“I’m in the third grade, and this is when I knew I was doomed to become a writer,” Robert Wiersema, UFV’s 2019 writer-in-residence, said. He tried to draw a comic strip of Martians invading the Earth, but — as he put it — he was “a terrible artist,” and he had to keep explaining what was happening when he showed it to someone. He realized then that it was much easier for him to tell a story than to draw one. “So I basically fell backward to the whole writing thing at a very young age.”
Since graduating from the University of Victoria with an undergraduate honours degree in English literature, Wiersema has published two novels, Before I Wake and Bedtime Story; a novella, The World More Full of Weeping; and the non-fiction Walk Like A Man: Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen. Currently, he teaches creative writing part-time at Vancouver Island University, and writes freelance for the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Maclean’s, and The Walrus, among others.
Someone who’s devoted much of their life to writing certainly must have plenty of ideas to draw from. Some writers jot down situations they pass by on their walk to work; others dream of them while sleeping and sketch out the remaining fragments when they’re still half asleep. What does Wiersema do?
“Myself, I have a soup pot on the back burner in my head and when I get scraps, they get tossed into the soup pot. I don’t know what it’s going to taste like. I don’t know what form it’s going to take, but eventually it’s been cooking long enough and there’s enough ingredients in there that something comes out,” Wiersema said.
For example, the novel he’s working on during his residency, Spindrift, found its roots in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, but it also draws from his surroundings in Victoria, as well as Diane Ackerman’s story on the containment of a mermaid.
Alternately, another novel he’s working on, The Fallow Heart, stems from a Tragically Hip song, which the Tragically Hip borrowed from author Hugh MacLennan, who borrowed it from filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who borrowed it from a Russell Banks novel that centres on the fallout of a bus crash in a small town. However, Wiersema’s novel focuses on the fallout of a car crash in a small town. Still, the thread follows through.
Wiersema’s novels steer toward the dark — and the strange. Before I Wake centres on a miracle (or curse) that links to the surfacing of a battle 2,000 years in the making; Bedtime Story sees a boy suffer a seizure before being sucked into a book where his soul is at risk of being devoured. Where does he get his influence from?
“Stephen King was a huge, continues to be a huge influence on me. I don’t think anybody comes close to what he’s done. He’s inspiring on a number of levels, both in terms of the work and the work habits, and in terms of the imagination and the work he puts out.”
Anyone who spends even minimal free time writing fiction will be familiar with the delicate balance of character building. Characters need to be well-developed and have bold, memorable tendencies and quirks so the reader won’t brush them aside, lose track of them, or become bored with the story. And, it’s safe to say if you’ve found yourself crafting memorable characters, you’ve likely also heard the question “Do you use people you know in real life in your writing?”
“In real life, if I did — wink — I would disguise them well enough that they would never be able to tell them to avoid getting this shit kicking I would so rightfully deserve,” Wiersema said.
Although Wiersema is mostly against building entire characters based on one individual known in real life, he does acquiesce that, although the saying “Write what you know” is an accurate one, there are other ways to build your friends and family into your story — albeit in pieces.
“If you know even a few people, you’ve got a fairly wide span of human characteristics and human traits to draw on.”
Some writers, like Hemingway and Kerouac, supposedly only wrote one draft, where Stephen King apparently does three or four. Wiersema, like many writers, errs closer to the side of King.
“The base is two. I do a full handwritten draft, which I then type out verbatim, and then I work from that and will tip in scenes and move things around. After that it’s typically the incremental working, and all of that’s done on the computer. It’s all sort of saved in separate data files, and it depends on how long I’m working on it.”
In an age where we can type a novel in the speed it would take to hand write two or three copies — and an age where it seems that, more and more, the speed at which you can finish something is valued over quality — why write a first draft by hand?
“Writing for me is a very organic, very physical process. There’s a direct connection from the pen to whatever part of the brain fiction comes from. And that’s part of the joy of it, the pleasure of the handwritten process. I write with a fountain pen, usually in a notebook. There’s a whole ritual that goes into starting a new project … There’s so much visceral, sensual pleasure in that process. And seeing a notebook fill up and with fountain pens, the ink goes on really wet. You have to wait for it to dry, but the way fresh ink catches the light, it’s just … you have to embrace the process.”
And the process, according to Wiersema, is one of the most important things to keep in mind when writing.
“It’s easy to lose sight of the process when you’re goal oriented. And one of the things I try to remind myself of is to savour the process, not worry about the end product, because you’ll get there day by day by day. You have to keep going.”
So, focus on the process. But every writer knows that, once they release their work into the world — even if they’re just showing a few friends or family — criticism is inevitable. And as a writer, or a painter, or anyone, you need to be able to identify and accept different types of criticism.
“There’s good criticism and there’s bad criticism. The reasonable criticism I have no problem with. And typically good criticism, even negative is good because it’ll bother me because they may be right. And bad criticism has missed the point.”
However, some criticism is easier to accept than others, and some is like trying to swallow an egg-sized rock.
“Well-written, well-reasoned, well-formed, well-supported criticism. Even if it’s negative or it hurts, you go, ‘Yeah, they may have a point.’ I think that’s why it hurts. You’re like, ‘Shit, busted. Damn it.’”
The great part of hearing or reading criticism about your work is that you get the chance to improve your work. The negative side of this is that, sometimes, the voices stick in your mind and this colours your work habits in the future. Specifically, many writers, upon hearing “negative” criticism of their work, stop writing. Wiersema advises against this.
“One of the pieces of advice I give to student writers who are just starting out is don’t wait. When you have something that’s coming out, keep writing. If you don’t have something that’s coming out, don’t rush. Savour this time in your life where it’s just you at the desk, where it’s not a negative review or your agent or your mom or your editor or your Beta readers because you have to be alone at your desk. If you start taking those other voices into account, I don’t think you get anything written. And if you do, it’ll never satisfy you because it’s not your work anymore.”
Alas, writers need to listen to some of the voices. Works of writing are, after all, often written with the goal of becoming published. And becoming published means you’ve got to keep in mind the people who will eventually read your work.
“It’s of paramount importance to write with a readership in mind. But it’s also of paramount importance to remember that you’re not going to please everybody, and if you try to please everybody, you’re going to suck and you’ll know it. Tamping down those voices, it’s hard sometimes.”
Now, you’re writing with your readers in mind, you’re preparing several drafts, you’re continuing to write even if you’re waiting on a different work to be looked at (and those with publishing experience know that the publishing world often moves at the pace of icebergs). Now what? You integrate it into your life so that it becomes akin to breathing or sleeping.
“What makes someone a good writer is someone who has a loyalty to the work, a routine habit. Someone who’s totally integrated into their lives. You get up in the morning; you don’t think about brushing your teeth before you leave, you don’t think about having a shower. You get dressed, you leave the house. You just do these things, and a working writer is someone who does that [with writing].”
Wiersema lives by his own advice. “When I’m writing, I write every morning. I get up at four, I write before the world wakes up, and I have a nap at 6:30 a.m. I’m writing always from that sort of liminal space between being asleep and being awake, and I write really long first drafts because it comes so easily. It’s just that the membrane between the consciousness and subconscious is so porous at that point.”
Despite his strict personal regime, the novels themselves don’t follow this pattern.
“I’m one of those people who does zero planning … I don’t know how the novel’s going to unfold and I tend to just follow the characters and let them lead, and sometimes they lead me wrong and sometimes they lead me to wonderful places where I couldn’t possibly have imagined them going.”
However, Wiersema doesn’t entirely fly by the seat of his pants. There is some foresight, regardless of whether planning is what led to it.
“Typically, I’ll know what the next scene or two is. So when I’m finishing writing for the day, I’ll jot down just a line or two: the next couple of things I think are going to happen. It’s the idea of driving in the dark. You only see what the headlights show you, but you get to where you’re going eventually.”
Even with headlights, we can see Wiersema’s writing leans toward the eerie and peculiar and mysterious; things that wouldn’t quite add up in real life. But some of his simplest, realistic, and most inspiring advice comes from a logical, analytical practice: math.
“How long is a novel? Well, 100,000 words for King, they start, but probably 125,000 to 150,000 words. If you’re writing five days a week and you’re writing a thousand words a day, you’re writing a full novel, a first draft in three or four months.”
He also draws inspiration from David Foster Wallace (writer of Infinite Jest and The Pale King, among others).
“‘In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.’ That speaks to me and it’s what I’ve always tried to do. I think that’s what I needed to be really cognizant of at this point.”
Dark times or not, Wiersema is UFV’s writer-in-residence for 2019 and is ready to get back to work on Spindrift and The Fallow Heart.
“One of the reasons I’m excited about this residency is that it’s sort of forcing me to get back to work. It’s giving me time. It’s giving me space, giving me support so that I can get back to work and I’m gonna use that. Just ask me again in three months.”
Wiersema’s teaching statement on VIU’s website states: “I believe, unequivocally, in the power of stories. Far from diversions, stories shape the world, and our understanding of it. My goal in the classroom is to assist students in their understanding of this powerful force, and their role in the ongoing line of stories; to help them understand the stories of others, and to present their own stories in way by which they can best be understood by others.”
If you have stories to share with Wiersema, feel a similar pull to the life of a writer, or want to chat about the powerful force that is writing, you can find him in D3009 every Wednesday and Thursday until the end of the semester.
Image: Mikaela Collins/The Cascade