Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015



There are two kinds of self-censorship.

One is the restraint that emerges when writing memoir or other non-fiction, and you find yourself writing about living people who may feel hurt or slandered about what you have to say. That’s outside my field, and I can’t offer any advice one way or another.

But the other form of self-censorship – the one I want to talk about here – is both the greatest threat, but also an opportunity for the writer. This is the type of self-censorship that shows up like a knot building inside the writer the moment writing ventures into territory that feels dangerous, that makes the writer feel vulnerable. This is fertile territory, a space that young writers need to find and explore.

On Sports and Writing

Years ago, when applying to MFA Programs, I was asked for a personal essay about my writing and writing influences. Without a shred of irony I stated that my earliest literary influences were televangelists and sportscasters. This is entirely true. Their narratives and bombast were the staples of my childhood home.

Over time, thankfully, other influences came along. The televangelists – or variations on them – have appeared in my fiction, but less so the sportscasters or, for that matter, sports.

The Gift of Interacting with Readers

Many years ago I finished reading a book that resonated for me. The characters in it and their struggles felt real. I lived with them for a while, found pain in their sorrows, amusement in their foibles, joy in their triumphs. The writer was living nearby and I chose to write a letter via his publisher to say thank you for writing this book. He wrote back, with a few kind words, then went on to talk about how miserable publication had made him, book sales were disappointing, the publisher was a letdown, people just didn’t get it, etc…

I wrote back to him, asking wasn’t it still worthwhile to have produced such a good book?

A Roadblock All Writers Set for Themselves Every Now and Then

When I teach classes in creative writing at U of T’s School of Continuing Studies and at Haliburton School of the Arts, I have on occasion faced this predicament: A bright, talented, energetic student sets limits upon their work by deciding far too early what the story is about.

Here’s a hypothetical situation: A man – we’ll call him Jerry, as I don’t think I’ve had a student named Jerry – wants to write a fond memoir of his grandfather. “I’m working on a memoir of my grandfather,” he announces, “because my grandfather was a great influence on my life.” This may be true. Jerry clearly reserves some of his fondest emotional space for his grandfather, long passed.

On Getting My First Novel into Print

My first novel, Eulogy, has just been published.

What has the experience been like?

Well, it only took eleven years, so I guess it wasn’t too bad. Things could have been far worse: I could have never tried and could now be sitting in a bar somewhere talking about the novel I’m gonna write one day or that I should’ve written long ago, or Eulogy simply might never have found a home.

Or, possibly worst of all, the novel might have found a publisher before it was ready, or I could have given up.

keep going

This is my last post as the writer-in-residence for this website. It’s been a lot of fun. I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading my blogs as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.

What remains to be said? Only that I hope you will keep writing. And running. Making sausages, surfing, buttering butter, creating monsters, or hearing cells when they whisper to you. All you have to do is listen.

Whatever you get up to, keep going. And I will see YOU at the finish line.

With your arms raised in the air, not in defeat but in triumph.

Lollipops (take 2)

Keep going, the poster read. Your legs will forgive you…eventually.

On Sunday, I ran my first half-marathon. It might not seem like a big deal, but there were hills and it was hot. So hot in fact that the announcer mediating the start of the race reminded everyone that June 28th was NOT the day to try to set personal records.

He went on, “We are proud to host an event that has grown five percent since last year. In other running events around the world, runners drop out of races. But not in this beautiful city! No sir! In this city, runners keep running because running is cool. I speak metaphorically, of course, because today is pretty hot!”

The crowd of runners at the starting line laughed nervously.

can we hear a cell?

When asked recently about influences on my writing, I expounded on literary things. But the exercise also led me to think about questions I come across in my day job as a scientist.

A former professor once told me that all philosophical questions were ultimately biochemical ones. I don’t know if he was right, but lately I’ve been coming across some pretty incredible things.

stuff happens

The other day I picked my almost-7-year-old daughter from school. I asked her, with my usual level of enthusiasm, “How was your day?” “Good,” she said, with her usual lack thereof. “What did you do?” “Stuff.” “What kind of stuff?” I prompted her, undeterred. (Was it too much to ask?) “You know,” she said, “stuff.”

Since that afternoon, I’ve been thinking a lot about stuff and decided to blog about it. “Gosh, mom,” my daughter said. “You’re running out of ideas.”

why i read obituaries

To get out of a dry writing spell several years ago, I had to take drastic measures. To take drastic measures meant calling my writer friend. In Ontario.

She was shocked but not surprised when I called her and said she'd been wondering how long it would take me to get in touch. (Ten years ago, we'd gone to graduate school together but hadn't spoken since). She would have done it first, she assured me, if she didn't have five kids.

She listened to my laments in silence, and then told me to read obituaries. Every day. Because every day (in between nursing, cooking, cleaning, washing, bathing, clothing, dropping off and picking her kids from school), that was what she did. She read obits.

“Why?” I asked her. The obituaries had always struck me as rather sad.

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