At the Desk: Sylvia Gunnery
For each book that sits on our shelves or rests in our hands, a writer has spent countless hours researching, organizing, writing and rewriting. In Open Book’s At The Desk series, writers tell us about their creative processes and the workspaces that inspire them.
Sylvia Gunnery is a teacher and writer. She is the author of many books for teens and young readers, and her most recent offering is Emily for Real (Pajama Press), which was included in Open Book's Summer Reading Guide.
Today Sylvia shares with Open Book about her workspace, the silence of characters and the problems of writing near the ocean.
Virginia Woolf advised writers to have “a room of one’s own.” My earlier books were written at small desks in cramped corners of apartments where I lived in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Since 2001, I have had a writing space in our home at Crescent Beach, within splashing distance of the Atlantic Ocean. Lots of windows flood this room with daylight. My desk used to face the ocean, but I had to turn myself away from that view or else give in to the seagulls that flew into my imagination and onto just about every page I wrote. A small wood stove warms my writing space during winter storms or when fog drifts in and seems to seep through the walls. Near the stove are two large denim-covered chairs and an ottoman. This is where I sit to read or to chat with friends, especially others who write. A few years ago I downsized my personal library, giving away two book shelves, offering books to friends and to our local library and schools; yet five tall shelves still hold the ones I won’t part with. On the wall above my desk is a limited edition print celebrating the inauguration of The Writers’ Development Trust. It’s autographed by Pierre Berton, Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, and Graeme Gibson — four writers who worked to make sure that Canadian writing had a room of its own in our country and within the global community.
These are some details about my physical writing space. Yet there is another writing space I want to tell you about — that place where reality shifts away and imagination takes me deep into a fictional elsewhere. This is my mental writing space.
It isn’t always easy to get to this mental writing space, this fictional elsewhere. It can be elusive. That’s when you’ll find me watering every plant in the house, or vacuuming, or mowing the lawn, or… Then there’s a change, like a tap on the shoulder or something suddenly remembered, and I am able to get inside the fiction and stay for hours. How odd it is to be in this space that no one else shares with me! My characters move through their lives, making decisions or avoiding them, engaging in conversations, experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions, observing the surfaces and the depths of things, coming finally to their point of departure away from me. I always recognize that I’ve finished a book (or at least the first draft of it) when my characters become silent. They no longer occupy my daydreams. One morning, during the writing of Emily For Real, I woke and saw Emily’s forearm next to my face. A half-second later, I recognized it was my own arm (of course). But a while later, after I had completed the first draft for this novel, I woke to silence. Stillness. None of the characters were busy with their lives.
For me, shifting back to what I’ll call ordinary days is a strange experience. I’ll spend a day or so napping a lot. Feeling a bit disoriented. Then I’ll get myself ready for what comes next: much will have to be done after my editor has responded to that first draft.
Now I’m at a point where I’m ready to begin a new book. I’ve daydreamed about issues and events and conversations and motivations. I’ve made notes. Soon, I’ll come to this desk in my own room and begin to explore another fictional elsewhere.
— Sylvia Gunnery