Pickle me this.
Guest blog post on Pickle Me This April 16, 2011.
A stop on the Sarah Selecky virtual blog tour (with prizes!)
Sarah Selecky's writing has been published in The Walrus, Geist Magazine, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly, Event and The Journey Prize Anthology. Her short story collection, This Cake is for the Party, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize, and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award.
Thanks to Sarah for making Pickle Me This a stop on her virtual blog tour. It has been truly lovely having her stop by.
I have taken a leave of absence from Toronto this winter. I’ve been lucky enough to hide myself away in one of my most favourite parts of Ontario: Prince Edward County. For two whole months, I have been house sitting in a beautiful home, all alone, with a big bathtub and a fireplace and a view of the river. There is nothing for me to do here except write.
My plan was to come out here and write every single day. I let all of my students know that I was on sabbatical and I put a hold on my editing and teaching work. I am working on something new – a book about writing – and I was sure that I would be productive and focused while on retreat. I thought that by the end of my time here, I’d have a good chunk of my first draft written.
The truth: I have not written very much while I’ve been on my writing retreat. When the glittery carnival that was the Scotiabank Giller Prize happened last fall, it was a complete surprise. At first, I thought I could keep up with my regular life, that it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But my days quickly became busy and strange. There wasn’t enough time for me to do Giller stuff and keep my regular life running smoothly. With all the interviews and phone calls that came each day, I could barely keep teaching, let alone do any writing. I started taking Gravol at night so I could sleep (thank you Susan Swan for that advice). Eventually, I succumbed to bi-weekly meltdowns (likely due to the aforementioned sleep deprivation) where I would cry my eyes out for about ten minutes and then get up, wash my face, brush my hair, and answer the phone or go to a cafe for an interview with whatever journalist I had an appointment with that day. I felt like the media could find me everywhere. A television crew spent twelve hours with me one day. My husband took that day off work so he could be in the footage, and then he ended up taking a few more personal days, just to make sure I remembered to eat and drink while I was doing other interviews. He also answered my phone for me and took messages. He made a little clipboard with my schedule on it for each day of the week.
Those autumn weeks were one hundred percent nutso. And amazing.
But I was just so – unprepared for it all. So by the time December came around, I felt depleted, exhausted, and completely out of touch with my family, my friends, and myself. I felt like a soggy orange rind that had been totally juiced – I was just the pulpy skin left over. Now, when I think back to last fall, many of my memories are blurry and unformed, like I wasn’t even there. It was official: I’d hit burnout.
So I packed up my suitcase, my laptop, and a box of books and I moved out to Prince Edward County for this writing retreat.
As I write this, I am watching a pair of swans float in the river just out the window. I realized today that I have only five more days left on retreat.
So, what have I done for the past two months?
I watched the entire Friday Night Lights series on DVD, knitted a purple hat and scarf, learned how to make sauerkraut by hand, finally read a book by Malcom Gladwell, attempted to write a song on the electric piano, wrote long handwritten letters to friends in faraway places, went cross-country skiing on the frozen river, checked my Twitter account, developed an addiction to raw cacao, learned the names of the three species of woodpecker that come to the bird feeder (Hairy, Downy and Pileated), listened to coyotes howling at the Supermoon, took long drives on country roads, stared into the eyes of cows, canoed in the river during the spring thaw, and drank shot glasses of locally-made maple syrup straight up.
Have I wasted my time out here, or what? I’m a writing teacher. Every day in my work, I try to help people develop a daily writing practice. I’m all about commitment to the craft: that’s my thing. I’m supposed to be writing about writing, for crying out loud! So, why didn’t I take my own advice? How can I tell people to write every day, when I don’t even do it myself?
Here’s the thing: I know I’m not going to have the energy to write another book unless I take some serious time off from writing. Not writing is important: it’s restorative. Taking a break from the work is also a part the work. Nobody really talks about that part of being a writer, and I know why they don’t. It’s scary. When I’m writing, I feel plugged in and energized and in sync. But when I’m not writing, I feel out of it. I have the very real fear that I’ll never be able to write anything ever again. When you look at the stiff, dark branches of trees in the winter, isn’t it hard to imagine those same trees all lush and full of leaves?
But winter happens. Then spring comes.
Yesterday, I sat down and wrote a rough outline for my new book. Five days left to write, and I just sat down and did it. I’m not going to come close to finishing a first draft in five days, but that’s okay, because after taking half a year off, I finally feel like writing again.