The stereotype of the artist and writer tends to be an urban one - tiny apartments; cigarettes and whisky; gritty, loud, and busy streets outside the window. But where do these pictures come from and, perhaps more importantly, do they present barriers to emerging writers, creating anxiety about what a writer's life "should" look like?
Tanis MacDonald's answers those questions in Out of Line: Daring to be an Artist Outside the Big City (Wolsak & Wynn), a myth- and barrier-busting treatise on the recurring question of "How can I be a writer?" - one she has fielded numerous times in her 20-year career teaching writing across the country.
Part guidebook for shepherding an piece of writing from idea to finished narrative, and part thoughtful query into our preconceptions about the writing life, Out of Line is wildly refreshing, inclusive, unpretentious, and encouraging for everyone who wants to write, whatever their postal code might be.
We're excited to welcome Tanis to Open Book to explain how the title of Out of Line speaks to the heart of her project, as part of our Entitled Interview series. She tells us about the uniques challenges to writing while living outside of "artistic hot-spots", how hitting on the perfect title for a piece feels like "turning a key in a lock", and lets us in on the title that almost was for Out of Line.
Tell us about the title of your newest book and how you came to it.
As I was writing this manuscript, I returned again and again to the issues of inclusion and permission that crop up when people are making art in smaller cities or communities that don’t have strong ties to powerful structures in the arts industry. Beginner artists often don’t know that they deserve and can create community. I’ve lived in smaller cities across Canada (Winnipeg, then Victoria, then Waterloo) and have met hundreds of writers and other artists who are grappling with how to begin (or how to keep going) from where they are right now. A lot of writing about literary community assumes either big city opportunities or promotes some kind of desert island of genius. I wanted to speak to artists who depended on neither an accelerated urban existence nor artistic isolation.
So I wanted a title that gave people permission to be artists in out-of-the way-places. Out of Line gestures to artistic practices by people who are living “out of line,” far from an artistic hot-spot. It also alludes to how stepping “out of line” is a deliberate choice, a refusal of accepted behaviours in a small-place or suburban contexts, an important step for people who are making art despite being told that they can’t or shouldn’t. In our current CanLit climate, a third meaning for “out of line” was equally compelling as a subject: to be “out of line” can also mean bad behaviour, the way people with power sometimes depend upon the naiveté of beginners with outsider backgrounds and take advantage of this vulnerability. While the pull of Out of Line as a title was my interest in tapping geographical distance and social defiance, parsing this shadow across our artistic communities felt very necessary.
Where is the most unexpected place you've ever found inspiration for a title?
I was having lunch with colleagues from the sciences when one of them shouted, “It’s hard to get published in The Journal of Irreproducible Results!” I had no idea what this meant but I wrote it down. I discovered that The Journal of Irreproducible Results is a satirical magazine about the sciences, and for which authors must display both good scientific knowledge and a strong sense of humour. I have a strong auditory memory and that exclamation hung on, like a piece of dialogue from a play, until I wrote a poem with that title that appeared in The Rusty Toque.
What, in your opinion, is most important function of a title?
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A book title should do two things, initially in sequence and eventually simultaneously. It should draw in the reader with curiosity and then it should recur with an altered meaning that’s revealed after the reader’s finished the book. The title should foster a palimpsest of meanings: first you see one layer, then the other, then all of them. A good title should keep on giving.
What is your favourite title that you've ever come up with and why? (For any kind of piece, short or long.)
It took me forever to come up with Rue the Day as the title of my third poetry collection, but once I did, it was like turning a key in a lock. Rue the Day is about haunting and the aftermath of grief; rue is also known as “herb of grace” and is associated with mourning. The expression you’ll rue the day is a warning about the sharp potential for regret. After I thought of the title, after carrying those poems for a long time, the manuscript seemed to shift. I felt as though the manuscript had become a skeleton that could suddenly articulate itself.
What is your favourite title as a reader, from someone else's work?
Ivan Coyote’s Tomboy Survival Guide is pretty much the perfect title, for that book and for Ivan’s extended work talking to young people about becoming themselves.
How do you feel about single-word titles?
I love their conciseness and capacity. My next book, out with Book*hug in Fall 2019, is a long poem about feminism and walking in the city, and it has a one-word title: Mobile.
Did you consider any other titles for your current book and if so what were they? Why did you decide to go with the title you eventually picked?
I mulled over the title The Necessary Geek. While people liked the way it sounded, we found so many variations on the meaning of the word geek – and so many of them tied up with the tech industry – that in the end we had to give that title up as too misleading. The book grew away from that possible title and reformed itself around Out of Line.
What are you working on now?
I’m an inveterate multi-tasker as a writer. Right now I am working on some nonfiction pieces: abpout chronic pain, and about working in the AIDS community in the 1990s. Poetry-wise, I am revising Mobile for a fall 2019 publication date. Soon I will gear up to edit an anthology of works about class and literary community. It will be a sequel of sorts to Out of Line that digs into some of the questions that I introduce but about which there is much more to say: largely the intersectionality of race and gender and ableism and class in literary culture. I wrote Out of Line to open up these kinds of conversations.
Originally from Winnipeg, Tanis MacDonald now lives in Waterloo, Ontario, where she teaches Canadian literature and creative writing at Wilfrid Laurier University. She won the Bliss Carman Poetry Prize in 2003, was a finalist for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in 2013 for her book The Daughter's Way and was the recipient of the Robert Kroetsch Teaching Award in 2017. She is co-editor (with Rosanna Deerchild and Ariel Gordon) of GUSH: menstrual manifestos for our times for Frontenac House. Widely published as a scholar and a reviewer, her fourth poetry book, Mobile, is coming out with BookThug in Fall 2019.