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Pickle Me This

March 9, 2018

Sugar and Snails, by Sarah Tsiang and Sonja Wimmer

A thing that has surprised me lately is how much so many people seem to have invested in archaic systems I wouldn’t have thought give us much to cheer for, systems like colonialism, white supremacy, and the patriarchy. It’s a thing I’ve only been able to be surprised by, really, because I’ve gone about for 38 years in the world with white skin, an able body, financial stability, among other advantages I’m lucky enough to take for granted, which means there is a whole lot of living that I’ve never seen. Although I’m still a bit nostalgic for a few years ago though when I thought there were just a handful of stupid people who talked about things like “reverse racism,” and we just laughed at them—but now there are hordes who get outraged because a fruit stand puts up a sign that says “Resist White Supremacy.” A UK department store decides not to label children’s clothing by gender, and people go bananas. Which means that this is a particular cultural moment to publish a book critiquing what little boys and girls are made of (“frogs and snails and puppy dogs tails,” and “sugar and spice, and all things nice”), I think. I’m anticipating a backlash to Sarah Tsiang’s new picture book—Sugar and Snails, illustrated by Sonja Wimmer—that involves furious anti-PC women shoving puppy dog tails down their poor sons’ throats.

I’m anticipating the backlash because a) obviously, I’m kidding b) people are stupid and c) what Tsiang sets out to do in her story, she accomplishes so well, Wimmer’s images underpinning the whole project with a foundation of pure magic. (Sarah Tsiang is also author of the amazing picture book, A Flock of Shoes, among others, and magic is kind of her forte.) The book’s first image is a tapestry upon which the traditional rhyme has been cross-stitched, and then we see an older man with a boy and a girl, presumably his grandchildren, and the grandchildren are having none of that gender binary nonsense—the side-eye from the girl when she’s accused of being made of sugar and spice is pretty epic. And her brother wants to know, “What about sweet boys like me?”

But their grandfather is struggling to remember how it goes—”Pirate and dogs and noisy bullfrogs”? Are girls made of “Snails and rocks and butterfly socks?” And suddenly they’re all making it up together, a world where boys are made of “lightning, and newts and rubber rain boots” and girls are made of “boats and whales and dinosaur tales.” Wimmer’s illustrations literalizing the nonsense rhymes so that we see the kitchen filled with water as the boy wades in his rain boots and his sister swims as a whale (and everywhere there are teacups and teapots, which means this whole book is so up my alley I feel like I live within its pages…) There is also a reference to chicken butts, which means the children are totally on board, although they were pretty enthused in the first place. And never before has the patriarchy been bashed with such whimsy and a spirit of fun.

The book concludes with the tapestry image from the first page, but the children have pulled out many of the threads. Which means the work is still half-done, of course. Sugar and Snails inspires us to keep on imagining new possibilities for what boys and girls can be.

March 8, 2018

The Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas

Book Cover Red ClocksThe week before we went away when I was sick in bed, I was reading Leni Zumas’s The Red Clocks, which I purchased after reading the review in The New York Times. I wasn’t reading it with an eye toward review, and I honestly wasn’t sure how I felt about it as I made my way through the novel—it’s a strange narrative, constructed of five different women’s voices that would have been “woven together” in another book, but this isn’t what’s happening here, and it wasn’t until close to the end of the novel that I really understood how the pieces were fitting. I really liked it, this novel about a dystopian America situated a week from now in which abortion is once again illegal.

“She was just quietly teaching history when it happened. Woke up one morning to a president-elect she hadn’t voted for. This man though women who miscarried should pay for funerals for the fetal tissue and thought a lab technician who accidentally dropped an embryo during in vitro transfer was guilty of manslaughter. She had heard there was glee on the lawns of her father’s Orlando retirement village. Marching in the streets of Portland. In Newville: brackish calm.”

It’s fitting, really, that I was unable to see how the voices in the novel were fitting together, because I don’t think they were supposed to fit together. Zumas does interesting things with the idea of women being in competition and opposition with/to each other, and how difficult it is to support other women who make different kinds of choices. Mostly because, I think, we’re often told that there is not enough to go around and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the point of the The Red Clocks is that ultimately, our fates are all connected whether we like it or not, and that as a woman there is very little that can happen to women that in the end has nothing do with you. Zumas makes this all the more meaningful by connecting fertility and infertility to the abortion question, which I’ve realized it really should be, all being about questions of choice. In the book, a high school teacher has to figure out whether or not to help her student obtain an illegal abortion, all the while she is undergoing to fertility treatments (but not IVF, which has been outlawed) and being made ineligible to adopt at the government brings in rules stipulating that all adopted children have two parents (because what are all these laws about but keeping women from controlling their bodies and shaping their lives after all…).

There’s a whole lot more to it than that, fascinatingly, and it’s all very stranger and weirder than you might expect, but also not at the same time. I liked this book a lot.

March 7, 2018

Women who say no

The most feminist thing I’ve done lately was send an email including the line, “It sounds like a great event, but to do the job effectively it would take up a bunch of my time and I can’t afford to do that for free.” A line that sounds straightforward in its delivery, not unfriendly, and kind of obvious, even, but to write that line was the result of a whole lot of thinking and some necessary urging to do something that was brave. Because I think that we all need to do a better job of valuing women’s time. People in general need to do this, other women need to do this (i.e. stop sending messages to strangers asking if you can buy them a coffee in exchange for “picking their brains” [and ew!]), and many of us need to do a better job of doing it on our own behalf. Which is to say, we need to start feeling okay about saying no to opportunities that aren’t valuable ways of spending our time. We have to stop feeling obligated to say yes, to help out, to step in, and be of service. Women have to stop feeling grateful to be asked at all, to be noticed.

But it’s complicated, of course. Ten years ago I recall requiring all the opportunities I could get as I was building my writing c.v, and any visibility at all was a huge deal, a confirmation that I existed as a writer. I also am eternally grateful to many people (mostly women) who’ve been so generous toward me with their valuable time over the years, writing guest posts for my blog, reading my manuscripts, having me interview them, who’ve written reviews of my work for pennies or even for free, and who—out of the goodness of their hearts and for community building purposes—have organized events I’ve been lucky to take part in. If everybody was always putting a monetary value on creative work and the hours in their day, I don’t know that I’d have gotten anywhere at all.

And so this is the reason why I’m always happy to repay favours, to support friends, to write effusive blog reviews about a book I’ve no connection to except that I really really love it and I think everybody needs to know about it too. As a blogger, I don’t get paid for my creative work on a regular basis—and I’m okay with that, because I’ve found other ways to make my blog useful for me and also my blog has led to paying professional opportunities to supplement the work I don’t get paid for. (I also really like blogging, and the opportunity to spread the word about books that I love.) And as an author, I’m happy to do anything at all to promote my book—I will write an article, answer your Q&A, rent a car and drive to Durham Region, and even consent to talk on the telephone (which, in my opinion, is asking a lot). I know there is not an abundance of money in the publishing industry, and most of us are doing most of what we’re doing out of goodwill anyway.

But I still think it’s a lot to ask someone to host an event, for example, to launch a book whose author one has no connection to. That’s an evening out of my life, cost of transit, plus all the preparation to make sure I do the job properly, plus all the necessary anxiety that goes with standing up in front of a room full of people (and the matter of hair and make-up, and what I am supposed to wear). It’s also a lot to ask me to read your manuscript. It’s a lot of ask me to be a juror and read the 12 books on the shortlist for your book prize. It’s a lot to ask me to answer your list of questions about how to make it in publishing, or to interview you at your book launch or on my blog, or to blurb your novel by Sunday.

If you are my friend and/or I admire your work, I will probably be happy to do these things, to pay forward the goodwill I’ve been fortunate to benefit from over the past decade. If I have actually agreed to do any of these things for you in the future or the recent past, it was because I wanted to. And I do think that if people want to make these requests of writers, they should feel free to do so—what’s the harm in asking? But they should also be cognizant of just how much they’re actually asking for (a lot!), and be both comfortable and unsurprised when the person being asked declines because of the reality they’d be getting absolutely nothing out of the experience.

I’ve never forgotten Lynn Coady’s 2012 article that pertains to this very issue, about how liberating it is for a writer to learn to say no: “with every ‘no’ that’s uttered, the easier it becomes to swim past the breakers of passive-aggressive reproach.” I think that Coady’s article is also an article that only a woman could have written—valuing men’s time seems more instinctual for many of us; in general too, we tend to ask less of male writers, who have fewer expectations upon them to be available, accessible, because they’re  so busy holed up in their garrets being geniuses instead of relatable; and because of the garrets and not being relatable, they’re probably more adept than women writers are at saying no and then not feeling badly about it for days and days.

Along with all the women who’ve supported me and my work, the women who’ve said yes, I am also grateful for the women who’ve said no, for the example they set for the kind of savvy and self-preserving, self-respectful artist human I want to be.

March 6, 2018

We Went to England!

When I go on vacation, I usually like to put up a post and tell you so, to remind readers that there is indeed a human being behind this blog who sometimes needs a holiday, and also so I don’t leave you hanging (and having to head over to Instagram to find out just what I’ve been up to in the last five minutes). But about three weeks ago, I made the fatal error of noting that I hadn’t been ill or even really had a cold in ages and ages, which meant it was inevitable that I’d become sick a few days later. Three days before we were set to depart for a trip to England, I was in terrible shape and confined to my bed, and the prospect of an international flight seemed impossible. Fortunately two days in bed meant there had been some kind of recovery, in that I no longer felt like I’d been hit by a truck, but I had to lie down frequently on the way to the airport, and by the time we got there I’d developed a fabulous rash all over my face. So all this is to explain just why a review of Kim Fu’s The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore has been hanging out here for ages. But then it’s such a terrific novel, maybe/definitely it deserved to be.

But the better part of the story is that we went to England! And losing an entire night of sleep left me so discombobulated that my body forgot I was sick and the rash mostly cleared up, and we were ready for all kinds of adventures that would not be deterred by the weather event titled, “The Beast from the East,” to be followed by the less-intimidatingly named “Storm Emma.” We were happy to be staying on the northwest coast, where the weather conditions were not so severe, and really just meant that everywhere we went we didn’t have to queue for things. Our AirBnB was in Lancaster, and it was fantastic—with an actual hot tub. And it was not so wintry on our first day there, where the sun was shining and there were flowers in the windows. We explored the city centre, happy to be in the company of Stuart’s mom and sister, and our tiredness mostly just had the effect of making us all laugh hysterically at stupid things. We hiked up to Williamson Park, which afforded beautiful views of the city, and delighted in the butterfly house and the animals in the zoo there, and then took turns on the zip line.

On Tuesday we drove (our amazing little Mercedes hire car!) to Stuart’s town by the sea, and had ice cream cones in frigid temperatures. We had our first experience looking for English beach glass, until the beach got too cold and we had to go in.

On Wednesday winter had arrived with a vengeance, and we took in the snow-covered hills of Yorkshire on our way to Ilkley, which is one of our favourite places in England, where we partook in afternoon tea at Betty’s and on the way home the kind people at the Pennine Service Station all worked together to figure out how to open our bonnet because we’d run out of windshield fluid.

On Thursday, we all went to Bowness in the Lake District to see the Beatrix Potter Attraction and eat lamb shank in a pub, and we had the best scone of the week (we had many) at the Cornish Bakery there.

And on Friday we had another pub lunch (our children are confused and now thinks their auntie only has lunch in pubs) followed by delicious ice cream cones, and then Nana and Auntie Jen took the children to the Blackpool Sea Life Centre while Stuart and I went looking for bookshops. (More about the bookshops in a following post.) And then back to Stuart’s parents’ house for fish and chips, which were so delicious.

On Saturday, we went into the city centre for the Magic of Harry Potter Exhibit, and Harriet got to hold an owl whose variety was the British Little Owl, which is the cutest name ever. And then one more pub lunch with Auntie Jen—this time with a cheese board—and we really loved Lancaster so much. Then we drove back to Stuart’s parents’ down the narrowest road of our entire vacation (which is saying something) and I wasn’t even terrified. We spent our last afternoon there, and I got to read the Saturday Guardian (with all the supplements!) and then had a roast dinner before heading to Manchester for an airport hotel stop. And then getting up at 5:30 am (but they were already serving our continental breakfast and we got to have it!) and heading to the airport for the long trip home, via Amsterdam, where we had the most delicious lunch in an airport ever, and then I spent $17 on cheese.

It was a wonderful week, so good to see our family, discover new places, and eat delicious things. And now we’re back and getting over the jet lag, and happy to settling into ordinary life again, and to be reminded that ordinary life is pretty darn nice.

February 22, 2018

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, by Kim Fu

I’ve read twelve books this month (so far!), barrelling through each one with gusto. They have been so good and I haven’t encountered a bookish dud in weeks and weeks—which meant that Naben Ruthnum’s recent tweet really resonated with me: ‘You haven’t “lost the ability to read,” you are just being lazy. Fuck the neuroscience, leave your phone in the other room and have some discipline.” YES. Or else you’re reading all the wrong books? Maybe I should be selecting your books for you, books that will recovery your ability to read—and top of the list is Kim Fu’s second novel, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore. It’s a novel shaped like no other novel I’ve read before, original, heartbreaking, subtle and resonant. Packing a whole lot of story into a couple of hundred pages, I have no doubt that this will be one of the best books I read this year.

Imagine a novel about summer camp, about a kayaking trip gone terribly wrong, a novel that holds within it the span of a life like The Stone Diaries did, except there are five lives. Nita, Andee, Dina, Isabel and Siobhan. Ten-years-old, the dynamics between them are complicated, alliances and enemies emerging in the relationships between any relationship proper. And then the first chapter ends, and the reader finds herself sweeping through the next three decades of Nita’s life, what happened (or, as the book is constructed, is still going to happen) at camp just one detail among many that informs the person who Nita becomes. Or is it so incidental? Which is the question about which Fu’s narrative hangs.

Every other chapter outlines chronology of the camping trip, interspersed with the story of who each girl becomes—puberty, high school, friendships, sex, independence, marriage, motherhood—years and decades going by at a clip but Fu pinpoints her details so well that these chapters are each like a novel in themselves. (Some of the girls’ lives are more elusive than others; we see wha happens to Andee, the “scholarship camper” through the prism of her sister’s experiences.) And then once we get to end of the novel and know what happened to the girls on their trip, those children, those hapless (maybe?) re-enactors of Lord of the Flies, each woman’s story is cast in a different kind of light. And just a note that what actually transpires on the trip is kind of banal in its disturbingness—or is it? Is it more disturbing that this story is banal? All of which is to say that those with an aversion to stories about children in peril need not avoid reading this book. Nick Cutter’s The Troop this is not, and they don’t encounter any witches in gingerbread houses. That they don’t need to is a testament to Fu’s craft though, as she is making a lot here out of very little. Or making a little out of a lot, and this is the question the novel hangs on in the most fascinating way.

February 20, 2018

Ten Years on Lucky Street

All last week I was nostalgic for ten years ago, our miraculous trip to San Francisco. 2008 was an incredible year, somehow the pieces having come together for us enough that we could fly to California on a whim. We were both making good salaries, beginning to leave our nomadic twenties behind us with relief and gratitude, lived in a city we loved with many good friends—and, beside the point, but still it was kind of magical, I was also effortlessly thin, which is nice for a person to experience a few times in her life. Of course, not everything was magic—we were still in our twenties enough that our jobs made us bored and unhappy; I had written a novel that wasn’t the triumph I was hoping my creative writing masters degree would culminate in; it was the grossest, iciest winter ever, and you couldn’t walk up the sidewalk without falling; plus the neighbours in the basement kept having explosive arguments, terrible crashes as they’d hurl their “LIVE LAUGH LOVE” and “JOY AND PEACE” signs at each other in the middle of the night. We were going to have to move before one of them set the house on fire, and besides, we wanted to have a baby, and do something about our jobs because if we didn’t they could last forever and that was not the kind of life either of us wanted to live. 2008 was the edge of everything, particularly meaningful as we sped down the Pacific coast on the edge of the continent in a rental car, and we knew it in the moment, so much of what we were experiencing rich with significance, possibility and lasting effect. Nothing was inevitable and anything might happen.

I’ve written before about the very first Family Day in 2008 when, high on California, we decided to make some changes about the way we were living our lives, and these changes set us on the course to this precise moment. Ten years ago this April we moved into this apartment, which has been so good to us, the most wonderful home. Dreaming of the children we were going to have, the first a daughter who turns nine this spring. Ten years ago this summer we painted her bedroom, which she now shares with her little sister, sleeping in a bunkbed that’s far too big for the room, because we didn’t measure it, but then we never measured anything. Which makes the miracle of how well it’s ended up fitting together all the more momentous. We have been so lucky—those two funny people doing prikura in the Japan Centre Photo Booth in San Francisco thought they knew, and they kind of did, but they had no idea either.

February 16, 2018

(Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love

I saw the worst thing ever two days ago, which was an Instagram account where one photo included the following caption: Happy Anniversary to my adorable hubby! I love the life we created together including our fantastic son:. #ad”. Another photo was of a bowl of soup and a link to a post about how blogging had allowed this writer to find her passion and make it her career, and that passion was for, apparently writing posts about canned soup, and there’s even a giveaway to win $500 so you can get started on following your dreams and writing about soup too. “Love what you do! Keep chasing your dreams!” chimed her commenters, who are surely part of a weird scheme of override Instagram’s algorithm, because I can’t think of any other reason so many people loved the soup post. Which didn’t even mention the soup, which is a travesty, because I love soup, and could read about soup for days. 

This Instagram account seemed unreal in more ways than one, and was particularly resonant for me just one day after I’d finished reading Brooke Erin Duffy’s (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media, and Aspirational Work. Loving what one does and chasing dreams were a recurring theme in Duffy’s interviews with fashion bloggers, Duffy’s thesis being that there’s a lot of chasing and you sure better love what you’re doing because you’re probably not going to get paid for it, except maybe with soup.

I heard Duffy talk about her book a few weeks ago at the McLuhan Centre’s Monday Night Seminar Series, “MsUnderstanding Media,” and it was a fantastic discussion. One that was right up my alley in lots of ways, and not, at the same time. Or at least that’s what I kept telling myself. Duffy’s ideas about aspirational labour in the fashion blogosphere not entire applicable to where I’m at in book bloggerdom, but still discomforting in a few respects and her book would end up problematizing my own work and ideas in an interesting way.

But still. There are many blogospheres, I remind myself. There are many book blogospheres, as there are many fashion blogospheres, I presume. And as I type this now, having always considered these multitudinous blogospheres a positive thing, albeit difficult to catalogue or classify, I think of the Ellen Ullman book I read a few weeks back, the essay about the internet as the opposite of democracy. Is saying, “Not my blogosphere,” I wonder, the equivalent of saying, “Not my blogosphere, not my problem?” Is relegating the entire internet to a serious of unconnected spheres—each one with a self-absorbed user at the middle—a sorry statement about the possibilities of online connection and the possibility for societal change in 2018?

I wonder. The internet is a blurry place. My friend, Dr. May Friedman, talked about this in her book, Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, when she wrote, “In trying to form conclusions about mommybloggers—and about mothers—I am reminded of my children attempting to jump upon their own shadows: I am attempting to trap an essentially untrappable form of knowledge.” In her book Friedman is more open to the amorphous nature of the blogosphere(s) than Duffy seems to be, open to the potential of the grey areas, to the possibilities represented by blogs being, as Duffy puts it, “murky conceptual spaces.” Although Friedman’s ideas about the radical potential of blogging were based on last decade in the blogosphere. We talked about this the other day and she suggested that perhaps the radical possibilities she’d written about had failed to become reality. So much so that Duffy’s understanding of the blog in 2018 as a hybrid space is devoid of radicalism altogether. Duffy writes, “Portmanteaus such as pro-sumption, produsage, pro-am, and playbour capture the nuanced ways in which production and consumption, work and play, and amateurism and professionalism bleed into one another in digital contexts.” Grossest hybridity ever.

In her book, Duffy is writing about our current moment, “…an era where the web’s non-commercial roots are largely forgotten, buried beneath a veritable heap of sponsored messages, native content, and cookie-tracked conversations.” Except that I haven’t forgotten those roots, roots that are blogging itself, I think. Roots I take my students to when I try to inspire them to write blogs and read blogs, real blogs instead of those pseudo-blogs that have hijacked an art form and turned it into a cheap commodity. #SoBlessed.

Realness and authenticity are indeed blogging’s roots, as Duffy writes, set in oppositional to magazines and advertisements, glossy and posed. Except that even realness been co-opted, underlined by market logic. To be authentic is to be “relatable”, but as a blogger becomes successful she becomes more difficult to relate to and her authenticity becomes a pose. Further, “…for many aspirants, individual expressions get refracted through considerations of audiences; one’s creative voice is synonymous with her commoditized brand…. Authenticity, thus, becomes a means to an end—namely drawing readers and potential advertisers.”

Which is why I tell students to “Blog like no one is reading.” Clever because, for most of us, often no one is. Those superstar bloggers who’ve been able to quit their day jobs and live off the fruits of their leisure/labour/soup are clearly exceptions to the rule. These bloggers have won what Duffy references, via Andrew Ross, as “the jackpot economy.” For the rest of us, we’re going to get paid a pittance, if anything, and this is Duffy’s complaint with the soup we’re being sold, “the dubious reward structures for aspirational labour.” The idea of a “partnership” between a huge corporation and a twenty-three year old woman with a Bachelors degree working out of her bedroom. How calling it a partnership makes it almost seem like fairness, which is another way the labour of blogging is rendered invisible.

And the labour is only intensified by the need to have it all seem so effortless. The work must necessarily be concealed. “I just happened to be doing a yoga pose halfway up a tree,” says the Instagrammer. Except: you had to climb the tree, someone had to take the photo, someone had to buy the camera, fix your dress so that your underwear wasn’t showing… “Their shots are often cannily staged to ensure a particular aesthetic—one that cloaks the staging itself.”  And the statistics are likely that you’re never going to make it to the upper echelons, so what’s the point of all this work? (Me: If blogging is a lot of work, you’re doing it wrong. The point of the blog is to be raw, and unpolished. Immediate.)

Immediacy is the opposite of aspirational, which was what I kept telling myself as I read Duffy’s book about the problem of aspirational labour. Instead of aspiring, I urge the writers in my blogging classes to focus on the immediate. Blogging is about capturing a moment, writing right now. Which is why I don’t do scheduled posts. Which is why I take holidays a few times a year, weeks away from my blog, because it’s good to have a break and also because it reminds readers that there’s an actual human writing here. Which is the reason I’ve been able to maintain my blog for more than 17 years and not expire from burnout. We don’t use our blogs to get to some place better, but instead to be present in the current moment, a moment that becomes obsolete in thirty seconds. To try and fail to capture some of the atoms as they fall.

(Blogging is very much about failure. Imperfection. It’s a project that will never be finished. It’s about typos and weird formatting, and things that seemed like revelation a decade ago that these days make you want to die when you read it. So you don’t. Archives are only nice in theory. But even still, to wish to banish your archive [although you don’t] only means that you have grown, learned, and a blog is a document of that process. Your blog, like your life, is a work in progress.)

But am I an aspirational blogger? Have I been one? I wonder this. When I started blogging in 2000, I definitely wasn’t, because there was no template for blogs as a path to anywhere. I was just glad to have a place where I could write things, and people might read them. I had a voice. It seemed like a powerful thing, and not the opposite of democracy. Around 2004/2005, I was reading a lot of book bloggers, and aspiring to have a blog like that, I suppose—but that I aspired to have a blog like that is not the same as being an aspirational blogger. (Also, at the time I did not have a book blog.) By 2005 I was in graduate school, and did a project on “blooks” (whose title was, “Oh no! Not Another Portmanteau!”). So by this point, I knew that blogs could be a path to somewhere, but I don’t think I ever thought about being on that path. I was blogging for the same reason I’d been blogging since 2000, which was to make sense of things, for posterity, to ask questions. My blog turned into a book blog because my life had turned into a book life, and that’s the way it goes.

In 2007, a publisher offered to send me books. This was the first time I remember feeling vaguely aspirational. I felt legitimized, recognized, more than “just a blogger.” Was I selling out, I wondered? For about five minutes, but I said yes because I wanted books. And I thought about this too as I read Duffy’s book: are  books “product”? Is me receiving books from publishers different from fashion bloggers receiving items for promotion? Maybe, maybe not. I’m thinking towards the latter because I don’t see it as my job to market books. I review a small fraction of the books I’m sent for review. I also obtain books by other means: I buy them, I borrow them from the library. And the people who read my reviews can borrow them from the library too. It’s not all necessarily driven by “market logic.” But when I was listening to Duffy speak, she gave the example of bloggers who make a big deal out of having purchased certain items—as though partaking in capitalism was a more legitimate way to appreciate something. And I do this too, I realize, making a big deal out of the books I buy “with my own money”.

Why I am I photographing my book hauls? Telling you about the bookshops I bought them at? Again, with books, I suppose it is different, and bookshops too—books are culture, the shops are cultural centres. There is an argument to be made that this is distinct from me writing a post about the new boots I bought at Nordstroms. Except that I do frequently write posts about buying things that aren’t books—I love photographing my brunch at cool restaurants I visit. I love tagging locals shops and designers when I’m wearing their clothes. When we got our new couch last month, I was all over Instagram because my couch had its own personal hashtag and I thought the brand was cool, and I was a bit cooler because of proximity. Social media had allowed me to feel connected to these brands, to feel like there was a relationship—which is kind of weird, and Duffy writes about the strangeness of your friends being brands, and brands being your friends.

That I am purchasing items and services from these brands underlines my authenticity though, or so it seems. (Even though I also want you to think I am cool because I have a mid-century modern sofa, for example.) Demands for “purity” means real (or “real”) bloggers don’t do it for the money or sponsorships. Getting paid is selling out. Although isn’t it only fair to want to be compensated for one’s labour? Should we necessarily denigrate someone for wanting to get paid for doing what they love? (Except, of course, one rarely does. One gets paid to write stupid posts about soup.) We turn down our noses at aspirational bloggers. Which means that everyone has to tell the same story about how they became a successful blogger but by accident.

So much of this is gendered. Women aren’t supposed to be aspiring. Also, the “partnering” and the promoting of brands they love is a gendered form of labour with a long history. Women are “social.” Do women face more struggle for trying to get fair compensation for their work? In general, yes. Is shitting on bloggers for “selling out” part of that same pattern? It’s more difficult for women bloggers, I think, because they must necessarily invest their personality in the work they do. (We make fun of self-branding, but also expect women bloggers to give of themselves.) And so the balance is harder, and the terribleness is obvious when the balance is lost—see the soup post, and the Happy Anniversary #Ad. “Authentic” and “real” are terms that get thrown around, but I think that most of us still turn to blogs for the human voice, which has been the appeal from the very start. And when the blogger is writing about things she doesn’t actually care about, the whole point of the endeavour is lost.

I don’t think that blogs can be successful commercial endeavours. There are a few exceptions to the rule—I can thing of a single blogger whose sponsored posts I ever read and shared—but in general, if you want to make money, you should do something that isn’t blogging. Which is why I insist that my students that they should get a pay-off from their blogs in other ways (that are not soup): my blog taught me to write book reviews, to engage deeper with the books I was reading. My blog was useful to me; it still is. And not just because I use it in lieu of possessing a short-term memory. These days I am challenging myself to write a post like a column once a week. I’m still learning from my blog, still growing because of it. My blog serves me, and not the other way around. (See my previous paragraph about blogs being raw and unpolished. About taking holidays). I get around the idea of blogs being unpaid labour by insisting that they shouldn’t take up that much of your time. A lot of professional writers, academics in particular, struggle with this, imagining that ever post demands hours of research, references. Or, I suppose, the labour I wrote about above with the woman doing yoga up the tree—and add to that obligations to promote that post via a lot of social media platforms. If you’re doing that much work and not getting paid for it, it’s not the blog’s fault, it’s your fault.

“But aspirational labour has succeeded in one important way; it has glamourized work just when it is becoming more labour intensive, individualized and precarious,” writes Duffy. I am older than a lot of her interview subjects. I have been blogging for almost half my life, and blogging fits into my life by now as easily as reading does, as breathing does. I am fortunate that my blog has delivered me to a writing career, even though I didn’t see it as a tool for that exactly. I mean, I always wanted to be a writer, and my blog was just a place to exercise, to practice. When I finished my Masters degree and failed to publish my novel, I saw my blog as consolation instead of a launching pad; a place to write that was mine, and where in my moment of failure I could still be creative. Creating. Another thing though: I have a husband with a full-time job and health benefits. If I didn’t have children I would be able to work more and earn more money; but if I didn’t have a husband with a full-time job and health benefits my lifestyle would be severely compromised. I’d be taking photos of fewer stylish desserts on Instagram, is what I’m saying.

But still, it’s easy for me to say that, “Blogging should be easy,” when I’ve got a brand, like it or not, and an audience, a platform. If I was young and just getting started, the rules I play by might no longer apply. Although I like to think that they do. Yes, if you play by them you’re unlikely to hit the professional jackpot, but blogs are inherently marginal and obscure. “Well-known blogger” is an oxymoron, remember? But if you blog by my rules you won’t get stuck doing yoga halfway up a tree. Self-expression won’t become linked to marketability. You will be blogging like no one’s reading, and figuring out what you really mean, learning what your voice sounds like, what you think, and what you have to say. And you might be aspiring, yes, but isn’t everybody? Aspiring to get to the next work, the next sentence. Everybody who writes anything is aspiring to be read.

February 12, 2018

So there is light

So there is light, literally, if not metaphorically. When I headed to the pool at 7am today, the sky was blue for the first time in months, and never mind that I had to crunch through snow and slide on ice to get there, it was undeniable that the sun is returning. Which can even be true even as we spent part of Saturday afternoon standing in a snowstorm at a vigil for Colten Boushie, a young Indigenous man who was shot in the head by a man who has been acquitted by an all-white jury of any responsibility for his death. Even as Canadians pile on the racist hate in online comments (and in the world) and pitch in to crowd-fund for Boushie’s killer and his family. As a white settler in Canada, there is so much to reconcile, and the work is ours, but I am inspired by the people who are doing it and I’m aspiring to be one of them. So there is light there too, as so many of us wake up and stand up and proclaim that justice wasn’t done here. Which is a thing I’m finding I’m proclaiming a lot.

Although I’ve been proclaiming a lot of things a lot, usually with a snarly look on my face. It is February, and it has been such a February, since mid-January, really. And while I don’t mind the fact that we’ve had a real winter to contend with—lots of snow and cold and ice, but what else is winter for?—I am always my very worst self around this time of year, when it’s still so dark and it’s been dark for awhile. I catch myself in a moment and wonder what’s happened to me, why I’ve become such an irritable crank, and then I remember that it’s February. My best self starts to bloom along with the crocuses, which are still weeks off yet, but still. There was light this morning, and we’ve made it to mid-February this week, which is a week I’ve loved ever since they put a long weekend in the midst of it, plus Pancake Day AND Valentines—how can a single week hold so much goodness? In just two weeks we’re going to be in England for a spring sneak preview, where the grass is green and flowers are blooming, and people will complain about the weather but we’ll just roll our eyes at them. And when we come back it won’t even be February anymore.

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.

February 7, 2018

Instagram Like a Mother

On Sunday morning I knew my panel would be on the second hour of The Sunday Edition, so I was listening when I heard Michael Enright say, “And coming up next we have three smart and funny young women…” And, oh there we are!, I thought, speaking aloud to wonder why he’d be calling us young when our collective age divided by three was at least forty. And then by the time I’d finished my sentence, Enright had already intro’d the segment, which was about Instagram and featuring three guests who were each twenty. Another panel. And I was kind of mortified, because the distance between the person you are in your mind (“a smart, funny young woman”) and how the world actually sees you is something usually best kept to oneself.

As I listened to the segment though, I started to be grateful for that distance, for how far away I am from being twenty-years-old. Because while I think of myself as essentially twenty, give or take a decade, and also more than obsessed with Instagram, that I live in the virtual world differently from these women became quite obvious. We might as well have been on different platforms altogether. They talked about their experiences of taking photos, tens and tens of photos, evaluating the angle of their nose, skin tones, and then the next step in the process is sending these photos to a whole bunch of friends to find out which ones should be posted. And the photos that make the grade are posted—but if they don’t receive the requisite number of likes in a moderate period of time, the photos will be deleted. A failure of nose angle, skin tone, and personal brand.

“That sounds like the worst thing ever,” I thought, listening to the women speak. It’s like they took the essence of being twenty—coming up with a tentative self and testing the waters, putting your face in the world and asking, “Could you like me? Could you like me?”—and made it concrete with an app. When for me, Instagram is all about colour, and wonder, and noticing things. It’s about paying attention, and marking a moment, and no matter how mundane my pursuit or photograph, there’s bound to be at least five people in my community who “like” it and they each give me such a boost. It’s about marking days and moments, seeing the ceremony in ordinary things. And even selfies, much maligned, have made me grow accustomed to and even fond of the way my face looks. I didn’t used to feel like that. Part of it was that I used to be twenty, which is a hard age to have self-esteem at, even with unlined skin and just one chin, which I never appreciated properly at the time, but also Instagram and selfies have helped to decrease the distance between the person I am in my mind and how the world sees me (even if I still overestimate my perception as ‘funny and young’). Instagram and selfies have helped me get to know me better.

“I should teach these women how to Instagram,” I was telling my husband later, the same way I teach people in my blogging courses. To make peace with imperfections, to use the aspirational side of online life to aspire to good things, to use blogging/social media as a space to wander, to grow, to get lost in. To turn the lens outward, and develop your eye as well as your I.  “How to Instagram like a Mom,” is what I’d call it, and seeing as twenty-year-old women these days have a penchant for mom jeans, maybe it might even catch on.

“Or you could call it, ‘How to Instagram in a Way That Doesn’t Make You Want to Die,'” said Stuart, “since that’s what you’re selling.”

“Except they’re twenty,” I remembered. “If they had to make the choice between being like me or dying, they would probably choose the latter.”

Because even though it’s been awhile, I remember that about twenty too.

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Mitzi Bytes

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