I have a pent-up bunch of things to tell you, things to write about. I have been busy living, which is good, and also busy writing, which is very good, but I have not been busy writing about that living here, which is less good. So, in true Virgo fashion, let’s start with a to do list, an agenda for this post.
- Novel-writing breakthrough delivered courtesy of a day at the beach and a long, sunset drive home down a familiar highway
- The generosity of performing the Inevitability of Death publicly; the way the public responded
- What I Did on My Summer Vacation, aka a weekend at Make.Do.Camp
So, to start. I have been struggling, this year, with Good Birds Don’t Fly Away. I have shown up for my writing as regularly as I can right now, I have written thousands and thousands of words, and I have moved no closer to knowing what I am doing and what this book wants to be. I was having secret terrible feelings that perhaps my days of writing long-form fiction were behind me. That maybe two novels were all I would get. More than a lot of people get. Not enough for me, but maybe they were going to have to be. These are not thoughts I was able to articulate to myself or anyone else, until July 22. That day, I swam in the ocean to the point of exhaustion with my niece and my nephew. Had supper at their cottage in Hubbards with them. Drove myself home along highway 103 as twilight did its golden thing in the rearview mirror. Reflected on an experience of grief-by-proxy I’d had earlier in the summer, and the questions that experience raised about who has the right to grieve what. Felt a quiver of energy. Imagined a shining triangle of story gently descending from the sky to my conscious mind, fitting into place with the other bits and pieces of Good Birds I’d assembled, and becoming a linear narrative, with grit, conflict, surprise, and heart. All the things you’d hope a novel you were trying to write would have. It was a couple weeks before I was able to get back to my desk to explore a new character who could carry these questions and experiences, but I felt a buoyant peace such as I haven’t felt about my writing in months. It’s a relief to report here that things are now going pretty well with the new guy, who is fascinating to me and will, I hope, be fascinating to you, too. It was totally gonna suck to admit that this novel wasn’t going to happen, since I quit my job in a pretty showy way to write it. Phew.
Speaking of grief-by-proxy, I have wanted very much to write about Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip, though I am not sure what’s left to say about the collective experience of love and sadness and hope and resilience in which many Canadians engaged through the summer. What I want to say is that Downie’s grace and generosity gave me a place to put all my sadness about all the sad things I’ve ever felt sad about, so that I could sort through them and feel them deeply, in a uniquely communal way. What more can an artist hope to do? And to have the opportunity to stand in front of people who love you, being exactly who you are meant to be, to stand in front of tens of thousands of people and give them what you have to give, and receive from them so much love. To be seen, truly. What more can an artist ask for? May we all have the opportunity to do this, in some small way. May we all give each other this opportunity. I appreciated, too, the nudge to dig deeply again into songs I have loved and put aside. To once more engage with Scared, and Nautical Disaster, and Escape is At Hand for the Travelling Man, and Fireworks. I appreciated the chance to look down a row of strangers and see them all rocking out, all in. And of course, the constant reminder of the summer: No dress rehearsal, this is our life. Indeed it is.
Which brings me to Make.Do.Camp. A transformative experience, which is not the kind of thing this cynical correspondent is used to reporting, but there it is. Seventy-two hours at Big Cove Camp on Merigomish Harbour, alongside eighty mostly-strangers, letting our defences down. There was art and conversation and politics and campfires, saunas and stars, an impromptu talent show and a big dancey dance party. We were without our phones, without an internet connection all weekend long. No one died from disconnection. If anything, we all came more alive. I know that’s cheesy, but it’s no less true for all that. I kept an analogue Twitter and Instagram feed going in my notebook all weekend. I’m more earnest on analogue Twitter than I am anywhere else. There is no performative aspect to analogue Twitter, therefore no snark necessary. I sat in the grass and listened to the wind ruffle the leaves. Had I had my phone, I’d have reached for it and missed what was really going on. For a person who prides herself on noticing, I sure do choose disconnection on the regular. I am grateful for the invitation to consider the way I use technology. I wasn’t sure, before I went to Camp, whether it was for me. Now, I can’t imagine who it’s NOT for.
It’s been a summer of giant feelings.
It has been glorious to be free to feel those feelings, to take them to the beach and dunk them in the cold north Atlantic, and to buy them an ice cream cone on the way home. I have spent days just reading, the way I used to when I was a kid. I’ve read more books this summer than I did all of last year, and maybe the year before that, cumulatively. I have been able to think deeply about the ideas in those books, and the ideas in my head. I have stared out the window. I have stared into the garden. I have stared at the ocean, and at a couple of lakes. I’ve been with people and without them. I have begun building the life that was always just out of my grasp while I was working for someone else. That building is life-long work, and I am glad to be thusly employed.
Oh hi. Sorry about that protracted absence. Spring passed in a whirl of travel to Toronto and Edmonton and Toronto again. And then things bloomed in the garden and I got kind of distracted.
Right? That is totally distracting…and that’s from, like, six weeks ago. I’ve been to Toronto then to Chicago, back to Toronto, then back to here, then to Cape Breton, then back here since then. I bought a new car. And a new washing machine. It’s been busy. And the garden is even more intense now. I’d show you, but I fear you wouldn’t get anything else done today. I’m just looking out for you.
In Cape Breton, I was fortunate to read at the Margaree Canada Day writers’ festival, alongside Michael Winter, Sarah Faber and Kate Beaton. What marvellous company. The library was crammed with fans of the written word and it was a truly great day. A lot of people let me know they’ve been missing me on CBC radio. That is so kind. I must tell you that I am so happy now. Thank you for liking my company. Consider hanging out with one of my books!
Speaking of hanging out with one of my books, I’ve been taking my own advice on that front and have been digging in to Good Birds Don’t Fly Away. The trip to Chicago was huge. Even though my sister and I had only a couple days in the Windy City (we didn’t even have time to find a good purveyor of sterling silver so Donna could do her thing, sadly. Next time for sure.), it was enough for me to realize that the dinosaur part of my brain was absolutely right in serving up Chicago as the setting for this book. What a relief. I had a number of small profound experiences that I have been chewing ever since. I found her neighbourhood…and maybe even her exact house. I found a couple of likely downtown movie theatres in which a shooting could occur. I found so many explorable metaphors in the way Chicago reinvents itself, and in the ways the developed city lives cheek by jowl with nature and works to control it.
The other thing that has kicked open the door to writing this book is the time I’ve been spending with a friend who’s been telling me about PTSD. “Of course,” he said during a recent visit, “your character has PTSD.” Of course she does, obviously, I said, though it had in no way been obvious to me. But with his help I’ve been exploring what this character’s trauma looks like (and smells and sounds like!) and it’s been helping me figure her out. And the writing that is coming out of that feels like it is going to take me somewhere. Such a relief after months (years?) of not really knowing how to unlock the door to this book.
It feels like the door is unlocked now. I am tiptoeing through it. That’s why it’s been so quiet around here.
This day, this day. Who knows what to do with this day.
Forty-eight years ago a little brown baby was being born to a man and a woman who were just barely not babies themselves.
Forty years ago, that little baby was an eight-year-old, the eldest of four. Spooky-smart, especially about math. He had a funny way of walking when he was excited about something or when he was thinking hard. He’d pace the living room floor, back and forth, with his arms straight at his side, his hands balled into fists. The fists were to keep him from actually flapping his arms. We called it flapping anyway. Chris is flapping, we’d say. And we’d know he was about to come up with something.
Thirty years ago, he was a man himself, though a young one, getting into the university of his choice. I couldn’t wait till my older brother was gone, out of the house and out of my hair, the way teenagers do. And then he was gone and I realized I actually really liked him, and couldn’t wait till Thanksgiving to see him.
Twenty-three years ago he was getting ready to get married and have babies of his own.
Eighteen years ago, the first of those babies was in the world.
Sixteen years ago this day, he was lying unconscious in a hospital bed, while a doctor who surely failed Bedside Manner 101 told those of us still standing that we’d have to make a decision about whether the man in the bed, who’d been that little brown baby, that super-clever, arm-flapping eight-year-old, that eighteen-year-old full of promise, that twenty-five-year-old getting ready to be married, that twenty-nine-year-old holding his own first born, we’d have to make a decision about his life. Whether it continued. What a stupid doctor. I won’t say heartless. Stupid is more kind. Another doctor who came on later scoffed and said there’s no decision to be made here. We wait. And so we did.
Thirteen years ago this day, another young man and young woman were getting ready to be married, taking a day of sadness and confusion and turning it into a day of celebration and love.
Eight years ago this day, Homing, written in grief, was winning the Margaret and John Savage Award. Three years ago this day, I was sitting at my desk, as I had been for days and days (and days!) beforehand, writing, writing, writing to deadline. Three years ago this day, with my brother firmly in mind, I tap-tapped the final words of Fallsy Downsies on my laptop. “The End,” I wrote, and so it was.
But The End, we learn, is never really the end. Though sometimes you wish you could just lie down and retreat from it all. Let the end be what it claims to be. Throw up your hands and say, I can’t anymore. Why should I. Let me just stop here, where he is. Let me sink into these memories, this sadness. Let me wallow and lie still.
And yet, even in stories, The End just means Of The Telling. Those characters go on, you know they do, in your imagination. You reflect on the story days after you close the book. Years later maybe you think, I wonder whatever happened to those people I used to know, for a moment thinking them real till you remember they were just in a book you read. We are made of story, and stories go on forever.
Every breath that’s ever been taken is still in this world. Forty-eight years ago this day a little brown baby drew his first breath and pushed it out with a great shout. If you listen hard, that shout still echoes, in his mother, his siblings, his widow, his children, all the family that loved him, his friends and acquaintances. That breath is still here. Draw it into your own lungs, push it out. Go on.
On the one hand, I was disappointed to read this news. On the other hand, I wasn’t at all surprised. After the outcome of the sexual assault trial, there was part of me that wanted to believe the trial still to come, in June, would be the one to give survivors what they need. But a larger, more realistic (some might say jaded) part of me acknowledged that what would happen was what always happens.
Nothing. No appreciable change in the landscape for survivors of sexual assault, vis a vis the legal system.
I wish I had more to say about this, but this familiar feeling is just the good old patriarchy doing what it does best. Grinding on. So I’ll leave you with these sentiments, expressed on Twitter last night by the excellent Scacchi Koul: “Don’t let Ghomeshi do an apology tour. Don’t read his book, don’t watch his documentary, don’t let him work. Poison his legacy.”
Meanwhile, we roll the boulder up the hill. Join in anytime.
April passed in a haze of deadlines. A feature for Quill and Quire, plus a short assignment for their website, and two podcast pieces for TGIM. Plus my usual work at Propriometrics and a trip to a publishing conference in Salt Lake City, and of course, the arduous task of figuring out what the hell is going on with Good Birds Don’t Fly Away.
I’m glad to have had a flurry of deadlines, as April deadlines bring May cheques. That’s how that line goes, right? At the moment I have no deadlines, which means June might be a bit lean. So I am for the first time facing the complicated bliss of a couple days off with the accompanying knowledge that days off equal days with no pay and too many of those equal bad times. But I have a few ideas idling, ready to go out into the world and see if they can find a home, and the pause in activity is certainly welcome. Shit got kinda crazy for a bit there in April.
And May is a classically hard month for my family. I’ll be seeing them next week and there’s a certain amount of relief that goes along with that, but also some dread. It’s been years since I’ve seen them in May, and so I’ve been able to just contend with my own sadness up close, while having at least some intellectual distance between me and their sadness. But this year, our sadnesses will be all up in each others’ grills, which is both good and bad. Sixteen years in, you’d think I’d be more articulate about this, but nope!
What did stay steady, even through April’s full-on assault on my calendar, was my writing practise. It’s still a weekly event, rather than daily, but I am showing up to my desk at the library every Wednesday (or the odd Tuesday or Thursday as dictated by the schedules of my co-writers, Emily Pohl-Weary and Michelle Elrick) and cramming out at least a thousand words, often more. I do not feel closer to knowing what is happening in my novel, but every thousand words written takes me toward knowing, so I am trying to trust the process and not be so committed to outcome. Outcome comes later. It’s an awkward mantra, but hey, you work with what you have.
How about you? What are you working with?
Scenes from the day: In a delivery van, with a good friend, watching the time slowly tick, knowing that a judge in a court room in another city is reading a thirty page decision. Pretty sure we know what the outcome will be. Starting to feel sad and panicky, and then my good friend says, wait. Let’s take a moment and imagine he’s found guilty. Let’s just live in that reality for five minutes. Turned out we didn’t need five minutes. I got goosebumps, instantly. I feel so… seen, I said. This is so unexpected, she said, and so right. For once, our justice system has not failed survivors of sexual assault. This changes everything, we said. And we believed it. She cried, and then I cried, and they were tears of relief.
An hour later, just before we order lunch, in a brightly painted downtown restaurant. My phone starts to buzz with texts. He’s been acquitted. We stare at each other across the table. I’m glad we had that moment, before, she says. I nod. We can’t think of anything else to say. My phone continues to buzz, with messages from my mom, my young friend, my older friend, my cousin friend, my sister in law. I imagine every phone in the pocket or purse of every woman I know lighting up in this way. I can’t tell if it makes me feel better or worse. I can’t tell what I feel, at all.
A little after that, walking three blocks to home. Suddenly, all I feel is flayed. Vulnerable. A peeled grape. Every man I pass, I think, you’re equipped with the knowledge that women lie, so it doesn’t matter what you do to them, because everyone knows they lie. It’s not logical—I recognize that, and yet, it feels real. My logical brain urges me to the bright side I have prioritized for the last eighteen months. The sea change that seems to be happening in our culture. The conversations about sexual assault and how survivors behave. The way men are participating in those conversations. But logic isn’t ruling this day. Instead, there’s a deep undercurrent of: that judge said you can’t trust sexual assault victims to tell the truth.
I get home and shut the door and shake. I shake like it’s my full time job.
I think about myself thirteen years ago. Could I take the stand in a court room and testify about things that happened thirteen years ago? What would I remember? The moment someone slapped and choked me? Or the stuff that happened the next day and the day after that? Which would be more memorable? The feeling of hands around my throat, or a photo we took in the park the next day? Looking back through the lens of more than a decade, what would I remember about my subsequent interactions with that person? Would I remember the normalizing I attempted? Or would I react as my current self and feel disgust, animosity, deadened? How credible a witness would I be, to any of my own experiences of that long ago?
And then I think, it doesn’t matter how perfect a victim you are. Earlier this month, an admitted rapist was sentenced to ninety days, served on weekends. He received that relatively sweet deal because he admitted his guilt, thus saving his victim the trauma of a trial. His victim fought to get free from him. She said no. She tried to text or call someone, and he took her phone away and threatened her if she tried to make contact with anyone. He said, why won’t you just let me do what I gotta do? She tried so hard not to get raped. In the morning, he mocked her, saying: you look like someone who just got raped all night. She went to the police. She was eight and a half months pregnant. Her young daughter was asleep in the next bedroom. The guy admitted his guilt. A perfect victim, a perfect case. Ninety days. Served on weekends. This is what passes for justice. So his victim was spared the trauma of a trial. That’s no small mercy. But it was his only one.
It doesn’t matter if you pose for a photo in the park with your assailant the day after the assault, or if you fight to get away from him. It doesn’t matter if you send him a bikini photo or if you report him to the police. It doesn’t matter what kind of victim you are. It doesn’t matter what kind of survivor you are.
It’s 2016. Survivors of sexual assault are still the ones paying the price for the crime of being assaulted.
What is the lesson here?
No, seriously, you tell me. What is the lesson?
I’ve been reading The Crooked Heart of Mercy by Billie Livingston lately and it is slaying me with its economy and energy. Such tidy sentences that describe such unruly human emotion. I love writers who can make it seem so effortless, and Livingstone is definitely one of those. The book is about terrible grief and guilt, so there is some common ground there. I’m paying close attention to the way Livingstone navigates it.
Last night I went to see Jason Isbell and Shovels and Rope play and it was so deeply good. Isbell especially writes songs that hit me exactly where I live. He writes about small-town struggle, addiction, loneliness, loss, true love. Expect to feel all the feelings when Isbell is in the house. And Shovels and Rope moved me with their incredible, unstoppable energy. They’re a wife-and-husband team, a two-person band. Watching her play drums and keyboard and sing all while looking like a total badass was completely inspiring.
Check out Livingston, Isbell and Shovels and Rope, and tell me: What’s inspiring you these days?