June 1st, 2008


If you were worried–or have been forced to listen to my worries–know that yesterday’s presentation and reading at the UofT spring reunion went really well. Though I was v. v. pleased that my own part involved no falling over and a fair amount of audience laughter (with, not at), the greatest delight was hearing my co-reader, Elizabeth Hay speak. Her reading from Late Nights on Air was lovely, but I was particularly struck by her remarks on our topic, starts as writers. I can’t reproduce it here, unfortunately (I should’ve just been nerdy and taken notes) but I was heartened by her quotation of J. M. Coetzee‘s hopeful assertion that “there are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination” (from his rather dark essay, “The Lives of Animals,” in the collection by the same name or in his sort of novel, Elizabeth Costello).

My own piece was more nuts-and-bolts, about how I came to be at UofT at all, and how I write. I think I’m pretty practical about writing, really–in the Q&A, we got asked about writing at certain times of day, and all I could say was, “I write after supper, unless I go out.” Anyway, since I *have* my notes, I’ll post them below, with the caveat that of course I didn’t really say it quite like that.

After all that, I rounded up my beloved posse (consisting of my brother, and my posing-as-life-coach friend AMT) and then Lauren and her posse, and BBQ ensued. And then coffee, and strolling and park with AMT, and eventually I calmed down and was able to assess the day as, actually, having been pretty good. Whew.

Starts are difficult to pinpoint–you start with reading books and thinking you want certain stories to go on, you start with a red pleather diary and you write poems about the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. You start in high school when you win a literary award and everyone claps. A story in the newspaper, and then actually a story in a literary journal when I was just 18. Is that a start as a writer?

I would say no, I think. As a kid, you do stuff: I wrote, I played the piano, I ran track, I made stuff out of clay. You have a lot of free time when you are a kid. Writing was the one I was actually sort of good at–the prizes and the publications and stuff–but being good wasn’t the central thing. My friends were into art and music, and I liked being with my friends, so I did way more of that stuff, and I was not good at it at all.

Even though I wrote stories throughout high school, took creative writing classes in university, joined writing groups and wrote semi-steadily when I began working, I certainly wasn’t a writer. There was some pride involved, but no identity. If someone criticized my work, I would back away from it like a bomb—“Oh, of course it’s very bad, it’s just a hobby, I don’t take it seriously, actually I was just kidding.” That first high school journal publication had been upsetting–they wanted to change the ending, they wanted me to improve the writing, they wanted to teach me something, and I just wanted to do what I wanted to do.

In taking classes and opening myself to feedback, I learned to chill out and accept criticism, to improve, but I still
half-believed that publishing was too much for me, a foray into a scary world of real work that I wasn’t really up to. Publishing fiction would make me accountable for it, responsible for making it good, and that was the last thing I wanted.

I’m going to count my start as my arrival at University of Toronto, because then when I actually made a choice to write instead of other things. I had a decent job, other responsibilities and interests, and a more or less ok habit of writing in the evenings and showing it to my friends or people in my writing group or no one. I tried to learn from the books I read, the evening classes I took, I tried to become a better writer, but if it didn’t work, if I wrote another rambling self-indulgent story or didn’t even finish it…eh. I was trying, but nothing was at stake.

The UofT Creative Writing masters is actually English and Creative Writing, there’s coursework, lots of reading and critical theory and discussion. But still, principally, you write, and everything else in service of that–what I read, I wanted to learn from, my colleagues, everything was the texts that were sitting on my hard drive at home. I had a lot of different jobs during my degree, but when I ran out of day I just wrote at night–the jobs weren’t the important thing. I wasn’t exactly a writer, but I wasn’t letting anything define me, either. I was trying really hard, and when something wasn’t working in a story, I went back to it and back to it and back to it. I didn’t just want to write, I wanted to write well.

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