On writing Lori McNulty seated at cafe
Vancouver-based author Lori McNulty

Busy Women On Writing Books

This is the the fourth instalment in a new interview series on writing, profiling women writers who’ve written and published books while also working, parenting, volunteering, caring for family, attending school, and ALL OF THE THINGS.

For this week's interview, I'm pleased to introduce you to Lori McNulty.

Lori McNulty is a Vancouver-based author, photographer, and digital storyteller. Her book, Life on Mars, was short-listed for the 2017 Danuta Gleed Literary Award which recognizes the best debut short fiction collection by a Canadian author. She was short-listed for the 2014 Journey prize and a finalist again in 2015. Her non-fiction appears in several anthologies including Body & Soul: Stories for Skeptics and seekers, as well as The Globe & Mail. Both her fiction and non-fiction have been long-list finalists for the CBC Canada Writes Prizes. 

As a writer-in-residence aboard the Canada C3 icebreaker in 2018, Lori navigated part of the world’s longest coastline alongside a cross-section of Canadian explorers. (Meeting Labrador Innu communities and enjoying single malt scotch poured over 10,000 year-old iceberg were highlights.) She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MA from McGill University. A lover of all things beautiful and wise, she is hard at work on a novel.  

 

What’s your current writing routine? Has it always been like this? What about it might be different for you now than in the past?

I write in the morning, as early as possible, in one of the many coffee shops near my home. Love the buzz. Love the ritual. Love the sound of cups clattering and the hum of conversation around me. Writing in the morning appeals because it makes my creative life and spiritual life a priority. For me writing provides a pure energy, a way to knit my world together, and an antidote to the sometimes soul-sucking onslaught of work, news, responsibilities, distractions, and other priorities vying for my attention. 

Separating writing and editing is very important for me. A rhetorician once shared how important it is to do so. Allowing time for the messy flow of things in writing, as opposed to honing in and refining and attending to the minutia of language is extremely helpful. She also shared that printing out our work before editing gives us a new perspective. I will never do a very serious edit my work on screen, but do so on the page first. 

As we get older, there are more expenses, commitments and demands on us. It is easy to cheat yourself of the time to write. Don’t let that happen. Preserve your time and space—stand up for it with your family and friends—and not just for the creative freedom and joy it provides, but because writing in often a meditative space.

When an inevitable interruption happens, come back to it as soon as you can. Begin again. Rituals are life-giving and they reward us with so much productive greatness. And the energy you bring to yourself and to your work, will ultimately flow back to others. 

 

Tell us the story of when you first got published. What was special about that experience for you?

My first acceptance of a short story was in a Canadian literary magazine called The Fiddlehead. The story was quite unusual and because of some glitches in sending the work out (where it was lost by one magazine, and delayed in reviewing at another), it was accepted by three different publications. Yikes! The note I received from the editor at The Fiddlehead was so beautiful and encouraging. 

And yes, it is a big deal to see your words in print. It’s an amazing moment. My one caution? It’s a milestone, but it isn’t why you write. I worked and worked and refined my writing, focusing on becoming a better writer first, not being published. I believe you have to keep writing and don’t send anything out until it’s ready. How will you know? Have a first reader, work with a group that provides helpful feedback, or find a mentor. 

If I had two words of advice: begin again. Writing is revising. Writing is finding our way in the world. You are never truly done. But sending something out allows us to lose our grip on the story. That can be very helpful. And as a writer, you have to build up some resilience around the inevitable rejections. Even as I write, I know my skin needs to be thicker, but at least it’s less translucent than before. 

 

What was your experience of getting your book published?

Through another writer’s endorsement, I sent some stories to the editor of a major publisher. He loved the work and offered a two-book deal after asking for some novel ideas. It was an amazing feeling. A glorious moment. And then due to some decisions by the marketing department there, the dream was lost. 

It was devastating. The book was instead picked up by Goose Lane Editions, an independent publisher with a stellar reputation. The letter I received from their acquisition editor was so beautiful, I sometimes return to it whenever I need a boost. 

Seeing my book on a shelf among authors I’ve admired for years was a dream.

Publishing a book means you have attained a certain level in your career, and it also means that your work on the whole is taken more seriously. You might get lucky and become an overnight bestseller. More likely, you’ll get a nice reception and be content with it. It’s best not to chase the spotlight. Keep in mind, always, why you decided to be a writer in the first place. I’ve learned to savour every small success—drop my head and get back to work. 

 

When did you start “getting serious” about writing and what did that look like for you?

I was completing a literary degree at McGill University, which led me to poetry salons and of course to reading great authors from all over the world. That led me, in time, to hosting a poetry reading at my apartment. For years, I sat on the sidelines, too afraid to admit that I wanted to write. So at first, I just got closer to writers. 

It was not until my mother died at 57 that I began to write in any serious way. I quit the job I had taken in order to care for her during her illness, and began writing poetry. Soon after, I travelled overseas and later wrote about some of those experiences, and in particular my trek to the Garhwal Himalayas in India. 

Upon returning to Canada, I took a writing workshop in Edmonton, and got some positive feedback from the author, Shani Mootoo. She was enthusiastic and later suggested submitting my work to the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, which she was attending. Eventually, I did submit, and won first place in the non-fiction category. The $1000 award felt like winning the lottery. More important than the award was a deep knowing that writing was for me a lifeblood experience—I needed it. I craved it. 

When life became dark and both my parents were gone, in writing I found a form to make sense of it. Serious writers need to write. And to be taken seriously, you often need to publish. But these are two very different things. A serious writer, above all, has found in writing, a form for understanding the world. It’s shattering, life-giving, expansive, and difficult. It makes me more alive, like when I travel. 

Here is Mary Oliver saying it much better, in her essay “Staying Alive”:

I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything — other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness — the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books — can re-dignify the worst-stung heart. 

 

What have you had going on in your life over the years that wasn’t writing and may have made finding time to write challenging? What strategies did you use to overcome those obstacles and get the writing done?

My partner and I have suffered several family tragedies in a row, and that has somewhat drained my energy and diminished my creative output. 

We have been pummeled again and again by grief and despite my best efforts, it was difficult to write through it. As well, I have learned that I just do not fit into the 9-to-5 work life, so finding the balance between paid work, and preserving time as a writer, is a challenge. 

There are also those heartbreaking disappointments—you get short-listed but do not win the award. Your book does well, but isn’t a bestseller and not everyone understands what you’re after. Once you stand up and write, you have to accept that you will attract critics. 

I had no ready strategies for overcoming these obstacles. Time provided perspective. Speaking to friends and fellow writers helped. When life becomes so consuming around death you question everything. Finally, there is the recognition that if writing is intrinsic to who you are, you’ll be called back to it. You will recommit your time and energy. 

More broadly, I finally understood that focusing on outcomes was a recipe for heartbreak, that creative comparisons are futile, that our work is not one published piece, but a lifetime of creative output. That in surviving, in being alive, I had to decide if writing gave me energy, or took it away. 

The obstacles were pushed back by one thing: finding pleasure again in writing. I was in touch with George Saunders who said sometimes the way back is just to write every day again. First ten minutes, then two hours, then getting lost in the flow. I learned to start over, and start small, and stop fighting how I felt.  

 

Have you ever thought about giving up on writing? Why didn’t you? How did you move past that point and recommit?

Yes. Many times. Especially when experiencing a rejection of my work (real or perceived), or when my personal life had been ransacked. What was left to create if nothing mattered? 

Knowing you can give up on writing and no one will really care is strangely liberating. There are so many writers out there, you can give it all up tomorrow, and no one will come to your door and beg you to write that novel. So, you can just stop. You can. Now you don’t do this regarding your kids, your partner, your job, or your marriage. Well, maybe not anyway.

But strangely, that’s how precious writing can be—it does not make demands of us, and you don’t really need it to survive, so the only thing left is just the pure joy of creation.  So tap into the force that brings energy to the page, and start again. Even after years. Even later in life. Even when your time is limited.  

With experience and time you realize that if you love to make things, that writing is a kind of honest salvation. Understanding that I had nothing to lose, and no one to answer to, made everything easier. I recommitted because I found out that I needed to write, no matter the outcome. And then to begin again, I had to show up without expectation for a few minutes every day. And then a few minutes more. And so on.  

 

How are you feeling about your writing practice right now?

Following the long illness and death of my mother-in-law in 2019, which was after two other family deaths, my writing stopped. 

There was a lot of soul searching, a great deal of agony in not creating. At the same time, I also gave up on a traditional “office” job to set my own schedule and re-envision my life.

So, right now my writing practice is much more consistent. I write almost every morning at a café, where I am writing this interview now. When I’m in flow, my fingers tap across the keys like I’m composing some piano concerto, and the flow has no beginning or end. It’s messy and sometimes hard, but feels familiar in the best of ways. I am so much more careful not to judge what’s on the page while I’m in an early draft. Just allowing the acrobatics of imagination to play out is joyful and that is enough. 

 

What’s been your favourite part of finishing and publishing books? 

The word “done” doesn’t get enough credit. My favourite part of publishing the book was building unexpected bonds with people – my editor, my agent, my publisher, the illustrators. You emerge and have to break that isolation you have warmed up to as a writer and there is a flood of different and interesting energy. 

When I read at an event in Vancouver, I met the Toronto-based author Rebecca Rosenblum, and we became friends along the way. Reading in Ottawa, I was able to meet Elise Levine who is warm and generous and such an inspiration. (Rhonda was the host for that reading at the Ottawa International Writers Festival, and her talent and presence is a joy and gift). An old connection of mine from McGill, Alex Mcleod, was also kind enough to blurb my book. That meant a great deal.

At readings, people come up to you and say nice things. It’s like a small miracle. Something moves them. And in signing your book for them, there is this indelible moment between you and it’s really intoxicating. One particular story in my collection seems to strongly resonate with men and that’s kind of interesting when they shyly come up and talk. It’s crazy how much joy this can bring you. We so crave that intimacy and connection at times. 

My book launch was one of the most moving moments of my life. I was surrounded by family and friends, with live music and wine and this electric buzz in the air. We sold out of books. Very scary. Super fun. It was a celebration of overcoming so many obstacles and fears. 

Having the courage to create and send something out in the world is wonderful. Breathe a book into existence and the force it brings to your life and being is substantial. So, when you’re stalled, or can’t quite see the finish line, know that many writers have been where you are, and this is the very moment you need to keep going.

 

Do you ever get “stuck” or find yourself avoiding writing? If/when that happens, how do you get yourself unstuck?

Yep, many times. Getting “unstuck” in a small way is easy. You just go back to basics. Write regularly for as long as you can, without judgment. You go away from writing and you get scared a little of the page. But it’s like priming a pump. Start again. Words flow. Weird characters pop up and say hello. You stop mumbling to yourself and get on with things. Somehow there is the flow again, with this guiding force, and self-forgetting and now the world opens up to you again. 

Bigger moments of being stuck—where there is profound fear, or a serious obstacle, or even an existential crisis around life and writing, demands more. It often demands the support of community and connection. Reach out to a fellow writer, talk to a mentor, take a course, sign up for a workshop. Get out and connect with people who can see what you cannot right now. Creativity is a natural process and the something that is blocking you is not talent, or bad writing, or the imagination. It’s usually just fear. When I feel more seriously stuck, even chatting with another writer is a way to keep moving. 

I want to add one thing from Hemingway who had an aspiring writer show up to his door. He said something that I think anyone struggling should remember. “Just right one true sentence.” It comes down to something so simple.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.

 

What are your favourite books about writing or writing craft?

Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott is a classic that, like all classics, rewards you each time with new insights depending on where you are in your writing life.   

I worked with Besty Warland on a book called Breathing the Page. Here she contemplates the basic tools of writing (like pencil and chair) and shares some really interesting techniques such as the work of “scaffolding” and “proximity” in writing. She believes all writing has a “heartwood.” It’s a fascinating concept:

“Heartwood is the narrative's original germinating seed.” And “Heartwood is the elusive secret we keep from ourselves.”

I also enjoyed E.M Forester’s Aspects of the Novel in which he discusses “round” and “flat” characters. 

Finally, The Art Spirit by artist Robert Henri is a beautiful book about the art of life and the artistic practice.  He is capturing his lectures about painting but it reverberates for a literary writer if you imagine that when he speaks of shape, or curve or strokes, he could easily be talking about the wisdom of sentences.

“The stroke is just like the artist at the time he makes it. All the certainties, all the uncertainties, all the bigness of his spirit and the littlenesses are in it.”

 

Whom do you consider your mentors?

Zsuzsi Gartner was one of my mentors in the MFA non-residency program at UBC. I truly have never met anyone so thoroughly committed to literature and to building writing communities. She is really responsible for shepherding so many first books it’s crazy.

My soul mentors are the writers who inspire me: George Saunders. All of the Russians. Zora Neale Hurston. Derek Walcott. Arundhati Roy. James Baldwin. So many poets—Seamus Heaney, Louise Gluck, Gwendolyn Macewen, Walt Whitman.

 

What are you working on now? How are you feeling about it right at this moment?

Am working on a novel right now. Feeling great about the writing process again. I feel more complete, focused, and happy in writing now. I am letting everything flow and trusting this delirious mess will find its form, its chapter and verse.  I’m also much more realistic about the writing life. It’s hard, lonely, and there isn’t a great treasure chest of gold coins at the end you can pluck out to pay the mortgage. But it is the life I embrace without fighting it anymore. 

 

What advice on writing do you have for writers who do really want to finish a book but just haven’t been able to get there yet?

Keep to a regular writing schedule and test out what works for you. Do mornings make you feel fresh? Do you need to write at night, after the kids are in bed? Go for it. Never apologize for writing. It’s as significant an act as any other creative force in your life. Protect your time, and your space for writing, and others will respect it too.

If you’re really feeling stuck, get out and get some support. Good conversation, new perspectives, feedback from writers and mentors, and other engagement in writing communities can push you out of that echo chamber. Writing is alive; and sometimes your works needs others in order to breathe and open up. 

I know that the MFA provided me with mentors, along with a built-in group of devoted, collaborative authors who were committed to each other’s work. What a gift that is to building momentum. You also get that support outside of a formal writing program as well.    

It’s okay to lose your way for a while. Just keep writing. Just by writing you are getting better, getting closer to the thing that matters, the thing you must alone write. If you’re afraid, go deeper. One exercise I liked was to take a single sentence and turn it into a paragraph. It’s amazing how much more texture and richness language holds. Keep reading. Keep writing. Get up and walk along an unfamiliar route. 

And please, please. Keep looking down at the page, and not over your shoulder. Nothing matters outside the page, including how well your friend or fellow authors are doing. When you’re stuck, share your work with a trusted mentor, or group. Don’t hold it so tightly, your fear suffocates you. 

Completing a manuscript is a milestone in a writer’s life. You’ll discover yourself and the world in a new way. And by finishing your book, you’ll be fearless in the face of the next challenge.

 

 

Say hello to Lori at www.lorimcnulty.ca. Life on Mars is available via Goose Lane Editions, your local independent bookstore or online.   

book cover Life on Mars
Life on Mars

 

Lori McNulty: On Writing as “An Honest Salvation”