Category: Life

New Medium Post: On Trying Hard: Four Months in Canada

I have a new post up at my Medium blog on life in Canada after a few months:

On Trying Hard: Four Months in Canada

Is it May already? I’m asking, when May is already almost gone. Maybe it’s the persistent fog and rain of a Toronto spring that has me confused; it feels like I’m only just waking up from the long bearish sleep of winter, with occasional peeps of summer sunshine emerging one day a week. I don’t know yet if this rainy, overcast few months is typical, but Toronto, you haven’t won me over weather-wise.
There are compensations, though. Delicious baked goods in too many patisseries to count that I’ve been sampling all over the city. Good independent bookstores with great readings. Margaret Atwood, resplendent at a book-signing, warning and reassuring all at once…

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Hello from Canada

Hello, readers. It’s official: I’ve moved to Canada for a writing teaching position, and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in the culture and literary scene here. The timing is downright odd, I know, and I’ll be writing about my experiences here as well as my thoughts on what it means to be leaving the States at this particular time. You can see some of my first posts on my Medium blog here:

My Medium stories

And here’s an excerpt of my first post:

Hello, Canada! I’m new to you! The timing might seem suspect, an American arriving in Canada just now, after a crazy 2016 and a maddening election season. It’s so suspect, in fact, that I’ve gotten used to shrugging and smiling when people joke about my fleeing the country. But I’m here because my fiancé and I got teaching jobs at a university. This was in the works for nearly a year. So while I watched the election results with the same obsessiveness as all my friends, and bit my nails and watched too much MSNBC, there was always this knowledge in the back of my mind…that I’d be leaving soon. Either I’d be looking proudly on from afar as our first female president set up shop, or, well…I’d be high-tailing it out of there.
I knew I wanted to observe everything that was new to me in Canada as soon as I got here. My job as a newcomer, I think, is to look with big eyes and listen with big ears. To notice the differences and the similarities. And as a writer, my job is to observe and form theories about the national character. To see the contradictions and learn the jokes. To put my foot in it a few times and learn how to step gracefully out again. So this post will be the first of many scattered thoughts and observations about what might become my new home.

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Stay tuned for more thoughts on the writing life from North of the Border, and also come back for some exciting new progress on the novel. More soon.

New Essay at The Lit Hub

Friends, I have an essay up on Lit Hub about reading, writing, and my mother. This is the first nonfiction I’ve had published, and the first real writing I’ve done about my mother, though my feelings about her fill my fiction every day.

marginalia

 

“What they don’t tell you about death—or what you don’t really understand until it happens close to you—is how permanent it is. In the months afterward I kept thinking to myself, all right, I get it. This is too painful. Let’s just take a little break from the loss. Let’s have a weekend off. A day. Or an hour. Just one hour when it’s not true, when she is allowed to speak to me, or to rub an absent-minded hand through my hair. But the wall is high and fissureless. There are no breaks, no time-outs. The loss is final, and the you that you were with her is nowhere, gone.”

Read the whole essay here.

The Art of an Artist’s Residency



Readers, this month I have been tucked away in the splendid Vermont Studio Center, busily editing the novel and also trying to produce some new short stories. About once a year I love attending programs like these; there really is nothing like devoting yourself to the quiet, singular craft of writing. You’d be amazed what kinds of work can come out of an experienc like it.

I am stunned by how smoothly the VSC is run, by how beautiful the facilities are, and how friendly and welcoming the entire community is. I’ve met a terrific bunch of writers and artists while being here, and I’m so inspired by marinating in their developing work.

Many might say that you can achieve the same experience if you just turn off the phone and hunker down at your desk at home, and you can with effort and if a residency is not possible. But if it is possible, jump at the chance. There’s a huge mental difference between squeezing an hour of writing in between obligations at home, and giving yourself the time and permission to put your writing first.

So what is a residency really like? I’ll try to tell you about a typical day here at the Vermont Studio Center. The day might be different for every resident, but here’s the routine I’ve been working on.

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Hello from Chicago!

IMG_1276 copyGreetings from the Midwest, readers! As a born-and-bred East Coaster, and a loyal Bostonian since the age of three, I never thought I’d feel at home anywhere else in the country. But I also was always open to the idea of trying out different cities and exploring other worlds. So a job change has me living in the heart of downtown Chicago, eager to explore another city for at least the next year. Two Cities Review will remain Two Cities, but the gap we’ll leap will be much larger, and we’ll be exploring New York and Chicago instead of New York and beloved old Boston.

I’m sure I’ll be missing Boston in the months ahead. The rattling old T, the smell of salt down by the harbor and all the fresh fish on hand, the crusty, belligerent, loveable nature of the city and its people — I’m missing all of that already. But the excitement of exploring a new city has currently seized my attention. I’m all eyes and ears this month, trying to absorb it all, slip into the wide streets and among the giant skyscrapers. To really know the place and make the most of it, I want to go native as much as I can.

Right now isn’t the most opportune time to wander the streets of Chicago, as you can imagine. It’s minus 3 degrees today, with a wind chill that makes it about twenty below. The few times I’ve stepped outside in the past couple of days, the cold felt like a set of razor blades skinning me alive. It was scary how cold it felt. While the cold of Boston can be miserable, this kind of cold can really kill people. I’ll have to be very careful with what I wear and where I go and whether my car has gas.

Beyond that, though, I’m already excited by the vibrations the city is giving me. There’s a sense of culture bubbling on the surface of every street. The Art Institute is massive and world class; there are independent bookstores thriving; there are plays and poetry readings that await. Boston is wonderful, but it always has the feeling of a small town, a knowable, contained world. Perhaps it’s time to step into a larger world, a more husky, brawling city, a city of largeness and cultural depth. If you live in a place that is too knowable, you risk losing all growth and change in your life. I’m happiest when I’m a little uncertain, when I’m dipping my toe into water that’s a bit too deep.

I’ll continue to share my insights into the city of Chicago from the perspective of a newcomer as I start to explore it. What city is closest to your heart, and what city do you want to explore? What city would you most want to be a stranger in?

How Do You Carry the Fire?

Candle light burning 1437374 mToday’s post title comes from Cormac McCarthy. In his incendiary novel The Road, his main character, an unnamed boy, keeps reminding his father that they’re “carrying the fire.” It’s an unexplained refrain with unmistakable spiritual overtones; the idea that they are keeping something of humanity alight within them. This is an old connection that many religions make between human beings and fire. We are the only species to keep and use fire, after all, and so we see it as our sacred duty to maintain it, to keep it alive. The Bible tells us not to keep our light under a bushel, and the Buddha tells us that all our lives, we are on fire, burning as if consumed by desire, and our bodies are the fuel.

There are many spiritual meanings for fire; it purifies, it protects, and it is a central metaphor for what makes us human. But in many cultures, fire is also a symbol of creativity. This quality, too, is fundamentally human, and yet it’s the only thing (or one of the few things) that elevates us beyond the plain of simple humanity. It expands the possibilities of what we can be. So in Greek mythology, Prometheus steals fire from the Gods; fire, and creativity, is a semi-divine thing, one that we nevertheless have the audacity to steal.

All this is my way of thinking about creativity as a kind of flame held within the glass case of our lives. Nowadays, creativity is one slender candle flame amid a teeming electric switchboard of lights; so many demands and worries and constraints and expectations compete with that light. It is very vulnerable as a result. So I’m wondering about the ways that you carry the fire of creativity within you.

What are the greatest threats to your fire? Is it lack of time, or family obligations? Is it exhaustion? Is it entertainment temptations, like television or the internet? Does it come from within? Perhaps your own doubts and anxieties pose the greatest threat to your little candle. If you’re going to keep the flame alive, the first step is to identify what threatens it.

Next, I want to hear about what you do to carry the fire — and what you intend to do in the future. Though sorely overtaxed this semester with my usual teaching load, I’m making efforts to find time for myself and my writing in between classes and before I get home from work.

I find that when I get home from a full day of teaching, my mind is ready to quit for the day; I drop my bag to the floor and want dinner and entertainment, not work. But if I stay in a cafe or a comfortable lounge area in the office for an extra hour before I go home, then I can write. I also find that in the long gap between classes on some days, I usually waste the time, goofing off on the internet or reading articles (not terrible, but not the only thing I want to do). I’m making an effort to use that time more wisely, by reading or writing, or using that time to grade papers so I’ll have more weekend time to myself. And finally, if I’ve used those slices of inbetween time well, then I have more weekend time to go to the library or a cafe, and think about my writing.

I don’t accomplish all of these things in one week. Some weeks the papers have come in for grading, or there’s a weekend event. But if I do some of these things, then it means I’m getting a little creative work done. The candle burns another week.

So how do you carry the fire? What advice can you give, and will you try finding slivers of your time to work?

It’s supposed to be hard: why anything worth doing feels awful while you’re doing it



 Image by Christian Ferrari

In the never-ending quest for self-improvement, I started a modest exercise regimen this summer, of running increasing distances three times a week. Readers, I am not a runner. When I run, my entire body seems to protest. I wheeze and my arms flap, my heart pounds and my ribs heave. Particularly in the beginning, every workout felt miserable. The first few times I ran, I found myself stopping after a little while, gasping for breath. “Is it supposed to feel like this?” I kept asking my running partner. Patiently, he told me, it is, it’s supposed to feel like this. Somehow I thought I could magically get fit without actually trying hard. Just a few light jogs around the block, I thought. It will feel invigorating, and before you know it, I’ll be running marathons. Not so, readers. I learned a lesson this summer that is deceptively simple: when you’re improving yourself, or when you’re getting better at anything, it’s supposed to be hard.

I think this lesson could be eye-opening for a lot of us, and it can apply to our creative work as well. We write and write and write, and just don’t seem to get any better. It just seems so darn difficult to make every part of a story great. We always seem to be falling just short. The words just keep on disappointing us once they are fixed on the page. And because it’s hard, because it can feel downright miserable, so many of us give up. We stop, thinking that we just aren’t meant to be writers. We just don’t have the talent, the aptitude, for it.

But the secret is, it’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to feel tremendously difficult, shoving those words around until they’re in just the right order. It’s supposed to feel like we’re straining the muscles in our brains as we search for the right image or metaphor. And most definitely, it’s supposed to feel emotionally hard. It should feel like we’re tapping into the parts of ourselves that make us uncomfortable. We should feel dismay at how honest we’re being. We should feel shame that we’ve ever been quite so selfish. We should feel afraid of what people will think. We should feel our hearts pounding.

It’s such a simple lesson, yet somehow I’d forgotten it this summer. I’d forgotten that great artists and writers make it look easy, but that’s only because of the hours and agonies they’ve put in. With my running, I somehow thought I’d be gliding along the riverbank the way all those dedicated runners seemed to do. As I improved, things did get easier; suddenly I realized I was finding a rhythm, sinking into the work of running. But that’s when I knew I had to run longer, push myself harder. It was time to keep making things difficult for myself.

So much of our lives are based on ease, convenience, and instant gratification these days, that I think we forget this lesson. My students get frustrated so easily if a story is hard to understand. They think reading is supposed to be easy. But plenty of stories that are worth reading are not meant to be read with ease. They’re meant to be labored over. With reading, writing, and running, we have to remember how essential difficulty and strife and struggle are to the process of growth.

Are You a Binge Reader?

I saw an interesting post on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog the other day about a new trend in entertainment consumption that book publishers are trying to capitalize on. We’ve all heard of “binge watching” as the new it term for sitting down and bombing through an entire season of “Battlestar Galactica” or “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix; there’s something absolutely addictive not only in the way the episodes are framed these days, but even in the way they’re queued on our computers, inviting us to watch more and more. Now publishers are trying to make “binge reading” a thing. The Christian Science Monitor has more: read the article here.

Do you think binge reading will catch on the way binge watching has? I think there are two problems with the way the article is being framed; first, likening binge reading to binge viewing is misunderstanding the fundamental difference in thought that occurs when reading and when watching tv; and second, binge reading has already existed long before the advent of television. This may sound a little contradictory, but bear with me. Read more

At a Writer’s Colony

I’m excited to report that this month I’m trying something new in my writing career. For the rest of August I’ll be at a writing and art colony in upstate New York, focusing exclusively on my own writing projects. Some of my goals include finishing the novel editing and starting some new short stories that I’ve been kicking around my head for a while.

This does mean that posts will be a little slower around Writerly Life for a little while. I’ll try to send along updates when I can, but my focus is to really stay off the grid as much as possible for the next few weeks. I have no idea how I’ll react to this sort of writing environment — but that’s why it’s an experiment! I’m very excited to see how my writing proceeds when it’s the only thing on my plate.

Have you ever participated in a writer’s retreat or artist’s colony? If so, what do you recommend to get the most out of it? What are some of the dangers and pitfalls? Share your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned to hear more thoughts on a writing colony.