Shouldn’t I be able to use all my published books as furniture by now?

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

During this thirty hour journey, I read Natalie Goldberg’s ‘Long Quiet Highway’. It mentions something her Zen teacher said about questioning our life, our purpose:

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?

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

About gabrielablandy

Some history, a bit of fiction, with me in there somewhere.
This entry was posted in Essay, Memoir, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to Shouldn’t I be able to use all my published books as furniture by now?

  1. ” If you want writing, write under all circumstances. Success will or will not come,”

    That is the truth of it. Overnight success normally comes after a lot of heart ache, effort, doubt and re-grouping. You know that better than anyone I’m sure. The way you picked yourself up after finding the café had vanished in the storm, and re-grouped around a new objective say how tough your spirit is. Your writing is already excellent. More magic will come your way. Normally when you least expect it, of course.

    • A very touching comment, thank you. I think that idea about good things coming when you least expect, is perhaps because you’ve reached a point of acceptance about whether they come or not, and so not looking out for success every second you have the space to actually do what needs to be done, so then it comes!

  2. Kim says:

    Such a good message!

  3. Charlie says:

    Rocking. Love it. Feels like I’m catching up with you. Been thinking about you recently. Big love to you right now. Peace out x

  4. The title of your blog really came to life in this piece, Gabs. Beautiful photos too!

    • Gosh, yes, you’re right. It goes to show that, when I was thinking of a title, I must have had an idea of how thinks work for me. So pleased you like tho photos. That was something that came from blogging that I didn’t anticipate, but LOVING it! Really good of you to come by, Phillip. I’ve got more time this afternoon, so I’ll come and investigate over at yours!

  5. Masterful use of suspense, Gabriela – I’m desperate to know if Alice finally makes an appearance! xx

  6. I loved this piece of writing Gabriela, so validating and affirming… somehow there is no choice but to write, and somehow where it goes is out of our hands…
    As you told of your walk, I was reminded of Bruce Chatwin’s words : ‘In Islam, and especially among the Sufi orders, siyahat or ‘errance’ – the action or rhythm of walking – was used as a technique for dissolving the attachments of the world and allowing men to lose themselves in God…’ God to me means love,lIfe and the unknoweable
    And what better guide than Natalie Goldberg !!
    That inward journey you took was so profound, and thank you for sharing it.. I have to keep re-reading it to take in each step on the way…

    • That’s lovely about siyahat, beautiful.
      I do think the best validation, when you’re writing, comes when you can do it no matter what. External praise is lovely of course, but like chocolate – one cube and suddenly you need another, and another! Saying that, it is extremely pleasing to read your comments, and there’s something about your praise that is lasting 😉

  7. Your feet may have fallen into the deep crunchy white, but your words had me soaring into the high fluffy white.
    More concerns: hunger, butt, bird, thirsty, dick-head, tired, futile, bird, pee… = If you want writing, write under all circumstances.
    Once more you have filled my head with your honesty, your ability to set us straight, your ability to make us dream. I shall continue writing, no matter what may lie at the end of my path. I admire your enthusiasm and your tenacity. I am grateful for having your pearls of wisdom and lastly I thank you for the shout out. Thank you Gabs xx

  8. Letizia says:

    When I get an email notice that you have a new post up on your blog, I always wait for the right moment to click on it and read your latest essay. I’m not sure how to describe when I know that right moment is, but I do know that I love your writing and that it often resonates me, makes me think, and I always appreciate your way with words.

    I found myself at an unexpected crossroad this morning and the path that was laid out in front of me turned out to be quite wonderful and surprisingly simple and easy. And then I read your beautiful post and thought, “Well, she did it again!”.

    • You do make me smile. It is such a privilege to have my writing treated with respect by a discerning reader. Thank you. And how wonderful to find a nice neat path to go down – good for you!

  9. Your writing always gets a reaction from readers, myself included. It touches people enough that they wait until they’re in their quiet place to read it.

    • Tim, yes, and I feel very lucky to have that kind of appreciation. By the way, drum roll, it’s your review up next week. I thinks it is a really well written piece, with lots of good information. I hope you get something from it 😉

  10. Great post. I love these lines – “Success will or will not come, in this lifetime or the next. Success is none of our business. It comes from outside. “

  11. Loved this post! “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.” This quote will be something I will try to remember when folk question why I’m still writing if my previous novel didn’t manage to get a publishing deal. Thanks Gabriela.

    • Helen, so glad you liked this. Yes, what to say to confused friends who wonder what you’re doing is a tough one! Thanks for the retweet, that was thoughtful. Have a lovely day – from your photos I can see the countryside is inspiring you!

  12. One of the best things I’ve heard lately is that it is fine to be empty of ideas/inspiration. It is necessary to become empty before you can be filled up again. It’s just the ebb and flow that animates all creative work. I like that, as you suggest, with age and wisdom we come to accept the dry spells and make friends with the emptiness from which new ideas arise.

  13. A. says:

    I stumbled upon this post, almost by chance. And man, did I need it, my soul needed it – my writing soul. Everything has been an uphill battle with my writing lately, not the flow or process of it, as much as my frustrations and the sense of a lost community. A lot of times, it is hard to block out the questions of readership. Like, if I write and no one reads it, does it actually exist? And that is such a ridiculous questions that I find myself thinking about a lot.

    This was magnificent, though. It gave me such a tremendous sense of hope and optimism for my own writing future. So, thank you.

    Best,
    Amarie

    • Amarie – it’s so magical when someone knew comes across here and really gets fed! I love those moments, and the appreciation that comes with it. This is the beauty of the internet where you can put your words in a nice safe place, and by chance – reach someone.
      My own writing journey has had many big ups and downs – it always will. Being in that phase of uncertainty doesn’t have a wider significance: it is not a philosophy to adopt and guide your life by, simply a transient place where you pass from from phase of knowing to another. Good luck – and do pop back if you have any questions. (Am I right in thinking your blog is password protected? The most recent posts seemed to be…)

      • A. says:

        Thank you for replying, that was both unexpected and quite nice of you! (And yes, it was, because I found out someone stole a bunch of my writing! But, I am back now. I can’t let one person deter me. I really can’t.) Again, thank you for your kind words. Best.

  14. There are so many things to love and digest in this post! I love the idea of you setting out on your pilgrimage and then ending up on a slightly different, but obviously ‘meant’ path. But then so many other things to think about, from the power of ‘boredom’, to the philosophy of writing and all wrapped up in wonderful imagery.

    • Andrea, thank you. I’m glad you found this one ‘fertile’! One thing that always keeps me motivated in my travelling when I become unsure about the journey, is remembering how all these zig zaggy paths I take through life are great to write about!!

  15. bg says:

    Beautiful post. I enjoyed this bit:
    “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.”

    We all look for a quick fix and then disappointment comes when we don’t get it. You set out on your journey with the right intent. You knew that achieving our goals is a daunting task and one to not take lightly. The end result and experience to get there is probably going to be different than we imagine as long as we open ourselves up to the opportunity. You didn’t shut yourself off to the moment and you met with an unfound success and probably something more than if you had met Alice herself. You met what inspires her.

    Thank you for the post and for introducing me to Natalie Goldberg!

  16. Mayumi-H says:

    Wow.

    As I read this, I could only think, “This is the real sense of a journey.” I love joining you in all the hills and valleys of your quest, Gabriela, but this post really brought out that title! 🙂

    Those observations and realizations are true gifts from your adventure. It sounds like you already knew yourself in this way prior to stepping off the plane, but that reinforcement of your spirit – especially at such a low time – is tremendous.

    I especially love what you say about boredom, on that train ride. It sounds silly, but there’s a part of me that enjoys being bored, precisely for the reasons you say! It helps (forces?) me to both concentrate and let my mind wander. I’ve imagined and written some of my most favorite scenes while in the grip of such “boredom.”

    Great point about success, too. We’re taught to measure success in quantity rather than quality. Of course, we want to succeed at our chosen art and profession. But, it’s easy to become lost in that contest, as you say. It’s so refreshing to hear other people say it’s okay to make the words without concerning ourselves with the outward success – or failure – of those words.

    I’ve had a stressed and distressing many days, but I found myself sitting straighter and smiling to myself as I joined you on that hike. You’re right: sometimes, the right words come just at the right time. Thanks for sharing yours. 🙂

    • Mayumi – another wonderful comment. I often read my comments to my mum who never says how much she likes my writing, but always raves about what INTELLIGENT comments people leave on my blog. She says: these people should be writers, and I’m like – they are, mum!
      Anyway, I’m thrilled that I could lighten the stress of your last few days. Slumps are never easy to navigate, and it’s really special to know I made you smile a little!

  17. diannegray says:

    This is just wonderful, Gabriela. Kudos to you my friend! 😉

  18. gotasté says:

    Gabriela! I’ve finally found time to read this lovely post once more. Your trip to Goderich was stuck in my head after the first read..how many times have we hope to see or experience the things that we have been wanting to..only to find out that the truth is hard to handle…It is so nice to know that you had such a great trip that can relate to many things in life. Knowing it, changing it, believing in it, letting go of it..Tell us more! Soon 🙂 …danny

    • Hey Danny. What is too wonderful is how much other people are enjoying my trip! Almost as much as I did – of course, apart from the tricky moments. Though, even those ‘down times’ – now that I have ‘navigated’ them, feel rich with something wonderful.

  19. laurasmess says:

    I wish I had the money to fund a publication for you… maybe when I win the lottery one day. I have absolute faith in your talent, honesty, hard work and inspiration (maybe I can give free copies of my three-quarters-finished novel with your book, haha!). You’ll get there, it’s a matter of time. I wish I could comment more eloquently right now but it’s almost midnight. I didn’t want to let this slip xx

    • Laura, this is such a kind comment and you should see how big my smile is. I’m sorry not to have replied sooner. I needed an internet break for the last few months. My ‘holiday’ has topped up energy reserves and I am excited to see what everyone has been up to. I know that when I pop over to yours that there will be new gorgeous photos and some tasty food, which I will want to cook straightaway!!

      • laurasmess says:

        Aw, I meant every word Gabriela! So glad that your break has helped to refresh your mind and body. I do think that all of us need a good bit of time out every now and then. Thanks for your encouragement over at Laura’s Mess also. You’re beautiful, and I appreciate you hugely xx

  20. This really resonates with me today, as I’ve been putting off writing in an act of self-sabotage. I really need to start walking my trail… (Also: I love your last photo!)

    • Hey Lisa. Sorry your lovely comment has been sitting here neglected for so long. I took a much needed internet break. Now I feel refreshed and brand new, looking forward to catching up with all my favourite online writers. I hope you’ve been well and productive 😉

  21. Pingback: That tightrope moment in writing when stories either plummet or remain | Gabriela Blandy – The sense of a journey

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