Category: Literary

Susan Swan

Anxiety Pancakes: Life in the Middle of a Novel (Day Eleven)

windowsilhouetteYesterday I mentioned the temptations of a novelist. The phrase was coined by the late Arthur Koestler, the European novelist who wrote Darkness at Noon. In his essay, The Novelist’s Temptations, Koestler said that writing a novel was like sitting in front of an open window with your feet in a hot water bucket. Koestler borrowed the image from the Russian master Turgenev, who actually wrote his novels by an open window with his feet in a bucket because Turgenev felt the hot water stirred his unconscious.

In his essay, Koestler said the novelist’s temptation were threefold: either to stick their head out the window, shut the window, or peer at the world through a small hole in the closed curtain. He said none of these actions helped the novelist write. Instead what he recommended is that the novelist keep their window wide open to the world so they know what is going on around them. But they stay at their task with their feet in the hot water bucket.

The important thing, Koestler claimed, was that the novelist keep up with what is happening outside his study. He believed that these things didn’t necessarily need to be in the pages of the novel, but they needed to be in the novelist’s mind when he or she wrote their story. According to Koestler, knowledge of the world indirectly informs the novelist’s story, taking it to greater depths of understanding.

Well, I agree. But Koestler didn’t say that sticking your head out the open window is always wrong. He said that in some periods, to care about politics is a temptation for the artist. And in other periods, to not care about politics is a temptation. I believe we are in the latter period where not caring is a temptation so my head is going to go out the window when I see a good reason for it. Tomorrow, I promise, my thoughts on Barry Michels, the shrink who talked about why writers need to be in touch with their Shadow, the Jungian aspect of the personality that is the sum of all the unpleasant qualities we like to hide.

Anxiety Pancakes: Life in the Middle of a Novel (day ten)


Image by John Wardell 

I know I said I was going to write about a Hollywood shrink called Barry Michels today who has good advice for writers. But I’m moving Barry to tomorrow’s blog because yesterday I ran into one of the temptations of the novelist. What’s that? Simple. It’s called politics.

Last night I went to the meeting at City Hall to discuss the proposal by Porter Airlines to bring bigger jets and more passengers to the island airport. A crowd of about 500 showed up. About forty in the audience were backing Porter. They wore round yellow Porter buttons on their lapels. A sweet, fresh-faced young woman politely offered me a Porter button as I went in. I politely refused it and told her I felt an expanded airport would make Toronto’s air and water even more polluted than it already is. She recoiled in shock.

As the evening ground on, I found myself staring at the Porter contingent, trying to figure them out. It struck me that they really do believe they are doing Toronto a favour by bringing more business to the city through their airlines. So why can’t we make it bigger and better, they reason. A number of my friends fly Porter. They’ve told me it is a friendly and well-run airline without the hassles of Pearson. I believe them. Porter seems to have done a good job building up its clientele.

There’s only one problem: the airport is making a mess of our waterfront. Residents in the buildings by the harbour report a new sticky black residue on their balconies since Porter expanded in 2006. They suffer from window-rattling noise from the planes. In some cases, the planes take off only 200 metres away from their homes–a distance that would never be allowed at Pearson, where the homes around the airport have been built at a required distance. Unfortunately, many of the downtown condos were put up before Porter increased its passenger numbers to well over two million a year.

People are starting to move out from some of the downtown co-ops because they can’t stand the new traffic jams on their streets, along with the noise and the bad air, and likely more will go if the airport expands. Sailors are upset; so are arts organizers like Tamara Bernstein who runs concerts by the harbour. She says the noise of the planes taking off interferes with their public events.

So why doesn’t the Porter crowd understand that their airport has a noxious impact on the environment? Because they claim it doesn’t. Not a “significant” impact anyway. The Toronto Board of Health has recently said no to the expansion because it says the airport is bad for our health. But the Toronto Port Authority who runs the airport says the environmental impact is not “significant.” It’s hard not to think of the backers of the airport expansion as frogs in a slowly boiling pot, frogs that ribbett reassurances that yes, the water is a bit warmer than it was, but not overly warm, and certainly not tropical temperatures, at least not yet.

Last night a man from Transport Canada spoke about its responsibility to certify the new jets that Porter wants to bring in. He never mentioned that it is his job to look at jet emissions or jet noise although it is his job to see if the noise and emissions are bad for the environment. He talked a lot about making sure the construction of the proposed extended runways didn’t interfere with the flights that are on going at the airport. His words weren’t exactly reassuring.

Why can’t our public officials be more honest about what we’re doing to the environment? Is it too scary to face up to what’s happening so it’s easier to close your eyes and rush forward with business plans that make a deteriorating situation worse? Another big problem is the media. These days they don’t do investigative reporting unless it falls into their laps like the Rob Ford crack video. Newspapers can’t spare the money for this kind of reporting because the Internet has taken away much of their advertising revenue. TV news still gets most of their information from the dailies so they aren’t big on investigative reporting either. The result? The public is unable to make informed decisions about issues like the airport expansion.

And that brings me back to the temptations of the novelist. Yes, I am getting politically involved again because our journalists aren’t writing courageously about what’s happening.

Anxiety Pancakes: Life in the Middle of a Novel (day nine)

Photo by Michael Gil

There’s a term for what I’m feeling, the winter blahs. The blahs have come upon me slowly because I usually love winter. I love the cold air and how it helps my thinking, and I love winter sports like cross country skiing. But yesterday I couldn’t ski for more than half an hour because the ground at High Park was mostly covered with ice. Our high winds last week had blown the snow away. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s been plenty cold this January but we haven’t had a great deal of snow. Until today.

The view from my office window is bleak. I’m looking at my garden through falling snow so fine it could be white dust motes. I have no energy. I am not interested in writing a new section of my novel. I am not even sure if I will be able to finish today’s blog, which I want to be short and comforting. So just to see what happens, I’m going to interview my main character, Dale Paul, and find out what he has to say about my listless mood:

Me: So what’s wrong with me, Dale Paul? Why aren’t I more interested in writing about you?
Dale Paul: I have no idea. You’re lazy is my guess. After all, there are few people as fascinating as me.
Me: That’s true. But even you seem pretty boring today.
Dale Paul: Look, I know what you’re trying to do. You insult me so I’ll beat you up. Well, I’m not going to put you through my word mill just because you’re looking for a little nastiness. Find someone else to punish you. I’m taking off.
Me: Where are you going?
Dale Paul: Wherever you aren’t, you idiotic, craven pusillanimous charade of a writer. Good-bye.
Me: Don’t go.
Dale Paul: I’ve gone. Try and find me. See if I care.
Me: Hey, I didn’t mean what I said. The sun is coming out as we speak.
Dale Paul: Blankety blank blank and then blank you….
(Gurgle, gurgle, hiss–the sound of a character disappearing down the bathtub drain.)

Tomorrow–some good advice to writers from Hollywood shrink Barry Michels.

Anxiety Pancakes: Life in the Middle of a Novel (Day Eight)

Vincent van Gogh – A woman reading

This was supposed to be my day off. But I find myself at my computer worrying about my main character’s relationship with the celebrity he’s drawn in the dead pool lottery. My main character Dale Paul is getting too attached to his pick, a boy actor, now a heroin junkie. And like my character, Dale Paul, I’m starting to worry about the boy actor although I know terrible things are going to happen to him, and I’m the one who will make them happen.

I’ve had this problem before. I don’t like making my main characters vulnerable. I want them to triumph, not flounder and fail–or worse, die. And yet most stories are about suffering and death when you look at stories up close.

“Put your characters under pressure,” is common advice by veteran story tellers to anyone learning to tell a story. It works, yes, it does. But by god, it’s hard if you’re a softie like me who tends to be overly protective of the people I’m writing about.

But sooner or later, a hard-eyed mood comes over me and I cut them loose. Die if you are going to die, I say to my characters. Fail if you are going to fail! Be wrong if you are going to be wrong, I tell them. Then I close my eyes and write.

Anxiety Pancakes: Life in the Middle of a Novel (Day Seven)


This image is how it looks and feels when I have a good day–I feel excited and stimulated in a beatific kind of way because new thoughts keep occurring to me and everything and everybody I meet seems to give me something that helps my story. So not all days in the middle of a novel are about dry spells or frustration. Sometimes, like yesterday and the day before, the writing just falls on the page. Creative flow it’s called.

How do I make the good days happen? By stimulating myself with research, by conversations with interesting friends or by reading an interesting book. And by taking time for myself, regular exercise and sleeping eight hours. If you want to make extraordinary art live an ordinary life, Gertrude Stein once said. So right now I’m your ordinary girl living by an ordinary old routine.

Anxiety Pancakes: Life in the Middle of a Novel (Day Six)


I’m doing something I’ve never done before–extensively revising the first draft as I go along. Usually, I blurt out the first draft, either by dictating it or by typing it, or by a mixture of both. This time I’m revising a lot as I go, and revising can be tricky. How much should I revise before I move on? And why should I revise a chapter ten times if that chapter ends up on the cutting room floor? (Many chapters will end up not making it into my final draft. I know that from experience.) And yet, if I don’t revise, I may miss some key elements of the story or the characters, aspects or details that I need to keep writing. So–what to do? I’ve recently decided not to revise a chapter more than three times in the first draft. That means I can’t revise six to ten pages more than three times.

Because revising has its perils. It can give you a sense of control over something like novel writing that is not really controllable. As John Gardener once said, writing a novel is like setting sail in a rowboat, on the ocean, without a compass.

I used to rewrite the openings of my novels hundreds of times until my friend and writing buddy Marni Jackson pointed out that this exercise was a waste of time. I revised like this because it gave me the illusion of control but it stopped me from moving forward with my story. In fact, endless revising on the first draft can feel like masturbating without an orgasm. You think you’re making yourself feel good. But you’re really driving yourself crazy with frustration.

Anxiety Pancakes: Life in the Middle of a Novel (day five)


I said I’d write about the long (or short) dry spells that happen during the writing of a novel. I’ve just come out of one. This summer my mother died and she was very sick for about four months before her death which meant that it was hard to predict where I was going to be. She lived in another town and I needed to go to her during her health crisis. That’s the major thing that causes a dry spell: LIFE. When your own situation is just too demanding or too sad or too something to write.

That doesn’t happen to me very often. I was the single mother who learned to write through anything. Once I got in my car and locked the doors and wrote a short story well my daughter and her friend sat on the hood of the car looking in. But this summer I gave up trying to write although I made notes and thought about my novel. My mother was my first concern. As she should have been.

The other thing I’ve learned in my thirty years of writing fiction is that if I’m not having a good time there’s something wrong with what I’m doing. If I’m finding myself in a dry spell chances are I have taken a wrong turn in the narrative. Or I’ve been writing in the voice of the wrong character. Problems in the story are what cause a writer’s block for me. If I can’t get any further it means I have more thinking to do.

Since I started last Christmas, I’d been trying out voices in my novel. Recently, I’d been writing in the voice of the daughter of the white collar criminal. She wasn’t the right person to tell the story because the story I wanted to write wasn’t about her– it was about the white collar criminal and his son. So I took the female voice and made it the sister of the white collar criminal instead of his daughter. Then I re-wrote my first one hundred pages in the point of view of the criminal.

I’d already written a novel about a father and a daughter and it felt like the tag-ends of that novel were trying to attach themselves to my story. Maybe I wanted not to work that hard. Maybe I didn’t want to bother creating a new voice. Actually, I did.

I’ve been working on this novel off and on for about seven years. I’ve been thinking about it and researching it. And although I don’t exactly know how each scene is going to unfold I know what my story is about.

Of course, I’m still on the first draft and often the first draft is about getting to know your characters so all these problems I was having with voice were par for the course. Let’s face it – writing the first draft is like throwing mud on the wall. Or spaghetti, for that matter. You throw and then you wait to see if it sticks. So here are ways I’ve found to get around a writer’s block:

  1. Try another voice.
  2. Write a dialogue out between yourself and the main character or minor character and ask why the novel isn’t going well. This really works. But when you write in the voice of your character, you must let yourself free associate and  say the first thing that comes into your mind.
  3. Take a day off and daydream. Go for a wander. Movement helps thinking.

That’s it for now. Except for one thing. The dry spells are inevitable. Because problems are going to come up in any narrative. It’s not going to flow out of your computer screen as easily as all that. You may get in the zone for a while but it’s hard to sustain it through a whole book because novels are long. So that’s what I tell myself anyway. Dry spells can be a chance for something more exciting to develop and if you have patience it probably will.

Anxiety Pancakes: Life in the Middle of a Novel (Day Four)


Yesterday I complained so much I feel almost cheerful today. Like many Canadians, I tend to revel in “a woe is me” attitude. Blame it on our weather. In the days when I did performance art, I once performed a show about self-pity called “Down and In” at the Detroit Institute of Modern Art.” Dressed in scarfs, shorts and toques, my fellow performer, Louise Garfield, and myself lowered ourselves into the gallery’s fountain chanting sad sack phrases. It was funny until we realized we couldn’t touch our microphones on stage. Then we really felt sorry for ourselves. So what did we do? We made our situation part of the show.

This is a good thing for me to remember because the labour of writing a novel, with its long, hard, dry spots and sometimes baffling dead ends, can make you feel sorry for yourself. According to the late teacher and novelist John Gardener, the profession of novel writing gives joy to a certain kind of person. But he warned that no other profession is so fraught with professional and spiritual difficulties. He should know. He died drunk driving his motorcyle.

Gardener wrote two excellent books about writing, The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist. That’s why he has my respect. He didn’t just write powerful novels; he taught fiction for over 20 years before he gave into his demons. (His brother died in a horrible farm accident while he was driving the machine that caused it.)

In other words, writing novels can be a painful way to spend your time. Yet it’s satisfying to live in the world of your imagination. Satisfying and seductive. Who has more freedom than the novelist? (On Monday, the long, dry hard spots of novel writing.)



Anxiety Pancakes: Life in the Middle of a Novel (Day three)

The Uunromatic RomanticsIt’s been three days without much sun, and I’m three days into recording life in the middle of a novel. Lack of sunlight discourages me so I slept in this morning and woke up feeling especially grouchy and slow. It’s taken hours to put my seat in my chair. But I said I was going to write about questioning the art of fiction. So here goes.

I’ve been reading fiction by the younger writers like Sheila Heti, Tao Lin, Karl Ove Knaussgaard, Marie Calloway, Ben Lerner, Tamara Faith Berger, and many others for an essay I’m writing for the Globe. And what they’re doing has stopped my breath. It’s something new and it’s very autobiographical. They’re dispensing with some of fiction’s most important tropes. I don’t just mean a trope like plot although they mostly dispense with that too. I mean tropes like using a narrative mask. Instead they’re inserting themselves as the subject into their fictional stories. Sure, writers like Henry Miller and Proust have done this before but they’ve done it with a tinge of romanticism. These new young wonderful writers are not romantics. I’m calling them the New Unromantic Romantics because they report on the deepest, shallowest, creepiest and most unworthy feelings and thoughts that can go on in the mind of an individual. And the result? Their work is fascinating and original.

The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knaussgaard said he wants his writing to bring the reader “closer to a self.” That’s what happens in the books by these younger writers; they create a powerful and unique intimacy with the reader. I admit I am in awe. So how does the work by these writers affect day three in anxiety pancakes? When you’re prone to self doubt in the middle of the novel, one of the first questions to ask is–now, why aren’t I doing something other than I’m doing? So yeah, today I’m asking why I’m not writing a novel without a narrative mask and story arc. I mean, why aren’t I?

Now that’s something to brood on for a while, isn’t it?


Anxiety Pancakes: Life in the Middle of a Novel (Day Two)


In my novel, The Dead Celebrities Club, I’m trying to work out if people are capable of change. I’ve always believed that people evolve rather than change. But some people do change drastically going right back to St. Paul who was zapped with god’s power when he was on his way to Damascus to arrest followers of Jesus.

Are these conversions authentic, or delusional? We live in a cynical age. I suspect most of us think someone who has been selfish and unethical is not going to undergo a conversion. And yet why not? Or if not a conversion, how about an evolution–which is more in keeping with my belief system. That is, I think a spiritual conversion may be as simple as extending your sympathy to the world beyond yourself.

In some ways, this philosophical issue is the least of my problems. It will unfold with the narrative, and my story telling brain will give me the answer.

My more practical issue is to keep writing, as I said yesterday. To put one foot in front of the other and keep moving. How do I do this? I daydream, I make notes, I look at research; then I talk some scenes from my story into a digital recorder and myself or my part-time assistant Mariel transcribes it. While I’m composing I think–you idiot, what on earth are you doing? This is absolute crap! You’ll need to go back and completely rewrite every page. ONLY NOT NOW. You have to go on. (Tomorrow: my number one bugaboo: why I question the act of writing fiction itself.)