Balance, balance, balance!

Photo by twbuckner, Flickr

Photo by twbuckner, Flickr

I’m not one of those people who love the word “balance.” In fact, when people say it like a prayer, “It’s about balance, Ev . . . balance,” my gag reflex kicks in. But this is a flaw in me, I suspect, nothing to do with the lovely word or concept behind it at all. I think my response is triggered by a guilty conscience. I am, too frequently, topsy-turvy, helter-skelter, over or under weighted, definitely all-or-nothing in my approach to life. I over indulge my passions . . . and (sometimes, often times) starve the shoulds, musts, smart-tos in my life. Ah, well . . . I think there was a wise line about knowing thyself once upon a time.

Anyway, why this rant about balance? Because I realized recently that my writing life is like a teeter-totter stuck on the ground by a very solid, much bigger than me friend. A dear friend. A beloved friend (originally misspelled as “fiend”—does that mean anything, I wonder?). A FUN (all caps!) friend. A friend I would never want to leave the playground—my writing itself.

At conferences, in blogs, during author talks, etc., more established authors often talk about the importance of creating and maintaining a writing habit. They warn—rightly—of the danger of talking about how-to-get published, daydreaming about being published, overdosing on reading and studying about writing and publishing and not actually doing the work, not writing. Writing is the first and most important thing, they say. The only thing, really, 100% necessary for an eventual writing career. And, again, I completely agree, and have met too many “aspiring” writers who, actually, uh . . . it still confuses me . . . don’t write.

However, there’s a less talked about, but equally stymieing condition afflicting those who profess to want to write as a living (usually so they can write more, not because they care about the money other than as a necessity for stuff like, say, heat and toilet paper). They don’t submit enough. Or at all. They have the writing routine nailed. They craft several short stories, a novel or two, plus non-fiction essays and thoughts, a year . . . They might even work each piece through a couple drafts, so they’re pretty solid bits of work . . . and then, nothing. They happily move into their next story’s world because writing is about the writing, don’t you know?

Well, I do know. And I totally believe that. Celebrate it. Love it.

So imagine my horror when I realized that, yikes, I’ve become one of those people who talks about wanting to write as a career, but doesn’t do the work needed. Only, in fact, does half the work (the most important part though, I still brag). I write. Regularly. Amass quite a few words, even. (Er . . . actually the example two paragraphs ago was taken from my own life.)

But I fall down in the submissions department. Terribly. Yes, I have quite a few short stories out in the world now, along with some non-fiction, and a novella under a penname (hopefully to be joined by a sister story very soon!)—but I’ve been writing for years. I have multiple novels and a myriad of short stories that I’ve sent out a few times, then put away—and they’re stories I still believe in. I’m not talking about my file of those-that-shall-not-be nameds.

And why do I wimp out and epic-fail in the business end of the writing life? Well, there’s probably a lot of complex reasons, but let’s boil it down. I’m insecure. But aren’t we all? And isn’t life short? Yes, and yes!

Usually at this time of year, I’ve just returned home from SiWC, primed to work and wildly inspired anew. And now, despite not attending the conference this year, it’s like my body and brain remember. I weirdly, no doubt because of the company I kept in London, feel a similar November-surge of refreshed motivation and commitment.

I don’t regret the time I spend “merely” writing—it’s the most essential part of storytelling, and I’m still learning how to do it—but it’s time for me to find a balance. (Gag!)

I want the teeter-totter to work as it should, an exhilarating ride of constant motion . . . so, yes, I will keep exploring new thoughts, new ideas, new worlds through new words and stories . . . but I will put more weight behind the business part of my writing, the polishing and shining, the submitting, submitting, submitting.

What about you? Do you relate to my teeter-totter at all? If so, which end do you need to add more weight to?

P.S. Just saying “SiWC” here made me realize I have to attend in 2014! Unless I “must” go overseas again, ahahahahahahahaha! ;)

Return to sender . . .

"Returned Manuscript" Photo by Ev Bishop

“Returned Manuscript” Photo by Ev Bishop

My recent weeks have been full of emptying—first one house, then another. As I sorted through closets and cupboards, some of which, honestly, that hadn’t been gone through in 20 odd years, quite a few items gave me pause. Why on earth had he (my dad) kept that? Or, conversely, at my old house, why on earth did I hold onto that?

One such item, tucked away in the back of a cupboard above my bedroom closet, was a sealed box. A manuscript box. Marked “Requested Material.” Besmirched with a black X through the intended recipient’s address and a sticker instructing you to turn the box over.

Doing as bidden, another sticker greets you, one with five options: Insufficient address, Attempted not known (whatever that means!), No such number/street, Not deliverable as addressed – unable to forward, and Other. “Other” is selected with another X and a red, slightly smeary stamped imprint shouts “Unclaimed.”

More injuriously, another stamped mark says 1st Notice, 2nd Notice, Return—and there are handwritten month and day notes beside category.

I remembered, only upon seeing the box again, the initial request for the full manuscript—how excited I’d been.

I also remembered how disappointed, and irritated, I’d been when it came back. I carefully follow all submission guidelines. In this instance, I’d spoken with the agent in person, received the request to submit in person, been given the address to send to in her handwriting.

I didn’t send the parcel priority post, or in some other manner that requires a signature or a special trip into a postal outlet for pick up. It should’ve been delivered right to their office . . . so maybe they don’t have a big enough mailbox for manuscript boxes? (If that’s the case, how bizarre!) Or maybe she’d never really wanted to consider my novel in the first place? (Ouch, but please, I’d rather she’d just said so!)

I suspect the reality is nothing like any of my above suppositions. It’s just something that occasionally happens with mail. And when you’re busy, and the object you’re receiving notices about is off your radar, you don’t get around to picking it up. Nothing personal. No big deal.

But what is a big deal: Why didn’t I follow up, or resend it, or . . . do something? Why did I tuck it away, out of sight, out of mind . . . Imagine if I didn’t move for another 20 years or more, what a find it would be then!

I haven’t decided what to do with the unopened box. But I am taking it to heart, as it strikes me as a powerful (if painful!) message about my writing in general.

This novel, packaged up with such care, only to be stuck away, hidden from all, is symbolic of what I do with a lot of my writing.

I love to write (as I think any of you who read my blog know!); I don’t love the submission process. I would like to share my stories, perhaps connect with someone out there, make them laugh, or cry or just . . . relate—but that desire is always a bit peripheral to the actual act of writing.

The result of this . . . laziness, fear, slight disinterest, whatever . . . is that I have many stories and quite a few novels that have yet to see the light of day.

I don’t want to become one of those writers for whom publishing is the primary goal and content is secondary—but I also know that if I don’t start to put out a body of work fairly soon, my years to be able to do so will diminish, my chance to share my stories will shrink, and my hope to someday support myself with my words will become a more and more unlikely daydream.

And so, for now at least, the box sits on the floor by my desk, in a terribly inconvenient spot, where I keep tripping over it—a constant reminder that I need to be bolder, to more actively seek to share my words (and worlds!) with others. Wish me luck!

And tell me, what would you do with the unopened manuscript box?

Good For What Ails Me

"Spring Always Arrives" - Photo by Ev Bishop

“Spring Always Arrives” – Photo by Ev Bishop

Sometimes I romanticize the writing life. (Well, pretty much every aspect of life actually, but I’ll just focus on the writing aspects for now.) And while normally I feel this is a lovely quality, it has a downside. It can make me feel, when writing sessions are more tedious than magical, that maybe it’s because of some inherent flaw in me. Maybe I’m an impostor. A fraud.

I want “perfect” writing days:

Sessions where every penned nuance and detail is rife with significance.

Times with the texture and quality of embossed leather or whiskey soaked velvet (though if I think about it, I’m not really sure how either of those would describe a day at all).

Sprees filled with rambling, writerly chats, obscure poems found wedged between the floor boards in a bedroom of a long vacant house (again, a detail that seems sort of impossible to randomly happen upon when my butt is planted in my office chair, but don’t over think things: this is a perfect day, people!), and wine drank from pewter goblets.

Weather that’s all sunrise, sunset, or storm. Lavender-grey sky. Charcoal-soot clouds. Pounding rain that bends the trees and echoes my heart.

Hours when time pauses and my prose falls effortlessly upon the page, as moving and powerful as a wind that shakes leaves, bends boughs, and changes the season.

I want to be the poet in the turret, the crazy longhaired maiden-crone in the attic (but one whose family doesn’t disown her!).

So, although I often find that the reality of being a writer is pretty great, by comparison to the stuff of my daydream writer life, it’s sometimes a little disappointing. Or a lot, depending on the day. I’m continually surprised that writing is actually work—sometimes really hard work. It’s something I have to schedule in. It rarely just happens. And often it’s painful, like I’m a surgeon charged with the task of removing my own organs without anaesthetic and spreading them around for the world to see. But worse than the pain is the fear.

The fear that I actually have nothing to say. That perhaps the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was written with me in mind (“Aren’t they beautiful?” “Isn’t what beautiful? There’s nothing there.”) Fear that I am mediocre at best. Fear that people will see me naked and laugh, or worse, avert their eyes, turn away—ashamed, unable to relate, embarrassed for me. And even more fear: that I will never be read or connected with at all. I will send parts of myself into the void and be met with . . . silence.

How silly I am to worry about such things hit me afresh yesterday.

I’d fled my computer for a break to work in the yard. The air had a quality that, I don’t know, just made me want to laugh. Sweet and fresh, yet here and there, tinged with the earthy scent of dead plants, no longer frozen, freed to rot. The fecund smell of approaching spring is so ancient and independent of human involvement that it always seems almost otherworldly to me—yet also somehow makes me feel like every dream is possible.

The sun was trying to warm the winter-cold earth, and a brisk breeze carried an invigorating lesson: New life erupts from death. Growth springs forth from decay and rot and . . . well, shit.

Creation can be painful—just listen to my chickens. Yet, day in and day out, they each lay an egg—and though they complain bitterly during the process, they squawk equally proudly about the results of their labour. And as inglorious and common as laying an egg every day may be to some, each speckled brown oval is its own miracle too.

Does the chicken question whether it can lay an egg, or if it can, will it be a good enough egg, or if its worthy of even attempting to lay an egg in the first place? I’m not a chicken whisperer, but I don’t think so. Hens definitely seem to have more of an “I’m a chicken, dammit. Of course I lay eggs. Get over yourself and get cracking” attitude. Can I do any less or be any less pleased with my output?

And the chickens lay regardless of the day, temperature, or individual mood—mild and balmy, or bitter and hideous. And likewise, my hedge puts out buds when it’s supposed to, despite the wind, the danger of frost. . . . It seems to like it when I fuss, but it does its thing whether I’m there or not.

I have perfect dreamy writing days occasionally, and they’re amazing. I mean who doesn’t love to feel their work is going well, that they’ve connected with something deep within themselves, and enjoyed the process? Who doesn’t revel in a bit of romance?

I wonder though—perhaps ironically—if my writing is better on the days it feels like organ-extraction? Or if maybe the revolutions between between angst and toil and ecstasy and pleasure are all necessary? Maybe writing is like the rest of life, a continual shift of seasons. Some more enjoyable than others, perhaps, but all crucial, all inevitable. And maybe it’s just something I shouldn’t think about too much—just enjoy and accept (with a little squawking occasionally!).

Head Space

“Through a glass…” Copyright Ev Bishop 2012

I spent a big part of last weekend carousing through local artists’ studios. (Okay, okay, I wasn’t exactly carousing, but I was having a lot of fun.)

Quite a few of the studios, on top of being enviable workplaces, were works of art—beautifully designed, every detail and colour, texture and nuance revealing much about the artist they home.

Other studios, no less wonderful and inspiring, were more about the pure work of creating: no surface or wall or floor too special for accidental paint spatter or clay dust. Mess, glorious mess, abounded in some (to my huge comfort as I like to work in a clutter, too).

Still others were more impromptu—one amazing painter worked in a makeshift aquarium for lack of a better word, a table in the middle of a parking lot downtown with a plastic “cage” around it, so the spray paint he works with wouldn’t go awry.

In all, the evidence, thrill and reward of labour was everywhere.

I came away from the two days inspired to work, work, work, more in love with (and grateful for) my own little office than ever, and struck by an intriguing (to me) contrast between the artist spaces I visited and my own writing haven.

Almost without exception the artist studios were filled with light. Huge windows let the world in, bringing what the outside closer to view, closer in. One studio (Noreen Spence’s!) is shaped like a hexagon and juts from the side of her home like a turret. It is floor to ceiling windows on four or five sides; being in it is like being suspended in air or sitting in a tree watching the world around you.

My writing space is a nook in the heart of my house, built intentionally into a corner, with no windows to distract me as I work at bringing what is deeply inside out. If Noreen’s space is an open-branched tree, mine is a small, brightly lit cave. Both are lovely, if very different in the head space they suggest for our individual creative processes—and those differences fascinated me.

If you get a chance to visit local artists’ workplaces, I really recommend it—great fun, but also affirming and encouraging.

To Capture the Moon

The yellowed-ivory moon rose over the snow topped mountains in the near distance. Huge bellied and magnificent, she sat heavy in the periwinkle sky of the early spring evening, queen of all she surveyed. And I, a peasant beneath her, awed by her visage and her serene scrutiny, deserted my leaf-raking and flowerbed cleaning and ran for a camera—completely taken in: this was the night I’d capture the moon.

I fetched my camera, and . . .

Completely failed in my quest. I have seen gorgeous photographs of the moon. The people who take them are magicians. Or perhaps they too think, You call this image beautiful, breathtaking, magical? No, you should have seen the moon that night. I didn’t even come close.

I know in seeking that illusive picture of the moon, concepts (magic spells!) like aperture, ISO, and EV 1 or 2 units come into play, along with tools like telephoto lenses, tripods, and the like. I have heard that I can master them. And perhaps I will. Strive. Try.

My first pronouncement—“completely failed”—softened under her encouraging glow as the night darkened around her. I emerged instead with a lesson, applicable to my writing and so many other parts of my life. The attempt is the joy, is the success, is the purpose. The moon will never be captured fully, but she can be suggested, alluded to, conjured, imagined, dreamt. . . .

And as if to affirm that truth, I discovered that two of the twenty or so shots I took turned out . . . not bad. Though nowhere close to how beautiful the moon actually was on April 6, or how she overtook the horizon and my imagination, I hope they hint. . . .

So the aftermath of my night’s chase? Most often with words, but sometimes using picture, paint or other, I’ll keep seeking to express the beauty and mysteries that sometimes surprise us in the day or wait and appear only fleetingly at night. And most often I’ll miss the mark, not accomplish what I’m shooting for, but that’s okay. I accept the quest. I revel in it. I delight in it. And who knows? Sometimes I might come . . . close.

In the nick of time, a hero appeared. . . .

Sometimes I have days (or weeks, or months!) when I feel a little less than enchanted with the whole business of writing. Not the writing itself—sometimes I’m neurotic, insecure, impatient (etcetera, etcetera!) about my process, but that’s different. The work of writing, when I remember to refocus on it, is good. Is the whole point, actually. But the business part? The querying, submitting, receiving rejections—and the acceptances and publications that don’t magically change everything? Well, that whole affair can get a bit tedious.

Anyway, yesterday was one of those days. And then, out of nowhere, a hero appeared. He was wrapped in Manila paper and bubble wrap (Okay, get your mind out of the gutters. This is not that kind of story!), but it was, as ever, what was inside that counted.

(Okay, enough with the sexy, mysterious stranger metaphor.)

My friend Jen Brubacher had sent me a present from the UK: A book I’ve been dying for that doesn’t get released here in Canada ‘til May, 2012 (How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran—I figure, since I turn 40 in a few months, it’s about time I figure out this skill of being female), and—wait for it, wait for it—a total surprise book.

An ancient book. A treasure. A tome first printed in 1926. The Truth About Publishing by Stanley Unwin.

It’s hard to explain how gorgeous this book is—from his rough-edged, slightly discoloured with age pages, to faded, well-worn linen cover, to gold-lettered spine—gorgeous. And serious. (None of this author name and title and loud picture spilled gaudily across front and back for this fella.)

(Am I still personifying this book? I meant to stop! I seem to be unable to help myself.)

His soft, authoritative voice enthralled me from the very first page and I found myself oddly comforted, so much so that I was compelled to remove the shrug of discouragement I’d been huddling under this week.

Despite the book’s age, a surprising amount of details surrounding the business of writing (querying, submitting, presenting your work) are still pertinent.

And let me share just one inspiring tidbit—as timely and true to writers now, me thinks, as it was to writers 86 years ago:

“The growing commercialism of literature—inevitable though it may be—does not tend to promote more harmonious relations between authors and publishers. It is based on the assumption that manuscripts and books are mere commodities; dead, not living things. Such an assumption ignores the peculiar and indeed parent relationship of the author to his work, the realization of which is the beginning of wisdom in a publisher.” ~ Stanley Unwin

I found the above quote—in this day of doom and gloom about the future of publishing and rumours of the death of literacy, and so on—very encouraging. The future of books—the desire and “need” for their commercial success—has always been a source of angst and conflict between booksellers and book writers.

Yet if we question why we even bother to write then, turning to a quote on the title page reminds us:

It is by books that mind speaks to mind, by books the world’s intelligence grows, books are the tree of knowledge, which has grown into and twined its branches with those of the tree of life, and of their common fruit men eat and become as gods knowing good and evil.                                                                                                                               – C. Kegan Paul.

Us writers write what our hearts compel us to (or, at least, we should). But if we’re honest, often we have hopes of at least some sort of financial reward—if only so we can work less at a day job and write more.

Publishers also publish for two reasons (I really believe): to bring books into being that they believe should be read, should exist, should add to the world experience in terms of entertainment, pleasure, thought, growth and knowledge, but also to make money.

We authors may dislike the latter, especially if it appears to outweigh the other motivation in current culture, but that’s okay and is as it should be: we need to write regardless of what comes of it. By necessity, so it can continue, publishing has to be about dollars. Equally by necessity, writers need to be uncomfortable with that as a primary goal.

And so, another inner-writer crisis averted, the hero gently takes his place in her heart and on her shelf, snug amidst his brothers and sisters—all those reasons she keeps keeping at it.

It’s all rock ‘n’ roll to me.

Digital image, Copyright 2011 Marriah Bishop, used with permission.

My daughter has started painting. She also takes a lot of photos (digital and old school 35mm). Lately, I’ve been struck by the contrast between her two arts—and how those differences relate to writing.

Photographers strive to capture images of what’s already visible in the world and focus in on it, with the goal of revealing what exists—what is tangible, what is right there in front of us—in a new way, making people see.

And, of course, most artists wielding a camera hope to make us feel—to invoke peace, hope, or joy showing the lovely things that exist all around us. To stir up empathy or make us angry (thus, hopefully, motivated to do something about whatever issue riled us up). To kindle awe or understanding about the world around us. To make us laugh. To make us cry. But they attempt to do that by showing us what already exists.

Painters, or the ones whose work I relate to most anyway, seem to approach their work the opposite way. They start with reaction (emotion) triggered by something real and try to express how feeling looks. The results on the canvas may be realistic and identifiable—a brook, a tree, a face . . . but they just as easily might be abstract colours and shapes and form, or some combination thereof. The final piece creates something real, yet isn’t fact-based or often a literal representation.

For me, those visual processes are close cousins to writing—non-fiction is like photography. I write about what really exists, for a variety of reasons—to create a record, to encourage, to challenge, to entertain, to inform. . . .

In fiction, I start with an idea or emotion or question and explore it through story—sometimes realistic, sometimes absolutely fantastic. Every time, with the hope of stirring the fears, concerns, rages—and the dreams, worries, and hopes—of the reader. I’m not concerned with the factual at all.

Whether the setting is a modern high school classroom, the moon, or a castle in a land of fairies, what I want is for people to feel—to recognise that emotional truths exist separate from literal events, times and places. After all, there’s something surreal about being human—there’s our physical reality, but then again, something so, so much more than that, in which we live and move and have our being.

Poetry and music are like what mixed-media is to visual arts—seeking to express what almost defies expression, to give substance to what is invisible yet is also somehow the crux of existence. Oxygen to plant life.

I read a comment on a blog recently that said that “real” writers don’t write blogs. (The irony that the comment was made on a blog, by a writer made me smile—and in a large part helped fuel this slightly odd post. As much as I see differences within the forms, mostly I see connections and related pathways between all modes of artistic and creative output. I’m not sure there’s any definitive definition for a writer—except that he or she writes. And although it’s interesting and fun (perhaps even helpful, occasionally) to wax poetic on the purpose and function of various forms of writing, I don’t know if it really matters how or why or what a person writes.

What about you? Do you write in a variety forms? Are you a writer and another type of artist as well? If yes, how do your processes/intentions differ according to the craft? If no, any specific reason why not?