The Perils of Being Married to a Writer

The Perils of Being Married to a Writer
Arnie at the helm, the day before the capsize

Arnie at the helm, the day before his misadventure

Last week my husband and I took a four-day vacation at a rustic but absolutely magnificent hideaway in Algonquin Park. One of the best things about Arowhon Pines (aside from the food) is that there is no internet access, no mobile access, no television. You can use the overpriced payphone if you must. If there’s an emergency at home and someone needs to reach you, they can call the desk and staff will come and get you. And at 9:30 each evening if you are desperate for digital entertainment, you can go to the recreation hall to watch a movie on DVD. Aside from that, you’re on your own with the trees and the stars and the lake.

Needless to say, this is a perfect place to be a writer, because you can’t get onto Facebook. If you’re on your computer, there is nothing to do but reorganize your files, see what books you remembered to download before you left the city, and then get to work.

Not that you actually have to open your computer. You can go canoeing, swimming, hiking or kayaking instead. You can sit on the dock, look out at the lake (where no motorboats are allowed), enjoy the quiet or listen for a loon, try to catch sight of a moose, a bear, a fox, or a great blue heron. You can write in your journal. You can take a nap. You can read a book (apparently some people call Arowhon Pines “Camp Library” because everyone is either carrying a book or reading one.). You can sit by a campfire, sing and roast marshmallows.

Aside from catching sight of moose or bear (thank god), we did all of the above.

If you’re a writer, a place like that makes you feel like writing. It doesn’t have to be Arowhon Pines, of course. It’s the remoteness, the quiet, the space – mental, physical, emotional – that makes you feel like writing. So after lunch one day, I told Arnie that I was going to sit on the covered dining hall verandah that overlooks the lake, and work on my new novel. He said he was going to take one the two small Hobies out for a sail: he’d done that the afternoon before, and he’d enjoyed it. Today the lake was a bit rougher and it looked like rain, and I told him to be careful. “I’m too young to be a widow,” I said, giving him a kiss goodbye. I assured him I’d keep my eye on him.

And for a while, I did. I settled myself in one of the Algonquin chairs on the verandah, where I had a view of the dock and about half of the lake, my feet up on the middle rail so I could rest my laptop on my thighs, and I opened my computer. I watched as Arnie prepared the boat and himself for his excursion, then waited for a sudden downpour to pass by and the sun to come out again. I watched him unfurl the sail (there’s only one on those little boats. No jib) and start out toward the middle of the lake. Then I got to work.

Occasionally I looked up to see where Arnie was, but the third time I looked up, I could no longer see him. I wasn’t concerned. I could see only half the lake and I was sure he’d simply sailed out of my view. He’d gone all the way across the little lake and back the day before, without incident. I got back to work. Soon I was utterly lost in what I was writing, and almost unable to tear my eyes away from the screen….

Some time later, my concentration was disturbed by the sound of a motor boat setting out onto the lake. This I found curious, as there is only one motorized boat at the lodge – a pontoon boat – and it is only rarely used. I looked out at the lake again. Nothing to see there. I was settling into work again when I heard a person farther down the verandah say to another person, “I think someone’s in trouble in a sailboat, and they’re going out to help.”

I felt my heart begin to pound as I looked up and out at the lake again. Sure enough, there was the pontoon, chugging in the direction of something and someone that I, on the verandah, could not see. But I knew what and who it was.

I closed my computer, gathered up my notes, and headed down to the dock to await the arrival of the rescue vessel, now heading back to shore with the sailboat – my husband once more securely seated in it – in tow. I was glad he was wearing his personal flotation device. I noticed that his (Tilley) hat was gone. I was incredibly happy to watch his slow return to shore.

There were several people sitting in lounge chairs on the dock, two of whom were women of about my own age, facing out toward the lake.

“That’s my husband,” I told them, nodding in his direction, hoping they didn’t notice that even my voice was shaky.

“I saw him go over,” one of them said. “He righted the boat, and then it tipped again.”

The other woman nodded.

“After I few minutes we decided we’d better raise an alarm. So I went up to the reception desk and told them, and they sent out the pontoon boat.”

During all of this time, I’d been buried in my novel.

I didn’t mention that.

“Thank you for saving my husband,” I said as Arnie, having let go of the pontoon’s tow rope, paddled the sailboat up against the dock. The pontoon boat motored off, back to its mooring on the far side of the dining hall.

“How are you?” I asked him.

“I’m fine,” he said.

After he’d  tied up the Hobie and climbed back onto the dock beside me he said, “These little boats without a jib are impossible to bring about. I got caught by a gust, and when the boat went over, the sail went straight down into the lake. There was no centreboard to climb onto, so righting it the first time wore me out. When I went over again, I just hung on and waited. I knew someone would notice, and they’d send the boat.”

“Fortunately, someone noticed,” I said, indicating the women behind me.

Still holding my laptop and my papers in one arm, I grabbed a strap of Arnie’s safety vest and held on tight with my free hand as we walked off the dock together.

In future, if Arnie insists we take two other women with us every time we head for the wilderness, at least I’ll know the reason why.

___________

Mary W. Walters is the author of Rita Just Wants to Be Thin, among several other books.

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How do you beat writer’s block?

How do you beat writer’s block?

WritersBlock.jpgI suppose that some of you have never had writer’s block. I’ve heard about people like you. I’ve read about people like you. I guess I even know some people like you (I am thinking here of a long-time writer friend who seems to be writing morning noon and night, in pubs and coffee shops, on scraps of paper and in notebooks: his fingers fairly fly across his keyboard when he’s on a computer; and I’m thinking of another, more meticulous writer friend who sits herself down at a certain time each morning and writes for a specified number of hours every single day, then stops).

Life with a block is bad

I have been through several periods of writer’s block, some brief  (about one of which I have written previously on this blog) and some extended, and I detest them. They make me feel depressed and lazy. Most of them arise from a lack of confidence, and of course they also contribute to a lack of confidence. They are almost impossible to “will” away.

Sometimes the lack of confidence is in the particular piece I’m working on, and this has led me to abandon quite a few stories, articles and even books, half-written. Sometimes it’s a lack of confidence in my ability to write anything of value. In those periods I can write if I force myself to do it, but when I read what I have written I am overly critical and I start cutting everything out. There is no point to continuing, and I stop.

And sometimes I have no confidence in the entire enterprise of writing: particularly the closely crafted writing of long pieces that I particularly enjoy. I decide that no one is reading anything longer than a caption or more complex than a set of instructions any more, and that what I am doing is an absolute waste of time. In those periods I consider my decades-long writing career to have been pointless, and think about all the things I could have done instead that would have paid me better. However, I am unable to do anything but write, nor can I even begin to contemplate the act of giving it up. Despite my wonderful family and many friends, my life would be barren if writing wasn’t in it. So I am stuck.

Life without a block is good

Happily, at the moment I am not blocked. If anything, the opposite is true. All I want to do is write. I have recently completed three short stories that had been simmering for months or years, and I am pleased with them. I have dozens of ideas for blog posts that I want to write – not only here, but also on my I’m All Write blog site, and on my Success After Sixty blog site. Everything suddenly seems like a topic that needs to be explored with words. My confidence has returned.

What got me out of my writer’s block this time was a period during which I forced myself to write, despite how hard it was, no matter how pointless it felt – mainly because I couldn’t stand living in my brain if I wasn’t creating something. I started by leaving  my usual surroundings and writing in Second Cups and Starbucks, on airplanes, even on the subway. I used a writing competition deadline as my impetus, and tried to convince myself that the deadline was as inflexible as one for an editing client would be.  I got one story finished and submitted, and then I did another. Getting around to the third was easier – I was able to do even the preliminary work on that one at home. And now I’m eager to start the fourth. It’s fun again.

I’m not the only writer to have experienced writer’s block. A whole article about the condition appeared recently in the New Yorker. The author, Maria Konnakova, tells us that Graham Greene kept a dream journal to avoid it. She goes on to discuss opinions on the subject of writer’s block from psychotherapists and psychologists – two of whom concluded that we are not all created equal: there are four different kinds of blocked writers, they decided. (It is interesting to read their list and to figure out where on the spectrum you might fit.) These two – psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios – even developed a therapeutic intervention that seemed to help blocked writers.

When you have a writer’s block, no one cares but you, but you care about it so much that it affects everything else you do.  I hope I never have it again – maybe if I never stop writing again, I’ll never have to start again? – but if I do I’m going to re-read this post and Konnakova’s article.

So, how about you? Have you had writer’s block? How did you overcome it?

Virtual Reality and The Writer

Last weekend, I read an intriguing article by Simon Haupt in the Globe and Mail about the impending reality of virtual realityIn “Reality Check,” Haupt explores the downsides as well as the upsides of being able to put on a headset (“…really, just a pair of special goggles attached to a smartphone,” he says) and be immediately transported to somewhere where you’re not. I’ve considered the possibility of virtual reality before – who hasn’t? – but I’ve never before considered the impact it could have on my own life… the benefit it could have, to be specific.

Here’s the thing. As I have groused elsewhere, often, I have wanted my whole life to travel, but I have only now started to be able to do it. The list of places I want to visit has been growing over the years to the point where I am sure I will never get to all the destinations I want to reach before I am too old to get to them.

Now, I have an alternative! If I can travel to the places at the top of my list while I still can, I can spend the next decade virtually visiting the ones I didn’t reach. (Although I do have a caveat: the virtual reality [VR] experience needs to include smells, because smells are – to me – a very important part of travelling. They’ll have to add a smell recorder to the Google car, I guess. By the time my knees and stamina for actual travel have given out, they should have been able to iron out that wrinkle.)

[Virtual reality is] coming very soon to a home near you, with the potential to transform not just gaming, entertainment and social media but social justice advocacy, tourism, education, marketing, shopping, and dozens of other everyday experiences. – Simon Haupt

After I’d finished thinking about how I could travel to Johannesburg from an armchair using only a headset and my iPhone (think of the money I will save!), I started thinking about the effect widespread access to virtual reality might have on writers, specifically of fiction. Haupt mentions that a VR experience based on The Martian is already in the works, and at least one VR creator he interviewed for the piece predicts that simply placing viewers in VR situations will not satisfy consumers for long.

Haupt relates his conversation with James Milward, president of Secret Location, a Toronto marketing company that is already making award-winning VR content. “Soon, he says, we’ll need stories, or ‘something you’d demand in any other medium to make it meaningful. So I think that’s inevitable. We’re going to have to continue to push how we make things, and what we choose to make, in order to make it meaningful’.”

I cannot begin to fathom how difficult it would be to create a novel that translates easily to to a virtual reality format, and I’ve already decided that Rita Just Wants to Be Thin is not likely to appeal to most people who are consumers of VR. Who wants to actually go through the experience of trying unsuccessfully to stick to a diet? Maybe once or twice, but not the number of times it takes Rita to finally figure out how to live a life that is not associated with overeating. The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid on the other hand? That might be fun.

What do you think? Can you imagine writing something that can be reproduced in virtual reality format, or is it going to take a whole different kind of creators to make appetizing “stories” for virtual reality consumption? Maybe it isn’t possible at all, and (as Haupt also suggests) perhaps this is just a fad that is blowing in the wind.

In confidence

“You will be glad to know that there comes a time when you no longer care as much as you once did about what other people think of what you write. Now you write primarily to please yourself. After many years of practice and of being your own worst critic, you see that when you are ready to let a piece of writing go, it is because it really does have merit. Nothing has changed except your perspective, and your knowledge that you’ve earned the right to feel the way you do.”

Becoming the Person I Want to Be

(Instead of the one I was afraid I would become) *

 
By my late twenties, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life: I wanted to be a writer. Not only did I love to read and write, I also loved the whole idea of being a writer. I imagined myself in the future, living a writer’s life – long days of creating fiction interspersed with occasional public readings from my newest book to audiences who hung on my every word.

I knew it wouldn’t happen overnight, but no matter how long it took, I was determined that I would get there. I would become that woman.

Ten years later, I’d published a novel, some short stories and some essays, even a radio drama. Reviewers for the most part seemed to like my work, and small groups of people came out to hear me read: sometimes they even seemed to hang on my every word. That part of my life was all I had imagined, and I loved it.

But writing is no way to make a living, so when I wasn’t writing, I was stressed. I was stressed about everything – my teenaged kids, my relationships, my work deadlines, my lack of money: you name it. And while I was stressing about everything, a few bad habits were turning into serious addictions. I was smoking too much, drinking too much, eating too much… sometimes all at the same time. Which added to my stress: now I also worried that my addictions were going to kill me – later if not sooner. My doctors’ advice just reinforced my fears, and a brush with breast cancer didn’t help.

By now I had a totally different image of my future self than I’d had when I was younger. Now what I saw was an enormous grey-haired woman rolling home from the liquor store, several bottles of fortified something tucked between her immense hips and the seat of the motorized wheelchair she now needed because her arthritic knees could no longer support her weight. An oxygen tank was strapped to the back of her wheelchair; tubes snaked into her nostrils.

In short, my image of the future was now fashioned out of fear, rather than from hope.

Gotta quit. Gotta quit.

For the next ten years, I was always trying to quit smoking. I was always trying to quit drinking. I was always trying to lose weight. Every day I made a new resolution and every day I broke it. I am pretty sure that I tried every single smoking cessation, drinking cessation and eating cessation program known to humankind – and I failed with every one of them.

Somehow I also managed to write and publish a few more books, but not as many as I would have if I hadn’t been so obsessed with my lack of money and my bad habits. (And, to make things worse, the price of cigarettes and booze kept going up and up, and the publishing industry fell to pieces!)

Finally, I hit bottom. And finally – with the help of a therapist I had gone to in despair – I began to realize that I had been taking the wrong approach. I began to understand that I could never quit anything when I was focussed only on the quitting. What I had to do was stop thinking about what I was afraid of, and start remembering what I wanted to become.

What I Did Next

At age 50, I took that image of myself as a failure and I essentially shoved her off a cliff. When I saw her trying to claw her way back up toward me, I shook my head at her. That wasn’t me. No more. After a long time, she grew weaker and stopped trying to return. Now I almost never see her.

In the meantime, I took that other image, the one which had become lost in all the stresses of the years, dusted her off, and put her back in front of me where I wouldn’t lose sight of her again. I did some fine-tuning while I was at it: imagining every aspect of what I wanted to become. I was getting to the age where if I didn’t do it now, I’d never get another chance.

The woman I wanted to become was strong and healthy. She was aging powerfully and well. She was a woman whose children and grandchildren would see her as a role model – and (this part hadn’t changed!) she was a writer whose books (and blog posts! And Tweets!) made people sit up and pay attention: hang off her every word.

First, I quit drinking… one day at a time. That turned out to be much harder and to take much longer than I thought it would, but it was nothing compared to quitting smoking. That I had to do one hour at a time. Both of those recoveries caused me to gain even more weight than I was already carrying around, but I couldn’t let myself worry about that. Finally I turned to the challenge of getting healthy, and a few years later, I was able to get serious about actually losing weight.

I didn’t do any of these things out of fear of what might happen if I didn’t do them, or because I wanted to fit into some outfit for a certain event. I didn’t do them because the doctors told me I had to, or because my loved ones said I should. I did these things for me – because I know who I am, and because the person that I am has goals. I did them because I want to live long enough to enjoy my life and the people I love for as long as I can – without sickness, without shame, and especially without fear.

I Am Getting There

I have not fulfilled my vision yet, but today I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I get out and exercise regularly, and I weigh 35 pounds less than I did four years ago (I still have 10 pounds to go).

And I write. My latest book – a novel called Rita Just Wants to Be Thin – is the story of a woman who, at 29, learns the lessons that it has taken me a lifetime to figure out.

Who knows? Maybe some day Rita (or one of my other books) will put me on that stage I’ve been imagining for so many years, in front of a room full of readers who are hanging off my every word. But if that doesn’t happen, it’s okay. Because what really matters is what happens offstage, where most of my life is lived. And there, at last, I am finally getting closer and closer to becoming the person I have always wanted to be.

* This article was written at the invitation of Jan Graham and originally published on her great blog site, Cranky Fitness. Check it out. Thanks, Jan!

Água Viva – Clarice Lispector

Mary W. Walters: Book Reviews

LispectorÁgua Viva

Clarice Lispector

Translated by Stefan Tobler

88 pages

New Directions Books

Although Água Viva is officially classified as fiction, it is likely to appeal more to those with a taste for poetry than to those who prefer the more familiar manifestations of prose. Água Viva lacks narrative structure: in fact, one reviewer described it as “non-narrative fiction” — whatever that means. For the most part the author betrays even her own basic construct, which is that this work has been written by an unnamed narrator — a painter who is exploring the artistic possibilities of the writing medium for the first time — to a lover from whom she has been temporarily and unwillingly parted.

Despite the wrench she claims to feel at his departure, the “other” to whom the writing is ostensibly addressed is not important to this work. For most of Água Viva, the narrator…

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