How I write
I haven’t written anything good for a long time. The last meaningful piece of writing I finished was a eulogy – for my father. I’m not sure if there’s a connection between what poured out of me writing and delivering that eulogy and my subsequent literary silence or not. Maybe; maybe not. Hard to say.
I’ve always been a feast or famine type of writer. I have been at this 20+ years and I have learned that it can’t be forced. Writing is not opening a jar of spaghetti sauce. It requires some muscle and brute force, yes, but more than anything it takes patience. I’m a proponent of waiting for it to happen. And it doesn’t always happen. It rarely happens, at least for me, especially lately.
While I’m a disciplined person on many fronts (I sometimes go through runs where I do insane amounts of push-ups day after day after day), I am not a writer who writes every day. I admire those folks, the ones who feel they have to throw down 500 or 1000 or 2000 words a day to justify their existence. I haven’t written 500 words of decent literary expression in the last year. Yet here I am, subject of this column. Maybe I’m relying on my reputation too much. Like a former NHL 50-goal scorer, I’ve had some good seasons in the past that gives me credibility, but, even in the world of literature, you gotta produce. But I don’t shoot pucks (well, actually I do, every Monday night with some other old farts, some of whom are even writers). To the point: I call myself a writer and I write. I can produce. And here’s how.
I don’t keep notes anywhere but in my head. I write short stories and they always start conceptually by visualizing places, characters, things, smells, sounds, etc. I toss the ideas for stories around in my head when my mind is otherwise turned off. For me, this happens two places: on my bicycle riding to/from work or on the bus riding to/from work, depending on the time of year here in Ottawa (I’m not one of those nutty, twelve-months-a-year cyclists). I sometimes even “write” a sentence or two in my head on my bike. I usually don’t write it down first time around, as I rarely trust my first instincts. Instead, the sentences and the ideas ferment in my brain for a couple of weeks until I convince myself that the brewing literary intoxicant is worth bottling – i.e., putting down on paper. And that’s usually what I do: I handwrite the first paragraph of a story on paper and then input it to the computer later. The act of typing already-written stuff into the computer usually generates momentum. From there, I write straight into the computer; just building on that first hand-written paragraph. I’ll have ideas in my head about where the story is going but it is almost never thought through fully. I don’t plot stories from start to finish. I let the act of writing the story take it where it goes.
The other thing is that I write with urgency. I’ve always worked full-time, for the most part, for the past 25 years or so. I’ve got a family, a wife, a mortgage, groceries to buy, kids to take here and there, and many other interests outside of literature. I have also run a micro press (Black Bile Press) for 20 years. My writing often takes a backseat to this other stuff. But when the engines are firing, I squeeze in time to write and then make the most of it. After thinking through a story for a month, writing a few lines in my head, I can sit down at a computer and hammer out a 2000 word story in an hour and a half, largely because that’s all the time I have. Not always but sometimes I write a complete story from start to finish and then go back and edit and pick it over until I think it’s done. I rarely write more than one story at a time. I’m task oriented. Gotta get one done before working on another.
I have a publisher (Anvil Press) that asks me what I’m writing. I give vague replies. I don’t think about a new book of short stories until about 90 per cent of the work is done and I’m happy with it. I don’t write huge volumes of stuff. I put a book out about every five years. And I don’t write many stories that don’t end up in books. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m efficient with what I write. I might write 15-20 stories over five years and 12-15 of those will end up in a book.
Ideas and influences for writing come from everywhere: from stuff I hear on the bus, to a song that conjures a memory that leads to fiction, to a conversation with a teammate over a beer after a lacrosse game and on and on. Everything is fodder for fiction. Nothing is sacred. It all goes into the blender of my brain and then sometimes re-emerges and gets heated, bent and twisted into a story. Nobody really makes anything up. That’s bullshit. I didn’t make this up.
This is how it happens, or, how it used to happen before my dad died and I wrote that damned eulogy …
He is the author of four collections of short fiction, most recently Shag Carpet Action. Selected stories from all four of these books was collected, translated into French, and then published in 2013 as Made in Canada by Paris’ 13E Note Editions. He is co-editor of the fiction magazine Front&Centre and founder of Black Bile Press.