MY WRITER’S JOURNAL – Wednesday with Don Gillmor – Jan 24/18
I felt strangely calm as I stood on Don Gillmor’s doorstep waiting for him to answer my ring. I think I left all my nervous energy on the Toronto subway as I was swept up in the morning melee of bodies commuting to work on that cold winter morning. It was my first foray onto the subway and I’d been nervous about it for days. But when I woke up in my hotel room that morning, I decided, enough. I am going to walk down to that subway like I know what I’m doing and get the hell on that train. Which is easier said than done. The subway system is a disaster. I think I only made it to Don’s house with a combination of nerve and luck. By the time I found myself on his doorstep, it was a relief to simply have arrived at my destination without getting lost.
My visit with Don occurred with a combination of nerve and luck as well. We have been emailing on and off over the past year whenever I felt stuck writing my historical fiction novel. He has always kind and prompt with his responses. When I found out he wasn’t teaching any writing workshops at present, I was disappointed. Then I thought that maybe he would consent to sit down with me and share his writing process — if I dared to ask. I was afraid he’d say no. After all, he is a prolific writer who has won numerous awards. I was sure he had plenty of people demanding his time. How would I feel if he said no? But what if he said yes? After some backing and forthing, I decided to just do it. Obviously you know the outcome, hence the title of this story. He did say yes and a week later I found my way to his doorstep.
After a cup of tea and a brief “getting to know you” period, we got to the matter at hand: my novel so far, which he’d read ahead of time. He found my characters well-drawn and my story idea was strong. Best of all, he offered some ideas that will take my story to a whole new level. I was so excited with his suggestions, I was buzzing. We also talked about how to approach historical fiction. The path is wide open depending on what I want to accomplish. Don had taken the time to pick out a number of books which illustrated the points he was trying to make: Some historical fiction writers focus solely on the story not caring a lick about the historical background. While others are sticklers for keeping the details of a time period accurate. Then there are those who bend history a bit to suit the story. I fit in the latter category.
It’s difficult to adhere completely to an historical timeline, not to mention exhausting trying to make everything fit. How do I write about a well-known character without risking that somehow out there will say, “He/she would never do that, or sound that way.” The truth is, it’s quite likely that someone will complain about what I have tried to do, no matter how hard I try to get it right. So what’s the point of worrying? In this way, writing historical fiction is not really any different from writing regular fiction. You have to write the best damn book you can, and then put it out into the world. After that, it’s no longer yours. You have to take the good comments with the bad, and move on. The hard and true fact of being a writer is you cannot please everyone.
As I sat on the train that night on my way back home, I felt that something had shifted in me. By spending the morning with Don, I felt like I’d taken my writing to a new level. Not that I did any writing during our time together, but I’d dared to reach for something more from my writing by visiting him. During our conversation that morning, I realized how much I already know about writing and what I am trying to accomplish with my new book. I also realized that my writing process, which I have struggled with for years, truly does have value because Don approaches writing in the same way I do. He likes not knowing how things will turn out. But most of all, I’ve come to realize that writing should be fun, not the struggle it has been for me these past few months because I was “trying to get it right”.
I have overcome my year’s-long fear of taking the subway during my visit with Don. If I can do that, I can certainly dare to break down the door in my mind and let my imagination out to play without the shackles of (historical) time getting in the way of my story. As I stared out the train window, I began to daydream about what’s next for my characters. Possibilities played out in my mind like a director moving his actors around the stage. This is my stage, my actors, my direction. I can play it in any way I like — with a little help from a friend.