An Anniversary, And A (Sort Of) Love Letter To Writing

As of today, I have been a published children’s author for a decade. What started as an idea I had while I was teaching big kids to ask big questions is now 13 books (with #14 in the works), 14 apps, a bunch of videos, and a big pile of parent/teacher resources. Along the way, there have been conferences, workshops, and a handful of awards. It’s been a good ride.

I’ve got 10 years of learning, and deadlines, and fretting over typos. I’ve got a 10-year stockpile of stuff that never quite fit into our plans, and stuff that should never see the light of day. And yes, I have 10 years of friendly, writerly, publisher-ly advice to give to anyone who’s willing to listen.

After some careful thought I’ve distilled it down to one key thesis, with a handful of footnotes. There’s one thing I need you to know about this line of work.

Making books is really, really, really hard.

I’m not interested in turning anyone off the act of writing, but there’s this weird and, quite frankly, damaging mystique around it that is just begging to be dispelled. I’m not sure if there are very many professions that are quite as misunderstood. So, as a show of reverence and respect to wordsmithing, I’m going to take this anniversary as an opportunity to throw in my two cents.

First things first: a writer is someone who writes. You don’t have to be paying your rent with your words in order to be a writer. You don’t have to have critical acclaim. You do, however, have to do it on a regular basis. You are not a runner if you don’t run. You’re not a chef if you don’t cook. A writer isn’t someone who has an idea for a book, or who thinks it might be cool to have a bestseller on their CV. “Writer” is not an honorific or the expression of a wish. “Writer” is a verbal snapshot of someone in the act. This may sound pretty obvious, but I’ve had to explain it to a lot of people over the past 10 years.

Admittedly, writing is something you can do without a specific degree or period of professional training. There are some excellent writing programs out there, but it can be self-taught. This does not, however, mean that writing is easy, or that anyone who wants to can do it on a whim. Writers, good ones anyway, are able to produce evidence of their skill, some sort of credentials. If someone walked into a law office and announced that they were certain they could be an excellent lawyer because they’d gobbled up a TV series, they’d be shown the door. No one gets to do surgery because they’ve always found blood and guts fascinating. Airplanes are not piloted by people who think it might be fun to play with a big metal toy. Like any profession, writing requires study and practice, and if you’re looking to be taken seriously by anyone in the industry, you need to be familiar with the process, well-versed in the lingo, and able to cough up some work. Good work.

It’s also essential to recognize that a finished piece of work is not the same as a good piece of work. A great deal of any writer’s portfolio is garbage, and will/should never see the light of day. All writers need to be honest and brave enough to let some things go. Everything we write is useful practice, but it’s not all worth sharing. I have a giant backlog of old writing, and I see most of it as a collection of souvenirs. Been there, done that, got it down on paper, cried a bit and said some grown-up words while trying to make it work, moved on.

Over the last decade, I’ve been in both a writer’s and a publisher’s shoes, and I need to share a very important insight. The publishing industry may be mean and nasty, but publishers themselves (as in the people who make decisions) really aren’t. I used to stare at each rejection letter (and there are always plenty, by the way), and try to picture the face of the person who wrote it, so I could imagine the sorry so-and-so who turned down my masterpiece. I wondered what a complete stranger could have against me and my work. Now, I’m over it. This book stuff is more expensive, and time-intensive, and mind-boggling than anyone outside the industry could ever imagine. The powers that be don’t have the resources to publish every good piece that comes their way. In the case of indie publishers, it might be one or two things a year. Success means being really picky and focused. That’s the reality, and it sucks. No one’s trying to be a snob or a jerk. Pinky swear.

I sound like a royal downer, don’t I? The truth is, I’m sharing all of this because I love books. I love reading them, I love writing them, I love publishing them, and I love transforming them into other stuff. It’s a common affliction for writers that they can’t not write. I don’t feel like myself unless I’ve got my hands somewhere in the process. Kafka wasn’t kidding when he said “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” It’s this profound affection, this ever-looming insanity, that makes me desperate to have others understand the mad, loving scramble that goes into producing each work, the complex tangle of tasks and ideas. It would be such a disservice, maybe even a betrayal of my profession to let anyone think that it’s easy, or that a book just shows up. This or that book didn’t have to be here. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, it was pretty unlikely that it would be written, let alone polished up, noticed by someone in the right place at the right time, and then published. Knowing all of that should take our breath away.

So here I am, a decade in. I’m a little scuffed up in spots, a little bit proud, admittedly a little bit smug, but still enamoured and in awe.

Given the chance (and I hope I’m given decades’ more chances) I’d do it all over again, with minimal revisions.

 

Poem: Lilies and Onions

Lilies and Onions

They’re of the same ilk,
snobbish cousins,
the golden-haired child and the black sheep
who parted ways after adolescence,
who deliberately forget to send Christmas cards.

 
One decided in favour of pungency.
A source of dutiful tears
Breaded and deep fried with ketchup
Relegated to the cold cellar
To Saturday afternoon barbeques
To thick, alkaline wedges among lettuce leaves
To hang on a lover’s breath
and in the kitchen curtains.

 
The other made only carefully-calculated public appearances
On altars
Freckled, but majestic
Sensual orange and scarlet
Bowing before blushing brides
Spreading lacy fingers among trellises.

 
One should be so lucky
as to be appreciated layer by layer
to have world’s beneath one’s skin
exposed,
to be devoured to one’s core.
Fools, we dream of expounding our importance.
Petal by frivolous petal,
we trade stoutness and semi-permanence
for two weeks of frantic glow.

 

Copyright Amy Leask 2021

The Grounded Pilgrim

FCCC6A7B-503E-4EDD-B409-7A477CE01C02Solvitur Ambulando.

No one’s 100% sure who said it, but it translates into “It is solved by walking.” It acknowledges the profound effect of going places, of travelling, of movement. There are a lot of us who have chronically itchy feet, who think better, learn more, and feel more like ourselves when the scenery changes.

Thinker Rupert Sheldrake has much to say about pilgrimages. He speaks of the journeys we make to sacred places, for all kinds of reasons. We journey to places of significance to soak them in, to find meaning and clarity that we can’t find in our everyday surroundings,  to feel the residual energy of the many who’ve visited there before. The journey alone is an experience, the elation of putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that there’s a purpose to it, something significant at the end. Pilgrimages aren’t always long and arduous. They aren’t necessarily religious in nature. They do, however, always leave an indelible mark on the one undertakes them.

Up to about a year ago, I was a consummate pilgrim. I’ve journeyed to see works of art that shook me. Sometimes it was to be where someone I admired had been, to touch something they had touched. If I’m honest, I’ve gone on pilgrimages that revolved around food. In every case, I loved getting there, and I really loved being there. There was clarity in it, inspiration, connection. I came back a little bit different. Great chunks of who I am have been built on these trips.

There haven’t been that many (or any) pilgrimages this past year. The means to get around, to explore other places, are designated for emergency use only.  The far away wonders feel like they might as well be on the other side of the universe. The ones nearby are closed. I take the dogs for a walk, sometimes even on a scenic route, but I’m just as much on a leash as they are. These days, I do my pilgrimages on Pinterest, amidst the sound of groceries being delivered and email notifications.

I wonder what pilgrimages will look like when the world opens up a little. I’ve been stewing in my own wanderlust for more than a year. When the time comes, will I hastily pack a bag and bolt for the door, or will I be like one of those elephants who’s been chained to a post so long that they don’t know what to do when someone lets them go? I’ve been travelling by air since I was an infant, but I find myself wondering if I’ll ever trust the space inside a plane again. Will I confront my aversion to long car rides? Can I still trust the journey?

And what about the destination? Will I care about seeing the same things, soaking in the same sights? Will the same monuments feel significant, the historic figures worthy of admiration? Will the pictures and the souvenirs hold the same place of esteem?

Here’s how I cope with this particular fuzzy end of the proverbial lollipop: I remind myself that part of what I love about being a pilgrim, what many love about it, is the palpable sensation that I am treading where many before me have tread. The places and things I long to see are also monuments to posterity. They’re still there to see and experience because humans, despite our many flaws, know how to hang in there for long periods of time. Many of them were built during tough times.

And here we are, trying to persist in the face of something awful, just like pretty much every batch of humans who’ve gone before.

In the past, getting to the end of a pilgrimage had a particular feeling. I wore my journeys like a sash full of girl guide badges, with pride and nostalgia. They affirmed to me, and anyone else who happened to notice, that I was unafraid of putting in the effort to get somewhere. A pilgrimage suggests patience and determination. It means you recognize that some things are worth persevering for, that the end sometimes justifies the means, and that you can put up with some hardship, even learn from it, if it means you’ll get someplace wonderful later.

This is, by far, the longest pilgrimage I’ve ever been on. I have no idea when it will end, or even what I’m aiming to see when it’s over. But I have to think that the endless walks around the neighbourhood, the mad dashes to the post office, the quick trips to drop off groceries, are all part of a journey so long and so slow that I sometimes forget I’m still moving. More importantly, I need to believe, like every good pilgrim does, that it will end in somewhere amazing, and that I will be a little better for it. I have faith that much will be solved by walking.

Poem: A Memo From Camus

5FB5F8B2-7230-453A-9B18-90BED9F630D0

Dearest Sisyphus,
I am writing to inform you that I have
inadvertently misrepresented you
and your situation.
As it so happens, it is not you who is rolling
the rock
but rather the rock that is rolling you
selfishly barring you from floating away
drifting
aimless balloon that you are.
Furthermore,
the rock is not in fact a rock
but rather an enormous dung ball
and one that has grown wiser
than the lowly scarab
that moves it.
Thought you should know.
Regards.

Just A Little Bit Angry

0A5051D8-4222-4BF3-8D74-6A270646D3C8

I heard a great line while binging “The Queen’s Gambit” this week:

“Anger is a potent spice. A pinch wakes you up. Too much dulls your senses.”

Anger has been my seasoning of choice for at least a few months now, and I don’t think I need to go into a whole lot of detail as to why. There’s this pandemic thing, for starters, coupled with  a heaping helping of political unrest. I’m angry at the changes I’ve had to make in my life, in the lives of my family, for all of the parts of ourselves that we’ve had to put on ice. I’m angry on behalf of all of those who are really struggling right now, who don’t have security, or even their health.

But this isn’t a post about COVID19, or the state of the world, or human rights. We hear a lot about those things, and presently, I don’t have much to add to the discussion. I am decidedly against the first, very concerned about the second, and passionately in favour of the third. That’s about it for now.

What I do want to do is come to the defense of anger. I keep hearing that anger is poison, that it pollutes and deteriorates. Perhaps, this far into the pandemic and all its trappings, I should be at peace, in a zen state, accepting of what’s happening. But I’m not. And I’m cool with that.

Feeling angry isn’t the same as feeling helpless. Even with our present set of restrictions, I feel strangely empowered. There are plenty of things I can do and change. There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do them all.

Angry doesn’t equal ungrateful either. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel lucky to be safe and healthy and loved. There is so much good still in the world, and I recognize that I’ve had more of my share of it. I want it for others too.

Angry doesn’t negate happy either or hopeful. As I go about my daily business, I generally have a smile of my face, and a joke or two to tell. I just also happen to have a tiny, invisible flame dancing atop my head. In the right light, you can see the smoke.

Anger turns helplessness into purpose. Gratitude mixed with anger is a catalyst for change. Happiness combined with anger sparks passion and maybe even optimism. I’ve never been zen. Not even close. Trying to settle into peace feels about as uncomfortable as a pair of pointy-toed stilettos that are two sizes to small. If the past year has taught me anything, it’s that I need to stop trying to accept what is unacceptable. I can’t be at peace with it.

My anger is not main dish, but more like a condiment. My anger is a dollop of ketchup or a squeeze of lemon. It’s a teaspoon of festive red sprinkles.

“A pinch wakes you up.”

Channeling Dorothy Amidst COVID19

File:Serafin-Luftmann, Elise.jpg

If my grandmother were alive, today would be her 100th birthday.

Her name was Dorothy, and she lived through the great depression, World War 2, and a bunch of other stuff. I’m not sure if it was just her nature, or all of the awful nurture going on in her formative years, but she was tough. Dorothy was practical, stubborn, driven, and hard-working. Her mornings never began with a cup of coffee and a reading of the paper, but with a diligent survey of all the tasks that needed to be completed before the sun went down. I don’t think I ever saw her sit for an entire meal. She was up doing the dishes before anyone else had a chance to get to dessert.  She could make an entire meal out of the fuzzy things at the back of the freezer, and I once saw her scrape ants off a birthday cake and proceed to serve it (don’t ask). She broke her arm in her late 80s while throwing around cinder blocks in the yard, and on occasion, greeted visitors in the driveway with an axe slung over her shoulder.

Dorothy had no time for laziness, or complaints, or wastefulness. She was all business. The fact that it’s her birthday today is reason enough for me to bring her to mind, but with everything that’s been going on in the world this week, she’s been front and centre. She would have kicked ass at a time like this. True, she would have been royally peeved at being told what to do and what not to do, and there wouldn’t have been any camp fire kumbaya to discuss feelings, but things would have gotten done.

As it turns out, when faced with a major crisis (knock on wood, I haven’t had a lot of them in my life), I channel Dorothy. Unlike my grandmother, I’m not opposed to being reflective or discussing emotions. This past week or two have been riddled with uncertainty and fear for everyone. There’s a lot of loneliness and worry, and I’m absolutely down with sharing and caring. But like my grandmother, I’m not paralyzed by any of that. Like Dorothy, I’ve just been trying to get things done. I couldn’t care less about the state of my actual house, but my proverbial house is being set in order. I’ve cleaned up a lot in the past week, and I don’t see an end in sight.

Dorothy didn’t teach me to do my hair, or bake cookies, or any other softer stuff that grandmothers are sometimes expected to teach. She did, however, convey the relief that can be found in constant forward momentum, the pride one can have in standing one’s ground in the face of adversity. She was all about being useful and productive, and she cherished the good, tired feeling one has at the end of a busy day. These are lessons that I’ve been taking to heart lately. I’ve been feeling her presence as I ask, over and over again, “What can I do?” and then rolling up my sleeves and doing it.

I think people cross paths for a reason. In most ways, Dorothy and I were completely different people, and although I know she was proud of me, the life I lead probably seemed strange to her. But being faced with our opposites can be useful, even crucial to our development. Maybe this is the nugget of wisdom we were meant to share, the wee bit of extra strength a sloppy, sentimental type like me might need in times like these. I think the best way I can honour this wisdom is to take a cue from Dorothy, and put it to good use. Right away.

So…what do we need to do today?

A Poem: God of Spare Change

coin

God of Spare Change

He makes the offerings

among the rolled up socks

sandwiched between couch cushions,

among the dregs of last week’s junk mail

Tiny copper eyes

not unlike his own

that wink reassurance

from table tops and kitchen drawers

in amongst the paper clips and thumbtacks.

He peppers the floor with silver

a cold, flat trail of breadcrumbs

a small bite against the soles of bare feet

a musical rattle in the vacuum canister

a nickel-pebbled path that leads the way

from room to room

to and from work

a homing beacon from the car’s cup holder.

He utters a prayer

a mantra in tiny metallic disks

a fortune that lies in small denominations

a harvest of minute treasures

the gathering of which brings patience

and mindfulness of blessings earned

one cent at a time.

Copyright Amy Leask, 2020

Growing a Voice

children shouting

A few months ago, I watched my kid get up in front of about 800 people, many of whom were strangers, and sing. By herself. A capella. She auditioned without telling us, and beamed when she was selected to perform. There were no sleepless nights, no mysterious stomach aches, no nails bitten down to the quick. She was suitably nervous beforehand and during, relieved when it was done, and unsure what her peers would think of her performance. She is, after all, a kid. At no point, however, did she doubt that she deserved to be there, to be heard. What’s more, there was never a moment when I thought she couldn’t do it. It was just another instance when I was left to wonder from whence this kid got her courage, because it certainly wasn’t inherited from me.

I was the runty kid who cried if anyone looked at her the wrong way. The very last thing I wanted to do when I was little was speak up or ask for an audience. Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot to say…when I was by myself. I had monkey brain from a very early age, and there was no shortage of ideas and opinions, but I was out-and-out terrified of other people listening. There were guarded monologues, performed in front of my toys and secret thoughts, stories and poems scribbled in journals.

I didn’t find my voice until I was an adolescent, when a part in my favourite musical came up at school, and I knew I’d spend eternity giving myself face-palms if I didn’t at least try out for it. In addition to my persistent childhood timidness, I was at the tail end of a freakish growth spurt, and I was all bad perm, gangly limbs, and a unibrow. It took everything I had (and a fair bit of coaxing from my friends) to sing an audition piece in front of my teachers. When opening night came, I managed to catch a horrible chest cold, and I sounded like Harvey Fierstein after a month of chain smoking. But I still went on, and it was good. I was in front of hundreds of people, and they were listening. Being heard didn’t cause me to implode. In fact, it triggered a lot of growth. I probably had a fat head for a while after that, but the seal was broken, and I started making up for more than a decade of keeping to myself.

The quiet, shy kid is still part of me. I still get sweaty palms and rapid heartbeat before I have to give a talk or appear on camera. If I know there’s a meeting coming, I rehearse what I’m going to say the day before, in the car, in the shower, in front of my dogs. I worry a lot about screwing up, about being misunderstood. Despite my best efforts, I still have a wobbly, little-kid squeak in my voice, which I’m convinced is my shy inner child speaking her mind through my grown-up body. But what used to terrify me is now a rush, and I relish the opportunity to speak the contents of my jittery little mind. I now make my living screaming into the void.

There’s still room for improvement, mind you. I have not, as of yet, done a solo in front of 800 people in a school talent show.

 

A Letter To My Daughter, On Mother’s Day

Hey Kiddo,

I hope it won’t offend you to hear that I never wore rose-coloured glasses when it came to having children. At eighteen, I was convinced I would have three of you, immediately after finishing university. At 25, I thought maybe two, and not for a while. By the time I hit thirty, I was leaving the number and time frame blank. Life kept getting more interesting, and the task of being someone’s mother got progressively more daunting. Once in a while, some brave older woman would confess to her shortcomings as a mother, tell me that she had no idea what she was doing, and that she wasn’t sure she’d done anything right. I wasn’t disappointed to hear any of this, I was just relieved. I didn’t think I’d do it right either. For me, motherhood always seemed really interesting, but hard.

But you knew that when you picked me, didn’t you? You were prepared to love me, warts and all, at every stage of the game. There’s never been an off-handed comment about how I don’t wear make-up, or a snide remark about me spending too much time on my laptop. You leave me sweetly-doodled notes on my messy desk, and when you come in to our room in the wee hours of morning, you wake your father first. You introduce me to your friends as someone who does cool things and knows cool stuff. You’ve been happily letting us drag you all over the world since you were smaller than my carry-on. I think you actually dig all of my quirks and weirdness.

I have to admit, I still feel like I’m screwing things up in not living up to some “Leave It To Beaver” standard (look it up on YouTube). There will inevitably come a time when you wish I had done a few things differently, and if you choose to have children one day, they’ll do the same for you. I still wish for more sleep, maybe a little more quiet, certainly more hours in the day. But believe me when I say that when I tell you to always be yourself, it’s partially because you’ve always let me be myself. You’ve more than let me, you’ve insisted on it. The only way to really screw up would be to not recognize this as a gift, to not take it in stride.

Five Mother’s Days from now, I will still be me (even more so) , and you will still be you (even more so), and I will still be grateful that we two strange creatures bumped into one another. We work, don’t we?

With love,

Mom