For Deb, who wanted more naked. For Jen, who cannot ever stop writing. For Katia, who’s about to start a new job… because life was not intense enough as it was, was it, darling? For Cathy, who feels guilty about thinking—and who needs to start writing. For my Nicole, whose tightrope is harder than mine. For Nan, who understands too well—and, of course, for the introduction.
And for you. Because that tightrope I walk? Nothing unique about it, is there?
CAVEAT: This is a 3000+ word post and thus a ridiculous on-line time commitment. And it’s not the type of piece you skim for the funny bits. So. Go get yourself a glass of wine (Some University of Alberta professors have just discovered that drinking wine has the same health benefits as going to the gym—finally! Good news!). Put on some hot shoes (you don’t need to, but it will make me happy. What? You think this should be about you, not about me? Fine. Sit there in your slouchy, holey socks. I wrote this in knee-high gladiator sandals—black, leather, strappy—just to make you happy. But whatever. You’re the reader. Do what you like. Oh, sweetness. Thank you. Thank you.). Get the children watching James and The Giant Peach on Netflix. And let’s get naked.
Yeah, again. I know. It’s becoming a habit. So much of life is…
Today, I am writing sitting criss-cross apple sauce on the couch, wearing a jacket that smells of camp fire smoke, two hairy blankets wrapped around my bare, chilled (and also hairy) legs. Next to me is the almost five-year-old, with soy chocolate milk stains on his pants and joy in his heart, because he just ate four mandarin oranges for breakfast.
He’s watching Blue’s Clues.
(Yes. I lied about the hot shoes I was writing the post in just to get you to start reading. I’d apologize… but here you are, all dressed up. And don’t you feel good?)
Which means, I am writing the long-hand version of this post—perverting the instructions of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, subverting the wisdom of Naomi Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and making Sarah Selecky’s daily writing prompts entirely my own…
You’re confused. It’s all right. I’m confused and confusing. Walk with me a little, and let’s confuse each other some more.
For the last two, near-three months, I’ve been starting my days with Sarah Selecky. Selecky is a Canadian writer, author of This Cake is for the Party, and creator of The Story is A State of Mind and The Story Intensive courses, which she promotes, inter alia, through a free daily writing prompt. I was introduced to her work the first time I met a new crush. Have you ever witnessed two writers getting to know each other? Only two questions seem to really matter: who are you reading? And… what are you writing?
But I wasn’t writing anything—not anything that mattered. I was… stalled? Stalled. Paused. It was at the tail-end of that awful-no-good post-flood Lost Year. I was so tired… and also, so tired of not moving. Of the brilliant (or was it? No, it just sucked, that’s why it wasn’t going anywhere…) idea I had for my second novel—oh-yes, what a perfect way to further subvert convention-expectation-story—remaining a chaotic, one-page mind map and a 1500 word teaser that was NOT. GOING. ANYWHERE. It was never going to go anywhere, because I was too-stupid-lazy-talentless to do anything with it, the idea was too ambitious—no, it was too trite, to cliché, so not worth writing about—too hard to write about… except I could not write about anything else because all that swirled in my head was this…
“Sarah Selecky’s writing prompts,” she said, for perhaps the sixth time, the sixth time (or sixtieth?) that we had the same conversation.
She didn’t say, “Try it.” Or—what anyone else would have said, what I would have said had the situation been reversed, “Stop your whining and try this…”
I finally heard her that day because I had just met the yyc artist Amy Dryer, and I fell in love with her work, her process, her courage—and oh, her studio, her studio! (A piece on that love affair, “An afternoon with Amy Dryer,” coming soon on CalgaryBusinessWriter.com; also, watch for my alter-ego’s sketch of Dryer in an upcoming issue of Avenue. All you need to know for this story is this:)
Because of my encounter with Dryer, I was, very briefly, open to thinking about myself as an artist who needs to create. It’s a state I resist, because… well, pretentious, right? I am so not an artist. Part of my amateur-professional dichotomy—and I’ve internalized that too well—is also artist-professional. And I am a professional—the definition of professional being showing up and doing the work even when you don’t want to, and doing it so well, even when you don’t care, don’t want to, that no one can tell the difference.
I don’t wait for inspiration. I PERFORM on demand.
Except, I wasn’t. Instead: flailing. Wailing. Not doing the work I really wanted to be doing. And sick of being a wanker.
Amy. Artist, for sure. Me? Maybe? Sometimes? Open, opening. Inspired. And the rivers crested but stayed in their banks, and I had, while not a room of my own, once again a space-that-is-me-my-heart-mind-made-into-place and it was time to unpause. To move. To write the thing I needed to write.
But. Inertia. Stalled. Help.
Phone. Where is my phone?
Text: “What is the name of that writer you keep on telling me about? The one who has those creative writing prompts?”
“Sarah Selecky, at sarahselecky.com.”
I love her, because she doesn’t say—about time.
I do the thing. Sing up for the writing prompts. Tell myself—tomorrow morning, when I wake up, I will write.
Morning: I check my email. And there it is.
“Write about mica. Write by hand, in your notebook, for 10 minutes.”
And… panic. By hand? On paper? With—really—ink?
I used to write by hand a lot. Journals. Sketches. Vignettes. Documentation of my children’s earliest years. Outlines of my first, terrible-no-good novels. First drafts of short stories. And letters. Letters to you—did you keep them? Everything you ever wrote to me is gone. It looks like this:
…and, really? By hand? In 2014?
I don’t even have a notebook.
What an excuse, what a perfect excuse, not to start.
I find one of my kids’ unfinished composition books. Find a blank page. A pencil.
I don’t want to write about mica. What’s mica, even?
I want to write my novel.
I want to write about cold Elizabeth, connecting Annie, crazy Zia and angsting Destiny—why did Zia give her daughter such a terrible name? Right, there was a reason… I had a reason for that… Oh. Right…
I put Elizabeth and Annie on a rocky Alberta beach where the water shimmers with mica. And Annie bursts in tears, and Elizabeth is appalled, and I write two awkward, stilted, AWFUL pages.
(and at this moment, during that day’s writing meditation, Ender is done too, and demands I read him Ten Apples Up On Top, and I do, and I write no more, about anything, that day. The next day, I pick up, here…)
The next day, I “describe the smell of coconut sun tan lotion without using the word sweet” in three terrible (AWFUL, UNUSABLE) pages that show how much Elizabeth resents Annie’s attempts to have a relationship with her daughter. The day after, four scenes about walnuts—Elizabeth and Brian’s biggest fight, Annie’s most generous gift, a hint at Elizabeth’s secret life…
The writing gets easier. And my days get easier. Even on the ones when life’s demands prevent me from sitting down at the computer ever—or limit my writing sessions to urgent professional transactions (prose for cash, propaganda for cheques, what story do you need me to sell to your clients today, client of mine?), I feel like I have written. And to purpose, my bigger purpose.
I have written, I have been a writer—now I can be all the other things. Perform on demand…
I know I’ve established a sustainable habit when, on a day we all have to get up at 5 a.m. in order to get three kids and two adults into a car by 6 a.m. for an eight-hour car trip—the first thing I do when I wake up is take 10 minutes to sit and write.
Two months later, I have, in two and a half notebooks, and on a few assorted scraps of paper torn out of other people’s notebooks (“Seriously, Mom?” “I’m sorry! I couldn’t find my notebook.” “Again?”) a rough—chaotic, messy, non-linear, and oh-with-so-many holes—draft of a novel. It needs so much more work…
But it’s just pulsating with potential.
I am pulsating with gratitude. For Sarah and her prompts. Amy the artist and the permission she gave me, for a few hours at least, to think of myself as such. The writer-who-introduced-us, for her persistence and gentleness of suggestion.
I pervert-subvert-harness Selecky’s process. I turn the prompts into kickstarts to get me writing about something I already know I want-to-need-to write about. When she tells me to make lists, I write dialogues between Elizabeth and Annie. When the writing prompt is to “Write about a character named Wire,” I create a lover for Sasha (that’s Destiny’s new name; she aggressively rechristened herself when the prompt was “Write a scene set under a hanging pendant lamp,” and what a surprise that was). He’s awful. He appalls her mother. Amuses her stepmother. She dumps him the day Elizabeth tells her she thinks he’s “quite attractive. Reminds me of your father.”
Elizabeth is a bitch. Actually, more. Another word is much more appropriate… (My publisher raises his eyebrows. “Again? We have to talk about THAT word again?” Maybe. We’ll see…)
I love her.
When Selecky tells me to describe my mother from the point of view of my father, I, for once, do what I’m told. I follow instructions, precisely. How can I resist?
By mid-September, I don’t need the writing prompts. Most days, I sit down and just write. Sometimes, bits for the book. Occasionally, like now, skeletons or blueprints for posts or essays. More often, I just sketch with words. Sometimes, it flows. Sometimes, it hurts. Sometimes, I dive into my email for the writing prompt, because I am stuck, don’t know quite how to begin that day. Other times, I ask my kids to throw random words at me to get me started.
It’s not easy.
I don’t mean the writing. Writing is sometimes easy and sometimes not, like everything in life. I mean—it’s not easy DOING it. Finding, having, maintaining the space-and-time to do it.
That’s the tightrope I walk… Do you walk it too?
A month—less—into my new writing routine, Sean has a mini-breakdown about it. Me, at the kitchen table, with my notebook. Writing. Every morning, no matter what else is happening. What does that mean?
I don’t understand.
He unravels. What is he supposed to do during this time? With himself? With the kids? Is he not supposed to start work until I finish? Is he…
Interrupted in my flow, I am rage and anger and so-not-Zen.
“I don’t give a fuck what you do. Just let me write. Don’t talk to me until I finish.”
“But… the children…”
The children are 12, 9 and almost 5.
“They can tend to themselves while I write for 10, 15—hell, 30 minutes. Why are we even talking about this? It is not a big deal. Nobody is affected!”
Except… they are.
I have been typing-writing, in spurts, bits, wrested minutes of time, negotiated, blocked-off hours of time, computer in lap, on table, all of my children’s lives—all of our marriage.
My writing has been, is my work; it helps pay for our house, our food, our life.
My pre-write-by-hand-in-your-notebook-for-10-minutes morning routine involved having my computer in my lap. Facebook, email, blogging maintenance-and-business. Reading online news.
Why is this—me, notebook, kitchen table—different? Why is it a big deal?
Sean can’t tell me, in that moment. But we figure it out, as we talk about it, and when I realize—that I’m not just writing. That this time in the morning, bent over my notebook—this is my meditation. Prayer. And it really works. It is perfectly effective for me—even when it’s hard, slogging.
What that means: I am completely in the work. I am fully present there. And so—fully absent elsewhere.
I don’t notice Sean when he comes into the kitchen and asks me if I want a cup of coffee.
I don’t say hi to Flora when she wanders in to get her bowl of cereal. I don’t even see her.
Ender climbs onto my shoulders, seeking attention and affection… and I shrug him off and keep on writing.
And I do all this not in the space-that-is-me-my-heart-mind-made-into-place—the place where I’m supposed to write… but in the kitchen. The place where they think I should be theirs.
Flora captures their perception of what’s happening too aptly one day on a beach on the Haida Gwaii. The psychic who lives next door and who is our cicerone on that trip to the edge of the world and beyond comments what a wonderful, involved, loving and physically engaged mother I am. (She’s like that, my psychic-neighbour-beloved-friend-of-many-lifetimes, so good at handing out compliments, just when they’re needed—were only more of us like her.) “Very unusual for a Gemini,” she adds. “They tend to be more detached. More in their heads.”
I flush with pleasure. And my Flora wraps her arms around me from the back, and kisses my cheek.
“Mommy loves us so much and she loves hugging and being hugged and kissing and playing,”
she says, squeezing me hard. She pauses.
“Except when she’s writing. Then she wishes we’d all go away and die.”
I burst into tears.
Because it’s true.
Not the “and die” part. Gods, not that, never. But this “go away and leave me alone I’m writing!” part?
My friend L.A. is working on a paper about post-modern feminist discourse on domestic violence and from within this research, throws this quote into my newsfeed:
“It is important to place ambivalence at the heart of mothers’ relationships with their children. In this analysis, mothers both love and hate their children and this ambivalence can contribute to creative, thoughtful mothering.”
I ponder. I don’t think I am ambivalent about my children. I love them ferociously, desperately. Life without them is untenable; I no longer have any conception of myself without this exhilarating-exhausting-never-ending—childhood may be a stage; motherhood is forever—role. I would do it all again, more or less the same way (I would have had Ender sooner) a hundred, a thousand times.
But there is no doubt that what they want and need is often in conflict with what I want and need.
The more so as I get older.
“Mother” is NOT my all-encompassing identity.
Neither is “wife.”
(And housekeeper-housewife-homemaker don’t even come into play…)
And I will be neither a martyr nor a negligent parent. So…
I am struggling—do you see that? Because I don’t want to pretend, through pretty words, that I have the answers to anything here—I am struggling, as never before, to fulfill-discharge my obligations to my children and my family AND my obligations to myself. And maybe you are too. You know how they tell you it gets easier? They lie. In so many ways, it gets harder.
(What? No, no, don’t take off your shoes. You’re almost at the end. And you look sooo good. Come on, love. If you’re going to do this, do it properly. It’s not like you’re dancing or standing in them, right? Just lounging on the couch. Put your perfectly shod feet up—there, you can admire them and yourself better thus—and… let’s continue…)
There was a time, not that long ago, when my meditation was baby-at-breast… or walking a stroller around the block, and writing in my head, and that was… not perfect, but enough. Because, the smell of the baby’s head, the curl of those tiny fingers around my thumb fed me as nothing else.
And also… because what the baby needed from me… was so very simple. So very physical…
When they need me now, they don’t need just the breast, the arms, my body. For Ender, that’s still key, but it’s shifting even there, and for the older two—they either don’t need me at all (but, inevitably, that is when Ender needs me most) or they need me so fully-completely, letting my mind wander-and-write-as-it-wants-to isn’t an option.
And I need me, in the moments I write, fully-completely too. The work and writing I want to do now is more difficult (rewarding), challenging (ambitious). It requires more of me. I want to give more to it.
So. There we are. Ambivalent? No, not ambivalent.
But on a tightrope, for sure.
And it so hard.
My morning writing meditation both helps me walk that tightrope… and underscores how very, very taut it is.
How easily I can fall off.
(…and that’s how it ends that day. But what a downer. No. Let’s not finish yet. Let’s walk on… Re-adjust the straps on your shoes, beloved. Suffer with me, for me, just a little longer.)
It’s another day of writing on the couch, my near-five-year-old tucked into my armpit, Blue’s Clues in the background again, and an intermittent plea “You said you’d make jellyroll today!” impinging on my flow.
I am negotiating, compromising, walking the tightrope. I do not write in the kitchen, where I am theirs to access. I get that. I have that space-that-is-me-my-heart-mind-made-into-place, the place where I work and draft… That is also where I would like to write-meditate in the mornings.
“Mommy? Could you please, please sit with me on the couch? I need you to be near me!”
And so, I give him my physical self.
My mind writes. It is absent from him.
It is… an imperfect practice. My elder children (I hope) understand what I am doing and why it is so important to me (if they don’t quite understand, they accept). The little one does not. He knows-sees that I’m not fully there for him, and his ability to deal is varied. Sometimes, he will settle for being just near me. And sometimes, he desperately wants more.
“Jellyroll? When are we going to make the jelly roll? Mom? Move your arm! Mom! Help me! I’m stuck in the crack!”
There’s an edge of resentment to my flow. And also—urgency. I write, sketch, chase ideas, nail down phrases, developments as quickly as possible. Because, at any point, any of those,
“Mooom! Help me!”
…might be the last.
Meditation? Ha. Maybe that’s not what most people understand by meditation. But it’s the best I can do right now.
I commit in this piece the biggest blogging sin: I’m writing about me, it’s all about me, instead of telling you the “10 Surefire Ways to Achieve World Peace, Eternal Happiness and Total Creative Fulfillment By Friday.”
Next week, I’ll make it all about you. I promise.
But right now? I’ve just wrenched a four-hour block of time from life, and I’m going to go use it.
Don’t you dare interrupt me.
I love you and I can’t imagine life without you. Except when I’m writing. Then I just need you to go away—and let me write.
PS Next week, “10 Surefire Ways to Achieve World Peace, Eternal Happiness and Total Creative Fulfillment By Friday.” Or something like that.
PS2 You can slip those shoes off now. But put them back on if you decide to re-read the post. Trust me. It’s a totally different experience in bare feet.