Writer in Residence

There's a lot to be said for not knowing what you're doing.

By David Demchuk


I’ve been writing professionally for nearly 40 years now, across a variety of media, and even now, every time I start a new project, it’s as if I’ve never written anything before in my life. I generally have an idea of what I want to write (sometimes I don’t even have that), but as I sit down in front of the blank page or blank screen, I find I’m just as blank. 

“How does this work again?” I ask myself. “What do I do first? Is there a thing I always do?” Surprise, the thing I always do is ask myself these three questions. Not super helpful. This is the point where I might make myself some tea, sit on the couch, do a little light research, listen to a few random songs, jot down a little outline of the first few paragraphs—persuading myself that I’m writing while not actually writing. Then, eventually, I’ll sit myself back down at the table, focus my eyes and my mind on the blankness, and allow myself once more to begin.

I’ve been doing this for a long time, and yet I’m always beginning. And beginning, for me, almost always looks like this. It's a little terrifying but I guess that's on-brand for me.

I have a lot of writer friends who outline. They outline a whole project before they ever start. They labour over it, setting down the structure, mapping out character arcs and plot reversals, charting the midpoint and marking out the various acts. I can work this way, and have in the past, but I find it takes a great deal of my curiosity and engagement out of a project, and that I have to discover or develop or simulate that connection in other ways to gather the momentum I’ll need to see a project through. It’s not a bad thing, or a good thing, it’s just a thing. 

(In some media, like film and television, you pretty much have to work this way—you don’t have a lot of choice. Outlines and treatments are designed to provide producers and partners and funders with the maximum amount of information about a project, and participation in shaping it, without actually confronting or paying for a completed work. You can make a lot of money, and lose a lot of your heart, writing outlines and treatments for movies and TV shows that never get made aaaand let’s change the subject.) 

I prefer to come to a new project without necessarily knowing how it will unfold—who all the characters are, how they relate to each other, whose journey it is and where it is going. (So many of you are cringing right now.) I do have a strong sense of structure that I rely on heavily as I write, and I do like to focus on the characters who come to the fore and reach out to me. And I generally know the ending of a project, more or less, as I write towards it. But I like to surprise my audience, and I like to be surprised. I like to make connections as I go, then work back and weave those connections into the work to further secure and support them. I do stop and outline from time to time, and do other kinds of side work as required (on character, on setting, on context), but mostly I forge ahead section by section and then survey where I’m at and what needs adjusting at every major milestone. 

Reading at a strip club

In the writing world, you often hear the question “Are you a plotter or are you a pantser?” with the latter being someone who writes ‘by the seat of their pants.' Surprise, I am a pantser.

I try also to be a pantser in life. I can’t quite bring myself to be one of those people who says Yes to everything and then ends up in jail with a broken nose, a new forehead tattoo (♥BRITNEY♥), bags of cocaine taped to my thighs, and dressed as the back half of a horse. But. When opportunities arise when I can try new things and the success rate seems to be better than 50/50, I like to try the new thing.

The Bone Mother offered a lot of these opportunities, and I think much of its success as a project hinged on my willingness (and my physical/social/financial ability, which we’ll come back to in a moment) to be able to say “Sure, I can do that.” Sure, I can produce that show. Sure, I can make a video. Sure, I can double the length of the text to turn the show into a book. Sure, I can organize a launch. Sure, I can go to a few conferences. Sure, I can do that interview, sit on that panel, run a contest, read on the stage of a strip club, on the deck of a boat. Sure, I can guest on that radio show. Sure, I can do a column for that website. Sure, I can write another book. Do I always know exactly what I’m doing? No. But if I’m equipped enough to take it on, then I think it’s worth a try. Especially if it all helps to further my larger goals as a writer and as an artist, and as a contributor to the health of our communities.

As I’ve said before, not everyone gets to have the opportunities that I’ve had, the ones that I’m having now. I’ve been lucky, and privileged, to have a range of experiences over the years in media communications, stage production, social media and event organization to allow me to embrace these opportunities, and to have enough supportive friends to help guide me through those spots where I needed some outside expertise. I'm not educated, and I'm not rich, but I'm also not poor—and that has absolutely made some things possible for me that are not available to everyone.

I’ve also been privileged to be a cisgendered white male at a time when ours are the voices that are dominating the field—and a gay cisgendered white male as our voices were being uplifted at a time of crisis, and no one knew how long anyone was going to be around. (Now that was a double-edged sword.)

While merit does still count for a fair amount in literature and the arts, it doesn't count for everything. These fields are not meritocracies. Many fine creators from marginalized backgrounds and communities have been and continue to be overlooked and neglected in favour of those who the gatekeepers feel most comfortable with, who most closely resemble themselves. We need to work harder to address this on every front, to create and provide opportunities for those who have traditionally been denied them—that includes creative, curatorial, editorial, managerial and financial opportunities. And we need to do more to reach out to audiences who feel excluded by our work, who feel unrepresented and misrepresented. The survival of all the arts, in every aspect, depends on it. 

So—if I leave you with anything as I wrap up my residency here at Open Book, it’s this: Don’t shy away now from learning things that could come in handy later on. If you have resources and opportunities to share, find ways to share them with other artists that will help them, and you, grow as professionals; all we have is each other. Where you can and when you can, embrace new practices, new approaches, new ways of thinking and working; push yourself, while being kind to yourself. 

And this: As much as we think we know, we really know so little. There’s a lot to be said for not having all the answers, for not having a perfectly planned path. For making it up as you go. We all face a blank page, a blank screen, and still we begin.

Even as everything ends, and ends, and ends, always be beginning.

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.

David Demchuk was born and raised in Winnipeg and now lives in Toronto. He has been writing for theatre, film, television, radio, and other media for more than thirty years. His publications include the short-fiction cycle Seven Dreams, and the Lewis Carroll adaptation Alice in Cyberspace, and appearances in the anthologies Making, Out!, Outspoken, and Canadian Brash. His reviews, essays, interviews, and columns have appeared in such magazines as Toronto Life, Xtra, What! Magazine, and Prairie Fire, as well as the Toronto Star. Most recently, he has been a contributing writer for the digital magazine TorontoistThe Bone Mother is his first novel. It was recently long-listed for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize.

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