Monthly Archives: August 2013

Yes

Dear Blog,

Maybe this is true for most people (but I’ve never conducted a poll) – when I think about my childhood, what I remember best is the intensity of play. We were faeries, witches, pirates, spies, explorers, we swung from the trees and hid behind rocks and faced terrible dangers with swords aloft, tearing around the neighborhood backyards or round the park down the lane. Everything else – suppertime, bedtime, school, homework – was just an interruption of this play. When I was playing, I was free and happy. As I got older my parents found the degree to which I lived in my head a bit worrisome, wondering if I was really taking in the world around me. (I wasn’t). And I remember how frustrating, how infuriating, how terrible it was to have to stick colored bits of paper on another piece of paper, or sing some stupid song while clapping, or practice handwriting, or read aloud about otters in french, denied the bright outdoors and the thrilling world of goblins and centaurs and fiendish enchanters I could enter if only the grownups would leave me be.

Sad to say, I haven’t changed much. I still want most of all to be left to the stories in my head, and The Rest Of Life still sometimes feels like an interruption. This gives me a lot of empathy for my children’s passionate play, but also means we are at cross-purposes a great deal of the time. Because I’m not very good at the whole “accepting reality” thing, I often think how life would be so different if we had a backyard. They could go out and play and I could write. As it is, we have to take turns. Every now and then we end up on parallel tracks and they are playing with their dragons and I am playing with mine and we are all entirely content, but it’s a tricky balance and ultimately, parenting requires a level of practicality and selflessness that I am not very good at.

My kids are four and two now and they are all about dragons and dinosaurs. The older one concocts an exciting world of danger and derring-do and the little one doesn’t quite get it but he gets the thrill of it and runs around after his brother, mostly saying and doing whatever he is told to say and do, just like my younger brother did with me. My whole heart is with them on the absolute importance of play, and yet my role now is inevitably that of the Horrible Big Fun-Killer. You have to eat your lunch first, I say. You are filthy, you need a bath, I say. We can’t go outside yet, I need ten more minutes, I say. It’s bedtime, it’s time to go, it’s time to stop, hurry up, slow down, put that stick down before you hurt somebody, that isn’t our yard, stop it, come here, don’t touch that, don’t you dare throw that, I’m going to count to three, one two three get over here right now we are going HOME you are in big trouble mister. That’s me.

And I wish that I wasn’t always saying no. I wish that one day I could just say yes to everything. Yes, you can have a real sword. Yes, you can jump off the roof with the wings you’ve made out of a cardboard box. Yes, we can have ice-cream for breakfast, jump on Daddy at 6am, drive cars on the stove-top while I’m making coffee, play with matches, take everything out of the trash and put it in the bathtub to see which things float, go to the park naked, knock on the neighbor’s door and roar like lions when they open up, put rocks through their mailbox, swing large sticks near our friends’ heads, go barefoot all day, pretend that guy over there is a t-rex and kill him, pee on that anthill, ride our bikes in the street, get permanent tattoos, cut down that tree with scissors, have chocolate chips for supper, pour all the bathwater onto the bathroom floor, keep on playing, just keep on playing, and never, ever go to bed, yes we can do that, yes, go for it, yes.

Yours, fun-killingly,

Catherine

On Writer’s Block

Dear Blog,

Recently I read a wonderful Q&A with a critic called Gwee Li Sui who, when asked about Writer’s Block, replied: “I don’t think anyone can be a writer without having it; it is likelier that one is so busy doing other things that one doesn’t realise that that’s a writer’s block. In fact, most people spend all their lives with it: it is why they never get down to writing.”

I’d never thought of it that way. I have Bad Writing Days, of course – days when I am just bumping up against my own mediocrity and not having any fun, days when I write some stuff and then look at it and feel stupid and delete it all. Some days I don’t manage to make time for it at all and those days make me crazy, though not as crazy as the days when I feel I’ve made poor use of the time I did have. But writer’s block? I imagined a blank screen or page, a blank mind, no ideas, no story, no words. I’d never had THAT, I thought. But maybe when people talk about writer’s block, they are just talking about those days you don’t get down to it. Maybe we were using the same words for different things, like when people say “love,” or “God,” or “fine thanks,” and you think you know what they mean but in fact they mean something so different from what you would mean if you said those things.

That Guy is the only person in our family making a living wage and he is pretty busy with that, but on weekend mornings he takes the kids out while I go to a café and write. He has his own work to get to (it’s not a leave-it-at-work kind of job, but he loves it so don’t feel bad for him) but he gets that this is my Thing and I need a bit of uninterrupted time in which to do it. So the other day, I put my computer in the bag and made my escape while Younger Boy shouted after me “I WANT YOUUUUU” and Older Boy shouted “Kill him! Kill him!” a propos of what I do not know or wish to know. I walked to the café and then… I just kept walking. I walked for over three hours, down to the beach and along it and back through the city. I stopped in a café to get a snack and a coffee but I didn’t sit down. I didn’t take the computer out of my bag. I didn’t feel like writing.

And when I got back it was hugs and chaos and all of us choosing our dragons because we were apparently going STRAIGHT into battle and QUICK MOM LET’S GET THEM and That Guy managed to say to me briefly “Did you have a good morning?” and I said “yup,” and then he told me all the terrible and hilarious tales of HIS morning with the boys and I did not tell him: Actually I just went for a walk.

I don’t know why I didn’t tell him. I can take a break, or a walk, if I want to. If I had said, months ago, “I need two mornings off a week to just have some time to myself and space to think,” that would be totally valid, of course. But what I said was, “I need time to write.” So I felt oddly ashamed of my walk, because time is, for both of us, such a precious commodity, and I make such a Big Fucking Deal about my writing and how I Need More Time and how precious my Two Writing Mornings A Week are, and the fact that I had squandered one of those mornings, 3 hours plus, on just letting my mind and legs wander seemed so wasteful and self-indulgent somehow. It’s not like I was having epiphanies, or thinking about writing or the story. I had nothing to show for it.

Maybe I had writer’s block? And maybe it’s not always a bad thing. Maybe I need writer’s block to make me do something else, or rather, to make me do nothing. Time, when it is in short supply, becomes so precious that it feels like its own kind of currency. You start to think that if you are going to spend it on something, it really has to be something worth spending your precious minutes on. Doing nothing becomes as wasteful and shameful as buying a bunch of useless, stupid crap when you are broke. It feels terrible, and the time you had is gone and you can’t get it back.

But doing nothing shouldn’t feel like a waste of time. Or rather, time should sometimes be wasted (as in, spent freely and carelessly) without anxiety or guilt. Another out-of-context quotation from that Gwee Li Sui interview (which is fabulous, did I mention that?): “Kids should have both time and poverty to ask, ‘What am I doing here?'” And grownups need that too, maybe writers in particular. Time to wonder and wander. (Ahem, not the poverty part, necessarily – his point is about pocket money, not making a living).

In fact, I ask myself quite regularly “what am I doing here?” when both kids are screaming and accusing each other of heinous misdeeds and we have to find the favorite dinosaur buried somewhere in this huge sandbox and I know who I want this character to be but I’m writing her wrong and can’t figure it out and I still haven’t read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and there is this REALLY interesting article someone linked to on twitter and if we don’t leave RIGHT NOW we’re going to miss the bus and oh gross did my two-year-old just eat a woodbug and seriously, what am I doing here? But the nature of the question and the possibilities for self-realization are very different, depending on whether you are staring at a plate of spaghetti tossed across the sofa or walking barefoot along the beach where the sand meets the water. The latter case is, I propose, more likely to produce a fruitful kind of self-questioning.

I wish I could close by saying that the next time I sat down to write I was stunningly productive and realized that the walk I’d taken was in fact crucial to my writing, part of a greater process, and that I now see those three hours were well-spent after all, but in fact all I’ve done since the walk is write this blog post. My walk was just a long, lovely, solitary walk, time unspooling behind me.

So, OK. I went for a walk instead of writing and I’m calling it a good thing. Here is to writer’s block: doing nothing, producing nothing, expecting nothing of yourself for once and letting go of some time like it’s not running out to just look at the water and eat a chocolate chip cookie and think.

Yours, wondering what I am doing here (munch munch slurp),

Catherine