Tuesday, January 19, 2021

“There is no try. There is only doggy doo”: The care and feeding of yourself and your writing.

what does this dog think of my writing?

It was one of those days as a writer. I woke to find out that though I’d made the longlist, I didn’t make the shortlist. An editor still hadn’t responded to my emails about the manuscript that I’d submitted, though he’d expressed enthusiasm about it before I sent it. And then, my lawyer wife who had was urgently expected in Zoom court, called out to me that she’d stepped in the poo of our living-with-us-during-Covid adult son’s untrained puppy. She’d stepped in it running for the phone, and she’d stepped in it running back. She’d switched shoes and now ran downstairs to court. I hauled myself out of bed to begin the Herculean task (remember him mucking out the king’s vast cow-mucky stables?) of cleaning shit from three floors of our house (my wife hadn’t realized she’d left a puppy trail down two flights of stairs, across several rooms and into her office. 

What would Hemmingway do? What would Samuel Beckett say? And my novel was still stalled. It’d been six weeks. I couldn’t figure out how the novel should develop. I’d began with a good premise but the plot had just frozen. And the tone? It was a bad pastiche of Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams, and cloying in only the way a novel about death, suicide and a failed stand-up comedian could be. 

So what to do. First of all, take stock. Sure I was grateful that I had been on the longlist. I have often recited, “It means something to win, but it doesn’t mean anything not to win.” And it is true. Literary prize cultural is a strange and distorting thing. It means what it means, but no more. There are obviously so many books that are not on the radar of prizes. Prizes always have an implicit agenda and bias. That’s inherent in the structure of any contest. A running race privileges those who run the fastest for that distance. A 100m sprinter couldn’t win a marathon and vice versa. And the world’s greatest skeet shooter wouldn’t have a chance. It’s just important to remember that, in terms of prizes and contests, the particular value being sought isn’t explicitly stated and is in fact often explicitly obscured (“the greatest book published this year” only means the greatest of a certain kind of book as determined by this particular group of people after some negotiation). And it changes depending on whose is judging. I love looking at sites like Goodreads where some of the most acclaimed works of the human literary endeavour get only 2 ½ stars and pages of complaints. That James Joyce, if only he could write like John Grisham. 

So, of course, I know all of this, but still, when one in nominated for a prize it is always a bummer not to win. I don’t gamble or buy lottery tickets. Though I truly expect to lose, it always feels like a bummer not to win. Why put myself through that. I’d rather write a poem that I can hate afterwards. But at least I have agency. Truly, I have been lucky with recognition of my writing and of course, I’m grateful for the opportunity and readers that shortlists and prizes have given me. Of course. Prizes are only stupid when I’m not nominated or don’t win. But I also have to remind myself that I am exactly as good a writer as I was before the recognition as before, though the world didn’t appear to have thought so. 

What was I doing? Oh, right. I was taking stock. While I was scrubbing the puppy’s glorious leavings from the carpet on the landing, I looked back on the last couple of months. Because my novel was stalled, I’d used the energy built from frustration and that had been diverted from the novel into writing something else. It turned out that I’d written a book of poems in the form of fables. It’d been a great experience. Writing each tiny fable had been a great way to start the day. And their emotional tone—consoling, bitter, ironic, loving, poetic—was really apt for the strange times we were in—from COVID-19 to US politics. And, like many, I was feeling too fragmented to really write a long continuous text. These tiny pieces were something that I could do. I could accumulate even if I couldn’t synthesize. That seemed like exactly where we were all at in these times. At some point, you can only write what you can write, at least when it’s not a matter of avoiding the difficult or not making it a priority.

What else? I had a new novel coming out. All of the preparations were going well. I loved the book design. I was really grateful to have some lovely blurbs by people I greatly respected. I was happy with the novel.

Also, in a kind of desperation to make things happen, to dig me (and in a ridiculous way, all of us) out of this mess, I was churning out visual poems and other texts. I couldn’t change the world, but I could make things. That helped, at least in the short term. I also sent out a bunch of short manuscripts to chapbook publishers. Some of which were accepted. What to do with the energy and disquiet of the times? Make things. Make things happen. 

Of course, these are all things to do with my writing life. There were many more things I reflected on as a person. My family. My safety, health, privilege as someone who is housed, fed, clothed and has access to supports, economic, emotional, physical and so forth. And I have work. For example, here I am writing as writer-in-residence at Sheridan. I really am grateful for that opportunity—to teach and write, but to also have an income. That really is a privilege & I’m not just saying that so the dean can read it.

But now I’m on the main floor with a J-cloth trying to clean the Persian rug I inherited from my grandparents.  It continued to be a lousy day. But that evening as I was walking our dog—not the famed befouler of this narrative—I heard myself saying out loud to myself, “I am going to beat that ##$%$#%#% novel into submission.” I’d never actually physically beat anything, but I appreciate the verve with which I heard myself speak. I realized that I had somehow gathered myself together, had found some resolve to confront what was difficult about this major project which was making me despondent. For me, writing the novel was a way of giving structure. I wake up. What am I supposed to be doing? What is there to do in this world? Oh yeah. Write my novel. It gave shape to my days and focus to my self and emotions. 

I spent the next day or two reading what I had written (about 20,000 words)—painful and irritating as I found it—and revising, trying to make the tone less cute and clever, less trying too hard. There were quite a few lines and passages that I quite liked. I even laughed a bit at some of my own jokes. (It’s was ok. I wrote them months before and had forgotten them. Really!) Also, I got on my writing treadmill. I wrote my first novel on a treadmill and had been avoiding it. I knew it meant business and that when I was on it, I would write. The energy of avoiding it helped me write my second novel. But it was time. I climbed aboard and began slowly walking and revising. Then it all stalled again. Damn. What to do?

I made a plot chart. I wrote what I’d done on stickies and placed them in a timeline. Then I gathered some speculations from my notes about what might happen. I put them on stickies so I could change and reorder them or throw them across the room, where they would slam to the floor like butterflies. This helped me think through how I might move forward with the novel. While plotting plot ideas, a few thematic ideas occurred to me, too. The whole process helped me imagine a way forward, and even more, let me know there in fact there COULD BE a way forward. I guess it is like taking stock like I was doing on that famed morning of the doggy doo. There is no try. There is only doggy do. 

And so, I’ve begun writing the novel again. My first act, post-plot chart, was to write a scene that changed what I’d planned. Still, it couldn’t have happened without the chart—it was based on what I’d planned but as soon as I was writing it, I realized that, in the thick of things, I had a better and more nuanced idea. Until you’re in the shower, you don't know exactly what needs to be washed.

I wrote another email to the editor and he responded. The message was hopeful and he asked me to wait a couple more week for a final decision. Also, that little puppy, untrained as he is, is kind of cute. And like everything, apparently, I just have to give it time. 

So as a writer, they are frequently times of frustration and despondency. But I figure that we have to be in it for the long haul and being a writer is about learning how to keep going despite it all. Despite being able to write something you like, or that anyone else writes. Being able to weather the gloom of self doubt, worry, lack of focus, and lack of energy. What works for you? Waiting? Trying something different? Switching projects? Employing a different technique (Sheila Heti asks herself questions and rolls dice to find out the answer to what she should do)? Sketching, writing the end, character sketches, running the whole thing through Google translate into Armenia, Zulu, Maltese and then back to English? Trying it backwards. Going for a walk, a bike ride, a mani-pedi, a Wikipedia? New music? Handwriting? Typewriter? Choosing a minor character? Beginning with someone else's poems and writing lines in between? Editing, rereading? Beginning again? Time. Putting it away and writing something else. Or not writing. 

I think the way to be a writer is to figure out how to be a writer in the way that works for you. Not for Hemmingway or Toni Morrison, or bell hooks, Rumi or Rupi Kaur. How do you work best? How do you manage your own particular psychology and imagination, your emotions and goals? Self care involves self writer care too. Care for yourself as a writer and care for your writing. What do you both need?