I’ve been writing poetry since I was 10 years old, so I’ve been working to become recognized as a real poet for a very long time. When my poem “Lakeshore” was accepted to Vallum this year I was over the moon because it’s the highest profile literary journal I’ve been published in yet. I’m also getting paid for this one, so it also marks the first time in my wordsmithing career that I have ever sold a poem.
It’s a big leap forward in building my profile as a serious writer because a lot of the time when you want to apply for arts grants you need to provide a list of places where you’ve been published, and sometimes you also have to indicate how much you were compensated for the work; the fact that someone actually thought your work was good enough to pay for gives you serious cred.
It’s an even bigger leap forward in my writing career because I was offered the chance to do a reading at the issue launch event this Friday at The Supermarket in Kensington Market. I’ll be on stage for 7 minutes, longer than I’ve ever been on stage before, so I’ll have the chance to read more than one poem. It’s the first time I’ve ever been featured, so yeah, pretty big deal!
I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, and it’s going to be on my mind every minute of every day until this Friday evening when I finally step in front of that mic with the bright house lights in my face. I’ll read a choice selection of my finest work in a smooth, deep voice. I haven’t decided on my set list yet, but I’m going to select a cross section of my best stuff, taking pieces from my Maritime collection, Mexico collection, and my general collection. I should be able to do at least 4-5 of them as my poems usually don’t take about a minute to read.
So I hereby invite you sir or madam to come and see me this Friday evening at the launch of Vallum issue 14.1 at The Supermarket in Kensington Market. Tell your friends! Tell your mom! Tell your grandma! All are welcome and encouraged to make an appearance. I hope to see you there.
I started 2017 with renewed dedication to my writing career, and threw myself back into freelance work with abandon. When I look back through my moleskine day planner the weeks are jam-packed with crossed out action items and notes, indicating that over these past 3.5 months I have indeed been very busy. I’ve been working my ass off, to say the least, making headway and signing new clients, landing loads of work and getting bylines in multiple print and online publications.
That’s great, but freelancing isn’t enough. I became a writer to be a storyteller, not an information regurgitating robot. So often that’s what I end up being when it comes to the content writing which makes up so much of my work these days. Being a content writer is a thankless job akin to running a hamster wheel. But being a journalist, being a storyteller, allows me to have an impact on my community, or even the world, and really make a difference. That’s why I became a writer in the first place. I never became a writer to write lists about inane subjects I don’t give a shit about.
I’ve been at this for five years, and even though I’ve done better than most it still isn’t well enough and the same problems keep popping up over and over again: the irregular pay schedule, the lack of benefits, the dodgy clients, the isolation. I’m constantly putting myself under profound pressure to perform, to do the work and find more work, and to chase down clients when they don’t pay me on time (this my single biggest pet peeve). It’s an incredibly stressful occupation where you live every day wondering when the next paycheque is going to come, and if you’re going to be able to cover rent without having to dip into savings yet again.
Try as I will, I just can’t seem to get ahead. The market for freelance writing is terrible. Clients that pay well, and on time, are like unicorns. That’s why this year it’s my primary goal to find permanent, full-time employment in my field. My ideal job would be as a reporter for the CBC or The Globe and Mail; august institutions that make a difference with storytelling. That’s precisely what I want to do. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.
Which isn’t to say I’ll never freelance again. I’ll just do the stories that I really want to write, such as this one on ice storms which I’m writing for an award-winning Canadian magazine. If I can rely on a full-time job for my income, then I won’t have to endlessly search for the next gig, the next assignment, the next paycheque, never having any time and energy left at the end of the day to work on the things I really want to work on. I want to write a book, but I simply don’t have time to write one because I’m too busy running myself ragged with freelance work. This is my frustration, and the reason why after five years I haven’t really moved forward as a storyteller.
I’ve paid my dues, and it’s time to move on from freelancing. It won’t be easy to find a job, but it will be worth it. It’s the only way for me to move forward as a professional storyteller.
In late August of 2013 I moved to Montreal. It happened suddenly, and many people were perplexed by my decision to leave my hometown of Toronto. I was determined that it was the right idea because all great writers see the world, right? All great writers experience different culture, different countries and cities, and I had only ever lived in Toronto for my whole life. The way I saw it, I was at the cusp of a turning point in my life and living in a new city was just the thing to tip me over into a new world of possibilities and greatness. I was a freelancer, so I didn’t have to worry about finding a job. My work travels with me! I can go anywhere as long as I have an internet connection and my trusty laptop!
It may have been hasty and ill conceived, but I did it anyway becuase it’s always been my nature to become stubbornly determined to follow my own ideas no matter how outrageous or likely to backfire they might be. The day I packed all my things into a rental SUV and drove six hours up the 401 to my new home, torrential rainfall pounded the city of Toronto and continued to fall for the first couple hours of my journey. I didn’t want to think at the time that the weather was a grim portent of what lay ahead; a sign that the ensuing years would be the loneliest time of my life.
I wasn’t going to school, nor did I have a job waiting for me in Montreal. I only had two friends in the entire city, and I didn’t know my way around at all. In fact, when I finally entered the city that day I got lost, took several wrong turns, and drove back and forth over the Cartier Bridge. Thank God for Google Maps or I may have been lost for hours. Eventually I figured it out and arrived at my new place: a furnished half-basement bachelor. It was, if I am being honest, a total dump.
It was a dump, but I was in a new city and there was so much to see. Even still, without a social circle or a venue to meet new people like work or school, I was left entirely to my own devices when it came to creating a social life and staying sane. That is no easy task when you live in a new city and are fraught with challenges on all sides. I thought being in a new environment would force me to open up and expand my horizons, and it did, but not without many periods of extreme isolation and loneliness.
Montreal is an amazing place with lots to offer, full of life and music and art and love, but I will always remember my days there as being marked by profond loneliness. Living alone, and working alone as a freelancer, in a city where I knew very few people was terrible for my mental health. I became severely depressed just a couple months into my stay there. I was so down that I lacked the motivation to do basic household chores. Even just getting out of bed felt like a monumental effort sometimes.
It was like Paradise Lost, in a way. I lived in a city with the most vibrant night life in Canada, and an amazing place to be a young single gentleman, and yet I spent so much of my time alone, being a hermit, too depressed and unmotivated to really take advantage of all the city had to offer. I don’t regret moving to Montreal, but I do regret all those wasted nights and weekends when I should have been out enjoying life in Canada’s most culturally vibrant city, but instead chose to mope in my loneliness.
If I could do it all again, I would do it differently. I wouldn’t live alone, for one thing. I would find some roommates, creative people like myself, to live with. The isolation I felt was a product of the prolonged periods I spent alone working on my freelance business, or sitting around getting stoned on some weed I bought at Parc Mont Royal.
I would absolutely live in Montreal again, but I wouldn’t do it the same way. I’ve always said that if I ever decided to go back to school for my undergrad I would move back to Montreal because tuitions there are so much cheaper. Then, of course, there’s the fact that rent, hydro, and public transit are also a lot cheaper than here in Toronto. With so much less going towards living expenses, I had more money to spend on fun stuff like bar nights and shopping. I could count on one hand the number of bar nights I’ve had since moving back Toronto almost a year ago!
Montreal is a special place, but my time living there will always be remembered as the loneliest time of my life. I never want to be in that situation again. But every dark cloud is limned by silver, and I have become a more mature and seasoned individual for it. I can speak French now, and whenever I notice people in Toronto speaking it I’m quick to notice. It was a growing experience, and through it I learned a great deal about myself. The fires of solitude tempered my iron and now I stand greater, more resilient than ever.
I never want to live that way again, but I’m still glad that I did. I’m glad that I can look back on the negative, and also see the many great things that came out of it.
Last week I went to see a doctor for a minor surgery. He made the usual small talk that doctors make when they see their patients; he asked me what I do for a living, and after I told him I’m a writer he asked if I write books. “No… not yet,” I said. And then he stuck me with a needle.
It’s a question I’ve been asked many times, and I always feel at a loss when I have to answer that I’ve not written any books. A book is the ultimate work that a writer strives towards, after all. That book could be on anything, in any genre. All writers have big ideas and passions that they want to turn into books. So what’s holding me back? Why haven’t I written a book yet?
It’s not that I haven’t tried. I’ve actually written complete manuscripts for two literary novels, but they’re both rough drafts and absolutely terrible. If I’m being honest, I can’t write fiction for shit. It just isn’t in my wheelhouse. I’m a journalist by trade, and I’ve been writing poetry since I was 10 years old, but fiction involves an entirely different set of techniques. I have a small collection of short stories, none of which have been published. I can honestly say I enjoyed writing them, and it was fun creating an original story and running wild with it, but after receiving 36 form rejection letters I gave up to focus on poetry instead. It’s said in the writer’s community that novelists are terrible at poetry (they aren’t as good at abstraction and metaphor) and poets are terrible at fiction (they aren’t as good at narrative and character development). I seem to fit the mold.
I can’t deny that I do want to write books. Eventually, I want to live off the proceeds gained from writing books, not articles and blogs. It’s more prestigious, and there’s a far greater chance to have an impact on the world with books than with online articles that are here today and gone tomorrow. Changing the world through the power of storytelling is why I got into the writing game to begin with. The question remains that what, exactly, should I write about?
Over the past year and a half I’ve become increasingly interested in nonfiction. My bookshelf now contains a history section with books like Guns, Germs, & Steel by Jared Diamond, and a social studies section with books like Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. I even have a small collection of self-improvement books such as Mindset by Carol S. Dweck, and How to Win Friends and Influence People in The Digital Age, by Dale Carnegie and Associates (it’s the classic book updated for our modern times). Right now I’m reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, and Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand which is the true story of Louie Zamperini; an Olympic runner who went to war in WW2 and ended up adrift at sea and taken to a Japanese POW camp.
My interest in nonfiction has broadened my mind and presented the possibility that maybe I shouldn’t bother with fiction anyway, and write creative nonfiction instead. I’m far better suited to writing nonfiction since I’m a professionally trained journalist, and already have a lot of experience writing short-form nonfiction in the form of news and features.
I don’t care about being rich, but I do want to make a decent living off my writing. Literary fiction is a tough sell to say the least. Few people read it, so publishers are extremely picky about who they offer a contract too. I read once that if a literary title sells more than 10,000 copies it’s considered an outstanding success. Yikes.
Non-fiction, on the other hand, is far more popular and easier to sell. I’m not doing this for money, but I’m not doing it for free either so I have to consider the business side of what I’m doing. From that perspective, and considering my outstanding journalistic chops, it makes sense to write nonfiction.
Reading Unbroken was the final push I needed to commit to the idea of writing creative nonfiction. I’m astounded at the depth of Hillenbrand’s research, at the swift exactitude of her prose, and her ability to make 1930s and 40s come alive on the page even though she hadn’t been born yet at the time. As I read it I keep thinking, “This is the kind of stuff I should write!” I relish the idea of going to the Reference Library and steeping myself in research for hours at a time: digging into the archives of microfilm, tracking own elusive sources, and unearthing old photographs. I long to go on road trips to far off locations to witness events, interview people, and collect information in the field. That’s what I imagined doing when I decided to become a writer so many years ago.
There lies the difference, for me, between writing fiction and nonfiction. Writing a literary novel can be a thankless pain in the ass, but writing non-fiction can be an adventure that takes you all over the world. That adventure is one of the biggest reasons why I became a writer in the first place.
I don’t know that I’ll ever write a great literary novel, but I have full confidence that I can write a great nonfiction title. Starting this month, I’m working on my first book. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s going to be great. It all begins with creating an outline…
Today is World Poetry Day! As a lifelong poet, this means a lot to me. It draws attention to my chosen art form which is woefully underappreciated in our modern times.
Right now I would like to encourage you to step away from the computer, distance yourself from the television, and pick up a book of poetry. Whether it’s Byron or Bukowski, the world of poetry is vast and diverse with an unlimited range of ideas and styles. Poetry enlightens the individual, elevates the oppressed, illuminates the truth, and exposes those who do wrong. Poetry is a powerful tool to affect political change, and to resonate emotionally with those who read or hear it.
I would like to share with you a reading of one of my poems. I wrote this when I was living in Montreal, but up to now it has not been published although some people have told me they really liked it. Maybe you will to? Give ‘er a listen.
Poem: Truth Song by Chris Riddell