Writers' Trust Inside Voices Live Stream - April 20, 2020
A conversation with Michael Crummey, Heather O'Neill, Eden Robinson, and Miriam Toews on writing life during the pandemic, moderated by Tanya Talaga.
Tanya Talaga: Thanks everyone for joining our first Writers’ Trust live stream. It’s good to see all of you in this time of isolation and loneliness, which is also a time to come together. I’m so glad we’re all here today. I want writers to know that we’re thinking of you. We’re all feeling, creative people and are wondering how you’re doing. We’re thinking about where you’re coming from with your next creative project – if it’s stalled, what’s going on in your mind. We’re going to talk a lot about how to move forward and cope in these strange times.
How has your writing life changed? Has it been affected? These are understatements, aren’t they? If any of you are like me, your writing life has changed significantly. Sometimes it’s hard to concentrate and to put pen to paper, and to get your thoughts out there.
I want to start with a question to everyone. I alluded to the fact that I have been finding it difficult to concentrate and to sit and get my thoughts out, because it’s like we’re being bombarded on every side by major news of the day, and it’s difficult. It’s difficult when your whole writing life has taken a dive for the next several months. We’re all writers, and we’re all probably used to going out on tours and speaking to groups of people, going to literary events. And these have been cancelled all across the globe.
Tanya Talaga: So, I want to ask, how are you feeling? How is your daily writing life under COVID? What does it look like?
Eden Robinson: When all the shutdowns started I was doing a literary residency in Campbell River. March was my busiest time. So, when we all had to self-isolate, all of that got cancelled. And I was away from home. Then in one of my final class visits, one of my students had come into contact with someone with COVID. Everyone in that class had to self-isolate for two weeks. The residency ended, and I travelled back home to Kitamaat where I am once again self-isolating for two weeks. It’s given me a lot of alone time.
Tanya Talaga: That must have felt so strange for you – coming into contact with someone who had the virus, and then having to self-isolate. Are you with your family?
Eden Robinson: I can drive by and honk at them, which feels much better. I’m going through the last novel in a series. The ending turned a lot darker when I was self-isolating for the first two weeks. Now that I am home, I think it will lighten up a bit.
Tanya Talaga: The last novel in the Trickster series – I’m so excited. I can’t wait for that, as a super fan. But I have to ask you, has your writing changed? Has this influenced the book?
Eden Robinson: Well, it has. I went into a headspace that I haven’t been in for a long time. It went really, really dark. Now that I’m home, I will see if it makes a difference, because self-isolating here is different than self-isolating in Campbell River. Here, I can see my cousins. They come to the window and we chat. It feels very different here. It’s nice to see a friendly face. Sometimes it feels like, when is this going to end? It’s a huge mental shift, isn’t it?
Tanya Talaga: And you said that March is your busiest period.
Eden Robinson: For the residency there was, I think, five public events, two class events. That was all going to be in the last two weeks, and that all got cancelled. And then there are the festivals all over that have been cancelled, the writing and speaking engagements.
Tanya Talaga: Miriam, what is your writing day like now that we have changed completely? Now that our lives have changed radically, in some instances.
Miriam Toews: I do work from home, normally. So that is continuing. I’m trying to write. Eden was speaking earlier about her work becoming darker. I don’t know if that’s happening with mine. But the uncertainty of everything right now, of what’s going on, of what’s going to be happening in the future, that is real. I find that, for me, writing is just about the only thing that I can really control. When I’m doing it, I can forget everything else that’s going on at least for those few hours of the day, or maybe that one hour. During that time, everything else melts away. I can forget about all the real suffering, because our lives here are fine. My mother, who’s 84 with serious health issues, lives with us, and so we’re trying our best to protect her. And I spent a lot of time baby-sitting my grandson, who is almost two, so that his parents can work from home. That’s about it.
In a sense, that’s what my days were like before this happening – writing, baby-sitting, taking care of my Mom, going for walks around back lanes, places where people don’t go.
Tanya Talaga: Have you been watching the news? Do you try and not watch the news? Or are you crazily on Twitter?
Miriam Toews: I’m not on Twitter, but I do look at the news every morning. I am curious. I do want to know what’s happening, here in Toronto, in Winnipeg, where I also have kids and another grandchild, and in the rest of the world. I’m a bit of a news junkie, but I try to limit it because, of course, it’s depressing. And anxiety making. But I’m trying to stay in touch.
Tanya Talaga: Heather, do you find this a creative time? Or do you find this a time full of anxiety?
NB: We lost most of Heather’s live answer due to a bad connection, but she has filled us in below.
Heather O’Neill: I’ve suffered intensely from anxiety since I was a child. I was a bundle of nervous tics. I ate my pencils and couldn’t sleep at night. And I have often noticed that in times of crisis, I tend to be slightly happier. It’s as though the world is finally stressed out like me. I purposely sought chaos for many years. I do find I’ve been creative lately. The existential realization that we all might be doomed, has put me in a mood where I live in the moment and treasure what I have more. And living in the moment is the essence of writing. It allows you to focus on the image you are creating on the page. Like there’s a touch of poison in perfume, the proximity of death makes life exquisite.
Or anyways, who knows if it’s COVID, maybe it’s just because I’m nearing the end of my novel and the plot is pulling together. But I have noticed that my writing has been very poetic and particularly alive these days, in ways that I’m very pleased with.
Tanya Talaga: Michael, what is your typical day like when you have to sit down and write?
Michael Crummey: I don’t know if this is true for other writers, but in many ways my life has changed less than just about anybody I know, because as a writer, I have been practicing social distancing for years. My day used to consist of walking the dogs, going to yoga a few times a week, and trying to get some work done. And now it’s pretty much the same, except that I’m doing yoga by Zoom, in my basement, instead of driving downtown. So, I feel like the shape of my life is actually very similar to what it’s been for many years.
What’s different, of course, is the shape of everybody else’s lives around me. That’s been the biggest change – just watching it happen. I do feel that, in some ways, the COVID crisis is an extension of these rolling crises that we have been watching unfold for many years. For example, the climate crisis and the move to authoritarianism in Brazil and the Philippines, Hungary and the USA. But this is one that affects us all. Even with climate change, I think it’s possible to pretend like it’s not happening. This crisis is impossible to ignore. It feeds into every corner of our lives in a way that is going to make us different – I don’t know how exactly, but it’s going to make us different on the other side, at least for a while.
Tanya Talaga: What is it like trying to concentrate? You’re speaking about big concepts. You’re saying we don’t know what life is going to look like on the other side. People have talked about a gradual lift of the quarantine measures. They talk about walking around with immunity passports, things that seems so 1984, and also so restrictive. It seems like the world that we know will no longer be there. As a creator, when you’re thinking about writing and doing the writing, how does that form in your mind? Are you writing at this moment?
Michael Crummey: I haven’t been doing a lot of writing. My pattern is that after I finish a book – I had a book come out last fall – there’s often a long, fallow period when I don’t write anything. I’m just waiting for something to come along. But people have often asked me why most of my books are set in the past, and I haven’t come up with a good answer to that. I think part of it is that the present – what you make of what’s going on today – changes so quickly, or can be changed so quickly by what happens tomorrow, that in a way the past is safer. Even if you’re writing about the world around you, setting it in the past has always made it possible for me to worry less about: is this going to make sense, or be relevant, or will I have to change a book halfway through because the world has fallen apart?
I think I’m not writing at the moment partly because things are so uncertain, and it would be hard for me to find a narrative thread through it just yet. In the last week or so I have started reading more and writing a little poetry. Poetry feels, to me, more suited to the moment, for whatever reason. It’s about a state of being as opposed to narrative thread, which I think works a little differently with the times we’re in.
Tanya Talaga: I agree with you there. There’s something so honest about poetry, and so immediate in the mind and incredibly deep. I am not one to write poetry, although I have been lately. Before COVID, in the before – something I noticed writer Lisa Gabriel quoted on Twitter the other day – I started sitting with Lee Maracle, and she was teaching me how to write poetry. There’s a beauty in that simplicity, and a rawness that I think we need right now. I can’t wait to read some of your poetry, Michael, and to hear those thoughts out there you’re having.
Michael Crummey: I think, for me, poetry has always felt more private than fiction. I know that’s not true for everybody, of course. But I think that’s part of the reason it appeals at the moment, because although we’re all going through the same thing, and it’s a global crisis, the way that it’s affecting us all feels incredibly insular, and very personal.
Tanya Talaga: Have you been keeping in touch with other writers? Are you developing a relationship that you didn’t have before with another creative person? I want to open that up.
Miriam Toews: Well, my sister-in-law is an actress, and her partner is an actor. And they suggested that we do a play together – like in Zoom, Zooming a play. That was really interesting. It was another way of being with people, and with narrative, because like Michael and Tanya were saying, as writers we are in every way distant, we require solitude, and are required to go so deep inside ourselves, so that connection and conversation have become even more necessary than they were before. I’ve realized that I really miss large groups of people. I watched this Will Ferrell comedy about baseball where he plays with ten different teams in ten different days, for charity. It was so funny. But apart from that, just seeing that crowd at the baseball game made me think of crowds, and of music festivals, even literary festivals. I just don’t know when any of that’s going to happen again. And I miss that. I love that.
Heather O’Neill: A few of my friends who are writers in the States have contracted COVID, and I’ve been corresponding with them. They are in New York City, which is a whole other scene we hopefully won’t experience. But because we can’t travel or take public transportation, and I grew up downtown so I didn’t learn how to drive, my life has been circumscribed to my neighbourhood. So that’s been interesting. I have found the pandemic has made me more appreciative of the acquaintances in my world. I’ve realized how much my interactions with people who work at the corner store or flower shop mean to me. The Hasidic community can’t go to synagogue so they pray on their balconies and the streets are filled with singing. I emailed the woman who runs the vintage store about a trench coat I saw in her window. She left it in a paper bag on my doorstep and that was lovely.
And then again anyone can kill me, so that’s strange too. I worry about getting sick and not being able to breathe. I’m so unlucky. Or as my dad once said, “You are so…….unfortunate.”
As Miriam Toews said, I do like crowds. I love the anonymity of them. I like the feeling of being squeezed up against people in a subway or a train and being in a packed theatre, laughing with everyone at the same time. I worry about that going away.
Tanya Talaga: Eden, are you speaking with anyone, any other writers, keeping in contact or even fostering a relationship you didn’t have before?
Eden Robinson: I’m off all social media when I’m writing because I’m very easily distracted. It’s been a lot of emailing and texting. All the young writers I have spoken to are doing well, so far, but a lot of your income when you’re just starting out is based in the gig economy. It’s workshops, it’s keynotes. The financial strain they’re under right now is intense and distracting. I don’t know how you would create under those circumstances. But it has been good to speak with them and to go through my own anxieties about older relatives – how it’s affecting my nation specifically. They are trying to get me on Tinder. I was like, I don’t know, Tinder in Kitamaat is mostly cousins (laughs).
Tanya Talaga: Are you guys on Facebook? Facebook messenger?
Eden Robinson: Facebook is my kryptonite for writing. I will follow all the threads all day. So, I go off everything when I’m working on a novel.
Tanya Talaga: I ask because, in First Nations communities, that’s how we keep in touch with everyone.
Tanya Talaga: Eden, I wanted to ask, because you mentioned something that was really germane to this talk: What do you say to those younger writers? It is so difficult to create right now. If we’re having issues, what’s it like when you’re just starting out? And this is how you eat, and suddenly things are so changed. What are your words of advice?
Eden Robinson: Apply for the $1,500 [from the Writers' Emergency Fund.] Sometimes they qualify for CERB, sometimes they don’t. Everyone is trying to figure out how to help each other. And everyone is trying to figure out what they can bring to the table. People are doing a lot of bartering. That’s how I got my bottle of hand sanitizer.
Tanya Talaga: What did you give?
Eden Robinson: The last of my seaweed. I do miss the farmers’ markets on Vancouver Island. There were a lot of them. And I didn’t realize how much canned stuff I had bought until I had to pack it into my vehicle. I will say that the pandemic has been horrible for my inner hoarder. I have been trying to ‘Marie Kondo’ my apartment for many years. And the pandemic has brought out all of that my parents taught me about putting things away, getting your pantry in order. I worry that I’ll become that kind of collector again – it’s a strange head space when you’re not sure if you’ll be able to get things.
Tanya Talaga: I agree. I’m buying doubles of everything, I find. Once a week I go to the grocery store and if we run out of something, we run out of it. I’ve started to buy doubles, triples. I never did that before. It’s the same sort of reaction.
Eden Robinson: I’ve also had to eat my own cooking. The first two weeks were horrible. Of all the ways that the apocalypse would manifest itself, it’s me cooking.
Tanya Talaga: I don’t know if anyone else feels this, but I have two teenagers. My son was away at school, and when this all started I drove up to Ottawa and brought him home. Suddenly, I’m preparing three meals a day and trying to get them to do the cooking. And it eats into your time as a writer. Your day is now broken up. You’re doing all these things that you used to do when your children were little or smaller. Now suddenly we have gone back to the past, where your day is doing all these different little things.
Tanya Talaga: Miriam, do you have that in your family too? It sounds like you’ve got a packed house.
Miriam Toews: Well, it’s not a packed house. It’s just my partner and my mother, and then my daughter and her partner live in a different household. We see each other, though my Mom doesn’t see anybody. We keep everyone away from her. But I babysit my grandson a lot, so that, again, his parents can work.
But yes, you’re right – it would be so nice to go to a restaurant for a change instead of cooking all the time. I feel very fortunate, when it’s all said and done, to be where I am right now and to be with the people I’m with. The thing that I think about the most is loneliness. As writers we require solitude, but loneliness is a different thing. And as writers we’re sensitive to this kind of thing. My mother’s friends, for instance – they’re old, and maybe they’re in nursing homes or assisted living or just in their homes, and can’t see anybody. That level of loneliness must have a cosmic effect on the universe, that specific kind of suffering. If I think of my own life in relation to that, I have nothing to complain about. But yes, it seems there is a lot of cooking.
Tanya Talaga: Cooking and cleaning. And laundry. I guess I’m now just complaining about my teenagers to absolutely everybody.
Tanya Talaga: Michael, do you find yourself doing a lot of household chores, cooking?
Michael Crummey: Yeah. As I said, my life hasn’t changed much. But the feel of it is very different. I’m finding it a lot harder to do things that before I wouldn’t have thought about. I don’t know if it’s because everybody is sitting around doing nothing, but things like getting the laundry done or cleaning the bathroom – in the before time, that was all just a part of the day, all those little things had to happen while you were visiting relatives and going out and getting groceries and going to meetings. Now we’re all just sitting at home. Holly has a supervisor who used to say, if you want something done ask a busy person, because they are people who get things done. I’ve found that as I have become less and less busy, I have become lazier and lazier. It’s harder to just get the basics done every day. I think, that can wait until tomorrow, because there’s nothing going on tomorrow. Hell, that could probably wait until next week. I’m having to make more of an effort just to get the basics of day to day life done.
Heather O’Neill: There’s a housing crisis in Montreal and my daughter and I were both evicted from our respective homes at the start of this. So I’m just sitting on piles of books and scattered couches in an old classroom I rented. I don’t do any chores ever. I was a young single mother and I had no help from anyone. So after my daughter became a teenager, I decided I would never ever again do any housework. My home is always in a state of disorder. I used to eat at restaurants and diners late at night. Now I order take out. It seems slightly dangerous but the experts keep saying it’s okay.
Tanya Talaga: Some writers write for three hours a day. Others write for one. Some writers don’t write for days on end and then they’ll just get into a pattern and writer for hours and hours. Are you like any of those patterns?
Michael Crummey: How I go about the process of writing has changed completely over the course of my life, and has gone through many different cycles. I mean, when I was a single person living on my own, I often started writing at 10 or 11 at night and wrote through until 3 or 4 in the morning. Since the kids have been part of my life, I would get up at 9 or I would help them get off to school, and I treated it like a day job. Lately, when I have a fixed project, I like to set myself a word minimum. This seems to work for me. Like a 500-word minimum. I find that even on my worst days, I can scrape out 500 words. And even if I look at it the next day and erase 450, I have 50 words out of my pen. And if you write 500 words a day for a long stretch, that adds up.
But I am absolutely lazy. And it’s taken me a long time to come to terms with that and accept that, and also to accept that wasting time is part of my process and that I have to sit for long periods of time apparently doing nothing. My way of speaking about it now is that if I don’t waste time, nothing gets done.
Tanya Talaga: I was speaking with Thomas King, complaining about my lack of concentration. I said, I spend most of my time staring out of the window. And he said, "95% of writing is staring out the window." So there you have it, Michael. I don’t think you’re lazy. I think we need that space to think and to create before we can get it down. That’s my defence, anyway, of being a writer like you.
Miriam Toews: I don’t work every day, but when I’m actively engaged in a novel I will try to write. I will try to write every morning. And that’s usually 3 hours maximum. After that my brain is just kind of fried, and I have to stop. But during this COVID business, it’s so funny because my kids and their two-year-olds are constantly Zooming with me, FaceTiming, you name it. There I’ll be, ready to work, and boom, it’s another grandkid. And I can’t say no in part because I’m being used as babysitter. Physically, literally, but also on the computer. I spent a lot of my mornings, when I should be writing, making crazy animal sounds and playing goofy games. Roar, I’m a bear, are you a bear, all morning long. I have to jump up and down like a rabbit. I’m trying to write in the mornings, because that’s what I do. But I fail most of the time.
Tanya Talaga: It’s not a failure. We’re thinking. It’s all going to come out. That’s what I tell myself anyway…
Tanya Talaga: Heather, has your pattern changed at all, has your output changed?
Heather O’Neill: My pattern and output haven’t really changed. I still write for the same amount. I write a lot, but the hours are different because I’ve always been a night owl. Now, because the world is so disconnected, I have taken it to another extreme. I usually start writing at about 5 or 6 in the evening and go until 3 in the morning. And then I just go hang out with my boyfriend. It’s unusual because we don’t usually have these big blocks of time together. He tours a lot, and I travel a lot. We were both supposed to be touring.
Now, I write about eight hours. And then we get together and get stoned and discuss things, like minutiae and philosophical ideas. It’s super fun. I have basically done away with the day time. So I don’t have to deal with COVID. It’s so surreal that I can’t quite cope with the outside world. It’s gradually fading away. For me, I’ve been social distancing since I was 12. I have a lot of coping mechanisms for it. But even I am starting to feel like there’s a tenuous grasp on our relationship with the outside world. I just have this little circle of people. I disappear into a novel for about eight hours, and then I come out and have the most absurd discussions because nobody has actually been engaging in the world. They have just been sitting at home thinking about strange things. It’s kind of nice. It’s almost like everybody is a novelist now. They’re doing the same sort of intense self-reflection.
Tanya Talaga: It actually sounds like we’re all the same kind of people, too. It sounds like we’ve all been self-isolating for years. I think you have to, in a way. When you’re a writer you spend a lot of time alone. You spend a lot of time in your mind, thinking about which direction you’re doing in.
Heather O’Neill: And for me, the quarantine hit just as I was getting edits back from my editor. So, it was a perfect time. I was already so deep in a novel that the world building is there. It’s such a complete universe. Going there seems particularly easy in this time because the real world seems so foggy and uncertain, like some dystopian thing where you can’t even touch other people. Then when I go into the novel I connect more with people, and there are places to go. I can walk down the street and have dialogue with all sorts of different people. It’s actually the fiction that feels more real now.
Tanya Talaga: It’s how we all live, right? All of us are like that. I think everyone on this Zoom and everyone who’s a writer can identify with creating a world in your own mind.
Tanya Talaga: Eden, how is your writing? Are you able to do 500 words, or 50 words, or eight hours straight?
Eden Robinson: It is the first time in my life that my introverted nature has become a superpower. Usually, the society that we’re in right now is built for extroverts. It’s built for people who are outgoing and social. This is the first time that you can spend many, many days in your own head. And it’s an asset. So now that I am at the end stages, I’m in the same place as Heather. I have done the structural edit, and now I’m going back for the fine tuning. And the two weeks in self-isolation will be helpful in getting that done.
My editing routine is different than my writing routine. Writing I can only do for about an hour, maybe two. But editing requires a lot of looking out the window, looking at the wall, as I mull on the piece and try to fit everything together. I can edit a lot longer than I can write. I would say four or five hours a day.
Tanya Talaga: The editing is different than the writing, that’s for sure.
Eden Robinson: I’m working with something that’s already there, and just have to add or subtract from it. I find creation takes more energy. I can only go for one or two hours before my brain is exhausted.
Tanya Talaga: I feel the same way. Hence my 95% of writing staring out of the window… Heather, what do you say to those who are out there that haven’t had their first book published, who want to publish but are caught in this time? What words of advice can you give them?
Heather O’Neill: I have no idea. I mean, it’s so interesting that we’re in a historical movement – that in a month or two the world might look completely different in how we interact. Even when I started writing at the beginning of this, I had a essays that I was in the middle of but there was no point in placing them in or pitching them to magazines. They didn’t make sense in the context, with everybody worried about their relatives rather than reflecting on the fact of the pandemic itself. There is also that kind of anxiety, whether the devastation would be such that even your themes would not matter, because they’re not coloured by or reflective of a new normal. It is a very difficult time.
But, my daughter works at a bookstore, and the order for books have been insane. And poetry has been selling a lot. People are looking for complex riddles within language. I think, at the end of all this, there will be an increased demand for literature and voices. That’s definitely a positive. But of course every writer has their own particular path – it’s like telling someone how to fall in love, there’s a million different routes to it.
Tanya Talaga: It’s so true. And sometimes it just happens, right?
Tanya Talaga: Miriam, any advice for young writers that are out there listening to us?
Miriam Toews: If you’re a writer and if you’re going to write, you will write. I feel we have to remain optimistic and hopeful that books and narrative and stories are going to be something that will be with us forever, and that there will be demand for them and love for them and creation of them by writers. Pandemic or no pandemic, we will want to see ourselves, our lives, reflected back to us in narrative. A writer will write in order to stay sane, in order to feel alive, and that’s what you do. There’s nothing that I can really give, other than not to lose faith.