January 2009, Calgary: Neighbourly.

There is a middle-aged woman in the building behind mine who I relate to. She has a big comfy chair by the window, and she likes to sit in that chair with her computer or a book or a crossword. There’s a lamp right next to the chair and a desk across the room, but she forsakes the desk for her comfort zone. I like her style.

In the apartment above her, a cat often sits in the window and it hasn’t waved back at me quite yet.

Two apartments above the cat, a man doesn’t know that his low-placed light casts his silhouette against the blinds.

November 2008, Calgary.

The boy crosses the street towards the School for Bad Children. It is cold but his jacket is unzipped and hangs from his shoulders. He calls cheerfully to his waiting teacher, “I just saw some of my old friends but I walked right by them!” And I think of all the worlds of meaning in this scene and that sentence.

I am going to recycle the following:

Some kids from the elementary school near my workplace have been installed as crossing guards. They stand at each side of the road in their bright yellow reflective vests, blow a whistle and hold out stop signs. They’re so serious, their arms straight and strong, looking directly ahead, sternly. I say thank you to each one and smile, and they just flicked their eyes toward me and away again. They are little Buckingham Palace guards.

Doris Lessing and wool-gathering

writing 2010
My grandmother and Doris Lessing presiding over my writing desk, 2010.

I found an old post from a different blog (called “Wordscience” – not to be confused with another, more talented Samantha!), written in 2010 as I was reading the second volume of Doris Lessing’s autobiography. This excerpt has always stuck with me, and I thought it worthy to share here too:

Impossible to describe a writer’s life, for the real part of it cannot be written down. How did my day go in those early days in London, in Church Street? I woke at five, when the child did. He came into my bed, and I told or read him stories or rhymes. We got dressed, he ate, and then I took him to the school up the street . . . I shopped a little, and then my real day began. The feverish need to get this or that done . . . had to be subdued to the flat, dull state one needs to write in . . .

And now, on the little table that has been cleared of breakfast things, replaced by scattered sheets of paper, is the typewriter, waiting for me. Work begins. I do not sit down but wander around the room. I think on my feet . . . I find myself in the chair by the machine. I write a sentence . . . will it stand? But never mind, look at it later, just get on with it, get the flow started. And so it goes on. I walk and I prowl, my hands busy with this and that . . . I walk, I write. If the telephone rings I try to answer it without breaking the concentration. And so it goes on, all day, until it is time to fetch the child from school or until he arrives at the door . . .

So that’s the outline of a day. But nowhere in it is there the truth of the process of writing. I fall back on that useful word ‘wool-gathering.’ And this goes on when you are shopping, cooking, anything. You are reading but find the book has lowered itself: you are wool-gathering. The creative dark. Incommunicable.

– Doris Lessing, in Volume Two of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade

Some girls wander by mistake.

Recently I went down a Sisters of Mercy-induced nostalgia spiral, and this particular nostalgia spiral was of a different sort than usual, because it led me to a time period I’m not used to feeling nostalgic for.

In high school I used to listen to Sisters of Mercy, but I also listened to all kinds of things. I used to look forward to ’80s “Retro Night” on the radio each Sunday, but I also dove headfirst into the short-lived swing revival of the ’90s, and my favourite band in the whole world was Moist. I wore a trenchcoat from the army surplus store, polyester “old-man pants,” and a KMFDM patch on my backpack. I was kind of all over the place. I didn’t know how to be one kind of way. I didn’t look down on it, as a concept – it just didn’t cross my mind as something I should do. And you can tell, when you look at old photos of me from high school and my early twenties.

(There’s also a photo of me dressed all in black and wearing a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt, but I also look like I’m about to burst into tears – unrelated to the shirt – and my ego won’t allow that to go on the internet, even 21 years later.)

My late high school and post high school life was similarly all over the place. My big dream was to study poetry at a certain university in San Francisco, work in publishing, and have my first novel out by 23. Instead, I didn’t go to university at all anywhere. I created a play in Toronto with my friends. I made lino prints and zines on my bedroom floor. I used to drive home from my restaurant closing shift, listening to Sisters of Mercy and New Order to stay awake. I got on a Greyhound bus to move to Calgary at age 21.

I used to feel irritated about certain things I did with that time of my life, even though the play and the zines were among the most wonderful things I’ve ever worked on. However, lately I have been spending the past few days remembering how nice that entire time was – all of it. I did good, fun, useful, growing-up things. It was better that they weren’t the things I thought I should be doing. It was the time in my life that led to this online journal entry, from 2001:

It’s been six days since last I updated. It feels like two. Or ten, I haven’t decided yet. Working sixteen-hour days on a play has completely messed with my sense of linear time. If I didn’t have the date strapped to my wrist I’d be lost. But I’m fine. I don’t have to be anywhere until 3 today, which is something new and exciting for me, and I’m actually eating something that’s not Futures coffee or sushi takeaway (much as I love sushi). Tonight I don’t have to build any tables or trawl thrift shops for costumes or drive all over creation picking up set pieces. My hands are covered in theatre filth. I spent the night in a beanbag chair.

Last night was our opening and overall it went well. It just doesn’t feel like anything happened. I wasn’t nervous, I wasn’t excited. I was hovering somewhere in between. I was concentrating so much on making everything Work that I forgot to relax.

Relax. Wow. I still remember that word.

I’m going to go now and make a sacrifice to some god so that my cellphone will just stop ringing.

Every single part of that feels so removed from my life now. And where I used to feel annoyed at that, now I think it’s great. I think she’s great. And for the first time I want to write about that weird, messy, hopeful sort of person I was. That strange turn-of-the-century world that seems longer ago than I realize. Perhaps the distance, the loss of the prickliness I used to feel about everything, will help.

Productive nostalgia, for a change!

I read Big Magic.

I’d been hearing about Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic for a long time, about how wonderful and inspiring it was for creatively-driven people. I’d even heard that it was life-changing. And, I admit, when I hear something is life-changing, I tend to shy away. I have a natural distrust of things that make that claim*.

However, I was talking with an artist and photographer friend of mine, who had recently read the book, and told me the exact ways in which it had helped her. I paid attention then, because my friend and I know each other very well, and she was certain I would enjoy the book and find value in it.

So, I borrowed it from the library. And, well, my friend wasn’t wrong!

Luckily, I’m not currently going through a period of creative strife – in fact, I’m a handful of chapters away from finishing the novel I’m writing. However, Big Magic was full of great passages and thoughts that resonated with me all the same – I definitely would have highlighted had it not been the library’s copy. Here’s one part that I especially enjoyed:

Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.

Therefore, ideas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners . . . When an idea thinks it has found somebody . . . who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit. It will try to get your attention . . . You will start to notice all sorts of signs pointing you toward the idea . . . The idea will not leave you alone until it has your fullest attention.

And then, in a quiet moment, it will ask, “Do you want to work with me?”

I’m not really one who thinks that I have to receive a sort of divine inspiration before I can work. Especially lately. I’ve been realizing the value of sitting down to write something, anything, on a very regular basis. However, the idea of collaborating with an idea during the creative process? I love it. Reframing creativity as a partnership brings it slightly closer to my own level, and that’s a good thing. I may not ever be able to fully understand creativity in the way I understand more tangible things, but thinking of it as collaborative makes it somehow more exciting to me. It helps me to understand why working on a project on a regular basis, giving it the attention it deserves, can yield some fantastic results.

So. This book might change your life. It might just tweak it. But if you’re a creative person of any sort, I really think you should read it!

* I should mention that Gilbert herself wasn’t the one calling the book life-changing. In fact, in the book, she writes, “Please don’t make [helping people] your sole creative motive, because we will feel the weight of your heavy intention, and it will put a strain upon our souls.”

As someone weary & wary of self-help tropes, I was won over early – on page 22 – when she wrote:

Now you probably think I’m going to tell you that you must become fearless in order to live a more creative life. But I’m not going to tell you that, because I don’t happen to believe it’s true. Creativity is a path for the brave, yes, but it is not a path for the fearless, and it’s important to recognize the distinction.

Food in writing

As I wrote about last year when I read Ethan Frome, descriptions of meals in books are one of the things that really catch my attention when I’m reading. I like to imagine how all the elements of the meal work together.

I read this description recently in Margaret Drabble’s The Ice Age:

Sadie brought her a tray full of chicken soup and chopped liver and cold chicken and cold salmon and salad and fruit and gherkins and water biscuits…

What I love about this is that it’s so much. Almost too much food, it seems at first. When I first read it I imagined plates groaning under the weight of meat and gherkins. But really it’s probably small amounts of cold meat, leftover from the day before, and just a few gherkins, and then it seems okay. Good. In the book, the character describes the meal as, “infinitely reassuring,” and I tend to agree.

I have a friend who has a knack for assembling delicious, cohesive meals out of varied ingredients, particularly for picnics or otherwise leisurely summer eating. Recently she brought small slices of quiche to a picnic, and I thought, “Of course!” It made so much sense, but I never would have thought of it myself.

In The Ice Age, the character arrives at a friend’s home after a long day of traveling. She isn’t expected, she just shows up, but her friend (well, her friend’s relative), pulls together an “infinitely reassuring” dinner for her, the kind she needs at that moment. I like to imagine my friend is the same way, and that if I got off a plane and went directly to her house, she’d rummage in fridge and cupboards and the result would be infinitely reassuring.

I’d like to strengthen my weak skill for last-minute meal assembly. Mine always seem to lack some vital component, or overdo it on one thing, and the end result is wobbly, unfinished. I suppose this is another reason I’m drawn to food descriptions in books.

Perhaps I should stock up on water biscuits?