I’m off to the High Plains Literary Festival http://ci.billings.mt.us/index.aspx?NID=1407 next week, and honoured and excited by the nomination of The Boy to the non-fiction shortlist in these awards. What a pleasure it will be to mingle with American writers, encounter books I would not otherwise have known. This is the first literary festival to which I have been invited and that fact, along with some contemplation of book awards and all of the literary trappings that go far beyond the sheer pleasure of writing compel me to write a post that will be far more personal than is within my usual comfort zone. This is not meant to be a polemic about awards and the state of publishing. This is simply about my own experience and feelings and only thrown on the page because I feel compelled to do so, to try and make sense, and isn’t that what writing is all about?
On a landmark birthday almost 20 years ago, I decided it was time to lasso a dream I’d had since I was a teenager writing angst-ridden poetry and maudlin short stories. I was going to be a writer. Note, that this ambition went beyond simply putting my pen to the page and telling stories. I was going to be a Writer. And I dove into thr pursuit with a zeal and an energy that amazes me now when I look back at that stage of my life—part-time work for an adoption agency, three children still under my wing, a multitude of volunteer activities. I took writing class after writing class, acquired an addiction to writing retreats, took up the challenge of breaking into every literary magazine in the land (not successfully, of course, with a number of them still on my list), and set my sites on a novel. I was determined to have a book. That’s what it was all about, right? Books? I imagined reviews, book tours, and even dared to think about awards. I told my friends, with a laugh, that I didn’t anticipate winning book prizes, but that didn’t stop me from imagining what I’d wear to the Giller Gala. I put my shoulder to the wheel and pushed that wonky stone up the hill for eighteen years.
In 2006, after two book manuscripts went to their final reward in my desk drawer, my first novel, Running Toward Home, was published. That same year, I began the UBC Optional Residency MFA Creative Writing program and against all advice, finished it off in two years; six courses, two summer residencies, and a thesis packed into that time. Meanwhile, I taught creative writing at various venues. I graduated jwith the MFA just after my 60th birthday in May 2008. In fall, 2008, my collection of short stories, A Crack in the Wall was published. In 2009, another novel and my UBC thesis, Delivery, was published, and in 2011, a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction, The Boy. Was I delighted with the succession of books? Of course. Was I satisfied? Of course not. I was gratified by the reader response to all of them, thrilled to be on shortlists for Alberta prizes for both Delivery and The Boy, but… at the same time I found myself sucked into the lure of winning, and vulnerable to envy and resentment.
The Boy was the most challenging story I had tackled, and tackle it I did, going deep into dark holes and plumbing fears I had never acknowledged. To be frank, six months after The Boy was published, I crashed. I was exhausted, emotionally and physically and creatively. People complimented me on all I had achieved in six years, and I insisted repeatedly that it was simply a case of almost two decades of work finally catching up. The truth is, I was too driven for my own good. I wanted more than the pleasure of writing and a reading audience, however small. I let myself be seduced by the writing life, or more accurately, the life of a successful writer. I let the literary culture define success for me, instead of finding the balance I needed between writing life and real life.
This post is the most serious writing I’ve done in a very long time. I keep telling people I’m on sabbatical, but in fact, I am embracing “not writing” with such relief that I can envision myself at the end of the year declaring that I am semi-retired. I am spending hours that were previously committed to the computer with my newly-retired husband, I go for coffee with friends and have stopped looking at my watch and thinking I need to get home to write, and my first concern these days is the people I care about and maximizing the time I have with them.
Perhaps my motivation to put all this on the page signals a return to writing, but at this point, I only want to humbly share what I’ve learned. It is possible to want something too much. It is possible to lose sight of what’s important in life. It is possible to find your way back.
So next week I am off to Billings, Montana for the sheer pleasure of making the acquaintance of writers in another place, and celebrating with them. The non-fiction prize? I can honestly say that I will not feel anything but pleasure for whoever wins. And now I have to plan what I will wear to that “gala”.