I was fifteen. We were living in England that year and I was going to a girls’ grammar school in London. I was thrilled to be in London, yet very much out of my element, a small-town Ontario girl. One day the English teacher came into the room and asked us to open our books to a certain page and read what was there. It was a poem by D.H. Lawrence. Then she said, “Now close the book, open your notebooks, and write down whatever comes into your minds.” I wrote easily for the first time in my life. Afterwards, she asked some of us to read our stream-of-consciousness writing aloud. I read, and the other girls took note of me as something other than a hick. So that’s how it happened. In that period in the classroom I found my vocation. It was such a surprise. Until that moment I had been a great reader and a tortured writer of school assignments and Christmas thank-you letters. Now I had a private creative world of my own.
I like to write with a pen or pencil on paper. Pen in my steno pad, pencil on scrap paper if I happen to be working more tentatively, fleshing out a scene, for instance, or some chronology of events. Everything in my steno pads – thoughts, observations, worries, things overheard – forms the basis for later stories or novels. They are my raw material. I type the raw material into the computer, print it out, then work on the hard copy. Sometimes I work directly on the computer, too. But in general I find it less stressful, more intimate and private to work with pen and paper.
I have a rocking chair with wide arms in my second-floor study. I sit in the chair, place a piece of plywood across the arms and write on that flat surface. I got the idea from reading about Virginia Woolf, who worked the same way in the grubby back of the house where they printed the books for Hogarth Press. It gives me much more peace of mind to work this way than directly in front of a computer screen.
I like to get up in the dark when others in the house are asleep. I like to have the world to myself. I like to have the house to myself. Again, some sort of fertile peace of mind descends when no one else is about.
I began in my twenties by sending my poems to small literary magazines in Canada, and every so often a poem was accepted. I did the same with my first efforts at prose. I met a marvelous and generous poet named Daphne Marlatt, who lives in Vancouver, and she published some of my prose in a magazine she co-edited. As with anything else, meeting helpful people is key. I was in my late thirties by the time my first slim book was published by a small Canadian press. The book did so poorly that the press didn’t want my second book. It went on like this, my going from one small press to the next until my fourth book, Small Change, was nominated for a number of prizes. Then I wrote a novel, A Student of Weather, and was able to find an agent and a large publishing house.
I noticed during my years in radio that the best documentary makers didn’t object to being edited; the ones who kicked up a fuss were the least talented. I try not to overreact when I’m told that something needs more work. I try to accept that whatever I write always needs more work. Initially, of course, I am downcast. But once I’ve absorbed the disappointment, I return to the work reinvigorated. It’s exciting to have a chance to make something better (though there is always the fear that I won’t be able to fix the problems the editor has pointed out).
A good editor will push you to deepen the characters, sustain the tension you’ve set in motion, pull through to the end the strands you’ve established in the beginning, point out where characters are not true to themselves, underscore the narrative opportunities you’ve missed and so on. A good editor is indispensable. I’ve been lucky in having a brilliant editor, Ellen Seligman, work with me on my novels.
I don’t think I have many ideas. I have areas of interest, things I want to explore. I try to enter an emotional and physical place that fascinates me. Perhaps it relates to my childhood, some reservoir of feeling, worry, glory, insecurity. The relationship between two sisters, say, or between a mother and daughter, or a brother and sister. There are physical landscapes I respond to deeply. It’s good to return to them, they nourish the imagination. Then no matter how slow-going the writing is, or how much I flounder around without a direction or with too many directions, I can return to the initial tug of the story (this area of fascination) and remind myself that I am onto something and that it’s worth sticking with.
I discover the book in the process of writing it. I do make outlines, but the outlines keep changing. It is not the most efficient way of writing or even the bravest. I often think I should take myself in hand and insist on more productivity. So many hundreds of words a day, for instance. But I’m not a forward-march sort of writer. At least I haven’t been so far.
Reading and writing go hand in glove with me. Newspaper stories, history books, old textbooks, memoirs – reading them relaxes my mind, sets me thinking and imagining. When I’m reading seriously I have a pencil in hand, marking in the margin intriguing details. All of my novels have required research. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Library and Archives Canada reading trial records, or an investigation into a train crash, or someone’s personal papers that happen to be on file, or chronicles about the North. Too much research, however, bogs me down. At a certain point I set it aside and tackle the spine of the story.
I keep my copy of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace on the shelf above my desk and often pull it down to reread a few pages, jolted and soothed by the tension, honesty, spareness. Don DeLillo’s Falling Man gave me a brilliant crash course in dialogue. Hilary Mantel’s
Wolf Hall made a huge recent impression. In my thirties I was very much under the spell of Graham Greene, another consummate storyteller and spare writer; I knew that if I was to progress as a writer I had to learn how to tell stories.
My tastes are both wide and narrow. I’m devoted to Penelope Fitzgerald, William Maxwell, Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, the Russians, especially Chekhov, Virginia Woolf, and poets like Margaret Avison, Louise Glück, Elizabeth Bishop. Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter was a crucial book for me. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding. And on it goes. Certain non-fiction books, like George Whalley’s The Legend of John Hornby, Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow, Ian Frazier’s The Great Plains, and Never in Anger by Jean Briggs have filled me with joy. Beryl Bainbridge’s Birthday Boys, which fuses fiction and non-fiction, is a tiny terrific book. I like short intense books.
I love being alone in a room. I love being at my desk. I love taking life and weaving it into a story. I love living with fictional characters. If I have nothing to work on, or am terribly stuck, then I feel lonely and empty.
This is the sixty-four dollar question. I suppose I persevere, but not without self-pity. I often have to lie down. Bad reviews, and I lie down and stare at the ceiling for a while. Rejections from publishers, and I can’t help but compare myself with more successful authors. The feeling of failure probably accompanies them too. I’m sure it does.
Here’s what I learned from my first really bad review. In the first moment I felt kneecapped and the despair lasted for three bitter days. Then my spine straightened and I actually felt stronger. I learned that I could live without that reviewer’s approval. I would keep going, more determined, more bloody-minded than before. Unfortunately, this is a lesson that keeps presenting itself.
I wasn’t a very good poet and didn’t know how to become a better one. Also, stories drew me. My short stories usually arise from something that’s worrying me. They are more pointed, personal, pained. So far the movement of characters through landscape and time is the domain of my novels. I learned how to write in the third person by writing novels. I learned how to inhabit the lives of others. I haven’t given up on stories. I have a number in mind that I would like to write (or finish). But I seem to be able to do just one thing at a time. When I’m working on a novel, that’s all I’m working on.
I don’t like to talk about that for two reasons: it’s hard enough to write it without having to talk about it as well; plus, talking dilutes it, and makes me feel foolish.
I am always very much behind the beat when it comes to reading. I borrow books from the library. I get on long waiting lists. It doesn’t matter to me if I’ve read the latest sensation. I get to it in time if I think reading it will help me with my own writing in some way, either in terms of subject or style.
There are certain writers who help me write. This is very personal – why we respond to one writer more than another, to one place more than another. It’s a physical response to the tone of the book. There are books that for bossy, show-offy reasons make me feel smaller and less alive. And other books that put me in touch with myself as part of a large, fascinating, interconnected world. I feel more alive because the world is more alive, thanks to what I’m reading. A recent example is A Village Life by the American poet Louise Glück.
In my twenties I was told by the poet and novelist Daphne Marlatt to write from the heart. It was good advice and hard to follow. The ring of truth is what we’re after.
You have to be willing to do the work. Laziness and self-pity are the greatest drags on a writer’s spirit.
Today it’s harder than ever to get published. Small literary magazines still exist, thank God. Send your work to them. Build up a body of stories or poems. Once you have enough for a manuscript, you can submit the work to publishers that allow unsolicited submissions. If you’re a novelist, revise your novel until it is the best work you can do, then you might try to find an agent. Agents, naturally, are only interested in books that might make money. Information about agents and publishers can be found in Writer’s Handbook or Writer’s Market. There are courses in writing, too, and many follow this route, not least in order to get feedback and to make useful connections.
But the writing life is a good life. It has countless humiliations, but the pleasure continues of making something, working on it, working out the snags, reaching somewhere deep and surprising that makes you feel more alive. As Robert Creeley said, Writing gives me a way to live my life.