparently…) and what if Rush Limbaugh was authoring the next The Phantom Tollbooth. You can read it all here.

See? I have been busy.

November 17, 2015

The Principles of Imperfectionism, and its Inherent Contradictions

IMG_20150828_151617Truthfully, I have little patience with notions of perfectionism. Partly, this is because I’m so far from perfect that I’m envious of anyone who could purport to such an affliction, but also because most perfectionists aren’t enacting perfection in the slightest, but rather using it as an excuse for artistic paralysis. Which I always take as kind of a slight, like those people who’d write if they only had the time—”I’d like to do what you do, but I can’t because I have much higher standards for my artistic output than ordinary mortals.”

In my blogging course, I encourage my students to eschew perfectionism. There is no place for perfectionists in the blogosphere. Blogs are inherently raw, wild and unpolished. The important thing is to write the best you can, get to Publish, and then onto the next post. There will be spelling errors, and sloppy grammar, and things will be formatted weird. You’ll get facts wrong, and often you will change your mind. (Ideally, you should always be changing your mind—or at least entertaining the possibility. The resolute blogger will quickly learn that he is ridiculously low on material.) But no matter. For the blogger should not get hung up on these things, instead remaining forward-facing,  putting one post in front of the other, ideally getting better and better at blogging all the time. The journey the very point, you see, because the blogger never ever arrives.

I mean this literally, in one sense. A blog, like a life, is inherently a work-in-progress. Being done is being dead. But also because blogging itself is not a path that leads to somewhere. Although it can be—we all know the examples of bloggers who’ve quit their day jobs and now live off the fruit of their blogging labours (although that’s a path with its own curious trajectories). Certainly blogging has delivered me tremendous rewards, not least of which are (recently) lupine seeds and other surprise parcels in the post from kind readers. And also contacts and experience that have led to professional gigs, and it’s true that I have blogging 100% to thank for your pretty solid writing career at the moment. But note this: my blog worked as a tool (a path to somewhere) because I wasn’t deliberately trying to make it so. I was blogging for blogging’s sake, rather than to write my way to somewhere better, and that I actually managed to get anywhere at all is kind of incidental. It’s the blog that I keep returning to anyway. Warts and all. It will never be perfect, and I will never be done.

bigmagic-197x300I’m comfortable with all this, so much so that I’m so looking forward to speaking on a panel about mistakes on Sunday at Draft 11.1. But then yesterday, while walking down the street, I had a devastating revelation. Which involves Rohan Maitzen’s review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic. Now, keep in mind that I’m Elizabeth Gilbert-agnostic. I’ve never read a single thing she wrote, but I AM an avid Rohan Maitzen fan. And I loved her smart and thoughtful review of Gilbert’s book on creativity. She’s clear about the book’s strengths (“Gilbert’s advice to just get on with it, without excuses or apologies, is rousing”), its wackiness (the part where Ann Patchett steals her book idea by osmosis?), and, yes, its unrelenting banality. But the big problem Maitzen stumbles upon is Elizabeth Gilbert on the topic of perfectionism, which, she says, is just a manifestation of fear:

 “Done is better than good,” [Gilbert] proclaims; “you may want your work to be perfect …. I just want mine to be finished.” Don’t bother interrupting what she proudly calls “the Song of the Disciplined Half-Ass” with cavils about aspiring to excellence: it turns out that along with the all-purpose permission slip she offers us comes an injunction against judgment or evaluation. And that’s where, for me, Gilbert loses her magic.

And this is what stopped me, as I was walking down the street. Because I too am a disciplined half-ass, although I haven’t written an actual song about it yet (and once I get around to it, the song will probably be a bit crap. And I won’t care). So am I basically Elizabeth Gilbert after all, but just not rich or successful, or generating Ann Patchett novel ideas? And the reason why this matters is because the very best part of Maitzen’s really excellent review is when she recalls recently reviewing Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things. The novel that, Gilbert writes in Big Magic, is decidedly imperfect (including, in her words, “an unfortunately underdeveloped character”) but which she decided was “good enough.” The novel that Maitzen sat down, read, and spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about in order to write her review (which was, shall we say, mixed). Maitzen writes:

I suppose on balance, then, mine was one of the “bad reviews,” but I certainly didn’t toss off my opinions lightly before moving on. I assumed Gilbert had put everything she had into her novel and that it was my responsibility to take her writing seriously in return—to read and think as hard as I was capable of, and then to be scrupulous in reporting my conclusions. It never occurred to me to approach The Signature of All Things as a novel that wasn’t intended to be anything more than “good enough.” I’m not sure I know how—or even whether—to review work by a self-proclaimed “half-ass” … but here I am, doing it again.

Here is the flaw in that great liberator, imperfectionism, then: because do you know how many hours it takes to read a book? Moreover, do you know the value of a dollar, or twenty, or thirty of them? And so how dare to any of us expect a reader to make that investment if the work that you’ve produced is not the very best it could be. (This is my big complaint about self-published books too. The number of self-pub’d books I’ve read that aren’t conspicuously imperfect is less than a handful. This is even more the case with e-books, which can be put into the world so rapidly. It drives me crazy when I hear about authors rewriting/editing versions of their books after I’ve actually bought them and read them—could I have my time and my money back please?)

So here I’ve come full circle. And spent the hours since my revelation in the street trying to reconcile my philosophy of imperfectionism with my aversion to bad books. And my conclusion this: eschewing perfectionism is about getting out the draft. And it makes sense in blogging, because a blog is only ever just a draft—certainly, if you’re going back over your posts and ever polishing and changing, what you’re doing isn’t really blogging (which is raw and wild, remember?). Or sustainable. And this is why blogging is useful for a writer, because it’s practicing the habit of putting your ideas into words, one word after another, which is the same way you write a draft of a novel after all. A draft that is rarely going to be wonderful (although who hasn’t dreamed of the editor snapping up your first draft, saying, “There! You’re a genius. This is done.” So easy!). The draft is your chance to go wild, trip up, make a mess, and experiment. To see what happens next.

And after that is where the work comes in. Where the perfectionist’s tendencies come to be advantageous, and the best part is that no one even expects you to do it all on your own. When you get back to your manuscript, and—with the help of a few good editors—make it the most perfect book it can be. Which you’re always going to fail at, but you’re a blogger, well-versed at and most comfortable with imperfection anyway.

November 10, 2015

Blogroll, Please?

davenport-sunsetI’m more than halfway through teaching The Art of Blogging at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies again, and once more finding the experience inspiring and incredibly enjoyable. But unnerving also, because the world of blogs is ever-changing, shifting ground beneath my feet. It’s like what May Friedman writes about in her book on mommyblogs: “In trying to form conclusions about mommybloggers—and about mothers—I am reminded of my children attempting to jump upon their own shadows: I am attempting to trap an essentially untrappable form of knowledge.”

Which means that trying to teach someone what a blog is, let alone how to make one, is faintly preposterous. And that the blogosphere(s) I taught my students about in 2011 is a very different world than the one we’re addressing right now in 2015. (As Ferris once said, things move pretty fast.) This occurred to me a couple of weeks ago as I found myself once again telling my students that a blogroll is a nice way to situate oneself within a wider community online and otherwise, to attract traffic (via bloggers checking out their incoming links), and to give your reader suggestions for other places online they might like to visit. “Of course,” I added in a caveat. “These are becoming less and less common.” I think I also mentioned that they’re incredibly annoying to keep up to date.

And then a day or two later, my friend Rebecca Rosenblum wrote about blogrolls on her own blog (which is, obviously, on my blogroll). She’d just gone to the trouble of updating hers after ages and ages. “As I say,” she writes, “no one clicks on these links and I doubt anyone will now.”And it’s true. In fact, nobody really reads blogs anyway, or at least not the way they used to when one might have clicked through someone’s blogroll. (I have actually been blogging for FIFTEEN YEARS  as of last month, and I even remember when there were such things as blog-rings.) “What are the blogs you like to read?” is a question I always ask my students, and they have to search to come up with answers.

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 11.18.55 PM

 

Although it’s not really that no one reads blogs. I think the same number of people read blogs but there are so many blogs that the readership is stretched further. And blogs themselves, as we’re understanding them, are more focussed and less about everything than they were once thought to be. And we come at them more laterally than we once did—I read cooking blogs all the time, but I don’t pay attention to what blogs they are; I’m there for the recipes. People arrive at blogs for specific information. We also show up when directed by social media, and it is rare that interest is sparked enough that a reader will return again and again. Which is not to say that there aren’t blogs with huge followings. Or that blogs like mine don’t have a small but loyal readership (and not just my mom—but, hi mom!). It’s just to say that the way we encounter blogs in 2015 is very different.

Part of this is that many of us are exploring the internet on smaller devices in which much of our experience is personalized, leaving little room for serendipity. Part of it is because we’re so overwhelmed with information online anyway that going out of our ways to seek more would be ridiculous. And also because the platforms from which many of us read blogs have disappeared—I was a devoted used of iGoogle, the personalized homepage on which all my favourite links were organized, until Google killed it in 2013 (because it wasn’t popular anymore, wasn’t relevant to a mobile experience). iGoogle was a like a blogroll outside of a blog, a page I checked every day to see who’d updated their pages, what was happening in the world. Not fashionable, but it was useful, and I really missed it when it was gone. And then I even began to be the kind of person who could have said things like, “I don’t really read blogs,” too.

After trying out a couple of blog-readers that were disappointing, I arrived at Protopage at few months ago, which allowed me to recreate my s0-last-decade personalized homepage experience. And it’s proven wonderful. There are so many excellent blogs out there, and I like knowing where to find them, deliberately seeking them out—every day, even. And in the spirit of the blogroll (and, inspired by Rebecca, I’ve even updated mine—for about five minutes it was current even!) I want to share with you now a few of my favourites that might be worth adding to your own daily or weekly routine:

My friends at the 4Mothers Blog have been reborn as a magazine-style blog called Plenty; Sarah’s Edge of Evening continues to be my favourite blog on earth; my friend Julia has rediscovered her blogging mojo at her birding blog, and I love what she’s been up to lately; my friend Athena’s La Parachute is a directory of delicious and delightful things; “Novel Readings“, a literary blog by Rohan Maitzen, kind person and admirable critic; I love this food blog by Lindy Mechefske, author of new book Sir John’s Table; Girls Gone Child continues to inspire me as a mother and a person and a California dreamer; check out Swimming Holes We Have Known for a blog that’s swimmingly good; I still love Matilda Magtree; and Calm Things; my former student Ann-Marie’s A Dainty Dish, about the intersections between picture books and recipes; and another student, Marina’s blog, full of life, wisdom, exuberance, and Marina-ness; there is Two Purple Figs, a recipe blog by the mother of one of Iris’s classmates; and for Canadian Literature fans, don’t forget the 49thShelf.com blog, which is the blog that pays my bills.

Happy Reading! (And PS, I don’t usually do these end-of-post prompts, but I want to know: what great blogs am I missing?)

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