Writer’s Block: Adrienne Gruber

Writer Adrienne Gruber contends with the chaos and beauty of being alive in her new book of essays on motherhood, Monsters, Martyrs, and Marionettes (Book*hug Press). In our Writer’s Block interview, we get a glimpse into that chaos and beauty; read on.

A photo of writer Adrienne Gruber. She is a light-skin toned woman with chin-length, straight blonde hair, wearing plastic-framed tortoiseshell glasses and a navy tank top with two seahorses on it.


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Writer's Block

All Lit Up: Do you have any rituals that you abide by when you’re writing?

Adrienne Gruber: I don’t have rituals so much as I have some loose routines. I wish I was the type of person to have writing rituals because it sounds cool and mysterious, but my writing brain is pretty mainstream. I have a small office now (the size of a literal closet, because it was once an actual closet!), but I still tend to go to coffee shops or the library to write because it’s easier if I’m away from my kids, who are all over the house. I like having a coffee with me. In some ways I’m more productive when I have less time to get writing done. I’ve started doing some of my writing on my ferry commutes. I live on a small island off the coast of West Vancouver, and it’s a twenty minute ferry ride for me to get to work (I teach high school in West Van), so lately I’ve been using those ferry rides to get some concentrated writing time in, and I find it’s been helpful having those very short specific periods of time to use for my writing.

All Lit Up: What’s the most surprising thing about being a writer?

Adrienne Gruber: How satisfying it can be when you have a breakthrough, or complete a piece, and how crucial that feeling of satisfaction is to my sense of self. How much I need to write, no matter what else I’m doing or how productive I am in other avenues of my life. If I’m not working on a book, even if I’m essentially juggling fifty million other things, most of which society would deem much more legitimate than my writing, I do not feel okay inside. It’s both weird and wonderful to experience this.

All Lit Up: What are you working on now?

Adrienne Gruber: I’m working on a memoir that explores the psychological impacts of being part of the ‘sandwich generation’ – a term that describes the generation of parents that are caring for their own parents while also raising young children. A few years ago, my aging parents moved into the house with us and lived in our basement suite, and during that move it became clear that my dad was developing cognitive issues. He was diagnosed with dementia the following year. My mom has mobility issues and mental health issues. They lived with me and my family for two years and are now in an independent living facility. The experience of trying to support them as they decline, much faster than expected, as well as also being a parent and a full-time teacher, has had lasting repercussions on my mental health.

Currently I’m working on the shape and form of the book, as it is comprised of several chapters that are structurally unconventional and five sections that are more traditional narrative non-fiction, so I’m in that liminal space of experimentation. It’s both an exciting and unnerving place to be, as I have a clear emotional vision for the book, but not a clear structural vision. I’m trying to allow myself the time and space to simply write the sections I need to write, how I need to write them, and not worry too much about the end result right now. It’s a bit of a challenge because I feel a need for this book to reach others in this same stage of life, grappling with the same unsustainable level of care taking. There’s me, the writer, who wants the book to accomplish certain things, and then there’s me, the complex emotional human, who wants to connect with others through this book. Which is strange, because I’ve never felt this internal conflict before, I’ve always just written what I wanted to write and not worried about whether it reached a wider audience.

A photograph of Adrienne Gruber's writing space. A small desk with an Apple laptop on it sits before a window, with a velvet, upholstered chair at the desk. A curly-haired dog sits on a child on the chair. The child is peeking out from behind the dog's back.
Adrienne’s office.

All Lit Up: What’s the toughest part about being a writer?

Adrienne Gruber: For me, it’s knowing that it is something I need to do to feel content and whole within myself. In some ways, that’s the best part too, because it keeps me connected to this part of myself that could so easily be eroded in the slog of life. I feel a bit in the trenches these days with three young kids and a teaching career, both of which demand a great deal of mental and emotional energy, but adding writing into the mix tips the scale into a level of exhaustion that makes me wonder how I am functioning. I could drop the writing at this point in my life, put it on hold for a time when things are less busy and chaotic, but I would feel dead inside if I did that, so what choice do I have?

All Lit Up: What do you enjoy reading?

Adrienne Gruber: I mostly read non-fiction these days, and I’ve been loving some of the less conventional work I’ve read over the last few years, like Heather Christle’s The Crying Book and anything by Sarah Manguso. I tend to read in the genre I’m writing in, so when I was writing poetry, I read mostly poetry. When I was working on my book of essays, I was reading mostly essays. These days I’m reading more full-length memoirs, like Melissa Febos’ Girlhood, but also looking at unconventional memoir writing, like Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House and Rowan McCandless’ memoir, Persephone’s Children: A Life in Fragments.

I will say, I’m reading the occasional novel these days and enjoying that again. I don’t read a lot of fiction, partly because I don’t write fiction and it just doesn’t spark with me as much as non-fiction, but I just finished Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow (I know, I’m late to the game) and loved it. His writing is gorgeous, and his character development is really intriguing. It felt good to be gripped by a novel again.

All Lit Up: Have you experienced writer’s block? What did you do about it?

Adrienne Gruber: I experience writer’s block constantly. I write in fits and starts, so most of my day-to-day life as a writer is knowing what I want to do with my work, but the actually sitting down and writing part is excruciating. I have a horrible attention span and I want instant results – I blame my smart phone and my shameful addiction to Instagram for that, but also the constant interruptions in my life, both from my kids but also from all the shit on my to-do list that is ever-expanding – and that bleeds into my executive functioning as a writer.

It’s been interesting working on this memoir because I cannot, for the life of me, write linearly, so everything comes out very disjointed and I have no clue how it’s all going to come together. I don’t know how novel writers do it – keep track of characters and plots and subplots and backstories. I’m writing about my own experiences, and I can barely keep it all together. But writing is a bit compulsive for me, so I kind of just chip away at it.

It’s also often part of my emotional processing – I don’t journal and never will, but I find writing poetry or creative non-fiction about certain issues or experiences that have been painful or difficult is usually a crucial part of moving through that experience. I guess I think of readers as my ultimate witnesses, and maybe I need these periods of my life to be witnessed, to feel like I’m not just alone out here in the thick of my weird little life.

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A photo of writer Adrienne Gruber. She is a light-skin toned woman with chin-length, straight blonde hair, wearing plastic-framed tortoiseshell glasses and a navy tank top with two seahorses on it.

Adrienne Gruber is an award-winning writer originally from Saskatoon. She is the author of five chapbooks, three books of poetry, including Q & A, Buoyancy Control, and This is the Nightmare, and the creative nonfiction collection, Monsters, Martyrs, and Marionettes: Essays on Motherhood. She won the 2015 Antigonish Review’s Great Blue Heron poetry contest, SubTerrain’s 2017 Lush Triumphant poetry contest, placed third in Event’s 2020 creative non-fiction contest, and was the runner up in SubTerrain’s 2023 creative non-fiction contest. Both her poetry and non-fiction has been longlisted for the CBC Literary Awards. In 2012, Mimic was awarded the bp Nichol Chapbook Award. Adrienne lives with her partner and their three daughters on Nex̱wlélex̱m (Bowen Island), B.C., the traditional territory of the Coast Salish peoples.