Hunting ghosts: hopefully, not a metaphor

Sometimes, my cat sees things that I don’t see—and yes, this freaks me out. What can a cat see that I don’t see? It can only be three things, really: rodents, insects, or ghosts. Of the three, there’s only one I don’t mind having in my house—and it’s not mice. Or insects.

My daughter mocks me for believing in ghosts. And it’s not that I believe in them, exactly. It’s just that I don’t… disbelieve in them. I’ve felt atmosphere of places polluted by past tragedy, the weight of history, paralyzing sadness—also, overwhelming joy, sense of sacredness… I’ve felt spooked, and warned.. Terrified. And, also, protected.

Flora: Therefore, ghosts?

Jane: Therefore, why not ghosts?

Flora: How are you an atheist and how I am your daughter?

I don’t think atheism is at odds with thinking ghosts might be thing. Shadows, residual energy, memories so powerful they outlive the corporeal form? I’m sure if I tried, I could come up with a pseudo-scientific explanation for ghosts, aka Ghostbusters, ghost hunters or The Sixth Sense.

But I don’t need one.

I just think—you know, they might exist… and I don’t need a because.

Flora: So not a scientist.

I make no claim to be a scientist as I take my budding scientist across Alberta ghost towns. She, of course, is hunting for physical things: animal bones, owl pellets, coyote carcasses. If we ever find a human skull, I expect she will expire from sheet joy right on the spot—perhaps becoming a ghost that haunts that place ever after.

Me, I’m looking for stories, which is pretty much the same as looking for ghosts. Who lived here? How did they live, laugh, suffer? How did they die? Why did they leave—what did they leave behind? If they saw this physical ruin of their past, would they experience pleasure or pain? What do they regret? If they could live life over again, would they choose to live it in this isolated prairie town?

Sometimes, we find real people. They can be scarier and sadder than ghosts.

I’m thinking about ghosts because last week, a work colleague and I attended a collaborative writing workshop in which we set down the bones of a play—a scene, really—about a ghost haunting the Banff Springs hotel, because—of course—love and betrayal. It was a fun exercise and a stimulating workshop.

And it got me thinking about ghosts—and whether my cat really sees them. (I think she does.) Also, writing, the process of. Also, how annoying I find ‘aspiring’/’amateur artists and writers who take four years to finish—more often, not finish—a play or a project and who set themselves as somehow better than the people who actually write, create for a living every day.

I find myself annoying in that same way too. It is two years now since I’ve finished a novel. I’m writing… but not enough. And I’m not polishing, finishing—publishing.

My shitty first drafts haunt me, like ghosts.

Flora: Maybe that’s what your cat is staring at.

Jane: Mean. But fair.

As the cat stares at ghosts, I stare at her. She is aesthetically perfect, absurdly beautiful. Is she happy, fulfilled in her limited, safe pet life? Does her inner hunter need an outlet more meaningful than stalking spiders, dreaming of mice, imagining ghosts?

(She is not a metaphor.)

She stretches. Yawns. Curls up into a graceful ball and sleeps.

(OMG, is she a metaphor?)

I close my eyes and listen to the whispers of ghosts.

xoxo

“Jane”

Hierarchy of needs

i

On the mornings when Bumblebee the beast sleeps at my house, I start my morning serving the biological needs of the pets. The dog’s bladder trumps the cat’s stomach—although by the dirty look I get as I slide on a coat over my pyjamas and put a leash on the Bumblebee, it’s clear that the cat disagrees.

I tell the cat—Disobedient Sinful Disaster, or SinSin for short—I’ll feed her as soon as I come back. She does not believe me, even though this drama plays out pretty much every morning. When I come back ten minutes later, she is lying on the floor, dying of hunger. How could I?

I feed her before I make my coffee.

That’s the natural order of things: the dog’s bladder, the cat’s stomach, my addiction. I pour water into the kettle, grind the beans, and enjoy every moment of the ritual. Then I take the tray with my Frida Kahlo cup, off-brand Bodum, cardamom and cinnamon to the sofa, sit down, open my notebook, uncap the pen and take my first sip as I write the first lines of my morning pages.

(Julia Cameron would disapprove. She’d say walking the dog, feeding the cat and making coffee have all woken me up too much and my sleepy subconscious won’t be present on the page; the censoring consciousness will obtrude. I don’t buy it. I’ve written first thing the morning before walking the dog or feeding the cat—occasionally before coffee—and it is more or less the same. Sometimes painful, sometimes easy—always grounding.)

Today, I am not sure how much time I’ll have to rest on the page. There’s a lanky child sleeping on my sofabed, so the coffee and morning pages are with me in the bedroom. A child’s needs trump everything else. I need to work—he needs to sleep—if he does not wake up before my first scheduled meeting, I’ll take my work laptop in the bedroom. If he wakes up before I finish my pages, I’ll stop writing.

When I was at home with him every morning, I’d make him—all of them—wait.

”Mommy’s writing. I’ll be with you as soon as I’m finished.” When he was little, he’d crawl into my lap or sit beside me as I wrote. As he got older, he’d abandon my lap, occasionally and then more frequently, for electronics.

Now, at 12, he’s old enough to get his own breakfast. I know that.

He never gets his own breakfast at Mom’s house—the sleepovers are still too few and too precious.

Both his dad and I would prefer if he spent more nights at my place. But children’s needs trump parents’ wants and needs—we had broken that rule with our separation—and what he needs most of the time in his bed, in his room, in the only house he’s ever lived in.

(You do see why he doesn’t make his own breakfast when he’s at my place?)

I find myself pouring a second cup of coffee before I finish my first page, and I frown. I’m not that caffeine deprived—slow, down! Relish and sip, don’t gulp. One of my partners shares my addiction, the other has mocked it for seven years and refuses to feed it. I recognize it for what it is, both a physical and an emotional habit. I’ve let go of it in the past, for months.

But I’ve always come back, because no Japanese mushroom or grain concoction tastes this good, or loves me back this  much.

(My coffee whispers sweet nothings into my ear. Doesn’t yours?)

My son wakes up and stumbles into the threshold of my bedroom.

“Foods?” he says, as if he’s four and not a preteen. He’s often four at Mom’s house, in Mom’s presence, these days. I think that’s the way it needs to be, for a while—Flora, my daughter, 17 and too clever by half, thinks we both need therapy.

I expect we’re both right.

I take a sip of coffee and a breath. I tell him I just need to finish my writing, and I’ll make him breakfast right away then. He tells me he’s going to torment—er, cuddle—the cat while he waits.

I write faster. Then take another breath. Slow down. Take a sip of coffee. Rest on the page.

ii

I’ve just finished teaching a four week course for writers that’s not so much about writing as it is about organizing your life so that you have time for writing—and, also, about thinking in terms of writing practice, not just focusing on, chasing the finished product.

In the course, I talk about the art of radical prioritization, the lie of multi-tasking, the freedom of discipline—and how you only ever have as much time as you are willing to give to yourself.

People generally leave the classes feeling empowered and energized, as do I.

This time around, teaching the class highlights for me, again, what a lifeline my morning pages are, and how often they lead to a morning writing sprint, a draft essay, an outline of a blog post, an idea for a scene or a new story or even book. They are foundational to my writing practice.

But they are not enough. Practice is important. But so is performance.

And product.

Ender: Mom? Are you still writing? I’m starving.

I’m still writing. Then I’m going to make my son breakfast, and also feed myself. For a few hours, I’ll juggle being present for him with working from home—my least favourite thing, because there is no such thing as multitasking. Then I’ll take him to his dad’s house so that Sean does the juggling, and I’ll return to work more focused.

(Maybe I’ll even run over to the office, because we can do that now.)

And in the evening, I’ll write again. In-between, I’ll walk the dog. Feed the cat again. Finish my taxes. Maybe meet you for a drink.

It will be a good day.

“Jane”

P.S. Drafted April 21, which turned out to be not that good a day, but not bad either—thoroughly average, let’s say, with bad news and challenging moments interspersed with small victories and deliveries of support and love. But it started and ended on the page, and in-between, other needs were met. For me, that’s almost always what makes a good day.

What’s your anchor, bookend, consistent key to a good day?

Yeah? You gonna do that today? And tomorrow?

You should…

On work, time and money: Happy first anniversary to me

One year ago, I started a new job.

It was—is—my first Monday-to-Friday, 9-5 (more like 7-3, because I work on Toronto time, really, well, 7-5, because also, Calgary and Vancouver—point: people expect me to be reachable from 7 a.m. until whenever it is that they finish work)—and I haven’t had to pay attention to days of the week or hours of the day since, yeah, July 2000.

(I am now so old that I have 20+ years of experience as a freelance writer and 30+ years of industry experience, when da fuq did that happen?)

(I also have a child who’s about to turn 20—again, when did this happen? How? But I digress.)

As you have no doubt inferred, I’m having a moment. Anniversaries always throw me for a loop, and I have a birthday just around the corner that’s only two circles around the sun shy of 50, so I’m, you know. Reflective. That’s the word. Reflective. Not angsting. Definitely not angsting (yet).

Anywhere… where was I?

One year ago, I started a new job, my first Monday-to-Friday type thing since the year 2000—the turn of the century (!!).My brother outright asked me—“Do you think you can handle it?” We both knew he didn’t mean the technical aspects of the work. He meant Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday-Friday, 9 a.m.—well, 7 a.m.—to 5 p.m. Routine. Predictability.

(Pro tip: When someone asks you, “Can you handle it?” always say, “Yes.” You don’t need their doubts in your head—your own are enough.)

I’ve been handling it—killing it, really—for a year now. The pandemic lockdown and work from home orders definitely eased the transition. I’ve been working not in an office, under my own supervision, for more than 20 years and initially, very little had changed. It wasn’t until I was in the office physically for the first time, with my team, more than six months into the new adventure, that I really felt I had a job.

As I celebrate my first anniversary, we’ve slowly going back into the office, in a new, hybrid model—work from the office, work from home, work where you like, just work together and get the work done. I’m mostly happy about this—a little worried that too many people will choose to work at home most of the time and I’ll be as lonely in the office as I get in my living room. But I appreciate the flexibility of the model, which stems from the recognition of how well we worked together from the isolation of our respective homes.

This stage of going back has its challenges. I only have two suitable for work outfits. I can’t quite remember how to pack a lunch. I keep on forgetting that it takes time to actually get to the office.

Transit time. It’s a thing!

When I do go in—I’m aiming for two to three days a week—I’m often alone on my floor and that’s not much different from being alone in my living room, except that there’s no place where I can have my post-prandial power nap. (Note to hybrid world architects, at my employer and elsewhere: nap rooms! Or yoga mats besides each desks and officially sanctioned yoga nidra sessions during that dreaded mid-afternoon productivity slump—think about it.)

When there are two or three of us, it’s a party, and when we all come in for a team meeting or lunch, all is bliss.

Still, overall, I’m thriving. This is surprising a lot of people—my brother, who thinks of me as a non-conformist hippy born in the wrong generation, for one, also, my corporate world loving lover in Toronto, who conceptualizes me as a flighty artist who has to be coached on how to dress appropriately before leaving the house. To be honest, even I’m surprised—who would have thought I’d find this industry so interesting, and this particular corporate assignment so fulfilling?

There are trade-offs. I can’t do all of the things. I give the job my all, which has taken moonlighting and freelancing mostly off the table. I miss some of those opportunities—a journalist gets to meet all sorts of fascinating people and hear so many stories. I’m teaching again, but just a little, and that’s lovely, but it makes for long and intellectually and emotionally demanding days. I haven’t quite figured out where to carve out the time for the novelist. She’s writing—she’s always writing—in the mornings, on the edges, on weekends. When she’ll find the desire and energy—it’s not a question of time—to submit, to publish, market,  I’m not sure—that’s never been her favourite thing. I expect she’ll manage somehow, eventually—she always does.

Time is, for sure, more rigid. There are still twenty-four hours in each seven day week, but not all of them belong to me. I can’t spontaneously take a sunny day off and take the kids to the river or on an impromptu road trip. I can’t go for a mid-day two hour walk with you when you drop by unexpectedly. Everything has to be scheduled—we’re lucky if I can tear myself away from my portable office for a fifteen minute coffee.

But right now, it’s all worth it.

What makes it worth it is, first of all—I won’t pretend—the money. It magically appears in my bank account every two weeks, a nice, predictable amount, and I still feel I don’t have to do anything for it. No invoice, no follow up invoice, no begging email, no semi-threatening phone call… it’s just there. All I have to do to get it is work. Amazing!

Also, the people—I’ve been professionally lonely for a while and the pandemic exacerbated that by taking way what writing community I had, so I’m loving having colleagues. Brainstorm sessions. Peer reviews. Professional development support.

Most of all? The daily recognition is da bomb. I’m really, really good at the work, and people reflect that back at me all the time. I’m not conflict-free about this—there are moments, when I look at my job satisfaction and tell myself, “Really? This makes you high? This is your purpose in life?” I struggle with its narrowness and limited impact.

But within that small sphere—I do make a substantial difference. And I make that difference with words, with my gift.

So happy anniversary to me, and thank you for coming to my Ted Talk…

“Jane”

P.S. I am going to take the time to type up and publish this post—yes, I’m drafting long-hand again—and as I do it, I’m going to reflect on the increasing reluctance I’ve felt over the past year of making most of my writing public, and poke about in that resistance.

But I won’t tell you to expect more posts from me, or a new novel from the novelist, in the months to come. I’m writing. Everyday. That’s key.

The sharing will come in its time.

As Julia Cameron says in The Artist’s Way, “The first rule of magic is containment.”

Also—and this is Mary Oliver, from “Black Oaks” in her poetry collection Blue Iris:

Listen, says ambition, nervously shifting her weight from one boot to another—why don’t you get going?

For there I am, in the mossy shadows, under the trees.

And to tell the truth I don’t want to let go of the wrists of idleness, I don’t want to sell my life for money, I don’t even want to come in out of the rain.

But selling some time for money—well. It’s definitely working for me right now.

How to craft meaning in a cloud of smoke

i

I began the year with three and a half exhilarating weeks at work, followed by a massive setback/roadblock/slam into a brick wall that had me screaming, not just into a pillow, but into my headset on a Teams call—my director slid off their headphones so as not to puncture their eardrums—and plunged me into severe existential angst. Ever have days like that, months like that?

No, I figured not, just me. 😉

I’m working through the existential angst the way I always do—by walking for miles, writing down all the unsayable things, re-reading risque romance novels (K.J. Charles, thank you, from the bottom of my aching heart, for all your books, especially the Sins of the Cities series), smoking sheesha, arguing with Julia Cameron and reminding myself of my responsibilities to my children and other important people in my life… and also daydreaming about running away to Cuba and being Ernest Hemingway—but hey, he didn’t end so well, so perhaps he is not the role model I should be looking at right now, or ever.

(But, man, could Papa ever craft the world’s most perfect sentences.)

My bouts of existential angst always boil down to the very simple question of “Why am I here?” … and “to craft a collection of perfect sentences” seems like a pretty inadequate life purpose.

Maybe I’m confusing skill with purpose, talent with meaning.

ii

Because the human brain is wired to look for patterns (and stories) in the randomness thrown at us by our senses, The Marginalian’s Maria Popova chooses this moment to pop into my inbox with Thich Nhat Hahn’s epiphanic loss of self—and discovery of his true nature:

Yet every time we survive such a storm, we grow a little. Without storms like these, I would not be who I am today. … when such a frenzied hurricane strikes, nothing outside can help. I am battered and torn apart, and I am also saved.

I, too, will soon disappear.

Some life dilemmas cannot be solved by study or rational thought. We just live with them, struggle with them, and become one with them… To live, we must die every instant. We must perish again and again in the storms that make life possible.

Thich Nhat Hahn, Fragrant Palm Leaves

Ok, Maria, not helpful. I don’t want to just live with my dilemmas, dammit. I want to solve them.

iii

The thing about creative work is that while you’re engaged in it, you can’t think too much—at all?—about reception. The inner critic is hard enough to silence; if you let the outer critic shape the work as you’re drafting, you will never finish anything worth sharing.

And once you share it, when the outer critics start second-guessing you… while you’re listening to them—and you have to listen to them, because critical feedback is, you know, critical—it’s very difficult to shut them, and the inner critic, out on the work you haven’t yet shared.

But I digress. I’m just chasing thoughts where they want to go.

I’m going to give them free reign for a few more hours.

Then, I will shape them.

iv

The thing about creative work that “aspiring” (I hate that adjective) writers and artists don’t understand is the amount of discipline it requires.

Moving out of existential angst requires a similar type of discipline.

Iron will.

I’m trying to find mine in a cloud of smoke.

v

Discipine, and that exercise of will, requires a clear sense of purpose. What I have learned over my decades (when did I get this old) of battling existential angst is that it doesn’t have to be the purpose.

It just has to be a purpose.

Sometimes, that purpose just needs to be—I need to get through this day, this hour, this minute.

But it helps if it’s a little bigger, more constructive than that.

vi

Constructive is a good word.

vii

We construct meaning. Purpose. We create our stories and our narratives before we live them.

Well, I suppose we can live them without construction, but I’ve never been capable of that kind of in-the-moment existence. Have you?

I chase clouds of smoke, looking for a way to shape the narrative.

viii

The nice thing about my existential angst is that it has been my fairly constant companion since age four, and the nice thing about being a storyteller is that I have a lot of experience in shaping its narrative. Bending it to my purpose.

I’ll do it again.

In the meantime, I’m going to read some K.J. Charles and meander through another cloud of smoke.

See you on the other side.

xoxo

“Jane”

Sitting on the couch and eating bonbons

My inner artist is very lazy these days, and much as I know that the only way to want to work is to start to work—desire comes from action—my default mode is still inertia and exhaustion. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not just sitting on my couch eating bonbons. I doing all the things that bring me a guaranteed revenue stream. The rent is paid.

But, instead of performing my labours of love, I am sitting on the couch—laying, really—eating bonbons.

Hey, at least I’m not drinking wine—day 11 of no alcohol here, dry January, kittens. It’s not hard exactly, it’s just that tea is an insipid beverage and water is so boring.

By the way, a friend one told me, “Tea is my poison,” and I almost had to terminate the relationship. Tea is nobody’s poison, nobody’s vice. IT’s the liquid equivalent of saying you eat too much kale, especially if you take it black. (Green?)

So, Day 11, no alcohol. I have not replaced it with weed, cigarettes or cocaine, so, you know, kudos to me all around.

Hey, it’s not cocaine.

All that as belaboured exposition to say—as I sit on the couch, not drinking wine and not doing my work, I’m waiting for boredom to set it. I mean, not doing anything is boring. I’m a driven, ambitious person with a high need for stimulation. Surely, any moment now, my inner artist will become so bored, she’ll get off the couch and create?

Problem is… I’m not bored. Not yet. The not doing doesn’t feel bad. It feels awesome. The couch, wine-free though it is (full disclosure, there is always chocolate within reach), is a great place to chill right now.

This may all be part of the process.

Or, I’m totally spent as an artist and I’ve become a regular Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-fiver working schmuck.

Where is that wine?

Part of the process. It’s part of the process.

Right?

😬

“Jane”

Accidental self-reflection, about, of course, writing

i

Hobbit hole. Baby, it’s cold outside, and the fireplace is roaring. The Giant Beast is sprawled on the couch beside me; the Svelte Beat is roaming the tiny apartment as if it were the Serengeti. I’ve got a cup of Turkish coffee beside me, and a lover tidying up in the bathroom.

I’m writing.

I don’t want to be self-reflecting, though. I realize this as I finish my morning pages, which flow well enough but which read more like a laundry list of the day’s and the week’s tasks than the “brain dump”—or space for self-reflection—that they’re supposed to be.

(A decade later, I’m still not sure if it’s possible to do the morning pages wrong, but if it is, mission accomplished. I think I do them wrong all the time. Still. I do them.)

The lover in the bathroom spent the weekend with me and between that and kids, I missed two days of morning pages since Thursday. So, no more. One missed day makes me feel off. Two missed days make me feel tetchy. Three missed days, and I am unwell.

So, I’m writing.

The people who love me value, encourage, and facilitate this need to write, be it the morning pages, these blog posts, the novels nobody reads or that other stuff.

That helps me stay on the path.

One word, one scene, one post at a time.

ii

I don’t want to be self-reflective and so I’m accidentally preachy.

(Side note: Flora and I debate earlier in the week weather accidental and unintentional are synonyms—I maintain that they are not, she’s not so sure. We also talk about the “Baby, it’s cold outside” lyrics, which she thinks are rapey, and which I think make total sense in the context and time in which they were written, and tell you a hell of a lot of about patriarchy and how fucked up gender roles and expectations still are, and, really, you want to combat rape culture, there are more practical ways of doing it than losing your shit over an American songwriter born in 1910, but hey, I’m old, what do I know.)

I definitely do not wish to be preachy either (man, it’s hard, when you’re in the mood to preach, everything‘s an opening–I am aware of what I did up there, thank you, let’s move on). One, nobody wants to be preached at—except, I suppose the people in church, but, maybe even there, really? They’re already converted: they don’t want to be preached at, just reassured. Preaching, kittens, is not how you change the world.

Two, who da’ fuq am I to tell you what to do?

Fortunately, the preachiness occurs primarily in the  morning pages and in drafts of posts I choose not to inflict on anyone else (except for that one, sorry, it slipped through). A moment of unintended self-reflection: if I’m preaching as a way of avoiding self-reflection, should I listen to what I am… Nah. I most definitely do not want to be preached at my myself.

iii

Today, I’m going to take the kids over to my parents for a pierogi-making marathon—assembly line might be a better metaphor—ok, it’s not a metaphor, it is a pierogi making assembly line.

I’m looking forward to it with an intensity that surprises me. Christmas is not the easiest time of year for me, but after last year?

Every holiday ritual, every chance to be with family, is extra precious.

iv

Baby, it’s cold outside, although not as cold as earlier this week. I’m a little bummed that you won’t get to read my panegyric about life in Viking Hell when it freezes over, because there are a few funny lines in there, but, alas, I’ve spoiled that with preachiness too. Still, nothing is wasted, everything is source material: the unpublishable blog post is still practice and process, and maybe I’ll use that turn of phrase elsewhere. Also, that particular cadence—I like it a lot. I’ll play with it some more, make it better.

The important thing is that I’m writing.

v

I’m writing, finally, again, the thing that I want to finish too. It’s not going well yet. I’m rusty and I have a hard time holding the plot line in my head. I don’t remember what seemed so obvious, inevitable ten months ago. But it doesn’t matter. I’m writing. One clunky sentence, one awkward scene at a time.

Novels get written, life gets lived in 15 minute increments.

Less.

I’m writing.

🙂

“Jane”

Still writing?

i

I pick up my Ender from his homeschool school—like school, but part-time, like school, but for weird, unsocialized homeschoolers, like school, but you can tell the teachers you don’t care about academics and grade level and if you see them screwing up your kid’s love of learning and confidence—OMG, none of this is relevant to this post, except that clearly, I still feel defensive about sending Ender to fake school at all, because I didn’t really want to and I wish I had been able to give him the full ten years pre-high school that his siblings got, but such is life and so far, he seems to be thriving—although it was a rocky start, point: I’m picking up Ender from school and as I’m circling the playground with the Bear called Bumblebee, I bump into someone from my previous life.

“Still writing?” she asks me after giving me a shorthand of what she’s been up to over the past decade.

(People always ask that. See Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing for a book-length riff on why that’s such a weird question for a writer.)

“Yes,” I say.

It feels like a lie. Because outside of my morning pages, the occasional blog post, and a handful of bad (so bad) poems, what am I writing?

Well, I write at work, but that’s not really writing, it’s more production… anyway. It feels like a lie and as I excuse myself and yank the dog to finish our round-the-playground loop, I force myself to examine why that “yes” feels like a lie.

The answer is the same as it was on the day I realized that despite the undisputable fact that I’ve made a full-time living writing since I’ve been 17, whenever I said, “I’m a writer” when people asked me what I did or who I was… it felt like a like.

Because real writers write books.

Novels.

I haven’t been working on a new novel since I paused Bingo in February or March. I haven’t even been trying to sell the finished one(s).

So am I writing?

The published titles on my shelf say, “At least you wrote.”

They mock me.

I’m still writing, I tell them.

I think…

ii

There is, of course, one way to NOT make myself feel like a liar and that’s to pick up Matilda, Honey or Bingo and take one of them across the finish line. Matilda just needs a proof and can be subbed. Honey needs a consistency edit and polish, and it’s ready for a beta reader. Bingo needs 50K more words, but that’s a month’s worth of work at most, full-time job, kids and lovers notwithstanding. I’m only working one job now and I live alone, with the kids coming and going only three or four days a week—I definitely have the time.

Why aren’t I writing?

iii

If I were a friend asking me for advice—please don’t—I’d remind them about the hell that was 2019, the strains of the pandemic, the divorce, the stress of living on imaginary money for eight months, the five months of working two and a half full-time jobs, and suggest that they stop being a self-aggrandizing queen (queen can be a gender neutral word) and cut themselves some slack—also, what about that memoir they just finished ghostwriting, what is that, chopped liver?

(It’s so good, btw. Coming to a silver screen near you one day soon, I’m sure of it. Well, I hope. Nothing is certain. But. It’s so good.)

But I’m me, staring at me, and I think that clearly, I need to stop reading Ann Cleeves novels, watching Brooklyn 99 (because, inter alia, ACAB), dancing and dating and, like, write.

At least proof.

So I don’t feel like a liar.

So I don’t disappear.

Because, as everybody knows, when a writer doesn’t write, she doesn’t exist.

iv

Ender had a great day at school and is excited about everything. He likes his math teacher—I like his math teacher—and he loves gym and recess. There’s too much homework, though, he complains. When we get home, I make him a snack and he gets on his computer to double-check what he needs to do for next week—ends up making rockets instead (also homework, but he was just supposed to make one—he makes at least six).

I make supper, assist him a little with the rocket production line, in-between, read The Healers by Ann Cleeves and check work email. Flora walks over in a bit to join us for supper—have I told you Cinder has flown not just the nest, but the province?—and we eat, then clean up and play Anomia.

I walk them to the Coop house in the dark. It’s still early, only 8:30—I could, I should write. Right after I walk the dog, I can write before bed—but on the days that I pick up Ender from school, I like to start work by 6:30 so that  I’m essentially done for the day by the time I leave to go get him from school and now, I just want to stretch out on the couch and read.

Be asleep before 10.

I write a couple of (very bad) poems and this blog post first.

xoxo

“Jane”

PS Still writing.

When someone who doesn’t believe in writer’s block doesn’t want to write…

i

For the second time in my life—no, wait, third—I’m having a hard time writing. For someone who does not believe in writer’s block, this is a most humbling admission. And when I say I’m having a hard time writing—I should clarify. I’m still writing for money. And I’m practicing in the Morning Pages. But as you’ve seen by the long stretches of time between blog posts, not a lot more than that.

I can’t claim lack of time as the culprit. I blame it in lack of energy—the pandemic, the continuing emotional and financial adjustment to the divorce (I have to make a lot more money now and all transitions, even good ones, are draining), missing my love who moved to Toronto, still adjusting to the demands and rhythms of my new job…

Lots of legit reasons, but, really, they’re also all just excuses. Clearly, right now, I don’t want to write enough… or I don’t know, I can’t sell myself on the purpose of writing.

My five years of trying to make it as a novelist battered me financially and weren’t that great on my ego either. Why should I pour myself into another novel that nobody will notice or read? That thing I did at work yesterday potentially affected 250,000 people, maybe more.

If you write a book and nobody reads it, does it really exist?

(The answer is No. No, it does not.)

ii

I’ve been in this place twice before and what got me out the first time was a lover, Julia Cameron, an encounter with a practicing, hard-working artist, and a story that I HAD to write.

The second time, it was sheer will. The therapist said, “Could you consider that part of your problem is that you identify with your work too much?” And I said, “Fuck you, bitch, if I don’t write, I don’t exist,” and I went home and wrote three novellas.

The third time… well, I’ll keep you posted. I’m leaning on Vladimir Nabokov and Ursula K. LeGuin right now, but that might be a mistake. He’s a genius and she’s brilliant, and I am ordinary. I’m not downplaying my talents: I write well. I’m funny. I’m creative. Other things.

But nothing in my head or soul will ever produce something as ground breaking as Pale Fire or The Left Hand of Darkness.

Maybe it’s time, again, to lean on Julia. Go on a solo artist date, and make that a weekly ritual again.

Write a bad poem, send it to one of my loves.

Julia, she’s a lot like me: talented, insightful, with stories to tell and a deep understanding of the bones of writing and creativity.

But also, ordinary.

iii

Over the past six months, I’ve led an intensely ordinary life. A Monday to Friday job, children, dogs, friends. No grand events, goals or aspirations—no chasing dreams, tearing pockets of time out of life with my teeth and claws for art.

Just doing the everyday, very ordinary things.

The basics.

I’ve been… content.

Life is much easier this way.

Do you see why I’m reluctant to return to the edge again?

iv

Easier, but, but… if it goes on like this much longer, I will cease to exist.

Julia.

What do I need to do?

xoxo

“Jane”

Backwards through time: All the thoughts not fit to print

i

I just wrote a post about how we need to stop trying to save the unvaccinated and build their resistance and refusal to save themselves into public health policy. You don’t get to read it, because, in the end, I don’t think it’s worth sharing—you don’t change anyone’s mind by calling them too stupid to live, and while I’ve learned many things over the course of the pandemic, I have not learned how to talk to science deniers. The ones I love, when they go there, I change the subject, because I want to preserve the relationship…

I still want to preserve the relationship. And other things. But I’perm tired of watching small businesses, my children’s education, and my mental health crash and burn because we as a society don’t seem to be able to control a stupid cold virus.

Fitting, really. What, in the end, brings human civilization to its knees two million years after our ancestors domesticated fire—and more than 5000 years after the first written script, 2333 years after the first aquaduct, 1550 years after the longbow, 1000 years after gunpowder, 225 after the smallpox vaccine, 76 years after Hiroshima, 52 years after the moon landing?

A sneeze.

ii

The post before that is about how you should drink less, or maybe not at all. Not going to share that one too, because we’ll talk about that face-to-face, in what I’m afraid will be a relationship-ending conversation… Anyway, here’s a heads up. It’s coming. Another conversation I don’t know how to have, because I don’t like telling people what to do and you don’t like being told to do, but suppose you die because I’ve said nothing?

I’ll talk to you. Soon.

Probably.

iii

Then there’s that post about why I love drag shows and why I love dragging straight people to drag, burlesque and draglesque shows to shake up their worldview, but it seemed to exist only so I could say “dragging people to drag” and didn’t go any deeper, really, so, not gonna transcribe it, publish it.

One of the most important things you learn, I think, as a writer, is that just because you wrote something that doesn’t mean that you should share it.

Food for thought.

Ha.

iv

Before that, a post about the first conversation about the divorce with the kids, coming thirteen months post-divorce. I needed to write it. You don’t need to read it. Although, maybe you do. Some of you do: I know my guilt, my struggle, the things I had to wait for over the past year, they’re not unique to me.

But I also think you probably need to sort all that out for yourself.

My only un-advice: patience.

Patience.

v

A terrible poem about how much I miss Persian tiramisu, but hope it’s very happy in Toronto.

Poetry should never be literal.

I read it again.

Jesus.

It’s even worse than I thought.

Delete.

vi

A post about my trip to Vancouver with Flora and my mom, that echoes my Three Generations post of almost a year ago, but doesn’t really go deeper.

Let it go.

Done.

vii

A “Thank god for rednecks” post that’s actually really, really funny but it was relevant when I wrote it in mid-August, and is relevant no more.

Dammit.

That one, I should have typed up and published as soon as I had written it.

Alas.

viii

Whiny notes from my first solo camping trip that I thought I could turn into a Waldenesque reflection on lessons from the wilderness, but then I decided to drink wine and read Nabokov instead so…

Moving on.

ix

One really terrible poem and one that might actually have soul.

Copying that one into another book.

I don’t know if it will fly but it might crawl.

Maybe walk.

Maybe.

x

Me on Nabokov: “He’s so exquisite, it hurts. And I don’t want more pain right now.”

xi

An attempt to celebrate my mother’s retirement after 50 years of service as an ER nurse.

Impossible to do it justice, right now.

But. Look, there—that line. That’s the beginning of the next draft.

It can be a gift for her 70th birthday.

Yes.

xii

A way too personal post about how much I missed my kids when they went to visit their paternal grandparents for a week. You don’t get to read it—you don’t get to be a voyeur to my pain.

Mine alone.

xiii

“Extreme self-reliance is a trauma response.”

I don’t know. Is it? Maybe it’s just a recognition of the fact that when the shit hits the fan, the one person I can absolutely count on to get me through it all is myself.

Also, is that trauma, really, or is it just life?

I don’t think the word trauma means what you think it means.

The piece is “sharp as a guillotine.”

Also kind of mean.

I don’t think you can handle it.

Also, as I re-read it—I notice it reveals way more about me than I want you to know.

Del…

No. That one line. Can I do something else with that one line?

Save for later.

Click.

xiv

A really sappy account of our last week together. What am I, fifteen?

Apparently.

xv

Attempt to turn a walk with a friend into an urban vignette with a moral.

Fail.

xvi

A lot of introspection and whining.

Fuck, woman. Pull yourself together.

So much evidence in these pages of people who love you and are there for you.

Honor them.

xvii

A pretty good poem.

xviii

A story called “My cokehead lover.”

It’s kind of funny, except it was supposed to be serious.

Can I rewrite it as a comic piece?

Maybe.

xix

Lover, tonight I miss your closed eyelids.

xoxo

Jane

[Review of Morning Page/ Process Notebook, June 9 to September 5, 2021]

Radical prioritization or, choosing to stop, choosing to begin… always choosing focus

Did you know, when you start a WordPress blog, it comes with a draft post that walks a ew blogger through what to write, where (not so much how).

Its headline is ‘Hello, World.’

Cute, innit?

Hello, World. I’m here, writing, emoting, sharing. Are you paying attention?

(It isn’t.)

It’s been a slow blogging summer for me, because, 2.5 jobs, children, sleep—also, walking the dog, also, dancing, also, that teary, long goodbye. I’ve been writing longhand every morning, but spending more time glued to my laptop to transcribe and post the occasionally shareable insights—just not in the cards.

And I’ve been ok with that, just as I’ve been ok with putting the novelist on ice for the summer. Radical prioritization—we need to focus on what is most important at the moment. That’s how we get things done.

This practice, and its application this spring/summer in particular, still against the backdrop of the pandemic, drove home to me the importance of choice. This season, I chose NOT to write (much), I chose not to blog—I chose not to chase those dreams, ride those frustrations. So I didn’t feel bad or unproductive (how could I? I was working 2.5 jobs).

Same thing as choosing to stay home versus being forced to stay home…

Choice empowers.

(Most of us are very bad at choosing though, aren’t we? But that’s another story…)

So—I’m choosing now to start stretching those writing muscles more seriously again. Not ready for a marathon yet, I’m not even sure about sprints—but the stretches are about to get more intense and I’m going to start lifting some weights too.

I picked up my first new literary kettle bell yesterday:

Think, Write, Speak, Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews and Letters
Valdimir Nabokov
Edited by Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy

People. Nabokov. I would have been his fourth-string mistress, char, boot cleaner in a heartbeat, without a second thought.

Anyway—Hello, World. I know you don’t care. But I’m here.

I exist.

xoxo

“Jane”

PS The reason I had fired all the therapists who were supposed to help ground me, save me while my Flora was so sick—I could not make them understand this very simple truth:

When I don’t write, I don’t think I exist.

I disappear. To myself, most of all, and if I don’t exist for myself, how can I exist at all?

Therapist: We really need to work on your over-identification with your work.

Jane: And, you’re fired.

Right now, I exist.

It’s a great feeling.

Pandemic diary: But if the world is ending, I don’t want six pack abs…

i

I’m doing writer stretches this morning.

Word plus word plus word equals sentence. Two or three of those make a paragraph—except this one, it stands alone, and this one is fat, seven sentences long. Hmmm, take the scalpel that is the return key and split that chunker in half.

I’m not saying you can’t have long paragraphs in your work.

But if you want people to read it? You shouldn’t.

A great deal of my teaching/coaching work involves undoing the work of English teachers everywhere. Sometimes, I feel bad about it.

Most of the time, I do it with glee.

ii

I’m writing about writer stretches and thinking about body stretches, which I haven’t been giving my body for months.

Body: I can’t stretch myself, you know.

Jane: I know. But exercise is so boring and I just want to eat chocolate croissants instead.

I go for a walk in the crisp November sunshine with a friend then spend the evening wrapped in the love of another. Some of the businesses in my city are entering a voluntary lockdown for a couple of weeks to help the health authorities get ahead of the second wave. It’s a good moral call, but financial suicide.

Body: What the hell does that have to do with your refusal to exercise me?

Jane: Everything. Everything is interconnected.

iii

Everything is interconnected, and that simultaneously makes us strong and also vulnerable, and I really should do some sit-ups this morning and maybe hold the plank for 45 seconds, but really, if the end of the world is coming, do I want to gout with six pack abs or with the memory of pain au chocolate on my tongue?

Body: You hate me.

Jane: I’m doing writer stretches and when I finish, I don’t really want to do physical stretches all alone on the floor of my living room. You know?

I thought gyms were stinking cesspools of infection and disease before the pandemic, anyway. But I did go. Once in a while.

Body: 15 lousy sit-ups. Come on.

Jane: And then, a croissant?

Body: You’re hopeless.

I am, it’s true. Optimism in my heels and hope floating up into the atmosphere like helium, escaping one atom at a time over the past few months… not much of it left.

Still. The important part of me feels stretched.

Body: I’m dying here.

Jane: Shut up. Eat some chocolate. I’ll take you for a walk later.

Writer stretches.

Ouch.

xoxo

“Jane”

Pandemic Diary: Instructions to Self

i

Get up. No, really. Pull off the covers and get up, get out of bed. Feet into slippers. Aren’t you glad you bought those when you did—these floors are cold and the fur inside the slippers so soft… Pause. Enjoy this first joy of the morning. Yes? Now, dressing gown on. Good. Look at you, almost at the door. Turn on the light. You’re doing it! Open the bedroom door. Look at this space that you love and glory in it. Fine, don’t, too early for glorying. Just don’t crash yet, ok? You’re doing it, you’re moving. Turn on the lights and turn on the heat—don’t think about the darkness and cold of winter, coming relentlessly—don’t think about it. Why are you thinking about it? It’s like you don’t want to be happy, bitch, come on. Pull yourself together and work with me! Yesterday was a sunny, warm day and while the sunset comes well before even your lame early bedtime, wasn’t it beautiful? Don’t think about winter. Think about your fireplace. Actually, don’t think, just get your ass into the kitchen. Fill the kettle with water. Light a burner on the stove. Grind the beans. Why did you wash the Bodum last night, ya’ lazy fuck, you’ve got to do it now. Sigh. Ok, done.

Fuck. You forgot to pee—how is that even a thing? Pee.

The bathroom is cold. Be grateful for your robe and slippers, and that living room fire. How lucky are you that that’s your main heat source and not a hedonistic indulgence? As soon as the kettle boils, you’ll make coffee and sit beside it and be cozy and warm. Will you work today? Don’t think about it until after the coffee is made—but also, why are making that an option, a question? Do you want to pay rent and the credit card bill? Then pull your whiney shit together and work.

Don’t think. The kettle is whistling. Turn off the gas. Pour the boiling water over the ground beans. Inhale the smell. Yessss. Glory in that. Good. Now glory in the gas stove—think about how hot that gas fireplace will be now. Good. Cup, cinnamon and Bodum on tray. Where’s your notebook? Beside the burning fire, with your pens. Perfect. Sit down. Pour coffee.

Write.

ii

Every once in a while, a friend or a stranger provides me with an external reality check—a reminder that while I feel that in the last two months, I’ve been treading water (again), doing nothing, writing nothing—I’ve written 40,000 words plus revisions plus queries plus thinking of course—and, course notes and materials—also, of course, these blog posts.

It doesn’t seem like enough; it never seems like enough.

Yesterday’s crop of work: editing one 900-word piece, gratis, for a friend, proofing (really, ghostwriting) a 2000 word article for a client. No proofing of Matilda, and no work on the memoir project. Today, I am afraid, will be the same. Same but different—I will make myself work on one chapter before letting myself eat breakfast. No work—no breakfast. No work—no food. This is the stratagem I am reduced to right now—but at least I have a working strategy left.

I talk with another creative yesterday. He’s taking up singing lessons in an attempt to shake his malaise up, light a fire of motivation, creation, action under this inertia. Induced by the pandemic or other life’s stressors? He doesn’t know and neither do I. Let’s not talk about it. I don’t care about root causes anymore: I just want to DO things.

A lovely stranger tells me to think about adrenal supplements. A less lovely stranger suggests a multi vitamin and more iron. I tell him that he, in turn, could use to lose some weight. That Quarantine 15 looks more like a Quarantine 35, that is, if he had a flat belly beforehand—and also, two or three drinks every night probably does make you an alcoholic, and it’s definitely not good for the complexion. We part in mutual acrimony; ironically, we’re probably both right. Maybe some of this low energy in me is due to an iron deficiency; and eating, generally, is more a chore than a pleasure these days, so a multivitamin might not be a bad idea—but really? Shut the fuck up and don’t provoke me—OMFG, I can’t believe I just told someone to lose weight, not something you should say to stranger, foe or friend, ever. But in my defence, between his “you need to take an iron supplement” and my “and you need to lose 20 or 30 pounds, asshole” retort, came a suggestion that I wax the dark fuzz on my upper lip, and would I consider taking out my lip rings?

Motherfucker is lucky I didn’t bury his body in the gravel of the playground at the local elementary school, at which children lick each other during recess, then wait six feet apart, masks obediently on, before being marched back into the building.

But I digress. What was my point? I want to DO things. Ok, specifically—I want to WANT to DO things. I feel this is probably a positive first step. To desire desire. I am out of bed. I have ranted, emptied myself on the page in my Morning Pages practice. I have closed my eyes for two minutes in a fake meditation and, still feeling resistance instead of desire-to-desire, I’ve started writing anyway.

Start to work, start to write, start to move. Desire comes next, desire comes from action—and even if it doesn’t, the action, once executed, persists.

Also, honey, if you don’t revise that fucking chapter, you get no breakfast and aren’t you hungry? Starving?

Work, dammit.

Tummy grumbling, I work. The desire doesn’t come. But the words do, anyway.

The mark of a professional; OMFG, I wish I was an amateur, a hobbyist, did not have to get out of bed today—no, I don’t—I… work.

I work. And, finally, five pages in, flow. Not ninety minutes, not hours. Just a few minutes. A taste. But enough, enough, enough to spark a little bit of desire. Enough to remember what the heroin feels like. Enough to chase it onto the next page. And the next one. One more? And one more.

Two more—so hungry—two more, and you can eat. You can eat soon.

You can invoice soon.

The mark of a professional.

Doing the thing, even when you don’t want to.

xoxo

“Jane”

There are good moments
From the first post-COVID GoGo Battles at Dickens

Pandemic Diary: Of sentence fragments and their opposite, and also, parenthetically, purposeful procrastination

i

Me, in bed, much coffee, a bare foot sticking out from between tangled blankets, notebook, leaky fountain pen. Morning pages done but not yet quite ready to work—unfinished business? Sneezes—not COVID-19 and not a common cold—I think I’m allergic to my feather pillows, oh, but they are so comfortable!

Achoo.

Mentoring a writer and ripping her work to shreds in a big way. I mean—editing, but a new writer doesn’t understand the process and every correction hurts. Also—“But you use sentence fragments all the time!” True. But I do it on purpose, to achieve a certain tempo, feeling. You do it because you don’t understand grammar.

Ouch.

I need to learn how to deliver life lessons in a more gentle, supportive manner.

Except… successful, published writers need to learn how to survive criticism—even harsh, unjust criticism.

Just read the comments.

(Don’t read the comments.)

ii

I guess this is still a Pandemic Diary entry because the pandemic is still happening. But man-oh-man—boy-oh-boy—why do we not say girl-oh-girl, do you think we could make that a thing—it sometimes feels like it’s not, and I still don’t know if your grandma, your son, your immune-compromised system are worth all this—I wish you’d show me they were—but I suppose what all this is illustrating is that I am just not a very good, compassionate human being—I’m sorry (not-sorry), I fucking suck, aren’t you glad I’m not making policy decisions?

The above is an example of a run-on sentence that I can get away with in a blog post (but not in an article) and that Henry James could have kept on moving for pages and pages, but which you, beginning writer, need to chop into six simple declarative sentences.

You heard me. Six.

Maybe seven.

Chop.

Ouch.

iii

Achoo.

I’m sneezing again. Another cup of coffee. Almost ready to work. (<<<— Sentence fragment used to a purpose.) (<<<—Sentence fragment used to a purpose to illustrate the purpose of sentence fragments.) Yawn. Sneeze. Curl and stretch the toes of the foot peeking out from between the sheets. Sternly tell it that no, it does not get to crawl back under and snoozle.

It’s time to work.

Achoo.

Ouch.

More coffee?

“Jane”

Books in the Time of Corona: what’s on my shelves and what’s not, and the story it tells

First, an apology for the title slug. I know you’re all sick and tired of plays on A Love in the Time of Cholera. Still. There’s a reason we’re doing it.

Second… but really first:

i. A catalogue

I recently moved, and as part of the uprooting, I culled my physical books to the essentials. (Ok, I moved like 500 metres away, but hey, packing and thus purging was definitely involved.) Stress on the physical: thank gods for my e-readers, a library of thousands always in my pocket.

Still. I was pretty ruthless. Totally ruthless, actually. Goodbye, university textbooks. Goodbye, books from the “I was a teenage Wiccan” phase. Goodbye, big thick books that look good on my shelf and make me feel smart because I own them—but let’s be honest, I’m never going to read Infinite Jest. I tried. It’s unreadable. I read Gravity’s Rainbow—goodbye—and, frankly, wish I hadn’t, don’t remember what it’s about, and I’ll never get that time back.

Goodbye, all of Jeanette Winterson’s not Sexing the Cherry books. Goodbye, gifted books that missed the mark—goodbye, self-bought books that I read, don’t remember, will never read again. Goodbye, books I once loved but don’t anymore—that cull was the hardest.

What’s left was still heavy to move and comprises about ten shelf equivalents. But each of these books is loved. Important.

Like The Letters of Sylvia Plath and this little known book of the poet’s drawings:

I don’t actually own Plath’s The Bell Jar or Ariel. How is this possible? Note to self: must buy. Response to self: this is how it beings, hoarding, pack-ratting expansion. Don’t do it. Response to response to self: Shut up. I want my Sylvia.

All of my Polish books:

Some of these have travelled the world with my parents and me for almost forty years. The Polish translation of A.S. Lindgren’s Children from Bullerbyn (which used to belong to my dad’s sister, actually—she got it and read it the year I was born) and of Winnie The Pooh—the first “chapter” books I ever read. And, of course, Sienkiewicz, Mickiewicz, Orzeszkowa, Rodziewiczówna. Kapuścinski. The more modern poets: Zagajewski, Anna Świrszczyńska and Wisława Szymborska, not in translation.

This cultural heritage of mine, I have a very… fraught, complex relationship with. So much beauty, so much passion, so much suffering—so much stupidity, so much pain.

Governments do not define a national, a culture, or a people, I suppose. But in a democracy, they reflect the will and the hearts of the majority of the people, and, if the current government of Poland reflects the majority of the will and the hearts of the (voting) Polish people, they are repugnant to me and I want nothing to do with them. I am ashamed of them, of where I come from.

But I do come of them, from there, do I not?

Still. I keep the books. Including the one celebrating our first modern proto-fascist, Józef Piłsudski. History is complicated; ancestry not chosen.

Next, a shelf of all of my favourites.

All of Jane Austen, of course. Most of Nabokov. Virginia Woolf, because, well, it’s complicated. Susan Sontag’s On The Suffering of Others, and E.M. Forester’s Maurice—I gave up Room With a View and the others. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, not so much because I’ll ever read it again but because it was so important back then. Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, because nothing like it has been written before or since. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—I mean. I had to keep it, hero of my misspent university youth. I put him right next to Charles Bukowski’s Women, which isn’t great, but which… well. It taught me a lot about writing. Then, Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings, which always makes me cry because a) it exists and b) I will never write that well.

Edward Said’s Orientalism, the only book to survive my “why the fuck did I keep all of these outdated anthropology and sociology and history textbooks for 25 years” purge. Margaret Mead’s New Lives for Old, which wasn’t one of them, but a later acquisition, kept in honour of the woman who dared live her life, do her thing. She wasn’t the smartest, the brightest, the most original—but fuck, she dared. Fraser’s The Golden Bough and Lilian Faderman’s Chloe Plus Olivia, both acquired in my teens—the first gave me religion for a while, while I freed myself of the Polish Catholicism in which I grew up (“freed” is an aspirational word; I suspect the religions we are indoctrinated into in childhood stay in our bones forever—the best that we can do is be aware when that early programming tries to sabotage our critical thinking and emotional well-being), and the second showed me I wasn’t a freak, an aberration, alone.

Next, The First Ms. Reader and the Sisterhood is Powerful anthology—original 1970s paperbacks bought in a used bookstore in the 1990s when I was discovering feminism. Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mor’s The Great Cosmic Mother—I suppose another Wicca-feminism vestige. I will never read it again, but way back when, that book changed my life, so. Here it is, with me, still.

And now, back to fiction: The Doorbell Rang, my only Rex Stout hardcover, although without the dust jacket, and a hardcover, old, maybe even worth something, with protected dust jacket intact, of P.G. Wodehouse’s Psmith, Journalist. Next to them, The Adventures of Romney Pringle and The Further Adventures by Romney Pringle, the single collaboration between R. Austin Freeman and John J. Pitcairn under the pseudonym of Clifford Ashdown. Written in 1902 or so, both volumes are the first American edition. In mint condition. Like the P.G. Wodehouse—and The Letters of Sylvia Plath, and the unique, autographed, bound in leather made from the butts of sacrificed small children or something, Orson Scott Card Maps in the Mirror short story collection, which is next-but-one to them on the bookshelf—they were a gift from Sean.

A lot of the books on my shelves, here with me now, are a gift from Sean.

Between them, a hard cover Georges Simeon found at a garage sale, and then G.K. Chesterton—Lepanto, the poem about the 1571 naval battle between Ottoman forces and the Holy (that’s what they called themselves) League of Catholic Europe, which I will never read again, but which is associated with a specific time and event in my personal history, so I keep it. Next to it, The Collected Stories of Father Brown, in battered hardcover, which I re-read intermittently, and which are—well. Perfect, really. Then, all of Dashiell Hammett in one volume. Then, almost all the best Agatha Christie’s in four “five complete novels” hardcover collections, topped with two multi-author murder mystery medleys from the 1950s.

Looking at this shelf makes me very, very happy.

Next, the one fully preserved collection. Before the move, these books lived on a bookshelf perched on top of my desk. Now, they are here, their “natural” order slightly altered because of the uneven height of this case’ shelves. The top shelf is, I suppose, mostly reference and writing books:

The Paris Review Interviews, Anne Lammott’s Bird by Bird, Neil Gaiman’s Make Good Art, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and their ilk. At the end, a couple of publications in which I have a byline.

The next shelf, the smallest on the case, is a bit of a smorgasboard, but is very precious to me:

Do you see Frida and my Tarot cards? Also an Ariana Reines book that I really should give back to its owner…

Next, my perhaps most precious books.

Philip Larkin’s Letters to Monica and Nabokov’s Letters to Vera. Anne Carson’s If Not Winter: Fragments of Sappho. Four Letter Word, a collection of “original love letters” (short stories, they mean, pretentious fucks) from an assortment of mega-stars, including Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. LeGuin… a strange assortment, really. But some lovely pieces in there. Some lame ones too—and I like that too. Even superstars misfire, every one in a while.

Then, Leonard Cohen, Pablo Neruda, Walt Whitman, Jack Gilbert, Vera Pavlova. Finally, Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus and Little Birds, and a bunch of battered Colettes. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer right next to Colette, of course. Then, my Frida books.

The next shelf is full of aspirational delusions.

Farsi textbooks next to Hafez, Rumi and Forough Farrokzad translations. I will never be able to read Hafez in the original Persian. But maybe? Life is long. Maybe, one day, I will have time. Then, Jung’s Red Book, Parker J. Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness, Rod Stryker’s The Four Desires, Stephen Cope’s The Great Work of Your Life, Thich Nhat Hahn’s The Art of Communicating (I failed), The Bhagavad Gita (still trying).

As I said, the shelf of delusions.

The bottom shelf is aspirational/inspirational, and also, very tall.

And so, that’s why my Georgia O’Keefe books are there, as well as The Purple Book, and Obrist’s do it manifesto. Perhaps there is room there for my leather-bound Master’s thesis, currently tucked away in the closet, right there, next to a course binder from SAIT? Then, all of my Spanish books, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s El Amor en los Tiempos del Cólera… which, also, one day, I will read in Spanish and actually understand. Life is long, right?

Next, not really a book shelf as such, but the top shelf of my secretary desk, where the reference and project books of the moment live.

The Canadian Press Stylebook has a permanent home here, of course. And I’ve got two copies of Canadian Copyright: A Citizen’s Guide there, one for me (unread, but I’ll get to it, I promise myself, again), one for a colleague. Both snagged from a Little Free Library, by the way.

Almost done.

In the bedroom, the books of vice.

A shelf of battered Ngaio March paperbacks, tucked beside them some meditation and Kundalini yoga books that I’m not using right now, but, maybe, one day, I am not ready to give up on this part of myself yet.  Below, a shelf of even more battered Rex Stout paperbacks.

I read and re-read these books—as did their original owners—until they fall to pieces. They are my crack, my vice—also, my methadone, my soother.

Below them, space for library books, mine and Ender’s:

I am finding Anna Mehler Paperny’s Hello I want to Die Please Fix Me unreadable, by the way. I pick it up, put it away. Repeat.

Will likely return it to the library unread.

Currently not on display: books by friends. Some here with me, some on the shelves in the Co-op house. There are a lot of those. Can one be ruthless… with friends?

ii. A reflection

Books, for readers and writers, are the artifacts that define us. When I enter a reader’s home, I immediately gravitate to their bookshelves. What’s on them?

What’s not on them?

What I’ve chosen to let go of, to not bring with me here tells me… a lot.

What am I going to do with this information?

xoxo

“Jane”

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant”–a break from the Pandemic Diary

Sometimes, posts, articles, opinion pieces—ideas for novels, stories—go nowhere. You keep on putting words down on paper—or screen—but they don’t really connect. There is no spine—no blood. They are stitches in an inanimate rag doll that, no matter what you do, will not come to life.

When that happens, I think the idea is not yet finished incubating. It’s not ripe, not baked.

This is draft three of today’s post. Draft one ate itself. Draft two started out strong. But in the end, had neither legs nor heart.

Draft three, to be frank, is not turning out much batter. I’m coming at it sideways. I’m starting to tell the story by talking about how some stories don’t want to be told. Aren’t ready to be told.

My advice as an occasional professional writing instructor in such cases is to—move on. Accept that right now, this is a rag doll. Throw it away or put it in that drawer (or file folder). Move on to something else, anything else.

But sometimes, an untold story stands in the way of all the other stories waiting to be told.

Does that make sense?

I think this story—it’s not going to come out in this third draft either—is such a story.

I’ve been in this situation before, with bigger work. After the flood, when I carried a novel inside me but I thought I was supposed to write a memoir about the flood and trauma. Was it a year, then, of false starts? And then, finally, the novel, in bits and pieces, out of order. But all there, all out. Even when it was done and sold, I thought I had left so much untold—and I thought, again, that I was supposed to write another story about the flood. But I wasn’t—I was supposed to write about an artist who couldn’t see colour, another novel, fiction that told the true story better than a memoir could. That one took months of fake starts, three near-complete first drafts thrown out, so many attempts to come at the story sideways, before it finally came, and I was able to move on to other work.

So now I know how to write around the story that isn’t yet ready to come. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “Success in Circuit lies.” I explore its themes and problems in indirect ways, in other work. It’s a way of working on other pieces while the untold story demands that you give it all your attention.

“Hush, beloved,” I coo to it. “This is all about you. Don’t you see? Everything I write, think do these days? It’s all about you. Everything.”

I tell students and other writers to not anthropomorphize their work. To not think of their stories, novels as their babies. That way lies madness, because of the publication process involves many, many people telling you that your babies are stupid and ugly, totally useless, nobody wants—also, have you thought about loping off your child’s right leg and sticking it in its left ear?

Madness.

I don’t think of my work, while I’m working on it or once it’s finished, as my progeny.

But I do, while immersed in it, think of it as my lover. I woo it. It seduces me. We experience great joy and misery together. We drown in each other, cannot exist without each other—all is bliss, even the shitty, bad parts have a perverse joy to them.

Then the work is done—some satisfaction—and then… I’m done, and the work is done with me too. It has moved on to being the beloved of readers, and I have moved on to the next idea, the next story…

(This is what makes submitting, promoting, marketing, all of that so hard. It’s like pimping an ex-lover. “Was really into them at one time. Can’t really remember why anymore. Um. Fuck. Let me think. What was it about them that stopped my breath, made my heart pound, soaked my panties? Um… Any chance we could talk about my current flame, my current WIP?”)

We’ve moved on, the flame has burned out, the mutual passion is gone… but that doesn’t diminish the fact that when I was in the work, it was everything to me.

Tell the truth at a slant.

Draft three.

Closer. Not quite there yet, but closer.

Close enough?

xoxo

“Jane”

Retreat in the Time of the Pandemic: The Mostly Uncensored–Ok, I Lie, I Totally Censored It, What, You Think I’m Stupid?–Process Journal

July 15, 2020

I’ve spent the last seven days unplugged and locked in my friend’s apartment, writing. Well, not literally locked in. I left for walks and things. But mostly I wrote. Also napped. But mostly wrote.

The documentation of the process is exhaustive and exhausting, and it’s mostly for me, and not really for you–but if you’re struggling with shit, and reading about other people struggling with shit makes struggling with shit easier for you? Dive into my diary.

As you’ll discover somewhere around Day 6 or 7–writing doesn’t actually exist until a reader reads it. 😉

But now that I think about it–most of what I’ve written isn’t really appropriate for the eyes of internet strangers. So here’s the deal–y’all can look at the pictures. 😉

If you’re in one of those places, though, and your life will be utterly incomplete without the voyeuristic experience of ‘watching’ me pick at my scabs, email me at nothingbythebook@gmail.com and ask for the password to the protected posts. I might give it to you.

Or not.

Fun and games. 😉

Yours in the struggle,

“Jane”

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RETREAT IN THE TIME OF THE PANDEMIC DIARY; Table of Days

Retreat in the Time of the Pandemic, Day 1: In which our heroine wants to be alone (protected)

Retreat in the Time of the Pandemic, Day 1.5: In which the heroine arrives at her destination, and needs wifi to watch porn (protected)

Retreat in the Time of the Pandemic, Day 2: In which our heroine doesn’t matter (yeah, this one too)

Retreat in the Time of the Pandemic, Day 2.5: In which our heroine plays with bad gardening metaphors (protected)

Retreat in the Time of the Pandemic, Day 3: In which our heroine defends her addictions (protected)

Retreat in the Time of the Pandemic, Day 3.75: In which our heroine tries hard not to identify with Virginia Woolf (protected)

Retreat in the Time of the Pandemic, Day 4: In which our heroine regrets this, but not the other (protected)

Retreat in the Time of the Pandemic, Day 5: In which our heroine is a writing machine and also, actually wants to work (protected)

Retreat in the Time of the Pandemic, Day 6: In which our heroine tortures a client and finishes all the things (protected)

Retreat in the Time of the Pandemic, Day 7: In which our heroine counts words and embraces uncertainty (protected)

Retreat in the Time of the Pandemic, Day 7.25: In which our heroine has one year to live (protected)

Retreat in the Time of the Pandemic, Day 7.75: In which our heroine changes her mind and jumps in a river (protected)

You: Navel-gaze much?

Jane: Too much. It does seem to an essential part of the process though. 

Pandemic Diary: Creative process in uncreative times—especially when that creativity’s supposed to pay the bills…

In the process journal: A page and a half of rambling about—I’m not quite sure, either why I hate Facebook or why I hate people. Big X. Note to self: “This is not going anywhere.”

Visit to JuliaCameronLive.com. Surely, my guru has something for me? Yes. “The Power of Creativity in the Time of the Coronavirus.” Goddammit, she just peddles the Morning Pages, again, and you know, I haven’t stopped, although I do do them wrong intermittently, even though Julia says there is no wrong way to do them. The second tool she offers—another standby. Artist’s Dates. But of course. What else would Julia recommend, has the woman had a new idea in the last 30 years?

“It is my hope that during this period of uncertainty we lean into our creativity, awakening our spirit so that we feel more deeply alive.”

Ugh. Julia. Did you just tell me to lean in? Also, I feel dead inside, and also, I want to smash things not lean in or create—I feel betrayed.

Next stop: Maria Popova’s Brainpickings.org. “A Young Poet’s Love Letter to Earth and to the Double Courage of Facing a Broken Reality While Refusing to Cease Cherishing This Astonishing World in Its Brokenness.”

No. This does not suite my mood at all. Next? Who can I try next?

Matt Inman’s The Oatmeal, of course.

Well. That’s more like how I feel… except it’s probably not what I need.

Oh. “Eight Marvelous & Melancholy Things I’ve Learned About Creativity.” Yes. This. Let’s have a read…

Oh. Matt.

“In the context of your work, you don’t matter.”

Ouch. WTF?

“If you’re like me, then my advice is to buckle up, motherfucker, because you’re destined to die under a mountain of false starts and sad, exasperated poetry. You’re destined to put your personal life in the backseat while your creative spirit gets blackout drunk and takes the wheel.”

from the The Wondrous Utility of Self-Loathing” section

 

Actually, yeah. That helps.

So do the parts about killing your darlings and not making babies, and the business of art.

But especially, that. Thanks, Matt.

Except… I still don’t really want to do the work.

I don’t want to get out of bed, have a shower, turn on the computer.

I’m doing a tech/social media detox starting tomorrow and I’m claiming I’m doing it to clear my head and get myself into a creative space fuelled by boredom—but honestly? I just don’t want to do the social medial and marketing aspects of my work.

I don’t want to do any of the work.

And usually, I’d give myself the advice to just ride the allow period, it’s part of the process, just read poetry, smoke cigars, dance naked in the kitchen—but I don’t want to do any of that either.

When I say I want to smash something: I want to smash that feeling, that mood.

Myself.

Next? Hafez:

Last night, pansy addressed flowers and itself displayed
My swinging in this world, so and so’s hair would braid.
My heart was a treasure chest of secrets, the hands of fate
Closed and locked and its key, to my Beloved bade.
Physician sent the broken me to my Beloved and said
My panacea and cure, only by Your hands are made.
May he be healthy, and happy, and in bliss
That his healing hands upon the needy laid.
Take your own advice, O incessant counselor
Sweet lover and wine, whosoever forbade?
Passed by poor me, and towards my rivals strayed
Said, “my poor Hafiz has given his life, I am afraid.”

Ghazal 113
Translation © Shahriar Shahriari
Los Angeles, Ca January 23, 2000

Um. I don’t know how you’re interpreting that, but I sure hope it’s not the way I’m interpreting it…

I’m running out of gurus. Colette? Frida? Jane? Anaïs? Can one of you please send a demon down (or up, I guess?) to yell at me and tell me to get to work?

Her: The blog’s not work?

Jane: No. One, I don’t get paid for it; two, whining about how you can’t, don’t want to work is not work. Get with the program here.

What I have learned, over a career that now spans two centuries and three decades—I’m not really that old, not yet, I was just almost a child prodigy—almost a true story—is that the only cure for when you don’t want to work?

(You’ll hate this.)

It’s to start to work. Open the notebook—laptop. Get the dry paintbrush out of the jar. Pick up the rake. Fold the first sock.

(I probably meant to write towel—but I like that image—and who folds socks, by the way? Anyone?)

That, in the end, is the difference between the professional and the amateur. The working artist and the wanna-be artist. The published author and the eternally aspiring one.

One learns to work when they don’t want to work… and the other doesn’t.

I don’t want to work.

I don’t want to play, either.

But. Here I go.

Words.

xoxo

“Jane”

The love affair continues: Philip Larkin’s Annus Mirabilis

It will be over soon, I promise. He only wrote 100 poems and two very short  novels, I have devoured it all. And I’m leaving him, more and more often, for others. But bear with me for a few more verses…

Annus Mirabilis

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP

Up until then there’d only been

A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for a ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP

 Philip Larkin
High Windows, 1974

NBTB-Annus Mirabilis-Philip Larkin.jpg

Enjoyed?

“Jane”

P.S. Despite the three-in-a-row Friday poetic assaults, I’m not really here. Nothing By The Book is taking a page from old school un-social media and doing a rerun summer, while I spend the hot days getting a tan, running through sprinkles, selling one book, writing another, reading two dozen more, neglecting my garden, falling in love, jumping off cliffs—you know. Everything but blogging. But, you get reruns of my favourite stuff (and, apparently, the occasional poem…), so everyone wins. Likely keeping up with Instagram—NothingByTheBook—connect there, if you like? Or Twitter—  or/and .

Another Friday gift to you from my new lover: Philip Larkin’s Homage to a Government

Because… timeless. Apparently. Which is rather terrifying, think you not? Anyway.

Read:

Homage to a Government

Next year we are to bring the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly.
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working. And this is all right.

It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it’s been decided nobody minds.
The places are long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The soldiers there only made trouble happen
Next year we shall be easier in our minds.

Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.

Philip Larkin, 1969,
published in High Windows, 1974

 

NBTB-Homage To A Govt-Philip Larkin

P.S. I’m not here. Really. You didn’t see me. Don’t tell anyone. Nothing By The Book is taking a page from old school un-social media and doing a rerun summer, while I spend the hot days getting a tan, running through sprinkles, selling one book, writing another, reading two dozen more, neglecting my garden, falling in love, jumping off cliffs—you know. Everything but blogging. But, you get reruns of my favourite stuff, so everyone wins. Likely keeping up with Instagram—NothingByTheBook—connect there, if you like? Or Twitter—  or/and .

Interlude: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”

I fell in love yesterday, and I can’t wait until September to tell you about him. OK, so he’s been dead since 1985, but little things like that don’t stand in the way of true love. Never. You might know him already, of course—and if you do, goddammit, how could you let me live this long without introducing me to him? I may never, ever forgive you…

If you don’t know him, please, allow me to introduce you RIGHT NOW. Ladies and gentlemen, parents and children of all ages, meet Philip Larkin, via  “This Be The Verse”:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

 Philip Larkin, “This Be The Verse”
First published in the August 1971 issue of New Humanist,
Most easily found in his 1974 poetry collection High Windows

 Now, most of us, most of you reading me, of course, didn’t listen and we all have kids of our own… and we’re sure, four out of five days, 10 out of 12 hours, that we’re fucking up. Big time. Right? Here’s a nugget of wisdom, loves, that I got from my brilliant friend and the closest thing my arrogant self will admit to a mentor, L.: our kids will need therapy. For something. The definition of parenting success is that they need therapy for something OTHER than what we need therapy for. In other words—let’s give them new neuroses, not the ones our parents gave us. 😉 Isn’t that a goal most of us can meet? I think so…

 If you would like to learn more about my new beloved—apparently, Britain’s best-loved poet of the last 50 years, and, according to The Times, Britain’s greatest post-war writer (I plead being Canadian, rather than utterly ignorant, for not meeting him until yesterday)—there’s a detailed  Wikipedia entry on him  and there’s a bit  of his verse in quotable chunks on  GoodReads. And here’s an Observer article, In Search of the Real Philip Larkin. To really drown yourself, of course, you need The Collected Poems (the 2004 edition, I have learned, is considered superior) or the like, but here’s another wonderful taste, via the Poetry Foundation.

Philip and I have plans for the rest of the day—forgive me, editors, clients, children. They involve words. But he’s whispering in my ear that I should leave you with one more verse:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.

“Aubade” (1977), Collected Poems

 And an excerpt from a private love letter:

Morning, noon & bloody night,
Seven sodding days a week,
I slave at filthy WORK, that might
Be done by any book-drunk freak.
This goes on until I kick the bucket.
FUCK IT FUCK IT FUCK IT FUCK IT”

– Philip Larkin: Letters to Monica

You’re welcome.

xoxo

“Jane”

NBTB-They fuck you up-Philip Larkin

P.S. I’m not here. Really. You didn’t see me. Don’t tell anyone. Nothing By The Book is taking a page from old school un-social media and doing a rerun summer, while I spend the hot days getting a tan, running through sprinkles, selling one book, writing another, reading two dozen more, neglecting my garden, falling in love, jumping off cliffs—you know. Everything but blogging. But, you get reruns of my favourite stuff, so everyone wins. Likely keeping up with Instagram—NothingByTheBook—connect there, if you like? Or Twitter—  or/and .