An essay/memoir piece I wrote for Salon.com (click image to read):
For a couple of months now I’ve noticed this same card popping up over and over in my tarot readings. It’s not a bad way to begin a new year: a youngling leaving the nest, setting out on a journey into the unknown, trusting to luck. But the Fool can be unsettling card, too. I mean, just look at that cliff.
I looked up the Fool in Sallie Nichols’ book Jung and the Tarot and really liked what I found.
The Fool, archetypally speaking, is something of a shit disturber. He’s a truth-teller, but he doesn’t usually make much rational sense. In fact, disrupting reason is one of his primary functions in literature, especially where reason is being abused by those who seek power (e.g., in King Lear). Nichols points to the flower children of the 60s and the deadheads of the 70s as exemplars of the Fool’s playful-yet-serious anti-establishment impulse.
According to Nichols, literary tradition teaches us three ways to deal properly with the Fool: 1. Admit him at court and seat him at the royal table. In other words, be tolerant but keep a close eye on him. 2. Set aside periods of universal permissiveness and revelry: Saturnalia, Fastnacht, Mardi Gras, Feast of Fools. 3. Freely admit to and laugh at our own foolishness whenever it’s pointed out to us.
What am I supposed to do with this trickster? How do I embrace his playful, deregulating force for myself without letting it devolve me into shambles? Well, music seems to have something to do with it. Dancing, maybe. Certainly laughter.
My friend Rahul informs me that in the Baghavad Gita, Krishna (God) is a player, in several senses of the word. He fools around, he flirts, he flouts conventional morality. He knows that life is ‘leela’ (a play), and we mustn’t become too attached to our roles. It’s all fun and games. This is why Krishna plays the flute.
Hey, I thought, reflecting on all this, it might be fun to make a Fool puppet sometime. Then I remembered that I’d already done that 20 years ago. I dug him out of his box:
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.
Mad Miss Mimic‘s book launch party is less than 36 hours away (deets here)! So what am I doing with my time? I’m crocheting flowers, of course.
I’m not particularly fond of crocheted flowers. Nor do I know how to crochet, really–I’m just following YouTube tutorials (like this one, in which the Crochet Master has a particularly soothing-yet-upbeat voice).
I’ve given handfuls of these to friends already (saying “no, I don’t know what they’re for either, just … Hello Spring?”). I suspect that all flower-crocheting activity will cease abruptly after tomorrow night.
Who has time these days? The knitting project languishes in its basket. That gorgeous fabric I bought last spring never got sewed into cushion covers. Some evenings I’m too tired to read yet too restless for TV. I want to make something but can’t bear the thought of a pattern or a YouTube tutorial or anything at all involving logistics.
Luckily there exists a category of craft for times like this. Elementary school teachers already know about it (and I was raised by one!). Remember the paper-bag puppet? The paper-plate Thanksgiving turkey? It’s the fast craft: two or three materials, a single tool (or none), no instructions.
Pompons are nice; I’ve posted before about making yarn pompons. Paper snowflakes work well (if you use Japanese paper you can stick them to the window with just a damp cloth).
Last weekend I found out a lovely self-striping mohair in my yarn stash. The softest shades of cream, robin’s-egg blue and spring-leaf green. I crossed two sticks and wound the wool round and round. The activity produced the same meditative state of absorption I look for in knitting–hands busy, thoughts rambling–and resulted in a lovely, cobwebby, handmade object to hang and enjoy. In the days that followed, whenever I got too tired for lecture-prep or grading or answering emails, I made a few more to give to friends. (God’s eyes, they’re called, and they actually have quite the spiritual legacy. See an older post about gods’ eyes here.)
Next I might cover my bulletin board with similarly pretty fabric, securing it on the back with duct tape.
I experienced my first-ever book signing event last week at the Ontario Library Association (OLA) Super Conference. My amazing publicist Vikki handed out advanced reading copies of Mad Miss Mimic to a queue of librarians and other conference attendees, and then I perched at a table in the Penguin Random House booth and signed them.My slot in the schedule was 35 minutes long but it felt like 5 (the ARCs went fast). I was giddy with excitement. I met some lovely people and smiled for lots of photos and urged everyone to take a posy along with his or her book.
The one thing I didn’t think of in preparing for my first-ever book signing was…drumroll…signing the book. Which of the front-matter pages do I sign? What pen do I use (I didn’t bring one!) What should I write, if anything? (Out of last-second desperation I landed on “Happy reading.”). How do I sign?
No, it’s true. I completely blanked on my signature, and in the first couple of ARCs I wrote out my entire name in a kind of demented cursive scrawl. My apologies if you were the recipient of one of these.
How much effort would it have taken, that morning over breakfast, to choose my favourite pen and practice a few times on scrap paper? Why didn’t I think of doing this? I’m fairly sure many people have fantasized about signing their own book. (Or not–this could be one of those nerd-outing moments on my part.) I’m absolutely certain that I have fantasized in the past about signing my book. But when the fantasy came true on OLA day, the actual mechanics of it completely slipped my mind.
I could see a metaphor here for the way I do everything in life: anticipate the bejeezus out of it and then let the big moment slip past me unnoticed. But in fact I had a really, really good time at the Super Conference. I browsed the show floor and talked to book-fair people, literacy advocates, and indie press reps. I listened to CANSCAIP authors read from their latest offerings. I enjoyed the working-holiday vibe of the librarians collecting swag from all the booths. And I felt deep-down proud to be part of the PRH “family” with all its amazing books on display.
So really, my first signing was all I could have hoped for, newbie embarrassments and all.
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.
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?
A few years ago I posted a list of ways we can encourage our kids to practice reading and writing at home. One strategy I suggested (I believe it was #7) was having your kid write a letter to an adult relative or friend, and making sure that adult (i.e., coordinating with him/her ahead of time!) immediately sends a letter back–preferably with a treat enclosed.
My boys are older now (14 and 10), and I’m still as determined as ever to have them practice expressing themselves in words, by hand, on paper, on a regular basis. The incentives have changed, though. The ten-year-old received the stationary pictured above for his birthday, along with the weekly task of writing a one-page letter to his Uncle Steve (who was down with the idea and agreed to write back now and then).
Cutesie stationary wouldn’t have done the trick anymore, here–he needed something a) personalized, so his older brother can’t horn in b) dignified- thus the gold-leaf envelope liners, the gold foil seals, the “from the desk of..” letterhead, and c) gadget-cool- in the form of a self-inking return address stamp (again, personalized with his name). I purchased it all at Staples, and ran a stack of the paper through the printer with the help of the free letterhead template that came with the kit.
It’s quite a process for him, each week, from the choosing of the pen to the folding, sealing, sticker-applying, addressing and stamping, strolling to the mailbox. It’s a ritual. And four months in, he seems to be enjoying the ritual a lot.
[This fancy-pants stationary set would fail to impress a fourteen-year-old, of course. Mine writes a letter each week to his Grandpa. The rule for him is one page of regular foolscap, single spaced, margin to margin. I don’t read either of the kids’ letters, but he has to hold it up so I can see he’s filled the page before I log him onto the computer for Minecraft. Different kid/age, different incentive!]