Writer in Residence

Chasing Ghosts at Four in the Morning

Submitted by Nathan Whitlock

I can only write fiction before dawn. Part of that is simple adaptive behaviour: most of the past two decades have been filled with children and day jobs that happen, by definition, during the day. The long slide begins around 7:30 and does not end until past 9, after which my brain no longer holds enough of a charge for anything creative beyond lying to those children and finding new ways to complain about the day jobs.

So it is partly by necessity that I set my phone to go off at four and lay out a few articles of clothing that can be slipped on quietly in the dark, so I don’t wake up my wife. (When I do get up and sneak downstairs, I also turn off the wifi, which always feels like silencing a chorus of voices, or like Sideshow Bob cutting the rope on the houseboat.)

But it’s also because sitting down to a novel-in-progress only seems to make sense at that hour. Writing fiction is like trying to sketch ghosts in the fog: you are constantly trying to capture something formless, shifting, and that only you can see. Which sounds deliciously gothic and romantic, but in the moment – when your ass is actually in the chair and the screen or page is waiting to be filled with metaphors and descriptions and dialogue that won’t make you wince with embarrassment a year later – the actual work of a getting the words down is much more (literally) prosaic. Less Charlotte Brontë, more Charlotte the spider working all night on another pig-saving message web while the pig himself farts happily in his sleep below. (That’s a metaphor; neither my wife nor my children are flatulent pigs.)

Because the hard part of writing is not coming up with ideas or interesting turns of phrase – keep at it long enough and you’ll have more of those than you know what to do with – but rather convincing yourself that any of it matters, that the world would be any worse off if you simply quit now and focused your energy and time on more obviously useful activities. It can be hard not feel in your heart that even if you do manage to render those ghosts on the page with some amount of success, the best you can hope for is that people will take one look at what you accomplished and say, “Cool. Ghosts. Hey, did you see that thing about Donald Trump? I’ll send it to you.”

At four in the morning, however, it’s a little easier to convince yourself that it does matter, that the difference between getting the words right and getting them wrong is of critical importance, that people might look at your ghosts and see them as living people.


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: Toronto.

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.

Nathan Whitlock’s award-winning fiction and non-fiction has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, Toronto Life, Report on Business, Flare, Fashion, Geist, Maisonneuve, and Best Canadian Essays, and he has appeared on radio and television discussing books and culture. He is a contributing editor for Quill & Quire. He lives in Toronto with his wife and children.

You can write to Nathan throughout the month of July at writer@openbooktoronto.com