Simple Rules for Writing, with Gary Barwin


When we write, whatever story we’re telling—whether it’s a literal, fictional story, or the driving force behind another genre of work—has to come from somewhere. 

Author Gary Barwin found his stories by looking into history, his memories, and his experiences. But it was learning more about a history he is connected with that made Gary decide to look inward, and write directly about himself.  

But this doesn’t mean Gary writes in a narrow scope for others who are just like himself. Rather, he thinks about how his writing can instead speak to the human experience of being in this world. 

This allows him to fulfil the role of a writer: bringing people back to their fundamental humanity, which to Gary means understanding how we are all connected. 


Simple Rules for Writing, with Gary Barwin


Listen to learn

  • About the role our identity and experiences have in our writing 
  • Why we write, and why it’s so special that we do 
  • How to get your writing done without getting stuck in your own head 
  • Why you should trust your writing and the writing process 

Here’s a sneak peek: 

[04:01] How much of that is my responsibility as a writer to talk about, how much can I draw from it, you know, all of those things. 

[18:06] So, I kind of dragged these ideas out of me and often they were the most interesting and surprising to me because they weren't the ones that were obvious to me. 

[19:03] But I think often when we go to write, we end up in the most insecure, most childish, most worried little part of ourself.

[25:12] And to me, thinking of somebody else, that to me is the tenderness, it's that connection.  

[36:08] I think it is so complicated, because, yes, I tell my own story, but if I have lived at all, my story has interacted with so many other stories. 

[38:19] it won't ever feel like you know what you're doing or that you're achieving greatness. 

[40:04] I think that it's the wrong question, but of course it's one we can't help. I mean, everybody feels that way.  

Links from today’s episode: 

Imagining, Imagining: Essays on Language, Identity, and Infinity 


Simple Rules for Writing, with Gary Barwin: The Resilient Writers Radio Show -- Full Episode Transcript


Well, hey there, writer. Welcome to The Resilient Writers Radio Show. I'm your host, Rhonda Douglas, and this is the podcast for writers who want to create and sustain a writing life they love. 

Because—let's face it—the writing life has its ups and downs, and we wanna not just write, but also to be able to enjoy the process so that we'll spend more time with our butt-in-chair getting those words on the page. 

This podcast is for writers who love books, and everything that goes into the making of them. For writers who wanna learn and grow in their craft, and improve their writing skills. Writers who want to finish their books, and get them out into the world so their ideal readers can enjoy them, writers who wanna spend more time in that flow state, writers who want to connect with other writers to celebrate and be in community in this crazy roller coaster ride we call “the writing life.” 

We are resilient writers. We're writing for the rest of our lives, and we're having a good time doing it. So welcome, writer, I'm so glad you're here. Let's jump right into today's show. 

Rhonda Douglas: 

Okay, hi there, writer. Welcome back to another episode of The Resilient Writers Radio Show. Today I have Gary Barwin with me, and Gary's a writer, composer, and multidisciplinary artist, and he is the author of 30 books, including Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy, which won the Canadian Jewish Literary Award and was chosen for Hamilton Reads 2023. His national best-selling novel, which I adored, Yiddish for Pirates, won the Leacock Medal for Humour and the Canadian Jewish Literary Award, was a finalist for the Governor General's Award for Fiction and the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was long listed for Canada Reads. 

His many poetry collections include the recent Duck Eats Yeast, Quacks, Explodes; Man Loses Eye with Lillian Nećakov, 2023, and The Most Charming Creatures, which won the Canadian Jewish Literary Award. His latest book, which I really want to get into, is Imagining, Imagining: Essays on Language, Identity, and Infinity. Gary was born in Northern Ireland to South African parents of Lithuanian Ashkenazi descent. And he lives in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. You can find more at 

So Gary, I didn't realize you were born in Northern Ireland and that your parents were South African. Wow.

Gary Barwin:

Yeah, I mean, I've sort of thought about that a lot, you know, laterally, because the world is a history of migration at many, in many points. And so I sit at my desk in Hamilton speaking English, thinking, “how is it that I'm sitting at my desk speaking English when my grandparents grew up on the shtetl in Lithuania, speaking Yiddish and speaking Russian, Lithuanian?” So yeah, it was this sort of story of migration. They escaped before the Holocaust, and ended up in South Africa. 

My parents decided they didn't want to live in apartheid when they were old enough to choose. And then they moved to Britain, but they ended up in Northern Ireland, right, as it turns out, as the trouble started. So they moved us to Canada, to safety, basically, to a stable place.


What a rich history that is. 


It is. And I think both in terms of migration, but also it's like, “okay, so what do I connect with?” I have where I grew up and I have strong feelings about Ireland and the landscape of my childhood. But also, what does it mean then, I didn't grow up in South Africa, but that was a big presence because of my parents. And also, my grandparents were informed by their growing up in Lithuania and that kind of old world thinking. And so it's like, how much of that is my heritage? How much of that is my responsibility as a writer to talk about, how much can I draw from it, you know, all of those things. 

And the more I started thinking about my own, I guess, positionality, my own memories, my own experience, the more I wanted to draw on that history.


Is that where the latest book of essays comes from? Imagining, Imagining: Essays on Language, Identity and Infinity? Out of that?


Yes, actually. I mean, my last two novels have really addressed Jewishness and Jewish history and thinking about some of the questions I just said, about what it means to speak a language, what's embedded in the language and the sensibility in your past, and you know who are you and how do you relate to the world through your culture and through history. So I guess I was thinking more and more about those questions. And even about, what is my role as a writer, to speak to identity, to speak to my own experience.

And also, how can I use my identity to talk about other issues? So my book, Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted is, though it's a book about the Holocaust, I also wanted to talk about Indigenous genocide, but of course, without stomping all over it with my white settler boots, but to find a way to engage in the issue meaningfully. And so taking my positionality as a Jewish person and whose grandparents escaped the Holocaust, but the rest of the family didn't. So, thinking about that and then seeing what meaningful connections I could make to what happened in and what is happening in North America. 

It turns out there's actually a lot of historical connections. So from that, the more I thought about all those issues, then I started really both thinking about identity and language, but also thinking about myself. I'd never really written about myself directly or my thoughts or my experiences as, like, “I walk my dog at night through the woods and think things.” 

What is that like and what do I think and how is that interesting? Like, what is that, what could I convey in that story to somebody about the experience of being in the world? And even the process of trying to find out what is interesting to talk about. So yeah, all of those things came from that, you know. 

I was gonna say, I find it interesting that I started really thinking about these issues in my 50s. Once I started writing my first novel, I just think it's interesting how a writer, a writing life, can change and the kinds of things you think about, sometimes, are age-related, sometimes are the stage you are with your—if you have kids or wherever you are, or the particular project, like the novel drew out all of this stuff. It's like, I'm just gonna spend two or three years exploring something. I'm interested in some historical stuff. And then it took me to this whole area, my background, my past, history, Jewishness, all of those kinds of issues, as well as kind of engaging more broadly in the kind of sense of positionality that we're more aware of now than ever. But you were going to ask me a question.


Well, I wanted to ask you about—and this is an unfair question, but I feel like we're recording this on October 21st. And so I wanted to ask you what it's feeling like for you right now to be a Jewish writer, given the hostages taken by Hamas in Gaza and the subsequent Israeli response. And here we are in war, really, and the craziness of it and the stupidness of it.


Oh, absolutely. No, I know it's a really good question. And I do think that I have been thinking about it a lot. I feel it. I have I mean, I've been writing about genocide, I've been writing about oppression, both from a Jewish perspective, but from, but also from using that to have empathy or to have an understanding, I should say, like an understanding of others' experience, like indigenous genocide and making the connection. 

So I have been thinking of both because I'm giving a keynote in a couple of weeks to some young writers at Sheridan College. So it's like, “okay, here I am, what am I going to say? What is my role as a writer?” I guess, even though I take it very seriously, like, “okay, now it's my job to speak to things, to think through things.” 

But two weeks ago I was at the ceremony for the Canadian Jewish Literary Awards and I was thinking, “now here's a time, do I speak, what do I say?” I guess what I ended up deciding and what I'm expanding from what I said at the Jewish Literary Awards to the students is about the role of writing to remind us of ourselves and of our fundamental humanity. 

So, being able to analyze all of the talk, all of the politics, all of the strategizing, to help us attend to who we really are and what our fundamental values are. I think writing makes us notice that in ourselves, as well as other people, but by extension. And so, I mean, to be really simplistic, I think people are good. And I think things just get messed up through all sorts of social-political things. 

And so to get back to what are our fundamental values and what it fundamentally is to be a human and then proceed from there. I'm feeling all of that weight without being like, portentous in writing. Like I don't think I should write screeds. I don't necessarily know that that contributes. But as a writer, I guess I'm thinking, what I do is important because it's that's my fundamental role is to bring us back to that essential humanity, which is that art is an essential understanding of our connectedness and our together-withness with people. I think in that sense, what we all do is important. And so I guess I'm thinking about that as I think about, “well, I've written about the Holocaust. And what about the people witnessing that or seeing that?” 

So what do I think about what's happening in Gaza, the response of the Israelis, and what should I say? Like, here's my moment. This is before Kristallnacht, or this is before the Anschluss, or whatever. This is a moment that I think that we really need to think about, like, “wait, let's stop history a second. Let's stop the talk. What do we really, deeply think?” Which also means, of course, empathy for everybody, I mean, it's this terrible situation for everybody. 

People in Israel are in this impossible situation in terms of—the whole thing is unresolved. And so of course, it breeds suffering and terror and extremism, and I think that we need to go back to our really fundamental values. 

So for me, I guess I'm feeling just really sad and really overwhelmed. I'm also, maybe because I'm writing this speech, I'm also thinking that, no, actually, this is a really critical thing that humans have done. We invented literature. Squirrels don't have writing that reminds them of their own innate squirrel-ness.


That we know of.


That we know of, right, I’m really trying to track what happens with the planting of the nuts and see if I can detect any connection. But this is the kind of technology that we've created to really go back into ourselves, never mind the mammoth or the wind or the thunderstorm, to understand how we think of that and what position that puts us in. 

And to me, we're called as writers to that. Whatever the kind of writing, it doesn't mean that you have to write screed or explicitly, but the act of writing is speaking to fundamental humanity, to a belief in the value of being a thinking, thoughtful, empathizing person. That, to me, is a powerful and subversive act. And that’s what I think we need to think about, aside from the specifics. 


I love how you frame that as subversive. That like, seeing the truth, telling the truth about our common humanity being subversive. I think it is sometimes.


I mean, that's outside of capitalism, right? We are just that truth because that's who we are as people, not because of political power, not because of generating money, not because of any of that stuff. It's just, we are, essentially. If we were on a desert island together, that's who we are.


Yeah, I think I would have maybe guessed that would be your response, because I think that’s something that characterizes all of your work across genres is a kind of tender gaze, I would say. I mean, a little wacky, wacky and tender gaze, which is great. They go together so well. So speaking of that, you work across media and you do some composing, multidisciplinary work. You work across media, you work across genres. How is your process different as you move between all of these?


I would say the first thing though—


Or is it?


I think it isn't, really. I mean the first thing is we have this idea that we're better at, or we should write one kind of thing or the other. And to me, not necessarily. I mean, obviously for some people that works for them, but I don't think that it's… it's not being a dilettante or a jack of all trades just to do like—why wouldn't I want to write all the kinds of things? 

Because they bring out different aspects of my thinking, or the challenges bring out different aspects of my literary imagination. That the kinds of things I struggle with writing a poem, or that I discover writing a poem, are different than the things I discover or struggle with writing a novel. And so I think each of them brings out something in me that I didn't necessarily have access to in any other way.

It's also fun. Like, why wouldn't I wanna try writing a bunch of stuff? It'd be like, oh yeah, I'm gonna get into this car,” and like, not that I'm interested in cars, but like, “what could this baby do on the highway.” Like, now I'm going to try this other thing. And just to see what it feels like to be doing that trip. 

Obviously there are certain things that are different, like writing a really long form novel is really different. And I found that challenging, or I knew it would be challenging. And so I knew myself, that I would get distracted and want to jump ship and go to some other smaller, maybe easier, more immediate gratification, like, “oh, I'll just go write a poem now.” And then I went and then I knew that I would never get to the lot. I had to keep my nose to the grindstone, as it were, and keep immersed in that world.

So, I made myself some simple rules. I kind of modelled it after—if you diet, I've seen people, they make a chart and so they say, “here's the weight now, this is my weight I'm aiming for. And if I lose whatever number of pounds per week, I go down.” So I did the opposite. 


I wish I didn't know what you're talking about, but yes, I know that very well. 


This is how you break down into those kinds of things. And it's also good, like, what you hope for, and then what's real, because obviously life is complicated. So I figured, I'm going to write 500 words a day, and I made a chart. If I keep writing 500 words a day, it'd be like 10,000 words, 2,500 words a week, five days a week. And then it'd be 10,000 words. So then theoretically in eight months, I'd have 80,000 words, and that's a novel. So I made a little chart. 

And then of course, my actual writing was this wobbly line that was sometimes I did way less, sometimes a couple of times I restarted just because I completely fell off the wagon and had to start it again. And I didn't want to be perpetually behind, because what I found was that I couldn't guarantee I’d write 500 good words. And that's a lot of pressure like, the next word I write will change the 70,000 words afterwards. 

So instead, it's like, “my job is to write 500 words.” I had time to do this. As long as I got 500 words written in a day, I had done my job, “I'm a man who wrote 500 words today.” Good, bad, whatever, the best I could do. And then it was an achievable goal, rather than time. Because time, for me, I would get distracted, I'd check social media, I'd sneak away and write a poem. I mean, I would do all of that anyway, and I used the energy of procrastination to make a lot of other kinds of small work while I was writing the novel. 

But my responsibility to myself in the novel was the 500 words. And then it gradually crept up and I could see it on my chart and I didn't give myself gold stars, but I did kind of like acknowledge when I had attained, you know, certain goals. For me that was really helpful, because a long thing is challenging to write and it's easy to think, “oh, this is dumb. What am I even doing? I don't even know what to do.” 

And I like drawing up, I like the process of it. Once I felt I was empty, I had no more ideas, I just couldn't bring anything more to the novel, but I had to keep going because I have this plan. So, I kind of dragged these ideas out of me and often they were the most interesting and surprising to me because they weren't the ones that were obvious to me. Like, I couldn't be glib, I couldn't rely on my past writing. I had to drag these things out like some old boot from deep in the sea, right? And it was surprising.

I was surprised how much I loved that process and giving myself kind of a task that I could attain, and that I could actually achieve, because I'm saying, “I'm going to sit down and this next thing is going to be as good as Shakespeare,” because that's kind of what's in our head. 

And you write one word and you think, “okay, I've written ‘the.’ Now the next word is all counting on that next word. Okay, ‘the moon.’ Oh my God. Moon, what am I going to do with the moon?” And it's like super—no, no, no. That's two words down, 498 to go.

That I could do, right? And I mean, in a way it sounds childish, but I think often when we go to write, we end up in the most insecure, most childish, most worried little part of ourself. 


Oh, we so do. 


And so to me, a lot of writing is like, “who am I actually? And how do I use my own psychology to make stuff happen?” Knowing that, of course, I'm the urban sophisticate who is very, very confident. But I'm also this really insecure little six-year-old scared boy who doesn't think he can do anything. So I was like, “I'm all these things. I'm a father, I'm a husband, I'm a person who's written a bunch of books.” 

How can I use all of that and understand my process? And the other thing I think is that for me, it's also about writing. Or at least, this is all what I aspire to.  These things obviously don't always happen. But like, write not what I think I should write, but what is unfolding in front of me, but the thing I'm actually writing, the thing that actually is engaging me, the thing that is actually of interest. Not, “oh, I should write a Margaret Atwood novel or I should write like Dickens,” no, what is this thing that's happening? And then try and listen to it, I guess. So it doesn't feel, like, all about me. 

I tell students that, quote unquote, the writing knows more than you do. So, trusting the writing as it's actually unfolding. So if it says the moon, what feels like the right next thing? And then follow that. Not what I think people have said about the moon or, you know, but the authentic thing for me at that moment. 

And that takes a lot of pressure off, but then it becomes interesting because it's like, what is the writing telling me? Then it's not about me thinking, “what can I do? Am I as great as Shakespeare?” I mean, those are all really useless questions because even if Shakespeare sat down to write a play, he'd go, “am I as good as Shakespeare? Like, am I gonna do Hamlet again? It's like, oh man, I got King Lear. That's not like Hamlet.” That's not too bad. 


Yeah, there's a quote I read from you, actually. I think you said—somebody said you said, Gary, it's the internet, right? So somebody said that you said, “you don't necessarily have a voice or personal style. I think your ‘voice’ is really just your curiosity and your process.” So that's what you're speaking to there.


Yeah, no, absolutely. And I think if you think about process rather than voice, because people often think that you have this voice that you have to find and nurture like a poor, sad little bird. 


Yeah, “where is it? I have to find it.”


Right. And as opposed to, what is your set of concerns? The thing is, no matter what, you're going to end up doing the thing based on your own psychology, is that is you, even if it’s not immediately recognizable. I imagine, if I gave the same people a bunch of, well, thinking of a cooking show model, it’s like, “okay, here's five ingredients, make something.” Well, we've all got the same ingredients, but we would do something particular to our own understanding and our own skills and our own interests. 

So, to me, that's about what we implicitly are, can be authentically ourselves just by the process of doing it. It's not about the ingredients. It's not about the... I mean, obviously sometimes you've got certain stories you're called to tell about experiences and things, and you draw on it and it's filtered through your own experience, your own perspective or identity, all of that stuff. 

But still, there's something deeper than that comes from your process, your way of being in the world, so that whatever new thing happens, it's that process. To me, it's not only, I think, a more authentic process as a writer—you find more interesting things—it also takes pressure off you because you're not trying to find this elusive thing that you supposedly are as opposed to just really being yourself.


Just being you in the moment and getting words down on the page.


What does it look like, you sitting in front of your computer doing your thing? That's the authentic moment, to me.


Yeah. So, I have another quote. This is from a Quill and Quire review. So, “in Barwin's world, imagination is freedom and comedy, courage.” And I thought that's interesting because your work does have, I mean, I said wacky earlier and that's, I love wacky. It's not the immediate expected thing. So I wanted to ask you, where do you find comedy? And what do you think is the relationship in your writing between comedy and tenderness? Because to me, it's such a magic combo and you seem to hit it every time.


Oh, that's great. Thank you. It's interesting. I have ended up thinking a lot about comedy just because it's like, okay, am I—well, okay, so first of all, so let me answer the last question first about comedy and tenderness, because I really like that question. Because I think, what is the role of humour in the world, in our life? And I thought about this particularly, I wrote the book about the Holocaust, and it's got a lot of humour in it. It's like, “okay, wait, what?” 

So I guess, of course, there's reasons like it helps us go on, like things are really difficult, and it gives us agency because we're the one telling the story. So no matter how bad it is, we're able to tell the story. It's our story. It's our humour. Like we make a joke about something awful. We're the centre. We're the person telling the joke. 

But I also think that when you use humour, if you're gonna make up a joke, you imagine telling it to somebody, which means you're already building community, you're imagining connection, you're imagining you're gathering together over the expression. And to me, thinking of somebody else, that's to me is the tenderness, it's that connection. 

And I guess I also think that by having that kind of agency, it feels tender to another person who might also see that. It's like, we can have agency in this thing that happens in our world, all the things that happen. So to me, that is about empathy and understanding that life is hard, life is difficult.

I get it, right? And you kind of are sharing that perspective. It's not nasty, brutish, and short, which just makes us all just despair if you say, “ah, life is nasty, brutish, and short.” Well, then we just feel that doesn't add energy to the conversation. Like, “yeah, well, of course it's difficult,” as opposed to, “hey, but what happened? Let me just share this little thing for a moment,” and then you find the humour in it. But also I think that the other reason I use humour is, it's also like switching the story, right? 

Because it's like, okay, here's the expected. If certain kinds of stories become expected, by flipping the story, like by doing something unexpected, it opens it up to possible, to feeling like, say, the Holocaust story. Well, of course the Holocaust was a terrible tragedy. There's nothing to do but kind of be quiet and bow our heads and light candles. And okay, of course, except that doesn't make it alive again. It makes it calcify. And so I wanted it to be alive and to re-experience everything about it, the horror, the beauty of the people surviving and their resilience and their strength. 

So to me, making an off-kilter story that kind of surprises you, it kind of dekes you out so that you open up and its new perspective, rather than just the same expected story, which doesn't give you a space to respond with newness, I guess.


Right, right. Yeah, and comedy is that response to the unexpected, isn't it? 


Yeah, and I also think it's a philosophical position about the sort of mysterious strangeness and absurdity of the world, I guess.


Yeah, because it is also that. Yes, I've been very taken with that later, the absurdities. 


My favourite Holocaust joke, if one can actually even say such a thing, but there are many. And so the guy goes to heaven, he meets God, and the guy says, “hey, God, I've got this great Holocaust joke.” And God says, “o-kay.” He says, “so,” and the guy tells him the joke, and God doesn't find it funny. And then the guy says, “well, I guess he had to be there.”


Oh, ow.


Exactly, it’s like, “whoa,” right? 


Oh my God, that joke has layers, Gary. The layers there. Whoa, that's good. So, are you familiar with the writer Nathan Englander?




I just was thinking as you're talking about this, his first book, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, his first short story collection, which to me is just chef's kiss, brilliant, but also has a little bit of the, how do we bring the lens of, if not quite absurdity, whatever approach is absurdity, to something that's very, very difficult. And you're right, it does open up that moment of comedy. It opens up that space where we can look at something together, which maybe also is the role of the writer, you know?


You know, I can't remember which of his stories it is, but there's two old Jewish guys. One of the old Jewish guys there with his son, and they're in line at, like, at the Y, they're in the gym. And they both see that they have concentration camp numbers on them, the two old men. And the son says to his father, “look, that guy's number is just one ahead of you.”

Ah, I'm sorry, actually I messed up the story. So the second guy kind of pushes in front of the other guy. And he goes, “well, look, what a coincidence, that guy's number is right ahead of you.” He says, “yes, he was always a butter,” right? He always pushed in, like he did in the camp. I mean, okay, it's a terrible kind of joke. 

It's like, what does that mean in terms of, like, it opens up, “what do these Holocaust survivors think? And how have they moved?” That's really telling, as much as it's sort of ridiculous, but it's a really telling thing about what it is to be a survivor for both of those men. And I think it's also with tenderness. I think that that's an amazing example.


Yeah. You know, I've really been taken lately by the—there are so many novels, they're directed at women. I mean, women buy the majority of books, but they're directed at women. They're second World War novels, so they're touching on the Holocaust, even if just peripherally, to the extent that one can. And, you know, there's a woman with her back to us holding a suitcase in a red coat or a blue coat or a grey coat or a, you know, and maybe there's an Eiffel Tower in the background, maybe that's Big Ben, whatever. 

But they seem to me, there's so many of them written by people who are not Jewish. I always feel a little uncomfortable. I love a good story. I want to think that we can all step into someone else's skin and empathize. But what do you think? I mean, you're very focussed on telling your own stories and mining your own stories, your own history. What do you think about that?


Well, one critique I would have about those kinds of books is that, first of all, there's a kind of like, I don't know… like Holocaust porn, I guess, where people want to tell, like, this is the emblematic story of persecution, and then the people in it are victims who somehow triumph. That's sort of those stories, right? The woman escapes, she comes with her suitcase, and she has deep suffering that she lives with, but yet she finds meaning. 

And I think that they essentialize the story and the complexity of what it is to be a human in those situations, because it becomes like an archetype of great suffering that you somehow survive, and then it kind of becomes romanticized. We do that for lots of kinds of stories, but I think—


Because the stakes are ultimate. If you wanted a story with the highest possible stakes, right? 


Right, exactly. And there's no question about what's going on. Bad guys, good guys, epic escape. It's also a world of men, like in terms of all the soldiers and everything. So the women are finding their way within it, and then they have to do... So it makes for very compelling stories. But again, I think that it does essentialize the experience.

There's a greater variety of experiences, the things that they had to do or that they did do, or what it felt like afterwards, that's a really complicated thing. And I think that it kind of, in a way, it makes a cartoon. It may be a compelling, moving cartoon that makes you cry, but it is essentializing it. So I guess that would be my critique of that. And I think that, then there's a tendency to do that with other kinds of stories. I don't have a problem with people, like, in a way you're asking, can they tell Jewish stories? Can they tell other stories? 


Yeah, should we stick to our own story? You know, should we? Is that it?


I did an interview with Peter Carey, the great Australian novelist, and he had just written a book, the name of which I cannot remember, but it included an Aboriginal, Indigenous guy, and writing about him. And so I asked him about this question because in Canada it'd be like, “I don't know if you could do that.” And he said he consulted with an elder, and the guy says, “here's the thing, Peter, this is how you should write about it. Just don't be a dick.”

So what does that mean? What does that mean? It means be sensitive, be thoughtful, don't say things you don't know, consult, be really aware, all of those things. And I mean, I think it also depends on who you're speaking for at this particular moment.

So there will come a time, I hope, where we white people might be able to speak Indigenous people's stories, like in terms of their experience, in the future, when we have given enough space for Indigenous people to tell those stories and it's not like we're taking over. I'm talking way in the future, but now, no, because of the relationship of access to voice, of power, of all of that thing. 

I mean it'd be utopian, where there's not these power imbalances and voice imbalances and so, therefore. But now, I think we have to be sensitive of the people who don't, who haven't historically and being able to speak their own stories and also the sensitivities about the specifics.

I think people need to step back. The Jewish situation is a bit different because that story's been told a lot and I don't think that's an issue. And I don't think that we can't write about, like I say, in the case of indigenous people, I just think we have to be very careful and thoughtful about how we do it. 

And so in my last novel I wrote about in Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted, I do have indigenous characters, but I kind of framed it in relationship to, it's a very Jewish sensibility, and I have the indigenous characters that are there. And I was very careful to consult, but also to not write stereotypes, not essentialize, to try and reflect the complexity of human beings, but also to just to be aware of my positionality. So I wasn't trying to speak for people, though I had people in the book.

Different people have different attitudes as to whether I was successful or even if that was appropriate. But I guess I was trying to “not be a dick”, to quote the elder. I was really trying to be sensitive. And so at least it's like, “okay, we don't think you should have done that, but we can see that you were sensitive and thoughtful and respectful. And you kind of stepped back and gave space to these characters.”


I love having these conversations about this issue because I think it is so complicated, because, yes, I tell my own story, but if I have lived at all, my story has interacted with so many other stories. And so how do you tell, you know, your own story? Unless you've lived a very narrow life, your story interacts.


Yeah, I mean, you know, we're Canadian writers. So it's like, “what, we're not going to ever talk about Indigenous people, so what, we're going to erase them? Erase this part of our history?” So it's a question of being aware of what, or, for example, I'm using Indigenous people, because as Canadians, I felt it's my ethical responsibility to speak to settler colonialism and to indigenous genocide. So it's like, “okay, but what do I just say?” No, no, no. 

There are many brilliant writers doing that who are indigenous, just keep quiet. Or do I try and say, well, I'm this middle-aged Jewish guy, what can I bring to the conversation? Is there anything that I could usefully speak to? And so that's what I tried to do because I felt it was a kind of ethical imperative to try and do that as a Canadian writer. 

But again, with all of the provisos that I said about being careful and being aware, and not being a dick, right? Yeah, so I think I should maybe write that above my writing desk. That is the motto, right? 


Yeah, I feel like it has broad application, that advice.


Right, in fact, I could go out into the world and apply it, yes, exactly.


So Gary, this is The Resilient Writers Radio Show, and I've done a lot of thinking over the years of what it means to just keep going, you know? Can I ask you, if I ask you that question, what does it say to you if I say, you know, “a resilient writer,” what would it mean to you to be a resilient writer?


That's a lovely question. You know, I just answered an interviewer, “five things I wish I'd known when I was a younger writer.” And so some of the things I think was that, first of all, just to keep going because, you know, it won't ever feel like you know what you're doing or that you're achieving greatness. It always feels different. 

And to me, looking back, I wrote a lot of terrible things, but I also, I had the experience of having a book of selected poems. So I looked at poems that I had written when I was 20, and some of them were good. Most of them were terrible, but some of them were really good.

And I put them in book because they had something about them that I still value and I wouldn’t have known the difference at the time, and so I guess one of the things is keeping going and trusting in your process and the process of continuing and that you also can't trust how you feel about things because the mind plays, and the ego plays tricks on you all the time and will continue to. To me, that's what it's like. 

I don't think that you reach a kind of promised land where it's like, “now I know I feel confident and everything I write is burnished gold.” And I think it always feels like you're in the middle of uncertainty. But that's what it is. But getting to write and trying to learn to love the process and the uncertainty, to me, is resilience. 

And also the other thing I would say is, it's a really good piece of advice from the writer Paul Quarrington, who said that envy is the writer's black lung disease, it's so easy to feel like, “oh, but that person's able to publish and I didn't do that,” or, “they got that or how come I didn't get recognized,” or, “why?” All of that stuff. And of course it eats away at you. I think that it's the wrong question, but of course it's one we can't help. I mean, everybody feels that way. It's “well, I've got a Giller prize and I've got a Booker prize. Why don't I have the Nobel prize?” I think stakes just get higher. Like, “I got published in The New Yorker, why can't I get published in The New Yorker again?” 

The only thing that I think for me that I found helps me with being resilient is when I feel insecure and I feel like a failure and I feel all of those things, I try to say, “I can't do anything about that because I can't will myself to be in The New York or whatever.” I mean, I can write another story and I do, but also I guess I try and take that envy to support somebody else because then it gives me more energy. It's not about me. It becomes about writing and it becomes about the helping, and then I do feel good. I feel good about myself. 

I couldn't make myself feel less that I'm not a towering genius, but I can do a kindness to another writer and maybe talk about their book or maybe put in a nice word for that. Like, tell them that I enjoyed their work or something when I did, you know, and I think that to me helps me because then it's not all about sort of stewing in the mire of my own worry and all my own envy. Everybody feels that, I think. Maybe not the Dalai Lama, but I think everybody else. 


Everybody subject to capitalism. 


And it goes up and down. I just think that gives you a lot of energy and it helps you be resilient over the long haul. I also think as part of that, it's not about achievement. I mean, of course it's nice to get things published and nice to be recognized. Of course those are things to celebrate, but it's really about the process of just writing and just being able to keep writing.


And who we become in the process.


I love that idea. Yeah, absolutely. And then we can just kind of enjoy the process, whatever else we're able to do. It's like you could enjoy having kids and it'd be very cool if they became, you know, the prime minister, but on the other hand, that's not the deep pleasure about having children. It's loving them and loving being a parent. And it's not about those, you know, those achievements. 

I think that's what I would say about resilience. And if you get to write it all, in whatever way, that's amazing, right?


Yeah. Well, thank you for this, Gary. This has been such a fun conversation. I really appreciate you doing it. So if you'd like to know more about Gary, you can go to and his latest book is over at and it's called Imagining, Imagining: Essays on Language, Identity and Infinity. And it comes out in November, so I don't actually have a copy yet, but I can't wait to get my hands on it. Thank you so much, Gary.


Thanks so much. This was great. Thank you.



Thanks so much for hanging out with me today and for listening all the way to the end. I hope you enjoyed today's episode of the Resilient Writers Radio Show. While you're here, I would really appreciate it if you'd consider leaving a rating and review of the show. You can do that in whatever app you're using to listen to the show right now, and it just takes a few minutes. 

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