Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Week in the Life

A moment with the publisher.
A week ago, I was racing against the ticking clock to finish the last essays for the semester. Including revised essays and some makeup essays, I had about 120 to grade in just under four days. The first day, I got only five done, so the bulk was done in three days. That's almost 40 essays a day. To put that in perspective, I can, on a very good day, grade somewhere between 12 and 20, usually closer to the former.

On top of that, I couldn't sleep. It was mostly the adrenaline rush, and the less sleep I got, the more my brain compensated, allowing me to get nearly all the essays done and passed back to my students by Wednesday morning, but there was still a stack of about twenty or so that needed to be done before I could begin final tabulation--always a joy, but at least Excel lately has made that task easier.

So, working on less than two hours sleep in nearly three days, I went home Wednesday afternoon, intent on napping for an hour. Didn't happen. The wheels kept on turning. The thoughts pinged off the walls of my brain and kept me staring at the ceiling. Around 3:30 p.m., I got up and started thumbing through my copy of Moonlight Sketches for an excerpt to read at the book launch. The good thing about not getting any sleep, I was impervious to nervousness.
Of course, in the run-up to this state of affairs in the days before, I could be seen putting up posters all over campus, sending out (and responding to) dozens of emails. Then, on Tuesday, I received a call from my publisher saying the books had arrived from the printer and I could come see them. Seizing a propitious moment when I would have been taking a short break from grading anyway, I visited my book--which, for a short, obnoxious time, I was referring to as "The Precious." I was so thrilled by the look and feel of the book in my grubby little hands that I received an energy boost, but it was nearly impossible to focus on finishing those essays. Tick-tock, tick-tock. That was Tuesday afternoon.

By Wednesday evening, I was like a zombie--but an excited zombie. To put it in perspective, I have been writing, in one form or another, since the early 1990s. There were a few earnest years of simply putting pen to paper (literarlly, since computerization had not infiltrated the masses just yet), trying to figure out if I really was a writer and what kind of writer I would be. I won't go into detail here--not right now--about what the answers to those question were and how I actually decided that, yes, I could do this. Suffice to say, I had plenty of encouragement from editors at places like Random House, New York, as well as major American magazines. I felt, for the longest time, all I had to do was keep on going and the magic would happen. Hard work reaps great rewards, I believed.

Reading from "Fish of the Damned."
So I kept writing and writing. One novel manuscript, then another and then another. You get the picture. It really wasn't until I started writing and submitting short stories that I began to see a crack in the darkness. In 1998, I published my first short story--remember, I didn't write any short stories up until then, and I don't really count the ones I wrote as an undergrad, one of which actually found its way into the student MESS magazine (a feat I didn't truly appreciate, I admit, because the story was semi-autobiographical and therefore felt like cheating). In 1999, I won an arts and letters "Honourable Mention" award for an excerpt from my novel-in-progress and in 2000, that same novel won the Percy Janes First Novel Award for an unpublished first manuscript.

I was on my way, right? Lots of interest. Publishers and agents took me seriously. To this day, I have never received one of those nasty rejection letters that some people get. They've always been encouraging, always pointing out the strengths in my writing. They rarely mentioned any weaknesses, other than the fact that they didn't want to publish it. A couple of agents came extremely close to signing me and one publisher kicked the tires for nearly two whole years, in which time I re-wrote that prize-winning manuscript several times in an effort to get it published. I began my Ph.D. program in 2000 and gradually I was consumed by the doctoral monster--classes, seminars, an endless stream of gigantic essays to write, studying dozens upon dozens of books in preparation for comprehensive exams, and then, of course, there was the giganto-thesis--"me manifesto" as I called it. Somewhere along the way, my writing career had taken a backseat to life. And by that I mean that it was dead in the water, having never arrived.

So last Wednesday night was like a dream--all the more so because I was severely overworked and underslept. But I was giddy, as was evidenced by the fact that I surely hugged everyone in the room. But it was genuine affection on my part, and I assume on theirs, because of both the weight and the levity of the moment. It was a time for celebraing, and it felt like it wasn't just a celebration of my book or even necessarily of me, but of the very idea of perseverance in order to fulfill one's dream, what has been a part of me for so long--and denied me for so long--it begins to feel like a destiny and a quest. And, to be perfectly melodramatic about it, it was like finally pulling the sword from the stone.

Talking. Talking. Talking. My favorite part.
I have no idea how many people were there, but the room was packed. The first people I saw when I walked in were my brother-in-law, Matt (who bought me my first  computer a long time ago, as a loan that I ultimately repaid) and his wife Jenn, who are always very supportive of my writing, always have been. There was Helene Staveley and her husband Brian, sitting in the big chairs like guests at a fancy party--which they were. And, of course, my publisher and her assistant, Donna Francis and Pam Dooley (who started working there less than two weeks earlier), were selling books and keeping things runnings smoothly. Those were the early-comers I remember. Then, suddenly the room was filling up--I next saw my old professor, Roberta Buchanan and her friend, followed by my very dear friend of nearly twenty years, Allison and her husband Stephen. My friend Mike Heffernan, a fine author himself who introduced me that night, as well as the cover artist Darren Whalen. Then came my sister-in-law Katherine and her partner, then writers Jessica Grant, Chad Pelley, Russell Wangersky and Sam Martin, then one of my former students, Carla, Kayla and then Megan, and then another and then another and another. I was utterly shocked to see so many students there from the past twelve years (shout-out to the amazing Jo-Ann!). My wedding day notwithstanding, it was the most gratifying day of my life. I could easily list everyone who was there--I remember you all. I remember a moment with each and every one of you.

Throughout the night, I had three thoughts that I distinctly recall a week later. One was that I felt like Bilbo Baggins and now would be a perfectly good time to disappear and go off on some big adventure. The other was that I had some notion of what it feels like to attend your own funeral, with all those faces from the past, people just showing up to say they thought of you, remembered you, and wished you well. Not everyone gets to have that experience, and, morbid as it sounds, I treasure it.

The other thought, of course, was that I was the richest man in town, just like George Bailey in my favorite Christmas-themed movie, It's a Wonderful Life. After years of paying my dues, keeping my head down, doing good work and trying my best to help anyone I could in any way they asked, I felt like it was all coming back to me. There were moments of darkness in those years before I published, times when I wondered why I even did it and what the reward was. Now I can see it. It's not about the book; it's not about how many you sell or whether you win any awards or get great reviews. This was a chance to bring together my friends, some family, former students who were now my friends and even some family and colleagues whom I consider to be my good and treasured friends. I felt like Sandra Bullock on the night of the Oscars, asking: "Did I really do something to deserve this, or did I just wear y'all out?" It was a fantastic night.

I didn't sleep that night. I was all wound up, talking nonstop to my amazing wife about what it was all like, about what surprised me most, about who I was glad to see. It turns out that I was glad to see everyone. The line-up for the book signing was long. I was eager to talk to each and every person who had bought a book and wanted me to sign it--but also there were people whom I know (because they were students, mostly) didn't have the money to buy a book, and just wanted to show up and show support, which I dearly appreciated. But I had a connection with nearly everyone in that room. Every one of them knew what this night meant to me--some were more aware than others, of course. My good friend Wendy put it in pespective when she half-jokingly said, "I've had this date circled on my calendar since 1994."

Since last Wednesday, I've made an attempt to get life back to some sort of normal. There've been papers to grade and literally hundreds of emails to answer. I'm almost through them all. There was an interview with Weekend Arts Magazine's Angela Antle a couple of days after the launch. It wasn't my first CBC interview, but it was my first one in which I talked about my own writing, about a book I'd published. To me, it was like appearing on Oprah's post-Oscar show the day after the Oscars ceremony. There's no feeling quite like it.

There is a small part of me that doesn't want to let go of this feeling. But it's necessary to get on with normalcy, whatever that means. I do feel that my life has been changed forever. There are book signings coming up (April 30 at Coles bookstore, and a reading/signing at Chapters on May 15), another radio thingy on Saturday (this time live on CHMR, the local universty station) some invitations to literary festivals throughout the summer and fall, and various opportunities that come from having published a book. Next week, when I've finished grading final exams, I'll take a deep breath and look out through the window of my new favorite coffee shop on Water Street and try desperately to feel all this, to know that it happened and that good things will come from now on. I can stop trying now and just do and be what I've always been. That part of it is over.

The excited zombie in action.
But there's more to come--because I've got a novel almost finished, soon to be submitted to my publisher. Maybe next year, I can launch my first novel into the world. And you're all invited to the party, to do it all over again, as a celebration of life. Not just my life, but the ideals of perseverance, friendship andthe enjoyment of life itself.

It's all just one gigantic kick at the darkness, ain't it?

Thanks, all, for being there--not just physically but in other ways, too. I really do feel like the richest man in town.

And, oh yeah, I finally did sleep on Thursday night, perhaps the biggest triumph of my entire week.


(All photos courtesy of my friend Helene Staveley. I'll post official photos, if there are any, when they become available.)


  1. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. :)

    Lovely. Thank you for sharing this. It's a lovely bird's-eye view for anybody, but most particularly for those of us who couldn't be there.

  2. It was my pleasure. I'm glad you feel that way because that's exactly why I posted it. Didn't want to miss the opportunity and lose the details. Although most of the details are still exclusively in my head. So many unforgettable moments etched in my brain.