If anyone thinks Calgary is all pancake breakfasts, politicians in Stetsons, and dubious animal handling ethics, they don’t know Calgary. It’s home to a great literary arts scene–poets, writers, literary mags, university programs, the whole package. It’s a pleasure to get to travel there as part of my own book tour. Last night, I was part of filling Station magazine’s Flywheel Reading Series along with fellow writers Erin Emily Ann Vance and Bren Simmers. It was the first time this tour I wasn’t either sick or late, making the event a triumph. I had a great time, was the subject of some horrible photos as I hammed my way through my reading, went back to the hotel, ordered room service with my sponsor (my husby), and crashed. Thanks, YYC!
Two decades without camping didn’t seem like too many to me. I love being outdoors but I crave a proper roof overhead when it’s time to call it a night.
Then, this winter, I was asked to take over as leader of a youth group for 30 girls ages 12 to 17. It’s a great gig. It tempers the Smurfette vibe I’ve cultivated living alone in a pack of men for the last nineteen years. I’m honoured and happy to be there.
Still, I spent the spring dreading our youth group’s traditional annual camping trip. Fortunately, some of my fellow leaders are skilled, enthusiastic campers. They took over. My camp role was to sign off on expense claims, make a few rousing presentations, offer hugs to the homesick, and not sabotage the whole thing with my incompetence.
It was a simple role but I fretted anyway. What might have been more daunting than whatever challenges awaited at camp were the challenges I’d leave behind at home. Not getting things done can be just as hard as getting things done. My family is in the middle of moving house. It’s not a great time for me to flee into the wilderness. In order to take the girls camping, I left my house unpacked and unsold, left my kids, left a chance to see my commuter husband who was traveling home to stay with them. And, I left my second novel in the process of an intense unfinished edit.
For me – and probably for other writers who finish manuscripts – there’s no such thing as taking time off simply because life is busy. Activity inspires creativity and the paradoxical truth is I sometimes work best when it should be logistically impossible for me to get anything done. This summer, while single-parenting my five sons and trying to sell our house, I’ve written more, and more consistently than I have all year.
The prospect of my second novel is a bit terrifying. My first book has been well-received and part of its legacy is fear of a “sophomore slump.” I wrote the first version of my second novel before I’d found a publisher for my first book – before I knew who I was as a novelist. It was an experiment. The first version of it was plotty and funny and fairly glib. There were hardly any “that’s my soul up there” moments in it. It ate away at me a little – the secret that I didn’t love my second novel the way I love my first one. I liked it. But…
With this second book I have access to something I didn’t have when I wrote my first one. I have someone in the industry willing to read it and skilled enough to tell me what’s wrong with it. I knew the book was lacking but I couldn’t tell how or what to do about it. With good editorial feedback fueling my revision process, I hope I’m starting to understand.
The radical edits demanded I change something fundamental to the book – the title itself. Every time I opened the document I changed the title and every time I changed it, I hated it more and more.
So I went to camp with my novel gutted, untitled. I went trusting my familiar paradoxes, sure a four day pajama party in the woods would improve everything unsettled in my life right now – maybe even my second novel.
Camp was fantastic. We should have called it “Camp Slacker.” There wasn’t much of a schedule, I kept driving the girls to the beach in the back of my pick-up truck, we stayed up all night every night, we never really stopped eating.
On the final morning of camp, I woke up underneath a brand new spider web, listening to music – not in my ears but in my mind. It was a song I hadn’t heard in a long time – one I first learned when I was a 16-year-old girl. It was Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”
Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river…
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror…
It’s unlikely LC was thinking of youth camp leaders working to convince young girls of their worth and power and potential – to “show them where to look among the garbage and the flowers” – when he wrote these lyrics. But art is sublime and it doesn’t matter what he was thinking. For a moment, the song was about me and my “children in the morning” – the ones born to other mothers but sent into the woods with me for a few days in hopes we’d all come to understand ourselves a little better.
My second novel – the awkward one with no name – it’s always been about sisterhood. And in the early morning sisterhood of my first camping trip in over twenty years, the paradox worked its perfection and I think I learned what I will call the book.
Photos by Naomi Stanford
I’m thinking of one of my many friends who’d like to be a career writer. This person is particularly serious about his work. And he’s talented too. Sometimes, he’s got this fascinating, original voice that makes me envious as heck. I admire him a lot. Here’s where his story gets frustrated: he never completes anything. He’s written a few unpublished short stories but, so far, all his book-length projects burn out and blow away. And I think I might know why.
I’ve got another friend who’s also working at making writing into a career. Last year, one of her novella projects was taken on and released as an ebook by a digital publishing company. Her enviable strength is story-telling and her work has strong commercial appeal – vampires, paranormal romance, girls with superpowers. Years and years before there was EL James, this writer’s greatest success was writing PG-rated fan-fiction based on anime series.
Before she told me about it, I didn’t even realize such a market existed.
What surprised me most about her writing projects weren’t all the Japanese names in them but the way the stories are released. Most of my friend’s books – which typically finish at a whopping 100,000 words — are released online, one chapter at a time, every Thursday. They’re like old-fashioned serials. She’s the Charles Dickens of anime fan-fiction. When she starts writing, she has a general idea of where the story needs to go and how it will get there but she still sits down at her computer each week willing to surprise herself.
Here’s how my burn-out writer friend differs most from my serial-writer friend: outlining. While the serial writer is free-wheeling, taking her story one week at a time, Mr. Burn-out is outlining. When he finally cracks open his computer to write his books, he’s already tacked down every element of the story like it’s an entomological display – an array of dead, labeled specimens pinned to a blank field. He outlines plots and characters until it’s hard for me to imagine how there could be anything left in them to surprise him.
By the time he’s ready to turn his voice and the rest of his talent on his outline, there’s nothing else to discover in his story. Frankly, I think it might bore him. Or maybe it’s something more complicated – like the perfect, linear vision in the outline starts to seem too sublime to actually approach. Maybe it triggers something like an anxiety reaction and paralyzes all that talent of his.
I’ve talked to him about it, tried to get him to write with more of an open-mind. But he says he enjoys writing the outlines. When I suggest the outlines might be part of what keeps him from ever finishing a project, he’s unconvinced – for now.
I don’t get it but I’m trying to understand. Yes, I hate outlines. Sometimes, when a writing project is getting long and disordered, I’ll grudgingly make notes about plot points on index cards, spread the cards out of my bed, and move them around until I can see how the structure of the story needs to be strengthened. But that’s the extent of my outlining. For me, an outline is like punishment for falling into disorganized writing. It’s remedial and necessary sometimes but it’s not a large or pleasant part of the process. I don’t know. Maybe I’d be a better writer if I took the advice of my kids’ elementary school language arts teachers and drew a good “thought-web” every now and then. But until someone else makes me do it, I’ll just keep typing.