How does a writer confess that the printed offering is a tissue of imagination? The whole force of moral imperative rages against such a whimsical presentation: lying, inventing, daydreaming. In desperation early fiction writers supplied their narratives with implicitly understood framing devices like: This is a tale found in an old trunk. This is a story related to me by an ancient gentleman. This is a dream recorded by an angel.
From Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing, ed. Anne and Nicholas Giardini
This winter I read more new-to-me-writing by Carol Shields than I’d expected to. First it was Eleanor Wachtel’s Random Illuminations, a collection of interviews and correspondence shared by both women over Shields’ career. I’ve long enjoyed listening to Writers & Company, though Wachtel is a more formal interviewer than, say, the endlessly earnest Michael Silverblatt of the Bookworm podcast. This book felt more personal. In the introduction Wachtel tells of meeting a woman who, having read through most of Shields’ oeuvre, is nevertheless saving her novel The Box Garden to have something left to anticipate. I have no such restraint, and realizing that this was the only one of Shields’ novels I hadn’t read, I immediately borrowed it from the library. Life is short. I regret nothing.
I came to Startle and Illuminate when I already felt both satisfied and fortunate, and even still, it was such a pleasure to encounter Shields’ gracious and encouraging voice on the page again. The book features a series of essay-style chapters on different elements of the craft, and ends with snippets of correspondence with developing writers that show, helpfully, Shields’ attention to mechanics, the nuts-and-bolts of sentence-making. Too many dreams, she advises one writer; perhaps too much food, she counsels another. “The other thing to remember is that if you write one page a day, you’ll have a novel in a year,” she says, making it sound not easy but within the realm of the possible. Advice for which I’m grateful, entering my third round of infant parenting, anticipating how my hours and days will soon be filled.
I spent May in a fog of baby preparations and list-making, interspersed with two trips to the big city for a wedding and visiting with old friends – out-of-the-ordinary stuff, a sort of last hurrah before my body becomes too cumbersome to haul on and off buses and streetcars in the frazzling heat. I am trying to combat the sensation of scarcity, that time for myself is about to be compressed into minuscule and unsatisfying increments, with the idea of abundance. I want to feel that there is more than enough, and I’m not talking about squabbling, dirty dishes, or the Lego Situation On The Living-Room Rug. Knowing that this is the last time helps, as does looking at N and S and how far from their infancies these few years have carried us. All of a sudden (more vitamin D, maybe?) they’re both taller, skinnier, gangly-legged and spangled with bruises from tree-climbing, cycling, jumping off the patio furniture.
I’m trying, also, to give myself a through-line to the future. I understand, now, that not everything needs to grind to a halt with the arrival of a new baby. My perennials were delivered last Friday, ninety minutes before I planned to leave to catch the 12:30 Greyhound to meet my friend in Toronto. It was hot and humid, and the bareroots needed immediate attention. “I don’t have time for this right now!” I hollered through the window to my long-suffering husband, who helped me figure out which way up the baffling astilbes were to be planted. It wasn’t pretty, but I got it done, and though the bed is still bare dirt, growth is happening under the surface. Metaphor, schmetaphor, I know. And of course, this week I realized that I’m not so flower-poor as I thought, because out came the irises.