Poet Margo Wheaton’s debut collection, The Unlit Path Behind the House (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016), won the Canadian Authors Association’s Fred Kerner Award and was selected as a finalist for the J.M. Abraham Poetry Award, the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, a ReLit Award, and other literary honours. In what follows, Wheaton talks to us about writer’s block, her new writing projects, what she likes about writing in the Maritimes, and more.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and poetry in particular?
I’ve been writing since I was a child, since about the age of seven or so. I used to make up little songs and poems while I was walking home from school. I have no idea why I did this, other than that I felt drawn to the rhythm, to the way words sounded and felt when you said them a certain way. Somehow, I guess I’d managed to stumble into the chant structure, the musical structure, that poetry and writing is based upon. There was a lot of singing and music in our house—my father loved to sing old Irish ballads whenever we were in the car and we often sang at the kitchen table—and I think that this probably has a lot to do with the way I experience the music that underlies poetry and language.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I remember reading an interview in which the poet Patrick Lane made the simple but powerful observation that writers’ block is essentially fear. Over the years, I’ve found that a helpful way to think about it. So, usually, after flailing around in the dark for a while at the computer screen or at the physical page, I end up asking myself, what it is, exactly, that I’m afraid of.
It may be a specific technical problem in the writing that I’m apprehensive about and am not sure how to solve. It may be something deeper and more personal, like worrying about the personal consequences of writing about a particular issue or theme. Either way, it seems that once I’ve considered the role that fear might be playing in a current bout of writers’ block, I start finding more practical ways to deal with it and start moving forward again.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Yes, and they often vary, depending on what other demands and work commitments I’m juggling at the time. Long walks and getting out into the stillness of nature, into a place that’s at least somewhat removed from the noise and bustle of the city, are very important to me so that I can, quite literally, hear myself think.
Of all the art forms, poetry, especially, I think, involves engaging the world through the senses. The rituals that I tend to return to and need the most—like being in nature, paying attention to other forms of art, and listening to music—are all ones that allow me to connect with the world in a way that’s rooted primarily in the senses.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
The usual: read, read, read and write, write, write. Be willing to fail. Be willing to press your own limits and take chances with your writing because if you don’t—if you remain in the shallow end with what feels safe—you might never find the thing in your heart that you most want to write. Pay attention to and honour your fear. Be aware of what you feel compelled to write about and aware of what makes you sort of catch your breath when you think about writing it. Likely, that’s where the gold is.
Also, I think that it’s important to stay connected with people who feed your heart and nourish your soul. Writing is hard, often profoundly solitary work and while writers usually need to be able to bear periods of solitude in order to tap into their truest work, I do think that kind of intense solitary practice and concentration needs to be balanced with the warmth of community and connection. At least, that’s been true in my experience.
What’s great about writing in your part of Nova Scotia?
Probably the same thing that’s great about writing and living in the Maritimes in general and that’s the warmth of the culture. There’s a lot of heart and generosity here, and it spills over and is alive and thriving in the writing communities, too. There’s a lot of support out there for writers at all stages and that’s a real blessing.
What are you working on right now?
At the moment, I’m finishing my second collection of poems. I’m also working on a book of essays set in New Brunswick.