Work in progress

I look back and realise it’s been about a year since I last wrote an entry here. It’s been a tumultuous couple of years and there are places in my memory that feel like black holes. I know I read books in the past couple of years, I just have a very vague recollection of them. I know I wrote some things, but I also don’t remember what. What I do know is that it’s taken time for us to reach stable ground as a family and it’s taken me time to reach a place where I can sit down  and find joy in the act of writing. It’s also taken me this long to be able to focus properly.

I know many people sent me emails and I know many emails went unanswered. It’s not because I didn’t read the emails, but more because I would start to answer and would run out of gas halfway. A lot of things happened like that not just to emails but to stories or essays I started work on.

Sometime last year, I got a message from the Milford writing workshop saying that I was being offered a bursary. After struggling with a number of things, I decided to accept the bursary and go to Milford. I wrote about the value of Milford and what receiving the bursary meant for me in a blogpost that’s now up at the Milford site. You can read the post here.

It’s pretty amazing to be writing everyday again. To be in the flow of a story that started with me pouring out my longing for my sister onto the page. I miss my sister every day. I miss the conversations and the arguments that we had. I even miss getting irritated and complaining about her being so set in her ways. Most of all, I miss knowing that no matter what, there was this one person in the world who knew me in and out and who would unrelentingly be always on my side.

The trigger scene for the opening of the current work in progress is one where my main character is crossing a bridge as part of a test. Her sister has vanished into a waypoint, but my main character refuses to believe her sister is no longer in this life. She believes she can still reach her sister. I’m sharing this snippet here.

Funny to think that I’m standing on this bridge when I was never the brave one. 

But I won’t give up. Not when I’d worked so hard. In my dreams, I speak to my sister. Spirit to spirit, heart to heart, just as we used to do when we were children lying next to each other in our room. I made her a promise and she made me one. 

When you’re ready, Apuyo, the commander says. 

Hold my hand, I whisper. 

Command has said that even though the pod emits a signal there is no proof of life.  Everyone’s given her up for dead; but I have seen no body, and no matter what command says, her spirit leads me on.  Strong and sure as when we were children in the mountains of Bughaw. 

I take a deep breath and put one foot in front of the other, my arms stretched out wide. My sister’s voice is in my ear telling me to take one step at a time. I keep my eyes fixed on the end goal and I walk forward believing she will catch me if I fall.

Process: approaching the work

Am I still a writer?

In the time that has passed, I’ve asked this question on and off. I’ve wondered why I can’t just sit down and make myself write.

Sometimes, just the thought of writing is enough to make me anxious. I sit down and look at the page and wonder if what I write will be good enough. Will I be able to say what I want to say? How did I write before the world changed? And why must the world start up and go at full speed while I am still dragging my heels and waiting?

The work summons me. It calls to me. My gut churns. I want to throw up.

I know the work is waiting and even if I try to cover it up, inside my head, the work is already taking shape. It is simply waiting for me to sit down and write.

But when I sit down, my attention is led away by other things.

My eldest son must be reminded of projects he must finish if he is to graduate this year. Youngest son must focus and finish his homework. Paperwork beckons. We must make a decision on our house. We must speak to the insurance people. We must speak with the builders about the damage the last storm inflicted on our roof. We must. . . .

There is no end to the list of tasks.

But the work beckons and cannot be ignored and so, I sit and look at what I have written and think of how I will go on from here.

I think of loneliness, of displacement, of the world becoming empty and bare and of how the landscape changes and how we change.

When does the stranger’s touch become the touch of a friend? When does a lover’s embrace become a shelter? When does the foreigner become part of the landscape? When does the stranger start to call the foreign country, home?

How do we get there?

How?

I think of the world in its sad state and of how easy it would be to give in to despair.

I think of life and of being in a state of change. I think of the gaps between the spaces.

I think of what it means to go out on a journey, of what it means to leave everything behind.

I sit down.

The writing isn’t perfect. As always, it is flawed.

When the world opens up

A remarkable thing happened to me this past weekend.

We spent the weekend with a group of Dutchy friends in an area close to where we had had our last family vacation together with Jan.

There is a process to grief and grieving and I suppose that I had become quite an adept in avoiding certain places or things that would remind me of the past and of loss. It may sound strange, but I think a lot of my coping process lay in avoiding the painful parts and focusing on the present.

So there we were, out on a walk in the countryside, and my eldest son suddenly says: Mom, isn’t this the place where we spent our last holiday?

That last holiday was memorable, not only because it was the last one, but also because we were staying at a really nice place with a lovely view of mountains and with a road going down to the river where the kids spent a number of afternoons wading or trying to make pebbles skip on the surface of the water.

That’s not possible, I said to my eldest son.

But even as I said the words, we rounded the bend and there was a familiar sight. The same road, we had argued over taking, the same road going up to the apartments where we had rented a room.

And just like that, I was in tears.

The great thing about Dutch people is how discrete they can be and how they will let you be alone with whatever it is you need to be alone with unless you ask for company to share that moment with you.

Later that day, in a conversation with another mother, the subject of my writing came up. It is very strange to talk about your work as a writer when you feel like you aren’t one anymore. But we talked about it and about her seven year old daughter who writes small interesting stories. She asked me how long I had been writing and I told her that I had dictated my first story to my mother when I was three or four years old. She told me about her daughter doing the same thing with her. And as we talked, I realised how good it felt to be able to encourage someone–to be able to encourage a possible young writer in the art of storytelling. (It was also very lovely to meet a Mom who was keen on encouraging their child’s creativity in this way.)

In that moment, I felt a shift in myself. I don’t know how to describe it, but on the trip back, I kept thinking of the word Alive.

I also thought of the conversation I had with one of Jan’s closest friends and of how he told me about the world narrowing down when his father died and how at a certain point, the world opened up again. Different, changed, but no longer a tunnel.

I am still quite astounded by it and so I had to write it here. To mark it in some way.

Pain and loss have marked us, but we are alive and the world has opened up. We are no longer in the tunnel. I am finally allowing myself to look forward with something more than just the will to survive and to make a life.

I started writing again over the weekend. It is still raw and unfinished, but it is honest and truthful and it is science fiction.

Where I am at and dear God, but living is painful

Liz Williams sent me a note asking me how I was doing. It came at a time when I was in the absolute pits, thinking there was really no point anymore and I just can’t do anything right, can I? That short note was like a jolt of lightning.

How can I think of giving up on life when I have been constantly lifted up these past two years?

There is a point—I don’t know what it is. Is it grief? Is it mourning? Is it guilt? I don’t know what it is, but there is a point when giving up seems like the only thing left to do.

Just let me lie down and wallow in my grief. Just go away and leave me to be miserable and lost and chaotic and forgotten. Don’t look at me because what has overcome me feels so terrible that it might touch you too.

I was like that.

For a while, I decided I wasn’t good for anyone…even for my children. I thought, if I can just make sure that my kids are in a stable and safe place, then it will be all right.

This moment of despair came in part because no matter how I tried, I just couldn’t write properly anymore. (Still can’t, btw.)

When I write, it seems my words keep turning back to sorrow. I cry. My body aches. I read the words and the words turn into tears.

That is what writing has been like for a good long while.

There is this thing about grief and loss. It’s okay to talk about it for a while, but as time passes, we start to tell ourselves this story—

“You’re grown up. You’re an adult. You’re a strong person. You can do this.”

I also started to tell myself this story:

“Your grief is so heavy and burdensome. You shouldn’t be a burden to others. You mustn’t burden those around you with your grief.“

And so, it goes like that. That story I kept telling myself.

I guess, we all need just that one person to make us face the truth of how much bullshit that story is.

Grief strikes anywhere at anytime. Sorrow has no respect for passing time.

So what if a year has passed or two years or five or even ten?

It doesn’t make loss insignificant.

Just because I still feel the pain of loss doesn’t mean I am no longer intent on living and just because I am intent on living doesn’t mean I no longer feel the pain.

*with apologies to Liz for mentioning her note without permission and for my failure to reply in any way at all.

Updatery and such

It still continues to be busy. In some ways, it’s busier than it was. In other ways, it’s a bit more quiet. I like that I get to have alone time when I can do whatever I like but the house has its demands and there are things that need to be done.

This past month, I finished working on an essay I’d promised Maurice Broaddus. I think of the encouragement that comes to me in emails, in publications (Magnifica Angelica Superable was published on Lightspeed this month), and in conversations had with beloved ones. It may sound strange but I feel like I am coming back from a long way away.

I think of Laura telling me how deaths of those close to us change us. I think of one of our friends telling me that when his father died, the world narrowed down and became somehow sharper. Different.

I think of what it’s like to fall in-between cracks and how there is that moment between losing someone and being alive when it feels like the left behind are hovering somewhere in a place like indefinite limbo while the world goes on.

It feels just right that I am reading a Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Intelligent Rodents with my youngest son. Youngest son can read the book all by himself, but we borrowed this book expressly to read together. A bedtime ritual where he listens and imagines while I try to make the story feel as real as possible with the reading of it.

There is death in this book. In the past two nights, two of the intelligent rodents have died. Pratchett doesn’t turn away from those deaths. Rather he lays it on the page, factual and clear. It happened. A rat died. We stand still for a moment, thinking on that death and then Pratchett moves us onward–the story continues. It’s not that the death doesn’t matter. It does, but life goes on and characters move forward and think about what happens next.

On some days, it’s a dilemma. How to make it so that a child doesn’t sink into the quagmire of sorrow and despair.

Tearing a book out of Pratchett’s page, I acknowledge my child’s sorrow. It’s sad and it’s a terrible thing, but tomorrow is a promise. Let’s think about what we want to do tomorrow. Where do you want to go? What do you want to see? What about next week? What about next month? What about next year?

I understand very well that grief doesn’t ever go away. That grief is not a neat and orderly process but it comes in waves and flags and sometimes at the most inconvenient and untidy of moments. It is as it is. There is no changing the reality. But we go on. We hang together. And then, I find myself thankful and glad that I can still be here for my children.

Process: Fire and Life and Story

Wrote 1647 words to the wip yesterday.

Worked on that story that I let lie for a long long time.

I am sitting at my writing desk–butt in chair, eyes to the screen. I plan to write and I plan to keep on writing.

I think of conversations had with friends about the writer’s life and the act of writing. I think of stories and I think of fire and I think of how what is twisted and cold and hateful will always try to kill what is warm and passionate and alive.

Fire and life.

I think of how we come to story from many different backgrounds. Half-scared out of our skins because to write story is to bare yourself to the world. It is to make yourself vulnerable and open to possible derision, to possible shaming, to possible rejection, to possible pain. And yet, we keep doing it. Again and again and again.

While sorting through the business of paperwork and thinking through how I should go on, I told the accountant who was helping me to deal with the finance side of stuff that I was working on my first novel. She smiled and told me that it’s a rare writer who is able to make a living off of their writing. I know this. I know this very well.

Still, I write.

I write because stories are life. They remind me of hope and joy and of the passion that is so vital to life. I know what it’s like to walk in this world carrying worlds inside my body–to have that feeling of knowing a place that is beyond the space my physical self occupies.

 

Story is a fire. It is my job to open the door, to make the fire so inviting that the reader can’t help but come in. It is my job to make the world I carry inside me become just as real to the reader as it is to me.

There is enough killing hatred in the world. There are enough people who populate the world with killing words and killing deeds.

Words have power. (Fantasy reminds us of this.)

I write to remember that the world is filled with infinite possibilities, that there is still hope, that we have the power to change, that we can change ourselves and the world around us.

Blow fire into your story.  Keep hold of your hope. Be contagious.

Work in Progress

Someone asked me how my experience of loss would affect the work in progress. I remember saying that I didn’t know. Would I have more death in my work? Would sorrow be more present? Would my characters change? In what way would the world and the characters occupying that world be changed?

A very dear friend of mine told me during one of our conversations that when she went through deep loss, she looked for the gift her loved ones had left for her to find. Looking is a painful process. So is letting go. So is moving forward.

Let go. Step forward. Change.

Our lives have changed drastically. Beyond the empty spaces, room has opened up for us and we are exploring and coming to terms with this new territory that is our life after loss.

Yesterday, I returned to working on Flight of the Body Cartographer. I understand better now how loss can touch me, can touch those I love, can change me, can change the shape and the contour of the world.

Looking back, I think there was still a lot in the wip that was rather vague or undefined. It felt to me like the draft of a draft even though it also felt in parts as if it was already complete.

Going back to the work yesterday, I understood the dissatisfaction I had felt with what I’d written down in the past.

During a visit, one of my husband’s friends said to me: after loss, the world narrows down. Colours are sharper. Your focus shifts and changes for a while. Then the world widens up, it’s still the same world, but different.

I think he was very right.

Like story, life is also a work in progress.

That moment when you don’t know anymore

Ah life. On some days, I think I can take on the world and we are moving forward and we can do it and we can come out stronger. And then there are the days when I am reminded that loss is still an open wound, when it seems like every step is weighted down and all I really want to do is lie down and go to sleep for a long time.

There is a limit to how much friends and loved ones can carry together with us. There are things we cannot ask them to bear for us. We must bear these things…the three of us. My sons and I.

And the psychologists tell me that the job of moving forward rests mainly on me because mother determines how the children deal with their sorrow. How I am determines how my kids face up to their grief…with how they push forward and carry on.

Most days, I can carry on. But on some days, I can’t see beyond one moment to the next. There are moments like now, when I just don’t know anymore.

Today is almost done. I did my best. We all did. It wasn’t perfect, but we are getting there.

Tomorrow is waiting to happen. Tomorrow, we will move forward again. Tomorrow, things will be better. Tomorrow…

I have to keep on believing–

 

Back to Life

In the moments after sudden loss, the world falls away. For a while, you live in a vacuum where nothing exists except sudden emptiness. There is no formula for dealing with that kind of loss. There are no answers to questions left hanging in midair. Resolutions made, half-spoken plans–things not quite wrapped up. You are left there–hanging in midair, seeking for a foothold, trying to find stable ground again.

For a while, writing becomes a struggle. The words are too heavy–or not enough–the suddenness of loss is too startling. One moment there, then gone. Just like that. Photographs cannot answer back and memory rubs across the surface of the mind like rough paper over an open wound.

There is nothing to say. There is a lot you still want to say. No more questions can be asked. There are still so many things you want to ask.

Life moves on relentlessly. Life is too short to dwell on loss. Rather remember the good. Rather remember to embrace life and live life because the end is never expected.

So let us live life, I said to my friend.

And I think…I have to be bolder. I want to be stronger. I want to cherish those who are dear to me and to let those I love know that I love them. Each and every day. Life is too short for fear, for pride, for hate, for regret.

Things I learned: On Artistry and Art Life

Writer and storyteller, Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor, shared a link on her blog to a speech given by Ursula K. Le Guin upon accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In this speech, Le Guin speaks not only of the need for visionary writers, but she also speaks of the need to discern between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.

At the end of her speech, Le Guin says that the name of our reward is not profit, it is freedom.

I think of freedom as I reflect and go through the notes and the memories that I have from New York and Janis Ian’s masterclass in artistry. Le Guin’s words resonate with the lessons learned from my time with Janis.

In New York, Laura and I talked about Janis’s commitment not only to her art, but also to taking hold of the business aspect of her art practice.  It was an aspect that she brought up a number of times and listening to Le Guin talk of freedom, serves as a reminder that whatever proceeds come from the exercise of one’s art–they all go back towards the artist being able to keep on practicing that art.

The practical truth of it is that we cannot exercise or develop our art when our energy is gone, when we are too tired or worn out, or when we our head is filled with worry.  I think of how I would never have finished or published the stories I have if not for being given space and time to practice my art free from the stresses and the tensions of daily life. I am grateful to my fellow practitioners–to the artists and writers who have opened their homes to me and who have so generously given me flights of freedom.

Freedom.

To be able to practice our art in a space and time when we are free from thinking of anything else but that practice is a vital and precious good. The writer cannot live without writing, and practicing art means we must be able to center ourselves on the work most of all.

Which then leads me to a question Janis Ian asked repeatedly in various sessions:

“Who among you wants to be famous?”

In thinking on that question, we are forced to recognize that fame does not equate into freedom, fame is not the same as success.  Indeed the boundary between fame and notoriety is so thin that it’s easy to cross over without realizing it. Rather than fame,  I value more the freedom to practice my art, and the knowledge that I have remained true to my vision.

Because, as Janis Ian reminded us, no one else has the vision that we have; and while there are many things in this life that can be faked, talent and art can never be faked.

Even as she said these things, she reminded us too that talent is not enough. The artist must do the work–must master their craft. If talent is a spirited horse, craft is what will ensure that your talent will not run away with you. In the course of the week, Janis continued to emphasize the need for artists to grow and add to their skillset (what we also call our toolkit). As artists,  we need to be constantly developing ourselves.  Being equipped with a wide range of skills makes us capable of answering to the call of opportunity.

I think of these things and I think to myself–the sky is unlimited.

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One of the interesting features of our week was what Janis called the Museum Wall. At the end of the week, we were asked to answer the question: What does all great art have in common? I’m sharing the image of the wall here. You answer the question.

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