Looking back at my writing “career”

I’m looking back on my career as a writer.

Okay, it’s a pretty short look if you’re talking paid work. Let’s see what I have so far:

My first paid publication was a series of newspaper articles for the Globe and Mail about my cross Canada bike trip back in 2000. So that’s 8 years ago and I got paid 200 bucks for each article.

It’s somewhat telling that I haven’t been able to match that pay rate ever since.

I got a similar article in the Vancouver Province the next year.  I can’t remember if I was in Japan yet or not. In Japan I had a number of articles published in Knights of the Dinner Table magazine and later my comic strip Fuzzy Knights got some degree of fame online and was also printed in KODT.

KODT was about all I did for the better part of five years, I think.  Well, I was teaching English then, and then trying to eek out a living in London, but you know what I mean, as far as my writing went.

Last year I got two short stories published in a SF magazine that folded shortly after it published (but hey, I got paid). And this year I got another travel article published in an American recumbent bicycle magazine.

Now that I’m on the verge of getting my first novel published I can’t help but look back and say, “That’s IT?”

That’s it.

Now, some hopeful writers might look at that and wish they had that much success, but remember, this is over EIGHT years. And I’ve wanted to be a writer a lot longer than that. Which brings me to what I wanted to talk about.

Moleskines. I sell Moleskines at the book shop. I have never owned a Moleskine book, but these are the simple black notebooks with an elastic strap made famous by writers like Hemingway (who also got his start at the Globe and Mail, he says with a hint of hopeful pride) and artists like Picasso.

Though I’ve never owned one, I’ve always had the IDEA of one burned into my brain. Not the black notebook with the elastic strap, mind you, but any book in which I would jot down my literary genius for posterity. Somehow the book itself seemed to possess a power in my mind. The power of a possible future. The image of such a book being looked back upon years later to glean insight into the mind of the one who wrote in it. Somehow that book would (or should) be important. I’m not sure where the idea of this came into my mind, but it might have been grade 3.

In the third grade my favorite class (and the only one I actually remember) was Library class, well that’s what we called it. We’d spend a period in the library checking out books and occasionally watching interesting and educational movies. One of them warned kids about how commercials trick young people by making toys look more fun or bigger than they are, or food look fresher than it’s actually sold. That one stuck with me a lifetime, ever since I’ve had a wary eye for commercials.

Another was one about a writer. Now to me a writer was a kind of god, with all the magical powers of a Hollywood star but always in secret identity mode. And like actors they were “other people.” You could pretend to be one, but you’d never be one.

But this movie, clattering along in 16mm glory, wasn’t a biography. It wasn’t about the great accomplishments of this man that you could only dream of. It was about the writing process. Idea, first draft, revision, editing, polishing, publishing. It made the veiled world of writing into an ordinary thing. And not a dull thing, either. It showed me that maybe having an imagination might be worth something more than just having fun at recess.

Now I’d like to say for the sake of symmetry that this guy wrote his ideas down in a classy notebook, but I honestly can’t remember. He may have, but at some point he typed things out on a typewriter. But somewhere my imagination linked onto having a notebook as an essential thing for an author.

My first such book that I can remember was from grade school. I’m a bit hazy on this, but I wrote a poem for my public school’s anniversary. I don’t remember which year I was in then, but it might have been between 3 and 5. I ended up winning some contest they were having (or maybe I came in third, I forget). I remember I got my picture in the local paper. And what I won was… a notebook.

To the best of my knowledge this was the first notebook I had in which I focused my powerful energies of writing into, and which I first imagined being a historic artifact of incalculable value someday. I think I maybe wrote a couple poems in it and forgot about it. I was afraid to use it. What if I wrote crap in it? Maybe I should write stuff on scrap paper and then transcribe it into the good notebook? For the most part it stayed under the flap of the organ bench.

Well, to be honest there was a second reason it was barely used. It had a fabric cover with flowers on it, who wants to use that? But I know Grandma has it somewhere… I did win it after all.

The next book of mine wasn’t really a book, but a folder. Every year in high school you would get this big blue triptych folder for your creative writing, and I just loved mine. The first folder was for rough drafts, second folder for revisions, and the last folder finished work. At least in theory. It was actually more like: Doodles of fighter jets fighting TIE fighters, Jotted Notes, Rough Drafts. Nevertheless I ended up with a dozen or so short stories stuffed into that folder.

It was at this time I wrote my first novel, New York City/State, a cyberpunk adventure with epic proportions of unabashed awesomeness. I wrote it in Grade 12, anticipating a loophole I heard of in Grade 13 (Ontario had Grade 13 back then). You see, the Creative Writing teacher then had a policy that if you got anything published during the year you automatically got 100% in his course. Being a solid C+ student this seemed like a chance to boost my grade average and not end up at Carleton University (known as Last Chance U for its low entry standards).

I spent an entire year of lunch breaks and spare lessons on the library PCs working away at my magnum opus. For inspiration I had on my folder, of all things, a series of Garfield cartoons (which I recently rediscovered and put on the first draft copy of The Professional Tourist). Garfield isn’t funny as a rule, but these were the exception, and they spoke to my aspirations in a unique way. Garfield wants to be a writer, and realizes it will take hard work and dedication to achieve this, but all he ends up doing is posing in a smoking jacket with a pipe, looking in a mirror and confirming that this is the way he wants to be photographed for the book jacket.

I took that to heart, as I did other little things. At this time there was a fantastic show on TVO called Prisoners of Gravity, one of the best shows a writer and/or science fiction fan could ever watch. It was hosted by Rick Green and the setup was that he was on a space station, pirating the local TV station’s signal so he could put on a show talking to authors and artists to talk about genre fiction.

This is where I got my first taste of Harlan Ellison on the subject of writing and he said two things that stuck with me. It’s half a lifetime ago so I’ll have to paraphrase, but he said “Anyone can write. It’s just a matter of putting your ass in the chair and DOING it.” and later he said “Most people don’t want to be writers. They want to HAVE BEEN writers.”

I understood exactly what he meant on both counts. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most disciplined writer. I’m easily distracted by shiny objects. But part of my lack of prolificness comes from a lack of success (and the lack of success comes from a lack of prolificness, go figure). It’s hard to keep motivated when you don’t get anything published until years after high school.

I took this advice to heart, and readied myself for reality. Out with the chirpy optimism of posing in front of a mirror to see what my best side is, in with the reality of writing being a business. I was cynical at seventeen. Just not cynical enough. If you had told me then it would be another eighteen years before I’d get my first novel published, I’d have pretended to be cool with it. But in my heart of hearts I wouldn’t have believed you and would have been sure I’d be a published writer before hitting 21. After all, Gordon Korman got published at 13! How hard could it be?A

Oooh, I look good in this jacket. Maybe I should slick my hair back.

Anyway, kept my rough notes I would write at home in the blue folder, along with my other stories, then transcribe them on the computer at school, only to come to the realization that I really really didn’t like to write with a pen and paper. My handwriting is illegible and my printing is child-like. Also, I can’t write by hand nearly as fast as I can type. Writing NYC/S if nothing else perfected the typing skills I learned the year before. I now average seventy words a minute.

My blue folder from Grade 12 didn’t survive, they tended to fall apart every year. Well that and I tended to pick at them. The one from Grade 13 I still have, however. It’s at Gillian’s parents house and is largely held together by duct tape.

To this day I carry with me a nice handmade leather notebook to write things down in. The only problem is – I NEVER BLOODY USE IT. Like I said as cool as it looked in my mind I realized that writing in a notebook like Hemingway really wasn’t my bag. Neither was dictating into a tape recorder. I was a typist, and what was worse, I was a computer typist. Ellison uses a clunky manual typewriter, he likes the force of every pounding key feeding energy into the stories he writes.

That’s cool. I can’t even make that kind of claim, I just go tappity-tappity-tap like a glorified secretary on a standard unergonomic PC keyboard. I have no “image,” and ultimately that is what the notebook was all about in my mind. Self-image. So what is my image? My shtick? My gimmick? Would you believe that I spent days coming up with and practicing what would become my current signature, an N with a C circled around it quickly and gracefully? I was imagining doing book signings when I came up with that.

And then I realize I actually AM Garfield in front of the mirror with a pipe and smoking jacket.

But in a way I do have my gimmick. I have this tiny little laptop I type on, small enough to fit in my large vest pockets. Not a day goes by that someone says “that’s the smallest laptop I’ve ever seen” despite it being four years old and chipped and battered from a dozen drops. I wrote The Professional Tourist on this computer for the most part, as well as many short stories and articles. So in a way, this is my Moleskine.

Here’s the Garfield comics in question: