Saturday, October 24, 2015

Seeking unsolicited advice? 'Don't quit your day job'

Meanwhile, at University of Toronto . . . .

Creative Writing, School Blog
With his latest book, Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation, author (and instructor at the School) Ken McGoogan plunges into the perpetual debate about Canadian identity: Who do we think we are? He argues that the Celtic ancestors of more than nine million Canadians arrived early enough and in sufficient numbers to shape the Canadian nation. Ken has published a dozen books, among them How the Scots Invented Canada, Fatal Passage, and Lady Franklin’s Revenge. He has won the Pierre Berton Award, the UBC Medal for Canadian Biography, the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize, and the Canadian Authors’ Association History Award. Ken voyages with Adventure Canada as an author-historian, and has taught creative and narrative nonfiction at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies for more than a decade.
Lee Gowan, head of the Creative Writing Program at the School of Continuing Studies had a chance to ask Ken some burning questions about writing and teaching.
Lee: Last summer, you gave a talk at the Summer Writing School entitled Top Ten Things Every Writer Should Know. What was your number one tip?
Ken: Number one? Don’t quit your day job. In 2015, the Writers’ Union of Canada published a survey of Canadian authors. Today, on average, we are making 27 per cent less than in 1998. If we relied solely on writing-related earnings, 80 per cent of authors would be living below the poverty line. Our average income: $12,900. Median income: less than $5,000. In the United Kingdom, things are even worse. The incomes of British authors have dropped 29 per cent in the last eight years. Less than 12 per cent of them make their living by writing, compared to 40 per cent in 2005.
Why are things so tough? We all know the digital revolution is transforming the book industry, wreaking particular havoc among independent booksellers. When a writer sells a book to a traditional publisher, he or she receives an advance against royalties based on projected sales. If a book is projected to sell 5,000 copies, the best advance you can hope for is $15,000, and that would be spread out over a couple of years. Wait, what about grants? Doesn’t the Canada Council offer grants worth $25,000? Indeed it does. But a writer can only receive two grants in any four-year period, which works out to a maximum of $12,500 per year. Most granting agencies have similar conditions. And landing a grant is ridiculously difficut. Too many applicants, not enough funds. Until you write a “breakout book,” think of writing books as a vocation. Don’t quit your day job.
Lee: What’s the best part about teaching Creative Writing at the School of Continuing Studies?
ken in tarbertKen: Best part: you’re working with people who want to learn what you’re teaching. They’re interested and motivated and that makes all the difference. These days, I teach online and also in the week-long summer school. Moving to online forced me to clarify and organize my thoughts. I could no longer skate by on my good looks and one-liners (ha ha). Also, ten weeks is just about right. Some courses run sixteen weeks, but in my view, that is too long. I like the summer school for different reasons: mainly, the intensity. It is amazing how much you can accomplish, and how well you can get to know each other. Finally, I am proud to be associated with University of Toronto, one of the leading universities in North America.
Lee: As an instructor at the School, you meet people at different stages of their development as writers. Tell us about a memorable experience of sharing your knowledge with students.
Ken: Working online, I have especially enjoyed interacting with writers based in Japan, Uganda, Seattle, or Singapore. Quite a number of my students have gone on to graduate studies, and a few have published books. Usually that comes later. In class, I get people to write on the spot. When I see a really creative response to a particular exercise, I get a kick out of that. Last summer, one writer knocked my socks off with a double-whammy, incorporating a point-of-view lesson into an exercise on plotting. Last month, when I launched Celtic Lightning in Toronto, I was thrilled to see more than a dozen former students turn out.
Lee: Has teaching at the School had any impact on your writing?
Ken: I believe that, by compelling me to think about craft (e.g., what is wrong here?), teaching at U of T has done so, yes. I see the result when I compare my latest book, Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation, with How the Scots Invented Canada, which I published in 2010. I do love that earlier work. But I think the new one is broader, deeper, more original, and better crafted. It is broader because it treats both Scottish and Irish figures. It is deeper because it does not confine itself mainly to those who have lived in Canada, but goes back to the 1100s and beyond. It is original in arguing that (1) Canadian historians have been wrong to assume the limitations of geographers; that (2) genealogists provide a better model for historians; and that (3) Richard Dawkins has introduced a mechanism that explains the transmission of values and ideas through generations and across oceans. Is the book better crafted? I believe so, and think that teaching has forced me to refine my craft, and to consider, for example, how best to incorporate personal presence and use it as a unifying device. You see the end result, I think, in Celtic Lightning. But that, finally, is a matter for readers to judge.
Thanks so much to Ken McGoogan for sharing his story with us.  Visit Ken’s website and Twitter to learn about upcoming classes and events.