Where I Write: Michael Crummey

He is a nimbly versatile novelist (the magnificent Sweetland, Galore, and River Thieves) and poet (I am a huge fan of Hard Light.) Michael Crummey also happens to have a beautiful speaking voice; if you have listened to him read from his work then you may have the experience, while reading his new poetry collection, Little Dogs, of "hearing" it too.

Michael lives in St. John's, where he explores themes that are both particular to Newfoundlanders and common to all. He was recently awarded the inaugural Writers' Trust Fellowship.

Here is where he works: 

This little room used to be a youngster's bedroom, before she decided she wanted to get as far from her parents as the house allowed. She nagged me into swapping my basement office for these digs six years ago. It's a small space, and I decided one wall would be required for books. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelves were measured and cut by my friend Stan Dragland. I managed to hammer and glue them together myself and so far they have held up (although the brackets I initially used to secure them to the wall were insufficient to the weight of those books and the whole thing almost came down on me).


My writing desk is made from leftover bookshelf material and the base of an old metal desk that had been gathering dust in a back porch for years. I am not handy but years of home ownership have forced me to learn a thing or two. I am still inordinately proud of putting together anything that doesn't immediately come apart at the seams.

When my office was located in the basement, I rarely made the trek downstairs. It just didn't seem worth the effort. Most of my writing happened at the dining room table in those days. Except for the dogs, I was alone in the house during school hours so there was plenty of quiet time. But even in the evenings, I would set up there while the youngsters did homework or watched television or picked at one another. I loved how the kids would interrupt to ask what I was working on and glaze over ten seconds into my explanation. They were just trying to be polite, I guess, to include me in their world. But my life made no sense to them. 

            “So,” the youngest said one evening, “you just sit home all day and, like, write stuff?” He was about ten years old at the time.

            “Yeah,” I said. “More or less.”

            “Huh,” he said. “And that's how you make money?”

            “More or less, yeah.”

            “Huh,” he said. And a minute later he said, “That seems like a pretty sweet set up.”

            Yes, as a matter of fact. Yes, it is.

Now that I have an office on the main floor, within a few feet of the kettle, I spend most of my work time at the desk. Although privacy is still not something I can count on or expect. The door is always open and everyone sticks their head in on their way along the hall, the same way the dogs or the cat will wander in to stare at me a while. (My life makes no sense to them, either.) Before she moved into her own place, our oldest liked to sit on the floor with the animals from time to time, telling me about her work or some weekend party. She's been out of the house a week and I already miss those visits.

            As I write this, the daughter who abandoned my office for the basement wandered in to stand by the desk. “What's 54 Hours?” she asked. (The NFB poster is a brand new addition to the decor.)

            “An animated film about the Newfoundland sealing disaster of 1914,” I said.

            “You wrote it?”

            “Yeah, I did.”

            She nodded. “You get paid?”

            “Yeah,” I said. “I got paid.”

            She nodded again, as if it was her job to ensure the financial well-being of the household is a consideration in whatever the hell I'm up to in here. Then she left to carry on with her own more sensible business, without asking what the hell I'm up to in here.

But since you asked: I've just finished a New and Selected poems called Little Dogs, out with Anansi this spring. And I'm working on a couple of documentary film projects, one about the Newfoundland Regiment during the First World War and another about (Hey! Hey! Your eyes are glazing over!) the lives of migrant Filipino workers who've found themselves in Goose Bay, Labrador. And any day now, I swear, sooner rather later, eventually, I'm gonna start working on another novel.

Where I Write: Gary Barwin

Gary Barwin, my neighbour here in Hamilton, has written "some of the freshest and most whimsical English ever contained between covers" in his new novel Yiddish for Pirates, the Globe and Mail's reviewer enthused; it's "a language-lover's dream come true."

Here Gary reflects on where and how he writes and the importance of some Westdale landmarks:

For my Bar Mitzvah, a family friend gave me a little manual Olivetti typewriter.  I was an intense kid and I loved that typewriter, its minimalist mod mid-70s Italian simplicity, its intimate voice, its ability to make me feel like I was at the centre, looking out. I used to carry it into the woods, set it up on a stump and write. I would take it to the food court at the mall and imagine all the other places where I could go with it and how—between the typewriter and me—we’d absorb the world around us—its energies, sights, sounds, moods—and write it down. Or, there in the middle of the world, playing its keyboard like an instrument, the typewriter and I would find or construct what we thought or felt through the medium of words and tell it to the world.

But, I can hear you say, we have exactly that now, it’s called Facebook, and we sit everywhere with our laptops and share cat videos and celebrity death notices. Sure, that’s true, and I do spend a lot of time on Facebook, so much so that I’d have to say that it, too, is one of the places where I write. A lot of my Facebook time is spent with my community of friends, colleagues and random others, just hanging out, talking about things and making wisecracks (“There’s a wisecrack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”) and generally avoiding applying myself directly. However, in addition to the company, witticisms, shared articles, writing, other links, and just the general knowledge, thoughts, and insights of my online friends, it is often very directly helpful to my writing. Just today, I was chatting to the writer Adam Pottle about his novella The Bus (coming out this fall with Quattro) about disabilities and the Nazis (his book addresses this) and he sent me some very useful research sources for my novel-in-progress that involves a circus which hides those persecuted by the Nazis, including those with disabilities. But, look! Facebook-like, I’ve got myself distracted here. The point I mean to make is that the location of my writing is permeable and changeable. I may be at my desk, but I’m connected to the outside world. At many times, I value the surprise interruption or eruption of new material. Sometimes it breaks open my way of thinking by sending me an unexpected connection or insight. Of course, sometimes, I’m just getting sidetracked or goofing off. But I do try to harness the energy of procrastination and take the energy of avoiding working on one project to fuel another. I’ve accidentally ended up with whole collections of poems when I’m “supposed” to be writing an article or some fiction.

It’s also true that much of my thinking about writing takes place on walks in the woods of Hamilton or during night walks with my dog (frequently to the Chedoke Golf Club, through the woods to McMaster University or to Kay Drage Park) or while kayaking in Cootes Paradise. Also when I’m trying to sleep at night. I think of writing as conniving with both routine and mood in order to create or focus energy.

At home, there are two “officially” designated places where I write. This desk is downstairs and in an effort not to slouch and continue to have the posture of the wizened lovechild of an old baseball glove and a witch, I’ve started using a second monitor perched on some inspiringly thick and obsolete left-over technology that I had hanging around the house: two dictionaries. This way, I’m not all shoegaze, but instead look up—often past my monitor and at the birds and squirrels on my porch, or the school kids sharing pizza or the university students looking for free parking in front of my house. I’ve also started using an exercise ball to sit on, but, I confess, I don’t always use it. Sometimes, I’m a big crooked fetus crouched on a chair, curled up and picking at the keyboard with twisty crone fingers while sucking on a large mug of large coffee, attempting to jump-start my brain. And cackling.


The other place I write at home—and I wrote most of my novel Yiddish for Pirates there—is on a treadmill jerry-rigged into a walking desk. There is a thrill of endorphins being released when I step on the treadmill (like the phantom caffeine rush when I pour a coffee, before I’ve even sipped at it) and certainly the feeling of steady walking over a few hours feels good and stimulates thought. And I can’t slouch. I figure, that at the end of a writing session, even if I’ve not written anything decent, at least I’ve got in some exercise (and avoided forgetting to walk and ending up splatted against the wall.) But walking keeps me writing. The steady pace encourages a steady flow of typing and thinking and tends to drive away the petrification that happens when I’m sitting at my desk. After several hours of walking, I tend to drift to a different place in the house (the kitchen, the dining room, the backyard under a tree) or walk the few minutes into Westdale to a coffee shop such as My Dog Joe. A change of place re-energizes me. For this reason, sometimes, after I drive my wife to work, I stop somewhere to write. For instance, I enjoy going to Williams’ Coffee Pub down by the Hamilton Waterfront. There are sailboats, people skating, biking, walking and a general happy buzz of people being active inside or out of doors. There’s an app one can get of a variety of coffee shop sounds if one likes this ambience, but I tend to prefer the real thing. (Maybe there’s an app of applause sounds. It’d great to have that at the end of each sentence. Contrarily, I admit that, after hearing Helen Oyeyemi talk about it, I bought the Write-or-Die app that starts to erase your text if you stop for more than a minute. I haven’t used it yet, but I know it’s there, waiting. A warning about what will happen if I’m not productive.

Finally, I would say, hearkening back to my little Olivetti, that the little window of my computer is really where most of my actual writing takes place, regardless of where I am. And typing is an integral part of it. I conceive of it like playing an instrument. When I pick up a saxophone, I think, ok, now what, what possibilities does this instrument suggest to me? And then, once the first note sounds, I think, all right, what happens next, what kind of thing might follow this particular note? And so on, until, note by note, I have music, a rhythm, a solo, a melody, a raucous squinching, a delicate quailing, a skronking song. It’s a play of improvisation, listening and getting sensory pleasure from the medium itself and the pleasure I get from the process. That’s writing for me, wherever I am.