Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

When I Write

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Katherine Aurora stopping to smell the roses, November 2011

It was five-thirty this morning when I came upstairs to write. The night had loosened but it was not quite morning yet. The house was silent and still. The only sounds: an early robin, the distant tremor of a train and the muted, intermittent drumming of my keyboard.

At a New Year's party a few months ago, the host passed around a copy of the Imagining Toronto book and one of the guests, a parent of two young children, hefted it and asked "When did you find the time to write something this thick?"

Writers are given to offering advice about making time to write. Set your alarm an hour (or two) early is one regular instruction. Others advise avoiding email and other distractions until the designated time for writing has passed, or writing during the lunch hour, on the subway or at the end of the day.

This is all good advice, but in some ways it misses the point.

If writing were only a matter of scheduling, then surely it would be like making a doctor's appointment or going to the gym.

Which brings us to the point of the problem.

Most of us (me included) put off making doctors' appointments, or find reasons to avoid going to the gym. Other urgencies intrude. And at some point doing the needed thing starts to sound like too much work. It no longer seems worth the reward of doing.

But isn't writing supposed to be its own reward?

Maybe not.

Toronto's dirtiest secret is not the air quality, nor how much it costs to live here, nor the unspoken desire to shove some pushy loudmouth off the subway platform. It's not any of these things. Toronto's most sordid secret is that everybody is writing a novel.

Everybody.

Yes, everybody. Your neighbour, your wife, even the streetcar driver. The streetcar driver isn't paying attention to the stale-dated transfer someone just shoved into the ticket box, nor the passel of police cars hurtling along Spadina and roaring into Kensington Market for another drug raid: no, he's crafting fine prose in his head. An urban thriller whose plot culminates in a chance encounter -- on the streetcar, no less -- between the killer's half-brother and the victim's weeping mother. The driver is, of course, the hero, for realizing that these agonized souls are actually mother and son and spurring a surprise confession and tearful reconciliation. He might even write it all down someday, maybe after the playoffs are over, maybe when he starts working the afternoon shift.

We're a city wallowing in would-be novelists, with dated print-outs yellowing in a box or withering somewhere on a wonky-but-working hard-drive.

And although we keep ourselves busy with work and girls' nights out and, yes, doctors' appointments and even visits to the gym, it's not exactly that we lack the time to write, in the sense that waking up an hour early would make any meaningful difference.

It's that there's too big a gap between what we can -- or might -- produce and our ambitions for it -- and therefore ourselves.

There is such a huge weight of expectation when it comes to writing that it is almost a wonder anybody writes at all. The pressure to perform, to write the 'breakout bestseller,' to attract an agent and publisher - at first the best agent and the best publisher and, later, any agent or any publisher. And even once a book has been published, to be short-listed (or win!) the important awards, to sell enough copies, to hobnob with the right authors, to produce the next book.

When people ask me about the Imagining Toronto project, I tell them it happened by accident. What I do not tell them, or not exactly, is that I have always tried to be careful not to have particular ambitions about anything -- especially about writing -- but rather to pursue some private path leading along a personal trajectory. To look for places where the universe might open and make room even for me. To listen for something, some narrative or idea, that calls out in its own voice. And to listen and learn to speak its language.

Years ago, when I thought about writing and its intersection with my own life, I decided that I was all setting and not much plot. I felt as if my entire life had been spent waiting. At some point I realized that what I had been doing for all those years was listening. I had listened for such a long time and now I was learning to speak.

I wrote, as I always had, in private, because I could not help but do so. I did not write for any kind of public audience but rather so I could understand this universe and my role in it. At some point all these belated revelations began to bear fruit.

And then I wrote for real.

I have been writing for real for five years.

And the most important lessons I have learned during this long apprenticeship are two things: When to write. And when not to.

I write for real when something calls to be written about. Almost always, for me, this is early in the morning, when the house is silent and still and before the day has worn its erosions. I write because the world is a terrible, beautiful place, and because I am grateful to be alive in it.

I do not write, or write only privately, when doing so seems an affront to something not yet ready to be understood. I do not write (or write only privately) when circumstances seem ready to overwhelm anything I might have to say about them. I do not write (or write only privately) when there is reason to question my own motives for doing so. And I do not write, ever, when I am worried about how anyone else might respond to my work.

And I have found that this division has worked well, and that most recently, even my private writings have come to have their own utility. More and more often, these days, I find that it is time to write for real.

And that is when I write.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Amy Lavender Harris

Amy Lavender Harris teaches in the Department of Geography at York University in Toronto, Canada, where her work focuses on urban identity and the cultural significance of place. Her book, Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), has been shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian Literature.

Go to Amy Lavender Harris’s Author Page