Driving in fog, and other truths about the writing process
“Tag, I'm it!”
Thanks, Lisa Di Nikolits (author of four novels, most recently “The Witchdoctor’s Bones”), for tagging me in this blog-to-blog game of “What’s Your Writing Process”?
Having enjoyed both “A Glittering Chaos” and “The Witchdoctor’s Bones” over the past year, I was fascinated by Lisa’s total immersion approach to novel writing – not so very different from my own.
1. What am I working on?
I’m always working on multiple projects at once. My primary project right now is a speculative fiction novel, “Sputnik’s Daughter: A radioactive love story”. It’s about the creator of a cult comic book who is struggling to write an origin story for her fictional heroine, ‘Sputnik Chick, Girl With No Past’ –– but who has, in fact, lived the alternative reality-shifting life she depicts in her comics. I’m also working on ‘Pagans’, a novel-in-stories sequel to my novella, “The Proxy Bride”. And I’m working with my real-life husband and creative partner on a graphic novel called “Bella and the Boy With Bedroom Eyes”, the third installment of the Bella comics published by the small but mighty Grey Borders Books.
2. How does my work differ from others in the same genre?
Everything I write is part of one large story that I think of as the Shipman’s Corners Chronicles. Having set characters in motion in “The Proxy Bride”, I’m continuing to follow them and other characters from the same place, a rustbelt, post-industrial town in the Niagara region, based on my hometown of St. Catharines. Border towns offer some meaty stories, especially when it comes to shady activities like smuggling.
My work has been described as very dark, humourous and a combination of both –– I think my voice is fairly distinctive, in that my work can be gritty, edgy, sexy, violent and funny, all at the same time. And I never met a just-slightly-over-the-top love scene I didn’t like.
I also write creative non-fiction, which could be described in the same way as my fiction. I want my readers to laugh and be mildly horrified and possibly titillated – all at once.
3. Why do I write what I do?
I write the kinds of stories I like to read. I enjoy stories with a lot of forward movement with characters who are complex, unpredictable and under some type of stress. I want my characters to face problems that are human and ‘real’. But above all, I want them to be in some type of trouble –– I’m fairly nasty to my characters, because it’s more interesting to see them working out problems and facing danger, whether it’s physical, emotional or self-imposed. And I want a satisfying ending.
I look for ways to create epic stories about ordinary people –– that’s what I wanted to achieve with “The Proxy Bride”, and that I’m hoping to bring to both “Sputnik’s Daughter” and “Pagans”.
Put simply, when I read a story or a book, I want to laugh and feel my heart breaking. I want to feel the reality of each character’s experience. I want to be frightened, totally absorbed in the lives of these characters and also a little excited. That’s why I write the way I do.
4. How does my writing process work?
E.L. Doctorow once wrote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” That’s exactly the way I approach writing a short story, creative non-fiction essay, graphic novel or novel. I set out on an adventure with my characters, and let them show me the way.
The writing process has always seemed rather mysterious to me. I don’t know why I’m so into it, or why it has become an obsession: it’s always been that way for me, starting at about four years of age when I’d make up stories for other kids in my neighbourhood or to scare my younger cousins.
When I have a specific project on the go, I write almost every day, usually for a few hours in the evening or early morning. I’ve been lucky enough to receive some grant money, which has allowed to me to take short periods of time off work and focus on a project.
At the beginning of a project, I usually allow myself to play, writing about characters in various situations until the storyline reveals itself. I don’t write detailed outlines, but I like to write a short summary to remind myself of what the story is about and where it’s going. And I like Stephen King’s method of posing a ‘what if’ question and allowing the characters to work out the answers. I’m sometimes very surprised by where that leads me.
Next up: I'm tagging Michelle Alfano, author of the Bressani Award-winning "Made Up of Arias" and editor of DESCANT. Read about her writing process and what she's writing now here.
Cycling through the CBC Literary Prize shortlist
I've never thought of myself as a particularly competitive person. When I was still a race-runner, I was always happy with a participant medal and a t-shirt. All I wanted to do was finish the 10K or half-marathon, maybe run a few seconds faster than last time, go home and have a nice glass of wine.
It's ironic, then, that most of my published work is, in one way or another, connected to contests. Even The Proxy Bride was published as co-winner of the Ken Klonsky Quattro Books Novella Award Contest. This year, in an effort to help publicize the book, I entered many literary competitions. I was a finalist in the Broken Pencil Indie Death Match, the Fish Memoir Competition (Ireland), the CBC NFB Hyperlocal essay competition and a winner in the Red Line "End of the World" Contest (U.K.).
And then, as I was busy pedaling around Ontario with my husband Ron, I was shortlisted for the CBC Literary Prize in Creative Non-Fiction for a memoir essay called "Icarus". The publicist from the CBC kept in touch with me as Ron and I moved from B&B to hotel, crossed the Rainbow Bridge by bike into upstate New York, and met characters like Walter the righteous cycling activist dude in Niagara Falls, New York, who had cycled around all the Great Lakes and filled us in on the cycling culture in the States. (Walter deserves a blog post of his own, which I hope to provide soon.) I was also delighted to receive tweets from strangers who had read and enjoyed "Icarus", and let me know.
Honestly, it was wonderful.
The shortlist was picked up in the literary press - Geist gave a shout-out to Matthew Hooton of Victoria and me -- both of us on the shortlist, and both Geist contributors. The shortlist also popped up in Quill & Quire and The Toronto Star, among other places. Open Book Ontario did a question and answer interview with all five of us. (I wrote my answers one evening while we were doing laundry between legs of our trip.) Both as a writer and a cyclist, these two weeks have been wondrous and surreal.
Although social media and mobile technology have their detractors, and can certainly interfere with private life, and break down the boundaries between work and non-work time more than any of us would like...it was fantastic to be able to cover so much territory by bike while staying in touch with readers all over the country via Twitter. (And for any of you who might be reading this blog post, and who also read "Icarus" and let me know your thoughts and reactions, please understand that I am incredibly grateful to you. This has been one of the best experiences I have ever had as a writer.)
Tomorrow morning, Monday, July 22nd, CBC will do the big reveal of the Ultimate Winner of the CBC Literary Prize for Creative Non-Fiction. I honestly don't know if it's me but my spidey sense is no.
And while (of course) I would like to win the whole shebang, the shortlist of five (out of 2,.700 creative non-fiction essays) is an amazing place to find myself. It has been gratifying to share the list with these four fine writers, to receive money for my work, and to be published online.
Thank you, CBC Canada Writes. Thank you to the team of CNF readers at Canada Writes who put me in the final five. And thank you to everyone who read "Icarus", both before and after publication.
I am verklempt.
And now, I'm going to get back on my bike.
Icarus, Apollo and Mario Puzo
I'm on vacation right now but, as Ron and I briefly touch down in Toronto to switch our canoe for bikes, I wanted to write a short post about recent developments.
This June marked three milestones in my writing life: the publication of our new "Bella" graphic novel; publication of a much-shortlisted creative non-fiction (CNF) piece in a U.K. online journal (with just enough of a cash prize to make me promise to buy warm British beer for my Facebook friends); and learning that another CNF piece is one of 30 longlisted non-fiction stories in the running for a CBC Literary Prize.
All three stories are true or, in the case of the graphic novel, partly true. All three are about reinventing oneself - a topic that appears in my writing again and again -- and about gaps that appear when ambitions fall short of being realized.
One of the prerogatives of age is being able to look back at one's younger self with a critical eye, lifting dark, moss-covered rocks that have been undisturbed for thirty-four years. I'm referring here to "Icarus", which has been longlisted for a CBC Literary Prize in Creative Non-Fiction. This is a big 'woo hoo' for me because the CBC Literary Prizes are the 64,000 lb. gorillas of literary contests for short fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry in Canada. Careers have been launched by this prize. On the other hand, I've been here before -- three times, when the prize was known as the CBC Literary Awards.
"Icarus" is about my experiences during the summer of 1979, just after I'd graduated from McMaster University in Hamilton. It was a tough time to be a 22-year-old with a newly minted B.A. in English Literature and a single driving ambition: to become a 'Famous Writer'. Stuck in Hamilton while I searched for work, I could see only one way to achieve my ambition, which was to move to Toronto, a glittering city where writing contracts hung on trees and the streets were paved with sensitive, artistic, bookish boyfriends who would be supportive of my dreams.
Along with my illusions, a lot of other things were crashing to Earth that summer, including a malfunctioning NASA space station called SkyLab. Down on Earth, I was falling short and behaving badly in ways that now seem oddly in sync with the general sense of decline that prevailed during the late 1970s.
I hope that "Icarus" will make the shortlist and break my "always a bridesmaid, never a bride" relationship with CBC. I'll find out on June 8th when the shortlist is announced.
This brings me to my second creative non-fiction piece, "Snapshots of a Cold War Childhood", which won first prize in "The End of the World" contest run by the U.K.'s Red Line magazine. "Snapshots" chronicles my childhood growing up in a time of intense paranoia (fear of the bomb) and science-fuelled optimism (that after Apollo 11, we'd immediately colonize the Moon). Again, my ambitions went unrealized: instead of going to the Moon in the 1970s, I ended up moving around the lake from St. Catharines to Hamilton (see "Icarus"). I was delighted to receive a cash prize of fifty pounds from Red Line, which should be enough to buy a gang of literary mates each a pint of British beer. "Snapshots of a Cold War Childhood" is online right now for your reading pleasure, marking the first time one of my stories has been published by a journal outside of Canada.
While the Red Line and CBC news were both surprises, the graphic novel "Waiting for Mario Puzo" has been in the works for years. The second in the series of graphic novels about Bella, "Puzo" is set in the year that "The Godfather" was published. As with all Bella stories, "Puzo" is about a young girl in a small-town Italian Canadian community in southern Ontario who has too much imagination and too few opportunities to stretch beyond the boundaries of her life. In this installment, Bella imagines herself into the Corleone family, forcing Mario Puzo himself to barge into her dreams, cigar and all. "Puzo" was a collaboration with my creative partner slash husband Ron Edding, whose illustrations were inspired (according to him) by MAD Magazine and the Roch Carrier children's book, "The Hockey Sweater". As always, our thanks to Grey Borders for their energy and commitment, and for connecting us to the thriving literary community in Niagara region. "Waiting for Mario Puzo" will soon be available for sale on the Grey Borders Books website.
5 powerful (but unproven) survival tips for writers
Is it possible to write yourself to death?
Consider this: Homo sapiens sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years. The modern novel? About 300 years.
See the disconnect? Human anatomy has not had enough time to adapt to novel-writing.
If humans were meant to spend hours in a chair, making repetitive hand movements, alternating between periods of megalomania and despair, then having a drink (or two, or three) only to wake up the next morning under the computer table, and doing this all over again, day in, day out for years at a time, we would look like large vegetables (I'm imagining a turnip crossed with a beet) with tiny legs, massive arms and multi-digited fingers. The properly evolved writer's body (homo sapiens literati) might even boast a second head to hold all those dangling story lines, not to mention a liver more robust than the average homo sapiens sapiens.
It can't be good for us to spend so much time keyboarding and dreaming up epiphanies for people who don't exist. We were built to farm crops, chase and domesticate animals, tend fires, make love, distill spirits, sail boats toward unknown horizons, boldly go where no human has gone before, build comfortable shelters, adorn ourselves in bright colours, beat metal into shiny things, make conversation, sing and eat. (My theory of our current place on the evolutionary scale might best be described as 'Dinner Party Culture'.)
Serious writers are supposed to write every day. This way madness lies. Not to mention carpal tunnel syndrome, lower back problems, neck pain, or, in my case, a bump on the artery of my left wrist that pulsated like the gelatinous parasitic eggs in Alien. It was biggish enough that one of my spinning teachers noticed it in class, from a distance of roughly ten feet.
"What the hell is that on your wrist?" she queried politely. (Back off, this is my blog and I'll adverb if I want to.)
"Dunno," I panted, struggling to maintain my cadence. "A bump?"
"Get off the bike and go to a walk-in clinic. Now," she ordered.
I didn't get off the bike but a week later, I did go to my doctor, who referred me to a hand specialist. A year later, the bump now so large that it hurt to wear a watch, I was in surgery: let's just say that the experience wasn't pretty. Scarborough General Hospital sent me the pathology report describing the bump as 'consistent with degeneration'. Translation: 'It's the writing, stupid.' (I had been working on "The Proxy Bride" for some time, along with a lot of short fiction, articles and copywriting.) I've also been warned that it could come back. Splendid.
One solution might be to write less, but given that I make my living as a copywriter and spend the rest of my time trying to write literary fiction, that ain't going to happen.
But I have developed a number of ways to preserve my mental and physical health, which I am happy to share with other writers: I call them Favro's Five Laws of Literary Longevity.
1. Move around, already.
Ah ha, you thought you already knew this one, right? But are you observing it? I don't believe you.
Like many writers, you probably pay lip service to the benefits of exercise but on some level, you think of yourself as pure emotion and intellect, rather than a fleshy presence. Why? Because of Star Trek (The Original Series).
In Star Trek (TOS) the message was: the more you use your brain, the less you need to worry about your body. Star Trek would have us believe that the most intelligent beings don't really need to bother with bodies -- at least, not their own. They were Pure Intellect, as shown by their white robes, giant, bald, deathly white heads, and telepathic powers. They lived forever and weren't interested in sex (although I'm not sure I totally buy that, seeing as they were very interested in getting Captain Christopher Pike to make love to a green-skinned Salsa dancer in "The Menagerie" episode). On Star Trek, they even occasionally removed people's brains from their bodies and let them live on as separate beings. If it's smart enough, the stand-alone brain can control a small nuclear reactor. (Remember the much-derided episode, "Spock's Brain"?)
Here's a shocker: sometimes, Star Trek got it wrong. Yes, I know the tricorder inspired some of today's medical imaging technology and that someone at CalTech is developing an actual transporter. But if you check out the researcher doing that work, I guarantee you that she has bits of body dangling off her big brain. It's the dangling-off bits - weak wrists, hunched shoulders, a crick-prone neck -- that should give writers pause.
I don't care how you choose to move your body but you need to do it every single day and no, walking up and down stairs for coffee, nuts and toast doesn't count. I've tried that. I favour cycling, hiking, resistance training and aerobic dance.
If you haven't figured out what exercise you enjoy, why not try boxing? It's the perfect exercise for a writer. Not because of the legendary Hemingway versus Callaghan fight, but because of Favro's Second Law of Literary Survival...
2. Learn to take a punch and block one.
Sadly, rejection is part of the writing life. With a few exceptions (Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Georges St-Pierre, Valerie Bertinelli, the Duchess of York) writers will always be rejected, even if their writing is well received.
Why? The reasons are legion. Your work isn't a good match for the publisher (you write straight historical fiction, they're moving to gay paranormal romance), your timing was off (love of your publisher's life just married a guy with the same name as your fictional male protagonist), bad representation (your agent hadn't bathed in a few days), bad karma (the editor was hungover when they read your story)...I could go on. There's a good chance you weren't rejected because your work sucks. Having said all this, you should be aware that rejection is not conducive to good mental health. It can feed paranoia, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. I've observed that these are areas of mental health in which writers seem to be over-represented.
How do you get around the blank wall of rejection without feeling really shitty, all the time? Here are a few tips:
- Delete/destroy all rejection notes and emails IMMEDIATELY. Do not keep them around as some type of souvenir or paper your bathroom with them, the way you heard F. Scott Fitzgerald did. (I'll bet he didn't. Fitzgerald also didn't observe Rules #3 and #5, coming up.) Saving rejections just gives you an opportunity to ruminate over them, even to try to read between the lines, if the rejection had a few kind personal word appended to it.
- Set your Submittable settings to ACTIVE. If you don't already know, Submittable is an online submissions system used by a growing number of literary magazines. When you set up a Submittable account, magazines mark the stories you submit to them as "Active", "In Progress" or "Declined". When a submission is Declined, the submission goes red, the way the bottom of The Weather Network does when a tornado is about to rip off the top off your house. Having a big, red DECLINED hit you in the face every time you check on the status of a submission is guaranteed to make you feel crummy. Don't go there! You can instruct Submittable to hide those declined submissions by showing only the Actives. Why wallow in red type?
- Read the literary magazines you submit to. Yes, you do so have to. I'm telling you, friend, sometimes you can see at a glance that you and The Puslinch Literary Review are a mismatch. It's a lot like speed dating. Read one story and you'll know. And remember, if you're not willing to read someone else's story in Pumps & Trussez Annual, why will anyone else read yours? Trust me on this one.
- As soon as a publisher rejects you, move on. Give yourself the illusion of progress by submitting to another publisher that very day. Better still, start a new story in the heat of white anger.
- To that last point: Get really, really angry! Why not? Instead of turning your rejection against yourself, you can assume the person or persons who rejected you are shortsighted fuckheads. Might or might not be true but, either way, you'll feel better.
3. Cultivate relationships with people who don't write.
Writers tend to live on Planet Writer, particularly if they are residents of Toronto or another city where writers flock like seagulls in a McDonald's parking lot at lunchtime. And while being part of a community of writers is good, and important, and even valuable from a career standpoint, and occasionally fun, there are times when you need to get off Planet Writer and breathe the clean, fresh air of the world where books are things you occasionally buy at airports.
People who always and only read novels for pleasure usually aren't writers. They don't sit there thinking: How did this crap get published when I'm looking at a wall of red type on Submittable? You can talk to these friends about other interests (if you actually do have them) and, not being writers, they can probably afford to buy you a drink. Accept their generosity. Ask them about their lives, their passions. You could get some good story material. You could learn something about running a bed and breakfast or plumbing or podiatry. These contacts could also come in useful in the event of a burst pipe, sore feet or a need for a quiet place to write in the country.
I also quietly believe that writers should not sleep with writers, or if they do, strictly as a "one night stand" sort of thing. Yes, I know there are happily married writer couples out there, but they are rare, my friend. Find yourself a nice, solid abstract expressionist, like I did. You will never need to worry that your mate is secretly hiding a six-figure book contract from you.
You already know that you can't be a good writer without being a committed reader (even if you can't turn off the critic in your brain mentioned in point #2). But what's this got to do with being healthy? It gets you back to why you wanted to write in the first place. Because if you don't like to read, why the hell are you writing?
Also: Read your contemporaries. I am always suspicious of writers who insist on only reading mysterious books called The Classics. Every 'Classic' started out as just-another-novel, perhaps a debut novel (e.g. To Kill A Mockingbird), or as a title quietly hiding on a small publisher's list. Be a reader in the literary world in which you exist; read widely, read genre, read experimental, read graphic novels, read short stories, read poetry, read non-fiction, read flash fiction, read work by people much older or younger or just different from you. Stretch a little.
5. Don't drink until you down tools.
It's useless to tell you not to drink yourself into an early grave (as the aforementioned F. Scott Fitzgerald did). But I can suggest ways to make the process more pleasant. It's very much like my advice regarding literary magazines. Find what you like to read. Find what you like to drink. As someone incapable of making it past the fourth day of the week without a wet dirty Vodka martini, I owe it to you to at least be honest: we drink too much because we think too much. As writers, we're always on the job - observing, watching, analyzing, noting down. Drinking is not good for you, really, but is a way to flick the 'OFF" switch.
Like others in dirty, dangerous, physically demanding professions, writers need to keep a clear head while they're on the job. Like writing down dreams, writing half-cut is not going to get you into the list of writers who never face red Submittable submissions. Put away the laptop before you pull out the Campari, friends. Again, trust me on this one.
A short but serious addendum:
These are tough times for Canadian writers but most of us don't have to worry about 'dying by the pen', in a literal sense. But other writers around the world do. Best to remember that we have the freedom to write and be rejected (or hooray, accepted) without worrying about being thrown in jail, tortured or threatened. PEN Canada can tell you about writers who do.
The Birth of Canadian Classic
This blog post appeared in The Toronto Star (April 12, 2013) as part of my participation on a panel at the SPUR Festival
"Is Blackberry a Canadian company? Is Midnight's Children a Canadian film? What does it mean to label something Canadian? Does labeling something as 'Canadian' build our society or doom our cultural industries to failure?" -- question posed to Canadian writer-bloggers by SPUR Festival of politics, art and ideas. Here's my response. What do you think?
When I was a kid, my parents owned one true Canadian innovation: a Canadian General Electric kettle, model K42. Developed by industrial designer Fred Moffatt, the K42 was a fixture in Canadian households throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Moffatt got the idea for the domed shape from a soldier who used the casing of a broken car headlight to boil water.
Even my Italian-Canadian immigrant parents - who didn't come from a tea drinking tradition -- loved their kettle. It was part of living with their feet in two cultures, as so many Canadians do.
Today the K42 has been elevated to the status of a Canadian classic, a perfect balance of elegant form and practical functionality. Moffatt's design was an example of what happens when we do our best work by being true to ourselves - to our own tastes, needs and vision.
Canadian culture is all around us, whether we consciously realize it or not. Think of the work of Umbra's product designers, who manage to even make a waste basket look cool. Or the Blackberry's clenched-teeth of a keypad, reminiscent of the grilled cage of a hockey helmet. Or the Avro Arrow, the plane that almost attained the status of myth and whose destruction people speak of as a type of mechanical martyrdom. All are expressions of classical Canadian personality and style.
Read Sheila Heti's fiction or a graphic story by Seth or Kate Beaton, watch a Guy Maddin film or Russell Peters's stand-up, listen to a Ron Sexsmith or Tegan & Sara song, go mano a mano with GSP, try on a pair of John Fluevog's wildly imaginative shoes, walk around Douglas Cardinal's Native-art inspired Museum of Civilization or stand in the afternoon light in the Galleria Italia of Frank Gehry's redesigned Art Gallery of Ontario - and while you're there, take a look at the art of General Idea. What else could any of these creators possibly be but Canadian? And why would we not want to claim them as our own?
The 'Canadian-ness' of our cultural industries is their strength. Canadian creativity travels well, even when it doesn't wear a maple leaf on its shoulder. Irrelevance lies in trying to be a one-size-fits-all culture, not recognizably Canadian (or anything else). The more we move toward the generic, the regionally non-specific, the blandness of Nowhereland, the more we risk becoming cultural ghosts, roaming the world in search of a definable identity.
Our problem isn't cultural, but demographic. Survival depends on being appreciated elsewhere. Our creators have no choice but to look beyond Canada's borders because Canadians are too few in number to support our cultural and technological industries single-handedly.
But without our creative topsoil - and by that, I mean myths, stories, shared tragedies, cultural touchstones, history, weather and the thousand-thousand indefinable experiences that nurture creativity - we would have no materials to work with.
Our idea of ourselves as 'true northerners' may be more myth than reality, but as myths go, it's a damn good one. Diversity and hardiness, ingenuity and resilience, multi-cultured and multi-lingual lives are part of our cultural legacy, no matter where we, or our families, came from. Those are all good ingredients for a culture that we can be proud to export as sturdily and identifiably Canadian.
Do Canadians find it off-putting that Slumdog Millionaire was a British-made film, set in India? Or that Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series is suffused with a chilly Swedish sensibility, even if the prose is as flat as an IKEA end table? Or that Manga graphic novels and techno horror films were birthed in Japan?
Would we prefer South American authors be less magical and more realistic? Or that Fellini stop being so Fellinesque? Should Zadie Smith downplay her British-Jamaican background? Why, then, do we feel that a creation's Canadian provenance needs to be hidden from the rest of the world?
Fierce, compelling work rises out of strong, confident cultures that aren't afraid to stand up for their own vision of themselves. We are already that culture. Time to stop worrying and focus on getting more creative work done.