Writer's Block: Meg Todd

October 13, 2022

Meg Todd, ReLit Award shortlisted author for her short story collection  Exit Strategies (Signature Editions), answers our questions on the book that started her on writing (eventually), how a perfect writing day might not look like there's any writing at all, and her next book - a novel - in the works.

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All Lit Up: Is there one stand-out moment or experience you had that helped you realize you wanted to become a writer?

Meg Todd: Years ago, a close friend gave me Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and I put it on the bookshelf, unopened. Eventually I gave it away. I told my friend she was delusional. What gave her the idea that I wanted to write?
But my friend knew me better than I knew myself. Or perhaps I’d let something slip at some point because when did I not have the dream to be a writer? I remember the thrill of a blank page in elementary school—anything could happen! I remember stepping into the lives of the characters in my first-grade primer. I remember being read to from pages and pages of just words, the accompanying pictures forming unbidden in my head.

My own world was narrow, even paltry. We had no television. We lived in the country. Friends were far away. Books filled our home and those books, whether encyclopedias, Penguin classics, mysteries, or Reader's Digest condensed books, held vast, wonderful worlds far away from my own. Imagine being the creator of those worlds!

But dreams don’t often come true and so I left it alone. If I met someone who was a writer, I’d feel a sharp pain in my chest. Not envy exactly. More like awe. And intense longing. But still, I didn’t act. If I tried and found it impossible, I’d no longer have the dream. Better not to try.

Years later, when our son began to paint, my husband and I encouraged him. He had a talent, we said, and he ought to try to develop it. He owed it to himself. He’d be a better person for having tried. I thought about this and remembered my friend and her belief in me. I realized I was being hypocritical. And so, in the spirit of solidarity with my son, I went to the book store. I purchased Writing Down the Bones and I started to write.

 

ALU: What’s the most surprising thing about being a writer?

MT: I can’t not do it and this surprises me. The thrill of creating something from nothing, creating people who become intimate friends, people who appear in your dreams and speak to you over the course of your days, creating places you can no longer distinguish from physical spots where you’ve actually been. Having a second life. All of that surprises me less than the compulsion. It feels a bit like an addiction.

 

Meg's writing advice, that looks like an email. The subject reads: "Looking forward to your feedback" and the body of the email reads: "Dear Trusted Reader, You are so important to me and I thank you for your insights and suggestions. Every writer needs a person like you! Best wishes, Meg."

Meg's writing advice.

 

ALU: What are you working on now?

The cover of Meg Todd's Exit Strategies. A silhouetted figure appears at the top of a park's staircase, with the foliage surrounding, framing them.

MT: Since the publication of Exit Strategies in 2021, I’ve turned my attention away from short fiction to a novel. It is a story about a single mother of one who struggles with the guilt of having caused her daughter’s behavioural problems and is inclined to make very poor choices as a result of similar poor choices made by her own mother. The novel began as the diary of the daughter but has become the mother’s story. The addition of a narrator who has some perspective on this woman’s life has added a new component.

The novel requires my mind to be open. Nothing is off limits. It’s my responsibility to collect the details of each character’s life, to be familiar with their likes, their worries, their hobbies, their aspirations. Even the embarrassing stories of their youth, the things they’d like to forget. I need to know their backstories and their futures. I need to know everything about them. It’s a lot to hold onto and it feels like a huge responsibility. Their lives are in my control. I must think about consistency and flow and plot and the development of the multiple characters as well as the nuanced connections between them.

Sometimes I need a break from this expansive thinking and that’s when I go back to the short story. I’m seeking to narrow my mind, forcing it to home in on the specific. It’s an exercise in intense focus and this change from wide to narrow can help me work through things in the novel. At the moment, that short story has to do with estranged sisters, an artist, and a mother contemplating death.

 

ALU: Why do you write?

MT: There are so many beautiful and powerful books in the world, books that linger in the mind and become part of us, books that stand the test of time and books that speak specifically to the present. Who am I to imagine I can contribute to this collection? The question looms large and can make writing impossible. I imagine it’s the same for a visual artist. Why do I paint? Does the world need another painting? Another sculpture? Another photograph? On the one hand, the answer is no, maybe not. But on the other hand, maybe it’s not that we need, it’s that we want, we crave. Aren’t we forever pouring through the library stacks and the bookstore shelves hoping to find the right book, the perfect book, the best book for where we are right now in our lives? And don’t we always want something new and something more? But that doesn’t answer the question. Why do I write? I try to stop sometimes. And sometimes I wish I’d never started. It haunts me in a way I could never have imagined it might. When I am not writing, when I’ve stopped for a period for whatever reason, I feel free. I have loads of time and get huge amounts of work done. But when I’m writing…when I’m writing an impossibly enormous world opens before me. It’s a world that’s inaccessible to me unless I am inside the space of writing. Writing opens the door to an alternate universe, to another side of my brain. And when I’m in that place, I catch a glimpse of what might be. This is why I write. Why I keep writing.

 

ALU: Describe your perfect writing day.

MT: A full day. A day when I bake four loaves of brown, when I vacuum top to bottom, dust and polish, mow the lawn, go for a walk. A day when I do all of that, working alone, but not alone. The story is with me. Bits and pieces. Snippets of dialogue. Aha! moments. The event in the life of him or her or both of them that will change them forever. How the event evolved. Why the situation arose. The emotions. The anger. The cynicism. The joy. The realization. These creep into what I’m doing. They’re woven into every fibre; they fill the cracks of the day. What’s wrong? my husband asks because I’m furiously pounding the dough into the counter, lips moving as I discuss with so-and-so why I feel this way or that. I am consumed. And when the day is over, not only have I lived a life much fuller than my real life, which is as mundane as that of the next person, but I’ve captured that which I needed on the page. That’s a perfect writing day. The day that ends with my characters following me into my dreams. The day when story and life become indistinguishable.

 

Meg Todd's writing space. Pine trees are visible through the twin windows set into the wall. Before that, a closed laptop sits on a warm wooden dining table.

Meg's workspace.

 

ALU: Have you experienced writer’s block? What did you do about it?

MT: When I finally see what the story wants, where it is going and how it will get there, I feel as though I can write anything in any place at any time. But when the story eludes me, when I can’t figure out why this or that is happening or even what the story is about, I sometimes have to put it aside or walk away from it all together. It can be a very discouraging feeling.

I am not someone to plot and plan a story. I tend to start with a sentence, a place or a person, and then I follow. Sometimes my characters are difficult. They won’t take shape, they don’t reveal their needs and wants. No matter how long I sit, no matter where I follow the story, no matter the number of words on the page, nothing sticks. Writer’s block. It is discouraging and even depressing and any elation I might have felt when things were going well mere days or weeks before has disappeared from my mind and is replaced by nothing. Nothing at all. I’m stuck. Perhaps I’ll never write again. I cook, I knit, I garden, I read. I go about my business and forget about writing.
Except that I don’t. I can’t.

I go back. I sit and I write. Useless pages, hopeless pages.

And then one day, months later, for no discernible reason, I’m carried along. Something happens. And just like that I’m lost again in the words, living someone else’s life, happily.

 

ALU: What’s the toughest part about being a writer?

MT: The answer that comes to mind immediately is isolation. You sit and think and you write and re-think and write more, for hours, days. And while you’re doing this, you’re in that fabulous, rich world of your imagination. But then you get up and move into the common space of your home, and you realize that friends and family members have no idea where you’ve been, and even though you try to explain, you never quite get there because it’s your world, yours alone, and, until it’s published, it doesn’t exist outside of you. But the truth is, the isolation is also the best part. It’s as though you’ve tapped into a secret field of endless riches that’s yours alone to explore and do with as you will.

 

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Meg Todd grew up in Calgary and currently lives in Vancouver. She studied Eastern Religious Studies at the University of Calgary and completed her MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. Her work has been published in Prairie Fire, Riddle Fence, Grain, EVENT, The Humber Literary Review, The Windsor Review and The New Quarterly. She was a finalist for the CBC short story prize, Room Magazine's fiction contest, New Letters' Robert Day Award and The Puritan's Thomas Morton Memorial Prize, and the CRAFT Literary Short Fiction Prize.

 

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Many thanks to Meg for answering our Writer's Block questionnaire! 

 

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