May 2016 16

 

“When I go to see my editor, I put down the rough manuscript in front of him on his desk and a bottle of scotch down in front of me. I pour a drink for myself and I say ‘Alright, which one of my puppies are you going to drown today?’ “

 

Many years ago, I had the good fortune to meet Canadian writer Timothy Findley. If you don’t know who he was, well, I’ll admit I didn’t really at the time either. My only connection to him was a book that I was told I had to read in high school called ‘The Wars’ – and that I maybe skimmed over like many things I skated through in high school with mixed, but ultimately passing, results.

I was attending the Humber School for Writers Summer Program because of a scholarship from the school, probably spearheaded by Joe Kertes who was the program head at the time. Joe had taken a particular interest in me as a writer because of a short story I wrote that won a competition. It was my first real success as a writer and probably led to my decision to use whatever writing talents I had and take a chance on them to sustain me financially in a career. Looking back, the story was too sentimental, far-fetched, and full of too many off-the-cuff one liners. But I was young and trying to find my voice as a writer (aren’t we always though?). Sentimental, far-fetched, snarky. Hmmm. Maybe I knew my voice already.

Joe Kertes was (and no doubt still is) a gentle, kind, and insightful man. He had just published his first novel called ‘Winter Tulips’ and it won the Stephen Leacock award for humour. I was in awe of his success. Yes, I banged out a short story in a couple of nights, but he had written a whole NOVEL. With an actual narrative. And it was published! This was the stuff of literary gods to me.

I asked him how he had done it.

“Well Andrew”, he said. “I realized that there was a fine line between being ‘Young Man with Potential’ and just plain ‘Man’ “.

Joe invited me to come attend the Workshop that summer. It was a week out at the Humber College campus and all participants were broken into groups which would work under the tutelage of a published, successful, writer. Throughout the week, we would polish a piece and share with the group. I was assigned to American writer Tim O’Brien. I read some of Tim’s work before the week. He was known for his post Vietnam War fiction. Most of his books were about coming to terms with PTSD and the effect of the war on soldiers who returned, and their inability to connect with themselves or others. They were painful memoirs, full of regret and longing for connection.

I wasn’t sure what Joe thought I had in common with Tim, but Mr. O’Brien was a very successful American writer and actually about to release a new novel that ended up being Time Magazine’s book of the year the next year. This guy was legit.

Our little group spent days outside in the summer sun on the Humber College campus. We straggled on boulders, benches or whatever we could find to surround Tim as he would inspire us with his stories, his insights, and his chain smoking and addiction to Coca-Cola. Reading the piece I wanted to polish, Tim stressed to me that I needed to be honest. Brutally honest. That I was skating over the truth and covering it with jokes and sentimentality. Looking back, perhaps he knew me from my writing more than I knew myself at the time.

Throughout the week we also had an opportunity to hear from the other published writers who were instructing and mentoring that week. The one I’ll never forget was Timothy Findley. A rousing, outspoken and funny man. I imagine he would’ve been a great drinking buddy of Hemingway. Underneath his cajoling was a wise, deep soul though. Like Tim O’Brien, to write with such depth required a rich soulful internal life no doubt. He had felt things. He had seen things.

What I’ll never forget about him is that quote. The one that starts this piece. He was telling us to start and finish something. Just finish something. The only truly bad draft is one that isn’t finished. Everything can be whittled down or shaped once it is put out there in front of us. Know that it won’t be perfect right out of the gate, or if ever really. Put it out there. The imagination is an endless well to draw upon and nothing is finite.

And today as I look back, I think about how that applies to life in general. It is only when we put things out there to look at that we can see it for what it is. Imperfect, yes. But always a work in progress. Perhaps we all have to ‘drown some puppies’ we ourselves are responsible for creating along the way – things that we need to let go of to help ourselves move forward, with the confidence that we can shape something better and more fulfilling.

I hope this for myself, my writing, and for all of us as we inch forward.

Happy Monday. Drown some puppies this week.

 

 

And my gratitude to Joe Kertes and Tim O’Brien for the confidence you showed in me and my writing. I am not done yet, but my career as a writer was forged during that week.