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.

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.

Pandemic Diary: Adulting without desire looks like this

I’m writing in a new place in my new place: the gas fire that’s the primary heating source for my 1913-built “garden flat” (old walk-out basement suite in less pretentious terms). The building has character, and the capricious heating that is the price of it. There’s a massive boiler in the basement proper that’s behind my apartment, which heats most of the building and, through a radiator, my bathroom, and through proximity, my kitchen. My living room and bedroom, however, are radiator-less and far away from the boiler—but equipped with large windows, one of which never closes fully. They rely on warmth from the fireplace, installed in 1996, when the building’s new (and current) owners, bless their hearts, decided that the basement denizens deserved to be warm in the long winter months as much as the upper story tenants.

So here, I am, in the opening fall months that already taste like winter, warming my feet in front of the fireplace as it warms up the apartment from the cold night. The forecast calls for a beautiful, sunny day with near-summer temperatures. But the nights know winter is coming. So do my toes, and they reach out for the fire, which bursts into life with a loud crackle, burns until its heat reaches the sensor on the thermostat that controls it, then disappears… only to come alive with a pop a few minutes later.

I expect there might be a way to make it burn incessantly—cranking the temperature into the 30s, for example—but in some ways, this is better. Intermittent reinforcement always is…

Today will be a chore day and a work day, a long list of tasks to move through, few of which inspire passion or are driven by desire. But, desire-less, I will try to be like my fireplace flame: come alive. Do the task. Burn out—and sit still, drink a cup of coffee. Maybe read some poetry. Explode into a second, third burst of energy.

Keep moving.

I can do that—I don’t want to do that—I will do that. Reward myself with heat from the bursts of the flame in the chilly evening—after the almost hot day—and meditate on the mesmerizing quality of fire.

What are you doing this Monday?

xoxo

“Jane”

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”

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. 

Jane does Disney like this: no mouse, no rides, a hell of a lot of angst

November 1, Friday

I’m going to Disneyland!

Well, actually, I’m not. My son and his cousin are being taken to Disneyland by their grandma. I’m coming along for the ride and for support. I’m not going to the parks.

I’m going to write and revise and relax. And maybe play.

I am two scenes short of finishing something I didn’t even know I was writing. Perhaps I will finish it on the plane.

I don’t. The day is too fractured.

November 2, Saturday

The boys and Grandma do Disneyland. I go to the Walmart Super Centre to get them food and other supplies, and then I do downtown Anaheim, nominally looking for a writing spot. But about 15 minutes into the adventure, I decide, no, not today. Today, I fill the well and look at pretty things. Hello, honey. What? Really? Absolutely, take me there, show me.

Tomorrow, I write.

November 3, Sunday, 3 p.m.

I write. Intermittently. I need to do a Walmart run, and on the way, I meet a Syrian immigrant who runs a cigar shop, and I share a cigarillo with him in the smoking room he created in his parking lot. Listen to his story.

Back at the hotel, I write the penultimate scene in the [You Don’t Get To Know The Series Title] trilogy by the pool. It’s not very good. It was supposed to be the last scene, and I know it doesn’t do the job. Something else is needed. I feel it shaping in the back of my mind and close my eyes for a moment. Listen to Ender and his cousin splash and shout.

Ok. Yes. That makes more sense; of course, it can’t end like this. But this ultimate scene, the final, trilogy-closing scene? I can’t write it yet. Next, step, go back to the beginning. Revise Episode 1. Episode 2. Episode 3. Then revise some more.

I fucking love revising.

Neil Gaiman has a line in one of his speeches where he says something like, “The second draft is where you make it look like you knew what you were doing in draft one.” Wise man.

Ender’s cousin, dripping wet, peers over my shoulder at my Scrivener document. He’s a good reader, but my font is too small and there are too many words on the page for him to really follow. Thank god. His aunt has a filthy mind, and I’d rather he learnt all those words and concepts in the school yard. I mean, from my brother.

“Are you making another book?” he asks. I nod. He thinks it’s pretty cool for two seconds, then goes back to the pool.

I close the Scrivener document—then open it, export the file to Word. Repeat the process for Episode 1 and 2. Email all three to all of my email addresses. My back-up. I am, after all, working by the pool…

November 4, Monday, 9:24 p.m.

Alice, my San Francisco-dwelling friend, is flying in to see me while I’m in Anaheim, and she’s en route from LAX to my hotel. We haven’t seen each other in more than a year—near a year and a half. We’re going to paint this boring-ass town—and Anaheim, bar Disneyland, is boring as fuck—all the colours of the rainbow. I keep on asking the Uber drivers and baristas I encounter what the locals here do for fun, and apparently, it’s nothing. They go to the Packing District—which is very cool, but it’s one building, people.

“Well, and we go to LA,” one says.

But I don’t want to spend 40-75 minutes in shitty Southern California traffic. So. Anaheim. Coffee shops and hookah bars—of course, I find them all—and maybe a trip to the beach. It doesn’t really matter. We have a hundred conversations to share that cannot be had over text.

My two days with Alice are cutting into my writing and revising time on this trilogy that, three weeks ago, I didn’t even know I was writing. But that’s ok. Because last week, I was averaging 5,000 words a day so that I’d be done the first draft of the final episode/novella by the time Alice arrived. Not working now was part of the plan.

Um. Yeah. So, you know how three weeks ago, I wasn’t writing?

Apparently, I was. I just didn’t notice.

I remember starting the novella that is now Episode 1 of [You Don’t Get To Know The Series Title]. Flora’s health issues, which had started to manifest in the fall of 2018, and started to unravel and spiral out of control that December, meant that by January, I had pressed PAUSE on my big projects. In February, as an attempt at self-care (I wish I could explain this to the family therapist, but I’ve given up on making her understand anything), I decided to try to write a short story. I wrote it in 15-minute increments through February. Perhaps the first week of March. Then. hospital, hell.

Let’s not talk about April.

Then, Wales. We can talk about Wales. (You can read about Wales in Kick Like a Girl).

I didn’t write in May, but knew, by June, I had to do something. I couldn’t go back to the story I was writing in February. Also, it was bad. I didn’t bother to re-read it, but I remembered very clearly, it was bad, and it didn’t go anywhere, and I hated it. How could I not hate it? I wrote it in hell.

I started a new, different short story. Just to have something to write. I gave it the same setting at the last one. Might as well salvage something from that disaster, I thought.

Fifteen minute increments. Very little engagement or passion. I felt that second story was very, very bad too.

And what was the point of all that writing, anyhow? I put it aside.

Spent the next few weeks trying to get back into the projects I set aside in December 2018. Still felt too stupid to face them.

(I don’t care what the therapist says: this isn’t negative self-talk. It’s a statement of fact. Trauma takes its toll on mental acuity, and pretending that it doesn’t is… stupid.)

Then, the Banff Investigative Journalism Intensive. You know what happened there. (If you don’t, you can read about it in Heaven Hangover.)

Then, post-heaven crash. Therapist. My identification of the problem: I’m not writing, and this is making me so unhappy, I want to die.

No hyperbole, by the way.

Solution: write, girl. Write shit. Write badly. Write unpublishable, unsellable crap. Write something. Get to the end of something. Start something—more importantly, finish something.

Well—there’s that story. Maybe it’s not quite as bad as I thought as it was. It’s not great. But. It has potential. Grit teeth.

Write.

Two days to finish [You Don’t Get To Know The Series Title] Story 2.

Instant realization that if Story 1 is only as bad as Story 2, I can probably save it, and then I have two-thirds of a trilogy.

A week to resuscitate and save Story 1.

Decision to write Story 3 at a pace of 5,000 words a day over a week. To show myself I can.

Write shit, write badly, write to finish, write to show yourself you can still do it.

Bam. Fucking done.

(The therapist is still nattering on about balance, and, I don’t know, people. I’m thinking, I fixed my own problem by ignoring all her advice, gritting my teeth, and making myself write to a self-imposed deadline. But I’ll give her credit for creating the space for me in which I could articulate this need to myself.)

(Ok, I haven’t actually seen the therapist recently. She’s still nattering in my head. At least I’m not paying her for that monologue).

Alice texts. “In the lobby.”

“Coming.”

November 5, Tuesday

Yesterday, Alice and I spend some time in a fantasy treehouse (long story) and end up reading Tarot cards at a hookah place—you know it, that’s where I end up when I need a home base. Also, she made me cry. Self-awareness fucking sucks people; I don’t know why all these New Age prophets have so many disciples.

Today is beach day. Coffee and breakfast at Seal Beach, a long walk along Sunset Beach, lunch, ice cream, and then a cigar break at Huntington Beach. We’re talking—and Alice makes me cry again, and it feels awful, but, you know, that’s me now, really. Then she makes herself cry. We agree it’s all part of the processing process—I don’t call it healing, because a) ugh and b) definitely not healing.

Also, I still think self-awareness sucks.

And so, I escape. As we meander along the so-beautiful-it-looks-unreal Southern California landscape (to be clear, the beaches and ocean are beautiful, the cities, ugh, and I can’t help but imagine how amazing it all must have been before people), I’m pondering [You Don’t Get To Know The Series Title]. It’s not great. The bones are decent. The execution pedestrian. The characters—well. I can fix some of that. Each story was supposed to be a light-hearted sexy rom-com, but apparently, when you’re traumatized and worried that your child is going to die, dark themes infect your work. The pieces are not funny, although there are funny moments.

They are not under contract, so I have a great deal of freedom with them. I don’t have to make them anything. I created them to keep myself sane, and moving. Mission accomplished.

Now, I can take these shitty first drafts and use them as a writing apprenticeship. What can I do to make them better? How can I refine them? Where can I cut, where should I add? Who, perhaps, should I kill?

They will be another leg of my apprenticeship. They will keep me moving.

The think-ahead, make-use-of-everything part of me thinks that I might be able to salvage enough out of them to throw them onto Kindle Unlimited, perhaps under an existing pen name, perhaps under a new one.

Most of me, though, is focused on just working through them. The bones are good. The flesh—some needs cutting, some needs toning. That’s the next step.

Alice: You gonna work tonight?

Jane: God, no. After the boys are asleep—cocktails in a boxcar! I saw this place on Saturday that you will love…

Wednesday, November 6

Yesterday, the Disneylanders—Ender, his cousin, my mom—left the hotel room at 7:30 a.m., hit Disneyland at 8 a.m., dragged themselves back to the hotel at 3p.m., immediately jumped into the pool, spend three hours there, and were asleep in their beds by 7:30 p.m. Slept for near 12 hours. Disneyland has been described to me as the vacation that fights back: “Having fun has never been such hard work!” They’re exhausted. But exhilarated.

It’s an infectious feeling.

Sort of…

I wake up thinking about Sylvia Plath.

In our conversation on Monday, Alice is pointing out my “things”—buckets, obligations, commitments. Pushing me to identify my “non-negotiables,” my “this is sacred, I will not give it up.” That’s when she makes me cry.

“I don’t have that much more to give up,” I tell her. “What? The seven minutes a day I reluctantly spend on Facebook?”

She uses herself as an example. “Where am I on your list?” she says. “Surely, you could have spent these two days in Anaheim writing in the hotel room, and not with me. For example. I know I’m not one of your sacred priorities.”

I kinda want to tell her to fuck off.

I am not that kind of artist, I tell her. I am not a monk or hermit; I am not a fanatic. My writing is embedded in my life, not separate from it.

On Tuesday, ankle-deep in salt water, she suggests that perhaps, then, what I need is to wait. Wait two years, four years—wait. Be Ender’s mother and teacher, Flora’s caretaker, focus on those things. And then write, later.

We’re almost not friends after that, to be honest. She’s just explained the patriarchy, in one misguided, well-intentioned sentence.

“I’ve been waiting to have more time for 17 years,” I tell her. “I had more time, comparatively, for two. Then it disappeared. There may never be more. What the fuck is wrong with you people that you can’t understand that?”

She apologizes. I’m not sure she understands. We move on to talk about her shit, which is easier for me, harder for her.

In the back of my mind, though, I’m now running on two tracks:

1-How do I fix [You Don’t Get To Know The Series Title]?

2-Is there anything left that I am willing to give up?

And on Wednesday morning, thanks to Sylvia Plath, I’m able to give myself—and Alice—the answer:

Writing is the first love of my life. I have to live well and rich and far to write… I could never be a narrow introvert writer, the way many are, for my writing depends so much on my life.

Sylvia Plath, Letters Home

I spend the rest of Wednesday NOT writing. Instead, Alice and I cafe-hop and thrift-shop in Fullerton until it’s time for her flight to San Francisco; alone, I find a bar with a smoking patio, and I smoke my last holiday cigarillo and drink a double Jameson’s before meeting up with the Disneyland crew at the hotel.

Thursday, November 7 – Going Home

We pack, we eat, we catch a 90-minute Uber ride to the airport; we are going home.

The kids—and grandma—are happy but exhausted. I’m… it’s hard to tell. Relaxed, yes. My residency at the Banff Centre was marvellous and exhilarating but it was not relaxing. Spending three hours in a coffee shop treehouse with a good friend, beach hopping, thrift-store hunting for two and a half days… that’s a holiday, vacation. Earlier in the week, someone asks me if I’m on vacation, and I say, “No.” But, ok. The first three days, not so much. Those last three days, yes. Vacation.

The problem with vacations, of course, is that they don’t solve any problems. They take you away from them. Maybe, by giving you distance and separation, vacations give you a new perspective on the shit you need to go back to. Maybe, in the break, vacations give you renewed energy with which to tackle the problems.

I’m still not quite sure I’ve identified mine.

Writing is the first love of my life. I have to live well and rich and far to write… I could never be a narrow introvert writer, the way many are, for my writing depends so much on my life.

Sylvia Plath, Letters Home

Sylvia Plath was a precocious teenager when she wrote that—freshly in college, pre-love affairs, pre-Ted Hughes, pre-children, pre-publication. And, of course, her story ends very, very badly, head in the oven, two orphaned children. Let me be very clear—she is not a life role model for me.

But here, we agree. When Alice responds to my challenges-as-I-see-them-right-now, she keeps on saying equivalents of “That’s a lot of shit to manage” and “What can you give up?”

And, having slept on the question for several days, my answer is—wrong question. A very Christian question—I have to tell Alice this, because she’s struggling with some bad-ass (not in a good way) fundamentalist Christian programming. Her God says, “An eye for an eye,” and “Take what you want, but you’re gonna pay for it, and it’s gonna hurt.”

I don’t believe in her god, any god. And today, my answer to, “What can you give up?” is NOTHING.

I am going to do it all.

Now.

I’m not going to wait another year or four or ten. I’m not going to sequence. And I’m not going to sacrifice and barter.

I need to be a good, functioning, willing, fulfilled mother to Ender and Flora—and Cinder, god, at the moment, my most neglected child—I remind myself that at his age, all I wanted was to be neglected by my parents. He probably welcomes the space. To be a good mother as I define it, I need to write, work, create, live, love, and play. When I give up those things, I am a shitty, shitty resentful, angry mother. And nobody wants that—not me, not the kids.

To work and to write, I need to live wide. I need to love, to laugh, to dance and to suffer. I need to feel the sunlight on my skin, and the blood in veins.

I would not write as I do if I did not live as I do, if I did not love these children as I do. And I would not love these children–or you–as I do if I did not write…

Like Sylvia, I don’t want a narrow life.

When her life narrowed, she died.

I need to live.

And I don’t want balance. Fuck balance.

I want passion. I want tension. Stimulation.

But also, quiet, and a predictable routine in which to do my work.

As I said, I want it all.

And I’m not going to compromise.

It might be because I’m writing this in an American airport, but I’m pretty sure—if I compromise? The terrorists win.

The therapist is not going to like this.

I’m not sure Alice will, either. Alice, babe? “What do you need to give up?” is the wrong question—unless you answer it with, “My preconceptions of fucked up, unfair rules and patriarchy-reinforcing limitations.”

It’s time to board; I leave you with words of wisdom from Her Majesty:

xoxo

“Jane”

So, yeah, I met Julia Cameron (in the flesh!): The power of story, dialectics and the creation of god

I’ve left paradise and I’m in a crowded parking lot. It’s tucked between the Ukrainian Catholic Church that, I guess, presumes to be a conduit to paradise for its worshippers, and the cultural centre it runs as both a community service and a modest revenue stream.

Even churches need to keep the lights on, somehow.

The Church is St. Basil’s, an unusual and beautiful name that always makes me think of both Sherlock Holmes and John Cleese (and OMG, people, John Cleese playing Sherlock Holmes, why has that not been a thing?).

(Excuse me—I’m googling “Has John Cleese ever played Sherlock Holmes?”)

(OMG, people, John Cleese played Arthur Sherlock Holmes, the grandson of the great detective, in a 1977 British film called The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It, and you can watch it for free on Open Culture.)

(Back to regularly scheduled programming…)

I’m here because in 2015, then-Conservative MLA for Edmonton-Decore, Janice Sarich, lost her job.

Follow me for a while; I’ll explain.

I’m actually here for Julia Cameron’s first Canadian appearance in more than 20 years. Julia Cameron is the author of The Artist’s Way—and more than 40 other books, several musicals, plays, screenplays, etc. She’s also the director of an art film, the creation of which is a study in synchronicity, serendipity, and also, perseverance past the point of reason.

Julia has been my writing teacher and creativity coach for five years. Today is the first day we are to meet. And when I say meet, I mean, I will be in a church hall with 300 other people while she talks. It’s not going to be a particularly intimate experience. But still. We will be in the same room, I will have seen her, truly, “live,” and this brings me much anticipatory happiness.

Back in 2014, when I was drowning (metaphorically, although the flood was real enough), The Artist’s Way threw me a lifeline and turned Cameron into my first real teacher, and the one I keep on going back to, again and again and again.

And again.

I don’t like her.

Let’s make this clear right away, so that you are not expecting a hagiography. We are not friends, Julia and I. I do not have a rose-coloured schoolgirl’s crush on her. I am neither the Peter nor Paul to her Jesus, nor the Mardana to her Guru Nanak.*

* You can google Mardana and Guru Nanak. Or, you can read The Singing Guru, a marvellous novel by Kamla K. Kaur (also author of Ganesha Goes to Lunch and Rumi’s Tales from the Silk Road), about the life of the founder of the Sikh religion—that’d be Guru Nanak—and his faithful companion, Mardana.

If we were closer in geography and fame, we would not be friends, meeting for a coffee and a chat. I don’t accept Julia’s tools and wisdom uncritically, as gospel. Frankly, I argue with her, fight her every step of the way. I call her names—throw her struggle with alcoholism and co-dependent romantic relationships in her face (repeatedly and unkindly). Tell her that if she spent less time gazing out her window and writing Morning Pages and more time perfecting the craft and refining technique, maybe she’d be famous for her poetry or her musicals. Or her novels would be, like, good, and they’d sell.

I am mean to her, so mean to her.

I hate her.

She is my most beloved teacher.

My refusal to be an uncritical acolyte notwithstanding, I’m here to pay homage. I’m quite aware of this, long before I get into my hic-cuping (Please don’t die!) 2007 Nissan Versa (grey) (I’m telling you this because Julia likes specificity, just as much as Writing Down the Bones author Natalie Goldberg does) at 5:30 a.m. that morning to drive the 300 km that will take me to St. Basil’s Cultural Centre in Edmonton.

I know I am here to give gratitude and pay homage long before Julia Cameron enters the hall and I leap to my feet, giving her a standing ovation before she utters a word, because, fuck, Julia, there you are, after all these years, in the flesh, you’re real, would I be where I am, who I am, right now if you hadn’t been thrust upon me back in 2014?

Julia Cameron is 71 now, and an old 71, a frail 71. My mother is 68 and a) she looks much younger and prettier and b) she could easily take Julia in a fight. Janice Sarich—the organizer—warns us before the Godmother of Art, the Midwife of Creation enters the hall that Ms Cameron has health issues, and because of them, there are some rules we need to follow. We are not to badger her, approach her, crowd her—there’s a red velvet rope strung as a barrier to separate us from the lectern and we are not to cross it. There will be no book signings or requests for selfies. We are here to get what she is willing to give us—and to demand no more.

I know from her books that Cameron is a highly introverted, very sensitive and anxious—neurotic really—and has suffered at least two nervous breakdowns.

Those are all the things about her that annoy me when I read her (Could you be a little less neurotic, Julia?), those are all the things that make her such a sensational teacher.

If I am a doubting Thomas and a pre-conversion St. Augustine—maybe even a Rene Descartes, who, had he lived half a century earlier may well have been burnt at the stake—the woman who brought Cameron to Edmonton—to me—is a less critical disciple. Former MLA Sarich is in the honeymoon phase of the student-teacher relationship, you know, when Socrates can do no wrong in the eyes of Plato, when Jung nods his head enthusiastically at every word Freud utters… even though, if he lets himself think, he’ll see that actually, um, ah, I dunno, maybe the old man got it just a little wrong?

I’ve never had that phase with Cameron. I’ve never had that with anyone. Hero-worship, goddess worship—I envy it when I see it.

Sarich lost her job at the Alberta Provincial Legislature when my socialist, progressive, feminist, “Damn straight I will dance at the Pride Parade!” premier unseated the oligarchy that had been lording it over the province for 44 years. So as soon as Sarich introduces herself and her story, I know some pretty core philosophical differences separate us. In 2015, I celebrated with abandon—if not precisely her loss, then my premier’s win. When the Conservatives returned to power in 2019 under a reprehensible platform that offended virtually all of my values as well as my reason, I mourned.

But when I talk to Sarich, all I feel is gratitude and admiration. Because she turned her tragedy and trauma—and job loss is traumatic, no matter how common in the modern economy—into this opportunity, not just for herself, but for me and for 300 other people. To meet Julia, to work with Julia.

For an emotionally exhausting eight hours.

At 4:30 p.m. that day, I revise my estimation of Julia as old and frail. Fuck, the woman might be 71 and battered by life, but she’s also tough and committed. She might have health problems. She may pause at the lectern for a long, long while here and there, to catch her breath or to recall her train of thought. But she gives us her all for the entire day, shepherding her energy carefully, resting in-between when we break off into our mini-clusters—but, at the end of the day, still giving it all, as fully engaged, as fully present as she was at its beginning.

I bow my head and come the closest to hero-worship, goddess worship I will ever feel.

There are several points during the day when I wish I hadn’t come. The first happens early in the day, during one of our first break-off clusters. The workshop for 300 of Julia’s biggest fans is surprising intimate, because Julia (clearly, she’s done this before) speaks for a little bit, gives us a written exercise, then has us break off into clusters of three, four or two. Each time, we are to connect with new people; each time, we are to share ourselves with strangers.

I fucking hate this. There is immense creative power in being vulnerable, open, exposed. I know—I’ve just come off a 10-day stint in Paradise in which I gave myself like that, completely. And I am still so very vulnerable and leaking tears and love. But these people, here? I don’t know these people at all.

And this is a fact, not an opinion: being vulnerable and open with people you don’t know and trust is stupid.

This is also a fact, not an opinion: The Artist’s Way exercises Julia is leading us through are useless unless one is stupid and open. I mean, vulnerable. Ugh.

I hate her. I wish I hadn’t come. Fine, Julia. I’m here. For you. My stupid list… numbered one to five. Things people in my family thought about Art. Imaginary lives. Things I’d do if I knew I didn’t have to do them perfectly. U-turns…

My first two clusters are marvelous. The women—the audience is 90 percent female, and also, 95, 99 per cent white, and this is sadly relevant—are all also open and vulnerable and loving. And so they set me up for what happens next.

Fine. No blame. I set myself up. I relax into the vulnerability. I start to feel safe.

Bam!

Julia says, she’s going to dictate some questions for us, and we are to answer them in our best Obi Wan Kenobi impersonation. I’m not a Star Wars fan, and while I know the difference between Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda (Yoda’s the green one, right?), I’m not sure which one of them it is who says, “There is no try. There is only do.” But I think that’s what she’s asking for. Right? Anyway. Jedi master advice to the Padawan. This much I know. Jedi, wise.

She dictates.

What do I need to do?

I write:

Write and build.

She says:

What do I need to try?

I write:

Rejuvenate, recharge, restart.

(I actually think, “I need to let go,” BUT I AM NOT LETTING GO OF ANYTHING, analyze that!)

Number three, says Julia:

What do I need to accept?

Motherhood is forever.

Corners of my eyes tingle, sting.

Number four:

What do I need to grieve?

I don’t want to do this fucking exercise.

But I write:

Loss of freedom. And time.

Tears stream down my face, hot and sticky.

Last one.

What do I need to celebrate?

This one’s hard. But I find the words.

Love. And my talent. I’m fucking amazing and I’m still here.

My face is wet, soaked when we break off into the clusters. Fuck you, Julia, I wasn’t quite ready for that. Fuck honesty. Sometimes, a little bit of distance and delusion is good. And now, in this state, I need to be with people? Why would you do this to me?

We’re a  group of four, a young stay-at-home mom, a woman who could either be my age or be a decade my senior, hard to tell, and a post-menopausal matriarch. And, me.

I want to stay to stay open, so I tell them the exercise really triggered me and I was crying and I pretty much can’t stop. They make supportive noises. We share our lists, without details, context, backstory. Then, the matriarch starts asking questions. Who, what, why. She likes to be in charge. The young stay-at-home mom says something about motherhood, challenges, sacrifices. “You will never regret this time,” the matriarch says authoritatively. “There is so much time to do everything you want after…” And she launches into the story her of her perfectly sequenced life.

I can’t bear it. Because sometimes there’s no time, there’s no more time. Sometimes, just as you think there’s more freedom, more time, everything comes crumbling down, and then what? Is it still worth it?

Right now, to be perfectly, brutally honest, I don’t know. I don’t know if it was worth it. Maybe I should have been more selfish, more focused on what I needed back then. I’ve lost so much time, I’m losing so much time now, I’m wasting the time I do have…

What happens when you find out there will not be more time, more freedom? And you will never get back what you lost, and you have to figure out how to work with what you have?

And what is it with this crap of telling women—sacrifice everything you are, everything you want now, because sometime in the future, when nobody needs you anymore, you can do the things that you…

Fuck that shit.

My tears come again. Hot.

What do I need to accept?

Motherhood is forever.

What do I need to grieve?

Loss of freedom. And time.

I don’t want to out Flora, her story, her struggle to strangers.

But they are looking at me, confused, but, I think, also, compassionate.

“I have a sick child,” I say by way of an inadequate explanation. “I don’t have more time, now, that she’s older. My challenge is to figure out how to work with the time I have.”

I don’t add that I’m having a really hard time making use of what time I do have. That I spent most of it exhausted, non-functional.

The matriarch looks at me. I don’t really expect words of wisdom. Just, what? Acknowledgment? That it’s hard.

“I know this couple,” she says. “Married thirty-two years. Never a cross word between.”

There’s no more to her story, although her mouth keeps on moving and she’s making words. I excuse myself and go cry in the washroom for a while.

I’m not angry. Just unsupported. And reminded that it is stupid to be vulnerable in front of strangers.

I recover sufficiently to be present and to listen to Julia. But I know that even though I carry out the exercises, between myself and the page, fairly honestly, I will not be naked to strangers again today.

This is not unfortunate. It’s smart, safe, necessary. Just as necessary as, when walking home late at night, choosing the well-lit paths or opting to call an Uber instead of taking a shortcut through the dark alley or ambush-point filled urban park.

The next point of pain comes during the Q&A on Morning Pages. The Morning Pages, if you’re not an Artist’s Way acolyte, are the primary tool Julia gives us for creative recovery—and perseverance. Three pages, written in longhand, first thing in the morning. Other than those guidelines, anything goes.

In my Morning Pages, I often tell Julia she’s an idiot and this is a stupid exercise, and surely there’s a more productive, creative, enjoyable way with which to start my mornings?

But it’s been more than five years now and I’ve missed perhaps five days. The Morning Pages have given me three novels. Renegotiated most of my existing relationships, opened me to new ones. They are saving me, keeping me anchored to life and why I want to live it during this latest, shittiest chapter of my life.

They work.

They work, very very well, for writers.

Julia prescribes them for everyone.

The question, asked by a woman I don’t really see, but the top of whose head suggests she might have African roots, is this:

“The Morning Page tool is so powerful. But it’s all about writing. Is there way for people or cultures without writing traditions, to use it?

Julia answers it like a 71-year-old white woman.

The first part of her answer is ok. She says that she’s a writer and she comes at this process from that lens and she doesn’t have any experience elsewhere.

Would that she just stopped there, it would be ok.

But she doesn’t. Her next sentiment, communicated as much by tone as actual words, comes across as, “I’m not interested in making my tools work for non-writing cultures.”

Bang. Ouch. Wah.

I can’t tell if the woman asking the question is African or indigenous—she’s far, the room is crowded, I’m blind (I meet her later, she’s a Canadian with Jamaican parentage), but OMFG, Julia, how could you?

Well.

She’s no goddess, she’s no hero, she’s blinded by her class and her privilege, and she’s a product of her time.

She’s also a product of her culture, which has over-privileged writing as a cultural and communication form almost since it invented it.

And it’s so weird, really if you think about it at all.

This urge to write shit down. Not even important shit. Just… anything that happens to you. Or crosses your mind. Imagined shit. Stories about robots and unicorns and alternate universes. Murders that didn’t happen. Love affairs that go right or wrong—but that don’t actually exist.

How weird is that?

Nothing natural, inevitable about any of it, right?

What would all we writers be doing if we were born into a pre-literate age?

We would be… story tellers. Song makers. Poem reciters.

Writing is a tool, a technology, a cultural invention we use to express, communicate both the very mundane (“Sold three sheep for two wheat barrels”; “Pick up toilet paper and eggs on your way home, will you love?”) and the absolutely divine…

“The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.”

― Rumi (Coleman Barks translation)

The Morning Pages are magical for writers. My non-writing son finds a similar peace and cleansing when he runs. His father finds it in meditation (which Cameron near-dismisses during the workshop, wilfully misunderstanding what it is that happens in meditation—“You meditate until you push the problem away,” she says—as most failed meditators and non-meditators do).

My great-grandmother found it in prayer or the rosary.

I find it in the Morning Pages.

But that doesn’t mean everyone will, everyone should.

Julia. You too old to be open-minded?

Sigh.

My last moment of pain comes when Julia wants to talk about God. She’s a highly spiritual person and this, and her highly personal relationship with an anthropomorphic God the Creator, God the Artist permeates all her work. It is another point of contention between us. I’ve had to “get over” Julia’s god thing to work through her books. Don’t laugh. It’s possible. You can read both the New Testament and the Q’ran for life lessons and reject the existence of both Jesus’s God the Father and Muhammad’s Allah. Ditto the Vedas and the Upanishads. You can learn from the Bhagavad Ghita without praying to Krishna, you know?

Siddhartha Gautama, the “first” Buddha, figured it out—he also realized the average person needs God and I don’t expect he’s surprised either by his own deification or the veneration of Boddhisatvas and statues that make some schools of Buddhism look as theatrical as Roman Catholicism. But I digress, yet again. Point: Julia loves God and trusts that he’s running the show.

I think it’s… well, now, occasionally, I think it’s nice. Why not? Whatever gets you through the days and keeps you sober. But I can’t join her there. Not even because, Syrian civil war, genocide in Rwanda, the Jewish Holocaust, and also, the disease my daughter is battling. Just because… it seems so infantile.

Fake.

In the workshop, we first deconstruct, as a group, the idea of god we grew up with. I’m silent. I’ve put the pedophiliac “You are born in sin and you will die in sin” anthropomorphic, misogynist God the Father of my childhood religion away a long time ago. So I think, anyway. Many of the people in the group though had a similar experience. They share it. I don’t understand why anyone would worship, deify, believe in such an entity past the age of reason. Well. I do. Children are impressionable, life is uncertain.

Worship is seductive.

 

Next, Julia wants us to construct a joyous God the Creator, God the Artist. “What sort of God do you, as an artist, want?” she asks. “Let’s make him!” The room enters into the exercise enthusiastically. I’m silent again. I think making art to celebrate a thing that doesn’t exist is, while not as evil as making war in the name of a thing that doesn’t exist (“She was a virgin mother!” “No, she wasn’t!” “He was the son of God!” “No, he was just a prophet of God!”) is just as pointless.

But because I’m not busy building false deity, I am looking inward, and when I look inward, the “Why? to what purpose?” question inevitably looms large.

And because “it’s god’s plan” is not an answer available to me, I must find the answer myself, in myself.

This is hard to do when one is empty…

Julia ends the section, and the workshop, by asking us to first, write a letter from ourselves to this god we create, and then a response from him. (Yes, it’s a him. Of course, no gender neutral pronouns for Julia. We don’t get into it. But I feel we would fight about that too. Anyway, I don’t think she’s thought about it very deeply. Her god has a definite, also material penis. Or so I think as I seethe at her. I told you. I don’t like her. This is not a hagiography.)

At the beginning of the workshop, she introduces us to two characters who will accompany us on the journey, the Tyrant and the Rebel.

The Tyrant is also, I think, the Inner Critic. My Aunt Augusta. “Your list of five imaginary lives is so stupid.” “See, you couldn’t come up with 25 things that you love. I knew you wouldn’t be able to do it, because you suck. You’re stupid.”

The Rebel says, “The teacher is so stupid. Why is she making us do this shit?”

My Rebel is rising, but as I have done since I’ve first started working with Julia five years ago, I acknowledge that she, the Rebel, is absolutely right—but we’re going to do this stupid exercise anyway.

I write:

Dear Creativity God,

You don’t exist because, well, you don’t. I don’t believe in you, or ghosts. But Julia Cameron exists—she is very real, right here, and I believe in her. And in myself. And I believe—most of the time—that my urge to create, to write, to put all these stories down on paper is a worthwhile one. It’s important to bear witness. To document.

Look at that. This is how Jesus and the Buddha became gods.

Julia calls time. Now, it’s time for the Creativity God to write back.

Jesus.

For three minutes, I need to write in the voice of something I don’t believe in, that doesn’t exist. Fun.

Fine.

When I commit to doing something, I do it.

I write.

Yes, M., you’re absolutely right. It’s important to bear witness, to document, to interpret, even. How did you put it in that love letter to your crew? To make sense of the world and share it with other people. Not everyone can see either the whole, or the unique angle with which you can illuminate the most ordinary experience. And so, yes. Believe in your urge and in yourself and in its value. Believing in me is not necessary. Unlike Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, I exist whether you believe in me or not.

Well, fuck what the hell is this?

I hate Julia Cameron.

I love Julia Cameron.

Both statements are true. That’s dialectics, that’s where all the best ideas happen.

(Note to self: re-read American Gods soon. I love Neil Gaiman. But it’s his wife Amanda Palmer who is, occasionally, my teacher.)

We give Julia Cameron a standing ovation to close the day and then, I end up at dinner with three other fascinating attendees, including the woman who asked the question about non-literate people and cultures. (She’s brilliant, Julia, working on a doctorate on how we can use art to heal trauma—you really should have paid more attention to what was behind her question).

We de-brief, dissect. I am very pleased to find myself talking with critical thinkers, not mindless acolytes.

I love Julia, I hate Julia—I think the reason my work with The Artist’s Way has been so fruitful for me is because I fight with Julia, argue with her almost every step of the way. Resist and then surrender, for a little while. Fight some more, grow some more.

She is my most beloved Teacher.

Thank you, Janice Sarich, for giving me this time with her.

xoxo

“Jane”

PS In case you forgot where we started: John Cleese + Sherlock Holmes = The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It (1977). Give it at least 13 minutes before giving up. The 1970s were a different time: people still expected/accepted awkward foreplay in their books and films.

Escape from the ashram (an entirely misleading title, but not really)

I.

This was last week:

This was two years ago:

This was seven years ago:

(And fourteen years ago, there was just one of them, and it was all harder, because it was new.)

You send me this:

and we laugh. But then I think… no. No, actually, that’s wrong. For me, anyway. See, without the children, I wouldn’t have written any of the work that really matters to me—the books, the best blog posts, the articles that captured the tension inherent in all aspects of business and life (especially for women, especially for mothers).

More—before children, I did not know how to love. I did not understand what suffering really was.

There’s a quote I’ve intermittently encountered (I haven’t been able to track it back to its source, my apologies) along the nasty lines that for a woman writer, every child is a lost book. It has always made me bridle, and today, I would like to officially say to that originator of the quote and everyone who has since repeated it, as an excuse it keep herself silent: So. Fucking. Wrong.

I do get why they say it, you know. Why they might even believe it. We live in a culture that hasn’t figured out how to value women, motherhood, or creativity—International Women’s Day, the still-enduring lip-service to the Victorian Cult of Motherhood, and adoration of WEALTHY and FAMOUS musicians, painters, and authors notwithstanding. Being a woman-mother-creator is much more difficult in a patriarchy (we’re still one) than being a man-father-creator. Our burden is bigger. And, we’re not supposed to—we’re terrified of being—selfish.

II.

Ender is playing a Lego.com video game on Sean’s laptop at the kitchen table while I sit beside him and work on mine. Flora comes in, to the soundtrack of a Harry Potter audio book. Groggy-eyed, she asks for a kiss and French toast; I ask for fifteen more minutes.

When Cinder trundles down the stairs before noon—well, probably after—I will thank him for doing the dishes before going to bed at 3 a.m. And stand on my tiptoes to kiss his chin, because I can no longer reach his forehead unless he stoops.

And then I will tell him I’ve found a way for him to earn the $50 that’s his heart desire right now.

III.

I don’t actually want to write about the difference between selfishness and self-care (and, more importantly, self-actualization). A. Everyone else is doing it and B. It’s not a paradigm I’m going to shift in that particular way (I have another plan, but it’s a secret, sssshhhh). Instead, I want to tell you how important it is for me that my work be rooted in this messy, crazy, unpredictable, demanding FULL life. In this kitchen. In this family. In this community that throws an extra obligation at me just as I need to hit a critical deadline. In… reality.

Not in an ivory tower or the isolation of a writer’s retreat or an ashram.

Instead: in this child’s need to crawl into my lap at the precise moment that I need both hands to type and all my faculties focused on what it is I am trying to put into words.

Jane: Ender, I love you, but get out of my lap.

Ender: I love you more, and I need Mommy cuddles now.

On some level, I have been fighting this for the past three years. It was three—three-and-a-half, coming up on four!—years ago that I realized the nature of my work had to change. Before, it was enough to me that I was writing for a living. How lucky was I? Writing for a living, and able to be the primary caregiver for my children. Supporting my family, fulfilling my need to be a writer, and being the mother I needed, wanted to be. What more did I need?

Well, as it turns out… there was some stuff… but that’s probably a novel in itself, or even a hefty self-help book (that one of you can write; as I’ve said, I have other plans).

During that transitional time, I spent a lot of time dreaming of month-long writers’ retreats and week-long conferences and government-funded residencies… I substituted them with occasional weekends alone in hotel rooms (or friends’ apartments) and self-created 12-hour writing marathons in cafes and sheesha lounges. I was chasing “the time and space” to really do my work, to give to it the attention and care it deserved—to give it the sort of focused attention I like to give my family… without, of course, short-changing my family…

…but there was only so much time to go around, right?

And so… a fight…

In the last few weeks, something has shifted.

I have long been able to see the value in this tension between the demands of my kids and the demands of my work. Before 2013, though, the demands of my work were mostly externally created. You know? Editor. Client. Magazine deadline. For the past three years—they have been increasingly, and now almost completely, internal. The drive to create, to make, to write this stuff—it’s all mine. It’s nobody else’s fault, demand, responsibility. I want to—I need to do this.

And now I see the tension between my desires and my life’s demands is not just valuable—it’s also critical. Necessary. Essential—it’s who I am, it’s the reason I write what I write.

And what I want to do going forward is not to alleviate this tension, but to continue to grow how my work comes from my life—how I perform it in the middle of life.

Now—this does not mean that I will not make focused time and space for it. I need that 12-hour marathon at least twice a month. That occasional weekend away is part of an equation that then lets me work in hour-long, 15-minute increments the rest of the time. And the week-long writers’ conference—it’s a gift I will continue to give myself whenever I can.

But it’s what I do on the ordinary days, full of mess and chaos and conflicting demands and dentists’ appointments and children fighting and supper burning and “fuck, we’re out of groceries again, am I a bad mother if they eat cereal for supper? Wait—they can’t even do that, because there is no milk” that determines what I make, how I create it… why I write it… and who I am.

This is a good feeling.

I hope it lasts.

III.

This is today:

xoxo

“Jane”

PS This is a disclaimer to mothers of babies and toddlers: My children are aged fourteen, twelve, and seven. They can get their own breakfast. And lunch. The elder two routinely make supper. Everyone’s old enough to do their own laundry, run a vacuum cleaner, take out the garbage and the recycling. There are no little people sucking on my nipples or needing me to change their poopy diapers. The amount of time that I have to give to my work now compared with what I had seven years ago is exponentially bigger.

Like… I can’t even express how much bigger. When they were little, real work only occurred when another adult could tend to their needs, or when they were asleep.

And they so very rarely all slept at the same time.

But all that time—it was like compost, fertilizer, seeds. This time, this current place of—I don’t even know how to express where I am, because it’s not a place of tranquility at all… it’s a place of explosive creativity and drive and celebration of tension, it is so many things, but tranquil, yeah, not so much—this current place-space I’m in has been created by journeying through the demands and exhaustion and challenges of the baby years and the toddler years and all those “I thought it was supposed to get easier, when the fuck is that going to happen” years.

I am still, to be honest, not sure that it gets easier. Parenting, I mean. It’s gets… different. And we get… better (or, in some cases, worse, but that’s also another story).

PS2 POSTCARDS IN CUBA, the final leg, you won’t get to see until the fall or so. Because this final leg of the postcards is very, very different… and I want to deliver it properly. And that takes time. This, incidentally, another shift: I have all the time I need—and I refuse to give myself Internet/social-media induced FOMO/YOLO/DO IT RIGHT NOW! psychosis.

Because… priorities, baby.

PS3 Sometimes, I think Maria Popova and I share a brain: Hermann Hesse on Little Joys, Breaking the Trance of Busyness, and the Most Important Habit for Living with Presence 

Magic, yoga, meditation and being the centre of the universe (a 50% deceptive title)

I.

Monday was my father’s birthday, and he was very far away and I could not hug him and love him and thank him. I have loved him with a particular vehemence this week, for all sorts of complicated reasons. Among them, this: I was, I am the center of his universe. Completely. The most important thing ever. And he taught me to expect to be… the most important thing in everyone’s universe.

OK, this has occasionally made me a challenging lover-wife-friend (uhm, employee).

But on the whole, you know what? I’ll take it over the alternatives.

II.

mjc-cinder-with-maggie

True story:

Jane: Cindeeeer! Can you give me my little purse? The pink one? I left it on the table and I don’t want to come into the kitchen in my muddy boots.

Cinder: What’s in it for me?

Jane: My eternal gratitude.

Cinder: I’m sending it by express dog.

Jane: Do. Not. Fucking. Tie. My. Purse. Around… Christ. Why? Why? Why did you tie my purse around the dog?

Cinder: Because it was funny?

Jane: Because you like to antagonize me?

Cinder: That too. Also, with all this yoga and meditation you’ve been doing lately, I believe you need more daily challenges. And that’s MY job.

[insert bad word here]

[delete it, because it’s wrong to call your eldest son an asshole]

[even when he sorta is]

[sigh]

[a loveable, amazing asshole]

[just annoying]

[god, i love him… i love him so much]

III.

Am Reading:

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert—YES! And yes, you should read it too. All of you, any of you. Even if you hated Eat Pray Love—me, I couldn’t make it though that book… first chapter, I wanted to slap Liz upside the face and say, “Stop your fucking whining, privileged white woman. Jeezus, even I’ve suffered more than you.” Um… digression. Point: I did not like Eat Pray Love. I LOVED Big Magic. I ripped through it in a day and a half despite a hundred and one other projects and obligations.

My favourite part:

“Fierce trust demands that you put forth the work anyhow, because fierce trusts knows that the outcome does not matter.

The outcome CANNOT matter.”

The outcome cannot matter.

Fuck. That. Is. So. Hard.

But so necessary.

The most important lesson:

“When I finished that novel, it was not a perfect novel, but I still felt it was the best work I’d ever done, and I believed I was a far better writer than I’d been before I began it. I would not trade a minute of that encounter for anything.

But now that work was finished, and it was time for me to shift my attention to something new—something that would also, someday, be released as good enough. This is how I’ve always done it, and this is how I will keep doing it, so long as I am able.

Because that is the anthem of my people.

That is the Song of the Disciplined Half-Ass.”

My song, too. More or less.

IV.

Am also reading:

Yoga For Real Life by Maya Fiennes, Kundalini Meditation: The Path to Personal Transformation and Creativity by Kathryn McCusker, and A Woman’s Book of Meditation: Discovering the Power of a  Peaceful Mind by Hari Kaur Khalsa

Am re-reading: A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion & lively Muse for the Writing Life by Judith Reeves, which is quite fun and useful and playfully inspiring… and also, unintentionally (and it’s clearly me and not the author) depressing (I’m not going to tell you why) (yet).


I am not writing.

This is mostly on purpose…

You: And this blog post is what?

Me: Have we not covered this before? A blog post I can shoot off in 15 minutes while simul-texting with three people is not writing. It’s therapy.

…mostly on purpose. I am trying to reflect, regroup, refocus. Try to listen to that screaming inner child.

BTW, if you think it’s easy to listen to a screaming inner child, you are clearly childless. Those of you who have survived colic, toddler tantrums, and teenage angst know exactly what I mean.

She’s so fucking loud, she’s splitting my eardrums, and I know I’m supposed to love her, but right now? I hate her and I wish she’d move out.

V.

Have tried to read:

Prince Hafiz’s Only Vice by Susanne Carr. I read page one. Then skipped to the last chapter. Spoiler: they got together. True Thing: I really, really, really WISH I had been able to read through the damn thing. How hard could it be? I asked myself. Fucking read it. Enjoy. Relax. Chill.

But I just can’t. Prince Hafiz and his one true vice do NOTHING for me.

On my kitchen table:

Gap Of Time: the Winter’s Tale Retold by Jeanette Winterson. I’m not going to read it. I have opened it and flipped through it half-heartedly. I love Jeanette… I love Shakespeare… but if you’re going to try to one-up Shakespeare, you’ve got to be fucking brilliant. And Jeanette is often brilliant. But this time, she is just… good.

Good enough.

Just not good enough for me to sink into right now. I’m sorry. Jeanette, I’m so sorry. I’m going to try to get Sean to read it, and tell me about it, ok?

Also on my kitchen table:

G.K. Chesterton’s Complete Father Brown. Which I’m re-reading in bits and pieces intermittently to distract myself from the screaming.

(Inner child.)

(In my head.)

(Because listening is hard work.)

VI.

nbtb-notebook-in-red

I’m having a staring contest with something that’s either an idea or a deep-seated neurosis and…

Ender: Mom, can you peel this orange for me?

Jane: I’m busy right now, love, in a bit.

Ender: You’re sitting there staring at the wall!

Jane: I’m thinking!

Ender: Can’t you think while peeling my orange?

It seems like a fair request, right?

It makes me livid.

I peel the orange anyway.

VII.

Sometimes, words—shy words, trite words, words so true they sound clichéd because they have been said in that precise way so often because they are so true (I know exactly I did there, so give your high school English grammar textbook some Fentanyl and don’t resuscitate it until I’m finished)—sometimes, words like to come out only when it’s very dark and very quiet.

Like these words:

My smallest son, tucked
into my right arm pit, a whisper,
“You will never know.”
“Never know what?”
“Never know how much I love you.”
“I know.”
“No. You will never know.”
A kiss. My whisper,
“I love you more.”
“No. I love you more.”
A dark night.
“Impossible.”
“True.”
A heartbeat, rapid,
rhythm of a hummingbird,
breath steady, gentler than a whisper.
A sleep.
Asleep, my smallest son,
In my right arm pit,
I whisper,
“You will never know,”
He answers
with a hummingbird’s snore.

I capture them with my iPhone, left-thumb typing (the right thumb imprisoned under the body of my son).

I think it’s a poem; I call it, “Good Night.”

xoxo

“Jane”

Expiration date

nbtb-etienne zack

I.

Jane: I’m going to blog about…

Flora: No.

Jane: How about…

Cinder: No.

Jane: Goddammit, it was really funny. I know, I’ll write about…

Ender: No!

Consent. It’s a thing.

This is why I now write fiction. For adults.

(But I’m still keeping notes for a bestselling memoir called The Secret Lives of Children.)

nbtb-gallery view

II.

This is not a non sequitur. You will see.

k d lang on creativity:

“if you just celebrate the fact
that you get to be creative
it’s a totally different ball game
than if you look at it
as a means to an end
as a vehicle to success”

(You can check out the interview that’s excerpted from here).

III.

While everyone was having a final moment with The Hip, I couldn’t bear to look and instead, feeling maudlin, I was binging on kd lang, and wondering… if I had learned I had an immediate expiration date—three months, three years, three days—what would I do NOW?

Sappho1

III.

Flora: Mom? You know how we spend all this time planning your funeral?

OK, we don’t. We only ever did it once… but I think it mildly traumatized them.

Jane: Um… yeah?

Flora: So should I die before you—I want to be cremated and have my ashes turned into glitter.

Jane: Glitter?

Flora: Yeah, you know. Like glitter glue, glitter paint, all sparkly?

Jane: I’m not sure if ashes…

Flora: You probably won’t have to do anything. After all, I am an evolved unicorn. I’ll probably just turn to glitter naturally.

Naturally.

nbtb-priorities

IV.

We all have an expiration date—an end date—don’t we? What’s yours? What’s mine? Suppose it were tomorrow?

Fingers hover over the keyboard. Where the fuck am I going with this?

Ender climbs into my lap and knocks the laptop screen over. I tuck him into my left armpit and kiss his crazy dreadlocked hair. We shift and reposition—I try to reach other his squirming body to reach the keyboard with my left hand…

Ender: You’re squeezing me to death, Mom!

Jane: That’s because it’s rather hard to type while hugging you.

Ender: You can’t stop.

Hugging him? Or the other?

I wrap my left hand around his head. Type only with my right.

Where am I going with this?

If I had an expiration date.. what would I do? What would I change?

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Annie Dillard

I keep on hugging. And typing, with one hand.

Then get kd lang to belt out Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah in the background:

xoxo,

“Jane”

POST-SCRIPTS

For writers:

One Stop For Writers–a new initiative by Calgary writer and entrepreneur Angela Ackerman

From around the world:

Giving up alcohol opened my eyes to the infuriating truth about why women drink by Kristi Coulter on Quartz –also check out author Kristi Coulter’s blog, Off-Dry: Sober Girl, Loopy World

If you’re in yyc:

You MUST go to the Esker Art Gallery  and see Wafaa Bilal’s 168:1 exhibit. –it wraps up this Sunday and it needs to be seen.

Also:

Passionate Kisses featuring performances by The Coming Out Monologues, August 31, at The Simmons Building

Inspired Calgary: Calgary’s First Secular Homeschooling Conference, Cardel Theatre, Sept 3rd—come hear me speak about unschooling.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Plaza, Sept 4th.

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nbtb-wafaa bilal at esker

The price of flow

I.

JaneAusten6

You: “So, no post last week, eh Jane? Slacking off?”

Jane: “Twenty-five thousand words in five days, baby, and a first-final draft of a third novel finished. What did you do? Play Pokemon Go?”

I’m totally bragging.

I’ve never, ever had flow like that before.

But, in case envy is devouring you right now, let me assure you: the post-output bliss lasts exactly 24 minutes, and I’m currently convinced that if it came that easily and that quickly, it must be shit.

II.

Assignment: Fingers on keyboard—I won’t make you write this by hand—fingers on keyboard, ready? And… “Why I no longer take selfies” or “In praise of the selfie phenomenon.” 25 minutes.

Don’t stop. 25 minutes. Fingers dancing.

Now—stop.

You should have 500 words.

Now cut it down to 250…

Stop whining.

The final piece is going to 150, including your headline.

You’re welcome.

NBTB-Exhausted Blogger

III.

A first-final draft, by the way, is the first draft that you think is a final draft (in reality it’s the fourth, fifth, seventh), until you start to show it to people and…

Him: “So… Chapter 17… have you considered that it should actually be Chapter 3? And, um, half its current size?”

Her: “Actually, a paragraph. Maybe even just two sentences. It fleshes out a character that only exists to illustrate… Get rid of her, and, instead…”

Jane: “You don’t understand my vision at all. You’re stupid. Fat. And those shoes are UGLY.”

Ah, fuck. That was supposed to be just communicated to you through the squinting of my eyes. It wasn’t supposed to come out of my mouth.

Sorry. Are we still friends?

IV.

The children subsist on stale bread softened with margarine for breakfast, lunch and dinner, except for the days when Cinder breaks down and makes everyone hot dogs.

When he does, our industrial-size container of mustard leaps out of the fridge and tries to kill him.

He swears. A good mother would ask him if he needs help cleaning up the mess.

Jane: “I’m writing. See if the dog will eat some of it?”

He cleans up the best he can. Puts the mustard back in. Reaches in for the ketchup.

Cinder: “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!”

Jane: “Again?”

Cinder: “This time, it was more of a suicide attempt than homicide.”

We clean up the mess together. Look at the offending container.

Jane: “When that thing is empty, I am never, ever, ever buying mustard again.”

Cinder: “We could just throw it out now.”

Flora: “No! I love mustard.”

So. We suffer.

Because we love her.

That be life…

V.

Sean goes to Costco—home of the industrial size mustard—on Saturday, after he sees Ender spreading mustard on a stale tortilla.

Ender: “There’s nothing else to eat!”

Sean: “Oh, come on. There’s also…”

A pickle.

Ender eats it.

Sean goes to Costco. Comes back with all the things. Also, an industrial size bag of sugar.

It’s a sweet, sweet gesture—because Flora’s in baking camp right now, and she’s planning to make her entire family fat and diabetic before the end of the summer.

It’s too big to fit into any of our cupboards.

Jane: “Where should we put this?”

Sean: “Um…”

It’s currently the centerpiece of our kitchen table.

I think—I’m not sure—Sean and I are engaged in a Cold War of apathy to see who will break down first and take it down to the basement… as an offering to the mice or ants.

VI.

I’m thinking about selfies today, I think, because the lines around my eyes, lips seem more pronounced—it’s the sleep deprivation—but also beautiful—that’s the post-output elation—and also, about how you told me you don’t think you’re beautiful, and this just blows my mind, how is this possible, have you never looked in a mirror?

You: “When I look in the mirror, I don’t see what you see.”

Jane: “Then look in my eyes instead.”

VII.

Flora makes cupcakes. Macaroons. Banana bread. Cinder bakes chocolate chip cookies. Sean roasts two chickens.

Me, I cut two thousand words, and write seven hundred for money. In my sleep.

NBTB-Meditation for writers

VIII.

Cinder takes a steak knife and pokes a hole in the industrial size bag of sugar.

Jane: “Why. The. Fuck. Did. You. Do. That?”

Cinder: “I think… I think this is one of those times when the answer is obvious, Mom.”

Jane: “Because it was there?”

Cinder: “And it’s been there for a really long time. We really should put it in the pantry.”

Jane: “Mice. Ants.”

He finds an industrial size plastic ice cream bucket and brings it up to the kitchen.

I transfer the sugar into it.

He borrows a Sharpie from Flora. Labels the top of the container:

Cinder’s Crystal Meth.

Flora: “Nice. Let’s make sure that’s out when people come to visit.”

IX.

What needs to happen next is I need to not think about words, in words for a few days. At least hours.

This is achievable.

Right?

Right.

Wrong.

I don’t know.

Help.

nbtb-sleeping while i work

X.

Flora brings macaroons from baking camp.

Oh, yes.

Jane: “Like something is telling me ‘I love you’ inside my mouth.”

Flora: “That good?”

Jane: “That good.”

The best part: Cinder doesn’t like them, and Sean and Ender are allergic.

Mine! All mine!

XI.

I guess I could clean house. It’s filthier than…

…but I can’t rouse myself to do so. I text you instead.

Jane: “Coffee?”

You: “Champagne?”

Cinder: “Mom! The fucking mustard fell out of the fridge again!”

Life.

 

xoxo,

“Jane”

PS.

You: “That made very little sense.”

Jane: “Twenty five thousand words that made sense in five days. I. Am. Fried.”

PS2 Don’t forget your assignment. Selfies. Love them? Hate them? Tell me.

 

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PS3 Looking for POSTCARDS FROM CUBA? Go here & think about clicking here:

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POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: in bed with Jane Austen in Cuba, thinking of you (end, series 1)

For… you, of course. Always.

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I.

I am in Cuba, and I am in bed with Jane Austen, reading Sense and Sensibility, a book I have read perhaps a thousand times over the years. No. Wait. Ridiculous exaggeration. And I can do the math, quickly. I first read it 20 years ago, precisely. This month, in fact, exactly. And I’ve re-read it, the entire Austen oeuvre, at least three times a year, sometimes five or six, since. Let’s keep it to three. So. I’ve read each Austen book at least 60 times.

I’m in bed with Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for the sixty first time, and she’s still surprising me.

Today, what catches my attention is this brutal portrait of John Dashwood, the older step-brother of the book’s heroines, and the inheritor of all the family wealth (because, patriarchy):

“He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted and rather selfish is to be ill-disposed: but he was, in general, well respected; for he conducted himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties.”

But wait. There was hope for John. In his wife:

“Had he married a more amiable woman, he might have been made still more respectable than he was:–he might even have been amiable himself. …

But, alas, it was not to be. His wife:

“…was a strong caricature of himself;–more narrow-minded and selfish.”

God, I love me my Jane.

I am struggling—have been for the past two years, almost three, more, possibly—with the discharge of some of my ordinary duties. You know what I mean. Christmas cards, birthday presents, polite conversation… those social niceties that the Dashwoods, cold, selfish, unfeeling but oh-so-proper excel at and use as the yardstick to measure the quality of others.

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II.

I’m in Cuba. In bed with Jane Austen. I’ve been binging on Hemingway—because, Cuba—but I am overdosed on maleness and testosterone and terse sentences. Give me semicolons, em-dashes and affairs of the heart told from the point of a view of the women to whom they are everything.

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III.

Cuba. Jane Austen. Affairs of the heart. Writing.

What I love about Sense and Sensibility is… well, everything, actually. All the men—especially the libertine Willoughby. I could love every one of them, although Edward Ferrars would bore me after six weeks, Willoughby and I would make each other miserable within two years, and I’d break Colonel Brandon’s heart. The one I’d really like to take on, though, is Mr. Palmer. Charlotte Palmer’s rude husband? Yeah. He has potential.

I love the women too. I love Mrs. Dashwood as a mother—the vulgarity of Mrs. Jennings. Lucy Steele is an absolutely brilliant creation. And Elinor and Marianne are me. And you. Don’t you think? Each so exaggerated, each of us carries both within ourselves. I am both. I love Marianne more—I know it’s safer to be Elinor—but Elinor will only lead a half-life.

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IV.

Writing. Half-life. Bed. Austen. Caricature. Ordinary duties.

Do you ever wonder what Jane Austen would have written like if she’d had children? I do, by the time I get to the end of each of her novels—especially Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. I think, holy fuck, what insight, what wit, what perception, what talent.

And yet. So much she doesn’t know, suspect—cannot imagine because it cannot be imagined.

You: “Or she wouldn’t have written at all because she had children.”

No. Impossible. You know she would have. And it all would have been better.

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V.

Duties. Children. Excuses.

Cuba.

Alone in Cuba with three children, 24/7.

Writing.

Status report, five weeks in: 16,000 words on major pet project. 30-odd essays, vignettes, sketches. Six experiments no one will ever see, but oh, I’m so happy I wrote them.

She wouldn’t have written because she had children?

Ha.

Not my Jane. Nor yours.

And baby—you know I’m writing this for you, right? In bed, with Jane Austen, I am, as always, thinking of you. Dearest. No excuses. No half-life. And if you need to ditch “propriety in the discharge of [your] ordinary duties” … do it.

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*

It’s almost time to leave Havana, and Postcards from Cuba is taking a break for the summer while I scour for the funding I need to bring you the second and third parts of the project. You are invited to help any way you can:

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… and the rest of the postcards will start flowing your way in September.

If today’s your first time here, and you want to catch up on the Postcards from Cuba project, visit the ANNOTATED table of contents.

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*

Although #postcardsfromcuba is taking a break, Nothing By The Book is not. The theme for the summer is “practice and play.”

Expect a new post most Wednesdays.

You: “Practice and play?”

Jane: “Practice and play. You’ll see. And maybe join. Because—no half-life, no excuses, love. Ordinary duties be damned.”

xoxo

“Jane”

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A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #9

A conversation:

Cinder: I like being nine. Halfway to 18.

Jane: Excited about being able to vote?

Cinder: What? No–excited about being able to own a gun!

(I might have gone horribly wrong somewhere here…)

May 24, 2011

A reading assignment that will change your life:

Louise De Salvo’s The Art of Slow Writing.

It’s a slow read… not exciting… but. Useful.

 

A writing exercise to do instead of doing the laundry:

What are you wearing? What do you wish you were wearing? What does that sanctimonious woman standing behind you on the subway platform think about each outfit? Is she just thinking this… or is she one of those people who’s gonna tell you what she thinks, good or bad?

Use lots of mind-dialogue.

 

An explanation:

This is the ninth week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL (don’t tell my clients… um or too many of my friends 😉 ). No phones, no wifi… also, no winter! I’m going to be documenting things old school via journals and postcards (if you want a postcard from… well, that place where I’m hiding… email your snail mail address to nothingbythebook@gmail.com).

The blog’s on auto-pilot with a conversation from the archives, a reading recommendation, a writing assignment (cause I can’t nag any of you in person), and unsolicited advice… er, that is, a re-run post of the kind I don’t write very often anymore.

Enjoy.

 

A re-run:

 Mittens

first published January 1, 2014

We come out of the warm YMCA building, the chlorine scent of the swimming pool still clinging to us. Ender, with the determination only a four-year-old possesses, drags his sled down the stairs. Clunk, clunk, clunk. Slam! It lands on the bottom. He looks over his shoulder. Scowls at me. He’s tired. Hungry. Probably, despite the snowpants, sleeping-bag-jacket, and over-the-face toque, cold, because it’s the coldest, snowiest December YYC has seen in 112 years.

He plops down on the sled in a Buddha pose.

“Mittens?”

I ask, kneeling down beside him.

“No! My hands are NOT cold!”

He’s tired. Hungry. Contrary. It’s at least -15 Celsius.

I shrug. Get up. Start pulling the sled.

It’s a beautiful, clear night. The air feels clean—sparkling—even as it hurts my lungs, bites at my exposed cheeks. I pull the sled on the cleared-of-snow-but-there’s-so-much-of-it-everywhere-I-kind-of-want-a-snowmobile paths. Look at the twinkling lights. The sleeping-bag-parka-engulfed people. Turn my head.

“Mittens?”

“No.”

I shrug. Start walking again, my hands warm in my mittens. I think of what 2013 was, and what 2014 might be. I think of milestones, real and artificial. I think of hope-despair-desire-acceptance-creation-destruction-reconstruction. A plot line emerges from all those thoughts, a fascinating one, and I hear a conversation in my head that sets it up, and I fall in love with it, but it doesn’t really fit into what I want to do, ultimately, with that piece of work, and then my thoughts leap to the unBloggers Manifesto I want to write for Nothing By The Book for January, a polemic that in its current form is not doing quite what I need it to do, and I know it’s because I’m pulling too much into it, going off on too many tangents, and for a piece of writing to work, it needs to be focused, and a polemic piece of writing needs to be brutally so, digressions and tangents only work if you pull them back, at just the right time, to the central idea, the theme… or the chorus…

I turn around.

“Mittens?”

“No. Not cold.”

Mittens Pin

I cross the bridge. The lights are beautiful and almost make me forgive Christmas its existence. And I think about… beauty, definitions of, abstraction of, and that thought takes me to my daughter-who’s-about-to-turn-nine, so beautiful in mind-soul-body that it makes me ache, so full of potential and wonder that it’s that thought, and not the cold air, that stops the breath in my throat for a second… and I think about all the ways that I think fail her as a mother, all the ways that I am not what she needs, and tears swirl in my eyes—but maybe I am what she needs? And, really, what a silly question, because I am what she has and she is what I must learn—and, tears still dancing in the corners of my eyes, I turn my head…

“Mittens?”

He shakes his head. I never imagined motherhood to be this—so full of such intense joy and such paralyzing pain. So full of summits and valleys. So glorious, so rewarding—so fucking heart-wrenching. And that thought takes me to twelve different places at once, and I’m not sure how much self-awareness I want to chase in this moment, so I choose to chase the idea that self-awareness, for all the pain it brings, is also a source of power and that takes me to such very, very interesting places…

“Mittens?”

His hands are folded in his lap, and he’s bent over them. Head bopping. Falling asleep. He bops up. Scowls at me.

“Mittens?” I repeat.

“No.”

I walk faster. Over another bridge. Through the steam rising from the cracks in the ice of the river. I look at the water, ice, snow, steam and feel a shot of resentment and fear. I try to see beauty… and not next year’s flood waters. And I grit my teeth and don’t chase that thought. Find another. Oh, this one I like… I smile—my nose runs, because it’s so cold—my mouth opens and I almost stop moving because all I want is that thought and, irreverently and irrelevantly, I also glory in the fact that it came to me in this moment when I am alone… except I am not, because I am MOTHER and I am never alone, even when I am.

I look over my shoulder…

“Mittens?”

“Not! Cold!”

I can’t really run in my boots and on the snow, but I walk as quickly as I can. Home, home. I cannot wait to be home, and not just because it’s cold, and I love that thought, that feeling. I want to get home.

“Mom? My hands are cold.”

I’m about… what? 200 meters away. Maybe less. I kneel down beside the four-year-old. His hands are pulled into the sleeves of his sleeping-bag coat. I blow on his fingers and slip on his mittens. Kiss the tip of his nose.

Do not lecture, and so, enjoy the brief victory of mind over impulse. Pull the sled the last 200 meters home.

I wish I could tell you that the next time we go out in the cold, he says “Yes” the first time I try to put on his mittens. But he won’t.

I wish I could tell you I will never again doubt that I am what my daughter needs or let my thoughts go to all those other unproductive, painful places.

I wish I could tell you that, somewhere between the YMCA and home, I found the answer to EVERYTHING. Because how awesome would that be?

But, I just want to tell you this: You can fight over the mittens. Cajole, badger, plead. Force.

Or you can wait for those little hands to get cold.

And when they do—put on the mittens. Silently. Without the “I told you so’s.” Or too many expectations for the next time.

Fuck, yeah, it’s a metaphor.

Jane

P.S. Happy New Year, beloveds. I am torn what to ask of 2014. In the closing weeks and months of 2013, I rather wanted a less eventful year. But now that it’s here… eventlessness is so boring. And unfulfilling. So, 2014—be eventful. Be FULL. I’ve got plans for you. And you’d better be prepared to rise to the occasion.

P.P.S. “Jane, why are you anthropomorphizing a calendar construct?”
“Because… Metaphors. So useful.”

Coming sometime this month: the unBlogger’s Manifesto. Minus all of its digressions. Or maybe not. Focus is key. But it is digressions that make life and thought interesting…

P.P.P.S. “I love this! I want more!”
“I am so pleased. Connect with Nothing By The Book on Twitter @nothingbythebook, Facebook, and Google+. Or, for a not-in-front-of-the-entire-Internet-please exchange, email  nothingbythebook@gmail.com.”

Priorities, baby, priorities—or, “I don’t” as an answer to “How do you do it all?”

I finally figured it out, and so I’m going to tell you. You see…

Ender: “Mom! Where are you?”

…you’ve been asking me for years, “How do you do it?” What I thought you were asking was “How do you work and take care of your babies; how do you write and homeschool” and variants on the above…

Flora: “Moooom! Where are you? Ender wants you!”

…and I would tell you, and you’d get this glazed and confused and frightened look in your eyes, and never actually—so it seemed to me—hear anything I said—certainly in no way heed my unadvice. But I had this immense epiphany the other day…

Cinder: “Mooooom! I want to make cookies; where the hell is the margarine?”

…that is was my fault—I wasn’t telling you what you needed to know, because I wasn’t hearing what you were asking. You see, while I thought you were asking…

Flora: “Mom, Ender just stole my orange marker, tell him he has to give it back!”

Cinder: “Hey, Mom, can you wash the good cookie sheet? It’s covered with chicken grease.”

Ender: “It’s! Not! Fair!”

… while I thought you were asking, “How do you find the time to write and take care of the kids and take care of the house and exercise and have a life and, and, and,” what you were actually asking…

Flora: “Mom, Ender won’t leave me alone!”

Ender: “Mom, Cinder pinched me!”

Cinder: “Mom, the little bugger stole my Lego guys again!”

…what you were actually asking is…

Ender: “Maaaaaa…”

Jane: “Shut up, shut up, shut up! GET OUT OF HERE! Now! Outside! All of you! Give me 30 minutes, and then you can come talk to me. Now—out. OUT!”

Flora: “Mom, it’s like zero degrees out. And raining.”

Jane: “OUT!”

Cinder: “Maybe she just means out of the room.”

Jane: “OOOOOOUUUUUTTTTT!”

Ender: “But I’m hungry!”

Jane: “There are bananas and bagels in the kitchen. GET! OUT! AND STOP ASKING ME FOR SHIT! OUT! NOW!”

… what you were asking me was “How do I work (write) while interacting meaningfully with my children while making amazing dinners while keeping an immaculate house while pursuing my personal interests ALL AT THE SAME TIME.”

Yeah. So, the answer to that…

I DON’T.

YOU CAN’T.

YOU WON’T.

If you have this picture in your head of your laptop computer on the kitchen table, and you writing a novel—or, fuck, even a 1500 word article—while washing the dishes, peeling potatoes and teaching your children math and having a meaningful conversation with your lover…

Cinder: “Are you done yet? About that baking tray…”

Jane: “Clean it yourself or make chicken-flavoured cookies, I don’t care, leave me alone!”

Flora: “Is she done?”

Cinder: “No, she’s still pissy.”

Jane: “Writing! I’m still writing!”

Cinder: “Writing, pissy. It’s kind of the same thing.”

Jane: “Only when you interrupt me. NOW GO AWAY!”

…you are dooming yourself to failure, because all those “while’s” are impossible.

You know this intellectually, right? You can’t, oh—have a shower WHILE typing on your laptop. Make risotto WHILE scrubbing the kitchen floor. Paint a bedroom wall WHILE having sex.

So. You can’t write (work) WHILE interacting meaningfully with your children (or cleaning house or making supper or buying groceries or doing yoga or…)

Now, you CAN—I do—do most of these things sequentially, at different parts of the day-week-month.

But…

You will do some better than others.

And choosing to give time to some things will mean less time for others.

Priorities, baby.

Again, you know this, intellectually, right? But practically… you never seem to hear me. You know, like when I tell you what a crappy housekeeper I am, or that my children eat cucumbers and mustard as snacks when I’m on deadline? And you think I’m being funny?

The truth: say, I have two hours. In those two hours—I can write a story—edit a chapter—craft a rough draft of a pitch.

Or. I can make risotto.

(I don’t, by the way, know how to make risotto. But I understand it involves standing at a stove for an eternity, stirring a pot of rice. Fuck. That.)

Or. I can scrub the kitchen floor and the stairs. Or, do laundry or make the beds or declutter.

Or, read a chapter or two of Harry Potter or Hank the Cow Dog or Wow! Canada to the kids, teach Ender to read, help Cinder with his math…

These are all things that I should do, and do do at some point in a week (month… year… except that risotto thing, that’s just NEVER going to happen).

But if what I need to do—want to do—with those two hours is write a story… then I have to use those two hours to write the damn story.

And that may mean ensuring other-adult child care for my children.

Jane: “Moooom! I’m on deadline, can you please come and take the monsters AWAY for a while BECAUSE THEY WILL NOT LEAVE ME ALONE!”

Or, leaving the house for two hours for an adjacent coffee shop, so that the house—“The fridge really needs cleaning today, Jane, it does, it does, clean me!”—doesn’t make its passive-aggressive demands on me.

And, picking up a roast chicken or frozen pizza from the grocery store on the way home instead of making the perfect, healthier pizza crust from scratch (this, by the way, I can do and I do do… just not on deadline days, y’know?).

I have become much better at this over the years. Accepting that my time and energy are limited—as are yours—and becoming better and better at channeling that time and energy into the things that are really important to me.

So. I write. Every day. (Really. Sometimes, utter crap. But. Every. Day.)

Read with my kids. Take them on amazing adventures. (Most days.)

Exercise religiously, no matter how urgent the deadline, because, health.

Make guilt-free time for my friends and loves and just for myself, too—but not so much for organizing the Tupperware drawer (or for people who drain me).

Scrub the kitchen floor only when it gets to THAT level of filthy—or I desperately need to procrastinate (sometimes, that happens).

Never, ever make risotto.

Cinder: “You done yet?”

Jane: “Two minutes.”

(I think, by the way, that if making risotto is an essential part of who you are and need to be, you will find a way to make risotto and write/work and take care of your kids and all those other things. You will maybe let something else slide more than I do. Read less, stir more. Stay home more—the stirring demands it—and skin your knees in the wild less.)

Priorities, baby.

Cinder: “Hurry. I didn’t scrub the tray that well, the chicken fat caught fire and I can’t turn off the smoke alarm.”

Jane: “Coming.”

Priorities.

You’re welcome.

xoxo

“Jane”

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P.S. Speaking of priorities—I’m taking a sabbatical in October and November from Nothing By The Book while I pursue other priorities. Stay in touch via Instagram (@NothingByTheBook), and come back in December, will you? I promise I will be back.

Oh, and babes—I want to take my brood to Cuba, Mexico or some other hot-and-beachy place for (ready for this?) January, February, March 2016. If you’ve got a lead on affordable and cockroach-light accommodation (so long as we’re walking distance to a swimmable beach, we are not picky, and will co-habit even with pestilent insects), email me at nothingbythebook@gmail.com.

“Jane” out.

Productive artists

This week, I am pensive and volatile, introspective and critical, vibrating with anxiety and full of energy. I am all these conflicting, competing things and I am struggling to make my words perform the way they want to.

Flora: “I’m feeling so sad. I don’t know why!”

Me too, little flower,me too. I put an arm around her and suggest we go up to bed, watch an episode of Friends together—mind pap, not even brain candy, more like Pablum that used to be the marquee brand but has now been retired, gathering dust on a creaky shelf in an old warehouse. It’s well past its expiry date—no matter, today, we will eat it anyway, because it’s what we… well, not what we need. But what we want, right now.

We watch. But it’s not about the watching. It’s about the cuddling—the 22 minutes of togetherness and physical contact and presence. The show on the laptop ensures we can be together without words. Without me lecturing (or whining). Her justifying (trying to put into words what can be silence).

Flora’s little brother was evil today and I worry that I am raising a vandal, possibly, worse, the Anti-Christ, a destroyer of worlds. I’m probably not—but I worry. That’s what mothers do, you know. Worry, worry, worry.

Flora’s worried too. She’s going on a trip next week, to New York City! With her grandmother, without me. She’s excited.

But worried.

Why?

Flora: “I’m concerned it’s not going to be productive.”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, whose sentiment is she echoing there? Not mine, or is it? (What she means, really, is “I’m worried I will miss you.” But she chooses those other words. They’re safer.) Her father strokes her hair and kisses the tip of her nose. “To an artist, every experience is productive, important,” he says. I smile. Idly wonder if I should interject, correct “to an artist” to “to a human.” We respect-recognize-value-nurture the artist within Flora so much, but maybe that’s as harmful as trying to squash it, suppose down the line, she decides she’s over this drawing thing and she wants to be a neurologist, shop keeper or construction worker? Are we limiting her with the label?

(mothers, worry, worry, worry, worry…)

Flora’s room, in its glorious messiness, artistic chaos is so beautiful to me. When I open the door and peek in there, I am flooded with joy and love—her room is evidence of her creativity, her freedom, her exploration of the world and of herself in an explosion of colour. It is her self, her soul made physical—the same way my the space-that-is-me-made-into-place is mine (or, I detour, the way my words are me? Are my words me? That’s another story to explore…)

We have been talking about rejigging the children’s rooms for some time now, doing, finally, the Canadian thing and giving them each a room. This week, trembling under the weight of deadlines, consumed with anxiety over “Why haven’t they gotten the mark up back to me yet!” (and also, “why haven’t they paid me, yet, again, oh, wait, they don’t do that anymore, it’s most cost-effective for them not to pay their writers, bastards, I really need to rethink my career NOW”), I channel the nervous energy into making that happen.

It’s a game of dominos—the old film production office on the flood plain transforms into a sanctuary for me and Sean (“But it’s so cold!” “Yeah, but it’s two stories away from the ears of the children!” “And the bathroom!” “Lover, it will be so good, you’ll see…”), Flora, taking over the big bedroom currently shared by the boys and their Lego, Cinder into the shoebox with the big window that’s currently Flora’s over-crowded room (“Roof access!” he proclaims gleefully. “If you abuse the roof access, I’m going to put bars on it,” I warn him. “No you won’t,” he retorts. “It’s our fire escape.” Busted, dammit, never make threats you can’t keep), and Ender inheriting the former family bedroom with the king size mattress he’s been peeing on since he’s been born.

(As we play the dominos necessary to effect the change, I am most excited that my future holds a mattress free of child urine. Yes, yes, yes, YES!)

“Why does Flora get the biggest room?” this from Ender, the third child who’s most sensitive to “not fair”—and says “not fair” even when things are perfectly equitable and reasonable; “not fair” means “I don’t like this.”

I want to say, first impulse, “Because she’s an artist,” but of course, he has an artist within too. So, instead, “Because she needs the space and the light. You and Daddy can use her studio sometimes to draw and paint in—that’s part of the deal.”

“Not fair,” the little vandal humphs and goes off in search of, what? Possibly a hammer, something to smash. To follow him, or to risk it? I follow. He goes to a bin of Lego, starts to create.

I sigh with relief, for the moment. Call for Cinder to help me move a dresser down two flights of stairs. He takes over the logistics of the operation. “As you’re still a little bigger, you’d better be at the bottom,” he instructs me. I look up at him–yeah, another inch, and he will be bigger than me, and I suspect he might already be stronger… “No, just one stair at a time at the top here, but at the third step, veer right and over…” We get the dresser—it’s actually an antique Chinese medicine cabinet, totally useless as a dresser, three pairs of socks fit in each drawer, and my bras barely, BUT I LOVE IT, it is so beautiful—down to the bottom floor without hammering any new holes in the wall. I feel very satisfied. Productive. Lifting heavy stuffy, moving shit from one room to another—when you’ve done it, you feel you’ve done something, accomplished something, right?

Changing three words in a perfectly good sentence to make it better… not quite the same oomph. Waiting for a response to your email, phone message? Utterly draining.

Pensive and volatile, introspective and critical, vibrating with anxiety and full of energy, I survey the chaos I’ve thrust my house into. The work’s not done yet, but my minions are exhausted. “Go play,” I command, and they scatter.

I text a witch to ask if she can come smudge, exorcise some of the 2013 anxiety from the flood plain-level ex-office, our new bedroom.

Do all the things. Then, drink wine with people I love. Sleep like the dead.

Wake up, still pensive and volatile, introspective and critical, vibrating with anxiety and full of energy. Which is good, because there’s still so much to do…

xoxo

“Jane”

NBTB-beakerhead 2015 intrude

Read my mind, Part II

I promised to tell you, didn’t I? And I usually keep my promises. (Except when I can’t.)

So.

I cook the way I write. It’s true. I invite her into the kitchen to watch, and you can too. Just stay out of my way and don’t ask any questions.

It goes like this:

I walk into the kitchen. I don’t do the dishes, I don’t wash the kitchen floor.* I shove the crap on the table and counters towards the back to make some space. I open the fridge. There’s nothing, nothing.

A limp carrot.

A can of coconut milk, half-used.

A bag of… what the fuck was that? Cauliflower?

Flora: Mooom! You’re not going to make us eat that, are you?

Jane: I was thinking about it. I hate wasting food.

Cinder: Mooom! Sometimes, you’ve just got to let things go.

It’s true. And it’s a metaphor, too: some things belong in the pot (on the page) and some, even though they’re there… you’ve got to junk.

The bag of cauliflower (maybe? maybe something else? sweet potatoes?) goes into the garbage.

I take my favourite cast iron pot and scrub it clean—what I’m going to do is, I’m going to toss some rice (sushi) and lentils (red) into its bottom, add a beef bone and the carrot…

Actually, I think there’s some frozen chicken thighs in the freezer, yah? Yah! OK. Keep the beef bone? Maybe… Fuck, yes, lemon grass! And in the fridge—was not there a container of left-over bananas-and-peaches-baked-with-maple-syrup-so-good-but-not-as-good-as-when-they-were-hot?

I see… possibility.

Flora: You could go to Safeway and get some groceries.

I could. But that’s a minimum 45 minutes out of my day, and a 45 minute delay on getting supper on the table, and 45 minutes spent doing something that’s really unnecessary if I just work with what I have.**

I’m thinking… Caribbean-Thai fusion. Something like that. Maybe.

I reach for the cast iron pot… mmm, but not in the pot. Is there a pan? There is. Layer, sprinkle—oh yeah, toss in the gnocchi that we’re not going to finish otherwise, why not—and cover with aluminum foil.

Into the oven.

Cinder: What are we having for supper? I thought you were making slop in a pot.

Jane: It’s now slop in a pan.

Cinder: Lasagna?

Jane: Sort of. Except without the noodles, tomato sauce and cheese.

Flora: Is it going to be good?

Jane: I hope so. We won’t know until we taste it.***

*

Interlude: there’s a freak crazy hail storm, the alley floods and the power goes out. Fortunately, the slop in a pan has been in a hot stove for a few hours; the stove holds the heat. When, storm triage is done and we know we’re not going to flood, I put it on the table.

*

Cinder: Wow, this is really good.

Flora: Mmmm… interesting. A little weird. Not quite what I expected. But, edible. Definitely edible.

Sean: This is the best thing you’ve ever made, OMFG, it is so delicious, can I have thirds?

(He’s my target audience, by the way. Nailed it.)

Ender: This is disgusting. Can I have a margarine sandwich?

(He’s not my target audience. And I know this, so it doesn’t hurt. Much.)

As I spread margarine on rye bread for the ungrateful child, Sean suggests that “I don’t really like it” or “It’s not for my taste buds yet” might be better ways of expressing a culinary opinion. Ender shrugs. Bites into the effort-free, uncreative margarine sandwich, devours it, thrilled.

Sean: Do you ever think we should just feed them buttered bread for supper every day?

Jane: Sometimes. But. You know.

He reads my mind. Nods.

And… yeah. That’s how I cook.

That’s pretty much how I write.

Now, if you’ll excuse me… I’ve just had an idea for something I could do with that bag of (was it?) cauliflower. Not the one I threw in the garbage—even I have limits. The metaphorical one. The piece I cut from the last piece I wrote? Yeah. Wrong ingredient for that. But I think… if I use it like this… Yes.

Possibilities.

NBTB-read my mind 2

xoxo

“Jane”

*

**

*** … I was going to make these metaphors explicit. But I don’t need to, do I? Not for you. Read my mind.

Read my mind, Part I

I.

Client: What I want you to do is, well—I want you to read my mind and to deliver a product that’s exactly what I need and want it to be—without me having to tell you what it is that I want and need. Got it? I don’t actually want to take the time to give you instructions, to explain to you what I want.

Jane: Yeah… that’s not gonna work.

II.

Sean: Love, but the problem is, you don’t want to tell me what you need and want. You want me to read your mind.

Jane: What’s so fucking hard about that?

Why I love him: he heard that first conversation. And he doesn’t call me a hypocrite.

III.

You: I would really love to watch you write.

Jane: Yeah… watching a writer write is about as exciting as watching paint dry.

Flora: Not! True! She makes the most amusing, the most horrible faces.

Cinder: And sometimes, if you time it just right—if, at just the right moment, you say, “Mom! Where’s the charger for the iPad?” or “Mooooom! I’m hungry!”—she channels Cthulhu. And. It’s. Awesome.

The goddamn bums. Did you catch that? They. Do. It. On. Purpose.

Oh, for a room of her own… with a lock on the door.

(Soundproof, too…)

IV.

I can read Ender’s mind. Totally.

Jane: Don’t even think about it.

Ender: But…

Jane: No!

Ender: Come on!

Jane: No! Way!

Ender: Humph. Fine.

He stalks off. I dial.

Jane: Hi, Ender’s on his way to your house. Whatever he asks—I already said no.

Her: K. Good to know.

It takes a village, don’t you know.

V.

Client: This isn’t at all what I had in mind.

Jane: Good. Now I have a little more information. I still don’t know what you want. But I have a better idea of what you don’t want. Let’s talk about what, specifically, you don’t like about this.

Client: I don’t know. It just doesn’t speak to me. It doesn’t pop. Make it… snappier. More… you know… more… something or other, you know? Like this… but different.

Jane: You’re fired.

*

Interlude: A neighbourhood cat wanders into my basement office while I write. Sniffs around. Possibly pees in the laundry room.

*

VI.

You can’t watch me write, lover. But next week, I’ll tell you how I cook. It’s like writing… but different.

nbtb-read my mind 1

xoxo

“Jane”

A Meditation on Purgatory, Stories and Memory

For Tirzah, The Ink Caster

I.

“On a very basic level, you are what you remember — your very identity depends on all of the events, people and places you can recall.

“[E]motional memory [is] when we relive how we felt at moments in the past — elated, sad, depressed, or angry. When we lose emotional memory of our own youth, we find that we no longer understand young people. If this forgetting progresses, we begin to lose touch with ourselves.

“And if we allow our emotional memories to disappear, as happens with Alzheimer’s patients, we will find a stranger staring back at us from the mirror.”

Richard Restak,
The Art of Doing: How Superachievers
Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well

II.

I remember. Do you?

Although sometimes, I think people with crappy, short-term memories must be happier.

My Flora is losing that sharp, endless, flawless memory that exists during childhood. If you have kids, you know what I’m talking about. Your four-year-old remembering exactly what he ate on the day of his third birthday. The two-year-old recognizing the street you visited only once before.

Ender still remembers everything. It’s so annoying.

Adults are always so amazed at the vividity of children’s memories.

Silly adults. All children remember. Most adults forget.

Worse, they overwrite. Reinvent. Remember what never was.

What a tragedy.

(Except, when it’s a blessing…)

III.

“The least contaminated memory might exist in the brain of a patient with amnesia — in the brain of someone who cannot contaminate it by remembering it.”

Sarah Manguso,
Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

I contaminate, by remembering. I change, by re-experiencing.

And then, when I am ready to craft my version of how it really happened: I write it down.

And because you didn’t write it down, I win. My record stands. Your memory, I say, is faulty. Look. I wrote it all down. That’s how it happened.

(Thank you, Winston Churchill.)

The bitch of it is—I know what I’m doing, no one better. And so then, when you ooh-and-aah-and-coo and tell me, “So real, so brave, so authentic” (how I hate that word: Faking Authenticity), I am ashamed, because I know it’s not, it’s always, always performance, interpretation. Every word written, every word withheld: a choice.

The narrative is crafted, controlled.

IV.

In an average year, I write 30-40,000 words on Nothing By The Book. Moments captured, memories reinterpreted. Flora now reads and “remembers” her past in what I write. The responsibility paralyzes me.

“I’m writing me, not you,” I want to tell her. But I’m not sure she will understand.

“Don’t let how I write you affect who you are,” I want to tell her, but is that even possible?

“Don’t let me trap you, bind you, trick you, script a story that isn’t true for you even though it felt at the time true, necessary for me.”

“Are you telling me not to read your blog, your books?” maybe she will ask me.

And I will say… what? I suppose, this: “No. Read if you want to. But remember… it’s all just story.”

V.

“Be careful which stories you expose yourself to.”

Philipa Perry,
How to Stay Sane

VI.

My stories are, sometimes, my purgatory: a path to expiation, forgiveness, through suffering, atonement (a Catholic upbringing, however lukewarm, runs deep).

Sometimes–often–they are pure joy.

Always, the crafting of memory, disguised as preservation.

xoxo

“Jane”

nbtb-purgatory stories memory