Last Sunday

The day stretched deliciously ahead. Empty. It felt so good to have nothing to do.

No need to come up with anything intelligent to say, to clean the house or even get dressed. No need to pile on heavy clothes, those cumbersome and increasingly itchy layers, the heavy boots that make me move like a toddler. No need to endure the assault of cold wind, undertake the feat of navigating slush or ice or snow banks. It was a day of rest. 

And there was no need to produce anything either. At last, a break from bending my mind out of shape to try to think up a title for my book. A title which has to include – get this –my grandmother’s name, the fact that she was my grandmother, the fact that she was a poet and broadcaster (because no one remembers her any more), and the fact that it’s about creating an archive for her. Oh, and (at my own insistence) it must not include the phrase, “a granddaughter’s search for …” anything.

Think laterally! You’re supposed to be good with words, aren’t you? Nothing like trying to dredge up a catchy title to make someone feel like the least creative person on earth. I will presently whinge: Could anything, just one little thing, about this book come to me easily? It seems not. The title is no exception.

But I got a break from all that on Sunday. Rolf and I sat in two squashy chairs in the living room sipping coffee and reading our books. Reading: the perfect antidote to fatigue and sensory overload. I was reading a book called This Charming Man by Marian Keyes, an Irish writer who will never quite take the place of my beloved Maeve Binchy, but whose work gives me the same kind of satisfaction to read. The covers of Marian’s books are in bright, solid colours, and show girls in Capri pants and ballet flats, whispering secrets to each other. Within the books’ pages those same girls overcome Troubles by dint of pluck, persistence, and the ministrations of their girlfriends. They are thick books, topping six hundred pages, the kind you can really settle into. The kind I wish I could write, (but fear I may be forever condemned to conveying the Subtle Shift in Sensibility). Marian’s books are the kind which – to quote an expression they use on the other side of the pond – lift the spirits. Not before they extract a few tears.

(For those who don’t know such books, they are not to be confused with romances. Sometimes they’re about getting over bad romance, discovering abuse and standing up to it, but mostly, they’re about money and power. They’re about women who find themselves powerless, and then get power. You go girl!)

Not an especially demanding read, in the sense that you don’t have to go over each paragraph again and again to understand what it means, nor do you want to; you want to find out what happens. A lot happens in those six hundred pages. The books have great stories, and are insightful about the human condition. And, being Irish, they contain lots of fun and fascinating new words for bodily functions, drunkenness and money.

I was so happy, sitting there, reading This Charming Man. Nothing whirring, humming, dinging or flashing in the house, except for the oh-so-comforting furnace. So happy to be reading … a book. As I think everyone these days is realizing, reading and books are not necessarily entwined any more. The screens are coming! Fast. Which is part of the reason I was feeling overloaded on Sunday.

It had been an exceptionally good week. Stimulating and encouraging. I launched this blog, did lots of organizing for the Draft reading series, spent time with friends, generally lifted my head out of thinking about the past. My as-yet-unnamed book submerges me in the past: my own and that of my family. This week I realized it’s okay. There is a future out there. And it is fun.

It was exciting to launch a blog, though scary. At a time when I feel uncomfortably exposed, it opens the doors just one step further. And yet, it’s wonderful to take that exposure into my own hands. I have lots of thoughts and ideas, and I want to be able to air them, share them, and then move on. To other ideas. To the future.

As we get ready for the bloggers’ edition of Draft, my thoughts are very much on blogging. Why do we do it? What does it give us? For me, it’s an outlet, a structure for expressing myself and the potential for a community. And all you need is pluck, persistence, and … girlfriends! I’ve been appreciating the blogs of my fellow Drafters, each one so different, so special in its way.

On Friday, my friend Terri and I went to an event put on by the Writers’ Union called “Secure Footing in a Changing Literary Landscape.” The seminar talked about what in publishing is dying, and what’s growing up in its place. It was exciting. Partially because I was in a roomful of other people instead of just by myself, but the material was fascinating, too. The charismatic Ross Laird talked about how e-publishing is just beginning, how new technologies provide new opportunities for self-expression.

But I also felt overwhelmed. I chose to be a writer because I’m a solitary person. Simply sitting in a roomful of others, simply talking to strangers is a big thing for me. Good, but big. And then there was all this new stuff. Potential demands on my time and attention. The idea of Creating a Platform irritates the hell out of me. It’s all so much jargon. It makes me feel ancient, not because I don’t feel I have a good grasp on technology but because I have seen so much jargon come and go. What will come after Platforms? Wedgies? Not again!

And am I completely innocent in thinking that good writing does speak for itself? Sure, we all need to work a bit to get noticed but the bottom line is that the only way to do good writing is to sit and do it. To concentrate on it, and set aside other things, sometimes painfully. Am I suggesting that someone with a good web presence is necessarily short-changing her writing? I hope not. I can only speak for myself and I know that to write something I’m happy with I need to turn myself inside out, go to my limit, then go beyond that point, and then I’m just beginning. At the end of a day like that, I don’t have anything left. But now, apparently, I’m supposed to think about this platform business. It makes me feel old.

Still, it was a good seminar. At the end of the day, I decided that the frontier woman in me was saying yes to all this. I feel well situated to enjoy the new world of publishing. I don’t have anything to lose. I never had the traditional writer’s career, the one where you’re like a fairy princess being carried off in a publisher’s arms. For one thing, as my research into my grandmother’s history shows, that type of career has never been much more than a fairy tale. But I wouldn’t want it anyway. I feel exhausted by passivity, energized by taking things into my own hands. I left happy.

Then home to check email. A most amazing event: I heard from Found Press that they had accepted my story “The Last Judgment” for one of their spring editions. It is hard to convey my feelings about this, except to say that I had to get up from the computer and walk around the house for half an hour to absorb it. I wrote that story in 1986. I’ve had it rejected approximately once a year ever since. Sometimes with praise, yet at 6,000 words, the length didn’t work for most magazines. Also, it’s a quiet story, which mostly takes place inside the mind of a twelve-year-old girl. Not a whole lot happens in it. It hasn’t attracted much notice. Last year I took it out again, preparing for my annual send-out. I braced myself for an honest purge: What can I do without? Honestly, nothing. Honestly, I added 2500 words. More of the girl’s thoughts, as it happens. I sent it to Found Press, who said it would be perfect for them.

Hearing that the story was going to be accepted was – well, I felt transformed. Different from before I read the email. Though year after year I had steeled myself to send the story out, those rejections hurt me more than I let myself realize. “The Last Judgment” is different from what I’m writing now, but it’s the best I can do with that particular subject. The rejections made me feel deeply disillusioned. Had someone said, “It’s a really terrible story, and you should throw it away,” I would not have been as hurt. These rejections meant that there wasn’t a place for the best I could do in the world.

The subject was part of the issue. It’s a story about a girl coming face-to-face with the life she can look forward to as a woman. It’s a story about rejection, and I think our world rejects twelve-year-old girls. Their struggles in and of themselves are not interesting, unless amplified by traumatic events. Not interesting to adults, anyway. We’ve left all that behind. (Or have we?  I have seen Kristen Thomson’s I Claudia three times now.  Three times I’ve seen an audience dumbstruck and weeping, unable to get up from their seats for many long minutes after the performance. Not just the women, either.) Somehow, the rejection of that story felt like a rejection of something deep in myself.

The length was part of it. No, all of it. I felt that I needed to tell this story in a deliberate way, explore the character’s thoughts, sparing no detail. Not her feelings, her thoughts. Now, because of e-publishing, there’s a place for all that length, all that detail, for my story and whatever part of me it links to. Something about me feels settled, and profoundly happy.  But it’s big.

And so I needed my Sunday, my book. 

My book. It’s not just reading that provides the sense of rest and renewal that I daresay we all crave. It’s reading a book, something that doesn’t come at you. Would I have wanted to read a text with sound effects, videos, links that allowed me to choose which characters to follow? Smellorama? Hell no.

The pages, the scent and feel of a book are honestly not that important to me. I’ve been through too many moves, spent too much time clearing out people’s stuff after they’ve died. If I could live paperless, I would.  But there’s something about the quietness of reading, the invitation to put myself into the book, as much as let the book in to me. That’s something I can’t leave behind. It’s a big mistake to think of reading as an experience of just taking in content. Reading happens between me and the book.

The best moments are the ones when I look out into the room and absorb a thought, appreciate a phrase, shed a few tears for this plucky character or for myself in a similar situation. This is all the more true of a demanding book, a work of philosophy, or a painful and unsettling work of fiction. To me those moments are the essence of reading, they are why reading is a welcome experience, and a healing one. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be buying an e-reader (one without a backlit screen of course). I guess I’ll find out if it gives me the same experience.  I really, really hope so.

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4 Responses to Last Sunday

  1. Terri Favro says:

    Platforms. Something to stand on so you can see and be seen from every direction? Who knows? Maybe it’s just jargon for ‘already famous’. What publisher wouldn’t prefer to say, ‘You’ve got great platform’ over admitting ‘We like you because you’re famous’?

    Ah well: soon Mona Of The Unknown Title will be published and you will have ‘platform’. For writing! It’s almost blasphemous.

  2. Diana Minna says:

    Thanks for the tip about Marian Keyes! Go, entrepreneurial fictional girls!

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