On Looking Back at Looking Forward

Writing Prompt courtesy of Mama’s Losin’ It:  If you could have given yourself a snapshot five years ago of what your life is like now, what would the picture be of and how do you think you would have felt about it?

A present day photograph:  I’m sitting in the breakfast nook dressed in my usual hoodie. My laptop, my pencil case, a pen, a novel, a to-do list, a cup of coffee litter the table. I’m writing in a notebook while the sun shines in the the slanted windows.

Looking at this photograph in 2014,  I would have been confused.  Where am I? The table, the chairs, the artwork on the wall, they’re all mine. But that’s not my house.  And when did I start wearing a hoodie?

Five years ago, I was still living Kansas City. I was employed as an English professor. I had friends and community; our lives had structure and routine. Moving back to Canada  was a faint hope on the distant horizon, but there was no obvious path to getting there.  Plus, our lives were solid and entrenched. Looking at this photograph in 2014, I would have assumed the way back home had opened up.

In 2014, I would have been heartened to see me hunched over a notebook. I would have wondered what I was writing. I would have hoped I was finally ‘really’ doing it. Would I have noted the absence of teaching materials, that no stack of student papers sat ungraded on the table? And if I had, would that have gladdened or saddened me?

This snapshot would have made me hopeful. Perhaps it’s for the best I didn’t know five years ago that we would move to Colorado not Canada. I would not have understood. And I wouldn’t have been ready to know how hard this move would be, or how, two years in, I’m still not sure why I’m here.



On how Virginia Woolf might be haunting me

2019 is my year of reading Virginia Woolf.  And this week, Woolf seemed to appear in everything else I read, too. She popped up in three  unrelated texts. I feel like Germans or the Japanese must have a word for this kind of literary kismet.

Sighting #1: The Blog Post

At Stuck in a Book, there was a review of Katharine Smyth’s All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virgina Woolf.  (Maybe that’s what I’m doing?) The book sounds like Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, a memoir about reading (and re-reading) a particular book or author, and how it shapes how one lives. Simon liked it, and so I stacked it. Image result for katharine smyth stuck in a book

Sighting #2: The Book

A less glowing reference to Woolf appeared in my Kindle read (IE my before-bed/middle of-the-night book). Diana Athill’s Stet is a memoir about life as an editor at a small publishing house in mid-twentieth-century UK. It’s an enjoyable read for anyone who is fascinated by (a now lost) world of publishing

Image result for stet diana athill

At the end, Athill reflects on how publishing was dominated by a particular caste, what she defines as “mostly London-dwelling, university-educated, upper-middle-class English people. This led to an understanding of ‘good’ that was good only according to notions of caste. She pinpoints Woolf as a writer who benefited from this class viewpoint. Athill writes:

And Woolf, whom I revered in my youth, now seems almost embarrassing because the claims made for her were so high. Not only did she belong to the caste, but she was unable to see beyond its boundaries — and that self-consciously ‘beautiful’ writing, all those adjectives — oh dear! Caste standards . . . have no right to be considered sacrosanct.

I don’t doubt the role caste has played in the shaping of ‘good’ literary taste, although I still adore Woolf, adjectives and all. She is so critically beloved now that it’s almost refreshing to see someone find fault with her. Athill was a formidable woman who recently died at 101. I can forgive her being anti-Woolf.

Sighting #3: The Essay

I subscribe to a literary journal called True Story published by the Creative Nonfiction. It’s like getting a Longform article in the mail. Each month a single story arrives packaged in a brightly-coloured adorable singlet. They’ve been piling up so I tossed one into my purse for the wait in the school pick-up line.

“Lethe” by Leanna James Blackwell opens:

On March 28, 1941, the great modernist writer Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets and stones and walked into the River Ouse in Sussex until the cold water covered her head.

What follows is an essay about Blackwell’s own mother, a woman who chose to put a happy face on things, even when they were obviously not so.  She also happened to die on March 28th, just like Woolf. This connection prompts Blackwell to filter her essay about her mother through the works of her favourite novelist.

The takeaway: Woolf is everywhere. And maybe she’s haunting me a little. (I’m okay with that.) Who knows where I’ll find her next?



On An Absorbing Errand (Book 1 of 2019 Creativity Challenge)

As part of the 2019 Creativity Challenge host by Jamie Ghione at Whatever I Think Of, I am reading and reviewing a writing-related book each month. First up is An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make their Way to Mastery (2012) by Janna Malamud Smith, which I bought on sale from Early Bird Books.

An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery

Malamud Smith’s title comes Henry James’s novel Roderick Hudson, where the character Rowland Mallett says: “true happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one’s self: but the point is not only to get out — you must stay out; and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand” (quoted in Malamud Smith 27).

Malamud Smith takes this statement, and develops it. She writes:

An absorbing errand is the agreement to undertake and sustain a compelling practice of your own, an effort at mastery that requires time and focus. it is an adventure with many perils. Yet, in return, you gain a window seat, a forward motion, and a landscape made new (30-1).

The rest of the book is an in-depth exploration of those ‘perils’ one faces in pursuit of mastery.  Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist which shapes her analysis of how famous artists became masterful. She looks at how shame was crucial to the development of of Charlie Chaplin’s film making and the necessity of ruthlessness in the life of painter Philip Gustan. What Malamud Smith illustrates is the contradiction at the heart of these various ‘perils’: how they can easily impede art-making, while simultaneously, how wrestling with them is necessary for its creation.

In her chapter on recognition, she writes.

In our Progress, the pilgrim’s peril vis-a-vis recognition comes from the temptation to try to forsake sacrificing time and effort, to forsake the risk of laboring, to eschew brokering the real dread of coming up short – the dread of being recognized but not embraced . . . the wish for recognition is fundamental to our psychological being, and our urgency to survive, and our longing for love. The process of mastery requires tolerating the wish as it falls short and falls short, until finally it may approach something plausible (79-80).

And later, she outlines the alone/together dilemma of creative solitude:

Our own thinking and creativity are often better catalyzed and stimulated in discourse, not in isolation. We need to work alone; we need to have privacy — sometimes a lot of it — and closing the door and returning to our pens and paper or keyboards or brushes and easels can be bliss; but we also need to be stirred up, stimulated and challenged by others, especially others who share our interests and with whom we feels some modicum of mutual respect (127).

Malamud is an elegant writer and as a student in counselling, I appreciated the nuance of her psychoanalytical lens. I enjoyed how she turned artists’ lives into ‘case histories.’ That said, this book is not for everyone. It can be quite heady, and the takeaways for one’s own practice are elusive. And I’m not even sure I like the concept of ‘mastery,’ which has an elitist, masculine whiff to it. Still, there is something to mulling over the perils I struggle with in my own pursuit of art, and how therein might lie the keys to unlocking my creative work.







On my Top Ten Tuesday: TBR addition edition

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This is my first participating and the theme is: top ten most recent additions to my TBR.  I have two such lists: one on Goodreads and one on Litsy.   I decided to pull from Litsy since it’s more current, eclectic, and based on reader recommendations. I mostly add to my Goodreads TBR after doing a deep dive into a particular topic (which means if I used it, this list would comprise entirely of titles related to mental health). Here goes!

Yesterday, someone on Litsy posted in praise of Richard Russo, and I confessed  I’d never read him. Another follower piped up to say she thought I’d enjoy his character-driven books. She recommended this as a good start:

Straight Man: Russo, Richard

Another poster gave this new novel a thumbs up and compared it to the work of Otessa Moshfegh.  I was sold!

Image result for the new me halle butler

This is Rebecca Makkai”s  first novel and the Litsy reviewer said, “If you love libraries, books, and stories . . . you’ll love this.”  So I stacked.

Image result for the borrower rebecca makkai

Ali Smith is probably one of my favourite contemporary writers, so when I saw this collection of talks she’d given, I immediately added it.  Plus that cover!

Image result for artful ali smith

Barbara Comyns is a new-to-me, mid-century, possibly-overlooked English writer that I’d like to get to know.  Plus I’m willing to try any title published by the New York Review of Books.

Image result for juniper tree barbara comyns

I can never resist anything Bronte-related.

Image result for dark quartet lynne reid banks

As I read more about Virginia Woolf, I am inevitability drawn to books about her.  Someone sent this recommendation my way. That cover is so charming!

Image result for virginia woolf illustrated bio

With Virginia comes Vita. Image result for vita sackville west all passion spent

And more Virgina Woolf. This one a novel about her  life.

Image result for adeline norah smith

And now for something completely different. I had seen this listed on lots of ‘best of’ year-end book lists. Then a Litten posted some quotations and I was convinced I should read it.  Probably we should all read this.

Image result for notes on a nervous planet

That was fun! Anyone read any of these?  Should I bump anything to the top or bottom?

On creating a (cramped, semi-low-stakes) writing space

In Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different, Eleanor, the graphic artist heroine, converts the pantry in her Seattle home into a cramped art studio. She describes:

The space was barely big enough for my drawing table; the walls pinned floor to ceiling with a mad jam of photos, images torn from magazines, notes to myself, random trinkets. on the floor, waist-high stacks of photography books I use for reference, and a glass jug that held the stubs of all the colored pencils I’d ever burned through” (82).

As I’ve pondered where to create a writing space in my house, this image came to mind. If Eleanor could take over a pantry, why couldn’t I use a storage closest?

Mostly I write at the kitchen table. (I sit here now.) In some ways, a non-committal space works well for me. It lowers the stakes, and I do tend to do better when I keep my writing life somewhat casual.  Still, it is inconvenient. There is no door I can close when I need to focus. No papers can remain strewn about; whatever mess my writing self makes must be easily tidied up before dinner. However much I might resist it, I know that having a space reserved for my writing is important, and that claiming such a space is part of claiming my writing identity.

Look how cool Colette is, working away in her bed.

But there is no obvious space for me to have as a writing station in this house. A lot of it has an open floor plan and all three bedrooms are occupied by kids. There is room in the master bedroom, but overlapping those spaces is unappealing. I don’t want my slumbering husband in the background of my early morning writing time. And I’m no Colette. The temptation to sleep – not write – in the bed would be too great.

And so the basement storage closet became my best option. I decided to carve out space amid the  disorganized catchall for electronics, toys, school work, books, wrapping paper, and holiday decorations. It will still be a storage closest, but it’s big enough to hold a small desk and a chair. It has shelves and a door.

The conversion has begun. My husband built the small IKEA desk, and I’ve begun to make room on the shelves that I can then re-fill with the paraphernalia of my writing life.  The danger is that I will avoid it (that is what has happened when I’ve created an office in the past). But I’m hoping its storage closest-ness will help keep me from feeling the space is too serious or weighty. I’m also intentionally not calling it an office. So I need to name it something inviting (and semi-low-stakes), and then I have to just go ahead and start writing in my messy, cramped (sort of) room of my own.





On starting to read Virgina Woolf’s diaries

I’ve deemed 2019 My Year of Reading Woolf, and there is a lot of Woolf to read! I don’t expect to read it all, but I have prioritized her diaries and letters. I am about 80 pages into Volume 1 of her diaries. Entries cover air raids, moving, dentist appointments, walks, gossip, writing projects, and so on.  There are lots of people to keep track of.  Occasionally a witty remark or astute observation stands out:

I wrote all the morning, with infinite pleasure, which is queer, because I know all the time that there is no reason to be pleased with that I write & that in 6 weeks or even days, I shall hate it. — Wed, 6 Jan 1915

Shall I say “nothing happened today” as we used to do in our diaries when they were beginning to die? It wouldn’t be true. The day is rather like a leafless tree: there are sorts of colours in it, if you look closely. But the outline is bare enough.  — Fri, 29 Jan 1915

No one could be nicer; & yet she has the soul of the lake, not of the sea. Or is one too romantic & exacting in what one expects?  — Fri, 7 December 1917

I don’t know that much about Woolf. I’ve read her major novels. I know she had a passionate affair with Vita Sackville-West and that she killed herself by walking into the river with pockets laden with rocks. My knowledge of the Bloomsbury set and her family history is vague at best. But Woolf is a bit of a cottage industry now, and there is no end of biographical and contextual material about her and her peers. I could spend a year (or more) reading just that! But I’m trying to resist secondary materials for now, and focus on what she wrote herself. (Which is loads.)

Image result for diary virginia woolf volume 1

But the temptation to read about Virginia may prove irresistible, as I have already found myself wanting to learn more about her mental illness which is still being described as madness and lunacy in 1977. There is a break in her journals between 1915 and 1917 when the editor explains that Woolf “slid inexorably into madness . . . Weeks passed during which she was incoherent, excited and violent . . . It seemed she might never return to sanity” (39). How to make sense of that according to today’s understanding of mental health? After some cursory searching online, I found articles claiming Woolf probably suffered from bipolar disorder.  She was also sexually abused for years by her stepbrothers. The abuse saddened me, and I found the clinical diagnosis as dissatisfying as the vague nineteenth-century medical catchalls. As yet, Woolf has not discussed her illness in her diary, except for references to Leonard not wanting her to overexert herself.  If I want a better understanding, I will have to dig deeper.

Quentin Bell opens the introduction to Volume 1 by claiming the diaries are a masterpiece. He writes, “in calling it a masterpiece I mean to indicate that is is a literary achievement equal to though very different from The Waves or To the Lighthouse, having the same accurate beauty of writing but also an immediacy such as one finds only in diaries; it is in fact one of the great diaries of the world” (xiii).  I was already convinced I wanted to read them, but that praise certainly boosted my resolve.

On Virginia Woolf’s The Years

Thick, wet snow fell steadily all day yesterday, covering cars, roads, trees, and roofs in white. It felt fitting for the weather to loom large as I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s The Years. Weather features prominently in the book, as it jumps from one year to another. In 1880, when the book opens, it’s rain; then in 1891, it’s the wind; in 1907, it’s the heat,Image result for victorian london in the snow and so on. A woman sees the rain out the window after looking up from her writing desk, a man contends with it as he walks home from the office.  The shopkeeper, the cab driver, the theatre goer, the farmer, the nanny, all over the city and into the countryside, people go about living their disparate lives, connected by the indifferent weather.

The Pargiter family is at the center of the novel. We meet them — father Abel, dying wife Rose, and their five children — in 1880 and then revisit them, their cousins, and then their offspring in 1891, 1907, 1908, 1910, 1911,1914, 1917, 1918, ending in the present, so 1937-ish.  Siblings Eleanor and Martin, maternal cousin Kitty, paternal cousin Sara, appear consistently across the years, while others disappear only to reappear at the end. (Reading it, I wondered how Woolf plotted this novel, how she decided what characters to feature and when.) There is a sense of disconnection throughout the book, of isolation, of frustration, of weariness. So many conversations are broken, disjointed, interrupted, incomplete. Characters reach for or aim for something, to transcend whatever keeps them locked in themselvesbut so often it eludes them, although occasionally some small, fleeting understanding is reached. There are happy moments and sad. Big events and small.  The ending does not bring resolution or satisfaction, just the knowledge that life goes on.

This was my first time reading The Years, and my first time reading Woolf in over a decade. It felt different from what I recall of To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway.  It was more detached in tone, more expansive in scope, and ostensibly more conventional in style, a family saga of sorts. Arguably it is the flip to Mrs. Dalloway.  Instead of confining herself to exploring one day in the life of a person, Woolf follows several linked characters across time. It’s a different attempt at capturing life as it is really lived.

Woolf was 55 when she wrote The Years, firmly middle-aged, and close in age to a few of the characters. The passing of time feels like a middle-aged kind of subject. I’m 45, and I feel how time no longer travels in only one direction, how it’s Image result for virginia woolf the yearspossible to recall twenty years ago, and imagine twenty years ahead, how it’s easy to get lost in misguided nostalgia for the past or in a naive hope for the future. And there are personal questions to ponder: what do we carry with us over the years? What do we remember? And how much do we change as the world changes around us?

Overall, I enjoyed The Years, although I wouldn’t say I loved it as I’ve loved some of her others. Or I didn’t connect with it as strongly, which feels appropriate somehow to the book’s themes.  Apparently it was her most popular novel during her life time, and some critics have described it as an indictment of Victorianism. That feels too sweeping and strong. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s looking at people who grew up at the end of the Victorian era and seeing what became of that generation.

A few other random notes:

  • This is a very London novel. Characters travel up specific streets, around landmarks, through neighbourhoods. It’s the kind of book you could map.
  • Woolf’s depiction of Jewish people is discomforting and anti-Semitic. No doubt this has been explored and discussed in academic articles. It was inevitably disappointing.
  • Two new-to-me vocabulary words:
    • comparison – (of a horse) be decked out in rich decorative coverings
    • Fillip – something which acts as a stimulus or boost to an activity
  • And finally, a quotation
    • “They were two living people driving across London; two sparks of life enclosed in two separate bodies; and those sparks of life enclosed in two separate bodies are at this moment, she thought, driving past a picture palace. But what is this moment; and what are we?”






On signing up for the 2019 Creativity Reading Challenge

I have spent the last week diving deep into book blogs, and the inevitable outcome is I signed up for a reading challenge. There are so many! Read by genre, by year, by name, by theme, by medium, by whatever!  But the one that called to me is the Creativity Challenge hosted by Jamie at Whatever I Think Of! 

I like this challenge because it fits with some of my own goals. And goodness knows, I have lots of books on writing to choose from. The rules are pretty simple.

  • Begins January 1, 2019 and ends Dec 31, 2019.  (Check! It’s Jan 10th. Better late than never!)
  • Read as little or as many books as you want. (My plan is to read and review one writing book a month. So 12 books!)
  • Books may be nonfiction, memoir, how to, self help, coffee table books, instructional, picture books, and even fictional if they are about people who are creative. (I have books that fall into most of these genres so will probably review a range.)
  • You may include books of any format including traditional books, ebooks or audiobooks. (Perfect! I bought an ebook yesterday and a used book today that fit.)
  • You may reread books. (We’ll see how the wind blows!)
  • Books may count towards other reading challenges in which you are participating. (I’m not participating in any other official challenges… YET.)

And now to make a tentative list, which is always the best part of any reading challenge. I look forward to doing this and following others who are doing it, too!


On still needing to read Montaigne

For years  now I have felt I should read Montaigne. The first time was back in the early 2000s, when I was a new graduate student, teaching the essay and delving into the ‘newish’ genre of creative nonfiction.  And, inevitably, Michel de Montaigne came up.  He is the uncontested creator of what we now call ‘the personal essay.”  He coined the term ‘essai,’ to describe his writing attempts to describe, explore, meditate upon something.  His ‘tries’ so far from what the essay has become in English classes.  Then a few years ago, I read Sarah Bakewell’s book on Montaigne.  It’s a rich read, full of historical and biographical detail, that examines Montaigne’s ideas on living a (meaningful) life and  Bakewell’s thoughts on  how Montaigne (still) helps us understand that experience. Afterwards, I bought a copy of his collected works, as yet unread.  Then this past week, I read Patricia Hampl’s The Art of the Wasted Day. (I have much to say about this book.)  And at the centre of this exploration of lesiure is Montaigne in his tower, “meddling with writing.”  As an essayist herself and a devotee (if not always a good practiioner) of leisure, Hampl is constantly pointed back to Montaigne. Indeed, he even wrote an essay “On Idleness.” I aspire to write the personal essay. I am drawn to leisure.  I must read Montaigne.

On a writing slump

Before the kids finished school, I was feeling pretty positive about my writing. I was writing daily on a few different projects.  I was writing morning pages, blog posts based on writing exercises, and the early pages of a personal essay.  It felt GOOD. On top of that, I was exercising and meditating everyday I was in a good place.  I knew when school ended, it would get harder.  I would have less time.  I knew some things would get lost.  My hope, though, was to hold on to the writing.  That was the one thing I didn’t want to lose, that was the one I wanted to make a priority.

We are now heading into the fourth week of summer vacation, and I was right. Some of positive habits have been lost.  I get in an occasional hike. I remember to meditate sometimes.  And while I still manage to start my day with morning pages, all my other writings has… fallen off.  And it’s becoming something I fear and dread, a source of guilt and avoidance.  And I hate that! Just tonight I tried for 20 minutes to work on a paragraph, a paragraph I’ve been circling around for days — and I just couldn’t focus.  Brain fog set in. I’m supposed to submit a writing sample and application in a few days and nothing is ready, or even close to ready.  Blergh.

So I made myself write this blog post just so I could at least write something.  I have three days, and lots of writing to get done.  Time for my panic mode to kick in.