Retreat

I had the pleasure of spending a week as a guest (and sort of alumni) of The Pouch Cove Foundation, an artists’ retreat located in Pouch Cove, Newfoundland. While only about twenty minutes outside of St. John’s, it might as well be in the middle of nowhere, in the best possible way.

I went there to work on final changes to Book Three, and it was very productive. So much so that I’m hoping to hand off the book to my agent at the end of the month (fingers crossed). I was also happy to be sharing the retreat with a handful of visual artists who were preparing for a showing of their water-themed paintings in-progress. Writers and painters are different kinds of artists, insofar as painters come across as regular people when they’re not painting and writers tend to remain mumbly introverts when they’re not writing, not that we weren’t able to get together for the occasional beer and a chat in the evening. The good news is that we were all there to work and the setting was ideal for our tasks. And when we weren’t working, it was easy to step away and go on a hike along the East Coast Trail (in the course of one hike I spotted a pod of whales nearby and found myself tracked by a fox), or simply go down to the shore and admire the many gorgeous views.

Pouch Cove is one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, and this marks a return for me after 20 years. Back then I was still working in film/TV but trying to get my act together as a budding author. A work colleague suggested I check out the retreat at Pouch Cove which, it turned out, her father operated. I was only able to get away for a long weekend at the time (because broke), but it was my first introduction to an artists’ retreat and I was able to develop some of the ideas that made it into my first novel, The Society of Experience.

James Baird, who runs the Pouch Cove Foundation, has been a tireless supporter of the arts community in Newfoundland for decades and is an extremely generous host to artists from all corners of the world. I’m very appreciative of his support and enthusiasm, and grateful to have had the opportunity to return.

It was hard to leave.

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Three Books

I asked for (and received) a couple of books for last Xmas: When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, and The Rigor of Angels by William Egginton. The first is a wonderful collection (sometimes interwoven) about the weird and wonderful (but weird) world of of physicists, mathematicians and chemists as they flirt with madness trying to come to terms with things like the would-you-believe basics of quantum theory. The latter is about the intersection of three great minds — philosopher Immanuel Kant, physicist Werner Heisenberg, and author Jorge Luis Borges — and how their shared interests in the struggle to understand how it is that we can’t always comprehend certain aspects of the world — were informed. I should mention that I received a third book at Xmas, from my partner, who thought I would like a collection of short fiction and essays from…Jorge Luis Borges.

Let’s just say that it’s been an intense ride, twisting my mind not only around the paradoxical ideas that quantum theory suggests, but also some strong narration and themes that rise from well-drawn portraits, the intimate (and wonderfully weird) lives of otherwise brilliant people.

Those first two books, by Labatut and Egginton, are very well done and I highly recommend them, by the way.

Speaking of Borges, I am truly amazed sometimes at his ability to distill entire universes with such economy; some of his work left me flabbergasted and dizzy. Some of it can also be front-loaded with a lot of geographical or historical weight and so it’s not exactly “diving in” literature; it’s a little like going to the gym, to be honest. But boy, the rewards.

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Interview: The First Thirty, courtesy of Junction Reads

This is super last-minute, and I apologize for the late notice, however tomorrow (!) I’m going to be interviewed live (!) on Instagram. Junction Reads is an established (since 2014) Toronto reading series that brings attention to so many great authors. I’m going to take part in Junction Reads’ cool offshoot, The First Thirty, which is designed around speaking with authors about — you guessed it — how the first thirty pages of their published work came about.

From their website:

Writers know, and readers too, the first pages are the most important in any novel, memoir or story. And I want to talk about it.

The First Thirty is an Instagram Live series where I will meet authors for a quick chat (30 minutes) to talk about writing, and how they shape those first pages to be a warm welcome to the reader; to include the hook that makes a reader want to keep reading, and to give us the characters we either want to love or really hate.

You can hear me talk about my latest novel, Radioland, tomorrow (Monday, May 27th) night @ 7pm EST on Instagram by tuning-in to @junctionreads!

UPDATE: You can watch the interview here. I’m really impressed with the depth of Alison’s questions and if this is the last bit of promotion I do for Radioland then I’m happy to have it be this.

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Goodbye April

I haven’t had the opportunity to post here, however I hadn’t realized that it was over a month since posting something substantial. I wouldn’t say that there’s anything different going on in my life, so much as that, upon reflection, perhaps I’m spending a bit more time seeking comfort where I need it.

I got back into a martial art that I started before the pandemic, called baguazhang, or simply bagua (pron. bahg-wah). It’s a little idiosyncratic compared to more mainstream forms like karate, taekwondo or BJJ. I’d say it’s somewhere between what we in the West call “kung fu” (external) and tai chi (internal). Let’s just say there’s a lot of walking in circles. That said, I needed something that allowed me to move/train my body in a way that was different than going to the gym or distance running, which can feel static. Bagua is anything but static. Also, crucially, the very place that teaches it is literally across the street from my office in Chinatown. It centres me and its choreography is demanding enough without the more wild kung fu-style kicks etc. It’s also nice to do this with other people — something I was also sorely needing (ie a form of socializing that wasn’t chatting with someone at a pub)

I also started Book Four (I know, I know), which is coming along. I can’t really say much about it because it’s very early, however I’m liking its shape. What’s funny is that my previous long-form entry here was about not wanting to be stuck with Author/Psychotherapist in publicity material…and yet the protagonist of Book Four is exactly that. It’s also nice working on a book where the protagonist is a woman. Radioland had two protagonists — male and female — and The Society of Experience had an intermittent female narrative in the form of Seneca’s diaries, however I’m looking forward to keeping things female this time around. Book Three is in revision-mode now, for the last round I think.

I’m trying to keep myself informed of what’s going on in the world, but the world is too big and there’s too much. I think the curse of social media is that there are so many perspectives on so many things that it can be paralyzing to even log-in some days, so currently I’m not. I’m very thankful that I re-subscribed to the London Review of Books this past summer because their coverage of what’s happening in Gaza is extensive and authoritative, without the self-censorship or bad faith arguments that have poisoned coverage of this conflict in much of the mainstream media. I’m not a prolific magazine subscriber, however I can’t help but think of how lucky I felt when I happened to subscribe to Harper’s just prior to the towers falling on 9/11, the drums beating towards a disastrous war. Reading informed, well-written arguments isn’t going to stop the worst of humanity from manifesting, but at least I can form my opinion from a source that isn’t compromised by a fear of spooking advertisers or an editor casting a dark shadow over someone’s shoulder.

Yes, and reading. Lots of reading. Let’s see…Labyrinths (a collection of Jorge Luis Borges stories and essays), Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World (which is fabulous), The Rigor of Angels by William Egginton and Audit Culture: How Indicators and Rankings are Reshaping the World by Cris Shore and Susan Wright.

I hope this finds you well.

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What You Do vs What You Write

I had the occasion to be asked to do an interview with a Canadian podcaster recently, which I agreed to without hesitation. Firstly, their independently-produced program seemed perfectly legit, and secondly (more pragmatically) there are so many authors chasing interviews and fewer and fewer venues to provide exposure that — all combined — the decision was a no-brainer. That said, the week leading up to the interview my partner asked what I was going to be interviewed about. I had just assumed I’d been chosen based on my being a published author of two novels (etc), however she raised a good question: was it going to centre on my day job?

A backgrounder…

When I was preparing for the publication of Radioland in 2022 I felt more comfortable, perhaps because the book’s characters expressed behaviours of those who are traumatized, making mention of my day job in the lead-up promotional material. My day job, for those who don’t know, is as a Registered Psychotherapist in private practice. It didn’t seem to hurt to make mention of this, insofar as, personally and professionally, I was writing from a place of understanding. So, when the interview requests began to roll in — and believe me, as an author with an indie publisher, I’m grateful for every opportunity I get — I began to notice that, within the interest of Radioland and myself as its author, there was inevitably a tie-in question about my being a psychotherapist.

Some of the interest in my day job was matter-of-fact; there are few writers out there (who are not independently wealthy) who can get by doing this full-time. I had no issues with the professional curiosity. But, overall, a feeling began to grow that — in the way the questions were phrased — my existence as an author and the responsibilities of my day job seemed to be artificially stitched together. A particularly egregious suggestion — one I’ve had to field privately before, even from other writers in casual conversation — was whether I was ever tempted to use my clients’ material for my fiction. I’ve been able to handle this respectfully before, but I find this question offensive. First off, would they ask a lawyer or doctor this question? Well…some people still would, actually. However, most discouragingly, was the idea that I would wholesale take confidential client material and use it for my own creative purposes. Needless to say, this would be not only unethical but illegal.

I’ve been able to handle this respectfully before […] but I find this question offensive. First off, would they ask a lawyer or doctor this question? Well…some people still would, actually. However, most discouragingly, was the idea that I would wholesale take confidential client material and use it for my own creative purposes.

But there’s a more pernicious concern that developed in the way in which my day job was mentioned in the same breath as my work as an author. In the back of my head was this fear that my book was being portrayed as Good For You (because it’s written by a psychotherapist, right?), that it would thus contain Life Lessons based on Wellness Knowledge. In other words, that it was didactic and prescriptive. Radioland, in both form and intent, couldn’t be further from this, and the steady conflation I experienced between what I did for a living and what I wrote bothered the hell out of me as a result. I also didn’t want to be ghettoized, as some can be, where their non-medically-oriented books are quickly forgotten about.

I realize I bear some naive responsibility for providing this information initially, and yet I feel like it can’t be overstated: I am not my job. I am not my fiction. Of course there’s going to be a whole lot of Venn shared by my interests, my work and my writing output — I would probably be an anomaly if that wasn’t the case. But here’s the important part: what I write is not the product of a psychotherapist so much as that my choice to change careers 12+ years ago was the product of the same person who’s been writing since he was a kid. What I won’t allow myself to be is pigeon-holed, and so, coming back to the podcast interview I had scheduled, I prepared a brief statement which I planned to make if I felt that the same conflation was about to occur. To my relief, the interviewer focused almost solely on my writing with only a brief acknowledgement of my day job, with no attempt to draw the two together (note: I haven’t listened to the final, edited interview yet, which won’t be available for a few weeks). There is always hope.

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First Drafts

When I wrote my first novel — not the published one, but the one that came before that — owing to the fact that this was literally my first time tackling such a thing, I adopted a rather brutal style of writing the first draft. Like I said, I didn’t really know what I was doing, nor did I understand how difficult I was making things for myself in writing in the way I did.

My style, if it could be called that, was edit-as-you-go. Doesn’t sound that bad, right? And, to be honest, there are many writers out there who take this approach. I say this because I would be wrong if I said that this was a “bad” way to go about things. However, what it did was front-load a lot of analysis during a part of the work that really (really) should’ve been purely creative, in the playing-in-the-sandbox sense of the word. Editing as you write requires a writer to switch between two hats within the same writing session, which is (among other things) strenuous.

That book, it should be known, no longer exists in any form except for some files I have backed up. It simply wasn’t worth the amount of work that I realized, as I began to take submitting it to publishers/agents seriously, it would need. Like, a lot of work. And I’d just spent a number of years already on it, and its imperfections (and various forms of writerly immaturity) became harder and harder to ignore. So, into the figurative fireplace it went. A few years back my sister-in-law sent me a photo of the manuscript I’d sent her to read, asking if I wanted it (they were moving house and had to ditch things). I told her to burn it.

From the point where I started what ended up being The Society of Experience (originally titled The Improv Class), I chose a much more practical style of getting the first draft down, and that was simply getting it down. Didn’t need to be perfect. Didn’t need to necessarily match whatever chapters came before or after stylistically. The rule of a first draft, as I saw it, and mostly continue to see it, is to get it on paper (or on a laptop) as quickly and painlessly as possible. Then, and really only then, though there are points in the process where this might have to come sooner, will I get the editor’s hat out.

Revising is drudgery. I was at a retreat a few years ago, and was asked by a couple of painters what I was up to process-wise. I attempted to describe what revising was, and inquired what a painter’s version of this might be. They looked at each other and back at me and said: “Backgrounds.” That said, the important thing is that revising is where the magic really happens. The first draft is really just a proof of concept. It could be solid. It could be 70% of the way “there” (wherever “there” is), but it’s just not done yet until you revise. And revise. And revise.

The only problem I encounter with this style of writing is that the prose in my first drafts can end up being very (very) compressed — in the process of getting everything down I will often elect to not elaborate or flesh things out unnecessarily, feeling that this can be done on the next pass. I sometimes describe my first draft style as being “dehydrated prose,” as in “add water and it will expand.” Sounds good, but sometimes I’ll read something I quickly jotted down, and I’ll end up sitting there and asking myself what exactly it was that I was thinking about when I wrote it — sometimes the subtext gets lost when you’re writing in a fast and compressed style, especially when I’m coming back to it weeks later.

I must regretfully admit I notice this a lot with this blog. I don’t have a lot of time to blog, so my style here tends to be of that compressed first draft style, which can lead to comprehension issues in retrospect. I’ve had several incidents where I’ll go back the next day and read something I’ve posted and freak out, namely because what’s there isn’t really clear. Or worse, it’s open to misinterpretation (especially if I’m getting more explicitly political, where I need to add lots of context for rather forward opinions), which can be embarrassing. I once submitted a short story to a publisher, and when I went back and looked at it I went pale it was in sooo much need of revision. Lesson learned.

Writing is work, which is fine because I like writing. I’m good at it. But, creativity aside, it’s also a skill which requires a necessary amount of tradecraft in the process of making your workflow, well, work for you.

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February update

self-portrait walking in Little Portugal, Toronto

It’s been a busy time in these parts. Working on the short story I mentioned last post, working on a Canada Council grant (because why not), as well as working-working.

My day job has been affected by the economic downturn since about September of last year. September is typically a busier time for therapists — end of summer/vacation, anxiety about returning to school, etc — but for me it was the opposite. And it was more or less that way until January, where it continues to be patchy. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if it weren’t that I have an office lease and a number of other regular professional expenses. I’m getting by ok enough, but the lack of predictability can be stressful. The thing I also remind myself of is that psychotherapists are typically downstream from whatever’s happening in society, so it’s no surprise the economic crunch that so many are experiencing now should visit my doorstep.

February was…fun? Keeping the momentum going from seeing Quebec band La Sécurité in late January at The Monarch here in town, earlier this month my partner and I hopped on a train to Montreal, where I haven’t been in nearly a decade, in order to see one of my favourite current acts, Sweeping Promises, play at La Sala Rossa (note: they are not Quebecois but hail from Kansas). I was not let down. Super-impressed with their energy and their songs translated to a live venue easily. Strangely, having heard all my adult life about how tame Toronto audiences can be, I was surprised to see the Montreal crowd’s energy was so restrained…and here I was, in my early 50s and one of the more enthusiastic people in the audience. Needless to say, it was great to be in Montreal and I was struck by how little damage the pandemic lockdowns did to their bars, restaurants and live venues. Otherwise, I pushed myself to get out and socialize more this month, which I’m thankful for, even though I’m a little more introverted than others, as it was good to connect with old and new friends.

If I do get some grant money I’d like to see about booking a return to the artist’s retreat run by the Pouch Cove Foundation in Newfoundland. It really is a stunning place. If I have a burning frustration with the airline oligopoly in this country it’s that it’s cheaper for me to fly to Las Vegas (3,619km) or Vancouver (3,359.km) than St. John’s (2,686km), and believe me I would take St. John’s any day over those and many other destinations (okay, only between the months of May and October).

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January 2024

I hope this finds you well, dear reader. I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately, not all of it (entirely) creative, but writing nonetheless.

I’ve been working on a short story that I put off developing last year in order to get through the last pass of Book Three. What I love about the story is that it takes a familiar conceit — a group of people planning on robbing a store — and becomes something almost meta with the addition of being told as a comedy. Since letting humour take centre stage in Book Three, I’ve been more confident (and inspired) to let loose with it for as long as it needs expression. But boy is humour hard. I mean, humour’s always been hard, but especially when avoiding what’s called “punching down” (ie making sure the laughs aren’t at the expense of a person/group for what are typically classist/ableist/racist reasons). But guess what: if you want to produce at a high level of quality it’s going to take time and effort.

Last post, I talked about pushing a grant application out. One of my other writing projects this month has been –wait for it — working on another grant. A larger, privately funded one that is open beyond North America. Why? Well, for one thing: why not? And yet, I’ll be the first to admit it’s more complicated than this. I hate working on grant applications, which explains why I don’t exactly have an extra-thick dossier of them from the past. But I’ve done it enough to know that it’s a chore, and, because grants such as this (or, to be fair, Toronto/Ontario/Canada Arts Council grants) are often extremely competitive, what with shrinking investment in the arts, it sometimes feels as if I might’ve just as well put the time toward working on a manuscript instead. This time, however, I found that there can be something practical (even therapeutic) about answering questions which prompt you to explain your book. I don’t think it should be required that authors have meditated on the why of our writing ethos/project, but when we do, especially as part of an assignment, I think it can help sharpen one’s idea of what it is that we’re setting out to do. A book/author doesn’t need to have a mission, but…if they did, what would it be? And it doesn’t need to be lofty.

As I’ve said elsewhere, applying for grants makes you better at applying for grants. I might just take some of the material I was able to put together for this one and see whether I can apply it to couple of others, so that it doesn’t feel as if I’m re-making the wheel each time. It is a little stressful, however, because as I touched on earlier, there’s only a finite amount of writing time I have per-week, and I can’t make that pie bigger, so it’s about balancing grant work with the sort of creative writing that got me this far.

Stay warm and dry,

M

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Grants

It took someone on social media posting a reminder of an upcoming deadline for me to realize that I haven’t applied for a writer’s grant in the better part of three years. For anyone outside of publishing reading this, while there’s no obligation to do this (unless of course you’re depending upon writing for a living, in which case it pretty much would be an obligation), it can make life a lot less burdensome for those who want to be able to take time off work so that we might devote ourselves more thoroughly to our writing projects. Most of us secretly bend time and space to be able to spend a few hours here and there each week.

This strikes me whenever I’m researching residencies for writers. A lot of the ones I’ve been interested in have a time stipulation of something grand, like “at least three weeks”, and that’s a deal-breaker for me. I pay for residencies out of my own pocket, and typically 5-7 days is the max I can allot. This is where grants come in. The big ones, from the Ontario Arts Council and Canada Arts Council, have the capacity to provide wide financial support (in other words, scalable to the needs of the applicant, depending upon their professional and personal circumstances). The catch is that you have to go through the application process, which necessitates answering a lot of very detailed questions, not only about your project but about things like your budget (which in itself requires a breakdown of living expenses, etc). You have to essentially provide a compelling argument for the arts council awarding your project, as well as providing a reasonably accurate idea that you (the artist) understand what it is that you’re talking about from a financial perspective.

One of the reasons I’m writing this post is that I think it might be easy for outsiders to think that Arts Council grants are easily awarded, as if it were a question of simply hacking an algorithm. Let me assure you: they are not. If such were the case, there wouldn’t be professional grant writers marketing themselves (and paying their bills assumedly with something other than magic beans). Most artists might be able to summarize their projected finances, or describe their motivation for being an artist, or provide a captivating enticement for their current work-in-progress. Not many can do all three. And, just to add a dose of reality, even if you manage to ace all three, you’re still at the mercy of whomever is reading your application and whatever inevitable cognitive biases and preferences they have.

I’ve never received a big grant, though I’ve certainly applied. I supposed I stopped applying for the same reason I begin walking when I realize the streetcar isn’t coming any time soon; I’d rather try to achieve something on my own than be let down by something out of my control. That said, I run a small business. If I take time off, I don’t have any income. So yes, when I see a TWO MONTH MINIMUM on a writer’s retreat, I can get punchy. Truth is, there’s something strangely out-of-date about a framework whose parameters so clearly prohibit those who don’t have careers which allow such long absences.

The grant I mentioned at the beginning of this post is the Recommender Grants for Writers (via the Ontario Arts Council). It’s not nearly as big (or as arduous to complete) as others. I was lucky enough to have been awarded once before, which helped me book a flight out west to the Banff Centre for the Arts for a self-directed residency, so I pushed myself to submit a sample of Book Three to one of the indie publishers who are participating in the program this year, hopefully before their internal deadline (with this grant in particular, which runs from September to January, the deadline for submissions is set internally by the publishers).

One of the benefits of grant writing, and a reason for my writing this post, is that it can motivate (aka force) you to polish/revise/clarify your work for an actual (aka real) audience, even if you never see them or know exactly what they liked or didn’t. It can be a good prod to work on your bio (which a lot of writers freak out about), or the synopsis of your piece. I’d like to think there’s no downside, other than going through a bit of stress.

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December Update

It’s been a year, and I feel that the air is clearing. If that sounds vague, let’s just say that 2023 has been a challenge. Not like 2022, which was quite calamitous by comparison, but certainly from the perspective of world politics and (closer to home) the health of my business, it’s been a tough one. The economy is hard and a lot of people (myself included) are being a lot more financially conscious than ever.

After some super-constructive feedback I’ve been intently focused on revising Book Three, which has been tough. You’ve probably heard the term “kill your darlings” before, in regards to the sorts of sacrifices an author inevitably has to make during revisions; well, this last revision has led to a small cemetery of darlings. And necessarily so, since I attempted to cram a lot into the second half of this novel, and the result was the lack of a sense of a singular theme/conflict as opposed to a barrage of them. That said, I think it’s in a good place now, and I’ve put the manuscript in a proverbial drawer in order for it to sit for a while, so that I can come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes. It’s still a solid story, and I’m very happy with the process of deciding what it was I wanted to, well, say — sounds straight forward, but it’s harder than it seems, especially when you have a lot of things you want to reflect on. Hoping to turn this over to my agent in the spring of 2024. It’s also nice to not be staring at the same project, so that I can (god forbid) consider other writing projects (short stories, essays) I’ve either neglected or temporarily abandoned.

Musically, I’ve been blessed to have come upon a wide array of artists who are new to me: Sweeping Promises, Water From Your Eyes and Froth most recently stand out.

Tomorrow, for the first time in two years, I’m taking part in the Holiday 10k (formerly the Tannenbaum 10k), and the weather is going to be perfect (a little wet, but above zero), so I’m going to quietly focus on a personal best time. Don’t tell anyone.

photo of my racing bib, showing my name and racer number
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