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Pickle Me This

May 22, 2019

Ten Years is What

“Parent time is like fairy time but real. It is magic without pixie dust and spells. It defies physics without bending the laws of time and space. It is the truism everyone offers but no one believes until after they have children: that time will actually speed, fleet enough to leave you jet-lagged and whiplashed and racing all at once. Your tiny perfect baby nestles in your arms his first afternoon home, and then ten months later he’s off to his senior year of high school… It is so impossible yet so universally experiences that magic is the only explanation.” —Laurie Frankel, This is How It Always Is

I remember ten years ago, the weeks leading up to this weekend, a mysterious “here-be-dragons” date on the calendar. I remember sitting in the chair in my living room and the books I was reading—The Girls Who Saw Everything, by Sean Dixon, and The Children’s Book, by AS Byatt, which I binge-read all day on Monday May 25, because the book was a hardcover, big and heavy, and I was having a baby in the morning, and if I didn’t finish it before then, I knew I probably never would.

Our garden was huge and overgrown that year, and I am sure I could see the top of the forsythia from my second floor window, where I sat sitting reading these books and waiting for the day to arrive, anticipating an unknown I couldn’t properly comprehend, which was even incomprehensible in itself. One afternoon while I was sitting there, uncomfortable and enormous, a ladder appeared at the window, the housepainter I’d not been expecting, and that was day our blue house turned yellow, and now I don’t properly understand that it had ever been any other way.

The arrival of double digits is a momentous occasion in the life of a child, a kind of pseudo-legitimacy, and as a parent it is also cause for reflection. The containment of a decade is a remarkable thing, finished and solid, and all the lifetimes it has managed to hold, which was what I didn’t properly understand when Harriet was born ten years ago and my world was thoroughly rocked in a way that felt terrifying and dangerous. Because I hadn’t understood how everything would always be changing, how nothing would ever stand still again. I thought it would always be like this, those broken nights that stretched out long as my baby cried and cried, long and lonely days, and the weight of my ineptitude. The first book I read after her birth was Tom’s Midnight Garden, which seemed congruent with my own disorientation. On June 9, 2009, I wrote about the book, “The secret world wherein the clock strikes thirteen, and I feel like I’ve been there lately, up with the squalling baby who refuses to eat properly or be satiated. ‘Only the clock was left, but the clock was always there, time in, time out.'”

But those days were only ever a moment, though it didn’t feel like it at the time, and there would be moments after that were different, and I began to understand how much of being a parent is standing in the middle of a whirlwind. The person who my child would become as much of an enigma as parenthood had been in the first place, and now it’s hard to understand that that baby and the nearly ten-year-old girl who lives in my house are the actually same person. How is that even possible? Her very existence as miraculous as it has ever been, but also that she has existed in thousands of incarnations, which is weird because hasn’t it only been about ten minutes since I was sitting in that chair?

When Harriet was born, words failed me. I wrote about the greeting card verses that read so hollow, and all the cliches that didn’t work for me—the people who couldn’t imagine their lives without their children, who were “over the moon.” Although I didn’t properly understand it until after the fact, I was very unhappy and felt like I’d lost the ground beneath my feet, and was struggling to make sense of this new world that I’d arrived in—and imagining it all was permanent, that things would ever after be broken. I imagined my life without my child all the time, and missed that life—how carefree and easy it had been. I hadn’t anticipated the labour of motherhood. I’ve never had to work like that before, and it didn’t satisfy. It should have been enough, I told myself, that I had this healthy child, which I’d thought was all I wanted, but reality would prove more complicated. And complicated realities has been my salient lesson of the last ten years. There is so much I never knew before, my limits more close at hand than I’d ever imagined.

But ten years on, some things are simpler. So much isn’t, BUT the certainty with which I can say now: I can’t imagine my life without her, or her sister. I’m still mystified that they’re here at all, that we can go and make new people, and that they’re here, but also that they weren’t always. Is that even more impossible? That I had a life without them? Because I can’t fathom it, my life without the richness my children bring me. Two of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, and perhaps I’m biased because they’re mine, or else that’s just the result of knowing somebody ever since they took their first breath, and having spent year-after-year watching them grow into such remarkable human beings.

The thing about becoming a parent that is so fascinating but also excruciatingly boring for everybody else is how the most ordinary things become miraculous—pregnancy, childbirth, crawling, walking, growing, talking, reading, writing, arguing, questioning, learning, and then when they start telling you things—the moments when I feel like this is what I came for. My daughter knew all about the Winnipeg General Strike, and when I’ve got a question about insects or small mammals, she’s the one I turn to, and she’s the only person I know who read more books than I do, and her jokes are super terrible, and she’s much less proficient at magic tricks than she’d like to be, but she did a presentation in front of her whole school about climate change, and read almost all the Silver Birch Fiction picks, and she goes to Guide Camp, and she plays piano, and (most of the time) delights in the company of her sister, and she asks the best questions, and challenges me in good ways (and bad—full disclosure), and I’m just so glad she’s here, and I don’t think I will ever stop being dazzled by the fact that she’s here. Who she has been and who she is ever becoming.

May 21, 2019

Gleanings

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April 26, 2019

Revelations

Remember in January when I was listening to Amanda Laird’s podcast and it changed my life? I’ve been talking for years about turning my blogging workshops into an online course. I’ve wanted to be more deliberate in my blog and my social media platforms. And there was one other absolutely wild fantasy that I’ve had forever and ever…but more about that in a moment…

Remember what I wrote in January, about how marketing was kind of gross…but what if I was really using that idea as a place to hide for fear of failing? If you never try, you’ll never fail, and you’ll never win either, but not failing is a kind of winning—but what if it isn’t?

And it’s not like I don’t know failure. I have two new novels in the bag [or in the drawer; time will tell], another in the clearance bin, and exist in a state of publication limbo, which is why thinking about ways to be more active in my own success was becoming important to me. 2019 began and I had nothing specific to be excited about, which was the very worst thing. I don’t even know how to move forward in that situation…which is why I was very susceptible to the message of that podcast I was listening to in January, a conversation with Amanda Laird and Kelly Diels. I was looking for something, for permission, for inspiration.

Here’s what being a blogger has taught me: absolutely everything about making it up as you go along, figuring it out in pieces, step by step, and always learning, always growing. Trying and failing and trying again.

Blog School is launching in September. (Are you signed up for the mailing list yet??) I’m writing the modules from scratch, and I’m so excited (yay!) and also so happy to be this confident that I have an excellent product to offer.

In terms of my second goal, I really have gone back to the blog, and I’m loving it—and I’m contemplating ideas like selling ads and thinking about how to boost my audience (but not by changing the kind of work I do here) and I’m really excited about all this too.

And finally, the wild dream. A wild dream that I cut down to size so it would fit properly into the life I have and not be overwhelming. A dream that is still in the pilot project phase, and there’s so much learning ahead, and figuring stuff out, but I’ve been happy to have others put faith in this project, which will be bolstered by their expertise (and also by mine!). All will be revealed in the next six weeks or so, but here’s a glimpse of what’s happening in the meantime—or a piece of a logo at least….

I guess this is really happening!! Stay tuned…

March 12, 2019

Gleanings

Do you like reading good things online and want to make sure you don’t miss a “Gleanings” post? Then sign up to receive “Gleanings” delivered to your inbox each week(ish). And if you’ve read something excellent that you think we ought to check out, share the link in a comment below.

December 3, 2018

Dear Evelyn, by Kathy Page

Dear Evelyn, by Kathy Page, is a novel so good that last night I was full of nostalgia because it had been a whole week since I was reading it. And I was reading a very good novel last night too, but still, I was sorry to have been a whole seven days away from the remarkable experience of having been absorbed in Page’s award-winning book, which I read in two two-hour sittings. It’s the story of a marriage, the story loosely inspired by letters between Page’s own parents, some of which actually appear in the novel, making authorship an interesting collaborative endeavour. Beginning with the birth of Harry Miles, who grows up between the wars in London, the reader aware of the inevitability of his trajectory toward battle himself. But first, Harry meets Evelyn on the steps of the Battersea Library, and they fall in love with the same urgency as the world’s preparation for war, another kind of unreality. They spent most of the first years of their marriage apart, as Harry takes part in training and departs for war in North Africa. Seemingly-pivotal scenes—their wedding, Evelyn’s first pregnancy, the birth of their daughter—take place outside the narrative while Page focusses on the quotidian instead, the ordinary dailiness that Harry so longs for when he is away at war and longing for his wife.

And long for her he does, resisting temptation from other women when he’s far from home, and when he returns and settles into civilian life, the attraction between them is still strong. It’s not that this is a love poorly thought out, marry in haste, etc, but rather that life is long and love is complicated. And what is so astounding about the novel is how Page manages to show that complicatedness without compromising either of her characters. She shows how love and marriage can turn into something else as husband and wife continue to become more and more themselves as they age. It’s not that Evelyn changes—it’s that she never does. That strong personality that Harry continues to admire in his wife for so many years becomes a force that eventually pushes him out of his home, and the force is devastating—and yet he still continues to love her. And Evelyn herself, who is indeed herself but to a fault, and how her character traits borne out of struggle and deprivation during her childhood eventually leave her utterly alone. No wrenches need be thrown into this plot line, is what I mean. Or maybe what I mean is that that’s just what life is, a wrench. And characters themselves are just along for the ride, for better or for worse.

Dear Evelyn has a wonderful, effortless sweep, moving its characters from their hearty youth on to their nineties, including just the right details to show how the world is changing around them. Here, the novel benefits from Page’s experience as a short story writer, which is reflected in the novel’s episodic structure, the ease with which it moves from scene-to-scene and accumulates story without becoming bogged down. Short story writers are expert at efficiently fitting big ideas into small packages, which is how—in just 300 pages—Page is able to contain a century; two wars; two fully realized, flawed and complicated people; a rich and tumultuous marriage; so much love; and the pride, rage and resentment that keeps so much from ever being properly expressed.

September 25, 2018

Moon of the Crusted Snow, by Waubgeshig Rice

“‘Yes, apocalypse! What a silly word. I can tell you there’s no word like that in Ojibwe. Well, I never heard a word like that from my elders anyway.”

The first sign that something is wrong is the home satellites stop working, TV screens gone dead. “We might actually have to have a conversation,” Nicole tells her partner Evan when he comes from hunting a moose, and they will pass the evening without their usual entertainment. And by the morning, they’ve lost cell phone service, cell towers a pretty recent arrival in their remote northern community anyway—only built because contractors for the south wanted a signal while they built the hydro dam, and the tower stayed even after they were gone. But there’s no signal now, and soon the landlines will stop working, and the power grid will cease to function. Which raises two big questions: What has happened to the rest of the world? And the more immediately pressing one: how will their community get through the winter?

On the latter point, Evan has some advantages—he can hunt and has been storing food; he’s been reconnecting with the traditions of his Ancestors and this wisdom will guide him; and he and Nicole have built a stable life for their family, which will provide the emotional sustenance necessary to survive a dark and barren winter. But they are challenged when Southerners begin to arrive in the community, fleeing the devastation of towns and cities in the south—one of these men in particular is dangerous. And other members of the community prove to be susceptible to this man’s influence, which begins to divide them at a time when cooperation is essential.

Moon of the Crusted Snow is Waubgeshig Rice’s third book, and it’s gorgeously designed, the story itself quiet and subtle, but fast-paced with heavy overtones. Evan’s reconnection with Anishinaabe traditions as his community is becoming disconnected from the world around them sets up an interesting disjunction, and Rice shows the ways that he has consciously woven these traditions into the life of the family he’s created with Nicole, and how these connections serve them when the situation becomes particularly dire. Evan is also learning the Ojibwe language of his people, and this language is included seamlessly in the text without the use of italics or translation, which offers the text an additional layer of meaning to those who can read Ojibwe—does “zhaagnaash” really mean “helpful friend” I wonder, when used toward Scott, the man who has arrived in their community with big guns and survivalist tendencies?

And yes, there is no Ojibwe word for “apocalypse,” which Evan learns through a conversation with Aileen, an Elder whose teachings he carries with him. Aileen explains to Evan that their world isn’t ending—it already ended long ago when settlers arrived. “When the Zhaagnaash cut down all the trees and fished all the fish and forced us out of there, that’s when our world ended.” But they survived—this is her point. They learned to adapt, and to survive, even as their children were taken and abused in residential schools for generations. “But we always survived,” she tells Evan. “We’re still here. And we’ll still be here, even if the power and the radios don’t come back on, and we never see any white people ever again.”

The ending of this novel is powerful, unexpected, and while deeply satisfying, it’s also ambiguous in a really fascinating way. Moon of the Crusted Snow is a terrific, gripping novel, and one of the highlights of my literary autumn.

September 12, 2018

Unabashed

I remember the first time I had courage to stand up and confront an anti-abortion protester. It was the summer of 2015 and I’d just dropped off Harriet at day camp, and the year before I’d published an essay about how becoming a mother taught me everything I knew (and was grateful for) about my abortion. Which meant that I’d thought about abortion a lot, and was comfortable talking about mine in public, and had a lot to say about my experiences, actually. Even though I usually shy away from conflict, and don’t get off on debate just for the fun of it (because, unlike a lot of anti-abortion protesters, it’s my bodily autonomy we’re talking about. These ideas, for me, aren’t abstract, and I will probably cry). These people are able to dominate the abortion conversation like they do because most of us don’t know how to talk about our abortions in public (and why should we have to? We don’t require men to issue public defences of their prostate surgeries). But I’d had enough to having these people be the loudest people when we talk about abortions, of their taking advantage of civility and politeness to scream the loudest. I was ready to talk, and so I did, and it was exhilarating, and terrifying, and very empowering to be able to tell this young man holding a sign: “I KNOW MORE ABOUT THIS THAN YOU DO. YOU’VE GOT A SCRIPT, BUT THIS IS MY LIFE STORY.”

Unfortunately, however, arguing with these zealots gets you nowhere, and while it feels good not to be silent, these conversations are always a waste of energy. So I had this idea that maybe I could make a sign, and luckily I’m married to a standup guy who makes signs for a living (among other talents) and so I said to him, “What if you made me a pro-choice sign I could fold up and carry in my purse? So I could have it on my person at all times in case of an emergency, and be there are represent and have my voice heard, but not have to talk to these abusive nefarious creeps that get off on turning women’s private experiences into public spectacle?” And my husband said okay, and he designed my sign and had it printed, and I’ve been carrying it around for nearly two years now, but there’s that rule about only ever having a thing when you don’t need it. I’ve not seen anti-abortion protestors since the Christmas I found my “My Body My Choice” sign under the tree. Which I wasn’t sorry about—maybe the sign was like some sort of repellant, and in that case, good riddance. I had my sign and women in my neighbourhood were free to walk about the streets without the abuse of gory and misleading photos of fetuses.

But no repellant lasts forever, it seems, because today I got word of the usual suspects setting up shop a few blocks from my house. So I walked over there, where a respectable counter-protest had been set up by Students for Choice and I was honoured to join them with my little sign (and my actual life experience, which is short on the ground on the pro-life side). And there I stood for an hour as people said thank you and others rolled their eyes at the display, and men stood behind me having rhetorical arguments on the matter of my bodily autonomy and didn’t seem anything ironic about that. As I said so beautifully in all-caps on Twitter: “Do you know what’s more arbitrary than Canada’s lack of an abortion law so that abortion is a decision between a woman and her doctor? AN ABORTION LAW DECIDED BY SOME RANDOM GUY ON THE SIDEWALK.”

This morning I read Anne Kingston’s article about plans afoot by the anti-abortion movement to make their cause a political issue everywhere, and it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying, because the most of us are going to continue to be civil and polite and let them continue to dominate the discourse with misrepresentation and lies—all the while our reproductive rights are eroded. But my daughters—who would not exist were it not for abortion and the choices I was free to make—deserve to have the same freedoms that I was lucky enough to be able to take for granted. And it’s not even just about them, or about abortion either—THREAD, as they say: “Reproductive justice is about bodily autonomy, it’s linked to racism and immigration and incarceration, it’s about classism and supremacy, it’s all connected to climate change and accessibility and colonialism…” writes Erynn Brook.

Reproductive justice is linked to everything, and it’s about standing up and speaking out for our rights right now. As unabashed as we want to be. About this, there is no choice—it has never been more important.

June 13, 2018

An Ocean of Minutes, by Thea Lim

So the book whose spell I’m currently under is Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes, which is just another one of your usual time travel/flu pandemic/post-apocalyptic fare. (Ambitious, yes?) It’s 1981, and Polly and her boyfriend Frank are stuck in Texas where he comes down with the illness that will kill him unless they can secure life-saving treatment. And the only way to pay for this treatment is possible is for Polly to sign a contract to travel into the future and becoming a bonded worker for TimeRaiser, the company that invented time travel and which is now bringing workers from pre-pandemic America into the future to help rebuild the nation. So Frank and Polly agree to meet again in 1993 and she departs from 1981 at the Houston International Airport: “The only thing remaining of familiar airport protocol is the logistical thoughtlessness of the curb: once you reach it, the line of unfeeling motorists waiting behind you means only seconds to say goodbye.” Twelve years. “It’s a quarter of a blink of an eye in the life of the universe.”

But the process is not straightforward (and there have been rumours about TimeRaiser; plus Polly is one of the few skilled workers—an upholsterer—on the journey, and most of her fellow travellers are women Polly thinks might be Mexican, women who don’t speak English, who are even more desperate than she is) and Polly arrives not in 1993, but in 1998, and in a reality nothing like she’d expected. The pandemic has destroyed infrastructure and industry, societal order has collapsed, and the only hope for Texas is health-tourism for the affluent, and Polly will be employed refurbishing furniture for the new resorts because there are no means to manufacture new things. She’d last seen Frank in 1981, just days ago, and then weeks, then months—but it’s been seventeen years for him in a world that’s become a nightmare. Will he even be waiting for her? And if he is, how will she even find him?

There is nothing straightforward about the passage of time, which is why stories about defying chronology through time travel continue to fascinate, and why a telling a story outside of chronology can add such richness to a text (i.e. how Lim’s novel moves back and forth between Polly and Frank’s life in Buffalo from 1978-1981, and to Polly’s journey alone in 1998 Galveston). What it means too that the future Polly travels to in An Ocean of Minutes is set twenty years in our past—historical speculative fiction? And the metaphor that the seventeen years Frank has to wait is but moments for Polly—but isn’t time like that? And isn’t love? How long does one wait? How far does love go?

The people Polly encounters in 1998 are ruthless and awful, which is probably why they’ve survived, but at what price? There is no beauty in this craven new world, in which workers are slaves to the TimeRaiser corporation. Polly enjoys brief moments of connection with the people she encounters, but many of them end up betraying her—mostly to save themselves, or boost themselves, at least. She ends up losing her privileged job and accommodations, and going to live among the women she’d come across at the beginning of her journey, working to cut tiles for swimming pools. And although everyone she encounters has stories of people they were to expecting but failed to be reunited with, Polly refuses to give up on Frank, and it seems like she’s keeping the faith for everyone.

There’s so much going on this book, including passages of wondrous prose and attempts to answer the question of where love goes when it’s over. What are we do with memories? And what about mementos? Early in their relationship, Polly wonders by Frank’s tendency to keep things, souvenirs of their love—does he think their love will end, she wonders? Does he hold on things because of a lack of faith? And yet even Polly longs to preserve their perfect moments, just to hold them. And yet the hours, the minutes, the seconds—they just go and go and go. So is it remotely reasonable to expect love to be a thing that stays the same?

I had to know what happened, so I kept reading, reading, gripped. But (unusual for me) I didn’t flip to the end, just to check. I didn’t want spoilers. I wanted to find out what would happen, but all in good time, and I had faith in Lim’s storytelling—so I held on, and was so impressed by the extent of the allegory, about race and gender, migration, capitalism, environmental and the perilous balance of so much that we take for granted.

I loved this book, and how it turns another time into another country, but doesn’t it always seem that way? So far away, and yesterday, and it’s as though you could almost get back there, and you nearly know the way.

June 5, 2018

Comedy Girl

A thing I’ve learned recently is that a really good pair of sunglasses (plus lipstick) can do remarkable things for one’s self-esteem. Pictured above is me en-route to my comedy debut (and retirement) last week, the recital for the Comedy Girl Toronto class I signed up for way back in the fall and was terrifically unnerved for when April came around and the class was no longer theoretical. But I did it, slowly, slowly. In the first week, I learned that telling a funny story was not the same as telling a joke, and by the fourth week I was concerned because my jokes still seemed at risk of never becoming funny. It was also a remarkable thing to be a novice, to be a student in a classroom for the first time in years. The first class was strange because I had to swallow my instinct to be a smart-ass and make wisecracks, because I was not the funny one. None of us were the funny ones, although we all secretly fancied we were, or else why be there in the first place—but if we were already funny, what was the point. And so I shut up, and listened, and followed directions, and piece by piece our acts started coming together (although only half of our class would make it to the finish line). I worked so hard on my jokes, changing word orders, recording it over and over again—and I began to identify with the adult students in my university classes who I always resented because they were such keeners and made the rest of us look bad. If I can’t be funny, I thought (because the lesson of the class is that I’m less hilarious than I think I am) at least I can be unbridledly enthusiastic? Two weeks before the end though, I came up with a joke that was actually funny, which was a tremendous milestone—maybe one day I’ll tell it to you. I also memorized my whole set, which was a feat I didn’t think I was capable of, because I have a hard time remembering a ten-digit-phone number. And Wednesday night was the triumph, our grad show, which was so terrific because the audience was kind and generous. It was the best, and I’m pretty proud of having risen to the challenge. Grateful to the friends who came to the show as well, because taking an evening out for someone’s amateur comedy show is no small thing. I am certainly a lucky lady.

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.

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