Today I talk with writer, editor, and publisher rob mclennan. rob is the author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, most recently notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). As an editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics, Touch the Donkey, and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater. He lives in Ottawa where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with his wife, the poet Christine McNair. His home online is robmclennan.blogspot.com. This whole nearly-thirty published books while editing, publishing, blogging nonstop is why I wanted to talk to rob. Send rob an email and he responds instantly. Instantly. He’s on top of his shit, and I wanted to know how he did it.
SACHIKO MURAKAMI: So, rob. What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?
ROB MCLENNAN: There are so many elements worth discussing: not necessarily as “difficulties,” but as things one must adapt to, with or against in order to be able to get to the work. As working artists, we are trouble-shooters, after all, even if for problems we first create: it is important to focus on solutions, as opposed to difficulties.
There is ego, certainly: that tricky balance of having enough to manage years’ worth of self-motivation before anything might actually be accomplished (the years of silence and apathy before a book might actually emerge in print) against getting a swelled head, which can often lead to interpersonal difficulties with other writers (and non-writers), and even bitterness down the road, when one doesn’t achieve the attentions or accolades one expects. I met a handful of older writers while in my twenties, seemingly on the far end of presuming they were working to achieve some kind of ‘status,’ that warned me away from wanting to walk down that same path. I’ve also worked very hard to avoid a variety of alpha-male ‘pissing matches,’ something that, thankfully, has occurred far less as I age. It gets very old very quickly, and wastes so much time and effort. The other side of the equation of “ego” is in having just enough to self-motivate (no-one cares if I stop, for example), a muscle I spent much of my twenties furiously developing. Having the farming background helped, knowing that my father didn’t wait for inspiration to milk the cows: he simply woke every morning and went to work. I forced myself into the daily routine, knowing it would be the only way I would accomplish anything at all. Who was it that said we fight laziness and lies in our search for the truth?
Neil Gaiman has discussed multiple times the benefits of a writing life, which I heartily agree with: we get to write whatever we want, however we want, and whenever we feel like it. It might seem overly simplistic, but it is basically true. The benefits (or drawbacks) of my Glengarry County “Protestant work ethic,” akin to what I’ve heard of Alice Munro as well, mean I work all the damned time. There was an article I once read that quoted Alice Munro’s daughter on Munro’s Ontario rural work-ethic: the response to something not working out was to do more work. My enthusiasms have to sustain me, because no-one else’s will (nor should they). jwcurry has repeated his main goal these days: “to remain interested.”
I’ve also been very conscious of not wishing to complain or vent about any of my frustrations that come with a choice to write full-time (publicly, I mean, whether on social media or anywhere else, as opposed to very close friends and/or spouse), whether working in so much solitude, frustrations around lack of money (or grants, or book sales) or the realization that books and writing emerge with very little attention (if at all). While I understand the purpose to such complaints, it always seems a bit precious (and one, I’ve realized since, very much steeped in elements of privilege, including my “white male-ness”: I have the option to write full-time). I remember John Metcalf writing moons ago in an essay his lack of patience for writer complaints about funding rejections: no-one is making you do this.
SM: First of all, these conversations are founded on the idea that it’s okay to complain and vent about frustrations that come with the choice to write. (Not necessarily full-time, as I and most of the people I’m talking to are not writing full-time). I do appreciate you acknowledging your privilege and I respect you for hesitating to chime in here, but this project needs breadth of experience, so I thought I would throw in one or two white, straight men for the diversity angle 😉
I want to hear more about your work ethic. I’ve had conversations with people about you in which we marvel about your energy, how much you are always doing. What kind of toll does that take on you? I certainly don’t have the energy to do as much as you do. I can barely work at a very low-stress day job for 7.25 hours two days a week without wanting to come home and put myself immediately to bed. When I get into a project I do get the energy to throw all of myself into it, but I eventually crash. But you seem to have been vibrating at a higher work-capacity than most humans for years. Do you ever just collapse into a puddle of rob and sleep for six days?
RM: Puddle of sleep? Oh my, no. There isn’t time! “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” and all that. Most evenings I feel as though I should be doing “something,” whether posting a few more “12 or 20 questions” interviews, or folding and stapling (once I’ve managed to get the toddler fed, bathed and asleep), but simply can’t, for the sake of energy. About a third of any given sequence of evenings, these days at least, I’m unable to move. So I don’t.
I think in my twenties and thirties it took much more of a toll than it does now. I really do think I have the benefit of a farm upbringing (which also included thirteen years of piano lessons) that drove home (unconsciously, of course) the work-ethic. The eleven-year battle of wills between my mother and I over my thirteen years of piano lessons most likely strengthened the idea (she would not let me quit, so I refused to practice). Early into my writing attempts, also, I read a quote by Margaret Atwood that said if you expect full-time out of writing, you must put full-time into it. I thought that made perfect sense. I mean, I never wanted side-employment (nor did I wish to teach, which is part of why I never bothered with post-secondary). Why give my best energy to what I care about less? Why work a dumb-job for eight hours, and then give only my “remaining” energy to that thing I claim to love best of all? It simply made no sense, so I refused it. And yet, there were the complaints I’d receive from certain other writers in the community that I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) “write all the time,” and that I required an outside employment, otherwise my writing would suffer. Those arguments were thrown at me for years by a small few; some who continue to argue such. It only angers me. Bring it up once (maybe); make your argument (and make a real argument, not just a complaint), and move on. I’m tired of hearing it. I write.
I’ve never held an office job: I worked in a restaurant as a bus-boy until I was twenty-one or twenty-two (training teenagers to do the same, who were then gifted my shifts). From twenty-one to twenty-four, I ran a home day-care with my daughter Kate and two other kids, so I could afford to stay home, and look after her while my then-partner worked (this would be my last tangible experience with “employment”). I was ten hours a day, five days a week with three toddlers, and writing three nights a week in a coffeeshop from 7 pm to midnight. I pushed and pushed and pushed. There was no social life, but for the occasional public reading I’d attend and/or organized (sort of where I am now, I suppose).
Post-daycare, there were the years I had just enough to purchase a coffee, so I did, sitting my daily five hours in the Dunkin’ Donuts on Bank Street scribbling out poems and reviews (I sat there six days a week, five hours a day from May 1994 to June 2000). I ate little, and wrote lots. There was walking into the Ottawa Public Library to borrow a roll of masking tape to put my black high-tops back together, because the bottoms of my shoes were coming off. There was the year I made (according to my taxes) only $2,500 in total, which resulted in eviction, and subsequently living in a friend’s basement near the airport for a month or two. In hindsight, it sounds quite mad: the belligerent will-power, despite lacks of publishing, grants and other tangible attentions. I would spend the last of my money photocopying chapbooks, thus forcing myself to sell two copies a day for the sake of food, and maybe a pint at the pub, where I was attempting to work on fiction every evening, from 5pm until I simply couldn’t afford to continue sitting there. There was the occasional chapbook I could exchange for a pint with one of the owners of The Dominion Tavern, down in the Byward Market. For nearly twenty years, it was only through the semi-annual ottawa small press book fair that I would allow myself a small moment of stress-free humanity: post-fair, we would retire to the pub for food and drink, and I would order like a person without even thinking about money. Somehow, six months of furious work amid poverty for the sake of a single, stress-free meal I’d paid for myself felt an incredible luxury, and an incredible relief.
There were opportunities, certainly, I wasn’t able to present to my first child; although whenever money did appear I always provided them a bunch off the top. Our weekend and summer plans, also, were sacrosanct. We saw a new movie in theatres on opening weekend every week for about thirteen years (until my year in Alberta; by the time I’d returned, she was working part-time).
I doubt very much that I have marketable skills, having painted myself into a particular corner. I suppose, in certain ways, this pushes me, also.
There were the dark stretches, where I could barely afford to feed myself, and certainly couldn’t afford to socialize, forcing a particular kind of isolation upon myself for the choice of writing. I couldn’t go out for drinks with a friend, go to the movies, or go out to dinner. Those simply weren’t options.
Part of what did fuel during these stretches were my other activities: I co-ran The TREE Reading Series, for example, from June 1994 through to the end of 1998; I co-founded the ottawa small press book fair in 1994, which I’ve run twice a year since. I started what became The Factory Reading Series back in 1992. I started producing wee chapbooks as above/ground press during the summer of 1993. I wrote book reviews for The Ottawa X-Press from mid-1994 until the end of 1998, a weekly column that slowly became every two, three and then four weeks (that’s when I finally quit). Part of what kept me going at the paper was hearing from writers such as Martha Baillie that I was the only person to review her first novel (I found out later that I was the only one who reviewed her first novel positively; her publisher wasn’t forwarding the other reviews). I was the first and often only reviewer for dozens of books; how could I quit, even though they were so blatantly attempting to get rid of me? (I only achieved the column because no one else would do it for what little they were paying.) It made me very aware of the importance in what I was attempting to do, and how desperately hard it was to put books out into the world, all before I even managed to produce my own first collection (which I don’t think was reviewed at all). Honestly: if we don’t discuss what has already been published, why bother producing more?
I’m not entirely sure how I arrived. In my later teens, I met Henry Beissel and Gary Geddes, two poets and Concordia University profs who were local to where I grew up, both of whom allowed me some kind of external verification that writing was something worth pursuing. By my early to mid-twenties, in Ottawa, I was in contact with poets such as Michael Dennis, Joe Blades, Judith Fitzgerald, John Newlove, George Bowering and Ken Norris, all of whom were supportive in a variety of ways. This was worth doing. I mean, Milton Acorn sold his tools and picked up poetry and managed to make a go of it, so why couldn’t I?
In the later 1990s, I founded The Peter F. Yacht Club as a support group; I saw a number of people around me that felt a bit isolated in what they were doing, so thought the best way to counteract that was to get a bunch of us together, even if for nothing else than conversation. I mean, it’s a strange thing to write poems or little stories and send them to magazines, attempt writing grants and chapbook/book publication, and all of that, if you’re on the outside of it. Partners might not understand, friends might not understand, etcetera, so I got a small group of us together–Stephen Brockwell, jwcurry, Laurie Fuhr, Anita Dolman, Clare Latremouille, etcetera–for the sake of an informal social/writing group. To feel less isolated in these weird things that we do. When you feel on the outside, you simply start your own group, right? I would like to think it helped more than a couple of us.
There’s a certain pragmatism I think I’ve developed over the years (uncertain whether it was already there, and I expanded, or if I made a conscious or unconscious choice around such early on): I don’t see the purpose to dwelling upon what I’ve set aside or ‘lost’ for the sake of certain choices I’ve made around writing. That can only lead to dark places. I’d rather focus on what I’ve achieved: I mean, I’ve been able to do ridiculous things thanks to my writing life, whether watching one of the Royal Weddings in a hotel room in Kelowna, British Columbia with Bill Richardson (delightful, and rather surreal), visiting Molly’s Reach in Sechelt, able to train multiple times across the prairies, touring with Anne Stone and kath macLean, my guest-spot (as a poet) on The Tom Green Show (back when he was still on Rogers Cable) or the multiple reading tours I’ve done with Stephen Brockwell around Ireland, Canada and the United States; or watch the sun rise from a rooftop in Vancouver with Tom Snyders, Clare Latremouille and Gerry Gilbert after a full night of drinks and conversation. I’ve had remarkable, ridiculous fortune and adventures thanks to writing, and very deliberately use those experiences to help me ride through the more fallow periods. And really: you can’t choose left and then decide to focus on being angry for not choosing right.
I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to have a number of generous people around me, who have helped in real, tangible ways when I required such. It took a long time to be able to accept such assistance at all, and learn to deflect the natural impulse toward shame and embarrassment: I should be able to look after myself. Michael Dennis told me years ago that it was a choice I had to make: I either had to find my own money, or be okay with others offering money when I required. I couldn’t simply do neither and expect to keep going. I do a lot of work for others, so if someone wishes to assist me as well, I should let them. So there. I spent a lot of my twenties feeling ashamed for these bits of assistance. I don’t want your free money: I want to sell books.
I’ve had, and still do have, real stretches of what’s the fucking point? My most recent poetry collection didn’t receive a single review, and only six people showed up when I launched the prior (the publisher, who lives locally, didn’t even attend). I’ve probably had a combined sixty-plus book rejections over the past six years, and, despite having some dozen poetry, fiction and non-fiction book-length manuscripts out in the world (some for more than a few years), I haven’t a damned thing forthcoming. There are some publishers I used to deal with regularly that I can barely get to return an email. I sometimes worry that, as much as I’ve accomplished as an editor/curator, it has actually obscured much of my own literary output. I occasionally wonder: maybe I’m not a very good writer, but was taken on for some of the hustling I’ve been able to do. As much as it has fed me enormously as far as enthusiasm, energy and influence, I suspect I’m much more appreciated for some of the editorial/curatorial work than my own writing. And yet, I know that some of it is as good as anything else out there (I also know that my best work is still ahead of me). I think I’ve been fortunate, in certain ways, to have a good sense of the “long game.” My time will come. If literature has taught me nothing else, it has taught me to be patient. It’s an element of why I work so hard to support and encourage as many as I do; it honestly takes so little to assist most people in their writing, and the results can be breathtaking.
Honestly, I think fear prompts a percentage of what drives me, whether I want to admit it or not (fortunately, enthusiasm is still the strongest motivator). I started a new magazine after Rose was born, for example, the quarterly Touch the Donkey; it took a few months to realize that I was terrified of being forgotten once I was less in a position to be able to leave the house for a few years. What am I so afraid of? There is already apathy; there can’t be “more” apathy. It is literature, after all.
Fear: I’m the eldest of two, both of whom grew up with a mother who had extended illness. From 1967 onwards (the year they were married), she was gravely ill for forty-three years (she died in 2010). She lived through twenty-two years of kidney dialysis, and had a five percent chance of surviving either of the first two attempts at kidney transplants (circa 1981 and 1983; she nearly bled out during one; the experience pulled her back from attempting a third until 2000, which actually worked; she wanted to see her children grow up, she said). She had multiple hernias, including a few double and at least one triple. During her final decade, she had pneumonia quarterly: we didn’t take it seriously until she was in hospital for more than four or five weeks. There were the years of absolute anger and lashing out, most of which occurred throughout the 1980s and into the 90s. And by the time she finally went, the dementia was encroaching, which was its own series of issues that required constant attention and sorting.
I was born in 1970, and my sister, 1976 (we’re both adopted), and from 1974 onwards, she was more in hospital than home, with the worst of it being through the length and breadth of the 1980s; and when she was home, she required quiet, and a particular level of care. I was a caregiver from very early on, running household, laundry and interference, walking on eggshells around her many mood swings. Imagine: when I was around ten or so, she went into hospital on New Year’s Day, and we got her back in October. Those were very long stretches. My sister would be shuffled off to neighbour, grandmother, what have you, and my silent father would be out in the yard, doing farmwork. I learned rather early on to manage certain things on my own, and accept a particular kind of isolation (none of her health issues or updates were ever discussed in our household). In hindsight, I think the experience also prompted a kind of terror, that I had to do certain things now and not wait, not knowing how much time I might have, or be allowed, that directly relates to my writing life. I do as much work as possible, not knowing. How much time might I have? Stories of government workers who plan to wait until retirement to start enjoying a particular kind of experience fill me with horror, knowing full well that some simply don’t live long enough. Why not enjoy some of that now?
And: having given up a particular kind of stability for the sake of my writing, if I’m not regularly producing, then what was the point?
What’s the point, indeed? The question I ask myself regularly from my desk job (where I am, currently, writing this closing paragraph on a break). What is it that keeps me from following the rob mclennan path? Maybe knowing that I don’t have a tenth of his energy or drive. Puddle of sleep is my middle name.