Keeping Secrets

This is a guest post I wrote for my friend Sarah Selecky’s Story is a State of Mind blog. You can read the original post and Sarah’s own thoughts on the subject here.

Keeping Secrets

Do you remember writing notes to your parents back when you first learned how to write words? Don’t look, don’t look! you’d say, hunched over the paper to shield your work as you labored over each letter. But when you were finally finished, you’d say Look, look! and if Dad had in the meantime turned his attention to a phone call or your sibling, you’d be quite determined in chasing him down to get him to read your work. My son’s first hand-written note to me was crafted while I was cooking dinner and presented, with great ceremony, when we sat down to eat: The fude is gros.

Every act of writing involves two distinct phases, fuelled by contradictory impulses: a solitary, private phase, where outside scrutiny feels like a threat; and a social, public phase, where the danger lies in being unread or ignored. In my experience, most writers strongly prefer one of these two phases over the other, depending on their personality.

I am secretive by nature and by horoscope (Scorpio: hiding in crevices, scuttling for cover, hunting at night). As a child I showed notes to my parents, but I also wrote notes and burned them. I wrote notes on gum wrappers, folded them carefully back into the Doublemint package and carried them around, so disguised, in my backpack. I wrapped notes in masking tape and wrote DO NOT OPEN UNTIL AGE 14 and saved them in a box in my underwear drawer. I wrote secrets, meant to be discovered by me and me alone.

In my teen years I wrote for recreation and refuge but also for revenge. Puritanical parents, meddling teachers, disloyal friends—all would be excoriated in my diary. I’d write outrageous things about them, disgusting things. I’d tell myself that if any of these people read my diary, the ensuing shock and hurt would be exactly what they deserved for violating my privacy.

Nowadays my daylight hours are anything but private. As an English prof at a big urban university, I lecture to 120 students at a time. I sit in meetings, hold office hours, attend conferences and research talks. At home there is homework to supervise, snacks to prepare, yard work, groceries, laundry. So more than ever before, my writing is my hideout. It’s the place I go to be alone, where I’m answerable only to myself and can actually hear myself over the clamor. Recently I’ve begun waking up at 5:00am to write before the school day begins. There’s no traffic outside, no footsteps on the stairs, no emails. A wholly secret window of time.

Research shows [link to article] that secret goals are more powerful than ones you share. If you gab about your goals—with friends and family, say—you’ll feel pleasant feelings of satisfaction, even accomplishment. But if you’re already feeling satisfied and accomplished you’ll be less motivated to strive for the actual accomplishment. For me, though, it’s even more than a desire not to dissipate the drive. For me the secrecy is an end in itself. The first draft of a new novel has the same delicious-secret sensation attached to it as my childhood hidden notes and my teenaged diary. The creative excitement of I am making something new is boosted through the roof by Nobody even knows. I am addicted to this feeling of audaciousness and transgression. Checking my manuscript’s growing word count gives me a dirty little thrill, like hoarding.

But what about accountability? What about the demoralizing, work-halting realization that if no one knows, no one cares? This is the downside of keeping secrets. I have definitely suffered from drifting off course—from letting work and life pull me away from my writing—and having nobody to steer me back. It’s a little easier now that I’m past the aspiring-writer stage. Having an agent and editors means that someone, sometimes, will ask after the work, and a deadline is always a great kick in the pants. But the real help comes from regular writing dates with a couple of like-minded friends. We don’t read each other’s work. We just sit together at a café with our laptops. These friends support me in showing up to the page without needing to show the pages themselves.

At some point, of course, the cat has to be let out of the bag. The difference between a novel and a diary is that eventually the novel has to find readers. Like all writers I yearn for the moment when my book has its moment in the sun. But when that moment comes, when I’m smiling and saying my thank yous and talking about how I came up with my ideas, I hope to be beavering away on the next secret first draft.

An Author at Authors’ Day

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Back in May I had the great honour of pinch-hitting as one of four Guest Authors at the Toronto District School Board’s Authors’ Day, part of the TCTE Annual Short Fiction Contest celebration.

My friend and fellow Toronto Women Writers’ Salon member Lesley Anne Cowan organizes this event. I’ve been so eager to get involved with the TDSB that I made a point of telling Lesley I could be available even at the very last minute, if one of the scheduled authors dropped out. Lo and behold, she called me the day before–yet another positive lesson in Sarah-stick-yer-neck-out!

I was massively impressed by the uniqueness and variety of great story concepts I heard the students share. A surly boy who makes daily visits to a seniors’ home. A woman married to an inmate meeting her husband for the first time after his release. A young hitchhiker, the old woman who gives him a ride, and the disastrous effects of their mutual paranoia. Here at the outset of our writing careers, the students seemed to be saying, all subjects are ours. I found this an incredibly inspiring notion.

My two-hour workshop with ten Grade 12 students was a crazily compressed version of my usual twelve-week courses: a brief go-around to introduce ourselves, reading out a page from each story, giving brief feedback, reflecting on general principles. Take risks, I said. Have courage. But I hardly needed to say it! These were confident writers and generous, articulate readers–theirs were the top 40 contest entries in the GTA, after all. I felt inordinately proud when, after we regrouped in the main room, it turned out that my Isabelle had won first place for her story about child sex trafficking, and my Angela’s time-loop tale was a top-ten runner up.

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The winners!

Tolkien to the rescue (as usual)

A confession: I am generally not my Best Self during the holidays. Car trips, visiting, shopping, surprises, small talk, knitting on a deadline, car repairs, cooking for crowds, late nights, baking on a deadline, bored children–none of these are forms of torture I particularly enjoy. Others seem to exit the Christmas season rosy-cheeked and glowing with the memories (although who exactly are those people? No one I know). I start the new year snarling with fatigue and ready to hibernate, not launch a new teaching term.

My favourite part of Holidays 2014 was something that happened by accident, between all the scheduled bustle, whenever my family was too pooped to do anything else. Over 6 or 7 evenings we watched all 3 instalments of the Lord of the Rings.

Oh, Legolas.
Oh, Legolas.

Remember how these were the longest movies you ever sat through, three Christmases in a row, as they were released in theatres? Well, the home media versions of these movies were extended by 30, 45 and 51 minutes respectively. Epic in length as well as scope.

There was more LOTR waiting for us whenever all 4 of us were available to watch TV together for an hour or two (=a surprisingly elusive set of circumstances when you’re dealing with one tween boy, one teen boy, one perennial putterer and one asocial, Grinch-like writer).

For me the real pleasure was watching my boys watch these movies. Son #2 cuddled close and revelled in the (many, digressive) comic Hobbit moments. When poor Sam was framed by Gollum for eating all the lembas bread, I caught Son #1 hunching forward on the sofa, hands tucked into his armpits, commenting, “That’s so sketch!” I believe he may have even put down his iPod a couple of times.

I’ve written before about my adoration of Tolkien–the band of adventurers, the joy of return, the digressive narrative, and how these things feed the (pre)adolescent souls of boys. But lately I’m realizing the extent to which this long- form, archetypal adventure feeds my soul, too. Fortifies me against everyday drudgeries (e.g., small talk, cooking) and helps me dream big, write wild.

A resolution, then, for 2015: READ MORE EPIC FANTASY. Any recommendations?

paaaainful

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So I had to write up this synopsis of my book. 1-2 pages including all plot points and the ending.

A little more time-consuming, not to mention torturous, than I expected.

get it on the page

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These days I’m in “discovery draft” mode: banging out new material without letting myself think too much about plot arc, character coherence or development, structure, or style. I’m grasping at every trick I know for not stopping, not slowing down, not censoring. For getting Big Brain out of the way so that Little Brain can play.

Little Brain likes lists. She appreciates not having to remember what’s supposed to happen next in the scene or trying to reconstruct the brilliant train of thought she had on the bike ride to the cafe. She also likes check marks and is very fond of pink highlighter.

IMG_0015Oh, and math! Little Brain loves adding up how many words are already on the screen and how many more she needs to produce before she gets to have a croissant, or check Twitter, or doodle some more in the margins.