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Pickle Me This

February 4, 2020

Discovering Emily

“Everybody loves Anne, but I like Emily. She’s dark.” —Russian Doll

It was a year ago now that I was swept along in the enthusiasm for the Netflix series Russian Doll, starring Natasha Lyonne, a strange and enigmatic show in which the novel Emily of New Moon featured as a major plot point. Which was just as weird and curious as everything about the show, and it put Emily on my radar for the first time in years. Emily, a second-tier Anne of Green Gables, I’d always supposed, the case not helped by the cover of the Seal paperback that featured prominently in my childhood, which is basically just Anne with different coloured braids.

This specific copy is stolen from the library of the school where I attended Grade 7 and 8. I am not sure exactly if I was the thief, but somehow this ended up in a box in my mom’s basement and I brought it home not long ago, because of Russian Doll.

In childhood, Emily was wasted on me. I know that I read the whole series because I’m now just one chapter away from rereading Emily of New Moon (have been reading it aloud to my family for the past couple of months) and remember parts of the story from when Emily is a bit older, which is mainly her totally gross relationship with the much-older Dean Priest. I know I read the whole series, because I was an L.M. Montgomery completist, but it mostly just left me with questions. Like what was up with Dean Priest? (Upon reread, I still don’t know the answer to this.) Where exactly was Stovepipe Town? And “the flash.” I didn’t understand “the flash.” Emily of New Moon was Anne of Green Gables, but weirder. Emily is dark—Russian Doll was right. And as a young reader, I didn’t have the understanding to appreciate that, or to appreciate the novel properly at all.

But it’s so good. The takeaway from our family read is this. The number of times I’ve come to the end of a paragraph and stopped reading, and everybody starts yelling at me, “No, no. Come on! Keep going! What happens next?” The story itself a bit overwrought and melodramatic, but not to the detriment of the reader’s enjoyment. And not without a sense of humour either—when Emily eats the poisoned apple! The ghost in the walls at Nancy Priest’s house! A cast of characters so firmly realized that when the narrative notes that Perry Miler would be the leader of Canada one day, my children asked me if this had actually transpired. And I don’t want to knock Anne, but Emily’s friends are so much more interesting that Diana. Foul-mouthed Ilse Burnley (and the mystery of her runaway mother), and Perry (who in one scene hangs naked from the kitchen ceiling), and Teddy Kent with his suffocating mother who drowns his cats because she can’t bear that he loves anything but her.

Emily is a fantastic character, up there with Harriet M. Welch as a person whose boldness and will I’d like to channel. Where Anne Shirley was desperate for love and to be liked, Emily has spent most of her childhood in the care of a doting father who gave her a remarkable inheritance, an indelible sense of herself. She knows her worth and her value, and when others don’t, she sees it more as a reflection on them than on her. Even when she arrives at New Moon, where she is an outsider (her mother years ago had run away from her family there to marry her father), she is able to draw on the traditions of her mother’s family and their heritage to further shape her own identity. She knows who she is, and where she came from, which gives her an impressively strong foundation to build her self upon.

Her steadfastness is so admirable, and curious in a child. There is an uncannyness to her character that makes even the most sensible grown-ups uncomfortable, and this tension makes for fascinating reading. And so does the action—Montgomery channels the same gothic darkness here that made her The Blue Castle so delicious, but the novel is also filled with light and the pleasures of everyday. I love the chatty and mundane letters Emily has written to her late father, which reminded me of my favourite parts of another Montgomery novel I loved, The Road to Yesterday (in fact The Golden Road! The LM Montgomery Society kindly corrected me on Twitter) in which a group of cousins put together a newspaper. And I think Aunt Elizabeth might be my favourite Montgomery character since Marilla Cuthbert.

January 27, 2020

Free. But Haunted.

Farewell to our garage-sale acquired breadbox, which has been part of our family for the last decade. And never actually had bread in it very often, but was mostly used as a storage cupboard for odds and ends, and crackers, and coffee filters. And whose most salient feature was its tendency to have its door fall open just after something had been placed on the counter in front of it—last week, I lost a Pyrex bowl of egg-whites. (The bowl, mercifully, survived.) Several wine glasses being used by visiting friends also met their demise in such a fashion, and caused considerable embarrassment for all involved. I took to taping the breadbox shut when we had people over, which worked, but it still managed to catch us unaware. A poltergeist? (Or an ineffective bolt? But that’s boring…) And then yesterday, or next-door neighbour brought us over her breadbox, which is of a similar vintage (albeit without those delightful flowers). They’ve given up gluten and just had their kitchen remodelled, so the breadbox was redundant, so they passed it on, and now ours is the redundant one. We’ve put it out on the curb, but with a warning post-it. There are have been no takers. YET.

January 23, 2020

Ten Years

I had some strange feelings about reflecting on the 2010s, mostly because I didn’t. There was a meme going around Instagram stories on New Year’s Eve in which we were supposed to list a highlight from each year, and I even tried to post it, but couldn’t figure out how to get the text to fit, which maybe means that the 2010s were the decade in which I stopped being technologically savvy.

But also, the years all blend together, and so much stayed the same. The decade before was much more filled with upheaval and revolution (they were my 20s after all) but in the 2010s were where the pieces started to fit. I stopped having babies, I began to have something like a career, I finally started publishing books, I made some wonderful new friendships, and maintained old ones. It’s been good, but the decade itself, its distinction, just seems particularly arbitrary. Like—even more than a decade should.

Or do I only think that because when the decade started, I was sitting in the very same place that I’m sitting right now?

Okay. not the exact same place. (We finally bought a new couch, remember?) But the same address, our apartment, which we moved into twelve years ago this April, the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. I moved in as half of a young married couple, and now I’ve got two kids and I’m forty, and have been married almost 15 years. The little kids who lived next door moved out and went to university, and then moved back in again, although it didn’t do me much good when they did, because now they’re too old to babysit. But, as the middle section of To the Lighthouse, so astutely put it: Time Passes.

Imagining our own story as told from the perspective of the house as Woolf does in her novel (except with less war and death). The people coming and going, coats and jackets hung up on hooks and taken down again, early morning alarm clocks and dinners, and house guests, and holidays, and the quiet weeks where we’ve all gone away, and coming home again, an explosion of luggage, and the babies arriving, and late nights with the lights on while the world sleeps, and the babies grow, and all the books that come in and those that go back out again (returned to the library, or left on the garden walls for any takers), and the birthday parties, play dates, first day of schools, pencilled lines in the door-frame measuring from small to tall, and boots and shoes and sandals in a pile at the door, and the triumphs and disappointments, throughout anxiety and contentment, and these walls have contained it all. Even as spare rooms turned into nurseries and cribs turned into bunk-beds, and empty space turned into clutter—Lego, puzzles, and play-doh—and that ring on the carpet from where I put down a teapot and it melted. How places seem to hold us, even more than time does, and how a single place can hold so much, and so can a life.

October 31, 2019

How to Organize a Literary Event in 48 Hours

More than a month ago, I emailed my friend Nathalie and asked her if she’d attend the Toronto Public Library event with Christy Ann Conlin, Megan Gail Coles and Elisabeth de Mariaffi, and she replied with an enthusiastic YES, as you would, with a lineup like that. But then the event was cancelled after the Toronto Library was called on to cancel its provision of space to a speaker whose hate-speech about trans people is just one of the many awful things about her, and they refused. And so many authors and artists have cancelled their Toronto Library event in solidarity with the trans community, which is important and the right thing to do—but it also means that Christy Ann Conlin was coming to Toronto all the way from Nova Scotia for her very first reading in the city, and she had no event booked. So what to do?

I hadn’t properly understood the situation until Monday, or else I would have stepped up sooner, but once I’d figured it out, it wasn’t long before I had my inspiration. Right in the middle of dinner, in fact. “What would you think” I asked my husband, “about us having twenty people over for a literary event in our living room?” And my husband was so excited about me having a wild inspiration for which he would not be obligated to build a website that he agreed without hesitation. And so I sent an email to Christy Ann in Nova Scotia, and once she said she was in, there was just one more email to set the wheels in motion.

I had to email Nathalie and ask if she would be up for some custom mixology—and she agreed. Thank heavens, because everybody knows you can’t have a party without an official cocktail… (Nathalie invented three different cocktails, all with Nova Scotia spirits: “Minas Basin,” “It All Went Pear-Shaped,” and “Juniper and Apple Shrub.”)

And next, we needed people to fill my living room in 48 hours notice, but they came, a wonderful collection of generous, book loving people who were happy to welcome Christy Ann to Toronto. They filled my home with the most wonderful bookish spirit (and all got to take home custom Watermark soap from Hen of the Woods—what a treat!).

It was wonderful! Friends and neighbours came, a literary community of amazing readers and writers, including Christy Ann fans who I got to meet for the first time, plus a very exciting guest—Amy Spurway, of Crow fame, who was in town for the author’s festival. We ate food, sipped delicious drinks, made great conversation, listened to Christy Ann read from Watermark, and I got to ask her questions about her career and her book, and she was just so kind, and gracious and terrific. Throughly entertaining and delightful, and we were all so lucky to be part of it together, but me most of all, because I got to experience it without leaving the house.

September 17, 2019

Waffles, Waffles, Waffles

A baking pan heaped with waffles. Photograph.

One of the things I am most proud of and amazed at having accomplished in my life is a Baby Book for my second-born child. I was never going to be a perfect mother, and being a second child definitely would inevitably suck in all kinds of ways (secondhand snowsuits, no one appreciating the miraculousness of things like you knowing how to roll over, and basically not being bathed for two years) but at least she was going to have a Baby Book, a record of those precious blurry days. Though it was less of a burden for me to assemble than it might have been for other mothers of two—her elder sister was all the way to four by then, and I also spent the first three months of her life on co-parenting duty instead of struggling alone because my husband had taken parental leave, which meant time for naps, and books, and writing down all the things that we’d never remember.

When Iris was two, I added a whole page of notes to the Baby Book, though she was not a baby anymore. But it seemed like there were more things worth remembering then, once she was able to speak, and her remarkable personality had formed. “Things Iris Says,” was how I’d titled this page, along with the date, and I turned to this page just the other day when Iris had brought her Baby Book down from the shelf (and how glad I am that she has a Baby Book, that I bothered to put the effort in. Both my children are so fascinated with their baby selves, and will look at all records of their early periods in a way that’s inexhaustible).

“Things Iris Says,” I read aloud, excited to see what forgotten treasures might emerge from this time capsule, but then. Oh. Almost everything that Iris said when she was two had basically found its way into our family vernacular, and it’s how we all talk all the time now. (Perhaps when I say “we all,” I just mean me.) “Atcheam,” for ice-cream, and “fuff-eye” instead of “butterfly.” And “ra-see-see-wah” for rice krispie square. But then Iris is a little bit like this, in our family as well as in her own peer group. Totally weird, completely absurd, and at first, we’re like, “What are you doing?” And then it doesn’t take long before we’re doing it too.

But really, I want to talk about Teen Titans and waffles. Not that I have actually ever watched Teen Titans Go, but it’s Iris’s favourite show, and somehow without me ever having actually watched it, it’s seeped into my DNA, and I think it’s also the inspiration behind what became our family’s new year’s resolution for 2019, which was Get a Waffle Maker. Part of our pattern of Keep the Stakes Low to Avoid Disappointment. If you package up all your dreaming in the hopes of picking up a secondhand waffle maker from Value Village for $6, things are probably going to work out fine.

Get a Waffle Maker became our family dream because there is a song from Teen Titans Go about waffles—like most things about Teen Titans Go, it’s catchy and also extremely annoying. I am also very impressionable, particularly when it comes to glutinous goods, and so eventually, I had waffles on the brain, perpetually. We got our waffle maker sometime in January, which means our annual goal was achieved, and as a family we could just sit back and relax and be delighted by having accomplished what we set out to do. And make waffles every Sunday.

The waffle maker has been a game changer. I used to make pancakes every Sunday, and they were good, but lots of work, and also results would vary. But now the waffle maker does all the work for me, in way less time, and all I need to do is pour the batter in and then read the newspaper and drink my tea while waiting for the light to turn green—so simple. I am partial to Smitten Kitchen’s Buttermilk Waffle recipe. I am also partial to adding poppyseeds and millet to everything. Waffles, waffles, waffles, indeed. I love them, their taste, and neat geometry, and how leftovers could be turned into cream cheese jam sandwiches for tomorrow’s lunches, and all the places where our children’s preoccupations take us.

Even if just to the appliance section at the secondhand store. Hooray for being goal-oriented.

August 19, 2019

I Found an Egg Beater

Of all the machines in a kitchen, the egg beater has always been my favourite, and while the electric version has its advantages (the beaters detach for optimum licking), it’s the manual (or “rotary”, like a phone dial, both rotating around an axis) that has long been an object of my fascination, even though I’d be wary of getting my tongue stuck in a thing like that. Probably I wasn’t, however, when I was a child.

But my children have never seen an egg beater, which a) explains some of the trouble they’ve had in swimming lessons and b) was confirmed to me when Iris and I were reading a book in which an egg beater featured, and Iris only shrugged. I’d had an electric egg beater once upon a time, but I got rid of it when I got my first stand mixer over ten years ago, and back then the children were not yet in existence.

And then we were at Value Village on Saturday, exploring kitchenware, which is one of my favourite things to do. And it had occurred to me that I like exploring kitchenware at Value Village just as much when I don’t discover any treasure as I do when the search yields a new Pyrex bowl or midcentury crockery (I am mad for midcentury crockery) because when I don’t find anything, it means I don’t have go about locating a place to put it in my very crowded kitchen.

But I found an egg beater, in fact there were two—in additional to so many cocktail utensil sets. There are too many cocktail utensil sets in the world, and also George Forman grills, but we’re not yet overrun with rotary egg beaters, so I chose the one that wasn’t rusty, even if there were pieces missing from the plastic handles on the other. (Why corrupt such a wonderful object with plastic anyway?)

Iris was overjoyed to recognize the object, and then everybody started fighting over who gets to turn the handle and make the wheel turn, and we hadn’t even paid for it at this point. But it is so satisfying, the whir of the blades, the smoothness of the motion, the perpetualness of it. How I use my own energy to turn the handle, which makes the big wheel spin, whose grooves connect with the two little gears atop the beaters, and what genius thought of such a perfect machine? (Willis Johnson, according to the BBC, in 1884.)

“It’s an amazing thing,” I told my kids. “It doesn’t use any energy, and you can even make a cake when the power’s gone out.”

And then Iris came up to me hours later, as though she’d been thinking about this throwaway comment. “How do you see when you’re baking in the dark?” she asked me. “When the lights are out.”

But how do we even turn the oven on at that point? (We have a gas oven. Perhaps it might work?) I imagine us making a soufflé by candlelight.

In 48 hours, we’ve used the egg beater twice, to whip egg-whites for the Sunday waffles, and Iris got to do that because Harriet was playing Nintendo. And then yesterday evening I was making muffins for the week’s lunches, and Harriet wanted a turn, and then the two of them started fighting because Harriet was going too fast and all the eggs were getting beaten, and it really is such a clever little gadget, no matter that it’s disrupted family harmony.

Better than a fidget spinner—I could run that thing all day.

June 20, 2019

It’s Pretty Easy, Being Green

The following is a list of changes our family has made to our purchase habits and lifestyle over the past couple of years in order to live a greener life. I write them down here to inspire other people to follow suit, and hope you will leave a note with any other green habits of your own that I might be able to put into practice.

  • Soapberries instead of laundry soap, available for sale at Bulk Barn. (I also air dry most of my laundry to conserve energy.) For stains, I have a bar of old-fashioned laundry soap (also from Bulk Barn) and it’s really effective.
  • Using baking soda for washing dishes (we don’t have a dishwasher). We still buy dish-soap but it’s used for approximately 1/4 of dishwashings, and a single bottle lasts for ages.
  • Buying bar soap (which we always did anyway because liquid hand-soap is for millionaires!)
  • Buying glass jars instead of plastic food containers, when possible—we get Pinebridge Yogurt now and it’s also delicious. Buying cream cheese in the cardboard packet instead of plastic container, etc. Would love to find a non-plastic way to buy cottage cheese though!
  • Buying ice cream in biodegradable containers (and bonus: Chapmans and Kawartha Dairy are sold in these and are both pretty local!)
  • We bring water bottles everywhere instead of buying juice or water in plastic bottles
  • Reusable cups for hot beverages! We bought Keep Cups a few years ago, and bring them everywhere we go. When I lost my lid, I was able to order a replacement.
  • I don’t use the plastic produce bags from the grocery store, and have reusable mesh bags instead. When I don’t remember to bring them, I just let my sweet potatoes roll around naked.
  • We stopped buying paper towels and napkins, and instead bought up a boat load of secondhand reusable cloth napkins. We also have cloth diapers left over from long long ago that double as paper towels, except that they may outlive us all.
  • Bringing our own food containers for take-out. We thought they’d think we were weird, but if they did they didn’t mention it…
  • Reusing bread bags and other such things for freezing food and for lining our kitchen compost bin
  • We banned plastic wrap! I thought I would miss it as I used it for zesting lemons and it was really useful in this way, but zesting is all right without it, and there are plenty of less plastic ways to cover food for storage.
  • I replaced our shower curtain with a polyester machine-washable one and didn’t buy a liner. The shower curtain still keeps water from going all over the floor, and dries quickly.

What to work on? I tried bar shampoo, but it did my hair no favours, and so I went back to bottled—I only wash my hair twice a week anyway—but would like to find a non-plastic solution. Deodorant and dental products remain a huge source of plastics waste in our house. And several kinds of fruit and veg arrive in those non-recyclable black plastic containers, or the plastic tubs that mushrooms come in and we need less of that. Finally, I would love to do more shopping at one of those no-packaging stores (shampoo! Vegetable oil!) but we don’t have one nearby.

Further Problems: The burden of solutions to environmental problems cannot fall on individuals alone. In addition to cutting down on waste, we also need to be electing politicians who are willing to tackle this issue and stop putting corporate interests first—and then holding our leaders to account.

January 16, 2019

This is Not a Metaphor

I understood it as a metaphor: it is okay to fall. It is okay to fall, to flail, to plummet. As much as can be expected from an ordinary human, I know this. I have lived it. Accepting, and even embracing, imperfection and failure has been key to any success I’ve managed to achieve along the way. But I have never managed to embrace this idea on a concrete level, concrete being the word, which is a hard and painful surface to have one’s body strike even at a moderate velocity. And it doesn’t even have to be concrete—for a few winters midway through my childhood, I used to go skiing, and I hated it, the terror. Where is the pleasure of sending one’s fragile physical self down a steep icy hill? I used to weave my way down slowly, slowly, repeated the mantra: Please don’t let me die. And then one day I occurred to me that I didn’t actually have to endure this anymore, so I didn’t. Why would I?

I took up ice skating four years ago with my daughter, who was five at the time. The task of teaching her to skate would fall to me, because it turned out I was the best skater in the family, even though I hadn’t skated in 25 years and never really enjoyed it as a child. Winter sports are not my thing. Sports in general even really aren’t, but at least in summer it’s not cold. I have memories of skating on canals when I was little, and these are mostly memories of freezing. And sore ankles. I mean, at least with skating you aren’t sending yourself down the edges of icy mountains, and the fall is never going to be so far. But still, there is falling. Even worse, there is fear of falling.

But for the last four years, I’ve been trying to commit to enjoying the winter outdoors, and skating has been part of that. It’s fun. Of course, I don’t enjoy skating as much as I enjoy having skated, which is my favourite part of the process, followed by hot chocolate. But I like it, and it’s free, and it’s been interesting to relearn an old trick, and to be learning alongside my daughter. I think it sets a good example for her too to see that acquiring new skills is not just the jurisdiction of children, and is important to keep doing this throughout one’s life. Her father and her sister have since joined in our skating life, all of us learning together. Harriet now gives me a run for my money as the best skater in the family, and last night Iris skated around the rink multiple times without holding onto my hand at all.

But we are slow. We are slow, and we skate in terror of those fast skaters who weave in and out among us slowpokes, or else the little kids who are skating haphazardly in the wrong direction and moving right into our path without consideration for the fact that none of us actually knows how to stop. None of us skate with ease, although my children have a bit more ease than I do because they’re more comfortable with falling. They’re closer to the ground anyway, and they’re fundamentally bouncy and less breakable, and with all the padding from their snowsuits they’re well protected. Neither of them likes falling, but it happens, and that’s okay.

I, however, have never fallen. Hardly something to brag about, because I’ve only never fallen because I’ve never being moving fast enough. From the metaphor, I know that the only people who never fall are people who’ve never been high enough to do so. As a skater, I am so cautious, nervous. I have been skating for four years with so much fear of falling—and then last night it finally happened.

I skated over a leaf, a dead leaf that had blown onto the ice, and I don’t know why it so destabilized me, but I felt it, the ground no longer steady beneath my feet. “It’s finally happening,” I realized, and there was so much time to think as it did. A brief attempt at re-finding my balance, but then then it was all over, and down I went. Landing with a spectacular crash on my bottom, which was better than my head taking the impact, or my wrists. “And it’s actually okay,” is what I was thinking as I lay there on my ice, except it wasn’t entirely because I’d knocked my littlest daughter over in the process (let’s not make a metaphor out of that, okay?) and she was screaming. Attracting the attention of the ice skating attendant, who came over to see if she was okay, and, “She’s fine, she’s fine,” I said, dismissing her pain. (But she was fine. Walk it off.) And then he helped me up, and I was almost euphoric, so much so that I forgot to even be humiliated.

Because the very worst thing had happened: I had fallen. And I hadn’t fractured my elbow or even sprained my wrist, or received a concussion. I didn’t break or shatter, which is what I’d always imagined. That I was fragile—but it turns out my body is stronger than I thought. And there really isn’t even a lesson beyond that—I’m still going to skate slowly, I’m not thirsting for opportunities to fall down again. It wasn’t like one of those Instagram memes where I thought I was falling, but it turned out to be flight, because it definitely wasn’t flight as I lay there on the Dufferin Grove Ice Rink staring up at the glow of the artificial lights. It was falling, but it was fine.

January 2, 2019

Happy New Year

No one got sick on our holiday—no pneumonia, or strep throat, and even the colds were fairly unspectacular. No one threw up on Christmas Eve, which is the first time ever that such a miracle has transpired in recent memory, and could be down to the fact that we ate bread and chicken noodle soup for dinner that night, because it had occurred to me that there could possibly be a correlation between the rich foods we eat every December 24 and the inevitable puking, although it’s embarrassing that it took me so many years to figure this out. With bread and broth, however, all the stomachs were settled, and it all has been a very low-key, relaxing, restorative and pleasant holiday.

Mostly, I just read books, so many books, barrelling through titles on my To-Be-Read shelf, and also getting rid of other books that have been sitting there for years and that I’m never ever going to reading. True confession: the piles of books I had before me* have been overwhelming for quite some time, and reading should never feel that way. *These aren’t necessarily the books I’m sent by publishers, because I’m less responsible for these. Instead the ones that I’ve been picked up on my travels, and have not made enough time for. So I skipped the used book sales this fall, and made a point of reading the books I had this holiday, and now I feel much less likely to die in a book avalanche, which is an excellent way to start off the new year.

The downside to this, however, is that now I’m going to around telling everyone about this amazing novel called Beloved, by Toni Morrison, which only came out and won the Pulitzer Prize 30 years ago, so I’m really on the cutting edge, right? So hip and current. But oh my gosh, the book is extraordinary, and I can see how it ties right into the contemporary Black women writers whose work I’ve been loving these last few years. Another buzz worthy pick was The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, which is not quite a new release, instead 97 years old, but I did get the spectacularly designed new edition from Gladstone Press, and it was gorgeous, and such a pleasure to read.

I also really loved Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, which I asked for for Christmas after reading this profile in The Guardian in October. It starts off kind of clumsily and didactic, more about ideas than being a novel proper, but the ideas were so interesting that I didn’t mind, and I also loved how well the two different storylines worked, that I was interested in both of them. And then partway through the book, the narrative grew legs, and I’ve been thinking about it steadily ever since I finished reading.

But I wasn’t only reading. And how can a person read this many books and not only be reading, you might ask? The answer being: I turned off my wifi for a week for my biannual holiday from the internet. It was glorious. I don’t have data on my phone anyway, so no wifi rendered me entirely internetless, and while I love the internet, since I’ve returned to it it’s only occurred to me that Twitter is wholly joyless, Facebook is pointless, and I like Instagram a lot still, but want to make our relationship more casual. And I want to focus on my blog instead, an online space that as ever is in transition. I’m going to be writing more about this in the coming weeks, about what blogs might be turning into. I’m not sure, but I think that for me, mine might be my online salvation. Stay tuned.

While I wasn’t reading, I was ice skating, checking out museums and galleries, playing card games—we got Rhino Hero for Christmas, and I love it with all my heart. I was knitting and delighting in Fargo Season 3 and watching Mary Poppins Comes Back,  and going to for walks down residential streets and through ravines, and making turkey leftovers into all kinds of different things, and seeing friends, and even cousins (which I don’t have enough exposure to and which have always been my favourite part of Christmas), and also reading. Every day when I woke up, the first thing I did was turn on my bedside lamp and pick up my book, which is my very favourite way to start the day, and sometimes people even brought me tea.

And now it’s a new year, and my house is really tidy, after a marathon clear-out on Sunday (including a thorough pruning of my shelves to make space for the books I read on the holidays). I also have a new coat that doesn’t make me look like a hobo, and bought new bras, which was an errand that was three years overdue. Plus, I am currently in the midst of my ideal state of being, ie I am awaiting the arrival of a teapot in the post. What that I could be suspended in this reality forever, but when it ceases I will have the consolation of a teapot at least.

July 5, 2018

Writing With Children

So it seems that I am writing a novel this summer, and we’ve been here before. I wrote my first draft of Mitzi Bytes during the summer of 2014, when Iris was one and Harriet was five and would sit beside me on the couch watching Annie while her sister napped. Two years later I wrote Asking for a Friend in the same way, except that no one napped anymore, but what I did do was close the baby gate on our door and sit out on the porch with my laptop while the children were barricaded indoors with a bin full of snacks. They were allowed to watch movies, but only after they’d earned it with an hour of imaginative play—and then in the afternoon we’d head out into the world and do something fun or interesting.

I don’t know what it is about summer—when I have limited childcare and the world is calling with its sunshine—that imbues me with inspiration. It’s really quite impractical and inconvenient to decide to spend a summer writing a book, but it’s also exhilarating. For me, summer is about stretching anyway, about pushing limits. How far can we go, is a thing I wonder in summer, as the days go long and the children get filthy, and there’s sand in everything, and we’re so tired, but we keep going, because summer only lasts so long, and a terrible thing would be to give up before it did (and it always does eventually…).

So what follows is a list of what works for me with writing and being home with my children. And naturally, I recognize that I am privileged that I get to be home with my children in the summer, but before you assume it’s all too cozy, remember that I make my living from work that I must fit in around fiction writing and my children (and dentist appointments, and laundry, and shaking sand out of things) in the summer, and it’s all very busy and a juggle, but I also wouldn’t want it any other way.

  1. Write first. In the summer I have to work in the evenings after my children are in bed to make it all happen—but I never ever save my writing for that time. Because the writing is the work I’m accountable to no one else for but myself, and it would be so easy to just decide to wait until tomorrow. So I make it my first priority.
  2. Set a word count. This is why I like first drafts, because it’s quantifiable and finite. 1000 words a day works for me, and I’m experienced enough by now to know that those words don’t even have to be good—that’s what subsequent drafts are for. But this one is just to show me where there the story is going.
  3. Make my children part of the process. I make my writing a family affair, and my children know that by giving me the time and space to get my 1000 words done, they’re helping to make my story happen. When Mitzi Bytes came out, it was a big deal for both of them, because they knew they’d played a part in the book’s creation.
  4. Don’t talk about it until it’s done: I love Instagram, and take my #todaysteacup photo every day—see photo above. But I don’t post the photo until my writing session is finished—it’s a reward to myself. Don’t be #AmWriting unless you’ve written.
  5. Keep going: I’ve talked before about how I took up jogging the same summer I wrote Mitzi Bytes, but that I quit jogging because I hated it, right after I burst into tears in Queen’s Park because I hated it so much. Except for the hating part, for me jogging and writing a novel are pretty much the same. JUST KEEP GOING. One foot/one word in front of the other—it’s as simple as that. It’s such a little, manageable thing when you break it down like that. Don’t stop. You can do one more word, and then another and then another. (Although if you find yourself bursting into tears in the middle of a sentence because you hate it so much, remember that you’re also allowed to quit. To do otherwise would be stupid.)
  6. Read: I had nostalgia last weekend because I remember reading Emma Strab’s The Vacationers on the July long weekend just as I’d started writing Mitzi Bytes—I loved that book, and it inspired me. And then I went back to my blog to see what were the books I’d read just before it, and they were Based on a True Story, by Elizabeth Renzetti, and Mating For Life, by Marissa Stapley, neither of whom were my friends at the time, although now they are, which isn’t the point, but instead that I wrote a better book because I was inspired by books that were doing the kinds of things I wanted to do.
  7. Shut the door. As I’ve written before, I don’t actually have a door, but there is a metaphoric one that my children have learned to observe and respect. I also continue to make sure the snack bin is full so that their needs are taken care of. But in the meantime, I’m busy, and they know that, and they’re cool with that…
  8. …Because they’re really happy watching Teen Titans Go on Netflix!
  9. Day camp! They’re doing a week of full-day camp and two weeks of half-day camp this summer, and I’ll be motivated to use that time like nobody’s business.
  10. Keep it low key. We do fun and local (and often free!) free things in the afternoons once I’ve met my word count. Truth be told, we are a bit boring, but summer is about boring, in addition to Netflix, and as long as the freezer is stocked with popsicles, nobody seems to mind.
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