So there I was last Friday, landing in Phoenix with my hockey team, heading for a recreational hockey tournament. Ice hockey, I should specify, since we’re talking Phoenix, temperature 34 degrees C as the plane touched down.
When I travel, I’m getting away from writing. Same with hockey, when my most profound thoughts are usually, Want puck. Want, want, want—got puck! Shoot puck! And, sprawled on the ice, She just effen cross-checked me? In a rec league game!?
Yet it’s also true that travelling (and sometimes even hockey) are a way for me to address a couple of things we don’t often talk about when we talk about writing:
Having something to write about.
And winnowing your ideas, thinking about what is really useful to you, what is dross, what is dead, what is anecdote.
When I was sixteen years old and starting my first year (far too young) at the University of B.C., I planned to do a degree in creative writing. I remember arriving in my first-year seminar and waiting with a dozen nervous students for the instructor, who arrived maybe ten minutes late. He strolled in wearing shorts and sandals that revealed remarkably hairy toes, ostentatiously eating a piece of food services pie. Paper plate, plastic fork.
Suddenly, he threw the pie at the wall. “That is art,” he said.
Even at sixteen, I didn’t really think so, but I still took him seriously when he issued another proclamation: What about what you know.
I didn’t realize it was an old chestnut and wrote it down earnestly. I remember thinking, Gee, if I have to write about what I know, I’d better try to live an interesting life.
I already loved travelling, so that awful instructor inadvertently gave me permission to focus on what I love—which is actually, backhandedly, good advice to give a beginning writer, and which I’m happy to pass on:
Discover what is essential to you and write about it ferociously.
Not that it’s easy, and when discovering your material—when deciding what to write about—there’s a lot of separating out the dross, see above. A lifetime of separating out the dross. At least, that’s been the case for me.
For instance. As my hockey team waited at the luggage carrousel of the Phoenix airport—and I’m not making this up—who should motor by but Mike Babcock, coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. When we all squealed (inner squeals, being deeply mature women) he was incredibly gracious and posed for a couple of photos that we immediately shared among the team and some of us (well me) posted on social media.
Here we are arriving in Phoenix with our coach, I wrote, to a flurry of emojied Likes.
When I was sixteen, I might have projected a story involving a rec league hockey team picking up a professional coach for the weekend in a meet-cute manner, rising above general ineptitude (maybe some truth to that) and winning big at the tourney.
In fact, that’s a Hollywood movie, says me, wearing my screenwriter’s hat. A very bad Hollywood movie, although lately there isn’t any other kind.
Make the plucky team captain your lead actress (Reese Witherspoon), individualize a few players (somewhat), add in escalating team conflict (in fact, non-existent) and construct a plangent B story about the brooding goalie facing a personal crisis (Noomi Rapace, who is after all a sort of younger female Henrik Lundqvist, or at least has the same hair).
For the record, plangent is too good a word for the concept, our goalie is a remarkably well-balanced physiotherapist, and if anyone steals the idea, I will sue.
Yet my main point is that a rec league hockey team meeting-cute with Mike Babcock is an anecdote that doesn’t go very deep, however hard you push it. It’s a bar story, and I’ll probably tell it for years, a Grade B fairy story, but it’s not writing material, at least I’ve learned that it isn’t for me.
A couple of days later, something else happened, and maybe that was.
But we’ll talk about that the next time.
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.
Lesley Krueger is a novelist and screenwriter. Richard Dadd’s first cousin-in-law five times removed (if she has the genealogy right), Lesley drew on family information unknown to biographers in writing Mad Richard. The author of six books, she lives with her husband in Toronto where she’s an avid member of a women’s hockey league and a writer-mentor at the Canadian Film Centre. Find her online at LesleyKrueger.com.