Tag Archives: Writing

On Sticking With It

I’m nearly finished a novel. Admitting this spooks me. I’m superstitious that even talking about it will jinx it. Knock on wood. Salt over the shoulder. Fingers and toes crossed. Because nearly finished isn’t finished. And in the oft quoted (by me) immortal words of the great Gord Downie, “No one’s interested in something you didn’t do.” Who cares about a novel that is almost done but not done? No one. Getting it done is what makes the difference between the poser at a party who says, “I’ve always wanted to write a novel,” and the novelist.

It’s been a long process. The wonderful writer Joan Clark mentored me at the Banff Centre when I was just starting this book. She gave me the first thing I needed–encouragement. She told me I could write. She also told me that my biggest struggle would be finishing. She was right on the mark there. But she also reassured me that a lot of first novels take ten years. Well, I’m officially at the ten year mark. A decade. I have struggled not to quit, to stick with it. Somewhere in the first year, I promised myself that even if it was bad and I was the only one who ever read it, I would finish it. And I will.

Many things have stymied me as I’ve done this work. Like all writers, I have this LIFE that gets in the way. It’s hard to stay focused on writing when all this important LIFE is going on around me and I’m expected to be in it. There were times, I admit, when I dropped the novel for months at a time. Months. And when I would come back to it, it was not like meeting a friend who lives far away, a friend who you can pick up a conversation with in exactly the same place you left off the last time you spoke. No. It was like meeting an ex unexpectedly in the grocery store when you are wearing pajamas under your coat and have spinach in your teeth. No matter how intimate you may have been in the past, you and your ex stand before each other as awkward strangers. You might be reduced to talking about the weather. You are estranged, that is, strange to each other. My book and I would have nothing to talk about anymore.

Even worse than LIFE getting in the way of writing was my own lack of skill. I simply didn’t know how to write a novel. I dealt with that by studying, reading great writers, and getting an MFA. It was during the MFA that I finally learned how to work through the massive amount of writing I had accumulated on this project. Joan Clark refers to this writing as “circling.” What she means by this is that we spend an awful lot of time writing stuff that never makes it into the book. We circle the real novel, move around it, explore it from all sides and finally zoom in on it. With the help of other mentors like Sandra Scofield, I figured out how to zoom in, what to cut and what to keep and how to move from scene to scene to scene and get from the beginning to the end.

Now I have a new challenge. LIFE intervenes. So close to the end, I have a concussion. I can’t work much. I lack focus. I risk becoming estranged from my work again. One thing I know, however, is that I have to keep talking to my novel and let it keep talking to me. Even if it’s only a few sentences or words a day, we have to keep acquainted. I read a blog post today on The Hardest Thing About Being a Writer in which Sachiko Murakami talks to Vancouver writer Alex Leslie about how to keep focus on a project. Leslie says, “The one thing I’ve learned is to always keep moving. Never let it all drop. Always be doing something for your project, even if it’s printing it out and crossing out words and writing in other words, or writing a plan. Stay in motion. Give it something.”

Exactly. Every day, I’m going to give it something. Keep it in motion. Give it some energy and get some energy back from it. It’s like circling again. Stay with it. If I can’t be in it, I’ll walk around it and look at it and think about it and dip into it, change a word here and there, and then change it back. I’ll do this until I can gather the concentration to get through those last few pages. I promise. I promise myself. After all, ten years is just an average, right?


Writing from Scratch

Just as someone who loves good food might yearn to cook, my deep love of books has burgeoned into a need to make them. At first, I thought that meant I had to create books from scratch. I like this analogy. Writing starts with scratches, a few tentative pencil marks, a word or six and it grows from there. That’s how my notion to write a novel started. I’m not finished it yet, but while I’ve been at it, I’ve created a couple of other books not quite from scratch and I’m finding this work equally satisfying. I don’t have to can the tomatoes (or grow them) to make a good sauce. If what I love is creating books, editing is as satisfying a way to get there as writing. It’s not starting from scratch but maybe that’s why I enjoy it so much.

I’ve always joked that I’m a re-writer more than I am a writer. Scratching those first words onto the page never comes easily to me, but crafting them afterwards is a joy. I recently had the wonderful experience of editing the work of over fifty other writers for an anthology I created with my friend and colleague E.D. Morin. It’s called Writing Menopause and it’s been picked up by Inanna Publications who plan to bring it out in Spring, 2017. The book is a literary anthology and the variety and high quality of work that writers submitted was inspirational. As we worked to shape the anthology, I was able to do the parts of “writing” that I like the best–revising, editing, crafting–in collaboration with the contributors and my co-editor. (And I also contributed my own piece, a short story I’ve been working on for six years. Like I said, writing is slow work for me.) One day it occurred to me that the things I find most difficult about writing like starting with the blank page and the need to work alone for long stretches of time disappear when I’m editing the work of others.

Another editing project is at the printer. I’m on my way today to check the first proof and the excitement I feel is no different than when something of “my own” gets published. The book was written by my friend Tanya Coovadia. It’s called Pelee Island Stories. These are linked short stories all set in Tanya’s childhood home, an island in the middle of Lake Erie. Tanya trusted me and my fellow members of the Crabapple Mews Collective with her work, and again, I’ve had the incredible pleasure of working collaboratively with her and with the other wonderful editors in the collective to create a magnificent book.

Books are beautiful physical objects that last far longer than we do. They speak to us while we’re here and for us after we’re gone. They reach toward immortality. Being part of making them is a labour of love for me, even when the book has someone else’s name on it, or lots of other names on it. Whether I make it from scratch or not, this is work I love. Next up after my MFA, I think I’ll take a course in book binding. I’ll probably love that too.