A Passing Fugue State

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I’ve long been fascinated by stories of people who one day wake up and all of a sudden walk away from their lives, some of them never to be heard from again. I often wonder what it would be like to psychically awaken in some other place, months or even years later, and discover that the life I’d been living wasn’t mine, that it didn’t actually exist.

While my own recent experience hasn’t been anywhere near this dramatic, the realization that I’d been following a mistaken trail through my own personal dark forest was quite sobering. Since I was about fourteen years old, I’d always assumed I would be an author when I grew up.

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Nineteen, not fourteen, but still ridiculously young.

It was unsettling to discover that the dream of modest literary success was now and had probably forever been out of my reach. Things happen to people; for other people, things never happen. That’s just the way it is. When I mentioned this to some friends, they were appalled. Most advised me to keep trying; many offered helpful suggestions that nevertheless wouldn’t work for me.

Unsettling as it was, however, this latter-day realization was the wake-up call I needed, a cold splash of water in the face, the resounding slap that knocked me out of my lifelong reverie. I finally understood that I’ve been using writing the way addicts use their drug of choice: to detach from reality. As long as I was writing yet another novel, I was delaying the day when I’d have to face the fact that I am not and never will be a real author. As long as I could keep that delusion alive, I’d never have to descend into the cold hell of real, actual life and accept that literary success just ain’t that into me.

It’s like someone born without hands who insists they are going to be a neurosurgeon. No, sweetie; you’re not, and all the good intentions, all the hope and prayer and faith and that ocean of fervent tears you’ve been filling with the bucket of your delusions isn’t going to make one damn bit of difference. You can’t operate on the delicate machinery of the human brain because you have no hands.

You’ve already spent the bulk of your adult life in this elaborate game of let’s pretend. Let’s pretend I’m going to be a bestselling novelist; let’s pretend that after I’ve paid my dues and published a few things that my career will begin to take off. Let’s pretend that if I work hard and apply myself and keep learning and keep growing, eventually, some day, when the stars align…

No.

You can stick that feather in your cap and call it macaroni or anything else you like. Saying it doesn’t make it so. And despite what the New Age folks might think, the Law of Attraction doesn’t apply here. I don’t actually think it applies anywhere, to be honest. (Although it does sell a whole shit-ton of books, so there’s that. And DVDs, and self-actualization workshops, and weekends away in Big Sur or Red Rocks or Goa or wherever, walking around with jade eggs up your yoo-hoo and hobnobbing with all the knobs you could ever want to hob with.)

If you could think yourself rich and successful and beautiful and beloved, then every single one of us would have everything we want and the world would be a paradise – or a paradisaical hell. We’d all be wealthy and enlightened, and there would be no more war or famine, no pestilence or pandemics. We would regard all other forms of life as sacred, the earth as precious and inviolable. Instead, and despite all those lovely folk praying and meditating and chanting and intention-ing their hearts out, it just ain’t happening.

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If believing was all it took to be successful, then I would be the most famous goddamn author on the planet. Talent notwithstanding.

This wake-up call of mine impressed on me the futility of effort. Some things, it’s true, yield to gentle pressure. Avocados, for instance. Ripe bananas. Some other things require sustained and forceful endeavor. Weight loss. Opening that stuck drawer in the bottom of your desk. Taking the lug nuts off your left rear tire.

Then there’s the other kind of effort, the backbreaking, gut-wrenching, bulging eyeballs, veins-standing-out-on-your-forehead type. That last mile of the marathon before you breast the tape. The sort of really goddamn hard graft that after a while absolutely breaks you. The kind that sends you to the madhouse. The kind that destroys and devastates, that renders a once-proud and beautiful edifice into Eliot’s heap of broken images where the sun beats.

That kind.

If life were fair and the Universe just, then that kind of effort would yield glorious results. Trumpets would sound. Heaven would open and white doves would pour out. Angels would drift down and hover above you, plucking gently on the strings of their harps. A celestial choir would sing, bells would ring, and the fruit machine would align in that perfect combination of gold bars, guaranteeing payout. The slots at Vegas would belch out a Niagara of coins. You’d break the bank at Monte Carlo. You’d be rich and beautiful, successful and especially beloved of God.

You would be so goddamn happy to eat your daily dinnertime portion of rabbit food. Like all those pictures of women laughing with salad. (I hate salad.)

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But here’s an uncomfortable and inconvenient truth that the New Agers and feel-gooders and Oprah-lovers don’t want you to know:

Sometimes you can do everything right and still fail.

Sometimes you can plan the battle to the last tenth of a second and still end up defeated in the mud, surrounded by the corpses of those foolish enough to call themselves your friends.

I think it’s called ‘meeting your Waterloo’.

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Revise and Redact

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I spent nine months this past year working on a novel, the idea of which came to me in the middle of the night. I was so galvanized by the idea that I leapt out of bed and sat up until the wee hours of the morning writing the outline. I felt electric in my own skin, full of a fizzing energy that crackled in me from head to toe. I was ten feet tall and bulletproof. I could do anything. This was going to be such a great book. This would finally, after all these years, get my work noticed by someone. This was going to count.

Let me back up a bit. Twenty years ago this coming April, my first novel was published. I was 32 years old. Time enough, I thought, to start my literary career. I’d been writing since I was eight years old. It was the only thing I wanted to do – the only thing I could do, really.

When the German language rights got picked up by a big European publisher, I was ecstatic. It was going to happen. This time it was really, truly, going to happen, after all the false starts, after all the promises, after all the ‘baby I’m gonna make you a star!’ chats with shifty people in hot little rooms. This would establish me.

Guess what happened? No, go on, guess.

It got a handful of reviews. Nobody was very impressed. In retrospect, the book was and is pretty crappy. If I had my time back, I would have aborted it in utero and never let it emerge into the open air, but as they say, hindsight is always twenty-twenty. The big European publisher never brought out a German language edition. The entire situation sank without a trace. Eh, well, it was my first book, I thought. I’m still new at this. The next one has got to be better.

The next one wasn’t any better; in point of fact it was so many thousands of times worse. Another brain child that ought to have been aborted, or destroyed at the moment of its conception. An idea that seemed really great in the initial flush of inspiration but which, I quickly learned, wasn’t going to fly, mainly because I didn’t have the ability to pull it off. I couldn’t make it work. It got published – because of contractual obligations – but, thanks be to all the angels and saints, sank without even so much as a ripple.

Stupidly, I kept on writing. I’m dense that way. I figured all those inspirational quotes about ‘try, try again!’ and ‘follow your dreams!’ must mean something, right? Nobody likes a quitter! Don’t stop believing. You can do it! Don’t quit before the miracle! And all the other New Age, feel-good, Oprah-approved bits of popular wisdom. So I produced several more ill-conceived and badly-executed manuscripts only fit for lining the cat box. Some of these I deleted as electronic files. The hard copies I burned. I mean, I literally burned them.

You can’t imagine how grimly satisfying that felt.

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Several years afterwards, I put together a literary novel that an Atlantic Canadian publisher generously accepted. I knew the publisher personally; a lovely woman, we’d served on various arts organization boards together. I don’t know, maybe she felt sorry for me and wanted to do me a favour. It wasn’t because the book was so good. They assigned me a wonderful editor who ought to be given a medal for taking it on. She assured me it would win awards.

Nope. Not even a quiver.

So then I wrote another book. And another book. And another book. On and on, ad nauseam, I kept at it like a creature obsessed. After each failure I returned to the New Age feelgood Oprah-certified memes that told me to Never Give Up and Follow My Dreams and Be True To Yourself and The Universe Has a Plan For You. Surely, I reasoned, my luck had to turn sometime, right? So much concerted effort for so many years would absolutely show results, right?

Right?

Wrong.

So, fast forward twenty years – twenty years, mind – to the present day. My novel, the thing that had obsessed me for nine months or more, the thing I’d slaved over and worked on so lovingly? Well, nobody wanted it. Que sera, sera. It happens.

But it’s different this time. Because twenty years is a long, long time to chase a dream that in all probability is never, ever going to materialize. I always imagined that I’d have a career as a novelist, one of those people who puts out a book every year or two years. I wouldn’t necessarily be rich, but I would make a decent living. I’d contribute something. I’d be able to hold up my head.

Finally, after twenty years of useless effort, I have realized something: it’s never going to happen. I have wasted my time.

Hell, I’ve wasted my life.

See, I turned down well-paying jobs because working 9-5 would interfere with my writing. I couldn’t let anything get in the way of that. I was willing to be poor, if it meant I could be free to write. I willingly gave up life choices other people take for granted because I wanted – needed – to write. I got into endless fights with family and loved ones who didn’t understand why I was wasting my time and it’s only now, after twenty years that I realize they were right.

I was wasting my time. I have wasted my life chasing after something that is never, ever going to happen. Not to me, anyway. I have squandered twenty years trying to be the writer I thought I was ‘meant’ to be. And I don’t just blame myself. I blame the people who encouraged me, the teachers and friends, who saw some nascent ability in me and who urged me to continue. I blame the friends who enthusiastically praised the things that I produced. I blame the kind and well-meaning people who told me that I was really talented and if I just kept trying, something would turn around for me.

I blame my own stupidity, my pride and ego, that insisted I was a writer.

I’m not a writer. Writers publish. They make money from their work. My last royalty cheque was less than twenty dollars. Writers are talented, and that’s what sets them apart from the rest of us scribblers.

My biggest mistake? Assuming the little bit of attention I got in my early years meant I had talent. I don’t. I can gum words together to the extent of someone who writes used car slogans or the ad copy on milk tins, but that’s about it.

I’m not a writer. I’m a cautionary tale. For the love of God, don’t do what I did. Don’t be so blind, so egotistical; don’t believe the flatterers who tell you ‘oh this is so good you’re so talented’. I believed it, and look where it got me. I honestly believed I would some day ‘make it.’ I was that delusional.

The fact of the matter is, I will never ‘make it’. It’s not for lack of trying. It’s because, when you get right down to brass tacks, I am simply not talented enough. I have some talent. A little. Not very much. Certainly not enough to do anything with. I’m not like those other authors whose books receive critical acclaim, are made into movies and TV series, are adapted for the screen, translated into foreign languages. I’ve fancied myself one of them but the truth is I’m not and I never will be. Everyone who ever supported and encouraged me, I’m sorry. God, I’m so sorry you wasted your time. I’m sorry I wasted your time with my delusions. I’m sorry I wasted twenty years of my life chasing something that, for me, is as mythical as a manticore.

There’s a reason why I never ‘made it’. I’m not good enough. I’m not talented enough. I never was and I never will be. So enough of this ridiculous charade.

Tomorrow I am gathering up the reams of paper and the many electronic document files and I’m destroying them. I’m going to build a fire. I’ve chased this dream long enough. I no longer have the time or the energy to keep trying, keep hoping, keep working.

I’m tired now. And I’m done. It’s time to revise the notion that I’m ‘meant’ to be a novelist. It’s time to redact the woefully misguided part of me that insisted all these years that I could write. I can’t. And I refuse to waste any more of my precious time chasing after the impossible.

Move along, people. There’s nothing to see here.

Very Superstitious

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Superstitious describes a belief in chance or magic. If you’re superstitious, you may avoid walking under ladders, spilling salt, or passing black cats — all because you think they will bring you bad luck. … The Latin word that superstitious comes from is superstitionem, excessive fear of the gods. (Vocabulary.com)

I never thought of myself as someone who engages in superstition or magical thinking, but maybe I should revise that.

I flick spilled salt over my left shoulder. I touch wood for luck. If I speak ill of the dead I follow it with “God forgive me”, just in case they should decide to rise up and haunt me. I always go out of a house through the same door I came in. Does this make me superstitious? I’m inclined to say yes.

Intellectually, we know it’s silly to put much stock in old wives’ tales about black cats, washing your face with May snow, cracking an egg into a glass of water at midnight on a certain day of the year, and all the rest of it. But we still do it. For me, much of my personal superstition takes the form of magical thinking. Encyclopedia Brittanica puts it thus: “Magical thinking, the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, actions, words, or use of symbols can influence the course of events in the material world.” This dovetails neatly with the old Roman notion of excessive fear of the gods: if I perform certain rituals and say certain words, think about things in a particular way, I will avoid the putative wrath of God(s). There is a very real fear that lies beneath our superstition. Like the old chain letters that used to get passed around in the 1970s, we believe something really horrible will happen unless we perform the necessary actions. You know, unless you forward this letter to seventeen of your closest chums, you will die of suppurating ass boils. That sort of thing.

My particular strain of magical thinking has to do with my writing – whether I’m doing it or not, how well I seem to be doing, what will happen if I don’t write. (Hint: something bad.) I can get some serious worrying mileage out of this, obsessing for days or even weeks at a time. Obsessing, ruminating, going over it and over it, like pacing back and forth on the same piece of carpet until it’s threadbare.

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This? This would drive me absolutely barking mad.

If I’m not writing, what am I doing? Nothing. Well editing, yes, and ruminating on things I’ve seen and read, and incubating ideas that might turn into new books and stories. I must write! I am obligated to write!

What will happen if I don’t write? Not much, probably. But my mind says otherwise. If I don’t write it means that I was never a real writer to begin with. It means my talent is dried up and anything I might have written, won’t ever be written. That’s it now. The bank is closed. The top of the bag is tight shut. No more goodies for you, my dear. You wasted what we (who? God? Aliens?) gave you, so now you can just suffer.  The fact that I’m a writer is my only claim to legitimacy as a human being. There. That sounds suitably dramatic, doesn’t it? But it’s true…at least my mind insists it’s true.

All my life, I’ve been A Writer. When I’m not writing, I am not A Writer. It’s like I’ve lost my identity or something. I’m not producing anything, not publishing or putting anything out there. My neurotic mind told me I wasted six months on a book I was writing, and it was supposed to be a mystery novel and then it wasn’t, and then it was something else. I just completely lost control of the material.

For a while. Once I put it aside and had a rest, I was able to finish that novel. It’s a rough first draft and not even within shouting distance of perfect, but I did it. And I’m glad I did. I’m glad I was able to put my magical thinking aside, to place it in abeyance while I did the work.

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It ain’t gonna write itself…

I have to write or else I don’t exist. That sounds nuts, doesn’t it? If I don’t write, then I don’t exist. I am  a non-entity. I imagine being looked at and people thinking, You’re a writer? Really? When’s the last time you published anything? And then thinking that I have to hurry up and write something really big and really good like RIGHT NOW just kneecaps me.

Don’t do this to yourself. Please. Don’t write because you think you have to, or because you’ll be forgotten about unless you write something riveting and mind-blowing right this minute. Don’t force yourself. Writing is work, absolutely. But let it be joyful. Write what moves you. Write what you feel you must. Don’t fall into the trap of writing something that will sell because Jo Blow down the road wrote a book about nasal mucus fetishists who get off on slapping each other round the face with a dead fish, and it sold to the movies for TEN MILLION DOLLARS.

Lots of rubbish gets sold to the movies for ten million dollars. A lot of it is crap.

Don’t write crap.

Hovering in the Doorway

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So now it is 2019, at least where I live, and freezing cold outside, with a fresh scour of powdery snow on the ground. Winter is a hard time of year for me, because in the colder months so much of life must be lived interiorly, within doors, instead of outside, where I’m arguably at my happiest. I think I must have been meant for sunnier climes, some region without winter, or at least a country where the coldest season still allows for roaming far and wide and taking long walks with only myself for company.

Winter is a time when unwelcome thoughts creep in and make themselves at home, when the succubus of self-doubt settles itself around my shoulders like a hellish mantle. These are the days when I feel like I’m hovering in the doorway of a house where there’s a party going on. I’m never sure if I’ve been invited – should I just go in? Maybe I don’t belong there. Maybe it’s safer to stay where I am, not risk it, just in case I might get rejected or end up hurt or something. Perhaps I should stick to the sorts of things I’ve written in the past, not try anything new, just in case it doesn’t work out. Just in case I fail. Or make a fool of myself.

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We have brought in the new year, Paul and I, with wine and beer and chocolate, which I think is an excellent way to christen any new endeavor, be it chronological or otherwise. An unlimited amount of a nice, crisp Chardonnay goes far to allay the creeping dread and sense of internal dullness one feels in winter. For me, the shortening of the days has always portended dismay, a worsening of my illness, but the lack of light isn’t the worst of it.

That would be the cold. We’re supposed to be a temperate marine climate here, but the word ‘temperate’ allows for a significant amount of stretch: at the moment, the wind chill is -21C and we are laboring under a blizzard warning. Being shut inside makes me feel restless and a bit panicked; to be honest, I feel like I’m imprisoned in a cage – in this case, a cage of ice and snow and frigid temperatures. Luckily, Paul is adept at recognizing when my agitation threatens to burst its banks, and will suggest I exercise, or mop the floors or clean behind the toilet.

Don’t laugh. Housework is wonderfully remedial.

We spent Christmas with my sister, who is a marvelous cook. I’m the oldest; she’s the youngest – and the only member of my family who has read (and praised) everything I’ve ever written. She has been my advocate for as long as I can remember, a wonderfully sensible soul with two beautiful girls and an open heart, and she reads my work, praises my work, praises me for having done the work.

That’s an incredibly rare degree of love and devotion. Moving into a brand new year, I’m enormously grateful to her.

Happy New Year.

Life, Standing Still

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This little cat often comes to visit me in the winter.

I had the idea the other day that if you intend to portray life as it really is, you have to be quick. You can’t dither, or wonder if what you’re doing is right, or if you are doing it the right way.

Life won’t stand still long enough for you to nail it to the page with words. It never does. It moves fast, like summer swallows flickering through the yellow grass of a late August afternoon, and you have to go after it. Drop everything and run. Go! Hurry, hurry.

I think creative people – I include myself in this – lose a lot of time wondering if we’re doing it right. In the very early stages, that doesn’t matter. Just put it down on the page. Author and creative writing teacher Julia Cameron says that creativity “isn’t about making it up; it’s about getting it down.” I try to remember that, so I can get out of my own way, so I can manage to make something halfway decent. I don’t always succeed. I’ve started lots of projects, thinking ‘this will be really great!’ only to have it sputter and die miles from its intended destination or worse, to go madly off in all directions – jubilant, perhaps, but completely mad and inarticulate.

I’m forever wondering if I’m doing it right. Am I messing it up? I often think that by now, with so many years of writing behind me, I should know how to proceed. It should be very paint-by-numbers, right? Maybe it’s like that for other people. It’s never like that for me. I worry that I’m messing it up. Much of the time I do mess it up, which is why I have a ‘graveyard’ of failed manuscripts underneath my desk, gathering dust.  I suppose in some sense those failures are necessary, because they show me what doesn’t work. What I’m not able to do. Where I can’t, in fact, reach.

I usually fail to hit the mark if I’m trying to write something that isn’t me. Trying to write whatever I think will sell. Trying to write what people want – and of course it’s important to bear your intended audience in mind. But there’s no point in me trying to pull off something that isn’t part of my métier. I’m just wasting my time.

There are days I think I’m just wasting my time anyway. Doesn’t everyone have days like that? When you look at what you’ve made and something deep inside you (something that believes it’s always right, of course) looks at it and goes Ugh, what the hell? In the early stages of a project the best thing you can for yourself is to ignore that voice. Write something. Show it who’s boss.

I never want to be afraid of the empty page. Even if what I write isn’t what I had intended, it’s something, and writing something is better than writing nothing at all.

 

 

 

 

 

White are the far-off plains…

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White are the far-off plains, and white
The fading forests grow;
The wind dies out along the height,
And denser still the snow,
A gathering weight on roof and tree,
Falls down scarce audibly.

Archibald Lampman: “Snow”

 

I went for a walk this morning along a hiking trail that runs through a local park. Lola’s thirteen now, and the longer walks like this are a bit beyond her, so I left her to snooze on her dog bed and took the camera with me. We had a significant fall of snow about a week and a half ago, followed by some more the other night. The woods are, as Robert Frost wrote, “lovely, dark and deep”, their hidden places full of peaceful silence.

Something I love about this city is how nature is just right there, on the doorstep. There’s no need to drive for hours; a five-minute trip to this particular park and I’m immersed in the natural world. I met quite a few dogs: Jack the malamute, whom I’ve met before and who always wants to play; Holly the golden; a gorgeous German Shepherd; a Westie and a miniature Schnauzer; a Boston Terrier in a shearling jacket.

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The trail winds up hill and down, following the course of a little stream. What always strikes me about winter is how quiet it is; I heard nothing except the whitter of a passing chickadee, and the stream.  Every Christmas someone decorates the trees along the path with pretty ornaments, stars and tinsel. I loved how this red bulb stood out against the white of the snow and the fir tree’s radiant green:

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I’ve no idea who puts the bulbs there, yet they have appeared every holiday season, year after year, as long as I can remember. The birds don’t seem to mind them, being more occupied with finding food and shelter. They aren’t that interested in me, probably thinking that here’s another human passing through their territory, nothing to see here, folks. Besides Christmas bulbs, some people leave seeds and cracked corn on the ground and in the hollow places of spruce and fir trees. I love these offerings. I love that people care enough about these other beings to leave food for them in the midst of winter.  I love that nobody steals the Christmas bulbs or the tinsel or the sparkly stars. That people understand when to leave it be.

The world weighs heavy on me lately. I’ve been trying to limit my media consumption to local stories about miscreant police officers, missing fishermen, who won the election in Such and Such a place here on the island, and the brewmaster looking for unwanted fruitcake. I’ve had to turn away from international news, especially coming from the United States, because it causes me no end of personal distress, depression, and despair. I have learned to bolster myself with positivity and offer myself comfort and compassion. Sometimes it really feels like we are standing on the edge of an abyss, and I don’t know if we still have time to step away and save ourselves. I hope we do. I hope we have the common sense to turn away from narcissistic pedants and idealogues and fascists who insist the entire world should march to their particular drum.

In the meantime there’s the quiet of the winter forest and the peace of wild things.

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Snowshoe hare tracks in the snow.