A Bunch of Bad Reasons for Not Writing

blindmansbluffUnlikely as it is, I have done my most intense and productive writing during summer months–except for that one summer when the irises of my eyes got inflamed and I temporarily lost a good portion of my vision for about a month and could not write at all (well, hardly at all). The inflammation may or may not have been the result of too much time spent looking at an old, fuzzy laptop screen, writing.

In light of this–and many, many other things–I am probably not someone to model oneself after, but if you’re out on the interwebs right now looking for a pep-talk to keep you writing through the summer, consider this it.

A writing atmosphere of bad, cozy weather is one of the stereotypes repeated on “Memes for Writers” Pinterest boards where the aesthetic is all sweaters, cats, and hot drinks. Setting up any kind of external setting or internal personality or background as essential for writing is counter-productive, usually elitist, and simply irritating for writers interested in actually finishing a writing project. So enough of that. No more passwords or potions, no rites or effete orthodoxies, no self-indulgent mythologies about who writers ought to be. No more talking about writing in a way that draws only the ‘right’ kinds of people into thinking of themselves as writers, trusting themselves as writers, and braving the risks needed to publish. Enough. Ignore it.

 

You can write even if:

  • You weren’t a bookish child. Don’t worry if you can’t stare into the middle distance, all dreamy, and claim your best friends growing up were books. If your best friends were actually people (and I’ll bet that, for just about everyone, they were) you are better off in every way, including as a writer.
  • You aren’t a voracious reader now. It’s true writers have to read in order to learn who we are and how to do what we do. It’s true writers owe everything to readers. Thanks for reading this right now. But you don’t always have to have someone else’s book on hand in order to have something of your own to write.
  • You have kids. Writing will be much more difficult and distracted with constant kids in your life. You knew that going into this. But it can be done. Virginia Woolf was wrong about this one. Trust Shirley Jackson, and Ursula LeGuin, and Zadie Smith, and hundreds of other people writing in the teeth of their offsprings’ childhoods.
  • You don’t drink too much coffee. It’s just short term gain.
  • You don’t drink too much alcohol. It’s just long term pain.
  • You aren’t a native speaker of the language in which you want to write. In fact, newness to a language might be an asset (I’m staking my MA thesis on it, so I sure hope so). No one experiments with a language in original ways, no one wrings new things out of the same old lexicon like someone who has learned it as a second language and approaches it free from the cliches and conventions native speakers have been bound by since we were babies.
  • You don’t have an MFA in creative writing. Whatever your education or experience is, it is part of your training as a writer and the weirder, less prescribed it is, the better it is, in my opinion.
  • You’re allergic to cats.
  • You get along with your family. In fact, make sure you write something if you get along with your family. The literary world needs more families who find conflict in things other than breaking each other’s hearts.

There it is. No excuses, no exclusions. All the best this summer!

Me, Writing for the New Left Review

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My academic gig is also a writing gig. As part of our educations and contributions to our fields and universities, we all write and publish critical analyses of literature and culture. So here I go. My first academic article was published today. I’m a big admirer of the publication it’s in–a London-based journal called the New Left Review which is important to many people who study what I study. Very pleased.

Big thanks to my husby for the Swedish last name I took from him easing some of the awkwardness out of my article’s critique of a Swedish institution and the tacit awards criteria for the Nobel Prize for Literature. In an article that is definitely not about Bob Dylan, I explore whether the prize is still bound up in Eurocentric ethos. Guess what I found…

 

The Idiom is Actually “Raising Children”

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From a sidewalk in Galati, Romania, where one of my adult sons lives

I think I understand why an article titled “Quit Doing These 8 Things for Your Teen This Year if You Want to Raise an Adult” keeps appearing in my Facebook newsfeed this week. It’s about a parent’s choice to refuse to do things like waking her kids up in the morning, packing their lunches, dashing forgotten items to school, helping with projects, and other things most teenagers—people the same age our great-great grandparents were when they were getting married and raising kids and crops of their own—could probably handle without adult intervention. I get it. Kids can become a make-work project, getting them to acquire competence is an important part of parenting, it isn’t easy, it isn’t comfortable, yes, yes, yes.

I understand the message but it is badly presented in this article. It’s not just that the writer’s lack of insight into her own ableism is downright offensive. It’s not just that teenagers grow at different rates, including at rates complicated by developmental delays. Some of them aren’t neurotypical, or are struggling with mood or anxiety disorders that affect their abilities to focus, remember details, and harness the ole get-up-and-go. The article’s bad presentation is all of this and more.

I’m slightly farther ahead in the parenting lifecycle than the author of the article. I have two children who have become adults in spite of me waking them up and making their lunches every day until they graduated from high school. Now that they’re out in the world—one of them in the third year of a computing science degree at a large research university, and the other across the Atlantic Ocean serving as a volunteer in a rough industrial town—one of the things I don’t worry about is whether they will get up in the morning now that I’m not waking them myself. They do. They just do.

No, what I do worry about are the same things I’ve always worried about. I worry about whether they’ll be kind to people, generous with their time and energy. I worry about whether they’ll help people out and offer second chances when dumb mistakes are made, even if those mistakes have bothered them. I worry about them being able to resist petty power struggles, and being prepared to inconvenience themselves in the interest of making life better for other people, particularly people who are smaller and weaker than them. I hope they remember me and their father inconveniencing ourselves to care for them when they were young and weak. To raise a person who doesn’t remember being treated like this is to risk raising someone who doesn’t know to treat other people like this. It’s priming someone to be a problem partner, a problem parent, a problem caregiver for their own parents when the time comes for us to grow old, losing track of our time and possessions, needing someone to patiently and helpfully oversee our daily activities. The tables that we’re sitting at with our children at this early stage in our family lives—they turn.

There’s more still. Not all parents are equally well-equipped for parenting. Some of us work, run businesses, parent alone, are simultaneously caring for older generations, cope with illnesses of our own, spend years in pregnancy and breastfeeding modes that make us less than constantly available to our kids. Maybe what I’m saying when I walk into my fifteen-year-old’s bedroom while it’s still dark and pat him on the arm until he pats my hand back, telling me without a word that he’s awake, isn’t that he’s cute and I want him to stay my baby forever. Maybe I’m saying I realize I never spent an entire week planning and executing a lavish birthday party for him, so I hope he can accept my love in these small installments offered in silence every morning. Maybe what I was saying when I chucked that daily granola bar and sandwich into a brown bag for my eighteen-year-old is how sorry I am that I was too busy with his baby brothers to ever be a parent volunteer in his classroom while he was at school, so I hope he’ll accept rations of food I paid for and assembled with my own hands instead.

It’s trite to spell it out—not to mention terribly ironic to have to write it in response to an article that repeatedly condemns “judging” among parents–but clearly, parents can only offer their kids resources they actually have. Even then, those resources—time, money, talents, health and wellness–have to be tailored to meet the needs and characters of individual kids, rather than being applied as meme-ish rules of thumb pasted under bossy headlines. We don’t, contrary to what the article’s title says “raise an adult.” The idiom is actually that we raise children. Unless kids die young, they will become adults. There’s nothing their parents can do to stop that and there’s no need to quit anything but worrying about it. What’s more important than whether they’ll be adults is what kinds of adult behaviours we’re modelling for them.

My New Fiction in “Prairie Fire” is Also a Preview of My Novel-in-Progress

prairiefireLast night, right before lights-out, I checked the website of venerable old Canadian literary magazine Prairie Fire and found it had been updated to show the Fall 2016 issue–the issue featuring a short story called “Everybody’s Horror Movie,” new fiction written by me. The news meant I couldn’t sleep but I was happy enough not to mind. See, nothing is harder for me to write and to publish than fiction. I am always ecstatic when it happens. What makes this publication credit extraordinarily exciting for me is that the short story in Prairie Fire is the project from which my current novel-in-progress evolved. I needed an infusion of hope and encouragement that this novel will have a life outside my computer and the publication of this story did exactly that.

The story isn’t available online but if you get a copy of Prairie Fire, have a look.

Current Issue

“Sistering” is One: Happy First Birthday to My Second Book

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Me and My Real Sisters in 1992 – just because I can’t get enough of this picture

When a book is part of the Fall publishing season (as both of my novels have been) the anniversary of its publication, its birthday, comes in the summertime, in the season for not noticing typical business. Yes, once again, I forgot my book’s first birthday—no tweet, no Facebook post, no mental note to self in the shower, not even a mention to my husband over non-coffee.

So happy belated birthday to Sistering, my second novel, now thirteen months old. I didn’t completely forget. I still remember:

  • The reviews, balanced but not at all bad. The first review was one I heard rather than read. It was an interview on a province-wide CBC Radio programme between Chris dela Torre and reviewer Angie Abdou. A stand-out line for me was, “Jennifer Quist makes you believe it.” Tempted to have some T-shirts made…
  • Finding Sistering among fifteen newly published titles on CBC Books’ 2015 Fall Reading List.
  • The Edmonton launch at Audreys Books where I was sick with a terrible cold but made it through the evening on my feet, in good enough voice, and in excellent company. The beautiful artisan cake my sister supplied is probably what saved the day.
  • Travelling to Red Deer and Calgary to read during the early launch days, seeing old friends, meeting talented and interesting people, and having some very unflattering pictures taken of myself voice-acting a chapter from the novel. All’s fair in the promotion of a humor novel.
  • Being recognized by fellow members of my faith community and invited to Laie, Hawaii to receive the Association for Mormon Letters Best Novel Award. For once, my husband was able to go with me to a fly-away writing destination. Going to paradise with my favourite to celebrate a book I wrote that other people read— totally worth taking a hit on that missed Chinese quiz.
  • Coming home to find I’d been long-listed for the 2016 Alberta Readers Choice Awards. We didn’t move past the first round but it was (wait for it) an honor to be nominated.
  • Getting interviewed. I know this is rare in the blogosphere, but I love talking about myself and what I do. Ha! It’s especially true when interviewers know the book and don’t get in the way with preconceived ideas (read: are not hell-bent on a cute-mom story).
  • Coming closer to a Canadian literature icon than ever (not counting having Margaret Atwood sign a book for me this spring) when I was invited to be part of the Leacock Summer Festival in Orillia, Ontario at the museum to Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock.
  • Appearing at book clubs. I love this. If you have a book club, call me. One of the clubs I visited had everyone vote for their favourite sister of the novel’s five main characters. Everyone except “Suzanne” got a vote but “Ashley” ran away with it.
  • The satisfaction of writing a book my mum and her bff could genuinely enjoy.

That was our year. What a business. It pushes us ever onward and I am now finishing up the manuscript of my third novel, one I also love, but won’t promise to remember its birthday when the time comes either.

 

 

 

An Interview With the AML

amlEarlier this year, Sistering was awarded Best Novel by the Association for Mormon Letters, an international community that’s been very kind and supportive of my work. They sent one of their best and brightest, Michael Austin, to do an email interview with me–the most Mormon and, interestingly, the least gender role fixated one I’ve ever done. The link to read it is here.

外国人去过北京 or, Mute Dragon and Stuttering Phoenix Have No Idea How to Relax

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I have trouble writing the monuments of my life. This summer has been rife with them. In June I attended the birth of my sister’s second-born, my own second-born’s high school graduation, and the veterinary clinic where we signed off on ending the suffering of the nasty little birdie who’d been our pet for over six years. All of it happened without much written comment from me. That will come later, in small ways, image by image as I properly take it in and bleed it out. July began with another monument, which I will post pictures of here at the very least, though I sense it will take years and years to write the whole of it.

My husband and I have just returned from China. Midway through our tour of Beijing, I posted the picture above, captioning it, “The Great Wall 长城, like everything about this place, is both far more amazing and more difficult up close.” A friend asked what I meant by difficult. Well, biased by childhood field trips to stone parapets of British forts made into National Parks in Maritime Canada, I expected the Great Wall to be something like a raised walking trail—all the dangerous parts closed off or refitted to modern standards. But the Beijing section of the wall runs along the top of a mountain range, like a spine on a rippling dragon’s back. The wall is made of stones and brick, dropping off in steep slopes, rising in uneven flights of stairs. In places,metal handrails have been added, long rusted red. Visiting the wall is not a walk but a hike, a climb. Despite the difficulty, it is crowded with people, all kinds of people: foreign athletes showing off their soccer moves, Chinese kids striking Kung Fu poses for their parents’ cameras, tough Chinese grannies unpacking bag lunches, and us, a blond waiguoren couple.

This has been my experience with everything Chinese. It is all more complicated and more difficult than anyone can tell looking at it from afar. The complexity is part of what makes

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The Temple of Heaven, where I might have cried a little

it beautiful almost to the point of surreality. My contact with it humbles and chastises me—at times, punishes me–but I keep following after it anyway. Every time I think about setting it aside, something pulls me back. I can’t turn around in China without crashing face-to-face into myself, even while there is nothing there at all like myself. It may be a place to lose myself in order to find myself.

In Beijing we visited the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, towers and temples and shops. We cleared security and stood in Tiananmen Square, but didn’t queue for the two hours in the hot sun it would have taken to get into Mao’s tomb to see his body lying in a crystal coffin. We did go into The Underground Palace, an empty tomb of a Ming emperor and his two empresses. Their bodies had been removed and destroyed by the Red Guard decades ago. On our way inside, a beautiful princess-girl, just a little younger than the Red Guard would have been when they came here, approached me with delicate English. “Excuse me, would you like to take a picture with me?” She answered when I called her 妹妹 meimei, little sister.

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At Mao’s Tomb in Tiananmen Square

Maybe it sounds forced or phony but believe me when I say the best part of our tour of China was the people, the ones I spoke to and the ones I didn’t. I liked the way, instead of being equipped with a whistle, the boat at the Summer Palace had a loud speaker the captain used to call out scoldings to the smaller boats drifting into his path as we chugged across the lake. I liked the way our cab driver changed his manner of speech when he pronounced the name Mao Zedong—something between esteem and perhaps sarcasm, impossible to tell, so perfect, so Chinese. At night, along the old city moat not far from our hotel, people gathered to sing and dance until the police sent them home at 10pm. Some of them danced in unison, through steps they came together to learn and practice even when the nights were hot and smoggy. We sat on the edges of the patios, with the dancers’ pet dogs and the men with their t-shirts rolled up over their bellies, all of them smoking like it’s 1977, and we watched.

Speaking and understanding Chinese in a classroom is something I can do with hours of careful preparation. Speaking and understanding Chinese in the streets is different. In our

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Beijing Nightlife on the Moat

native language, my husband and I are professional communicators—people paid and petted for our skills in verbal and written expression. In China, my husband is illiterate and has a vocabulary limited to “thank you, hello, right, Canadian.” He was mistaken for Russian, which he also does not speak. But he loves me and came on a trip where he became the big, quiet bodyguard the cab driver was glancing at in the rear-view mirror, asking me what’s wrong with him. He could have booked a vacation on nearly any beach in this world, but instead he came to Beijing—to the heat and smog and smell—so I could grow a little.

As for me, I could barely read and every verbal interaction I had was a smoking wreck. There was a lot of me saying “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” a lot of helpful Chinese restating of what I’d just tried to say only with the better vocabulary and pronunciation. Every time I was corrected, I said thank you because I was thankful. I didn’t go to China to leave just as stupid as I arrived. There were also kind compliments, encouragement, surprised nods whenever I managed to order rice without sounding like a beggar. Back at the hotel, I’d lay awake going over everything I’d said, recognizing mistakes too late, wishing I’d done better. And then it’d all flip inside out and I’d be shaking my exhausted husband, raving, “I used the Chinese! I did it. Did you hear me?”

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Husby and  獬豸xiezhi, good-lookin’ pair, hardly anyone can say they’re as tall as a Chinese unicorn.

Late in the afternoon, after the Great Wall, our tour guide took us to The Sacred Way, a lavish imperial graveyard we had to swipe our thumbprints to get into. It was a long flagstone avenue lined with trees full of magpies, and old statues of standing and crouching animals. Our guide brought us to the Chinese unicorn, the symbol of law and judiciary, a respectful acknowledgement of my husband’s true identity as an erudite member of the justice system in our home country. We stopped to take this picture, long enough for China to make one more tug at me. A swallow-tail butterfly flitted out of a hedge and alighted on the top of my foot. On the stones of The Sacred Way, I stood still and waited as the creature fanned its wings.