Writer's Block: RM Vaughan
Writer, critic, video artist, and journalist RM Vaughan is a prolific creator. His most recent literary work is Bright Eyed: Insomnia and Its Cultures, published this month from Coach House Books as part of their Exploded Views series, exploring current cultural issues through probing, provocative essay collections. As a long-time sufferer of insomnia, Vaughan delves into the worsening culture of insomnia through the lens of his own experiences. One of the questions Vaughan asks in Bright Eyed is whether a culture of insomnia changes creativity. You'll have to read the book to find out his opinion on that particular topic, but in the meantime, he kindly answered a few of our questions about his reading and writing life.See more details below
Writer, critic, video artist, and journalist RM Vaughan is a prolific creator. His most recent literary work is Bright Eyed: Insomnia and Its Cultures, published this month from Coach House Books as part of their Exploded Views series, exploring current cultural issues through probing, provocative essay collections. As a long-time sufferer of insomnia, Vaughan delves into the worsening culture of insomnia through the lens of his own experiences. One of the questions Vaughan asks in Bright Eyed is whether a culture of insomnia changes creativity. You'll have to read the book to find out his opinion on that particular topic, but in the meantime, he kindly answered a few of our questions about his reading and writing life.
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What do you enjoy reading?
Everything. You name it, I read it. I don’t understand writers who only read “literature” or “the classics”, or, conversely, only so-called “genre” writing. Read it all, it’s all related.
I love comics, I love 19th century fiction, I love newspapers, I love murder mysteries, I love hard sci-fi, I love neurotic French poetry, and I am determined to read all of Henry James’ work before I die, or die trying. I try to read what I can in other languages (French and lately baby German) and I read new fiction from everywhere (in translation). I read blogs and obscure academic essays, art criticism, etc.
Right now I am reading a book written in the early 1970s about the various anthropological definitions and understandings of witchcraft and witches throughout European history. What the hell for? I dunno. I just am. I have a magpie brain. And I don’t keep books, ever. Once I read them, I give them to somebody else. Books are heavy and I am not in shape.
Writing is often described as a solitary pursuit (mine sure is, see below), but every writer works in continuous relation to every other writer, present and past – so, why wouldn’t you want to know the whole town, so to speak?
What’s one book you always recommend?
Whatever is currently available that happens to have been written by me.
Who is your favourite fictional character?
The one I know best: myself.
What advice would you give other writers? (Be creative!)
(genius is volume)
Is there one stand-out moment or experience you had that helped you realize you wanted to become a writer?
Honestly, I’m still waiting for such a moment. Of course, I am a writer, and I write, and I make my life writing, but I don’t feel I’ve ever fully realized, or will, that writing is what I do. I know that sounds strange and perhaps even indulgent, but I’m a classic Gen X type, and I therefore have trouble with definitive, and certainly self-celebratory, declarations.
On my best days I can say to myself “I write for a living”. However, I have a history too. So, I guess when I was attending the University of New Brunswick (Saint John) in the 1980s and started to have poems published in the local literary magazine The Cormorant, I noted that writing, as an occupation or even just a bad habit, was a real, improbable but possible thing to do between teaching gigs (gigs that never happened – I have so far avoided teaching, and the student world thanks me).
Do you have any rituals that you abide by when you’re writing?
I absolutely must start in the morning or I will not start at all that day. And I need quiet. And I need to be alone. And I have my good luck charms all around me – like a Bingo lady, but less well-dressed. I wish I was one of those writers who can write in a noisy café, but I’m not. I just end up staring at cute guys and the day is suddenly gone. When I first moved to Toronto, I lived with 3, and sometimes 4, musicians. Lovely guys, all very straight and very, very noisy (straight men are noisy, that is the truth, deal with it). I loved them and wanted to kill them. When I needed to work, I would walk over to Hart House and hide in a well-panelled corner, scribbling away on a notebook. That sounds romantic but it was really just desperate. Public spaces designated for study and work were much easier to find then, and even though I was still very distracted by the human traffic, I could bang out a few paragraphs.
The last time I went into a public library, about a year ago, it reminded me of a video game arcade from the 80s. That’s fine, that’s where our culture has moved, and I would never give up any of the machines that create all that aural clutter, because I use them and enjoy them too, but sometimes I miss designated quiet spaces, the sexiness of enforced calm and (at least the pretence of) designated time and set-apart space for study. On the other hand, Hart House often unnerved me because it felt like a church. All of U of T feels like a church. I’m never content.
What’s the most surprising thing about being a writer?
My continued survival always startles me, and I mean that in a very primal way, as in, I get to eat and sleep indoors. I was not raised to be living the life I am living. I grew up in semi-rural New Brunswick, and while my mother constantly stressed the importance of education, I was also told every day by the culture around me (one that has changed much for the better, I must note) that I should hope for little in life and expect to receive far less.
Nobody was an artist when I was growing up, and the closest thing around to a capital W writer was an elderly man my mother knew who sometimes wrote nice things about the Conservative party for the local paper. A Writer was Pierre Berton, and he was on television, in Toronto. These early life influences never leave you, and to this day, I consider the simple fact that I am not cutting hair or running a flower shop (the options suggested to me by one school counsellor) a wonderful, utterly surreal gift. Then again, I sometimes cut my friends’ hair, quite well, and I’m a pretty good gardener too, so who knows?
If you wrote a memoir, what would it be called?
I already did. It’s called Troubled: A Memoir in Poems and Fragments.
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I spent almost a quarter century living in Toronto and making every sort of thing you can imagine, and then, around the age of 47, I just kind of lost my mind and moved to Berlin. I’m still trying to figure out if I made a wonderful Julia-Roberts-in-Eat-Pray-Love choice or if I’m just a fool. And my German is terrible, just dreadful; a dog understands more German words than I do.
Speaking of, when I am in Berlin I have four dog friends (and a lot more human ones): Bonaparte, Gigi, Fina, and puppy Hercules. They live with other people but they love me beyond measure because I bribe them with treats. Bonaparte looks like Peter Lorre, so he is my favourite.
Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if I had stayed in Toronto, but then I come back to Toronto and I know exactly what my life would be like if I had stayed in Toronto.
Some of the books I have written include: A Selection of Dazzling Scarves (ECW Press), Invisible to Predators (ECW Press), Ruined Stars (ECW Press), Spells (ECW Press), Camera, Woman (Coach House Books), The Monster Trilogy (Coach House Books), Troubled: A Memoir in Poems and Fragments (Coach House Books), and most recently, Bright Eyed: Insomnia and Its Cultures (Coach House Books).
(author photo by Ryan Vaughan)
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Thank you to RM Vaughan for answering our questions and to Coach House Books, especially Heidi Waechtler, for connecting us.
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