The Toronto writer’s Sunset Strip
It doesn’t matter where you live: being human is difficult. The writer’s task is to transcribe the difficulty.
On a recent trip to Toronto, I was told half a dozen times by both strangers and friends that nothing would aid my career more than a move to that great Canadian literary Mecca. For a few days I waffled, wondering if a successful career could truly be contingent upon residence in a single city. Toronto is to Canada what New York is to the US. Living in the GTA would grant me the luxury of direct access to half of the publications to which I regularly contribute, as well as those I can only dream of writing for.
Apparently, Toronto is “the centre of English Canadian Literature.”
As reported in the Toronto Star this October, the Toronto Foundation’s 2014 Vital Signs Report found that “Toronto’s creative workforce has grown by 34 per cent since 2001, more than twice the growth of the overall labour force.” Additionally, professional employment in arts and culture industries in Toronto “has increased more than 16 per cent since 2011. Toronto is home to 66 per cent more artists than any other Canadian city, and 1 in 4 of the country’s creative industry jobs.”
The statistics seem to offer a numerical rationale to back the conceit that all writers must live in Toronto. The storied rationale, though, contains the real power to sway me: the visions of nearly endless readings, book launches, festivals, fairs; the sheer number of locally-owned bookstores; Toronto publishers like Coach House Books and BookThug, whose vibrant presences in the zeitgeist do more for Toronto’s growing reputation than the city’s website ever could. More important than these, perhaps, is the presence of the writers and editors involved in making these entities hum and sing with energy. These are the people I should know and want to know. After all, as the old cliché goes, a city is its people.
The success-is-about-where-you-live cliché is just a variation on the success-is-about-who-you-know cliché. And the latter is a perennially attractive idea—that publication can be fast-tracked with a geographical shift, with a little schmoozing. It can also be an indicator of downright careerism, where publication-at-all-costs trumps vocational development or other considerations.
The notion that publishing is a holdout against this particular white-collar grey area may be outdated, but it still has cultural cachet. Couldn’t success be about the quality of the work? There are just so many gatekeepers—every struggling writer knows just how difficult it is to win a prize, get that coveted byline, land that book deal. Couldn’t the very presence of obstacles mean success follows on the heels of excellence?
A few days ago, back in the boundaries of Winnipeg’s familiar city limits, I sat down with writer Joan Thomas, whose latest novel, The Opening Sky, has been shortlisted for the Governor General’s literary award, and asked her why she has never moved to Toronto.
“I can’t imagine relocating,” she told me.
It’s not that Winnipeg is the ideal place to live, but Thomas has a family and a life here. And she set The Opening Sky in Winnipeg, not out of any sense of devotion to the city, but because the novel’s themes are universal and have the power to reach beyond a limited geographical frame. When her career was just beginning, she was told by the then-books editor of The Globe and Mail that living outside of Toronto would provide her with an advantage over Toronto writers, because she’d be independent of the Toronto literary scene.
The provincial side of me wanted to beg Thomas to tell me that good work will always find an audience, regardless of the writer’s connections. But she would not. She pointed out that a writer’s connections play a role in all sorts of things, like invitations to festivals, media coverage, and prizes. According to Thomas, these things have the power to propel writers from the realm of ‘struggling’ and into the orbit of ‘success’:
Every year I see astonishing books that get no attention whatsoever. I think all writers of fiction are a bit terrorized by prize lists right now, especially the Giller prize, because it has so much sway. I don’t say this to impugn juries—I worked with juries at the Manitoba Arts Council for six years and it reinforced my faith in the jury system. I didn’t see people acting in bad faith. But there are many complex factors that go into very subjective decisions when you’re looking at so many amazing and worthy books. It’s inevitable.
I think it’s a myth to believe that there’s one absolute brilliant book that everyone will agree on and that’s the book that will be chosen for the Giller prize. There are probably 40 books that could have made it onto that list. And the existing visibility of certain writers is bound to be a factor.
I refuse to be a Winnipeg apologist. There’s nothing sacred about my city versus other cities. I am helplessly drawn to all cityscapes, the wealth of human potential they contain, and the energy and diversity that drive them. Cities like Toronto offer both the option of anonymity and the potential for connection whenever it is needed—and both are essential to the writing process.
Winnipeg offers something different: a writing community that is small enough to be immediately discoverable and readily accessible, but still with the occasional whiff of cliquishness. If it doesn’t escape the risk of cliquishness—because no city does—Toronto at least offers a cornucopia of writers’ communities, and you can find your niche—or indeed multiple niches—with a little searching. In Winnipeg, there is really just the one. While I’ve argued on this blog that Winnipeg operates largely as a community of care, its size leaves its members or potential members vulnerable to exclusion.
The point is that membership in any community carries risk, no matter the size. The point is that the work must continue regardless of the community in which the writer finds herself.
In an essay published a few years back, the Staten Island-based writer Rob Hart questioned the pervasive notion that Brooklyn is the US’ ‘new literary frontier.’ He wrote, “There’s a mystique to Brooklyn (and New York City in general): That it’s not just a great place to live, but it’ll make you better and more interesting. Especially at writing.” In a list of writing tips from Craig Clevenger, the neo-noir fiction writer, Hart received the following piece of advice:
You can write no matter where you live. [Anyone who] tells you they need to move to New York or San Francisco or Seattle or Tokyo or London to pursue writing is going to fail, because no place ever makes you a writer. Live where you wish because of the amenities and culture that draw you there, but know that it has nothing to do with your writing. People fall in love, have children, fall out of love, have loved ones die, lose jobs and have all manner of victories in suburban middle America. Learn to see that.
There is wisdom here that writers should attend to: while our work will always be influenced by our communities, it operates on another plane entirely. No city will make or break a writer. And if writers fixate on location, location, location, rather than on the vocational work of writing, they’ve simply got it wrong. The work is the most important thing. The work is always the most important thing. The city surrounds the work like hair surrounds a face: it influences the effect, but should not alter the expression.
Funny story: while wandering Toronto’s downtown, I decided to stop by the offices of The Walrus to see if I could introduce myself to the editors. If Toronto is Canada’s literary Mecca, then surely the offices of a magazine like The Walrus must be a holy site. Here, I thought, I might find the reason I needed to stay. Here, I might make the connections that would switch my status from “struggling” to “successful.”
When I opened the door, a preoccupied-looking woman orbiting the front desk looked up and asked me why I’d come.
“I’m a writer,” I said. “I’m here to see where it all happens.”
She gestured to the office behind her, where computers, papers and paraphernalia jostled for space on limited desks, and hurried-looking people moved in sharp diagonals, coffee mugs in hand, from one site of literary exchange to another, eyes misted over with focus.“Here,” she said. “But everyone’s working.”
I don’t want to dull the story by making the whole of this experience ironic. It wasn’t—and the people I saw in the offices that day were neither angelic nor haggard. They looked like they were doing their jobs—precisely what I wasn’t doing by hanging around waiting for my ‘big break.’ Needless to say, I left.
The strongest connections are made in place-less spaces. No one here had time to entertain my ambition. Everyone was working.