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

Novel draft finished!

So, I did it! I finished the first draft of my novel!

novel draft

I finished it a couple of weeks earlier than anticipated, and I’m still not really feeling like it happened, despite the printed-out evidence above. Evidence, by the way, that looks way more daunting as a thing I can hold in my hand than it did as something I could scroll through on my computer.

If you like, you can read more about finishing the draft in my most recent TinyLetter.

And now – on to editing this thing!

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!


Recently, it struck me that 2017 marks 20 years I’ve been blogging. I’ve written about those olden times here before. I started my first website in 1997. I used a pseudonym. There were rotating ankh gifs on it. I was obsessed with it. One day, my boyfriend at the time wanted us to go out somewhere, and I looked at him and whined, “But I want to stay here and work on my website!” Thankfully for my relationship, I realized that Angelfire was maybe not the best companion for me at that time. But I’ve never really stopped being obsessed. Not with that website, but other websites and blogs that came after, all of them. Even this one you’re reading now, that I barely write in. 

It’s funny how the long-ago days of hand-coding everything in Notepad sparked a love of something that’s still with me to this day. I used to take my blogs so seriously. Before there were platforms like Blogger, I would create a different-looking page for every entry and it was so much fun. This site you’re looking at now isn’t quite as involved as those early creations (pictured above), but I’ve spent hours here fiddling around in the CSS and deconstructing a block of something, taking it apart to see how it works, putting it back together in the way I want. They were hours happily spent.

There are parts of my early internet days I miss: the permission to be creative for its own sake, true anonymity if you wanted it, the nascent thrill of connecting with another person, a whole other life, anywhere in the world. I do admit that I’ve had difficulty with the way blogging is now, compared to the days when we called them “online journals” and were at once so earnest and guarded because we could be, we could be anyone at all, write anything at all, and nobody knew our names. While I enjoy the sort of legitimacy blogs now have, I do sometimes miss that feeling of throwing your line out into the dark and waiting to see what happened, never certain anything would happen.

If you’d asked me in high school if I would be 36 and still in love with creating websites and writing things that only a handful of people would read, I would have said no. But I am! I just can’t believe it’s been 20 years!

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.

Novel things.

In 2010, I completed NaNoWriMo. I wrote a novel called Practice, which was true. It was practice. I’d written two book-length things as a teenager – and I don’t say this to make myself sound impressive. One of them was basically the plot of The Outsiders, except the Ponyboy character was a girl. Plus, these were book-length things for 13-year-olds. By contrast, my NaNoWriMo book was just over 52,000 words, and I was proud of it. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the 50,000 word target was meant to be a jumping-off point, not the end.

But by then I’d given up novel writing anyway. I mined Practice for a short story or two, and asserted I wasn’t the novel-writing sort. I didn’t have it in me. Short stories were my thing, and forever would be.

So I’m not really sure how I knew I would start writing a novel this April. Every day I’m surprised I’m still doing it, that I still have something to write about. I’ve never had this experience before, this entire world just under the surface, waiting patiently for me to haul it up into the light. I can dip my hand down into it, take a few things, return later for more. I can take my time writing certain scenes. I can devote entire paragraphs to topics that would weigh a short story down. It’s an odd sensation, but I’m enjoying it.

That’s not to say it’s easy. It’s not. But it makes more sense in my life than it ever did before, and I want it to stay.

I quit writing.


Can one quit being a writer?

This is a post I’ve wanted to write – and dreaded writing – for a long time. For about as long as I have no longer considered myself a “writer,” at least outside of my freelancing career. How long has that been? It’s hard to say. There wasn’t a single defining moment when I decided. It came gradually, in waves. I would realize I hadn’t written anything in weeks. Then it was months. I would try to write, and make a little progress. Then the cycle would continue. Sometimes I would send a story to a magazine and its rejection letter was met with a shrug. I just didn’t care about it.

It’s hard to talk about these things without sounding like I believe I’ve been touched by some divine hand of creativity. I don’t want to sound like a snob, or really up myself. But the fact is writing was the first thing I was ever good at, and it’s been there for most of my life. Maybe I took for granted that I would always find something to write about. Maybe it was personal life issues that made writing seem futile or made me doubt my ability.

Either way, when I started to notice my desire to write slipping away, before I stopped caring, I got angry. I was angry at myself for relying so much on being published by paying magazines (the result of a goal I’d set for myself years ago to get a grant). I was angry at those magazines for seemingly favouring experimental, short writing that I don’t and can’t do. I was angry at the writing community for making me feel like if I wasn’t promoting myself every minute of every day or producing work at breakneck speed, I was failing. I was angry at all the things I’d tried – workshops, prompts, contests –  that just made me feel more disillusioned.

Some of those things didn’t deserve my anger – I knew that even then. But that’s the thing about it. Writing was the only thing I’d ever wanted to do. I didn’t go to university or college because I knew I was going to be a writer so why bother? Writing was something I’d always had, always loved, and so when I felt it leaving me, I didn’t know what to do or what to think, or how to make it stop. I lashed out. I would have a couple of things published online, writers would add me on Twitter or Facebook, and I felt like a huge fraud. Didn’t they know? I was no more a writer than I was a parakeet.

I’m reading this over and I sound like I’m sitting at my laptop weeping, or asking for a pep talk. Neither of those things are the case. I know that creativity is fluid and this isn’t necessarily over, but I also know that some creative people just walk away from their art of choice and never return to it. There’s a weird sense of judgement when you lose interest in your craft, like maybe you didn’t deserve it in the first place. It can be so intertwined with your sense of self that you lose your equilibrium.

I suppose I wanted to talk about it because I don’t hear writers or artists talk about giving it up, or even taking very long breaks. The narratives you always hear are “Talented genius lives and breathes writing and has 10 books published” or “Person calmly doing something that is not writing until age 40 when they decide ‘Hey I’ll give this writing thing a try’ and is immediately beloved.” Or they get writer’s block for a little while but then gleefully return to writing. I want the in-between, the stories in the grey areas. There have to be some out there.