Not the writer I wish to be

I was reading Louise Penny’s latest novel, A Trick of Light, the other night and as is the case with all of her Three Pines mysteries, I was completely moved and challenged by it, even while I was wildly entertained.

One of the continuing characters, 50-year-old artist Clara Morrow, after thirty-plus years of endeavour and dedication to growing in her art, has just become an “overnight success” and been given a solo show in the prestigious Musée d’Art Contemporain in Montréal.

Her description of the morning after the vernissage (or, in English, the “opening” of her show) captured me.

“Clara rose early. Putting on rubber boots and a sweater over her pajamas, she poured herself a coffee and sat in one of the Adirondack chairs in their back garden …

“She closed her eyes and could feel the young June sun on her upturned face and could hear birdcalls and the Rivière Bella Bella gurgling past at the end of the garden. Below that was the thrum of bumblebees climbing in and over and around the peonies. Getting lost.

“Bumbling around.

“It looked comical, ridiculous. But then so much did, unless you knew…

“Clara held the warm mug in her hands and smelt coffee, and the fresh-mown grass. The lilacs and peonies and young, fragrant roses.” (Louise Penny, A Trick of Light, Saint Martins Press, New York, N.Y. 2011)

Clara is thrilled and torn by her success (and will experience a myriad of other emotions as she faces jealousy from her renowned artist husband and the fall out from a murder that occurred in her garden during her celebratory party), but even before she sat in the early sun and pondered where she’d come from as an artist and where she was going, another of her inner observations kept coming back to me: “Art was their [her and her husband’s] work. But it was more than that. It had to be. Otherwise, why put up with all those years of solitude? Of failure? Of silence from a baffled and even bemused art world?”

Something in these passages that I can’t quite identify upon rereading and quoting in isolated chunks, in combination with comments a dear friend (and very astute, wise reader) made about one of my current works-in-progress triggered the recognition of a hard truth deep within me: I am not the writer I wish to be.

Now, this is not to say that I’ve ever felt that I was all that I wanted or hoped to be as a writer—not even close. But maybe what happened is that as the realization formed in my head and I saw all the colours and shadows and shapes and sounds of what I yearn to express collide with what I actually manage to get out—and that mess of thoughts bumped into Clara who I couldn’t separate from her author, Louise Penny, I realized that it will always be thus. It never changes. The great secret about aspiring to any Art is that you ever grow—and you ever fall short. There’s no arrival.

And maybe that sounds negative, but it didn’t feel like that to me. Instead it felt like some huge vice that had been holding my heart and mind—one that I was unaware of until I felt the pressure ease—unclenched. I think I’ve been operating under an unexpressed tyranny: “One day, I’ll get there—wherever there is—and all my writing dreams and aspirations will be met. Fireworks will go off. I’ll cease to be filled with self-doubt and lethargy. I will know I am good enough.”

Bunk! I have a lot of so-called successes (albeit they may seem small in some peoples’ eyes) and while I’m delighted and derive huge comfort and satisfaction whenever a reader identifies with, enjoys or connects to something I’ve written, I’ve never yet felt, “Aha, this is it.” Instead, I worry—when will the imposter police break out of wall yelling, “I’m sorry, Ma’am, you’re not a writer at all. You’ve been read and found lacking”?

But it’s not about that. It’s about, as Clara expressed, something more. It has to be.

It’s about striving, yes, but also being content to just be.

To diligently, joyfully—and sometimes sorrowfully or with anger—try to render every moment truthfully. To face (in real life and through my fiction) what I care about. What I question. What makes me rage, cower, cry and scream. What causes me to weep, laugh, smile, or take a deep contented breath and think, ahhhh . . .

It sounds so simple: Just be honest about what’s inside you, Ev!

But I find it so terrifying to face my naked emotional self—to not look away, to not avert my stare—out of discomfort, denial, fear of being revealed (and possibly rejected) for what I am, who I am. . . .

Yet as I pondered what I’d read, what my friend said, a warm coffee cup clutched in both hands, gently steaming as I sipped, and contemplated not just the pages immediately before but all those I written previously, I finally got it—get it. I am not the writer I wish to be. I am only the writer that I am. And it’s okay. More than okay. Perfect, in fact! (And after all, it’s the only possible option on any given day or page or part of a tale.)

I’ll continue to fight to remedy my failings, work hard to grow and change and be better as a writer (and a person), but there’s no magic day to wait for. The reason I write, the value of writing, the reward of writing is here right now. Found in the unyielding sheen of frozen-diamond snow, in the heavy contented sigh of my dog sleeping on my feet, in the questions I have as I stare at the sky, in breakfast with my adult daughter and the sweet complex flavours of conversation and freshly made pumpkin pancakes with syrup, pecans and whipping cream. . . .

The seemingly simple and obvious realization has me feeling a little awed—and strangely free and unencumbered: I am the writer that I am.

To heck with silent night; it’s more more like silent morn!

Photo copyright Ev BishopWow, when I wrote my column for The Terrace Standard this year, I knew my Christmas would be different this year, but I had NO IDEA that I’d be the first one awake for a very long time (Well, except for the cat who is being exceedingly weird. It’s like she knows there’s a large can of Turkey giblet mess for her own festive feast purposes later!).

Anyway, the tree is brightly lit, the coffee is brewed (ahhhh) and while visions of sugar plums dance in my son and hubby’s head, I am amusing myself online (Yay, the luxury of Christmas Day Internet browsing!) and trying to restrain myself (All I wanna do is break into my ho-ho sack, a.k.a stocking!).

If you’ve managed to sneak some merry Christmas computer time, I’d love for you to peruse some of my recent Christmas thoughts: “What We Give” published by The Terrace Standard, December 23, 2011 and/or “Deck The Halls With Memories” which was just reprinted in The Cloverdale Reporter‘s Old-Fashioned Christmas Magazine.

Merry Christmas, everyone. I hope your day is special in every way and that you enjoy the blessing of family and fun and food and peace in whatever order they come!

Quiet Daze

I wish I had some great graphic to post: a sprawling barren desert—its emptiness broken only by the odd three-armed prickly cactus here and there and errant ball of tumbleweed bumbling through every so often. (Add a whistling, lonesome soundtrack too.)

Or perhaps, more in keeping with a landscape I’m familiar with, perhaps I should insert a deep dark night with no recognizable landmarks, everything swathed in thick white snow—the only movement, the only sound, the occasional tree branch failing under its load, bending or breaking in a wet, heavy swoosh.

In both those scenes, the viewer would feel nothing was going on—and in both those scenes, the viewer would be wrong. Somewhere deep below the apparent nothingness, life would be stirring or going on full tilt—or, at the very least, hibernating, waiting for the exact right combination of natural elements to spring it forth. (Insert two new images here, please: the legendary bloom of desert flowers that occur after rare, precious rains and whatever greening, blossoming spring photo you have handy.)

That’s the case with my writing life these days too—outwardly things are pretty quiet, without a lot of news or action or ideas to go on about. Yet inwardly, I feel like I’m on the cusp. Any day now, new energy will flood through me, refreshing me and bursting my current projects to completion. Any week, new ideas—mere murky presences, buried deep in the compost of my mind for now—are going to sprout, and going into 2012 I’ll be overcome with plans and enthusiasm and questions about what’s to come.

But for now (Turn up the volume on that whistling, lonely gunfight showdown tune again.) I’ll just have to wait in eager (if quiet) anticipation.

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?

Back on the horse

I found it pretty amusing (actually giggled) when I popped in to my little cobweb-growing blog today and realized that the last thing I posted before disappearing into the offline hinterlands for over a month was basically an ode to the online writing world. I really wasn’t trying to be a big hypocrite, I promise.

The online world is everything to me that “Can a writer (or should a writer) ever go it alone” claimed it was—but sometimes the physical world seduces me away (especially in the summer) and/or less romantic aspects of “real life” demand my attention.

And while I didn’t fall off my writing and editing pony, a bit of sacrifice was needed and that sacrifice was called Internet Time.

Now though, my holidays are but good memories of sunshine, sand, salt water, and visits with dear friends and family. The sky has opened up (yet again) and there are (still more) record rainfalls. My kids and husband have returned to school and regular work hours. The end of September is herding me, as it usually does, back here and to various other online haunts. Yep, I’m back on the horse again (even if I still feel slightly headless).

I like the renewed discipline and passion that always seems to strike at this time of year, along with a fresh sense of possibility and promise. I love that September beckons to October—who will come quickly and bring SiWC along with. I revel in a return to warm drinks perched close by and the soothing click-click of keyboard keys.

In the summer, I work hard to fit my writing in. In the fall and winter, the long evenings and nights remind me that I’ve been silly. What could there ever be to do that’s more important or more fun than getting my thoughts down and letting stories run from my brain to the page?

How about you, dear readers? Are you back, comfy in the saddle of your desk chair, or do you need to go off on a few more end-of-summer gallops before reining yourself in?

Either way, happy reading, writing and dreaming this autumn! I’ll say good night now, before I stretch my already thin metaphor to breaking point.  🙂

~Ev

What Writing Means To Me

I was just tagged by my friend and fellow author Jen Brubacher in a meme about what writing means to me.

She wrote that writing is truth and her elaborations are so perfect and true that I’m kind of jealous she wrote it, not me. It’s particularly worth reading for a certain drunken dwarf’s quote and her thoughts on said quote.

The person who tagged her, Icy Sedgwick, wrote that writing is escapism—and I wonder, really, if any writer lives who wouldn’t agree with her on some level at least.

And the “it” who got Icy? Tony Noland, who expressed that writing is freedom.

And just before him, Ruchira Mandal expounded on how writing is a journey.

Am I trying to cheat by giving the answers those other writers provided? Not at all. It’s just that their answers fit perfectly with what I want to say: writing is many things to me. The reasons I write, what I “get” from my writing, and how I feel about the process vary from day to day, even from hour to hour—yet I find there are always similar tendrils of desire as put my pen to paper or my fingers to my keyboard (to discover, to explore what’s “known,” to have fun).

Writing is a science—especially non-fiction, where I work from a hypothesis (thesis!) (articulated or not) and hone each phrase, insert each fact, and carefully draw each picture or stage I want to reveal to my reader, all the while deliberating on what I know and what I can reasonably infer about life.

The results can be surprising—sometime I realize I need to discard my initial premise because my experimenting (my writing) reveals a flaw in my thinking or logic—a new hypothesis is needed. Other times, the conclusion is exactly what I had hoped/envisioned/felt sure it would be—very affirming stuff. And, as in all science, while there are breakthroughs and massive epiphanies, there is never an arrival moment where all is known, all is suddenly clear.

And writing is magic—especially fiction. Us odd few called to the task, take strange ingredients, some commonplace, some only hinted at in polite company, some imagined, some completely undefined, only intuited, and throw them all together in simmering mess (or carefully measure out and weigh and add in at specific times, depending on our style).

It’s a shadowy art, unpredictable and dangerous even when it’s white. It’s often exhilarating, joyful and fun—but no words appear without some personal sacrifice (even if it’s just time that we worry could or should be better spent) and sometimes there is pain.

When the magic works, we conjure people long dead and still to come. We play with time, sending readers back and forward in both this world and others. A barrage of scents—good and gross—waft from our pages. People curl up, relax and smile—and freeze, sweat, flinch and flee—at what we smooth across their brow, glide along their chest—jab into their bellies. They grow embarrassed, become livid and enraged—weep, laugh, bite their lip and nod—with emotions evoked by lines of text.

We reveal strangers’ stories and end up showing the readers themselves. We hold up a mirror, but it’s our guts and innards that are reflected back at the reader with their lives, past and present, transposed over top.

When the magic doesn’t work—or, at least, doesn’t yield the results we were aiming for—we, sometimes weeping, bleeding, and beaten, return to our worktables to try different combinations, to explore different roots and weeds. We work, despite the pitying looks of naysayers and the laughter, even jeers, of those who doubt our ability or think we’re merely crazy for trying.

And why do people turn to science and/or magic? Because they are searching. They are longing. I am searching. I am longing. For connection, for understanding, for hope and to give hope . . . for many things actually. So for me, perhaps above all else, writing is a quest.

I don’t know why you write or what writing means to you—perhaps, like me, you find your thoughts on the subject toss and change like the ocean—but I’d like to find out and would love you to share thoughts here.

And to keep the meme-tag game going, I tag:

Laura Best
Jennifer Neri
Angela Dorsey
Kathy Chung
Vello Sork

Sex, violence, morality and other Scintillating-somewhat-scary stuff . . .

Déjà vu Thursday – In light of my last post, I thought I share one in a similar vein, written way back on October 12, 2009. Enjoy and as ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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I spent a lovely morning reading and contemplating various writing blogs. Kathy Chung (of Kathy – Rambling—a new blog I will now frequent) wrote about questions of morality that she’s been pondering because of one of her characters.

Joseph Grinton (Writing about modern romance), also newly frequented by me, had thought-provoking words in How To Write Sex Scenes.

I didn’t come across a blog post that opined on how much detail should be given in depicting violent acts, or discussed how to write violent scenes realistically, or tackled realism versus gratuity, but somehow (and not just because I think Sex, Violence and Morality makes a grabbing title) the three things seemed linked in my mind. Writing about them (and similar high-octane subjects) demands a certain bravery.

In the early days of my fiction, I realized that I was guilty of writing in the same manner that I watched scary movies as a kid. Scary music cues something Awful about to happen—swoop, blanket over my eyes. Smack, hands over my ears to tune out screaming and howling . . . I’d actually ask, “Is it over yet?” and wait for confirmation that the most horrible bits had passed before I’d peek again.

In writing that avoidance technique looked like this: Write a hook or some great invocative scene that foreshadows emotional or physical (or better, both at once) danger to character. Insert # # # to show that time has elapsed. New scene starts immediately after Event deemed too violent, too sexy, too something-scary to delve into comfortably. Often, since the reader needed to have some knowledge of the ordeal, I would do some sort of recounting, usually in the form of a conversation between the sufferer of the atrocity and his/her close friend.

“I can’t believe you went through that.”

“I can’t believe it either. I thought I would die when Joe pulled that knife on me and proceeded to—”

“It must’ve been even more terrifying because it probably triggered childhood memories of watching your own mom be killed in front of you . . . ”

“It did—but I managed to summon the will to fight, because I pictured my own daughter Macy’s little innocent face—I want her to grow up strong, to not feel like being a victim is inevitable the way I always did . . . ”

(Okay, please, please note, my writing was never really that bad—or Gah, I hope it wasn’t! But if a person avoids showing events as they happen, unnatural, stilted summary scenes become necessary—and if you’re even thinking, “My summary scenes aren’t stilted. They’re graceful and elegant,” go slap yourself and delete/rewrite the scene!)

I’m still working through what I feel is a good balance between portraying life as it is really experienced and what is too much—a completely subjective line, I realize. And I still battle with self-consciousness and worry. What will people think of me when they see the things that make up my head? What will people close to me say if my stories don’t line up with their ideas of morality? GAH—I write sex scenes and have children who read—awkward! I keep returning to the fact that to avoid writing something because it makes me (or someone else) uncomfortable is stupid and goes against the very reasons I write: to explore the world I live in, to figure out what I think, to yell into space: I am here, trying to figure things out . . . And in the end, if I offend or make someone close to me feel awkward? Well, they don’t have to read me.

So how about you? Are there topics you “don’t go”? What scenes are (were) your Kryptonite? Have you found ways to overcome your inhibitions? Should writers even try to overcome a shyness? Maybe some boundaries are good things . . .