Ramona Koval, presenter of
The Book Show
In the days when writers were still in love with the whisper of a pencil across a sheet of paper, there were two clichéd interview questions. The one that focused on the means – “How do you write?” -- is less often asked nowadays, when it’s pretty obvious most of us are writing on a computer most of the time. There are exceptions – writers who still write longhand – and most of us keep a notebook handy.
The other question is, “When do you write?” It’s a question almost always asked by someone who is not a writer. A journalist may include this question during a formal interview. A reader or a friend or a person sitting in the audience after a reading might pose such a question. One writer will ask it of another only if they are close. It can seem like a silly question. What does it matter when I write?
It matters a lot. Timing has a great deal to do with writing. How much of my day will be spent on writing? How much on other work? Writers with full-time work often wish they had more time to write, as I know well. Writers who write full-time take on a variety of other activities, and not only to pay the bills. Writers are always complaining they don’t have enough time to write, even those who are “full-time” writers. I used to find that puzzling, but now that I have joined the ranks of full-time writers, I understand better. The question, “When do you write?” is not a silly question. This is why writers are careful to broach it only with close friends. The answer has something to do with what I write – and a lot to do with whether I write at all.
Over the years, I have written, more or less legibly, on buses, on trains, on aircraft, even – in the grip of a sense of urgency over a manuscript – standing in line waiting to pass through airport security. I have written in cafés and in restaurants. I have written at literary events featuring other writers. I have written early in the morning, late at night, and in the middle of the night. I have even written during the day, though rarely, and that’s because my day has mostly been spent on work very different from writing.
In the early years of Blue Metropolis, it was next to impossible for me to write. Later, when the festival developed its own rhythm, there were still long stretches when festival work precluded writing. With the festival taking place in late April, I would put aside whatever I was working on after the holidays at the beginning of January, knowing it would be May or even June by the time I would get back to it.
It was hard enough to find time to buy milk in those months, and I found it impossible to write anything less practical than emails, funding proposals, or event descriptions. The kind of writing I was longing to get back to takes a very different mindset from the one used in organizing a literary festival. I could switch into Blue Metropolis mode without blinking. The switch back to writing was hard.
Which is no doubt why I eventually started writing for a few hours first thing in the morning, before my Blue Metropolis day began. It wasn’t really a routine. It was rare for me to be able to write early in the day more than twice or three times a week, especially since I wrote at odd hours of the night, as well. I wrote on weekends and during my vacation, too, just about any time I could. This took a toll, and I longed to have more time for writing. By December 2009 I had decided to pass on the torch.
Almost three months have passed since I left Blue Metropolis. I spent six weeks overseas, mostly in Pondicherry, where I pondered my new life and worked every day, almost uninterrupted, for only one person had my phone number.
Since my return to Montreal in February, I have been so busy that I wonder how I ever managed to fit Blue Metropolis into my life. I’ve done some writing, but I can’t say I’ve managed to create any sort of new routine at this point. Now that I have no need to write first thing in the morning, I rarely get up at dawn. Now that I have no need to squeeze writing in before the day begins, I start my day with a couple of newspapers, go online, read my email, make or answer a couple of phone calls. Some days, there’s not much of a morning left by the time I start writing.
So what’s been keeping me so busy? I’ve been busy with volunteer work. Busy with coffees and lunches and dinners. Busy with this site. Busy writing posts. Busy writing notes for a talk I will be giving in a few weeks. Busy journaling. Busy reading manuscripts by other writers. Busy reading books and magazines. Busy swimming, making paella, going to the dentist, doing my taxes, watching movies, listening to the radio. Busy woolgathering. All of which is part of the writing process, even if there is no way of knowing why or how. There isn’t a choice to be made here. It’s not a question of living or writing. It’s a question of living and writing.
It’s 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning as I write these words. I did check my email, but I have not yet responded to any of the new messages. I have not yet read the newspapers, but I did update my website with upcoming events that are now confirmed. I turned on the radio. I made myself a coffee, and I wrote what you are reading now. It’s a post for my website, and perhaps that’s all it is. Perhaps it will inspire me to write something more on the writing life. Or perhaps this piece of writing will – as has happened with other occasional pieces – sooner or later develop into something else, become part of a novel or a longer work of non-fiction. That remains to be seen, and is probably better unexamined.
With writing, what matters is to write -- however, wherever, and whenever you can. It’s a messy business, and there’s not a lot about it that’s either clear or routine. It helps to sit at your desk, come hell or high water. It helps a lot to have – or to make – time and the sort of space in which woolgathering is a possibility. When you get dug in, once a piece of writing gets properly under way, that’s when the sense of urgency kicks in. And that’s when a routine imposes itself, sort of. That’s when you’re going to feel compelled to get to it first-thing, every single day.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. For now, anyway.
"A pig’s head, in case you are not aware, has eyes and eyelashes and teeth and a nose—all the makings of a face."
An excerpt from Jonah Campbell's Eaten Back to Life (Invisible Publishing, 2017).
It is one of my principles that one must not write about oneself. The artist should be like God in creation, invisible and all-powerful; so that one can feel him everywhere, but see him not at all. -- Gustave Flaubert
The best stories I have ever read about Montreal are the Linnet Muir stories that appeared in The New Yorker in 1978 and 1979. Set mostly in wartime Montreal, the stories dip back into the more distant past of Linnet Muir’s—and Mavis Gallant’s own—childhood memories of Montreal in the 1920s.