The Essential-ness of Writing: Author Miriam Toews joins UC as writer-in-residence

Jennifer McIntyre
Magazine Section: 

Students at UC might want to keep an eye out for a distinguished (yet inconspicuous) visitor in their midst this fall.

After months of work-related travel, award-winning author Miriam Toews (pronounced Taves) is returning to Toronto, her adopted hometown, as this year’s Barker Fairley Distinguished Visitor in Canadian Studies.

(Toews laughs self-consciously about her impending title: “I can’t quite bring myself to say ‘Distinguished,’ she confesses. “How about ‘Fairly Distinguished’?” she quips.)

A native of Steinbach, Manitoba, and the younger daughter of Mennonite parents, Toews’ impressive (and, yes, distinguished) credentials include the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award for body of work, and two honorary degrees. She was awarded the Order of Manitoba in 2013.

These days, Toews is looking forward to unpacking her suitcases and getting back to what she does best.

“[Travelling] is kind of fun for a while, then it’s important for me to slow down, stop, and have a few years by myself in a small room writing books,” she explains.


Phases in a writer’s life

“There are phases in the life of a writer – a rhythm, a process. You write a book, then there’s editing, which takes about a year. Then the book is published, and [you spend] quite a lot of time travelling around and talking about a book that you wrote two, three years ago.

“And eventually there comes a time when you have to say no more moving around: I have to sit still and write.”

Being able to sit still and immerse herself in writing again, she says, was a huge part of the appeal of the Barker Fairley posting.

“The timing for it is really good,” enthuses Toews. “It will be great to meet students, to meet young people. It’ll be exciting to be on a campus and be a part of that energy, that exchange of ideas.”

A large part of her role will be speaking with students who want to be writers. Toews is frank about the obstacles, both external and internal, that aspiring writers face.


The “essential-ness” of writing

“Some people still have a difficult time understanding that it is our work, and that it’s valuable – that art in whatever form is something that a society needs; it makes us more complex human beings. It’s a part of civilization. Here in Canada, on the part of the federal government, there’s a real indifference towards the arts and funding, and that trickles down and affects the way that Canadians value art as well, and artists themselves.

“I think we have a long way to go in terms of people understanding the place that art has in our society, the essential-ness of it. But if you need to write, if you need to create narrative – if it’s like oxygen, like food, if it’s just where your brain goes, what you need to do to make sense of things – then you will be a writer.”

Toews’ own path to the writing life was somewhat circuitous, she says. “I had no great plan when I was a little kid. In school, it was always a fun thing to do, and there were times when I would keep a diary. But I was naturally drawn to stories wherever I could find them, whether it was in books, films, music, or orally.

“I studied film in university, and then journalism. And I can see now, looking backwards, that I was moving towards the idea of telling stories, and just trying to find the right way of doing it – for me, anyway.

“It’s a way of imposing narrative on things,” she says, “of shaping them, externalizing them so that they’re there outside of you.”

That aspect of writing is especially evident in her most recent novel, All My Puny Sorrows (2014), which draws heavily on events that almost shattered her: her older sister, Marjorie, killed herself in 2010, almost 12 years to the day after their father took his own life. The book almost magically transforms profound devastation and grief into a cohesive narrative infused with Toews’ trademark humour and warmth.

“It seemed useful to talk about [suicide], and to write about it. Sadly, people are afraid of it. Understandably: it’s terrifying. Generally, we don’t like to talk about the things we’re afraid of because that makes them real. But if we make them real, then at least we can deal with them, as opposed to them being spectres of horror just flitting about in our imaginations.”

For Toews, there is a clear line between those, like her, who simply must write, and those for whom it is a career choice. “When people say ‘I want to be a writer. How can I get some money? How can I get an agent?’ – I don’t really know about those things. That’s ‘The Industry.’ That’s not something that I think about, and it’s a world that I try not to spend too much time in.

“’The Industry’ and ‘writing’ are different things. [For me] there’s just the joy of writing, and creating narrative. The writing is the thing. I don’t want to sound naïve or somehow disingenuous, because I am able at this point to make a living from my writing, more or less. But you’re not going to produce anything worth reading if you’re doing it to fill some sort of hole in the market.”

Despite her successes, Toews confesses that her biggest challenge is still her own internal critic. Whether this is a product of her Mennonite upbringing, or simply the uncertainty intrinsic to so many Canadians, she’s unsure.

“My parents encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do; they were so supportive. But at the same time, I did live in that [Mennonite] community, in that day and age. Even though there were Mennonite writers, like Di Brand, who were trailblazers and mentors, there was always that nagging question, like in Alice Munro: ‘Who do I think I am? Why do I think that I have something to say, something that other people are going to want to hear?’

“It’s also from being Canadian, being a woman, being a prairie woman, being a Mennonite prairie woman… It’s like one layer after another.

“Self-doubt is a constant thing. Coming face to face with one’s limitations, shortcomings… It doesn’t matter how many years I’ve been writing. Obviously I get writer’s block and I don’t know what to write, but I think it’s [a matter of] giving myself permission, convincing myself that this is a useful thing to do.”

Toews spent the summer travelling and teaching before setting up shop at the UC Writing Centre.

“I think it’ll be a stimulating [time],” she says of the Barker Fairley post. “And hopefully I can be of use there as well – meet students, look at their writing. I love to talk about writing: it’s what I do.

“And I’m told I can even sit in on classes if I want to – I wouldn’t mind sitting in on some philosophy classes, some history, maybe some political studies.

“I’ll be very quiet, sit in the dark shadows in the back,” she says with her infectious laugh.

 “Nobody needs to know I’m here,” she says, sotto voce. “Carry on with your business as usual.”