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Pickle Me This

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.

May 22, 2018

Mitzi Bytes and Margaret Drabble

This essay is exceedingly whiny, but makes a point worth underlining, which is “The book industry is partly kept afloat by a shadow economy in which the main currency is bullshit.” It’s true. For example, I could tell you how my Mother’s Day present was a road trip to Furby House Books in Port Hope (which is such a wonderful place!) and how I arrived to find Mitzi Bytes on their Staff Picks shelf like that was ain’t no thang. But it was a thang. Plus, and most importantly, they knew I was coming, which was undoubtedly how a book that’s three seasons old ended up there. Also it is a very good book, and I’ve been grateful for Furby House’s support of it since its released, but still. A shot of my book on the staff picks shelf (now autographed—there’s even a sticker!) does not count as full disclosure. There’s always more of the story to tell, and even the best bits are difficult to appreciate when and if they finally happen. It’s like that line from a Bob Dylan song, “What looks large from a distance close up ain’t never that big.”

Not everything needs to be big though in order to be appreciated. I think the key to keeping going in a creative career, in any career, is to pay attention to the small things, to mark your milestones, to not write off any of the tiny miracles it would be so simple just to take for granted. Like the photo above, a photo of Mitzi Bytes on the shelf at Furby House Books. In such excellent company—what a thing to share shelf space with the likes of these books. What spectacular company, basically everything I ever wanted and everything that I never quite dared to believe could come true. But there is one title in particular that stands out here, the reason I took this photo in the first place. That yellow book on the lower shelf, far right: Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises (which I loved, remember?). Margaret Drabble who made me want to write novels like no one else ever has—the first book of hers I read was The Radiant Way, which I discovered when I was still young enough to be impressionable but old enough to get it. (Rohan Maitzen just wrote a great post on the book, although she did not love it as I do.) I remember reading her books for the first time like I was discovering the world—but I was also discussing the limits of my talents and abilities and the hugeness of ambition at the very same time. It was a lot to comprehend. And so to see my book alongside hers years later is almost too incredible to be properly understood. It sounds overstated, but it isn’t. If someone had told me years ago that this photo was a thing that could possibly happen, even with the main currency of the book industry being bullshit, I would have considered this success beyond my wildest dreams.

My point being that sometimes it’s possible to arrive; it’s just the trick of remembering to notice once you get there.

May 10, 2018

My Door is Always Open

“A mother must make herself always available. A writer needs to shut the door.” —Alexandra Schwartz

  1. The only two doors in my apartment are the bathroom door, whose lock is broken, and my children’s bedroom door, which does not actually shut because the door frame is warped.
  2. When we moved into our apartment, I made an office in our garret, which is a strange narrow room adjoining my bedroom, but it was very cold and lonely there and I never wrote a thing.
  3. I have a tea towel upon which is printed the cover of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and it hangs in our living room (which has three windows, but no door).
  4. Before I had children, I worked 9-5 at a job that wasn’t very interesting and had no time to write.
  5. I am not saying a woman needs to have a A Room of One’s Own tea-towel hanging on her living room wall in order to live a rich and fulfilling life. There are many ways to live a rich and fulfilling life. But this is what works for me.
  6. When my first child was born, I was desperately unhappy. I thought that motherhood would be the thing that saved me from monotony and humdrum days, but it was worse. And so there was nothing left but writing, which I had no choice but to do with all my might.
  7. I never had anything to write about before I had children. I remember talking about this with a friend over sushi about ten years ago, about how I didn’t think I’d be a good writer until I’d experienced motherhood, the way it raises the stakes. I didn’t have a big enough investment in the world before that. I was living on a limited plane.
  8. That limit was my limit. My friend with whom I was eating sushi is not a parent and did not need to become one in order to be a brilliant writer. There are lots of ways to do this thing.
  9. Sometimes I think that people mix up “having a newborn” with “motherhood”. It is true that having a newborn is a bit like being sent to prison/being tortured/transformed into a piece of human furniture, but it doesn’t last, and the only problem is that the first time it happens you don’t know it doesn’t last.
  10. My children are nearly nine and five. I don’t have a door and so my door is always open, but my children are usually doing other things in other rooms.
  11. My first major success as a writer—a published essay wins second place in a contest, is runner-up for a National Magazine Award, appears in Best Canadian Essays, is noted by the UTNE Reader—is about motherhood, and therefore if I’d never become a mother I never would have written it.
  12. Admittedly, all this is more complicated for women who find literary success before they have children—they have something to lose, I suppose. They need to learn to work in a different way. The decision is more perilous. And yet, to think in terms of peril is possibly overdramatic. It will be fine. It will be fine.
  13. My first book was an anthology of essays I edited about motherhood. It would be unlikely that I’d have taken on this project had I not become a mother. I edited this book while lying on my couch, my laptop propped on my legs while my baby slept on my chest. It was one of the best times in my life. Sometimes she napped for ages, and I got a lot of work done.
  14. My other child was at kindergarten. My children are four years apart. I am lucky to have been able to plan this all very carefully, to have my plans work out, for the time and balance I needed in order to be a mother, let alone a mother of two.
  15. My baby no longer sleeps on my chest. Now she goes in kindergarten too. When my first daughter was born and my world was torn asunder, I used to hear other mothers say, “And now I can’t imagine my life without her.” And I thought this was lunacy. I kept thinking instead about my baby, “Where on earth did you come from and what are we going to do?” But nine years later, I firmly can’t imagine my life without either of them. And there’s also this dawning awareness that one day I’m going to have to, because it won’t be too long before they’re living lives that have very little to do with me at all.
  16. I wrote my first novel during the summer of 2014 while my one-year-old napped and her big sister watched Annie on the sofa beside me every single day and I wrote 1000 words at a time. Everybody was doing her job.
  17. Everything I’ve written since I’ve written at the kitchen table, and there’s no one else home, and I’ve grown accustomed the quiet.
  18. I don’t have another job. This is an important part of the story. Working full time, and being a mother, and being a writer is really really hard. That said, a lot of people do it. But that’s a different kind of story than the story I’m telling here.
  19. I don’t have another job, but I’ve been able to build a freelance writing career where I earn a respectable living. I am very proud of this. I’ve also been able to fit that a career around taking my children to and from school every day, other appointments, cleaning my house, grocery shopping etc. etc. There is a misconception being a writer and being a mother without another job means one spends her days, well, staring out the window and dreaming, but I can’t afford such luxuries. I’ve got a business to run. And I have to vacuum.
  20. I’ve been really lucky. I have a partner who works full-time, but who has the flexibility to share the load and support my work. I have children whose needs so far have been fairly undemanding. For other parents, it’s much more complicated and much more work.
  21. I’ve been lucky but I have also worked very hard.
  22. The stories of women who choose not to have children (or who don’t even get the privilege of making that choice) are as interesting and worthwhile as the stories of women who do have children. That said, when those women’s stories are defined in opposition to those of women who are mothers (i.e. they are sometimes made to feel that they, unlike mothers, are doing womanhood wrong) it sometimes misses the point that even women who do  go with convention and have children are made to feel that they too are doing it wrong, everything, all the time. Motherhood is no escape from this.
  23. The choice not to have children is complicated though, this is true. Once the children arrive, they’re kind of undeniable. Whereas choosing not to have children, as a friend once told me, is a choice you have to make over and over, and that’s not easy.
  24. There is this push to universalize everything that happens to a woman. But sometimes our stories are just stories, instead of facts or even destinies. 
  25. “But when we paraded through the catcalls of men and when we chained ourselves to lampposts to try to get our equality– dear child, we didn’t foresee those female writers,” said Dorothy Parker. I think about this quote a lot, because sooner or later when they’re talking about those female writers, someone is going to be talking about you.

February 9, 2018

Author’s Day, by Daniel Pinkwater

Being an author always seems like it might be a little bit glamorous, which I know because I spent a large part of my life wanting to be one. Back in the days before I knew that your favourite author “spending an afternoon signing” at a big box bookstore really means she’s sitting lonely at a table, trying to coerce strangers into purchasing her book via fledgling sales and marketing techniques, unless she was JK Rowling, which she usually wasn’t. I have never spent an afternoon signing books at Indigo, mostly because I do not overestimate my own popularity and also I read that essay years ago by Margaret Atwood about signing her book in the socks department at Eatons. My first experience of encountering my novel in a bookstore only underlined to me that being an author is an exercise in mild humiliation. I’m still pretty raw about the reading I did in 2014 that nobody came to. Although I felt better after I did an event with a wildly successful author not long ago who gave me a dirty look when I suggested that all her events were well-attended—maybe the problem wasn’t just me. And also after I read Billie Livingston’s beautiful essay about a US book tour event gone wrong that ended up going oh so right. About “the spark that connects far-flung strangers,” which is why we write at all really, and the great privilege of putting a book into the world.

I don’t know if I ever thought that being a children’s author might be a less humiliating experience than publishing novels for adults, but Daniel Pinkwater’s book Author’s Day suggests that it isn’t. I also don’t really know how Pinkwater managed to publish Author’s Day, unless maybe he’d given some publishing executive’s toddler the Heimlich Maneuver and the book was payback for the favour. Because, from a child’s eye view, Author’s Day is not particularly appealing. It’s a picture book with two-page text-only spreads. The story itself is passive-aggressive as all get-out, angry, mean and completely self-serving—and I love it. My children find it weird and a little bit funny, but I think it’s brilliant. I found it in the library about a year ago, and then absolutely had to have a copy of my own, which I was able to purchase on Amazon for a penny.

The plot is this: it’s Author’s Day. A banner is hung. Everybody at the school is very excited about the visit of Bramwell Wink-Porter, author of The Fuzzy Bunny. Except, “I did not write The Fuzzy Bunny,” says Bramwell Wink-Porter to himself when he reads the banner. “The name of my book is The Bunny Brothers.” When he informs the principal, Mrs. Feenbogen, she suggests, “[P]erhaps you can talk about The Fuzzy Bunny, even though you did not write it.” In the school library, there is a box of books for Bramwell Wink-Porter to sign, and the books in that box are Bunnies for Breakfast, written by Lemuel Crankstarter. But before anything can be sorted out, Wink-Porter is dragged off to the kindergarten where numerous sticky children insist on hugging him and feeding him pancakes with pieces of crayons in them. And then he arrives in Grade One, where the children have dressed up in Fuzzy Bunny Masks and Fuzzy Bunny hats. They ask him questions like, “Was it hard to write The Fuzzy Bunny?” And then he goes to the staff room, where a teacher gives him a sandwich that was the favourite sandwich of the fuzzy bunny in The Fuzzy Bunny.

“I did not write that book, you know, said Bramwell Wink-Porter.

“I am Mrs. Wheatbeet,” said the teacher. “I have written a book too. It is called Bunnies in Love. I have it here. It is nine hundred pages long. I wonder if you would read it while you eat your lunch… If you like, you can give me your address… I will bring you the book and I will wait in the car while you read it.”

…Another teacher sat down. “I am Mrs. Heatseat. I think it is wrong that animals do not wear clothes. I know you agree with me, because the Fuzzy Bunny always wears a raincoat.”

The fourth and fifth graders give him drawings of the Fuzzy Bunny on large sheets of paper with coloured chalk that gets all over his clothes. They let him pet their class bunny, who bites Bramwell Wink-Porter on the thumb. And then he goes to the sixth grade.

The sixth graders were waiting in the library. “Hey, doofus!” one of the sixth graders shouted. “You’ve got a slice of bologna stuck to your shirt, and there is coloured chalk all over your clothes!”

They end up tying Bramwell Wink-Porter to a chair.

And suddenly I feel better about everything, and very much not alone.

November 20, 2017

Shut up, shut up, shut up

I’ve been thinking a lot about interviewing lately, mostly because I’d like to get better at doing them. Mostly because if I get better at interviewing, the proportion of time I spend listening to my own voice and wanting to die while transcribing will decrease, which is always a good thing. And because there’s a lot about being a better interviewer that is synonymous with being a better person in general, an ongoing project of mine. Becoming a better interviewer means becoming the kind of person that people want to talk to, which is always useful kind of person to be at dinner parties and other social gatherings (or so I imagine).

Before an interview I did last month, I asked a group of writers for any interviewing wisdom they might want to impart, and I received some excellent advice, including to go over your interviews very critically and apply that feedback to do a better job next time, and I think it really worked for me, because I did another interview on Friday morning which I’m about to transcribe now and there is a possibility I won’t want to die once while listening to my recording of it. It helped that the person I was speaking to was utterly fascinating and generous with her thoughts and ideas, of course, but it also helps that I really worked to obey the voice in my head commanding me, Shut up shut up shut up.

I am a pretty good conversationalist. And I am a downright superb monologist, for that matter, but that is very different from being a good interviewer, a good listener. Part of the problem is that I have to fight my reflex to crack a joke every time one seems readily available. Which that is also called interrupting. You don’t have to be funny, was something else I was telling myself on Friday morning, and it kinds of goes against my religion.

Not all my interviewing downfalls are symptomatic of my character flaws, however. It occurred to me while I was shutting up on Friday morning how much I feel compelled to interrupt as a kind of affirmation, an act of empathy. To say, Me too. Me too. I know exactly, and then proceed along a tangent with an anecdote to demonstrate just how much I do. I think the motivation here is genuine kindness as much as it is self-absorption, but it’s also such a faulty communication mechanism. Empathy has its limits, it does. Because we can’t ever really know exactly what another person is going through, and to suggest we can instead of taking the time and effort to genuinely listen and learn is ultimately counter to the project—if the project is connection.

And the project should always be connection.

November 15, 2017

In the middle of a reno

The novel as a house is one of my favourite metaphors, and one I’ve used often to explain my experience of working with editors—the way they can open a door and show you that your house has a whole wing you never knew. But right now as I’m at work on my new novel’s third draft, I’m thinking of the metaphor in another sense: I’m in the middle of a reno.

Chapter Two, and a lot of the furniture has been moved move out, put into storage (i.e. into a word doc on my desk top). And we’re knocking walls down, putting in windows and skylights—and basements, ever digging deeper. Raise high the roof beams, carpenters! I have actually, literally, installed a hearth. Lifting up the floorboards to see what’s underneath them, and inside the walls—all the parts of the structure that have been present all along, just waiting for me to find them. The process is fascinating, almost mathematical, the way all the pieces have to fit together, the necessary strength of the structure underlining it all. Knock, knock. Is there integrity? Is this a supporting wall? And if it isn’t, would it matter if we ripped the whole thing down?

There is also a dumpster on the lawn, for all the inevitable detritus. Delete, delete. All the lines I wrote in order to understand what I was thinking, but now that I know, I don’t need them anymore.

June 23, 2017

Rosie and Michael, by Judith Viorst and Lorna Tomei

I’ve spent this week finishing up the second draft of my new novel, whose title at the moment is I Wish It Were Tomorrow. That title is actually the last line of The Hating Book, by Charlotte Zolotow (and if this title remains and my book is published, this will make for me two-for-two for novels inspired by works edited by Ursula Nordstrom). The Hating Book, like my novel, is a story of the complicated nature of friendship, about friendship’s necessary flip-side, which isn’t the opposite of friendship, exactly, but simply part of it. To expect to lines to run strictly parallel forever and ever is an awfully high expectation. And even when the course of a friendship does run smooth, things can be complicated. It is to one’s friends that one is not always the kindest. And it is that way that friends are like family.

Rosie and Michael, by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Lorna Tomei, first published in 1974, was not a book I was familiar with until Harriet’s class recited it in their school’s spring concert last month. Harriet’s line was, “I worry a lot about werewolves, and he understands.” And oh, is there anybody else who can illustrate the full spectrum of human experience—the good, the bad and the awful—as well as Viorst, author of classics such as Alexander and the No Good Very Bad Day and I’ll Fix Anthony? She gets the quiet rage of childhood fury better than anyone, and can frame it within a context of love and security, which isn’t easy. Judith Viorst would know that friendships can be complicated: “Just because I put a worm in his tuna salad sandwich doesn’t mean that Michael’s not my friend.” Exactly.

We are coming up to the end of a very good school year for both children, and a more difficult ending than we had the previous year in which both Harriet and Iris were returning to the same teachers. Iris’s teacher, the inimitable Tracey at playschool, who introduced the concept of “friendliness” into our lives in a way we hadn’t experienced before. Why don’t we hit, bite, stomp through people’s gardens and act out when we are cranky? Because it’s not very friendly, Tracey has taught us, along with the idea that friendliness is a way of being in the world, a general level of approachability, giving other people a break, giving other people space, even. To be friendly is to reach out to somebody in need, to give a hug to somebody who is sad, to smile at a stranger, to pick up litter in the park, to hold a little kid’s hand firmly when the little kid is crossing the street. A lot of it is about taking responsibility for one’s own actions. A lot of it is about being kind.

Harriet in grade two has had similar yet, appropriately, more advanced lessons about friendliness and friendship in her class over the past two years. Her teacher, Ms. T, has subtly and yet powerfully gone to great lengths to nurture a sense of community in her classroom and sense of responsibility toward the wellbeing of others. I will miss the unique dynamic she has created in her class, which has made for such a positive experience socially for Harriet, who has learned about appreciating difference and finding what’s in common, about working together and supporting each other. The children in her class seem to be inclusive and welcoming, playing together, letting quirky kids be quirky and appreciating those quirks—Harriet’s classmates have been incredibly avid in supporting her hedgehog obsession, for instance. The class is united as a group, and doesn’t become divided along gender lines, and I’m so grateful for the friendships Harriet has been able to have with the boys in class. They’re an incredible group of unique and funny personalities, and part of that is why they work the way do, but so much more is also because of the deliberate approach of her teacher.

All this occurred to me at the spring concert as I listened to then reading Rosie and Michael, what a perfect story is this for this group, this celebration of friendship’s elasticity and solidity at once, and how these relationships become the foundation of the people we are. And it occurred to me too that I have a lot more work to do on my novel, to get at the nuance, amazing singularly, friction, synchronicity, and care involved in sharing a friendship over many years. But still, I’m getting closer.

April 12, 2017

All Just Fine

I read Jennifer Weiner’s essay collection Hungry Heart in the fall, intrigued by it because while I’ve found some of Weiner’s books really interesting, it’s her authorial persona that continues to fascinate me—and also drive me mad. The way she complicates things, which is also to say that she messes them up. She’s can imperfect candidate. Sometimes she’s so smart and right on—and then pushes it all a little too far. There is a line, and she crosses it, or rather, she tap-dances up and down it. Which, theoretically, I should be delighted by, women who occupy spaces in between, who stir things up, who persist. But with Weiner, it’s not always delightful. With Weiner, sometimes it’s me going, “Jennifer, no.”

But I had a revelation recently, about Jennifer Weiner. And that it’s while I’ve been making allowances for a long while for crotchety, dislikable, annoying, rude and awful women in public life—because it is highly likely I am going to grow up into such a thing precisely, and it’s in my interest to nurture spaces for such women in the world—but I wasn’t offering Weiner the same consideration. Displaying the same prejudices Weiner has been railing at for years—against lightness. For women who’ve forsworn the usual female templates, I’d forgive nearly anything, but I keep demanding conformity of Weiner, and being disappointed when she doesn’t comply with it. And then it occurred to me that it wasn’t necessarily that she was being inconsistent, but maybe the problem is that I was.

Weiner’s essays themselves though were the first revelation, fascinating insight into her character, her background, the struggles in her life that have left her starving—for affection, validation, for sustenance. The fact underlying so many of them being the thinnest skin, a furious yearning for everyone to like her. She is so sensitive, and no amount of success can take care of that. “Jennifer, no” is what I was thinking again. You’ve got to grow a rhinoceros hide.

Which is easier said than done, of course. Jennifer Weiner knows that. Although I didn’t, not really, not until a month ago when my novel was published. And while it’s been a month of incredible highs and the kinds of experience many authors only get to dream of, success brings with it complications. Some friends of mine—Heidi Reimer, Suzanne Alyssa Andrew, Carrie Snyder and Maria Meindl—ran a panel last year called “The Shadow Side of Success” (and if you’re a TNQ subscriber you can read it here and if you’re not, see Heidi’s post) about those complications and I was grateful for it as my pub date arrived, figured it would help in preparing me for the spectrum of experiences. And it did, but it also didn’t. The same way, I suppose, you never know the ways in which you’re going to fall to pieces when you have a baby. I mean, you know there will be dysfunction, but how will it manifest, is the question. And I bet it’s different every time.

I’ve been having a tough time these last few weeks, which is ridiculous because I’ve also been having a glorious time. It’s been a joy to have my novel received by the world, by readers who get it, by great reviews even. But I’ve also had those peak moments of joy followed by moments of the most melodramatic despair imaginable. Highs can be rough, of course, because everything after seems like a come-down. And I’ve found myself feeling profoundly sensitive, vulnerable. The number of perfectly stupid things that have managed to hurt my feelings these last few weeks are too high to count. And suddenly I have a new level of sympathy for Jennifer Weiner. I can’t imagine how terrible it must be to be a writer when you’re as predisposed to being sensitive as she surely is. Publishing a book, as I said to someone recently, is a bit like turning yourself into a walking talking gaping wound. It’s not pretty.

Which was why I was heartened by Shawna Lemay’s Transactions With Beauty post this morning, “A Proper Cup of Tea”. Balance is the thing I’ve been struggling with, not that there isn’t goodness, but how do you put it together with all the rest? Make a whole? Once again, I’ve thinking about in-betweenness, but not necessarily tap dancing. I want to be thinking about grace.

And Lemay writes, “So there you are, walking with your sorrow and your joy, teacup balanced in hand, on the path that has heart, walking impeccably. No one said it would be easy. But the key is the wholeheartedness. The key is that you will constantly need to right yourself.”

She writes, “The key is that this is all just fine.”

March 8, 2017

My Book in the World: The Keeping It Real Edition

I’ve long dreamed of the moment I would first spy my novel on sale in a bookstore, and I’ve looked forward to it. On my way to an event a bookstore tonight, I had a fleeting thought that this could be it, that I might see my book on display, for it’s been spied out-and-about and turning up in people’s mailboxes before the release day on Tuesday. It might bring me to tears, I thought. This was kind of exciting and I was feeling pretty uplifted anyway after a vigorous walk on this chilly night, walking west as the sun set. Inside the store, I only felt better. How extraordinary to be a part of this, to have a book. I eyed the stacks on the display table, books selected with care, books whose stacks I’ve selected purchases from many times. Soon, I was thinking, my book will be among these. I imagined how cool that stack would look. I took a moment to see if it in fact wasn’t already there. I checked out the spot on the shelf where my novel would live, right there between Ted Chang and Chris Cleave. Already it was such a magic space and I envisioned the look of my book’s spine. Little Book, I was telling it, which wasn’t entirely sensible since it’s a book and wasn’t even there, but there you go. There is so much waiting for you. 

In my experience, being published is a roller coaster of highs and lows. There were the gorgeous reviews from actual people, and the readers who connected with me, and the thrill of connecting with booksellers, and then there were the events that literally nobody comes to. Like that story about Margaret Atwood signing books in the sock department in Eatons. There is a Margaret Atwood story about every kind of humiliation that solely exists just to make us all feel better. I remember headlining a sparsely attending event not so long ago and sending my husband a text message a few minutes before showtime: Oh my god, this is terrible, why do I keep doing this to myself, oh my god oh my god, the humiliation, I want to die. 

It was a bit like that, that moment when I first spied my book on sale in the bookstore. Moments before I’d been feeling pretty good about everything, still a bit stunned at the book’s appearance in Hello Magazine last week, anticipating stacks and stacks on tables, mobs of school girls chasing me down streets like Beatlemania. It was all kind of inevitable. And then there it was, my book. I’d know that spine anywhere and I spied it across the room, which is a good sign, I guess. We wanted it to “pop.” But there was a problem. I was standing in the children’s section. What was my book doing on the shelf in the children’s section? And why was there only one sad little mis-shelved copy and was this a systemic problem and my book was going to be shelved in children’s sections into perpetuity?? Oh my god, had everything gone wrong?

I picked my poor little book off the shelf and cradled it in my arms, and slunk up to the bookseller in total shame. “Um, this is kind of weird,” I said. “But, um, I wrote a book, and it’s on the shelf, but it’s not on the right shelf.” “Where was it?” “YA,” I said. “But it’s not YA?” I shook my head. “Well, what is it?” “Fiction, I guess.” This was unbelievable. Didn’t this person read Hello Magazine? I thought you were all eagerly anticipating my book as much as I was. I thought I would walk into the bookstore and alarms would start blaring, and not even because I was shoplifting.

She checked the system. There was no reason the book should have been mis-shelved in YA. I was so mortified. “I mean, I wasn’t, like, looking for it, or anything. But I just saw it there, and I don’t know how impressed you might be with it if you were looking for YA. Not that I’ve got anything against YA. I mean, some of my best friends write YA.” This was totally totally terrible.

“Well, you can put it on the shelf, I guess,” she told me. It wasn’t really the climax I’ve been waiting for my whole life. It was more like I wished the ground would open up and swallow me up, and my book. (I should have known. I have known well for quite sometime that being a writer is nothing less than a series of abject humiliations.) But I was holding the book, that lonely little book, and it wasn’t like I was going to buy it. And so I shelved it, between Ted Chang and Chris Cleave. It looked good, but that didn’t help much. I took a photo, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was only taking the photo anyway to accompany the inevitable blog post about this terrible, painful experience that I am only writing in order to make something worthwhile of it. And to make me feel better.

“Oh, do you want to sign it?” the bookseller asked me as an afterthought.

My answer was a definitive no. Somehow it didn’t seem appropriate, and I didn’t have a pen.

February 22, 2017

Where I’m Calling From

My book exists in the world, it does. I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s being couriered to my house this morning and so at some point in the not-distant future I will be holding it in my hands. Which I’m looking forward to, and not, because I much prefer anticipation to the fleetingness of a single moment. When a carton of The M Word anthologies arrived on my doorstep three years ago, I cried and cried, and not necessarily because of happiness. I remember feeling like kind of a fraud, because I’d published this book, but it wasn’t really my book, and while I was proud of it (and I still am) it felt somehow illegitimate. Would I ever be a real writer? And this, of course, is always the question.

And yet somehow I am a real writer, if the definition of the term is that I have deadlines coming up, just so I don’t have a single moment to take a breath before the book’s release. Which I’m not complaining about. The alternative would be no deadlines, and then I wouldn’t be a writer, and so I go forth, making it up as I go, which is the only way I’ve ever gone. In this way, being a blogger has been a tremendous boon to my writing life. Making it up as we go is our raison d’être.

Thankfully, apart from the flurry (and gift) of work, everything else is quiet—knock wood. We spent a long and low-key weekend partaking in the weird Spring-in-February weather, which I refuse to feel bad about because weather is weather. You take what they give you. The children continue to be funny and interesting, and also very very loud, but we know where they got that from. And the books pile up, and so many of them continue to be exceptional, original—there’s no running out of ideas yet. I love to read. I do so love to read, better than I love almost anything.

“Would you choose me or books,” my family asks me, and I always take the former, but not before hesitating. And not without some reluctance.

How fortunate we are to live in a world where both is not necessarily a spoil of riches.

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Mitzi Bytes

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