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Words and Music: Alison Pick and Jim Bryson

Brad Frenette

Words and Music pairs up a Canadian novelist or poet with a Canadian songwriter for a conversation about the art and process of writing.

In the first installment, Alison Pick, a novelist from Toronto, trades emails with Ottawa-based singer-songwriter Jim Bryson about time, space and writing.

Pick: Well, since you just had a baby, and since this is a question that’s often asked only of women, I’d be interested in hearing how you balance your creative life and parenting. It’s hard for me to understand how anyone does anything with small children at home, and the kind of travelling I do, which feels pretty rigorous, must be nothing in comparison to the kind you do as a musician.

Bryson: That balance you speak of is the trickiest part of my life these days. I want and feel like I need to play music to feel whole, but I also want and need to feel like a real, constant and dependable member of the family.

Stuart Mclean told me one night: "Jim, you know the quality of you as a father is not entirely measured by the quantity of time you spend. There are a million terrible parents who are there all the time and so many great parents who do jobs and work that take them away for so much more time than you spend away." These are not direct quotes, but that was the basis of it.

Finding this balance is difficult and honestly, that call home every day predicts the quality of my day: basically, if they are OK, I am OK.

Pick: I love that thing about quality versus quantity. I can hear it over and over and never fail to be reminded and relieved. It seems to apply not only to parenting time, but to writing while trying to be a parent as well. Everyone predicted it, and sure enough, it’s true: I get a hell of a lot more done in an hour now than I used to, and am a lot less precious about the situations in which I can write.

For years I wouldn’t even talk to my partner first thing in the morning. It was a cup of black coffee and straight to my desk. I’d snap if he dared to turn the radio on. Now there are Cheerios and toothbrushes and (kill me now) snowsuits to deal with before the precious silence of paper and pen. I’m also teaching much more than I used to, and have way more career-related email to deal with, so working only when inspired is no longer really an option. I miss those early days of writing only for writing’s sake, and although at the time I would have killed for the obligations/privileges I have now, part of me longs to have that uninterrupted time back.

How do you find the time to write amid all your other responsibilities? What’s your process looking like these days?

Bryson: I am still in my life trying to figure out what the writing process actually is. I try to play a fair amount and see if it inspires. I do not have a schedule and frankly, every time I have tried scheduled time for writing, the results are never the greatest.

My best results come from a catch-me-if-you-can type of work: late at night, early in the morning and keep going if something real is there. For my money, there is no better feeling than going to bed feeling inspired.

Also, I often end up writing around times of reading: I came up with “Firewatch” while staring at a Ken Babstock  poem and simply reading or singing his words to chords and out of nowhere structure, and a semblance of structure, came along. I finished the song without the poem and I guess you could say bastardized the written word for the crooned.  

Ken approved and I have since been doing more of that: the viewing of words is a great springboard to more words for me. Lots of variety in where they come from: I once wrote a song on a trigger from the Globe and Mail business section. Funny how poetic the talk of our collapse can be.

Process you say? I wish I had a definite one. I am hoping in the next year to get away and try a writing residency program. I know people that swear by them. While part of me fears two weeks of staring at a wall, the other half knows that new surroundings and some focus and routine would be an interesting experiment.

The other half of my musical life is recording and I try to go away to do that. Throw away the clock and work at any hour that makes sense. The physical act of getting away immediately makes me in tune with the reality of the process ahead, whatever it may be. I try to not have too many rules and hope I can keep the walls down just enough to let something good get in if it wants to come in.

How do you work your way out of ruts?

[Video: Bookends: Episode 3 – Alison Pick, Far To Go]

Pick: There are lots struggles I face as a writer – how to manage my time, how to earn a living – but weirdly writer’s block isn't something I usually come up against. I have the opposite problem: many ideas and a lot of enthusiasm, but not enough time to actually get it on the page. This is partially because of the young children thing, and partially a result of the happy problem that (my latest novel) Far To Go just keeps going. For the past two years almost all my "writing time" has been spent answering blog questions and booking flights for festivals. So, hmm. I'm not answering your question here, am I? For inspiration I read, usually poetry. And for pages I don't want to throw in the fire I just start again.

You're such a ridiculously talented writer that I confess to being slightly relieved by the implication that everything you write isn't gold the first try.

Bryson: The best thing I can say is that I have rarely ever had to write with a deadline, which put far less emphasis on what is happening and when it is happening. I generally have collected songs and at one point started lists to see where it all stands as far as numerical counts of completed pieces.

Recording and mixing and mastering seems to sometimes last forever and the wait until things actually get released is no cat nap. I like the idea of challenging myself for my next project to have it released within a couple of months of starting it, but time will tell. There are people I know who are constantly a full record ahead of themselves, meaning they are finishing writing a new record as the current one is just being released.

In music, I know a lot of people who feel the time they feel most special with the music is before anyone else had heard and frankly, told them they do not like it. But we live in a world of constant validation with music: what other line of interest requires constant applause to help you forge on.

How do you find the post-writing time while you await its release date to be?

Pick: I agree that the time before a book comes out is wonderful. Nerve-wracking, to be sure, but everything is still up for grabs, and there's a purity to the relationship between the artist and the work that seems to get sullied after, regardless of how it's received. I was shocked by that in the weeks after my first book came out. It was a little book of poetry – and who reads poetry, right? – but I felt somehow that my privacy had been invaded when people (all three of them) began to read it, and – gasp! – respond. I'm not sure what I expected. But the act of putting work out in the world is so diametrically opposed to the very intimate act of creation. With each successive book I've enjoyed that time more, resting before the upheaval of publication, which continues to happen no matter how much I will it not to.

Alison Pick’s most recent novel, Far To Go (House of Anansi Press), was longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Jim Bryson’s most recent album is The Falcon Lake Incident (Kelp Records), recorded with Winnipeg’s the Weakerthans.