Writer’s Block: Gary Barwin

The unbelievably talented Gary Barwin – who most recently authored the introspective essay collection Imagining Imagining (Wolsak & Wynn) – is equally introspective in answering our Proust questionnaire. Gary shares why perfection is overrated and why qualities in a good writer might not be the same as the ones in a good surgeon (and vice versa) below.

A photo of writer Gary Barwin. He is a light skin-toned man with chin-length grey hair and glasses, and he wears a black button down shirt against a black background.


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Writer's Block

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

Gary Barwin: For me, I think it’s learning to be comfortable and even confident with not knowing. Of course I realize that I’ve developed skill and technique over the years, but writing still feels like a process of discovery and figuring things out. If I needed brain surgery, I wouldn’t want my neurologist to feel this way. I’d hope for more settled mastery and knowledge. But as a writer, at least the kind that I aspire to be, part of the work is figuring out what the work even is. What should I write and how? What are the goals—they change—and is the thing I set out to write the thing that I’m discovering is actually the most interesting? I try to write, not what I want to write but what the writing wants. That’s different than the surgeon. I wouldn’t want them to cut me open and halfway through think, “Wow. It’d be so cool if I chopped this bit out. Imagine what a fascinating human I could make,” and so instead of excising the tumour or the blood clot or whatever they went in for, they tried something else. Of course even surgeons discover things when they go in and a good surgeon has to be flexible, but maybe not as flexible or inventive as a writer. I mean, I can always discard or revise something that isn’t working. Not such a good idea with patients. Writers discover or invent the patient, the illness, the treatment, the outcome, the tools, the hospital, the doctors, the family, and all the little black birds flying over the parking lot just outside cafeteria.

ALU: What are you working on now?

GB: I’m always working on multiple things at once—collaborations, multimedia, my abs, a variety of projects— but maybe the most notable thing I’m currently writing is a novel which I’ve been wrestling with for a few years. I had finished it, though I knew it wasn’t working, unless of course, I was wrong and it was utterly brilliant. So I hired an editor friend to read it and she said, “other than the plot, the characters, the POV and the setting, it’s working pretty well.” So I began again. I scrapped most of the book, eliminated most of the characters, changed the POV and started on the top left-hand corner of page one. I hadn’t had the gumption to red tag the draft so it was invaluable that my friend had helped me to be brave enough to push the old version off the cliff and start again. It’s going slowly, but I’m very happy about how its going. I think I’ve finally found the emotional and thematic centre of the novel. I’ve never had this experience before—entirely gutting a big project—but I remind myself that difficulty helps me draw out better, different, and more nuanced writing as I have to push myself, struggle with reinventing my writing and be willing to go to places that I have no experience with. But I’ll report back in six months and tell you if I still feel this way.

A comic strip style image titled "Best Writing Advice Ever". In speech bubbles that break through each cell of the comic, the words "The writing knows more than you" can be read.
Gary Barwin’s writing advice

ALU: Why do you write?

GB: There are many reasons but one of the reasons is that I write to discover why I write. In this sense, writing is a process rather than a product, though the result of writing is often particular works of writing. Even within one piece of writing, or one project, I think there are many motivations. I want to communicate—with other, the world, the fact of living, my known and unknown self, with our culture, with the past, future and present, with ideas and feelings. I want to spelunk my own cavernous self, to find out what’s there, what’s not, to learn by trying to articulate feelings or ideas. To understand language, to play with it, to have a dialogue with language, the world, the self, the human, the nonhuman, the tangible and the imaginary. To experiment and explore. To move through writing-time, language-place, making-fields, word-gravity, quantum-mind, to approach the singularities and black holes of creativity—that is, to have time and space, being and nonbeing, expand and contract. And while all of that is true, I also know that writing plays a psychological role for the childlike id of immature Gary: to prove myself, to make me feel less insecure. But all of this makes me think it’s time for a paraphrase of Mark Strand: “We all have reasons/for [writing]./I [write]/to keep things whole.”

ALU: Describe your perfect writing day.

GB: I’ve had many fantasies about perfect writing days. I’d pad out the cottage door somewhere on a rocky shore in Ireland and sit at a little table with a coffee and write all day, stopping occasionally to squint into the salt air or climb a mountain. Or maybe I’d be in Tuscany and everything is terra-cotta coloured except for the golden nearly terra-cotta light of the sun and here I am at a 700-year-old wooden table drinking wine and expresso, writing beautifully burnished and insightful prose from early morning until dark of night. But in reality, what I really want and believe in is to be open to a variety of processes of writing, of different kinds of days. I’m against perfection. It shuts down experiment, exploration and trusting the process. I’ve written work that I’m proud of in food courts, on buses, in the car while waiting for my family somewhere, sometimes beside someone’s hospital bed, and mostly, in truth, at my desk. I stop and start. Feel overconfident and insecure. Doubt the work and overshare. I feel the slow burning that I’m on to something. The electricity of being in the zone. I feel that the best days are days when I don’t prejudge the process or the work and try to swing open the imaginative gates and let what beasts, angels, jalopies, humans or words veer, swagger, careen, or slouch in. There’s never a perfect writing day, just days, better and worse, and that, honestly, feels how it should be.

A photograph of Gary Barwin's writing space: a dark-painted, cozy office with a view of trees out the window. There is a long desk with a computer and various other tools and objects on it, an easy chair with a footrest, and a typewriter on a small table.
Gary’s writing space.

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

GB: There are many joys and satisfactions about writing, in being able to work as a writer and doing things which are related to writing. Maybe the most difficult things for me is that I never feel done. I might try to arrive at a goal: it’s like trying to reach the horizon but no matter how far you travel, there’s always a new horizon, and a new goal. I want to write everything, to try everything, to make the next thing better than the last, but obviously that’s impossible. And this isn’t about trying to be more successful in terms of reception or external achievement, though of course, I’m not immune to aspirations about that. It’s more about discovering the next thing. The “this time I’m really going to go deep” feeling. And of course, it’s impossible. Part of writing is that you learn more about writing, so when you get to the end of one project, you know more about writing and yourself and so, you want to write something new from that knowledge. At least that’s how it feels for me. Sometimes I’m lying in bed in the morning and I’m tired and I have an idea and I think, “Damn, I have to haul my sorry sack of bones over to my desk and try this,” and so I frequently do. Not that it always works out or was worth getting out of bed for. Maybe there are points of arrival as a writer, but for me, there’s never a finish line. That’s inspiring, certainly, but it can also be exhausting. Until the next time, I can’t help it and so drag my weary writer-self to the computer and begin again, like I’m a literary Toad of Toad Hall off on another perhaps ill-advised but always irresistible escapade.

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Many thanks to Gary Barwin for filling out our Writer’s Block questionnaire. You can find more of Gary’s musings in his latest essay collection Imagining Imagining: Essays on Language, Identity, and Infinity (Wolsak & Wynn).

For more Writer’s Block interviews, click here.