It has been challenging to move from a life that was clearly defined by the clock, with daily and hourly deadlines that were immutable, and an in person team that was constantly communicating what I needed to be doing at any given moment. In that life, I knew everything about the deepest inner workings of the project I was on. I knew it by heart, by muscle memory. Parts of it I could do with my brain tied behind my back. This new life has deadlines, but they are blurry, self-assigned, sometimes moving targets. I have some part-time work, with a publishing company in the Pacific Northwest and it’s a busy, slightly confusing time to have come aboard. Figuring out my job there is a little like writing a novel, which is itself a little like trying to describe an elephant by patting it with your hands while wearing a blindfold. That simile works better in person, because you can see me close my eyes and fumble around with my hands in every direction. Take my word for it, it’s not easy.
So, there are things I’m trying to balance in this new, self-directed life. Figuring out the new job, for sure. Getting back to a daily yoga practise. Rebuilding my gym habit. Making sure I get a daily walk. Dedicating myself to practising piano every day. And, of course, there’s writing the novel.
You should do it first thing, my husband said to me, regarding my piano practise.
I find if I do it first thing, my yoga teacher said about a particular set of stretches, it tends to get done.
You should do it first thing, my writer friends say, about the five hundred words a day I intend to write.
I’d like to do it first thing, I think, about the daily walk. If I do it first thing, it’s more likely to happen, I think, about the gym habit. I need to get at it first thing, my panicky brain says, about the work that goes with my new job.
I suppose if I start the night before, I can fit in all these first things before sunset.
Maybe I can get to each of them first thing once a week. Monday it’s the gym, Tuesday it’s the part-time job, Wednesday it’s the novel, Thursday it’s the yoga, Friday it’s the walk, Saturday it’s the piano. Sunday is a day of rest from it all.
If you have a self-directed life, how do you make sure you’re actually getting to all the things you consider priorities?
And just like that, the final night of the writers’ retreat is upon us. We’ve made our final fire in the fireplace. I made a big pot of veggie curry and it’s simmering on the stove, rice cooking alongside. I have a bit of whiskey and a bit of white wine, and we’re down to our last bag of chips. They’re the “healthy” whole grain kind. We’ll eat them if things get desperate. (Which you can read as: we’ll be eating them before midnight.)
We haven’t been too bothered by ghosts here, though we have each at times utterly freaked ourselves out. Yesterday we didn’t leave the house at all. Today we went out to get firewood and a jug of water. Basic supplies. And a quick trip to Melmerby Beach, just to see it in winter. It’s awesome, in case you were wondering.
We’ve done the Thirty-Day Shred, and the Moksha series of yoga poses. We’ve eaten a lot of licorice and had tarot readings. We weathered an awesome wind and snow storm, and we’re aiming to get on the road tomorrow morning before the next one roars in.
There’s been procrastination, too. I watched three episodes of Gilmore Girls, read the first seventy pages of Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, had a moment of panic in which I acknowledged to myself that whatever it is he’s doing to make that book so good, I don’t know how to do that, acknowledged further that that’s okay, acknowledged further that the published book is not the first draft, and I played about a hundred games of Ten-Ten.
And, yes, there’s been writing. Not as much as I’d hoped, not as revealing as I’d planned, but there has indeed been writing. Along with an understanding about this new life—it doesn’t end when this retreat does. I can stretch out in this. I can turn my attention to this book without having to stunt write it as per my earlier works. I will not be due back at the office any time at all. This is my office, now. My brain, and this laptop.
This long holiday time is coming to an end. I am happy to leave behind the lounging, the pyjamas, the bags of chips and plates of cookies and endless glasses of wine. I have sidled up to Good Birds Don’t Fly Away and I’m still scared of it, but I’m ready for it. May it go as this retreat has—slow, but fast.
One of my rules for writing a novel is: stay home. Don’t go anywhere interesting to write, because mostly you will just explore the new place and not so much with the writing. And here I am, breaking one of my own rules, on the first Monday of the rest of my life.
The view from my desk is distracting, to say the least.
I am hoping the novelty wears off by tomorrow so I can dig into Good Birds Don’t Fly Away. Here are some other things I am hoping:
• That my protagonist in this novel will have an external antagonist, for once
• That the ankle-deep water of my story will be up to my mid-calf by the time this week is over
• That the ghost that haunts this place will go easy on us
For now, I’m just drinking in the early moments of what promises to be an exquisite winter sunset, and trying not to hyperventilate at the prospect of actually spending the week face to face with a novel I’ve done my best to avoid writing for two years now.
It’s gonna be great.
I can’t say for sure what my “new life” is like, because I’ve mostly been on vacation since my “old life” wrapped up. But I can say with confidence that there’s no way my old life would have afforded me a three-week break at Christmas. So I guess that’s an indication.
I can say I don’t miss that old life. It has been amazing to feel it streaming off my shoulders, receding further into the distance behind me. I feel freer each day.
I can say I have so many offers of work/so much actual work it panics me a little about how I’ll get my writing done. It is a good problem to have, as a freelancer. I know this.
I can say I am cooking up a couple of interesting (to me, at any rate) projects I hope to launch in Halifax before spring.
I can say leaving that old life behind remains among the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Six months ago, I walked to work one morning. It’s a thirty-five minute walk from my house to the CBC. I walked and I thought. The book I am writing was tugging on my sleeve. The view from my garden was playing on my mind. A hundred tasks I’d put aside were nagging my to-do list. The work-out I hadn’t done that morning was waiting impatiently for me to notice it.
I walked and I thought. I had a plan. Plan 2017. By the fall of 2017, according to my plan, my book would be done and ready to launch. I’d be embarking on a book tour, and, the plan was, I’d leave CBC and slide back into my interrupted life as a writer. The work toward that goal was obvious: get finances in order. Figure out an independent health benefits package. Line up some freelance clients. Develop more writing workshop teaching opportunities. Get an agent. Get a publisher. Finish the book. Plan 2017 was a good plan.
Thing was, I realized as I walked, the fall of 2017 was more than two years away. And my footsteps were heavy with dread. I had begun falling out of love with CBC as a workplace a year before. Every show felt like a huge uphill push. Increasing workload, decreasing resources, massive workplace uncertainty. a lack of leadership. My colleagues were still the dedicated, creative, hard-working, amazing, inspiring people they’d always been, but the place itself, the work, was starting to crush me.
By the time I rounded the corner that brought the building’s logos into view I knew: work was no longer working for me. It wasn’t working for my body. It wasn’t working for my mind. It wasn’t working for my spirit. And it definitely wasn’t working for my writing. When I started at CBC, I made a deal with myself that if it started to interfere too much with my writing, I’d choose writing. Even though hosting Mainstreet is a great job. Even though writing doesn’t pay.
And so I made the decision, back in June. I would leave before year’s end. And now here we are. Most of Plan 2017’s items are undone. It doesn’t matter. To be the host of Mainstreet, you’ve gotta be all in. To write books, you’ve gotta be all in. You can’t do both. Well, maybe you can. I couldn’t. Well, I could, for two books’ worth. Anyhow.
I have no regrets. I am not afraid, I am not sad. I wish the best for my colleagues and my show. I have loved talking to you on the radio every day for the last seven years. And I love the idea of not doing it anymore.
Thank you for listening. You gave me a gift the size and shape of which I will wrestle with for some time yet. I hope I gave you something too. Thanks for listening to Mainstreet today. And thanks for letting me go.
That’s how much time I have left as the host of Mainstreet on CBC Radio One.
My encounters at the Farmers’ Market are now solidly with faces that are twisted in a rictus of “I am so SAD you are leaving,” to which I have struggled to find a correct response. I have settled on “thank you for saying so,” which seems to not satisfy any of us involved in the conversation. I am not sad. But I get that you are. And I thank you for feeling so strongly about me and my work. But I will not be changing my mind about this, based on your sadness. So: thank you for saying so. It means a lot to me that my presence on your radio has meant something to you. But I trust the team that makes Mainstreet, and I know you’ll learn to love again. It might take a while, but you’ll get there. The show will still be the show, and the new host, whoever it may be, will bring strengths and talents that will carry you through.
As for me, I keep searching myself for any fear of the future, and it’s just not there. I feel relief. I feel happiness and excitement. I feel deep anticipation about the moment I take my hands off the wheel. I do not feel sad, I do not feel scared.
I am keeping a mental list of Things I Will Miss and Things I Will Not Miss. Guess which one is longer?
I am struggling, a little, with what I will say as the minutes wind down on Thursday, December 17. I will need every minute of the next week and a day to figure it out, I think. Thirteen years at CBC. Eight or nine at this show I have loved. Much, much longer than I imagined I could stay anywhere.
I am so used to asking questions on the air, and so not used to saying what I think and feel (all those who think I talk about myself incessantly, commence rolling your eyes here. Then, do the math on a three-hour show that features at least eight different stories a day, show your work, and tell me what proportion of the day I spend talking about myself on the radio. And then let’s never speak again, shall we?) (I probably will not say that on the radio on Thursday, December 17, but you never know, so you should definitely tune in.).
In any event. I’m open to suggestion. What do YOU think I should say in my final moments behind the mic?
So, this happened: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/storm-chips-covered-bridge-flurry-of-flavours-1.3322602
Which means I spent the day receiving message after gleeful message from people about it, followed by angry tweets from people who think I am depriving Frankie MacDonald of royalties on the Storm Chips name, followed by colleagues dropping off a bag of Storm Chips, followed by other colleagues seriously asking to take my photo holding the bag (request DENIED). #Stormchips trended briefly in Halifax, a minor blizzard broke out in the comments on the CBC story linked above and then the “story” receded again, like a snowbank in spring (she said hopefully, about both the story and the snowbanks.)
So, let’s take a moment to talk about what #stormchips is and isn’t, to me at least. First and most importantly, it’s not my intellectual property. It’s a hashtag. A thing I tapped out on my smart phone while standing in line at the grocery store waiting to pay for a bag of ripple chips and some onion dip. And then proceeded to append to the live-tweeting I did that night of the eating of said ripple chips and onion dip. It’s not a thing I’ve monetized or care to. I receive no royalties from uses of the hashtag, nor do I care to. I cannot believe we are even having this conversation, as I have infamously said before. I do not believe, nor have I ever claimed, that I invented the idea of eating chips during a storm. I think I tapped into the zeitgeist and originated a funny little hashtag that people came to love—for some still-mysterious-to-me reason. I do not have an agent, I will not be seeking endorsement opportunities, I am in no way involved with these chips or any other branded Storm Chips thing—nor will I ever, ever be. I don’t think I am the arbiter of when you should eat chips, and when you shouldn’t. I don’t think I am responsible for the ten pounds you gained last winter eating chips. I don’t think I need to be included in every online conversation about everything anyone consumes during rough weather, though I do try to make sure we have a ready supply of #stormscotch round these parts, because what’s a storm without whisky?
(Full disclosure: My mother originated the phrase “what’s a storm without doughnuts” during an interview I conducted with her some other winter, when a bad storm was headed our way but had already made its way across Ontario. I have bastardized it here for my own purposes, as I think I can make it through the storm without doughnuts, but would be seriously sad to go without the whisky.)
If Frankie MacDonald feels he has a claim on the words Storm Chips, he should most definitely take that up with the good folks at Covered Bridge. Their chips were a surprise to me. I benefit in no way from them, and in fact totally torpedoed several weeks of very healthy eating once that damn bag arrived at my desk courtesy of the newsroom today. If you have derived some pleasure from #stormchips and feel strongly that I SHOULD be getting royalties from use of the term (a feeling I don’t share, as you should know if you read this far), you might consider making a donation to Feed Nova Scotia. Or, purchase any book by any Canadian writer, and drop me a line in the comments to let me know you did so. I’d love to hear what book you chose and why.
Here’s hoping for a curiously storm-free winter!
When I was writing this post a year ago today, I couldn’t have imagined how it would change my life. I wrote it out of frustration, forgetting for a moment — or not caring — that as a CBC radio host, I am not allowed to publish my opinion. Also, my employer would very much prefer that I not drop f-bombs wherever I go. My bosses didn’t care much for the angry tone, either, to be honest. At the time, I was super happy in my role as a CBC radio host.
But after I pressed publish, after the post was shared hundreds of times, and viewed tens of thousands of times, after I was reprimanded and disciplined for breaking the journalistic standards and practises, after I confronted the strange and discomfiting feelings of having broken the rules, and the equally strange and opposite feeling of having done nothing wrong, I had to think deeply about where I was, and where I wanted to be.
Being a public radio host is a dream job. But it’s not my dream job. I am and always have been a writer. Writing is my dream job. And more and more over the past year I have chafed against the strictures that prevent me from sharing my opinion. Less and less I have been happy — let alone super happy — in my role as a CBC radio host.
This day last year I said what I saw needed saying. I said what was on my mind and in my heart to say. I thought of myself only as human, not as human-with-public-job. Thanks to everyone who read what I wrote and responded. Thanks for the wind in my sails that also helped blow away the fog that surrounded me.
This day last year I did something I have never once regretted, though I got in trouble, though I lost my sense of myself for months afterward, though it led to me making a plan to leave a job I loved. This day last year I put my foot along a path that has now opened widely before me. I will not be looking back.
The first time I heard Old Man Luedecke‘s song I Quit My Job, I felt uncomfortable. Everything he sang resonated with me, about not letting them take the joy that you make. The assertion you could always live on rice and potatoes. The encouragement to take your heart’s candle and relight it. The pride in a community made of friends who work their dreams with their hands. By then I’d been working at CBC Radio for four years, happily. So happily. I’d found a place at Mainstreet, behind the scenes as producer and on air as a fill-in host. I loved the work I was doing all day. I couldn’t believe they were paying me to ask interesting people nosy questions about their lives.
But every time I heard that song, a little voice nagged at the back of my mind. My heart’s candle was only dimly lit. I’d been a writer for thirty years at that point, but I was most decidedly not engaged in working my dreams with my hands. Working on a radio show had never been my dream. It was a sideline to my true work of writing — and it turned out to be a pretty demanding sideline. Even more so when I became the permanent host in 2008. Who even knew that I was a writer? I didn’t exactly do a tonne of it. And working at the CBC meant I couldn’t share my opinion much — which I’d previously been very accustomed to as a newspaper columnist. I managed to write two novels, mostly against the odds, mainly by spending weekends, evenings, and early mornings hunched over my keyboard. A small grant from the province of Nova Scotia gave me two months to be a full-time writer of fiction and it was intoxicating. A glimpse of what my life could be.
But then, always, reality. We have a mortgage. And my spouse is a folk singer. They are not known for making a lot of dough. Though they do write songs that oughta be worth a million bucks. And anyway I loved my work, and I was pretty good at it, too. Maybe someday I’d get a chance to host a national show. I loved covering elections. And political scandals of all kinds. And I got to interview people like Mary Gauthier. And Phil Keoghan. And Burton Cummings. For some reason those are the three that come to mind at the moment. And who walks away from a job like that? Surely the best job in Halifax. Eventually they even made me staff, and I started paying into the pension program. Who walks away from a CBC pension, for god’s sake.
But that song. That exhortation to take your heart’s candle and relight it.
I am writing another novel. Slowly, so slowly. I need to go faster. I need to write more. I need to be free to be my whole self. It’s time to get back to my regularly scheduled life as an artist. To express opinions. To dance in the kitchen to Old Man Luedecke. To make rice and potatoes for supper. To work my dreams with my hands.
And so I’m stepping off this comfortable ledge and into the abyss. I don’t know what will be next, honestly, besides writing. I once again have a small but mighty grant from the province, so I’ll have at least a few months of writing fiction. And after that, I’ll be hustling, working when I need to at whatever I can.
It’s been an honour to be the host of Mainstreet. I’ve loved every minute of it. I’ll be revelling in the moments to come between now and mid-December when I’ll turn off my mic for the final time. And then I’ll just be here, relighting my heart’s candle.
Books have a lifespan, or they’re supposed to — a book that’s been out for eighteen months is pretty much done. Which is bonkers in some ways, because it’s not like books go bad, or have a true expiry date after which you consume them at your own risk. But in the fast-fast world of marketing, books do have a shelf-life, if you will.
So it is with total surprise that I’ve been fielding a number of requests for Fallsy Downsies’s time lately. Sarah Mian and I travelled to Moncton last month to read at the Attic Owl series, and we’ll hit the road again together to check out the brand new Lexicon Books in Lunenburg on Friday, June 5. I always love a chance to hear Sarah read from her excellent book, When The Saints, and I’m beyond delighted to have been asked to read from Fallsy Downsies that night too. Before that, I’ll head up to Sydney, Cape Breton on Sunday for an afternoon of readings and a panel discussion about becoming a writer. I’m thrilled to have been asked to do this event, which is put on by the very fine Cabot Trail Writers’ Festival and features a number of writers I’m keen to listen to, including Rebecca Silver Slayter and Lesley Crewe.
I’ve also fielded a couple requests lately from book clubs. Yesterday in fact, I travelled out to Enfield to meet with a book club who had just finished Fallsy Downsies. It was great to hang out with them for an afternoon, answering their questions about writing and chatting about the book. I’ll visit another book club in mid-June. and if your book club reads Fallsy Downsies — or Homing, for that matter — I’ll come visit you, too, if you want! Just drop me a line and we’ll see if we can make it work.
In a perfect world, I’d be writing every day and reading from my books every week. But this world I’m in? It’s pretty close to perfect.