The Writing Life (7) Down the Rabbit Hole

Photo Credit: Tom Sandler

Three weeks and no column, eh? Not for want of writing, I can tell you that. Apologies. As my wife is fond of saying, I’ve had my head up my ar—, indicating by popping a thumb out of her mouth that it’s high time I pulled my head out of it.

I’m actually in quite a good mood today, even though I’ve been ejected from home by workers ripping the degraded planks off the back extension and in the course of their work revealing the grande bouffe a happy and undisturbed colony of termites had a couple of decades ago. These are the same lot who cost me upwards of fourteen hundred dollars to repair a leaking bathroom, charging me for four goes at the job, at least a couple of which I could see were not going to work. But construction workers, like lawyers, have their billing practices well sorted. They charge you for everything, every trip to the local hardware store for the bits and pieces they did not bring with them, and every conversation they have with you and every minute caught in traffic. Often, I have thought that writers should learn to bill this way: slap on a fuel charge, and charge for first, second, third and fourth drafts.

But the writing has been going all right this past month, so I’m relatively unbothered by workers and termites and plumbing as costly as an Olympics overrun—hell, even the City of Toronto and the trash in my neighbourhood’s parks hasn’t been getting me down so much. We project on to our environment and right now the world’s looking rosy, even without what, in Toronto, must be the prettiest and most protracted spring I have ever experienced in Canada.

What’s going on?

It’s easy to feel blithe when the writing machine is actually working, I suppose, and for the last couple of months it has been.

I had three pieces of work hanging over me for a year and a half. One was a piece of commercial work that paid well but was massively disappointing given that my NGO employer had said it would send me to the Philippines, South Africa, Vietnam and Ethiopia as a part of the job but in the course of it sent me to none of these places—not out of malfaisance, I don’t think, they just didn’t get around to it. The pity of it was that I wasn’t even particularly wanting to get to these places for travel’s sake, fun as that would have been. But I’d been asked to write an essay for the NGO’s anniversary book because (at least I’d convinced myself) I’m good reporting from the field. Without the fieldwork, the commission became a dull piece of archival summarizing that a whole packet of people, any number of them at the NGO, could have done better and more easily and less expensively than me. What should have been a fascinating piece of work became a dull chore, and one that weighed heavily upon me.

The second piece that weighed almost as heavily was my fault entirely, having given in to an invitation to expand an essay I’d written for The Walrus magazine into a book—it seemed a good idea—and then discovering that I was pretty well creatively spent on the subject. Not forever, but for the year, now two, in which I expected to be doing the work, certainly.

There’s a lesson here. The hard work of cutting a piece of work down usually leads to a piece of work that is in itself complete, no matter the seeming pearls of wisdom that stringent line counts saw relegated to the floor. On the bright side, whatever deserves to be written and didn’t make it will find a way to be said. So, don’t be distraught at just how many words can seem wasted and remember, instead, what my own mother taught me, many years ago, which is to forget about the cut stuff completely and see how what you have in hand works. I remember, too, what the Calgary novelist Peter Oliva (Drowning in Darkness, The City of Yes) said to me when I was working on my book, This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada, which is that you have to write your way through the bad stuff to get to the good.

None of this offered much consolation to the onus of having taken on a book task about which experience should have taught me to be wary, but my publisher has been understanding for long enough that I have begun to see my appetite for its subject come back—and there’s enough room cleared in my head, now that the NGO biz is taken care of, to see myself at a desk getting down to it.

Though, in the way of things, the third task that seemed just too unwieldy to contemplate has come forth in a surge. This was the book that, when I tried to sell it (as an idea) a few years back, nobody wanted. Then, a year and a half ago, at a conference in Moncton honouring the great Acadian author Antonine Maillet, I was asked if I would deliver this year’s Northrop Frye-Antonine Maillet lecture, which I just did last weekend. Twenty-three thousand words came gushing forth for a lecture that needed to be a third that length, a moment leading to step-daughter number two’s considerable amusement as the pages were laid out on the dining room table for me to cut, even as the builders had started to pile the furniture in the centre of the room prior to the work they needed to do.

The difference between all these words and the ones I was having such trouble resurrecting after my Walrus piece has to do with the endgame, really. All journeys have a natural arc and creative ones are no different. They have a beginning, middle and an end. And they have a point a bit more than two-thirds of the way through where everything seems interminable, after which there’s a sudden mad rush and everything proceeds giddily fast and the end that seemed impossibly far is upon you before you know it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about a bus ride, collaboration, or a book, the journey always seems to work this way. Even when you’re not quite sure where you are along that road, or where the end lies, the gradations are the same, as if some unconscious part of you is already sitting where your goal is and measuring the stages you reach backwards from that point: now the journey will feel interminable, now you will be thrilled because it is virtually done.

And of course if it’s a piece of writing that you’re doing, then its first stage will be all about conception and research, the second about the writing and the third, the fun part, about the shaping and the tweaking until you get it right. (The fourth will be about its afterlife as an actually published piece and you may not want to know about that.) The problem with the Walrus piece is that it was the endgame, and I hadn’t planned for any kind of a second lap afterwards and have had to wait some time, now, to summon up the energy to run another few laps in a race I wasn’t anticipating.

But the lecture, well I always knew it was just a qualifying round—I had to perform, but it wasn’t the race and, despite whatever satisfaction I may have felt finishing it, that backwards vantage point told me I wasn’t even a quarter way around the track yet. Those 15,000 words I didn’t use are like moist clay, a part of the sculpture waiting to be kneaded. They’re not “other” or redundant words at all, and I can’t wait to get back at them. Jeez, it’s even been fun writing, this last little while. And what do you know; it’s still a gorgeous spring out. Crazy. Can’t last.

Noah Richler is a writer and broadcaster. His book, This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada won the 2007 B.C. Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. He blogs for Wordfest and his column,“The Writing Life,” appears here and on roverarts.com.

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