Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writing Habits: These Happy Golden Years

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Carrie Snyder (photo credit: Carrie Snyder)

I call my writing “work,” but that’s mainly tactical, to convince others that writing is something I really must be doing. No one ever questions you if you say you’re going off to work. Even children take this very seriously. But I’ll let you in on the truth: writing isn’t work, for me, though I’m not suggesting it’s recreation, either. Writing is breathing, it’s therapy, it’s sanity, it’s expression, it’s habit, it’s compulsion, it’s delight, it’s celebration, it’s adventure, it’s discovery, it’s mystery. I could go on. But for the sake of simplifying the editing process (which, by the way, is also not really work, for me) I will stop. Unlike any other job I’ve tried, writing is never something I don’t want to do, and I have the sneaking suspicion that were I not bound to reality by my responsibilities — in the very specific form of four active children — I would disappear inside my imagination and never come out again. Or rarely. You’d probably glimpse me around town in running gear mumbling to myself as I pounded past in all weathers. There she goes — you know, she’s a writer.

And so I count my blessings: pressing pause to exit my head at regular intervals, and dash around in the real world, ferrying children to activities, reading to them, meeting up with friends, cooking meals and participating in the primal stuff and bother of actual life. I’ve learned, over years of necessary practice, how to move between worlds, being as present as possible wherever I happen to be. This fails only when I’m in the midst of a serious plot-push, desperately trying to dump every idea onto the page. That’s when, stirring a pan on the stove while listening in stereo to children begging for snacks and screen-time, I sense myself tuning out, pulled into my imaginary spaces, trying to untangle imaginary problems, my eyes going blank, and I regret it, but I can’t seem to stop myself.

I recently saw photos of Alice Munro’s home office — where she writes — and found the sight of that room both thrilling and humbling. Maybe she tidied up before the photographer came. It looks so ordinary, clean and restful, a sanctuary for invention. My own office is a bit of a disaster, frankly, and I’ve no one to blame but myself. For most of my writing life, I worked in makeshift spaces crammed into other rooms in the house — my last book, The Juliet Stories, was written upstairs in a room that tripled as a toy room, baby room and occasional guest room. My desk was incidental. I could blame the mess on everyone else.

Two years ago, we splurged. Our front porch needed replacing, an expensive undertaking that we’d put off for years until the porch was literally falling off the front of the house. As we brainstormed designs, a friend suggested squeezing in a small office as part of the project. And so we did. An architect friend created a soaring space with a small footprint, an exclamation point at the end of the porch, that looks out onto the street. One wall is brick, formerly on the outside of the house. For my birthday this past year, my dad built a custom desk and shelves. And I’ve discovered, two years on, that I’m a packrat, a piler and chronic ignorer of certain things, and that the mess is entirely of my own doing.

At first I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to write in such a beautiful space, all my own. It seemed awfully extravagant. I started calling it “Carrie’s Folly,” and a friend embroidered the words for me, with vines and flowers, as an office-warming gift. But writing is writing wherever it’s done, and it was in this room that I wrote my new book, Girl Runner, which seems a gift of its own, already with a fortune greater than I’d hoped to imagine. (It won’t be published in Canada til next fall, but the rights have already sold in the US, the UK and Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Holland and Spain.)

Here is how my days progress, in a general way.

My alarm sounds early. On weekdays, I’m up before dawn to exercise. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I also drop my daughter at the pool for training at 5:30 a.m. Back at home, the kids trickle downstairs, I shower, we eat breakfast, and most are out the door by 8:30 a.m., which is when I dash back to bed for a nap. Yes, I’m a serious nap-practitioner, skilled in the art of meditative sleep. Jesting aside, I consider this time well-spent, not to be skipped, and wake with ideas bubbling. Then I pour my daily allotted gigantic cup of coffee, and it’s off to the office. (The dogs come too.) The writing I do depends on where I’m at in a particular project, or what extras I’ve got on the go (like this piece, for instance). I’m currently teaching a creative writing class at the University of Waterloo, which requires prep work. Often, composing a blog post revs up my writing engine.

It’s so bloody pleasant in here that sometimes I forget to eat lunch until it’s too late, and I must extricate myself and race to fetch someone from the bus, or rush people to music lessons, or whatever is on in the after-school madness. Making supper gets stuffed in there somewhere, along with lots of texts running back and forth to my husband, who often does the cooking instead. My evenings are spent in transit. I visit soccer fields (indoor and out), swimming pools, music studios, gymnasiums, the grocery store and my other office at the University of Waterloo, which lacks personality and smells like the off-gassing black garbage bag that seems perpetually to be freshly changed in its trash can, but which is also very very quiet. I don’t have a laptop, so I can only perform manual labour there: reading, grading, taking notes.

Back at home, I read to the younger kids (and sometimes all four jam into the bunk beds). We are working our way through The Little House on the Prairie series, and have reached These Happy Golden Years. Which is what all of this feels like, really. After lights out, an extra trip or two back upstairs to rearrange the covers and explain that it’s impossible to be having a bad dream when one has yet to fall asleep, there’s still supper to clean up, laundry to fold and the day to unwind with my husband, and sometimes with the older children as they delay their drift toward bedtime. When it’s all said and done, I read in bed until I can’t keep my eyes open.

Writing is the peace at the centre of my day.

But it’s the whirl surrounding the peaceful centre that keeps it so, I think. I’m glad for both versions of my life, the inward one, and the outward one. I’d be the last to claim balance; maybe it’s more like symbiosis. But I’ll keep calling it work, for tactical reasons. I’d like to keep doing this for as long as I possibly can.




Carrie Snyder is the author of two collections of short fiction, including The Juliet Stories, which was a finalist for Canada’s 2012 Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Her debut novel, Girl Runner, will be published in Canada by House of Anansi next fall, and in 2015 by HarperCollins in the US and Two Roads in the UK, as well as in translation in Germany, Italy, Holland, France and Spain. Carrie lives in Waterloo, Ontario with her family. She blogs as Obscure CanLit Mama at carrieannesyder.blogspot.com.

For more information about The Juliet Stories please visit the House of Anansi website.

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