July 15, 2015
It’s a familiar story: an isolated mother begins sharing stories of her family life, expressing her frustrations with domestic life and the challenges of motherhood. Building a platform out of adversity—she’d been a single mom for a while, had a fraught relationship with her own mother. Largely self-taught, not necessarily ambitious. Hard-working, yes, but credits her success to doors opening by happenstance. Her platform growing to huge audiences, but she’s still not properly respected. She’s telling stories about kids and laundry, after all. But she keeps on telling those stories for nearly three decades, her success bringing with it fame but also certain challenges: what are the ethics of writing about one’s children, one’s family? When you’ve made a career out of telling their stories but their lives are becoming separate from yours, what kids of stories do you tell instead? And how to deal with trolls, online critics out for attack who seem to forget that you’re actually a human being?
It’s a career trajectory not so far removed from that of many popular bloggers, although Lynn Johnston’s began in the 1970s and her “platform” was the comic, “For Better or For Worse”, syndicated daily in newspapers across North America. And when I saw recently that she’d listed a book Erma Bombeck as one of her most influential reads, the whole thing made sense to me. That Johnston, like Bombeck, was one of blogging’s foremothers, and in particular with the immediacy of her strip, domestic life unfolding in real time.
Lynn Johnston’s life and career are outlined in the new book, For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston, a book released to coincide with a retrospective of Johnston’s work on exhibit now at the Art Gallery of Sudbury until November. The book includes full colour and black and white comics from the course of Johnston’s career, as well as examples of her early work, a discussion of her influences, and notes of the creative work she’s been up to since her strip ended in 2008. It’s fascinating reading, a behind-the-scenes look at her work that’s still so familiar to me—the Pattersons, their friends and neighbours. Which, like the best blogs, is not ephemeral at all.
May 20, 2015
A lot went wrong when my first child was born, most of it involving the loss of my mind, but there was also the fact of the loss of my hard drive when the baby was four weeks old. I lost everything on my computer, which was actually kind of liberating—this all happened on the day I turned 30, and I was intrigued by the idea of a fresh start, a clean slate as I embarked upon a brand new decade. The only thing we lost that I truly regretted were photos, unflattering ones taken soon after the birth, photos of us in the recovery room as we were learning to breastfeed for the very first time. These were the kind of photos one wouldn’t post on Facebook, all bare boobs and double-chins, and besides, I was still then the kind of person who didn’t want to put too many pictures of my child on Facebook. I didn’t want to be one of those people.
The baby had only been around for four weeks, but those early weeks are such times of enormous change. At four weeks, she’d already amassed multitudinous selves, passed through several incarnations, and it was impossible to keep track of all them. And most of that was irrevocably lost when my hard drive went kaput, taking all my photos with it. Except, ironically, for the few photos I had posted on Facebook—an exercise I’d undertaken with remarkable restraint. And suddenly, those few photos were the only ones I had. Facebook was my saviour—who’d ever have imagined?
So I was converted by the time my second daughter was born four years later. There were going to be so so many pictures. We were also going to have her photographed immediately after her birth by ceasarean, all purple and gloopy and as foetal as she’d ever be again. I wanted to see it. I’d missed it before, when Harriet been all cleaned up and wrapped in a blanket before I saw her at all, her father by my side reporting that, “Our baby has so much hair.” There had been a gap between her birth and her life that I was never able to get over, the medical screen never really coming down, and perhaps I’m just coming up with metaphors to explain my failure to process that this child was mine, but there it was. I wanted pictures this time. Of all of it. I didn’t want to miss a single thing.
When Iris was a few weeks old, my computer began to fail again, laptops seeming to have a similar lifespan to the space between my children. But we’d learned our lesson and backed up our photos, so that all of them now live on a portable hard drive. Which means they’re inconvenient to access, but they’re there. And I pulled them out not long ago to prove my case in point
“Words and pictures—survival gear for our stories,” writes Myrl Coulter in her memoir, A Year of Days, and I underlined that part. Survival gear indeed, for when I started looking at photos—hundreds of them—from the days after Iris’s birth, I scarcely recognized any of the moments documented within. At least not at first, but then the memory of these moments started returning to me. Mundane things that would be of no interest to anyone but me, for whom they’re unbearably precious—photos of me lying in bed at home with my children, who were discovering each other as sisters; crazy eyed bloated fat face photos from post-op; breastfeeding pics galore; and even a photo my incision just before the staples came out, because I couldn’t actually see it and was unbelievably curious.
I’d forgotten all of it, which is natural, I suppose, and it’s possible that it’s unnatural to have so much documentation, that it may tax our minds to have so much evidence of… of what? Of life, I suppose. And these photos bring it all back so clearly. Having taken them certainly does not mean that I was any less in the moment (and really, being a mother is to be eternally in the moment no matter how you try to swing it). If it had only been about the moment and not its preservation, those memories would have been lost altogether.
There has been a lot of criticism thrown at my generation, and those younger, for oversharing, for selfies, for self-absorption, and toward mothers in particular for conspicuously mothering on social media. (This is a criticism I was responding to when I resisted baby photos on Facebook so many years ago). But the idea of survival gear frames it all in another way. In her book, Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, May Friedman writes against criticisms that mommy blogs will cause harm to the children who later in life encounter their own childhoods documented online. She writes:
Children are silent witnesses to their own parenting, unable to recall the nuances of their own infancy and early childhood. Indeed, it is arguable that children can only remember parenting as it becomes combative. By reading not only about their mothers’ struggles, but also about their mothers’ obvious love and care, perhaps adult children may find their relationships with their mothers bolstered rather than damaged. Whether the outcomes are positive or negative, mommyblogs allow children to see their mothers as three-dimensional individuals…
This morning when I read of the sudden death of Today’s Parent editor Tracy Chappell, I thought about her post from December, “Why I’m breaking up with my blog,” which is one of the most thoughtful pieces on blogging I have ever encountered. I’m going to be using it in my course going forward. She writes about blogging makes you live your life in a more reflective way, see the world differently, and how blogs are such remarkable records of these lives we live.
Chappell writes, similarly to Friedman:
I hope that, through this blog, they will learn to see me as not just “Mom” but as a woman who had her own things going on—a career, relationships, dreams, struggles, goals—as I was wiping bums and making dinner and gently (oh-so-gently) brushing knots out of hair. I hope they’ll see the value in taking lots of pictures and marking special moments. I hope they’ll understand that parenting is really hard and also has great rewards. I hope they’ll see how much fun we had. I hope they’ll see that I recognized and appreciated their many beautiful, individual gifts, even if they thought I wasn’t paying enough attention at the time. I hope they’ll see how hard I tried. I hope they’ll see how much they were loved. I hope they’ll see how proud I’ve always been to be their mom.
These would be poignant words anyway, but mean so much more now with their writer’s death. What a legacy for her girls, all those posts, which will provide them answers to those questions all of us have about our childhoods, answers that are forever lost to time, confusion, blurry brains. How they will still have this remarkable access to their mother’s voice, even now that she is gone. It will never make up for their loss, but what a gift too, to be able to know who she was. And how profound her love was for them.
All of which underlines my sense that these acts of documentation are some of the most important things we’ll ever do.
March 25, 2015
You’ll see up in the top of the right-hand column that I’ve started a Pickle Me This newsletter, which will be referred to with the far more literary title of “Digest.” The Pickle Me This Digest will be the best of the blog delivered each month to your inbox with a smattering of book reviews, picture book reviews, and other features. I know that fewer people are visiting blogs on a regular basis these days, and instead come to specific posts via social media links, which is all fine and well, but I thought the Digest might be a great resource for anyone who’d like to stay better in touch on a regular basis.
Even better? Anyone who signs up for The Pickle Me This Digest in the next month will have their name entered in a draw to win a copy of the essay anthology I edited, The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, which was published last year by Goose Lane Editions. Mother’s Day is coming up soon, so the book is timely. And if you have a copy already? Well, why not pass your extra copy along to a friend? As Deborah Ostrovsky wrote in the Fall 2014 issue of Herizons magazine, “… You won’t keep this book; you’ll pass it on to friends whose current vocation is changing diapers, or to friends who want a child, and those who don’t.”
If you’ve already signed up for the newsletter, I’ll add your name to the draw. And as ever, thank you for your support of Pickle Me This!
December 10, 2014
Teaching The Art of Blogging at UofT’s School of Continuing Studies this fall was an incredibly inspiring, enjoyable, and educational experience. I was pleased to be teaching the course again after a hiatus, and to be changing my approach based upon the blogging workshops I’d done over the past two years. Our class turned out to be a group of wonderful, generous and intelligent writers whose approaches and backgrounds were so diverse and complementary. Our class readings ranged from blog posts on tech by Mathew Ingram and Navneet Alang, to a Rebecca Solnit essay, posts by Bonnie Stewart, Kyran Pittman, and Shawna Lemay, and my own blog post of preservation and the work of Mary Pratt. I was also tremendously inspired by having just read May Friedman’s book on Mommyblogs, which really gave me the confidence to follow my own instincts about what blogging is and can be, and to celebrate the form as Friedman approaches it: “It is precisely because it is impossible to say anything generalizable about the mamasphere as a whole that it is a radical maternal space; not as a result of the activism of individual mothers, but because of the implications of all these narratives coexisting, and the endless unspooling dialogue that therefore emerges.”
And now with the course completed, I am really pleased to share with you some of the blogs that have emerged from it. I hope you will add them to your bookmarks.
- Check out gem city, a literary blog with a singular point of view, a wonderful and wondrous take on books and reading, and such haunting kazoo solos like you won’t believe. I’m excited that this excellent writer has recently settled in Toronto and look forward to seeing where her blog takes her to.
- Peas and Honey is the most curious hybrid, about aging parents and old houses, grief and memory, and full of really good story telling, and the most surprising connections, which is what the best blogs do.
- a dainty dish is a blog that owns my heart already, a baking blog whose recipes are inspired by beautiful picture books by writers (so far) including Sara O’Leary, Julie Morstad, Cybele Young, and Jon Klassen. It’s so gorgeous and original, and I’m finding that I’m always hungry for her next post.
- For those of you who like to gaze upon beautiful things, here is Barbara Ishwerwood’s blog, whose short and perfect posts offer insight into art and art history. Check out the links to Barbara’s courses too!
- And you’ve never had a friend like Marina Hasson, whose own stories and experiences have powered her remarkable approach to life. She’s inspiring, lovely and hilarious, and there is such a generous spirit to everything she does. You can befriend her here—and lucky you!
The Art of Blogging will be offered next in September 2015.
November 19, 2014
We’re getting toward the end of my blogging course, which has been the most wonderful, inspiring experience. I have enjoyed it so much, and look forward to following my students’ blogs as they grow. Though next week is the lesson I know the least about—the business of blogging. Even though my blog is ideal for an affiliation with an online bookseller, but I’ve never done this because I don’t like the predatory practices of the big online booksellers, and don’t want to profit off their gains (which tend to come at a loss for literary culture on the whole).
But it recently occurred to me that there was another option. Indeed, Canada’s largest online bookstore, McNally Robinson, does online orders and has an affiliates program, and I’m pleased to announce that Pickle Me This is now a part of it. When you purchase a book by McNally Robinson via a link from Pickle Me This, I will receive a cut of the profits. You can learn more about McNally Robinson’s Affiliate Program here. I will be adding links to my archived book reviews, and links will appear on all posts in the future.
I am pleased to be affiliated with McNally Robinson because I recently used their online ordering system to send a gift to a friend in Vancouver, and was really impressed with their customer service. (The book was not in stock, an actual person emailed to tell me so, and to give me the option of cancelling my order; when the book came in stock a few days later, the person emailed me to let me know.) I will be sending Christmas gifts to my sister’s family in Alberta via McNally Robinson this year for sure now, a nice alternative to Amazon. They don’t have the same discounts, but I’d gladly pay a higher price for the Amazon behemoth not to devour the entire literary world.
And books cost money because books have value anyway.
I am also pleased to be affiliated with McNally Robinson because we had such a good time there last spring when they hosted The M Word. The Winnipeg location is an incredible bookstore, a magical space, and we need more spaces like it in the world. So I’m happy to be directing some business their way, and also pleased to be leveraging this blog as a channel to my becoming a billionaire. When I make my first fortune, I promise to buy you a cup of tea.
Thank you for supporting independent bookstores, and book bloggers too.
November 6, 2014
Today I was quite thrilled to find my recent post, “On Uncertainty, Mistakes and Accidental Cake” included on Elan Morgan’s Five Star Blog Roundup. I was thrilled because this was some great company, writing-wise, but also because of how the Five Star Roundup reminds us that we are all readers online, as well as writers, and that there is a whole world of thoughtful writing out there to explore. So do check out the roundup, this week and every week, and many thanks to Elan for including me, and for all her work fostering community and action online.
September 29, 2014
“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. After the initial discomfort and frustration that this inconclusive conclusion elicits, however, I have found that there is much to gained, as a researcher in general and as a motherhood researcher in particular, in looking instead at uncertainty as a valuable critical lens.” –May Friedman, Introduction, Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood
This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked.” —Rebecca Solnit, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable”
It pains me to link to this smug and stupid post I wrote in May 2009, just 11 days before my first child was born. When I purported to understand anything in Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, because I really didn’t. And when I tried to pin down mommybloggers, detailing my discomfort with the form, and my discomfort with that discomfort. I thought I had it all sewed up, because I was surer of things then, and I had no idea of the seas of uncertainty I’d be wading into when it came to mothering, motherhood, and issues around motherhood. Five years later, The M Word was to be partly my means of coming to terms with the beauty of the mess of it all—when in doubt, make an anthology.
When, three months after that embarrassing 2009 blog post, I reviewed the book Mothering and Blogging: The Radical Act of the Mommy Blog by May Friedman and Shana Calixte, my thinking had evolved somewhat, but I was still pretty stupid. (This is the curse of any blogger: you are forever presented with undeniable evidence that you were pretty stupid. And that mostly likely you still are.) But I was getting a sense of things—that motherhood and any ideas surrounding motherhood refused to stay put in my tidy pat conclusions, and that there were many women who didn’t want even them to.
May Friedman’s new book, Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, occurs at a pivotal intersection in my writing life. Outside of my blog, it is my writing about motherhood and my mothering life that has found most resonance with readers, so much so that when a recent published story contained nary a reference to mothers anywhere, I was a bit relieved. And I’ve also been blogging for 14 years this October, which has led to the opportunity to teach the course, The Art of Blogging, at the University of Toronto (whose latest session starts a week from tonight!). In my blog teaching, I embrace and celebrate the messy chaos of the blog form, as unpindownable as mothers are. (You can read my posts with thoughts on blogging here.) I welcomed the reflections, revelations and insights of Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood not just for what they had to say about mothers and mommyblogs, but for the perspective the book provided on the history and implications of the blogosphere with a lens on women (who, as in any history, are so often left out of the story).
True confession: I have an allergy to Foucault, and once they start referencing Bahktin, they’ve already lost me. As an academic text, Friedman’s book stands apart from others that I’ve encountered in that her critical framework serves to transform the familiar into something altogether new, rather than rendering it intelligible. In Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, she examines mommyblogs in the frameworks of hybridity (as a form, of the identities of blog authors, of the experiences of readers), cyborgs (of the author and her text via technology, and also of the complex and nuanced networks created through blogging communities, how mothering is reworked away from being an individuated task) and Queer theory (a movement away from the patriarchal institution of motherhood toward an otherness) to show that mommyblogging is indeed a radical act that has already changed the way motherhood is regarded in the public sphere, and whose further implications are still before us, rich with possibility.
It is as applicable to that mythic blogosphere as a whole what Friedman has to say about “the mamasphere”: “It is precisely because it is impossible to say anything generalizable about the mamasphere as a whole that it is a radical maternal space; not as a result of the activism of individual mothers, but because of the implications of all these narratives coexisting, and the endless unspooling dialogue that therefore emerges.” That lack of generalization doesn’t freak me out anymore, and I appreciate Friedman’s excellent book for reminding me why certainty is anathema to everything I like best about the world, both online and off.
August 24, 2014
It has been ages since I taught The Art of Blogging at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, but I’m so pleased that the course is being offered this fall. Online is such a fast world that blogging has changed a lot since I last taught the course, and so has some of my thinking about blogging. Moreover, teaching small blogging workshops (like at the Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo!) has taught me a lot about the best way to present this kind of material and get students engaged. And so all of this will really culminate in a fresh and exciting class, I think. I’ve revised the course outline significantly (you can view it here!). We’re going to focus on learning to love the unpolished nature of the blogging, and embrace its work-in-progress-ness, and there will be lots of writing exercises to get students used to blogging efficiently. We’re going to explore using blogging in a way that fits neatly into your life, and even how blogging can make you live your life a bit better. I look forward to good discussion, sharing of experiences, lots of inspiring blog reading, and delving into the history of this fascinating medium as we all move forward as part of its future.
June 11, 2014
“The Andrew Sullivan era of journalism is over. Blogs — defined as “an eclectic, scattered” reverse-chronological journal, “covering everything from foreign policy to TV to religion,” often in the first-person — are all but dead.” (This was actually posted on a blog. Alas).
It’s on a regular cycle that I come across articles about news outlets shutting down their blogs, this offered as proof that the blog is dead. All the while, I sit here typing at my blog, which I’ve been writing for fourteen years, with every intention to keep on writing my blog, first because I can’t stop and also because it’s done me a world of good professionally and in terms of general well-being. As I sit here typing at my blog, momentarily distracted by the blogs of others (who am I reading lately? I love how Sarah from edge of evening and I have such serendipitous reading habits; I’m a new reader of Alice Zorn’s blog; longtime fan of Matilda Magtree; I’ve been reading Making It Lovely since we both had daughters around the same time 5 years ago; I’ve been checking in with DoveGreyReader forever; I’m devoted to Girls Gone Child; I’ve learned so much from Rohan Maitzen’s Novel Readings; Shawna Lemary’s Calm Things; and I am so so overjoyed that Nathalie Foy is blogging books again. Oh, and you. I read your blog too. Likely, this is really so.)
So while the Andrew Sullivan era of journalism may be over, let this not be a statement about the state of the blog. First, because blogging is not journalism, and it was never meant to be. Blogging was always going to be on the fringes, so Sullivan’s new venture’s failure (in that only five pages on his site have received 100,000 page visits) is actually a statement that the blog is, um, bloggier than ever. Let it also not be a statement on the state of the blog because for many of us, the Andrew Sullivan era never registered. All the while that bloggers were making forays into mainstream media (and supposedly changing its face… until blogging died), most of us were sitting at home with our typepads, blogspots and wordpress sites. Content to be independent operators, doing our own thing, learning and growing, and pointing our modest traffic, our readers, in the direction of the world and saying, “Hey, look at this.”
It is amazing to me the way that women’s blogs have been ignored by those seeking to chronicle the history of the form. (I wrote about this three years ago in a post called, “The Womanly Art of Blogging”) Crucially, it is always the habits of male bloggers that are heralding blogging’s demise, and these are almost always political bloggers (as though political blogs are somehow blogs entire, as though politics were somehow the world—can you imagine?) but once it was a book blogger, and that too was ridiculous and wrong. It seems that everyone thinks that blogging is dead just around the same time he stops doing it. But.
All the while, the rest of us keep blogging, toiling away in semi-obscurity, and this is unfailingly true. Even well-known bloggers are semi-obscure–even those with enough ad revenue to pay the bills. Well-known blogger is an oxymoron. If it gets to be otherwise, well, maybe you’ve made it, but you’re also not really a blogger anymore.
September 27, 2013
I write about my children here more than I write about the wider world, the wider literary world in particular. And sometimes I feel bad about this, about the disconnect, my insularity. I don’t seem to have my finger on the button. It hasn’t always been like this either–I used to wade into fracas all the time. But then it got to the point where I could set my calendar by it–brouhaha about women writers, the Orange Prize as ghetto or goldmine, Canada Reads outrage, Giller Prize moroseness. I was writing the same blog posts all over again, in the beginning fervently hoping to bring change, hoping that if I could just explain the way things ought to be, everyone would finally understand. And then eventually despondently, as it began to become clear to me that these arguments were futile, all of us hashing out the same lines over and over again. It was even boring, and I was really tired, and there are oh so many books to read, books to write about instead. And yes, my children, who are never ever the same, even two days in a row. So now I cease to wade, for the most part, which I fear might suggest I don’t have opinions anymore, except about out-of-date encyclopedias. Because I do have opinions, and they’re even works in progress too, but it’s progress that interests me more than opinions themselves, so I don’t bother to wade anymore.