Writer in Residence

THE Incredible Shrinking Writer

By Stuart Ross

It’s almost six years now since, after nearly half a century in Toronto, I moved to Cobourg, pop. 18,500. My adopted home — "Ontario’s Feel Good Town" — is just a ninety-minute commute east by car (quicker by train) along the teetering northern precipice of Lake Ontario. In making this move, I left behind a literary community I’d been deeply involved in since I was a teenage writer.

I figured I could still remain involved in Toronto. I’d still go to readings every week, and launches, and hang out with all my writer friends. But gradually I felt myself growing more and more distant from the home I left behind — or felt my old home become more and more distant from me. I became tinier and tinier, just like Scott Carey in The Incredible Shrinking Man (dir. Jack Arnold, 1957). He passed through some radioactive mist on a motorboat ride and found himself getting smaller by the day, until his own cat became a threatening foe and he was forced to fight off spiders with pins and lengths of thread. And it’s true — there are more spiders in Cobourg, and they are big. Maybe it’s just because there’s less of everything else that the spiders really stand out.

But one of the reasons I moved to Cobourg was that I wanted to see what it was like living in a tiny town. I was inspired by New Denver, B.C., where I’ve gone almost every spring since my mid-forties to teach creative writing to kids. I have mostly lived in a little cabin there. Before my first trip to New Denver, I phoned Terry, the teacher who was bringing me out west, and asked if there were spiders in the cabin. She said, “Well, you’re in a cabin in the woods. But I’ll give it a good cleaning before you arrive.”

And almost without fail, every year, I’d be sitting in bed in the evening, reading or writing, and some monster spider would come shimmying down its silken thread from the cabin’s high ceiling to torment me. I’d grab anything lying nearby and whip it at the vicious creature. A book, a clock, a hat, a bag of peanuts.

I’ve recently come to accept that I live in Cobourg, and this is where I’ve chosen to make my home. I’ve begun to unpack the sixty or seventy boxes of books and papers that I hadn’t yet unpacked and that are scattered, stacked, wobbling, rotting in our basement. And there are so many spiders. Really ugly spiders. Big ones that scream at me from the cobwebbed ceiling. Tiny, nearly translucent ones that scurry from beneath cardboard boxes I lift from the floor.

I don’t battle them with a giant pin. That’s not who I am. I run shuddering and muttering up the stairs, brushing imaginary eight-leggers from my hair.

And when the trauma has passed, I slink down into the basement again. So I’m uncovering all these incredible things I haven’t looked at in years. Amazing, esoteric volumes of experimental fiction, mimeographed poetry mags, rubber-stamped literary leaflets. And, spiders notwithstanding (on eight terrifying hairy legs), I’m excited. I’m going to dive into these publications — many of which I’ve never even read — and I am going to write. I’m going to write infinitesimally small books, and weird books, and I’m going to treat this home stretch of my life as a laboratory.

There aren’t a lot of literary events here in Cobourg. And I just can’t drag myself to Toronto as much as I used to. I no longer define myself as the guy who co-founded the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, and Meet the Presses, and who co-ran the Fictitious Reading Series, and attended the George Miller poetry workshop as a teenager, and ran another little series whose name I can no longer remember in the snug at the Victory Café. I get to Toronto from time to time, and I run workshops, and give increasingly rare readings there: but now I’m a visitor.

And in Cobourg, I am a tiny, tiny writer battling spiders. I know I should make the spiders a metaphor for something, but I’m a literalist. Well, a literalist surrealist. I don’t believe in metaphors. I have written a lot since I came to Cobourg, and I’ve got a lot more to write. And increasing stacks of great literature salvaged from my basement to read. I’m finally defining myself not as someone who makes the literary scene, but as someone who sits at a keyboard, or hunched over a pad of paper, and writes.

It was the microscopic Scott Carey who said: “And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!”

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.

Stuart Ross is a writer, editor, and writing teacher living in Cobourg, Ontario. The acclaimed author of 20 books of poetry, fiction, and essays, Stuart got his start selling his chapbooks on Toronto’s Yonge Street during the 1980s. His recent books include Our Days in Vaudeville (Mansfield Press, 2014), A Hamburger in a Gallery (DC Books, 2015), (Anvil Press), and A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent (Wolsak and Wynn, 2016). He is the co-translator or Marie-Ève Comtois’s My Planet of Kites (Mansfield Press, 2015). You Exist. Details Follow. (Anvil Press, 2012) won the sole award given to an anglophone writer by the Montreal-based l’Académie de la vie litteraire au tournant du 21e siècle; Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand Books, 2009) won the 2010 ReLit Prize for Short Fiction; and the novel Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew was co-winner of the 2012 Mona Elaine Adilman Award for Fiction on a Jewish Theme. Stuart has taught writing workshops across the country, and was the 2010 Writer-in-Residence at Queen’s University. Since 2007, he has had his own imprint at Toronto’s Mansfield Press. Stuart is currently working on several poetry and fiction projects, as well as a memoir.

You can write to Stuart throughout the month of August at writer@openbooktoronto.com