I have recently been on a hunt for Alice Munro.
When I reached the Canadian border the other week, a lady in the passport control booth asked me where I was heading.
Goderich, I told her, grinning ludicrously about my mission.
Why on earth are you going to Goderich? she said.
You can draw a small triangle between the towns of Wingham, Goderich and Clinton – the first being where Alice grew up, the last where she lives now. I chose Goderich because I read she has a favourite restaurant in the town square. I planned to eat lunch there each day, and keep an eye out for my much-loved writer.
Simples! as the meerkat would say.
I was originally going to call this post, ‘The world’s greatest way to get a million dollar book deal – true story – works every time!!!!!’ because I’ve been thinking about how much we love a quick fix to our problems.
Follow these steps to an easy life…head to your writer’s favourite restaurant and hey presto!
When I arrive, I discover Goderich suffered a major tornado in 2011. In the town square, Alice Munro’s favourite restaurant lies blown to the ground.
I started blogging in the summer of 2012, but I’ve been writing for a lot longer. For some time, I was reluctant to tell people how long, thinking: surely I should have more to show for my efforts than a small collection of anthologies?
I need books with my name on the spine, fanned out on the coffee table, that I can gesture towards at key moments.
I want to be able to build a coffee table out of my books!
It’s hard to pinpoint a moment of change – the exact second when we switch from one way of thinking to another. But I know that I’ve stopped being a person who looks for quick fixes. I’m no longer ashamed to tell people I’ve been writing for ten years. That’s how long it takes.
This isn’t to say I don’t feel the lure of, ‘Guaranteed publishing deal, no gimmicks!!!!!’ But I’m able to monitor those needs; just as I learnt in Canada that my pilgrimage to find Alice Munro was not about the final goal.
For a lot of us, when climbing a steep mountain to success, there’s a moment we might start to desire that success in a debilitating way. This is when we need to take a short rest.
I’m driven through life by powerful surges of excitement, which look for an outlet. If that outlet doesn’t come, the excitement turns sour and festers, leaving me lethargic and dissatisfied. It’s a loathing of that miserable place that gives my ambition need. Each day, I set off once more up the mountain, but I always have to check how badly I want to reach the top. Do I badly need to reach the top (to save me from a fate I dread)? Or am I climbing, knowing that eventually, if I maintain my course, I’ll get there?
If I begin to feel my unanswered ambition whinging – then I know I have to take a break, shake my hips around, have a good time, before carrying on. It’s like giving an ice-cream to a child who is about to have a fit. Stopping, on a hard course, might seem counterproductive or difficult for any number of reasons, but it’s the act we’re most in need of when we feel tired.
Before I reached Canada, I took a train from New York to Rochester, Minnesota. It wasn’t just the price, which made me choose that option: the journey would take me thirty hours – I wanted to give myself that experience.
On the train, I spent much of my time, looking out of the window. Boredom is a challenge, but it can provide rich information. Each moment is there to be negotiated. I feel lucky in that act of negotiation, which is always an instructive experience. Rather than force myself to endure a situation – blocking out sensations of discomfort and frustration, which results in an overwhelming need for that quick fix – I’ve become accustomed to my feelings, and can sit with them for some time – even though most of them are lame, tedious, childish or just plain loud.
It’s like putting a horse on top of a horse and then climbing on and trying to ride. Riding a horse by itself is hard enough. Why add another horse? Then it’s impossible.
Natalie says that we add that horse when we constantly question ourselves rather than just live out our lives, and be who we are at every moment.
At some moments I have been able to take that extra horse away. I’ve experienced not only the pain and stupidity of trying to ride two horses at once, and the incapacitating self-criticism for finding such a situation hard, but also a moment’s release from that. Self criticism often inhibits me from taking the second horse away. In the face of chastisement, it always feels pathetic to back down. But why is lightening the load, accepting defeat?
I’m in Goderich, staring at this gap where a restaurant once was, thinking: okay, what now, you complete dumbass?
I wander through the town, probably needing the toilet, and eventually reach the lake where I sit at the top of a child’s slide and watch the sun come down, feeling agonisingly alone. I take a couple of crap photos and sense how close I am to tears. I am also, no doubt, making a martyr of myself in some way.
Wow, I think – observing all this self-castigation and misery. Wow.
Seriously intenso, I say to myself.
Okay, I have to take everything very slowly. I need to find an available exit from this situation, but I also need to give myself the best chance of finding it; I don’t want to take the door that looks like heaven, but actually leads to a really filthy, stinky toilet.
I head back to my B&B, one foot in front of the other, noticing which is the part of me riding the horse, and which is the part trying to put another horse on top of that. When that extra burden comes, I breathe in so that I can feel it a bit better, and then I breathe out to let it go, because I do not need it. Simples!
I let myself in to the B&B and stand in the porch, observing the pot plants, the view of the street. Aware that I’m behaving in a parody of misery, as well as being miserable. I see a rack filled with leaflets. There’s a booklet on hiking trails, which I pick up, and then I carry on through to my room.
I can feel how every part of me wants to race towards making a decision because this limbo is scary. In this limbo I’m a failure – I’ve wasted my savings on a futile impulse. But making a decision so that I no longer feel a failure, is not the right motivation to make a decision.
I collapse on the bed and at some point that feels like years later, I realise that this feeling of failure is not actually complete agony because it’s not half as painful as, say, a broken arm.
I sit up and slowly flip through the hiking booklet. On page thirteen I read, ‘The Menesetung trail’ and my heart pops.
‘Meneseteung’ is one of my favourite stories by Alice Munro. There are many online notes and summaries and reading guides for this work. One talks about the title, which is a river in the story. The writer thought the name was made up – they felt it had something to do with menstruation, and how that ties up with the theme. But here I was, actually looking at the trail. I could actually go there.
And I did.
Rather than sitting in a restaurant each day, reading, staring out the window, I spent my time hiking through the snow.
I would wake, feeling the pressure of being alone, of being on a path that had gone awry, and I would sense a nervous energy in my blood as I ate breakfast, gathered my things for the day.
I drove out some place, knowing I had to take care of myself, seek kindly, find the way, and then I began to walk. It was a little like walking in sand, feet sinking into the crunchy white. My butt and lower back felt the effort. Each step I took, thoughts rushed through my head: questions, reproaches, desires, longing. I needed to pee. I was hungry, thirsty. A bird appeared, now the sound of something inexplicable. More thoughts. More concerns: hunger, butt, bird, thirsty, dick-head, tired, futile, bird, pee…
Through all this cacophony, my feet kept going. One step, then another. I was able to keep walking and breathing, and at some point, that progress – slow, determined, dedicated, faithful – allowed everything else to drop away. Because I walked this path, steadily, onward, it became clear that this was all that mattered. The cacophony didn’t stop. It just ceased to bother me.
If a green pepper is offered, eat it, Natalie says in her book. If it’s steak, devour it. If it’s something indigestible – a turd, a cement block, a shoe – figure out what to do with it, but don’t back away.
It is the same for writing. Some people write for fifteen years with no success and then decide to quit. If you want writing, write under all circumstances. Success will or will not come, in this lifetime or the next. Success is none of our business. It comes from outside. Our job is to write, to not look up from our notebook and wonder how much money Norman Mailer earns.
What I experienced in Canada was a profound sense of luck – the idea that everything that was happening to me was happening for a reason. It was as if I was following a trail of breadcrumbs – I didn’t realise they were taking me closer to Alice every day.
The sense of serendipity came because I was able to understand the importance of every small thing around me. My life is made up of endless components, each as relevant as the other. The only thing that makes a component good or bad is how I respond to it. By observing it, and therefore allowing myself the chance to learn from it, every moment becomes charmed. We have all the answers. That advert, offering the secret to a million dollar publishing deal, doesn’t know half of what we can know ourselves, if we allow it.
Thanks for all your lovely messages this week. So many hard workers out there, but here’s thinking of you Mayumi and Jen! Not to choose favourites, but sometimes comments and support come just at the right moment, or say just the perfect thing.