Writer’s Block: Nora Decter

In our interview with Nora Decter, author of the recently published novel
What’s Not Mine—a darkly funny story of family, addiction, and survival—Nora tells us about the rare and elusive “perfect-writing” days, rewarding writerly moments, and why writing helps to regulate her emotions.

Photo of author Nora Decter


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Writer's Block

All Lit Up: Why do you write?

Nora Decter: It’s self-serving really, but I think at a basic level writing helps me regulate my emotions. Putting words to what I’m feeling, and then a story (because while there’s bits of me in my work, it’s also the distancing fiction offers that I’m after). That’s where the love of writing came from when I was young, and that’s what brings me back to writing as time passes too. It calms me and helps me make some meaning out of life.  

ALU: Which writers have influenced you or had the most impact on your writing?

ND: Miriam Toews has been a big influence since I first read A Complicated Kindness as a teenager. Then and now, I’m drawn to her tragicomic tone and her use of humour as resilience, but also her work made me believe I could be a writer in a few specific ways. From the Manitoba-ness of her novels, to the topic of mental illness in families that she returns to again and again—it bolsters me to know that you can have more than one go at exploring a topic or a theme. That I won’t be repeating myself if I return to a particular source of inspiration is encouraging to me.

The cover of What's Not Mine by Nora Decter.

ALU: Describe your perfect writing day.

ND: I mostly have extremely imperfect writing days, and I definitely expend more time and energy trying to make the most of a regular old writing day, filled with interruptions, inconveniences and distractions, than I do trying to replicate a perfect one. But for each of my books I have had a handful of truly dream-like days of writing, so I will describe one of those days for you.

About two hours outside of Winnipeg, not far from the edge of the Canadian shield, my family has a cabin on a deep, glittering lake. When I was 25, I absconded from my Toronto life to write full-time there for the summer. This terrified me—I was afraid of the financial risk, afraid my friends would forget me, but mostly I was afraid of what I would do when I couldn’t do anything other than write. Without distractions, and with a wealth of time, I would have no excuses.

In facing that fear, I discovered I do have books in me to write, if only I can get out of my own way and let them come. I also discovered that the ideal writing day, for me, comes after a few days straight of isolation and immersion in what I’m working on. Those weeks and months I wrote uninterrupted (I would repeat the pattern of subletting my apartment in Toronto and coming back to Manitoba to write four more times over the coming years) I found that after five days or so of steady writing, the work takes on a momentum, a life of its own. Thoughts of my own life fall away, becoming insignificant, while the book takes over. On days like this the book dictates my schedule. I’ll wake at strange hours and go immediately for the nearest page. I’ll forget to eat (not to glorify self-deprivation, I make up for it when the spell breaks) and find myself delaying, without realizing, other bodily needs like emptying my bladder or stretching my legs. Cups of coffee go cold at my elbow and hours melt away. If I need a break, I’ll go for a walk and upon returning jump in the lake, then, ready to be still again, I’ll go back to the book. If someone calls me on the phone, I’ll find myself weirdly mute, without anything much to offer outside of how the writing is going. It’s like me as a person becomes less real and urgent, while the book comes alive.

These days are rare and elusive, but when one comes, I know exactly how lucky I am. What a relief to get a break from the world, from yourself, for a while. I’m always writing towards that feeling. 

Nora’s workspace: On one side is my desk where I work when I’m feeling business-like and on the other is the sunny pull-out couch where I work when I’m feeling cozier.

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

ND: Being an artist amid late-stage capitalism of course. Doing something that is so personal and trying (sometimes, when I can muster the effort) to make money doing it is draining and discouraging. It’s best when I focus on writing for the writing’s sake, and not on having a writing “career.” It’s impossible not to compare and despair, to measure your own successes against others’, particularly with the beast of social media on our backs. When I feel best about my writing is when I am immersed in it, when I’m amusing my own self—when, dare I say, I don’t care whether anyone ever reads me, let alone what they think about what I’ve written. But it’s an impossible headspace to maintain at all times. I’m a frequent Instagram deactivator for that reason. We aren’t meant to be so aware of the accomplishments and general movements of so many other people, let alone other writers!

ALU: What was your most rewarding moment as a writer?

ND: The messages I’ve received from readers are the most enduringly rewarding part of writing books for me. People who have told me I got Winnipeg right, or adolescent depression right, or addiction. I recently got a message from a reader of What’s Not Mine who works on the front lines of the opioid epidemic thanking me for writing about the topic in a way that felt real and alive to her. That feels good in a way that won’t fade away.

Nora’s writing advice: I” wrote this ‘note to self’ when I was 21, posted it in my room and didn’t take it down for about a decade. It just seems to sum up what I most need to be reminded of.

ALU: What are you working on right now?

ND: Something that’s progressing at a good clip, but I’m afraid it might be terrible, and I’m afraid it might not be, because then one day it might be read! If nothing else, it’s good to have time to write and to have that feeling what I’m working on is a bit dangerous.

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Nora Decter is a writer from Treaty 1 Territory. She studied creative writing at York University and Stony Brook University, and in 2019 received the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for literary fiction for her YA novel How Far We Go and How Fast. Nora lives in Winnipeg with her partner and their two cats, near the foot of Garbage Hill.