Sam Wiebe


Up and Down

The one thing every writer collects is grudges.


Even the most successful writers I know have an accountant’s mind for awards not won, sales not made, reviewers who just didn’t get it, publicists who missed major opportunities...the list goes on.


It’s part egotism and part anxiety, and part the nature of artistic endeavor. My dad’s a jazz musician, and he put it really well: one day you’re playing the best club in the city with the best musicians, the next you’re at the PNE fairgrounds wearing a straw boater and being yelled at by old people to “quit playing that n——r music.”


The successes you have aren’t guaranteed by any security--they could all be ripped away in a moment, and you just have to go on.


Last weekend I drove to Kamloops with three much more accomplished writers. Eight fucking hours in the car, there and back. Two people showed up.


When you’re forced to think three steps in advance, it’s very hard to appreciate what you have right now.


And yet sometimes a moment breaks through that cynicism. Today I started a new writing job, which I’ll be able to talk more freely about tomorrow. I was given a tour of the various departments, introduced to the people I’ll be working with, then shown to my new office and left to work.


I’m sitting there, and I start thinking about how when I was a kid, every week my parents would take us to the Oakridge Library and let us borrow any books we wanted.


One night, we drive to the Kerrisdale branch--my mom or dad must have wanted a book there. As I’m pulling grown-up books off the shelves, I spy one called How to Write Action-Adventure Novels by Michael Newton. I start flipping through it. 


The book has advice on all the important writing questions: how to get your weapons details right, how to write sizzling sex scenes. I’m all of nine years old at the time.


But that book made me realize that someone had to write all these books on the shelves, and that those people weren’t necessarily geniuses drunk on the inspiration of the muses--that pretty ordinary people could write books, and do.


And 25 years later, here I am.


When people piss and moan about their lack of some type of success--or mine, which is always very kind of them--my standard response is this:

If you think of your writing as anything more than a product--something to be bought, consumed, and discarded--then you must forego the right to complain when your book doesn’t perform as the ideal product.


It’s why I hate the question “How’s your book doing?”--the book is the thing that is done


I’m lucky enough that I wrote something I’m proud of, that it was edited and agented by people who believed in it, and that it was put out by some of the best people in Canada.

Anything beyond that--foreign sales, TV sales, translations, another book deal--is a blessing that will come or won’t, and is entirely out of my hands, and must therefore occupy less mental space than that devoted to working on the next book.


You take your victories where you can. Sitting in my office this morning was a victory. 


In a day or so the elation will pass, and I’ll be subsumed in worry and anxiety about writing, about disappointing people looking to me for help, about not doing enough or doing it wrong--business as usual. But today was a moment.


I hope everyone reading this gets moments like that.

Go Back

Anyone who never gets moments like that is in the wrong line of work. That isn't said to harsh your mellow. What I mean is that there are lots of opportunities--both large and small--to get that, and the writer who doesn't look for them and cherish them when found is eventually going to dry up.

For example, in no particular order:
An award nomination
Getting the author's copies of the new book
Getting an acceptance letter
An unsolicited e-mail complimenting the book
Being asked for your opinion by someone you consider to be at least as good a writer as you are.
Meeting a writer you admire/respect and finding out he or she already knows who you are.
Looking back on something you wrote years ago and realizing that's pretty good.
Getting a line or phrase to come out just right.
Reading something to another person and seeing they love the part you weren't sure about.
Reading something to another person and hearing them laugh unexpectedly. (Assuming laughter is an appropriate response.)

The list can go on and on. Writers don't make much money and spend vast amounts of time locked in small rooms, alone. We need to take our victories where we find them.