A New Phase in an Unpredictable Writing Career

Buchanan Courtyard

My writing career started an unbelievable 25 years ago in an unbelievable place: banking. I can’t say it was by accident either. I started university as cluelessly as many (most?) students, thinking only that I was suited for the corporate life and with hardly a thought for what the content of a satisfying work day might be. During my undergraduate days, at the University of Alberta, I ended up focussing on economics, which genuinely engaged me. But I wasn’t mathematically inclined enough to really advance far past intuitive concepts.

At the end of three years, I knew my undergrad (without econometrics) wasn’t going to mean much. Looking to decorate my intensely modest CV with some more letters, I applied to MBA schools. I was accepted at Queens and decided to go there.

I remember my time at Queens with mixed feelings, honestly. I loved the place, and enjoyed much of the program. But something was seeping from my subconscious to the more interruptive frontal parts of my brain. My desk in my apartment (North of Princess, the down-market significance of which won’t be lost on Queens students or alum) was stacked with non-business reading. Some reading choices I’m proud of, some make me cringe. I remember reading the Richler canon, which really shaped what I thought was a worthwhile endeavour in literary writing. But then, I also slogged through piles of Auden, which seems a bit histrionic in hindsight.

By graduation from B-school, I had myself a fairly entrenched set of career conflicts going on. I wanted to write, but I’d been shaped enough by a practical upbringing and (let’s be honest) by the mimetic inspiration of six years of econ/MBA studies, to think that making money was also a solid idea. I went into banking and tried to do that. I’m not going to say I loved my time at the Toronto Dominion, but it’d be disingenuous to I didn’t benefit from that experience either. Years later, interviewing famed Canadian literary ex-pat Mavis Gallant, she’d tell me that her early job as a reporter still fueled her writing by throwing off memories of character types, snips of dialogue, physical mannerism and narrative ideas. I feel that way now about my banking days, which involved me in the lives of dozens (if not hundreds) of small to medium sized business people. These were folks running hard to make things work, giving themselves to a whole range of worthy (and sometimes less worthy) projects. People in that position, people with real skin in the game, tend to show you themselves, tend to show you character, one way or the other. No surprise the first short stories I started to write during this period involved people at their places of work. Work shaped people, I understood. And even as I failed to do the work I wanted to do in any consistent way – write, publish etc. – I could see that my own work was shaping me. I’m grateful to this day to some inspiring bosses from that period, hard-asses all of them: Arnold Fenrick, Mike Lefevre, Breen Egan.

All that said, me and the TD wasn’t a relationship with legs. Year four, just as I was being offered a promotion that would have meant a move and more responsibility, I quit. I recall being summoned to the SVP Pacific’s office and asked politely what the hell I was up to. I didn’t even really have an answer. I was quitting to do something creative. I actually said that, which was a bit naive because it was so nebulous but because it probably also diminished the creativity in business work, of which there is plenty. In any case, the veep was a gentleman about it, the head of HR a bit less so. “Is your wife quitting her job too?” he asked, clearly thinking I was off to join a cult.

I won’t go through the gory details of starting a writing career, only distill it to the following. I wrote constantly and submitted stories everywhere. I pinned rejection slips to my cork board. I celebrated when a rejection slip had a hand written comment on it. I did all the typical stuff, in other words. And I benefited greatly from what had come before. I used my experiences prior to inform my fiction (see above, characters, situations, personalities). I also used the ethic of the business world to inspire my overall approach. That doesn’t mean I made much money. I didn’t! But I kept writing (production) and read a lot (product development) and talked endlessly to people (marketing and pre-social media social media).

As for the holy grail – publication – it started slowly and picked up only slightly after five years (five years! I kept the rent paid with consulting work.) I placed two short stories in the first 3 years (thank you endlessly Grain and Canadian Fiction). I published a few more over the next couple years, then as these things go, a single editor (Allen Hepburn then at Descant) took an interest. The first phone call I ever received from anybody in publishing was from Allen in 1998, I think. He put me on to my agent and from there, a new kind of energy was in the works.

Still, it took 10 full years from quitting my job, and 14 years leaving university with the vague itch to write, to see my first book in print: Stanley Park. But that’s also where the second big break point comes in this crazy career. With Stanley Park, I could call on magazine editors and actually pitch them with credibility. I’m not saying this credibility was earned, only they gave it because *I had a book*. So I started getting gigs. In 2000, enRoute Magazine send me to Korea on the first assignment of what would be a long and continuing relationship (I think the enRoute article count is now at something like 26 pieces?). But there were other great client relationships formed during this period. I loved working with Toro and Saturday Night and Vancouver Review. And I’m proud to continue work with the best magazine editors out there, those at Harpers, Walrus, Eighteen Bridges, Cooking Light, Vancouver Magazine and a whole range of others.

After 13 years of that model – writing book-length fiction and hundreds of magazine-length nonfiction pieces – I took up teaching. I got into it by plugging into an SFU workshop on behalf of my friend, the writer Shaena Lambert. In those workshops, part of the SFU Writer’s Studio program, I discovered something I couldn’t have known about myself: I enjoyed that time with aspiring writings. I enjoyed the give and take of ideas (freelancing is like soloing a sailboat around the world at times, rewarding but… well, solo). I also benefited greatly I think from the critical process, listening to others critique work, and improving my own critical skills such that they might be applied to my own work. When a full-time position was advertised at the UBC Creative Writing Program in early 2013, I found myself considering a position for which even three years prior I’d have thought myself completely unsuited.

I’m thrilled to have been accepted by the team of writers at the UBC Creative Writing Program, along with fellow new hire Nancy Lee. But I also feel a very distinct feeling, unlike anything I’ve felt other than that moment quitting my banking job and that later moment when Stanley Park helped me turn another corner. The career has changed it’s course, however slightly. It’s shifted on its track and taken more wind. I’m looking forward to the Fall with real anticipation: to enagaging with students at various stages of their own writing projects, to working with the others here in the program, to bringing what I’ve done to this point to bear on the future, which is what I’ve somehow been lucky enough to do all along.

Here’s my UBC contact page. Thanks everyone at Creative Writing for the chance and here’s to the future.