Writer in Residence

A Question of Motivation

By Brian Wilkinson


If you ask any group of people about future goals they hope to one day accomplish, one of the most frequent responses would probably be that they’d like to write a book. Some of them may have ideas, or the germ of an idea, and the desire to see it become fully realized. A few will actually find the time (a mysterious force that likes to hide on you) to somehow avoid the distractions that come with everyday life to take the minutes, hours, days, or months that it takes to put something like this together. Others will get caught up in life or possibly a new creative way of expressing themselves and that book idea will remain just that.

So, what is it that separates those who want to write from those who do? Well, it’s really a question of motivation. Why do you want to write?

For me, it for one single motivating factor: I was going to be a father. Nothing quite changes your worldview like suddenly realizing that your life is no longer really about yourself any more. It’s overwhelming. It’s incredible. It’s terrifying.

I realized that my role in this child’s life was going to be one of the most important things for him or her as they grew up. My own father is an incredible man whom I look up to and idolize. As he gets older, I started to realize that one day he won’t be around. Without being morbid, sometimes I think about what I would hold on to of his to remember him. When I was a kid, I actually kept a wallet he had that he had thrown out. A key chain as well. These were just things to my father, so he tossed them aside. To me, however inexplicably, they were him. I still have them.

I began to look around my own home for things to pass on. It’s a bit silly, really. My child hadn’t even been born, or raised, and I’m already preparing for death. Still, it was a question that consumed me. I looked at random items but couldn’t shake the feeling that all of it was just stuff. And like my father who tossed his wallet, I realized that my stuff might not mean anything to anyone but me. And that’s okay, but it didn’t solve this ache to have something meaningful.

For years, I felt as though I was a writer who didn’t write. I knew I could do it, but needed that push. And so now I had found my motivation. If there was anything worth leaving behind for my child, it didn’t exist yet. I would write a book - a welcome to the world gift - that this child could take with them the rest of their life. I just needed a story.

Battledoors - The Grotto

The Grotto - Art by Damon Couto-Hill

One day, at a professional development session I was at on a day off from teaching high school, I found myself at the University of Toronto library. We were on a tour and one of the librarians showed us this flat paddle called a battledore. It looks like a ping pong paddle and, like its cousin the hornbook, could be clipped onto a string and held at the waist on a belt. The idea was for kids to be able to bring up these paddles to find out quick information like times tables, the alphabet, or bits of scripture. Really, they’re kind of the first cell phones. The battledore was a special kind of hornbook, though, as it was described as the first choose-your-own-adventure as kids could unfold the vellum parchment to direct the story.
Battledore. Batyldor. Battledoor. Wouldn’t it be cool if a kid found one today, only it acted more like a tablet and the adventures were real? Heck, even the name of the villain was supplied to me that day: Vellum. You can even fold that skin/paper aspect in to make him extra creepy. That’s cool!

Now I had an idea. And I had motivation. Luckily, I also had a bit of time.

In the months before my son arrived, I poured myself into writing that book. Every day of the summer I wrote a chapter of what would later become both Book 1 and Book 2 of Battledoors. I worked my heart into that story, naming the character after the child I soon learned was going to be a boy. I worked at it like nothing I have worked at before and finished the first draft two days before my son came into this world. It’s a good thing I finished when I did because ALL my free time disappeared in an instant, along with something I vaguely remember being called sleep.

That was seven years ago. Battledoors: The Golden Slate finally came out in September of this year.

It took a long time to find someone interested in the book. I realized while writing the book that not only was I now a writer who could write, but that perhaps I wasn’t too bad at it. I wrestled with sending out this thing that I made for my son, but my wife, mother, and friends encouraged me to get it published. I sent it out many times and got back many rejections. I’ll talk about this process in a future post, but needless to say it’s a slow burn that requires a lot of persistence.

In between rejections, I kept working at my writing having found not only the motivation to write but a deep sense of satisfaction from creating something in the first place. Just as before, I put pen to paper and wrote a second book, Paramnesia, that also came out in September. This time, the book and character are named for my incredible daughter. That book, like Battledoors, is a reflection of my love for my children. They really are written as messages of love for them from their father. For everyone else it’s entertainment. For my kids, it’s personal. But still, nothing on the publishing front. They were going to remain on my hard drive, it seemed. But sending out probable rejections was okay by me. It was just postage and time.

And then time nearly ran out.

Listen, we all think we have all the time in the world. For those of you thinking about writing your book one day, let me tell you that day is today. All of the musing about leaving things behind for my kids became a real question to be solved rather than a hypothetical the day I found out I had cancer. Not a small amount either, but a ten pound football resting on my kidney. There are only two stages for this kind of cancer, I was told, and due to the size, I was stage two. I was rushed to a specialist who set up a CT scan right away and sent home to face my then four year old son and two year old daughter.

I was lucky, though. Within ten days, I found out that the tumour was contained. Within a month and a half of that, it was cut out of me by one of the best doctors in Canada. All I have left is a thirteen inch scar on my abdomen and one less kidney to show for the trouble. Oh, and the trauma. There’s still some of that. There’s also a deep well of gratitude.

Before I went in for the surgery, there were only two things that I hadn’t done that bothered me. I hadn’t raised my kids, which is still the only thing that really matters to me, and I didn’t get those books off my hard drive. I sent it to my wife, my mother, and a few trusted friends and made them promise that the kids would get them should something happen. That out of the way, I was strangely serene with whatever may come next. Sure, I added up the mistakes I had made in my life, but I tallied them up to the good I had tried to put back into it as a teacher, a father, a son, and a husband and did my best to make peace with it all. On the morning I left the hospital, I stood and looked out the window as the orange glow of daybreak lit up the city. My friend and roommate there, Lionel, looked out with me from his own bed and I felt a surge of gratitude and awareness of how fragile life is.

“They have no idea, do they?” I asked him as I looked out the window at the people going about their day.

“No,” he said. “They don’t.”

When I got home, I contacted a friend of a friend who was an editor (and who later became my own) to ask about my book. He had told me years ago that it was good, but that he wasn’t doing YA fiction. Well, now he was. He suggested Blue Moon Publishers. He told me to mention his name. So, a few days before Christmas, still aching from my surgery, I wrote them and mentioned his name. They called me back and asked for the manuscript. Then they called again a few days later and offered me a contract.

And now, finally, I’m a writer who writes. But more importantly, I’m a father who gets to raise his children. And what more motivation do you need than that?

So find yours, if you haven’t already, and get going.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Brian Wilkinson attempts to juggle multiple careers as an author, high school teacher, and librarian. He currently lives in East York, Ontario, with his wife and two children, who served as the inspiration for the main characters in his first novels, Battledoors and Paramnesia. Brian was born and raised in Guelph, Ontario, where he attended the University of Guelph and received a BA in English Literature. He continued his writing career by earning a diploma in Journalism from Humber College, and applied those skills by working as a reporter for the Toronto Sun, the Toronto Star, and EYE Weekly, as well as serving as a co-publisher for the comic news site ComiXfan, and an editor for Humber Etcetera, where he won a Columbia Scholastic writing award for first-person column-writing. He was even lucky enough to realize a lifelong dream by writing for Marvel Comics when he co-wrote X-Men: The 198 Files. Brian feels like he is the luckiest person on Earth. He gets to be a dad, a husband, a teacher, and a writer. Not too bad, huh?