It’s just work

I’m in the early stages of tackling a big edit now, mapping out the book as it is, trying to figure out what it’s going to be and how to get it there. This is the part where apprehension slips in, sometimes a kind of dread, because the path forward is uncertain. Sometimes I go in with a plan of attack, but sometimes there isn’t an aerial view, and the path only becomes clear in the doing: you just have to slash through the jungle in the direction you wish to go.

With artistic endeavours, even the destination is vague. We’re aiming for better, of course, but in writing there is never a ta-da moment something is complete, like in chemistry class when the test tube contents turn a new colour. And as we’re constantly reminded by reviews and awards and bestseller lists, this whole game is subjective.

In any case, I’ve been thinking about aversion, and offering myself a sort of mantra: Don’t be afraid of the work. I’ve written before about my triathlons, and the nerves that come with them, even though it’s something I’ve done many times before. Even though I’ve trained, even though I know the course, even though there’s only so much that can go wrong. I don’t want to suffer. But that assumes that suffering is always a net negative, and it isn’t. Sometimes suffering is a gateway to meaning.

And sometimes, as meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein reminds me in my app, suffering is just a mind state. My friend H was posting about tackling the garden in her new house the other day, saying she hoped one day she could actually enjoy gardening. It’s true, gardening is a lot of physical work. It can be frustrating, too, sometimes tedious. And it’s a lot like writing or book editing: there is no ultimate garden, no true finish line, no objective standard or unassailable truth. When it’s time to get out there and tackle my own patch of green, I am frequently uncertain but never afraid. You simply do what’s in front of you, and then you do the next thing. Sometimes things don’t go as you hoped. Sometimes they turn out better. That’s life, after all. You show up and do the best you can. You try, as Rilke says, to “live your way into the answer.”

Ideally, I’d tackle all the work in my life with my gardening frame of mind, but that seems rather advanced for this grasshopper. For now, I’ll tell myself, It’s just work, then I’ll grab my shovel and try to work my way into some answers.

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In Praise of Inefficiency

After meeting friends the other weekend, I had two choices to get home: take the TTC for about 25 minutes or walk for 35. The weather had temporarily mellowed after the polar vortex of despair, and I realized my path could take me through Kensington Market, one of my favourite Toronto neighbourhoods. So I walked, taking in changes in the city as you can when you’re not squinting into the wind. I stopped at Kid Icarus to thumb through their prints, took myself out for a piece of Ontario Sour Cherry pie at Wanda’s. Not only was the pie tart and buttery and completely perfect, it brought back the wonder of my earliest Toronto days, when I sat in that cafe with friends, or stopped by on my way to a book event, marvelling all the while that I got to live in a city like this. And here I was, marvelling all over again.

I’m a person with a long to-do list, and high standards, and so often my mind whirls with calculations, applying various criteria like it’s running script: is this the lowest price? the least environmental impact? the healthiest? the most time efficient? I’ve learned from meditation that my default mental mode is “planning,” and I’m sure “evaluating” is not far behind.  We live in a society that stokes this efficiency fetish, a world of #lifehacks and Pinterest boards and InstantPots and lifestyle gurus who promise to bring us as close to cyborgs as possible without any implanted tech. (For a brilliant critique of guru-mania, take the time to read Heather Havrilesky’s “There Are Too Many Gurus in America.”) And as much as I aspire to be better-faster-stronger, I don’t want efficiency to be my highest good. I wish this wasn’t so hard to remember.

I’ve written before about how by getting up early I take about an hour and a half for myself each morning. This has the guise of efficiency (get up earlier! use your most productive hours!), but in practice it isn’t really. When I tell people about this (usually when I’m explaining why my bedtime is now 9 p.m.), I get some incredulous responses: “But what do you DO?” they ask. And I’m a bit sheepish with my reply. “I read, journal, do some writing.” And then, I’ll add, “Oh and I meditate, and sometimes exercise . . . or tidy up.” Those additions are true, though they’re not new. But the first list, those amorphous items without distinct objectives or payoffs, make people uncomfortable.

But I must admit I am one of those uncomfortable people too sometimes. This morning, in fact, I was thinking about how my default mode is to put my words here, rather than court the validation (or more likely the rejection) of an external outlet or grappling with a bigger project. Surely that would be more productive, more useful, while still being creative?* I remembered that line from You’ve Got Mail: “I lead a small life—well, valuable, but small—and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave?”

I don’t know what my answer to that question is yet. But despite my plan-o-matic brain, my ego, my ambition, right now I want to protect these dark, quiet mornings from the tyranny of to-dos: I find a kind of grace in their murkiness. Maybe I need the comfort, the cover of darkness, to write anything at all. And I do think I’m working towards something, I just don’t quite know what. That’s the nature of creative work, of course: it always means sailing out into the unknown. Sure, there are certainly people who write a novel in a month, journalists who stride along a treadmill of deadlines, and effort is important, noble even. But I suppose the work I’m doing right now is less like training for a marathon, and more like birdwatching: showing up, getting quiet, and paying attention without knowing what will come of it. It’s inefficient, yes, but I am hoping it’s also a little bit brave.

 


* Kerry weighed these questions of writing and ambition wonderfully. And she came out with the Back to the Blog Movement, which I am grateful for, because surely we all know that what is said loudest isn’t the most true or the most meaningful or most important, and one of the greatest satisfactions of the internet can be the digital meet cutes that bring us wonderful and unexpected connections.

An Hour of My Own

It’s the time of year when the days get shorter, darker, colder, when waking with the sun is a weekend indulgence. Perhaps an odd time to discover the power of getting up early, but here I am, writing this with the lights of my home reflected in the windows like dark mirrors.

My partner had a change at work that means getting up at 4:30 a.m. He’s a fitful sleeper (at best) and I like going to bed together, so I decided to attempt to better synchronize our clocks. I settled on a 5:20 wakeup (though some mornings has been even earlier, others a bit later). This has given me 1-1.5 new hours in my day, which, I’ve learned, are far more productive than similar hours at night would have been. At the end of the day, I’m tired, my partner is about, my synapses more like fireflies than electricity.

I get up and, really, truly light some candles. Partially because I’m a couple years behind and feeling obsessed with hygge for this winter, and partially because I recognize the power of ritual. I want it to feel special, to keep the romance alive. I don’t turn on the news yet, and the only sounds are from the traffic outside. I write in my gratitude journal (yes, it is embarrassing to write, but also: it has really and truly changed my brain for the better, to a degree unmatched by even 1.5 years of meditating). I write in my regular journal too, which has long been neglected because I either lacked the emotional bandwith to engage with big issues or the stamina to document small ones.  But I’ve changed this a bit, to what I call a daybook, and no longer do I hold myself accountable for taking it all on or writing it all down, I simply write, point form, the things that have my attention. I’ve decided, this year, to lean into my interests, no matter how fleeting, and these are more engaging to note. Sometimes I add passages from good books I’ve reading. So far, it’s reinvigorated my journal practice and doesn’t feel taxing. Plus, it’s a reminder: your life is worthy of your attention.

And then there’s still time left over! Because time to yourself, used with intention, turns out to be more expansive than it seems. (Bigger on the inside, as Whovians would say.) Time to write here, or knock off some freelance work, or go to an early exercise class, or even just to read, a thing I find so luxurious but often have trouble prioritizing during the workweek.

I’d long read of people, often parents, who got up very early to find this very time, which I can imagine as a parent is even more enticing. A time to re-trace the borders of the self. But it feels like that even for me, like in these dark, bleary hours, I’m coming into sharper focus. And so is each day, a negative held up to the light in the darkroom of my mornings.

Getting up early still isn’t easy, but that’s because getting up isn’t easy. Or at least it isn’t for me, not yet. But now I start the day with attention, with intention, pausing before the day collapses like a row of dominoes. This is work without a distinct goal, without an endpoint or any identifiable results except that it feels good. And in winter, I’ll take as much of that as I can get.

Doing the work

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” ― Virginia Woolf

In my favourite book of 2017, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, Megan Stielstra tells the story of her first reading, in which she reads two pages, quaking and blotchy and in complete agony. But, she asks, “Where would any of us be if we hadn’t started somewhere?”

I’ve kept this baby blog alive for almost five months, which marks the most consistent effort I’ve put into my own writing in years. Five months is not impressive, but it’s starting somewhere. And at the time of year when every day I’m watching fragile seeds push through the soil, I’m awake to the importance of beginning.

I’ve kept this blog low-profile, though I know I could drive more people here, at least briefly, if I shared it. But I know already how much I like getting attention, and I haven’t wanted that to distract myself from my principle objective, the articulation of my own voice. That said, a little validation goes a long way, as I discovered this week when I found out a piece I’d adapted from here will run in our national newspaper. I alternate between thinking this is kind of a big deal (“our national newspaper!”) and not a big deal at all (it’s a section they publish daily, so they no doubt require a lot of content), but it still does offer encouragement and the relief of external perspective. This blog is an exploratory mission, and it would be discouraging to discover that I could find nothing of interest, no planets that would support life. Especially when by day, I’m a trusted guide to other explorers.

Also let’s not pretend that carving out some space for myself, a place where the words and ideas are clearly, irrevocably my own, is without ego. My job is great and most days I am content to be Cyrano whispering from the shadows, but occasionally it is disheartening to have your entire career’s work be essentially invisible—or, perhaps worse, to be credited to someone else.

(This is not to say that editing is as hard as writing, or deserves as much credit—it’s not, and it doesn’t—but despite effusive acknowledgments pages or launch speeches, it is a labour elided by all but the author, and sometimes even by them.)

So I’ve been trying on this role of writer, showing up and putting in the work, with varying degrees of ease and success, and trying to battle my need for positive reinforcement. I want doing the work to be enough. Sometimes it even is. But perhaps these two things are not so incompatible, as the wise and wonderful Kerry Clare pointed out a few months ago, when I was in the early weeks of this endeavour: “You will be blogging like no one’s reading, and figuring out what you really mean, learning what your voice sounds like, what you think, and what you have to say. And you might be aspiring, yes, but isn’t everybody? Aspiring to get to the next work, the next sentence. Everybody who writes anything is aspiring to be read.”

There should be pleasure in making, but isn’t pleasure in sharing natural too? Writing is, after all, a form of communication—there’s always an implied audience. And that’s the aim of art, to have an effect on someone. To make them think, make them feel, make them question. Art is not performed in a void, or it’s just the proverbial tree in the empty forest. You can set out to make art, but ultimately isn’t it the audience who decides if you’ve made it?

This sounds like I’m talking myself into being more public with this little project, but I the dominant impulse is to do more training before I enter that public race, the streets lined with people and filled with other runners. I’m also still a little afraid at seeming that clueless explorer. I realize, though, there’s also a risk in walling oneself in the garrett with the aim of writing until you arrive. Because, of course, that endpoint is a fallacy, and we are are just, in the words of Joni Mitchell, “travelling, travelling, travelling.” Not to mention someone in my career should know the importance of feedback. Kerry would suggest blog readers, especially, don’t look for neat conclusions, for the crossing of finish lines. And it’s true what I love about watching marathons isn’t just the triumph, it’s the incredible effort, the full spectrum of human experience on display. I need to remind myself that as a spectator, there’s pleasure in getting to share a few footfalls on a long road.