Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Chasing the Muse: It takes a city?

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Always beckons

Here’s a question that is rarely asked today: ‘Where do you get your inspiration?”

It is a great question. The problem is that it has been mocked into obscurity. Maybe it gives too much room to a person to blather on about The Muse, or go on an endless riff about boring, useless details and quirks. Or maybe the answers were too stock, too predictable. Me, I used to get the question wrong.

I can’t distinguish ‘inspiration’ from ‘motivation.’ All I care about is sparking the daily pulse of interest and excitement so that the words hit the page / screen. Ideas, themes, characters - those you get anywhere. There’s no Muse really. There’s habit, routine, reflex, and there’s the unspoken assumption that this is what needs doing. So a world can spring from a newspaper article, a face on the street one day, a telling phrase, a glance even. Indeed I’ve read books that were so bad that I was provoked into ‘rewriting’ them the way they should have been, and in the process got happily lost on another story.

But having ideas is a world away from writing a story, and I have found that the lazy attractions of ideas, just for the pleasure of what could be, are quicksand. The ideas themselves can be the biggest distractions: enough with the Muse already, is my banner some days. We all come up with tricks to focus or to move between zones. Mine usually come down to walking. The physical act of walking is a way of entering story-land. Walking speed is story speed. Ideas process just as the landscape does.

Driving does this too, especially long road trips. We go to Florida almost every year, and we like to drive down 75. I reckon that if ideas were visible, I could spot them in the byways and highways along that highway, and on many more too. I used to sit in the car out in the middle of the Holland Marsh to write, or park by the cornfields on the concessions north of Schomberg.

At some point, the roving eye has to be stilled, the curious ear has to be closed, and what you have has to go on the page. There are always distractions. The fight to be free of the online draw can be tough, something that Russell Smith described so very, very well in a recent piece in the Globe and Mail (How ‘freedom’ of information keeps us in chains: http://www.theglobeandmail.com...). Reading that, and admiring the pitch-perfect tone of the piece as much as what Smith is getting at, an old notion began to leak in to my thoughts again: the city is where writing belongs.

When we moved here to the city – or moved back, I should say – I’d hear people say that city life would be good for ideas and stimulation for writing. ‘Lots of inspiration there…!’ Behind this is a long tradition, of halving of the world into sunken rural idiocy vs urban creative clamour. The matter surfaced again in my mind when I read an interview with David Adam Richards. It related to his new book ‘Facing the Hunter.’ Richards lives in Toronto for some time now, far from his native Miramichi, and according to the reviewer / interviewer this book reflects that continuing theme, or separation, strongly. I’ll wait to react the book before I figure out whether the book is a indeed a lament for a way of life that all but has vanished.

I was quietly pleased to see that Richards has issues with the city where he now lives. As the interviewer puts it ‘He is critical of stifled insularity and homogeneity of city life.’ Words with bold contrary power: the city as insular and homogenous and not the usual ‘diverse.’ the city as ‘stifling,’ not as liberating. Whew: Richards said the unsayable. Sure, the city is where the business is done, where the festivals and events go on, where the parade of life passes every day, where there are endless opportunities to schmooze.

I strongly suspect that none of this matters. What does matter is that there is some place for the very messy business of 'emotion recalled in tranquility' to get done. There are a lot of places in Toronto where this can get done.

This does not stop the unease and the restlessness that makes me want to hit the road continuing, and even deepening. A steady friction and jarring come from this compromise, and it is not productive. It can be anaesthetised when it all comes together for those hours, when all that matters isthe words appearing, and there's the reassuring stiffness in the hand as the pen runs on or the keyboard clacks.

A city person I am not, and this I know: I will always slow on that hill down from Wychwood just before Davenport, and from between the trees I’ll take in the city skyline below. The same goes for rounding a bend on a path on the Toronto Islands and a dozen other places where I can imagine. If there’s no ice-bound lake in my plans, no snow-covered woods, no empty night-sky, no corn grown high and crowding out to the side of a the road – if none of those can be there waiting and hoped for, longed for actually, then no city charms will fill the gap. Escape is always on the menu.

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.

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John Brady

John Brady is the author of the acclaimed Matt Minogue mystery novels. His first Matt Minogue mystery novel, A Stone of the Heart, won the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award, and his novels Unholy Ground, Kaddish In Dublin, All Souls and The Good Life have all been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. The sixth novel in the series, Islandbridge, was shortlisted for the Dashiell Hammett prize and his most recent, The Coast Road, was named a Globe & Mail Top 100 book for 2010.

Go to John Brady’s Author Page