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Pickle Me This

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.

October 20, 2016

How to Get Over Literary Envy

so-much-loveMy friend Rebecca Rosenblum’s forthcoming novel, So Much Love, is publishing on the same day as mine is, March 14, 2017. This coincidence is as delightful to me as it is amazing (or even miraculous). Rebecca and I went to graduate school together more than ten years ago, and when I’d read Ann Patchett’s memoir Truth and Beauty later, about friends Ann and Lucy in their post-MFA years when they were “writing to save their lives,” I’d think of Rebecca, who is the most important thing I picked up at school. About the friendships that can form among writers in a  workshop, the intimacy of the experience, for better or for worse.

When our program ended, Rebecca and I started meeting weekly and writing together for a few hours after work at coffee shops and food courts, and this lasted about two years. We danced at her wedding. She brought baked goods over when my children were born. We’ve had brunches and dinners and fun dissecting literary feuds. We’ve attended readings and taken road trips to festivals, and we’ve celebrated the books we loved and moaned about books we hated. And it seems entirely perfect that are books are coming out on the same day because we’ve been going down the same road for so long. Except we haven’t been. And that this never really seemed like the case is a credit to the goodness of Rebecca.

I still have such a vivid memory of buying The Journey Prize Stories 19 in 2007 at the old Book City at Yonge and Charles. I was on my way to meet Rebecca for our weekly writing date, and it was so thrilling to consider that my friend was in a book. This book. I had her sign my copy. (A bird shat on my arm that day, which I dared to believe might be a sign that I could be in a book too.)  A year later, I was there when she set eyes on her very own book for the very first time, the story story collection, Once, which was an award-winner from birth—we were at the Eden Mills Festival. A few years later, I’d get to interview Rebecca at the launch of her second collection, The Big Dream. And somewhere in between then and now I got the chance to read the manuscript that would eventually evolve into Rebecca’s debut novel, So Much Love. (Full disclosure: I loved it.)

You’d imagine it might be hard, watching your friend publish one book and then another, while your own manuscript went into a drawer forever. At a certain time in my life (before I got on such familiar terms with failure), I would have thought so. I remembering reading somewhere (where?) that Carol Shields had declared she did not suffer from literary envy, and thinking about what I would give to get myself to a place where I could say the same. And it turned out that I did not have to give anything at all. I just had to be friends with Rebecca.

How to Get Over Literary Envy.

  1. Surround yourself with good people. Good people are generous in their success and make you feel like you can own a bit of it.
  2. Have a surefire thing. When no one wanted to publish anything I wrote, I still had a blog. It was a thing that was mine that nothing could take away from me. It helped me grow and learn as a writer, gave me an outlet and a platform, and made me feel fulfilled as a creative person.
  3. Keep on doing what you’re doing, but…
  4. Grow. Change. Learn. The best antidote to Imposter Syndrome is to get better at doing what you do.
  5. Paradoxically, success always turns out to be smaller when it happens (and when your friends are successful, you learn this), and yet there is probably still enough to go around.
  6. Take advantage of the fact that everyone around you is smarter and more successful that you are…by taking notes, listening carefully to their feedback, counting your blessings you have access to these founts of wisdom.
  7. Don’t take yourself seriously. Take your work seriously, but not all the time.
  8. Make sure you’re doing what you like, so that even if nobody else likes it, you’re having a good time.
  9. Cultivate friendships instead of connections.
  10. Do your best to fulfil yourself in all the ways you actually have control over. Writing is only a part of life. A side-effect of it, even.

I am so grateful to Rebecca for her friendship over the last ten years, and can’t wait for the world to discover So Much Love. You can preorder it now! 

July 13, 2016

To Sarah Brick, with gratitude

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I’m having a ridiculous amount of fun going through the copy-edits for Mitzi Bytes, which came back to me last week. The feedback is incredible, so insightful, detailed, and nobody has ever read this book so well or carefully before. Sometimes it’s a little mortifying to have it all laid out, just how much you’ve got wrong—but then the gratitude that there’s someone who’s catching all that. But for me there is also the pleasure of reading the book all over again, and reading it at this point in the editorial process, which is the closest I’ll ever come to reading it as a reader instead of its writer. And doing so is reminding me of where it all came from, the little seeds that were planted.

In the years between my daughters’ births, I wrote 40,000 words of a novel, which I don’t think I ever finished. It was a novel about a family in a moment of crisis, each chapter from a different family member. One chapter was “If Life Gave Me Lemons,” which was the only bit that was ever published, and that chapter was very different and disconnected from the rest of the book. Mostly. Except for the part where my character comments that she’s been leaving anonymous mean-spirited emails on her cousin’s mommyblog. That cousin was a sister in the story’s central family, and an unhappy new mother. She was kind of autobiographical, which made the comment that “she was too mean-spirited to be sympathetic” a little insulting when it came back accompanying a rejection I’d received upon sending a chapter to a literary magazine. The novel itself was lacking focus, which is part of the reason I never finished it. Skimming through it the other day, I realized it wasn’t altogether terrible—but then I would appreciate it if we bothered to ask a bit more than that from our books.

The idea of the anonymous blog commenter stayed with me though, even after the novel was abandoned. I thought about it a lot, and this idea morphed into the premise for Mitzi Bytes: forthright blogger begins to question her project and fear for her sanity once she discovers a reader with nefarious intentions. My protagonist, Sarah Lundy, doesn’t share so many qualities with the character she was born from, although they do share a name. I didn’t realize this until I was looking through the old story the other night. It turns out that I am really a bit crap a naming characters, which I am trying to get better at. Reading Duana Taha’s book made me realize that a character with an interesting name inherently has something interesting about her because hers is the name she lives with, and so in the project I am currently working on, I have made an effort to name my characters with more originality. I.e. not call them all Sarah, I mean, although I didn’t even name Sarah from Mitzi Bytes—my daughter Harriet did. This was back when she also named everything Sarah, and in fact had a whole fleet of imaginary dogs called just that. So that’s just how bad my character naming is.

I like that they share a name though, Sarah Lundy and Sarah Brick from the old book. Even accidentally. And I am grateful too to Sarah Brick and her overt unsympatheticness and her hastily sketched, poorly drawn lines, and the failed literary project that she was a part of. Because Sarah Brick proof that nothing is ever really a waste of time. That even if work doesn’t get us to the finish line, it can also be useful in getting us to the place where we can finally begin.

July 7, 2016

Head in the Stars

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Today UofT Magazine tweeted about scientists who inspire us, which reminded me to finally write this post which has been on my mind for awhile. About a month ago, my daughters got Stargazer Lottie (who was inspired by a space-obsessed six-year-old girl AND has been “the first doll in space”), which came with a “Notable Women in Astronomy” poster. But none of the notable women were Canadian, and it occurred to me that I knew of a very notable Canadian woman in astronomy, who was Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg. Whose work I only knew, granted, because she’d had a page in my Grade 8 science textbook and my friend and I used to make fun of her name. Which is ridiculously stupid, but the point is that I never forgot her name, and googled her years later and discovered her story was fascinating. (Do textbook writers know the indirect routes that knowledge might take, I wonder? They would probably be surprised.)

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Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg received her doctorate degree in astronomy in 1931, which is remarkable in itself. Her husband was also an astronomer and the two of them would work together until his death in 1951. Although Hogg’s work was not as valued as she was somebody’s wife, and she was often expected to do it without pay. Her first child was born in 1932 and Hogg kept the baby at work beside her in a basket while she studied star clusters at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, BC. , where her husband was employed as a research assistant. Later that year she received a grant which was exactly enough to pay for a babysitter, and I am fascinated by the idea of how liberating that must have been—and also what it must be to be consumed by cosmic things and have a baby in a basket at once. How does a person reconcile such a vast difference of scale?

Her story would never cease to be cool. After her husband’s death, she took over many of his classes at the University of Toronto, where the family had moved in the mid-1930s. She also assumed ownership of his astronomy column for the Toronto Star, which she wrote for decades (and which was collected into a bestselling book called The Stars Are for Everyone).

There is no full biography of Dr. Hogg. Editions of a science biography for children was published by Michael Webb in the 1980s and 1990s, and while it’s pretty informative, I’m hungry for so much more depth. And so it seems I am going to have to do some of my own digging. Helen Sawyer Hogg’s archives are at the Thomas Fisher Library at UofT, and I think I’m going to have to make some plans to start going through them. In search of what, I am not sure. A creative project? A biographical article? But there is something here, I am sure of it. I look forward to reporting back on just what I might happen to find.

January 20, 2016

Editing Mitzi

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I’m pretty well-acquainted with literary disappointment in all its forms, so don’t think that I’m delusional, but working on this book has never once been less than extraordinarily fun. Which is rare, I think, and I know I’m lucky, and lucky too to be working on something that people are waiting for, that I’m contractually obliged to produce—I can’t quite believe it. And during the mornings that Iris is at school for this week and next, it’s what I’m doing, putting together the latest (the final?) draft of Mitzi Bytes, the pressure on, not much time, and I’m loving it. That the thing in the world I most want to do is the thing in the world I most have to do—how often does that happen?

And it’s a pleasure too being edited—I love it. It occurred to me a few years ago while having an essay edited that having a great editor look at your work is like suddenly realizing that your house has entire wings you never even knew were there. My editor has made suggestions for this latest draft, and they seem so obvious to me now—of course that has to happen. It was always always meant to. I’d clearly intended it, all the scaffolding there, but just needed someone else to show me the way. The collaborative nature of it is so fantastic, and suggests how much of a book exists in its own right way outside of the mind of its writer—though if you’re a reader you already know that, that you are a creator too in this process. The whole thing is kind of a miracle. And it’s an amazing privilege to be creating right here on the front lines.

I finished my first draft just over a year ago (and have written two more since) and it’s exciting to consider how much has happened in that time. And even more exciting to think that in another year, this book will practically be an actual book. By then I’ll know what the cover looks like—seems impossible to behold.

December 11, 2015

The Places I’ve Been

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

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

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

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

See? I have been busy.

November 17, 2015

The Principles of Imperfectionism, and its Inherent Contradictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 16, 2015

A ride in the bucket

IMG_20150820_215945I’m something of a pathological truth-teller, which is a line I stole from Lauren Groff’s new novel, Fates and Furies, the book I’m reading right now. The interesting thing about that line being that the character described has a more ambiguous relationship to truth than the speaker supposes. Which is always the way. Truth is fudgy. I think I only have such a strong affinity for the principles of truth because lies are so easy, the slipperiest slope—and then anything one says ceases to have meaning, and then what is the point?

It’s true though I’m often willing to forsake a bit of truth for the sake of a story. Which is why I wouldn’t be surprised at all to have made up the whole thing, the story of my friend Britt and I driving down a country road outside Peterborough during the summer of 2000. How there was a hydro truck pulled over by the same of the road, a crew working on a Sunday. (At the time, I don’t think I knew the song, “Wichita Lineman”, or else I would have been humming it.) We pulled up alongside, and somehow had the nerve to roll down our window.

“Could we have a ride in your bucket?” I asked.

And I’ll never forget the so-perfect response: “I can’t think of a reason why not,” the crewman said.

And he even meant it.

And so the crewmen paused their work for a moment and gave us each a chance to put on a hardhat and take a trip up in the bucket. Violating more health and safety policies than I can dream up, though I was 21 at the time and didn’t think in those terms. Still though, we knew it was amazing. We took pictures. That vivid blue sky, the wispy clouds.

If not for the photo, I really wouldn’t believe it. I’m not even sure I really remember it happened. That ride in the bucket seems more like a figment. A figment of reality, if there exists such a thing. “I can’t think of a reason why not,” that crewman said—has there ever been anybody else with so limited an imagination? And yet. Perhaps he was dealing with a surfeit, head in the clouds literally and otherwise.

And I mention this story here now because for the past few weeks, I’ve been stuck in the past, working on a story whose roots are autobiographical. All this spurred on by my husband’s application for Canadian citizenship, and how I was rooting around in boxes to unearth his university degree (which confirms his competency in English). I found my diary from my final year of university, a diary that begins on September 14 2001 and is written by a girl who was dazzled and devastated by the world at once. And I found the scrapbooks I so painstakingly compiled back in those years, determined to preserve every single moment. Not yet understanding then that there are so many moments, if we’re lucky, more moments than ever could fit in a storage locker full of scrapbooks. Not understanding then either that I mightn’t want to hold onto everything forever. That there would be so much I’d want to let go.

When we moved back to Canada ten years ago, I got rid of a whole bunch of stuff. Diaries, scrapbooks, yearbooks, tossed out in black plastic bin bags. There wasn’t room for all of it. Who wants to go through life with so much baggage? But I didn’t get rid of all of it. Enough to fill a couple of boxes, from the years that were most monumental. So there would be gaps, big gaps, but I don’t regret it now. I don’t regret the bits I kept either, which become more and more precious all the time. But so too are the gaps, which allow me tremendous freedom both as a writer and as a human being. To let stuff go, to be allowed to forget, but also to fill those gaps with other things—creation.

To go for a ride in the bucket, I mean, whether it happened or not.

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Mitzi Bytes

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