Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco

Life’s been a whirlwind lately and in addition to catching up on sleep, I’ve been trying to catch up on some reading. A few months ago I passed a table with a “for free” sign, a stack of science textbooks and Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco. Of course I snatched up the memoirs and left the textbooks behind. Unfortunately I couldn’t read Glassco’s work right away as I was bogged down by schoolwork but, having wrapped up the semester on Friday, I ended up taking yesterday’s rainy day to curl up in bed and read, or, rather, devour Glassco’s memoirs.

They were exactly what I’d been missing in life as of late and they examined many of the topics I’ve been contemplating over the past few months, namely hedonism, chaotic youth and the extent to which we rely on fiction to portray “the truth.”

Memoirs of Montparnasse epitomizes the 1920’s and the Parisian literary scene. Glassco is, of course, his own main character, and I say “character” because even Glassco admits to straddling the line between fiction and non-fiction. While the book is a collection of memoirs, three quarters of the work was produced some thirty years later. In fact, before it was published Glassco admitted to his friend Kay Boyle that: “It has the form of fiction- i.e. with lots of dialogue, speed, rearranged and telescoped action; never a dull moment- and is more a montage of those days than a literal truth.”

The book begins with eighteen-year-old Glassco in Montreal. It is clear from the offset that Glassco is set on pursuing a literary career despite his father’s lack of support, thus he and his friend Graeme Taylor set off to Paris to become writers.

Nowadays, the 1920’s are highly romanticized. Of course we read books like The Great Gatsby or watch movies like Midnight in Paris and are exposed to an era seemingly defined by partying, an abundance of tightly knit literary figures and beautiful women. In essence, we are exposed to excess. The argument most commonly raised in regards to why the 20’s were so “fun” is because the decade was preceded by World War I and followed by the Great Depression. This is frequently touched on by Glassco, who often comments on the impacts of the Depression and the number of expats living in Paris during the 20’s.

What struck me, however, was the way in which Glassco himself romanticized the era, the city, its writers, the women, the food etc… This led me to ask myself: how are the writer’s preconceptions reflected in the writing? To what degree can I trust this work? This, of course, is a question we are most likely to ask ourselves when reading a work of non-fiction. When I started university, I began by enrolling in creative non-fiction workshops and initially believed that I wanted to portray “the truth and only the truth.” Said every young writer ever? Perhaps. Nowadays I am beginning to gravitate towards an acceptance of more “representative truths”- perhaps less adherent to specific events or dates but work that nevertheless offers a truthful rendering of some identifiable human experience.

Meanwhile, Glassco’s experiences are certainly identifiable. They come off as almost cliché: rebellious youth set off to Paris wherein they meet a myriad of literary figures, drink too much, attend parties, are introduced to the world of prostitution and pornography, write the occasional chapter whilst hungover, gorge on food and smoke too many cigarettes. This brings me to question something I’ve been thinking about over the past few days… Hedonism.

Halfway through the book Glassco writes that: “the important thing in life was to have a good time.” This thought is then interrupted by a section of italicized writing (Glassco is awaiting a critical surgery and writing his memoirs in the hospital- he occasionally interrupts the memoirs with commentaries from his older, wiser self.) He goes on to write: “it is hard to say now whether I regret this reiterated choice whole-heartedly. Considering where it has led me- to the breakdown of my health, the failure of my hopes, the frightening prospect of an early death [….] and all I can promise myself at the moment is to be a little more careful in exploiting the resources of pleasure in the future…”

To me, “exploit” is the key word. To enjoy life is important, but then again it depends on the lens through which one views life, how wide it is, how much is captured. I personally spend a great deal of time considering the future and feel I can learn from Glassco’s sense of careless abandon… but this only goes so far, as he’s made clear in his later ruminations. Thus, the study of hedonism is perhaps most fascinating when the subject’s thoughts are contrasted. To compare those self-indulgent years with years to follow offers a depiction of hedonistic behaviour with its ensuing consequences.

Overall Memoirs of Montparnasse was a pleasure to read and I plan on seeking out more of John Glassco’s work in the future. I would certainly recommend this book, though the subject matter may appeal to a somewhat narrower audience than those following Heather’s Picks. As Michael Ondaatje writes: “Memoirs of Montparnasse is one of the most joyous books on youth- the thrill and the gall and the adventure of it. It is also one of the best books on being literary in Paris in the 1920’s.”

Reading for Joy

Two weeks ago, I had a revelation. I know, what a cliché. Those life changing revelations… pish-posh. And I know they say change doesn’t happen overnight, it’s true, at least somewhat true, but here’s the thing… sometimes we haven’t got a choice. Change has got to happen and it’s got to happen now. Well, two weeks ago I crashed and once those blurred moments finally passed I knew it was time to shake things up.

I’ll start by noting that over the past year I’ve been studying with Professor VanHerk at the University of Calgary. She is a Calgary based writer and has inspired me in a number of ways, though one in particular has taken hold. One day in class she mentioned that she doesn’t watch T.V., that she prefers to read. When she said this, I felt an instant wave of guilt and, if I’m being completely honest, a tinge of jealousy too. I’ll never be like that, I think. Over the past few years I’ve somehow become somewhat defeatist. I’m still productive. I still have goals. But I also lost faith in myself. I figured a bad case on chronic fatigue and general anxiety would plague me forever.

Well, this isn’t the case. Not at all. Two weeks ago I hit a real low and while the fall certainly hurt I hit the ground running. I became determined to instil change and to explore who I could be. My first action was to visit a bookstore. There, I asked myself…Can I become the woman I truly want to be? One aspect that defines this imaginary woman is that she is incredibly well-read. Meanwhile, I’d come to see myself as someone who would give into anxiety and binge-watch television for hours on end just to numb the mind. I kid you not. This was my aim. I wanted to turn my brain off.

My realization is that my aim should never have been to turn my brain off. Why on earth would I want to slip into a state of mental vegetation and watch The O.C. for hours on end? I think, now, that it is better for me to mould my thinking and change my habits. The difference between one and two, however, is that this second option requires a heck of a lot more work.

But the past two weeks have been interesting and I have come to see glimpses of the woman I strive to become. I mentioned in a past blog post that I also deactivated Facebook which has, quite miraculously, transformed my life in a number of ways. When my Professor claimed that she reads instead of watching television I initially felt heavy and sad. My brain’s not wired that way, I thought. I haven’t got that kind of mental energy. I never will. Apparently, this isn’t true. I’d just never given myself a real chance. I’d decided who I was before trying out my options.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved reading but when authors like Stephen King claim to read some 75 to 100 books a year I’d think Good luck Em. That won’t be you. But now I beg to differ. I’ve read a number of books over the past few weeks in addition to some random articles and a number academic works. (P.S. I am not saying there’s anything wrong with T.V. or that reading is better, only that it is better for me personally and my own mental health!)

Anyways, this desire for change was accompanied by a flashback. The flashback is of me reading Charlotte’s Web. Around that time I’d installed a sleep net over my bed and revelled under the twinkly white fabric, feeling as though my room belonged to a fairytale. I wanted to stay up all night with Wilbur and Charlotte, curled under a duvet. I couldn’t figure out why I kept having this particular flashback. For days I pondered, trying to understand its significance. Then I realized… There’d been a time in my life when books made me feel safe in the world and for this reason, I associate some of my most tender memories with books.

When I came to this realization I also realized that I’d strayed from this feeling. There are times in life when this is more prone to happen, I’m sure, such as having to read one book a week on China’s military history for a graduate level history class you never wanted to take in the first place while drowning in articles about absolutist monarchs. So reading, this year, became a matter of “do or die,” or, rather, “read or fail.” I would read until I felt sick with vertigo or bloated with information. Subconsciously, I do believe, I came to the conclusion that I’d feel this way about all reading. So, even though I knew I’d only have another month of heavy schoolwork, I decided to reincorporate “joy reading.”

The first couple of days felt strange, as I’d mindlessly reach for my television remote or type in “Facebook” on my phone but then I’d catch myself and pick up a book instead. In only two weeks, I’ve begun to crave books again and already feel much closer to the girl who, late at night, would hide under a twinkly veil, enraptured by Charlotte’s Web. 

Change does take time, but sometimes change is activated by a switch and can occur overnight. I believe this whole-heartedly. If something’s not right, there are solutions. Of course these solutions vary depending on a person’s outlook, brain chemistry, history or interests but they do exist. For me, my biggest obstacles as of late have been mental and books, it seems, have become my greatest antidote.

Truth in Literature

There is no such thing as truth and yet there is, undoubtably, because we’ve given this mystifying word space to grow. But I imagine that truth is, by now, a tired and weathered line, tugged by definitions as pigheaded as their creators.

“Truth,” one will claim, “is this.”

“But no,” another will say, “truth is not that, rather, it is this.”

“I,” the first will say, “assure you that you are wrong.”

Poor truth, I think, how exhausted and defeated that dubious word must feel, watching quarrels erupt time and time again over the nature of its meaning. But of course we quarrel. After all, we rely on truth to define ourselves, our lives, our purpose. We seek truth in all aspects of our lives. We even attempt to define truth within illusory contexts. Children know that Santa Claus is real, or at least, for sometime these alternate truths provide a reliable narrative. But it’s no wonder that the first word to follow Santa Claus when conducting an internet search is “real.” At some point or another, we all begin to question what is true and the word begins to break down.

I am going to admit (and I am somewhat ashamed of this fact) that up until now I’d never read anything by Carol Shields. This week, I read The Stone Diaries, a novel published in 1993 that tells the story of a woman’s life, a woman referred to as Daisy Goodwill, Mrs. Flett, Dee, Mother, Grandmother, Aunt Daisy, Daze and Mrs. Green Thumb. Each chapter offers rumination on the distinct stages of her life: childhood, marriage, widowhood, remarriage, motherhood and old age.

The book is very much a biography. In its opening pages, the reader is provided with an elaborate family tree. In the middle of the book are several pages of photographs. Daisy’s parents, her children, her late husband. The reader will wonder:

“Is this not a work of fiction? ”

“Perhaps,” they will think, “I am mistaken but yet I swear… the book was organized under “fiction” at that bookstore off 17th Avenue and 14th Street.”

“Perhaps,” they will think again, “the book was misplaced.”

But the reader will soon realize that it simply doesn’t matter. Daisy Goodwill is as “real” as real can be. It’s been a long time since I’ve become emotional over a book and I’ve grown somewhat attached, irrational and bewildered. Joy, sadness and angst permeate my thoughts. The book clings to me as I cling to it.

“Alice shut up!” I scream in my head. Her mulish ways have begun to gnaw on my nerves. I want to tear the pages and yet, some years later, I love Alice dearly, so much I can barely stand it. So again, here I am, my heart is beating. I am convinced of Mrs. Flett’s sorrow and when Beverly calls Warren “a drip,” I want to cry. Ink is sneaky. Clever. How “true” these characters feel. They feed on empathy, gain enough strength to walk from the page and declare a reality of their own.

So we may quarrel as much as we like over the meaning of “truth” but the only “truth” I know is that which I believe, that which sneaks into my life and forces me to feel. The only “truth” I know is my own version of “truth,.” This is not to say I’m not influenced by others. I will forever feel influenced by Daisy Goodwill, making her, in many ways, a “truth” that straddles the line between fiction and reality.

To conclude with a quote from The Stone Diaries. Shields writes:

“The real and the illusory whirl about her bedroom in smooth-dripping waltz-time- one, two, three; one, two, three. On and on she goes.”

The Countdown

Yesterday I popped over to my parents’ house and discovered that my dad had made samosas. Not the frozen kind (easily warmed in a microwave or oven) but rather, homemade samosas stuffed with love, spiced potatoes, peas and onions. As I smeared jelly onto one of the leftovers my mom turned to me and said: “your dad claims he’ll never again complain about the price of a samosa. They’re harder to make than they look.” This is true. A samosa is a small, triangular Indian food with potatoes, peas and the occasional meat. I’ve always imagined they’d be easy. Chop some veggies, toss on some garam masala and voila! A samosa. Apparently, this is not the case.

How do samosas relate to reading you ask? Well, I also journeyed to a friend’s house last night to do some homework and while we were making dinner she helped me work through some plot issues I found in my manuscript, loopholes if you will. Just before this, however, she’d asked me when I’d finish school and I told her that my manuscript was due the 21st of April, making that my last official day of the semester. “Well you’ve got lots of time,” she said in regards to the eleven days I have to edit and rework several sections of my manuscript, write another term paper and study for yet another final. I laughed. Considering this is project has been on my mind for about a year and has been in progress since last June, eleven days feels like nothing…

But after working through these plot points she came to see how difficult it can be to create an alternate reality. There are, of course, the basic “who, what, where, when and why’s” when starting a project, but these questions become increasingly more complex as the work gains layers. She admitted, after our chat, to seeing the writing process in a new light. So my point is that writing is perhaps a little like samosas. The final product is often a tasty treat we wish to devour, but it is also easy to discount the work that went into that product. A three hundred page book might be read in a matter of days but it certainly wasn’t written this way. The editing process is long and rigorous. In fact, prior to our chat, this same friend reminded me of what she knew about my manuscript. It had been months since we’d spoken about it and when I told her I’d cut a character named Heather she said, “wow, that must have meant you were cutting entire pages” and I told her that yes, I had. Entire sections, pages, characters. All gone. Chucked. Forgotten. What do they say? Kill your darlings? Well, I murdered them with a shined axe. I’ve been merciless.

So it’s easy, when we are unacquainted with a given process, to assume its ease. I am no chef and so in restaurants, when a dish with a simple garnish is placed in front of my I might think “okay, easy” and proceed to list some ingredients. In doing so I fail to consider how long various ingredients might need to simmer, whether or not something was left in marinade overnight or whether some particular ingredient was imported in order to add to the dish’s overall success.

This said, even as someone who loves to write, I’m discovering how complicated the writing process is. Until now, I’d never written anything longer than about fifteen pages. Now, fifty pages in, I’m having to go back and say to myself “wait, but that doesn’t make sense because didn’t so and so say such and such back on page eighteen?” or “wait a second, I’ve sent so and so off on said adventure but what the heck did they do with their kayak?” and as I go back to fix these problems I inevitably encounter or create new ones.

So the countdown is on and with eleven days to go I’ll be buried in work. But I must say, I feel a certain thrill. I love a good challenge and though I’m stressed, I feel my stress beginning to act as a motivator, a voice in the back of my head cheering “Go, Em, Go!” I’m curious if all you writers out there feel the same way. Do you enjoy a tight deadline? Are you motivated to run in order to escape the prospect of failure? Please feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts!

 

A Reader’s Thoughts

This week I’ve decided to reflect on three fine quotes. They are all rather pertinent to my life at the moment and I’m going to guess that most readers will relate to these quotes in one way or another.

***

“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”
Groucho Marx

This week, I’ve mostly cut out television, allowing myself to watch no more than twenty minutes of Netflix a day. This might sound like a small task, but as I’m currently discovering, I rely more heavily on distraction than I’d like to admit. These distractions exist in various forms, one of which is television. I do not learn anything from watching reruns of Friends or How I Met Your Mother. In fact, I watch these shows to avoid thinking. But like I said, I’ve cut out television this week and I’ve spent a copious amount of time reading. More time, in fact, than I can ever remember. I read when I wake up, when I go to bed or when I’m on the bus. Essentially I’ve filled my time with books (and, as always, with writing.) I also feel like I’ve discovered a lot this week, a lot about myself and a lot about the world so I plan on continuing this “cleanse” which consists of limited screen time in addition to having deactivated Facebook. It’s a wonder what cutting out such distractions can do for the soul and the mind. While yes, I do find myself feeling occasional bursts of angst in which I immediately feel the need to mindlessly scroll Facebook or sit in bed and stare pointlessly at a screen, I’ve begun forcing myself to either sit with these feelings or turn to the comforts of a book.

“Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.”
Gustave Flaubert

This week, having been a particularly difficult week, I was advised to read something “light.” The book that was suggested to me was Mindy Kaling’s book Why Not Me? I’ve skimmed through this book and it’s certainly not my taste. I personally found the excerpts I’ve read to be somewhat frivolous and boring, though it is widely enjoyed and considered incredibly humorous by many. Meanwhile, in saying this, I catch myself. I often say that I don’t want to “waste my time” reading poorly written books and yet I wonder how many film critics spend their time watching Friends. So in this sense, I believe that many slip into Mindy’s pages with a desire to be amused and in turn, distracted. I suppose because the majority of my time is taken up by writing and reading, I turn to distraction in a different form. But I have to say that I agree with Flaubert. Reading is a joy, a gift, and though we may feel we are escaping our own lives, however temporarily, the truth is, that reading influences our current life, the one and only life we know and live. And yet Joyce Carol Oates would say that “reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” I might further add to this by arguing that while we might slip into another’s soul for some 300 pages, we return having added to our own soul. This, perhaps, is the result of a merging between the reader and the characters in which we temporarily inhabit.

“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

I love this quote as I’ve always felt a tad guilty when I forget the details that make a book. I don’t have the best memory, which is unfortunate for a writer and history major but I make do. This said, I’ve often forgotten the titles of my favourite books or the names of characters I admire. Nevertheless, these books have contributed to my sense of being. While I may forget a book’s details, I do not forget how books make me feel. I am very much the same way with people. I forget birthdays and traits, things people have told me, but the way a person makes me feel will remain a part of me for years. I cannot pinpoint the ways they’ve changed me, nor can I with a book. I simply know I’ve changed as a result of those interactions.

***

I’ve always enjoyed quotes. Personally, I find a good quote forces me to reflect on my own life and reminds me of the universal nature of many experiences. For instance, the other day I posted something on Twitter and noticed that the Canadian writer, Angie Abdou, had posted the following:

“‘See! That’s a step! It’s gone from fucking novel to stupid novel. Improvement!’- husband cheering me on through find edits #amwriting.”

While this is not the kind of quote we might think of right off the bat, the truth is that after having spent some six hours editing my own sad manuscript, I was feeling rather discouraged. Reading Abdou’s comment reminded me that this acclaimed novelist is also faced with similar experiences, despite our many differences.

Finally, if you’ve got any favourite quotes you’d like to share, please feel free to drop a comment down below! Thanks for reading and I wish everyone a bright and happy Saturday!

Louise Glück: Feature Poet

I’ve decided to start featuring poets… partly because I miss reading poetry and this will encourage me to read more frequently but also because I’d like to discover new poets and thus, in the name of each month’s “feature,” I will find an excuse to set off on “poetry hunts,” (meaning I will spend copious guilt-free hours scouring my favourite bookstores.) Meanwhile, with a few weeks left to the semester, this blog will soon be given more love than it’s currently receiving. I’d like to set up a monthly schedule that includes book reviews from various genres, interviews with authors, occasional musings and, because I can’t help myself, a smattering of historically focused articles.

This said, I’d like to introduce a poet I’ve enjoyed for a number of years. Louise Glück was born in New York City in 1943 and is considered to be one of America’s most talented contemporary poets. When I was still living in Victoria, I bought an anthology from Munro’s that includes work published between 1962 and 2012. I haven’t read the entire anthology front to back but prefer to pick it up every now and then to read whatever poems I find myself craving.

I’ll start by offering you a taste of her work. The following is a poem titled Matins from her 1992 collection, The Wild Iris. 

You want to know how I spend my time?
I walk the front lawn, pretending
to be weeding. You ought to know
I’m never weeding, on my knees, pulling
clumps of clover from the flower beds: in fact
I’m looking for courage, for some evidence
my life will change, though
it takes forever, checking
each clump for the symbolic
leaf, and soon the summer is ending, already
the leaves turning, always the sick trees
going first, the dying turning
brilliant yellow, while a few dark birds perform
their curfew of music. You want to see my hands?
As empty now as at the first note.
Or was the point always
to continue without a sign?

What I love most about Glück’s writing is perhaps the earnestness with which she approaches her work. I am in awe of her ability to provide such layered images. She offers the reader arresting depictions (checking each clump for the symbolic leaf— oh my goodness…) but while these images insist on being seen, they also insist on being heard. A well-known cry that has, at one time or another, burst from the hearts of every human being is a cry that begs for meaning, purpose and reason. This cry hopes for a neatly wrapped response, sent to us in the form of a sign. A reason to be. And yet, as Glück seems to understand, we are so rarely offered such a sign. Regardless of vehemence, we are most often left to kick at dust which lifts and billows and despite our yearnings, organizes itself in no clear fashion. Thus, Glück’s ability to cloak bleak experiences or insights in language that is tender and as poetic as it is candid, is a strength I admire wholly.

Here is another poem from from her 1980 collection, Descending Figure, titled Rosy.

When you walked in with your suitcase, leaving
the door open so the night showed
in a black square behind you, with its little stars
like nailheads, I wanted to tell you
you were like the dog that came to you by default,
on three legs: now that she is again no one’s,
she pursues her more durable relationships
with traffic and cold nature, as though at pains
to wound herself so that she will not heal.
She is past being taken in by kindness,
preferring wet streets: what death claims
it does not abandon.
You understand, the animal means nothing to me.

Her poems frequently explore themes of connection (or the lack there of), the impacts of loss, the reality of isolation and, in general, mortality. The Poetry Foundation quotes Stephen Burt who, upon reviewing her 2006 collection Averno, noted that “few poets save Sylvia Plath have sounded so alienated, so depressed, so often, and rendered that alienation aesthetically interesting.”

It is almost a cliché now, to claim Sylvia Plath as a favourite poet. But I have to admit, I have always loved her work and am incredibly intrigued by her ability to turn twisted, existential agony into lines that parade as beautiful. It is true, Glück approaches her work in a similar fashion and it is perhaps for this reason that I am so drawn to her poetry. Finally, one reason Glück has climbed the ranks to becoming one of America’s most beloved poets is because her poetry, while deeply contemplative and rendered with sensitivity, is also considered “accessible.” Her work has sometimes been considered “spare” and avoids excessive convolution without abandoning metaphor or lyricism. She pays incredibly attention to repetition and rhythm. Her work is thus far from the colloquial but is nevertheless comprehensible.

If you’d like to discover more of Glück’s work, I suggest checking out the Poetry Foundation. Luckily, much of her work is published online so you may discover her work for free. Meanwhile, if you’d like me to read or review any poets, please leave a comment below. I’m always eager to discover new names.

The Big Picture

What a week. As a result of personal struggles and a list of deadlines longer than my forearm I felt the need to take a week off from blogging. But now that I’m back I have something I want to talk about. A realization that recently popped into my mind.

As a writer, I’m constantly crafting the struggles of characters. I ask myself how their struggles will eventually shape who they become? I use my characters struggles to help develop their being, to force them to grow and change. In order to do so, I look at the big picture. I consider plot and look to connect my characters to their worlds through some identifiable struggle. I feel compassion for them. I offer them tools in order to overcome said struggle or, at least, to find a sense of harmony. And yet I do not offer myself these same tools. When I consider my struggles I experience a kind of tunnel vision, the result of obsessive and detrimental loop thinking. I often forget the big picture and rarely consider how my feelings will contribute to my own character growth.

It’s been a difficult week. I admit, stress had gotten the better part of me. My body felt shaky as a result of shot nerves and I felt exhausted, emotionally depleted and numb (and that list of deadlines is definitely not helping.) But I am a solution and goal driven individual. This is good and bad. It’s bad in that I suffer from a kind of performance addiction that causes me to feel perpetually terrified of “failure” but good in that it encourages me to seek solutions to my problems. So, goal-oriented Emma set off on a Sunday night adventure to the only place in the world that has remained 100% capable of “cheering me up” or “calming me down.” That place is Chapters. If I’m having a particularly bad day I’ll likely end up at Chapters, sitting on a carpet somewhere hunkered over a book and because I am goal-oriented, if I’ve arrived at Chapters with the aim of “feeling better” I may end up in the self-help and general wellness section. I definitely did last night and came home with yet another stack of books to offer my bookshelf (or rather, floor… because my bookshelf is full.)

Although the book I’m about to describe did not make it onto my stack of happy/helpful new purchases, it nevertheless inspired the realization described above. The book discussed the vital importance of storytelling and sought to reveal how various characters have been depicted in famous folk tales. I skimmed over the book briefly and felt no need to read about basic plot structures, but as I slid the book back onto the shelf I got to thinking. How is it that I sometimes feel more compassion for my characters than I do for myself? What can I learn from what I’ve attempted to teach characters I’ve created? To be honest, I could probably learn a lot. The old “you should take your own advice” comment is highly applicable to this situation.

This said, because characters are infused with emotion, what we read can severely impact our outlooks or current moods. This weekend, being in the headspace that I was, was probably not the best weekend to be reading Birdie, by Tracey Lindberg. While the novel is fantastic, its description as a “darkly comic and moving novel about the universal experience of recovering from tragedy” is certainly accurate. What did I read instead? How to be a Canadian by Will and Ian Ferguson had me in tears from laughing so hard. Only one other author has managed to make me cry and laugh out loud and that author is a favourite of mine. Bill Bryson. I highly recommend any of his books.

So I suppose this is a step towards learning to be compassionate. Realizing and admitting that maybe I needed some “light-heartedness” in my life and taking the steps to cast a little more brightness. I needed to laugh. Probably needed to cry too.  So thank you, Will and Ian Ferguson.

When I started this blog, I picked the tagline “on books, writing, tea and late night anxiety” because these elements, at least in my own life, are constantly at play with one another. But now I’m beginning to take a closer look at how these elements interact. How does what I read impact my anxious moods? What can I learn from characters I’ve created or characters created by various authors? I am approaching, and I apologize for the cliche, the next chapter of my life and I will attempt to navigate these new pages with the same patience and compassion I have shown my characters. For now, however, that list of deadlines is calling my name so I thank you for reading and wish everyone a wonderful Monday.

Confidence & Criticism

When I was thirteen I believed I could write. I didn’t recognize potential in myself or foresee earned abilities. No, I thought my work was perfect. Just. the. way. it. was. My work consisted of glorious, polished, beautiful sentences that by no means required editing. Nope, I thought, my work’s masterful and I must show the world. I used to print out my poems and put them in binders with plastic cover sheets. I’d read them proudly to whoever would listen. When I look back, I can’t help but laugh and, at the same time, feel a little jealous of young Emma’s naivety.

While my previous confidence is something of a laughable matter, I do believe the process was important, however unrealistic it may have been. It was helpful in that I believe a certain amount of confidence is needed to truly develop one’s skills. These years of blind certainty encouraged me to explore my writing with little to no fear of failure, a notion that, as an adult, scares the living daylights out of me. If the notion of failure had plagued me from the beginning, I may have shut down before I’d even gotten started. Luckily that didn’t happen and now, after years of writing, the thought of “failure” stimulates me to work harder. I know that with enough dedication I’ll get to my desired destination.

This being said, if someone dared criticize thirteen-year-old Emma’s work, they’d likely have been met with a string of defensive remarks.

Clearly…. I’d say, you don’t understand…. IT WAS A METAPHOR!!!

So while I can look back and cheer myself on (you go girl!) I also recognize that my writing was somewhat stunted by an inability to accept criticism. It is my personal belief that learning to accept criticism and to “kill your darlings” A.K.A. edit, are two of the most valuable lessons in writing. Nowadays I welcome criticism with open arms. This doesn’t mean I agree with all of it or implement every change suggested to me, but I am open to ideas and to feedback.

But I didn’t just wake up one day and think YES, I’m ready for criticism! While most of the people in my life know that I’m not much of an “academic type” and never particularly wanted to attend university, I have to admit that one of the most valuable lessons I learned over the past four years was to listen. Workshopping taught me to listen and to become more critical of my own work. It taught me that there are a ton of amazing writers out there, many of whom are just as dedicated and eager as myself. How could I continue to defend my work in such a setting? What made me any more special than any of the other young, emerging writers with whom I studied? Not much. I was (and still am) just a little fish swimming in a vast lake.

My main goal right now is to grow as a writer. This requires both awareness and sacrifice on my part. Apart from allocating as much time as possible to working, I am constantly trying to centre my ways of thinking. I still experience those “clearly you don’t understand” reactions but it’s a gut reaction. It’s not a reaction I vocalize and it’s one that I quickly dismember. This way my ego can’t go running off without a rational, analytical companion.

I’d like to conclude by shifting focus to the delicate relationship between confidence and criticism. I believe these two complement one another. Sure, too much confidence can get in the way of one’s ability to accept criticism and too much criticism can certainly squash a person’s confidence but, in many scenarios, learning to balance confidence and criticism can do wonders for a person’s writing. This said, there’s a difference between confidence and conceit. The first of which I have developed over time. The latter I may have known in the past but am certainly distanced from now.

Finally, I offer a reminder that criticism is contributive and not detractive. It’s aim is not to destruct. Meanwhile, there is no shifting scale that delineates a clear relationship between criticism and confidence. A certain amount of criticism should not result in lowered confidence though it may result in more work than desired (hello caffeine and late night work sessions!) So with this I bid you farewell. Please feel free to comment with stories or ideas pertaining to criticism or writerly confidence!

Saturday Mornings

It’s Saturday! I’m sitting in a light filled kitchen with a latte and a stack of poetry books. The door is swung open so I can hear the sounds of birds chirping in the trees outside my window. It’s a glorious morning, I’d say.

These glorious mornings are incredibly important to me. In fact, I find myself relying on them. Maybe more than I should, but such is life. It’s been a while since I’ve written a “healthy living” post so in the spirit of spring, I am celebrating life and the choices available to us.

For some reason, and I have no clue why, I’ve suffered from job anxiety my entire life. I’ve always been good at what I do and even if I love my job, I tend to get worked up and incredibly worried for no good reason. I currently work as a florist, a job that I adore, and this still happens. So I rely on mornings, on a few hours of undisturbed peace in which I can calm my thoughts with a cup of coffee and some reading.

I started my first “real” job when I was sixteen and I worked as a ski instructor in Fernie, BC. I worked in the daycare and spent my days taking adorable toddlers out to test their skills and despite my convincing princess or invisible bird acts, I found myself awake every friday night on the verge of tears. I’d sit in bed and contemplate quitting.

I’ll admit that one of the ways I coped back then was by seeking affirmation. At the time, I was dating someone who’d send me long and reassuring messages before work and I’d read them over and over until I felt semi-convinced. At sixteen, this seemed perfectly fine. But as I got older I started to realize that it wasn’t just my job as a ski instructor that would leave me feeling anxious. It was any job. Frankly, it’s anything time related. I do not like having to show up anywhere at a particular time and yet I must. The world we live in demands this of me.

Eventually, I realized that I couldn’t spend my life relying on significant others to text me before every shift or commitment. Here, and I don’t say this lightly… some anxiety is, ultimately, ridiculous. I needed an action plan, a way to help myself fall asleep at night and a way to decompress before starting the day.

In my second year of university I started waking up extra early so I’d have “me time” before having to give my time to someone else. This was a simple and yet surprisingly helpful discovery. Even one hour, one hour of personal reflection, reading, music or journaling could help prep me for the day and send me on my way feeling confident and energized.

This morning, apart from writing this post, I have picked up one of my favourite collections of poems. The Madness Vase, by Andrea Gibson is absolutely exquisite and I find myself falling in love with the collection over and over again.

The nutritionist said I should eat root vegetables.

Said if I could get down thirteen turnips a day

I would be grounded, rooted.

Said my head would not keep flying away

to where the darkness lives.

-Excerpt from The Madness Vase 

And I guess when it comes down to it, we’re all looking for what grounds us. For some it’s music or running or boxing. For others perhaps it’s painting or cooking or drinking. We’re all looking. I know I am, and it’s a long, tired search for some elusive uncertainty. But I suppose the most we can do is indulge ourselves. Perhaps we cannot figure out why, but we might figure out how.

I’ll probably always get anxious about mundane, time-related issues. There’s no logical answer as to why I feel the way I do and for years I fought against myself, told myself I needed to “get over it.” But the reality of the situation is that anxiety isn’t a ball you kick out the door, a ball that rolls down the street and never comes back. No, it’s a ball that bounces and sometimes we score and sometimes we send it flying out of bounds but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s a game to play. A game that sometimes has rules. Rules that are there to be followed but sometimes get broken. Rules that assume we’re all on the same page but still, the ref calls “fault.”

So I’ve come to recognize that working with myself is the most I can do. We are, after all, our own best friend. Meanwhile, we are told to love others despite their faults and yet we are forever told to better ourselves, to grow and change and move forward, and while I second this, I have to wonder why we so often treat others with a patience and compassion we rarely apply to ourselves?

This said, work is calling my name so I wish everyone a peaceful Saturday. If you’d like to share your thoughts, please do so by commenting in the bar below!

 

Fluctuating Between Romantic Notions of Writing and Writing as a Reality

For the first time in my life, writing has begun to feel like a ritual. A sacred practice. A practice that I not only rely on, but one that encourages me to grow. As I near graduation, I find myself visiting the contemplative depths that exist within me. I find myself both softening and hardening, opening and closing. Such dichotomies have come to define my latest experiences. I have allowed myself to consider new thoughts and to close the door on others, on those which creep into my life as willfully as knapweed, dirty thoughts that insist they’re beautiful.

These thoughts have begun to feel clear as a result of more frequent writing. In the past, I wrote primarily when tempted by inspiration but now, I find myself writing everyday. Perhaps a few lines. Perhaps several pages. By engaging my writing, I have learned a great deal about patience. I have learned to be patient with both myself and with others. This, I do believe, is of the utmost importance. I have never worried too much about getting my work published (not for now) as I am keen on learning and developing my skills. As of recent, I’ve begun submitting poems or stories here and there. Rejection, of course, is a large part of being a writer and receiving rejection letters has further contributed to my sense of patience.

Nevertheless, I write because it has become a part of who I am. I do not currently profit off my work but this doesn’t discourage me, it doesn’t deter me from writing or cause me to enjoy the act any less. In fact, I feel the opposite. I feel incredibly inspired to work hard. It is perhaps this very inspiration that has encouraged writing to become a daily activity.

I had a friend over the other evening and she mentioned an interview she’d listened to with Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild. My friend admitted that she felt better knowing that even successful authors go for months on end without writing. Cheryl Strayed, from what I’ve been told, is a notorious binge writer. My friend told me that she couldn’t imagine how I wrote everyday and I replied by expressing my inability to understand how she could go for weeks or months without writing. We agreed that the writing process is so very different from person to person.

This same day, I was scrolling on Facebook and noticed a funny picture another friend of mine had posted. This picture included a page from one of Franz Kafka’s diaries in which he laments, day after day, that he feels unable to write. I have concluded that there is an inherent relationship between patience and writing as a ritual. The desire to write daily may exist, but the ability to might not. Likewise, one might wish to write but lacks the time.

Today I am taking deep breaths to remind myself that I must remain patient. I am overwhelmed by the number of tasks I must complete, all in a rather short amount of time, and I feel sad that I am allocating so much of my time to tasks that I do not care about. Instinctually I wish to  get up and leave them behind. To say they don’t matter. To take a drive to the mountains and write. The fact of the matter, though, is that while writing is an important practice that defines parts of my life, it is not “my life.” It does not wholly consume my energies. Nevertheless, I am choosing to feel grateful. I am grateful to have writing as an emotional fall-back, as a kind of best friend, a friend that sticks by me even on days I have little time for it.