HANGING IN THERE
Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, and riches take wings. Only one thing endures and that is character.
Kim: When did you give up on the idea of a nine-to-five career and accept that you’re an artist?
Pete: I never really had much of a nine-to-five life. I worked at Safeway for a while and they’d criticize me for singing while packing. I think it was probably because I couldn’t sing. I quit after one of the owners told me to “Make like a bunny.” I still don’t know exactly what he meant. Three months. I was about 20. I’d bought a synthesizer to go with my guitar and I never wanted to leave the house and stop writing music.
Then I worked in the library for a while which was part of the reason I used that job in Shelby, for the lead character, because I knew about it. They made the fatal flaw of letting me choose when I wanted to come in. You can’t do that with someone that doesn’t want to work. So I just didn’t come in.
I think I’m still on file if I ever want to go back and work at the library. I might have to one day. But I don’t function very well with nine-to-five. It would have been ugly.
K: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
P: I knew that quite early after my broken collarbones playing hockey. I started playing guitar and I loved it. Then after a break-up, my first love break-up, I dropped out of university.
Actually, I phoned my mother and asked her if I could come home for the weekend with this little four-track recorder. That was after third year university, pre-med. I went home to the Kootenays, stayed the whole summer, down in a little room, writing terrible, terrible songs and then maybe half way through the summer I came upstairs and said, “Mom, I’m not going into medical school. I am going into music.” She made a sort of strange high-pitched sound, a bit like a laugh, a bit like choking. That was the whole thing.
My dad was great too. If they ever had a problem with it, I never knew, which is shocking because the songs were terrible, and my voice was unremarkable. So I just started writing songs and then journaling. At some point a novel overtook the music, although the music remains.
K: How did you go about learning your craft?
P: I really did it through trial and error. A friend of mine went to Cambridge and after you go to Cambridge, she said, you don’t want to write because you’ve been trained in the Classics and reading Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Shakespeare – and if that’s the only writing with value, who can live up to that?
I’d read Jaws, strange books on philosophy and psychology, a lot of hockey stats, Tintin in French to stay cultured and Archie comics.
K: And you thought, “I could match that.”
P: At least the Archie comics (laughs). Jughead’s soliloquys on food were a bit high-brow, but Big Moose was in reach.
K: So you’re self-taught?
P: As much as one can be self-taught, with so much external input. Even as a writer, even though I write novels, I don’t really read novels. It probably shows when some people read my novels but I like to read non-fiction, obsessively. And the two blur.
Guitar-wise, I didn’t take any lessons, but a few voice lessons actually helped a lot. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend not getting any training.
K: Why, when they worked so well for you?
P: It’s all relative. A little training can also go a long way. My artistic journey was just really internal and personal, on one level. That is the way my body and my brain works. It keeps trying to refine something, some ideas, some thought. So although I wasn’t at school learning technique three or four hours a day, I worked obsessively.
Creativity was truly my passion—my dharma, as it’s called in India. I’d write and write and write and write. When I was doing the novel, I would write all the time. I’ve lost that ability in some ways—or at least it’s slightly tempered, hopefully to the good of other qualities.
But when I was writing songs, I had notebooks and notebooks of songs. Unfortunately, some of the lyrics in songs ended up a little verbose. They’d make The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald look like a haiku. I say unfortunately because it doesn’t always work. Simplicity is a great thing, and space. I learned that as I, dare I say, “matured.” Some people have that naturally, when they first start writing. Like it was developed in a different lifetime. I didn’t.
But it is just my nature to keep creating. I didn’t have a lot of questions about whether I could do it or not. I just did it. Sometimes that produces disastrous results in the short term but in the long term it proved occasionally effective.
The arts, I might add, aren’t rocket science. They’re passion and emotion and perhaps a talent on some level. If you’re compelled to do it, you can figure out how to put a sentence together.
K: Did you have role models at all?
P: You know…hmmm. Of course I am often wildly inspired. But I think that, literally, choosing not to work nine-to-five, for me, choosing to be in the arts and to call myself a writer and just sticking with it was so essential to being a writer. Even though I wasn’t a good singer. I wasn’t a very good songwriter. My early songs were really bad. I don’t know why my parents didn’t chain me to the university. Finish your degree! Maybe they knew something I didn’t, because the creative journey actually, emotionally and mentally, saved me.
Going through my 20s was a curious and wonderful, frenetic, sometimes disturbed time. Sticking to what I wanted to do was a sort of salvation. That was where I found meaning. I found a certain personal immortality in producing art—just by completing pieces of art at a certain point in my life.
The desire for that has perhaps drifted and dissipated over time, or found other outlets, but to say that creativity is anything less than an unstoppable passion would be inaccurate. It was a will within me. It made me dig, explore, dream, expand. It gave me fire. It gave me lower back pain.
K: So you were so self-directed that you didn’t need to check in with other people in the world, how they were doing it, to see what you should do.
P: I would look at different writers and different songwriters and different filmmakers or whatever and was constantly inspired by talent—so much talent—the extraordinary talents they would bring to something—and be influenced. That is natural just by being in the world and by being open to those things and by engaging in other people’s art.
But I still did, as much as I could, what I wanted to do. I did my thing. The thing is, my thing—one’s thing—is so much a product of so many influences.
K: So, you started as a singer/songwriter, then wrote novels while keeping up the singer/songwriter thing, then focused more on screenwriting for a little while. Then you directed a film and started writing poetry, essays and making documentaries. So do you have A.D.D. or is there another reason you feel compelled to express yourself in so many different media?
P: I do have a concentration problem in a certain way but fortunately the procrastination that follows leads me to other artistic endeavours. I did poetry all along, more or less. It is always a very gratifying and immediate form of creation.
When you write a novel, it is long. To look at and edit that two-inch manuscript can be daunting. It is hard to remember to just do it page by page, especially when it is a slog and not yet unfolding. Even when you are making a full album or a film, to get it from screenplay to film, is monstrous sometimes—in relative monster terms.
So I’ve always found smaller creations like poetry really useful and freeing and uninhibited—and wonderfully uncensored. Poetry to me is the soul just wanting to say hello—and I try to have that conversation every day. And I’ve just followed the muse, and she’s been very good to me.
K: Is it the idea that draws you into that medium or do you think, oh I want to try something in that medium?
P: I just sort of followed the muse unfolding as she does, knowing there’s only so little we are able to control. I started writing more prose when I was songwriting. Granted, if I had had a hit as a songwriter, and I haven’t even been close, it might have taken me in a very different direction. Maybe teen pin-up then straight into rehab. I would have been a disastrous crack addict—not to mention bad hair. Wait, I had bad hair. But my songwriting “career” was not exactly monetarily self-sustaining although my love has remained for songwriting.
I knew I wanted to write more, and a friend of mine who is a screenplay writer in LA suggested I start journaling, writing little bits of prose. And so began my first novel, Shelby. The book’s development expanded even more naturally when everybody in the band I was in got married within a year—except me—which challenged the dynamics of keeping us together and going on the road for $7 a night.
So I wound up with a lot of songs and a novel that got published, then avenues opened up for making films. The books got optioned for the screen and if I couldn’t have written the screenplays for them I wouldn’t have optioned them. I started writing screenplays and it just kept going that way until here I am this morning, writing poems again.
K: Was your childhood all about the arts?
P: Not really. A mix. I drew a lot, but hockey was my obsession. If anything, the scene was more academic, my dad being a doctor. In the post-divorce time after I was five or six, it was a little bit of a nut-house, or multiple nut-houses—but in a sweet way. Holding on.
And actually both my mother and father are creative, my mom paints and my dad builds things. The creative impulse took charge when I was about seventeen or eighteen. I had been playing junior hockey and I’d broken my collarbone twice and I had a burst of colitis, which can be off-putting, and so the whole thing had got a little depressing.
Looking back, I see it that despite a passion for hockey, it wasn’t my true nature, and my body was desperately trying to let me know. My brother, who’s six years older, had been tree planting and had learned a little guitar. It was there so I picked it up and just started picking through a Gordon Lightfoot songbook. One-handed. The strum hand sort of hanging from the broken collar-bone and the harness I was wearing. Not pretty. But it just resonated with me. It was better than Junior A hockey at the time so I kept going. And it was always a tool for expression, for writing.
K: Which of all the mediums has given you unadulterated joy, to work in?
P: The moment that I write something that I love is thrilling for me regardless of the medium. So I literally have had no more pleasure in one than the other. Writing a song that I really like or really moves me is very fulfilling. It is more fulfilling than getting the album made or when I got published or films made or whatever.
It is hard for people to believe that but it's true. When I got the call saying, “We want to publish your book,” and I’m like, wow, good, but what now? But if I have a song that I like or a chapter that I like or a scene that I like, I can dance for a few days on that.
Mark Twain said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” I feel that way with a line or a song or a poem that resonates. I don’t know how that happens sometimes but when the process of creating is flowing, it is so fulfilling. I think it could be that there’s some sense of not being alone. Someone’s helping the process out.
K: So what is your creative process? What is a typical writing day or songwriting day?
P: That is a difficult question to answer—and a difficult journey for me to figure out. You know, you read about people like Stephen King who write eight hours a day, seven days a week. They are so disciplined. It is not that I am not disciplined, I just don’t have the focus to do that.
It’s sometimes frustrating, because I feel good when I am organized. I feel good when I work all day. I feel good when I go away and write excessively. But these things germinate in mysterious ways. I don’t know how others do it. I do try to remain disciplined; I do try to remain active and creative.
K: So these ideas don’t just come in the shower?
P: They come in the shower sometimes but I would never discount the idea of hard work before and after that. And both good and bad ideas, or at least hopeful ideas, come in the shower—and everywhere else. It’s as if I have to write badly for a while, I have to work through things. Sometimes years. Sometimes they never work out.
Very seldom does a song just appear, you know, like in 20 minutes, like you read about with Elton John and modern geniuses of the sort, where they literally write the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” melody in 20 minutes. Even his great early stuff. That’s pretty impressive. But like Dylan once said, that “ain’t me, babe”—although I wrote The Woman I Love Is Crazy in maybe half an hour, all in.
K: What typically comes first for you?
P: With songs, I generally simultaneously get a word idea with a melodic idea on my guitar. I don’t think I have ever written lyrics and then written a song to them, which is curious since I consider myself a writer, a lyricist or a novelist or a screenplay writer more than the other aspects of those arts.
Seeds germinate in curious ways. Generally I am fascinated by life and I’m fascinated by the world and I’m fascinated by the human journey. I’m fascinated by motivation and desire and I follow that seed in my writing. I just get on something that interests me and I just keep riding it as long as I can.
K: When I think back over the writing of yours that I know, it seems to have a progression from somewhat autobiographical—that you would take a lot of inspiration from stuff that is going on in your own head. But in the last few years, you seem to be expanding your inspiration, taking it more from the world as opposed to your inner world?
P: Early on, they say one tends to write what you know and you follow it. Unfortunately, you don’t know much. I still don’t necessarily know much, and I’m actually writing about myself still, it’s just that the idea of self has expanded simultaneously with the expansion of being less navel-gazing and less self-absorbed—hopefully.
I think as you get older the everyday dilemmas of life and the physical desires you are at 20 or 25, they just start to wane a little bit, and other thoughts and ideas start to take over.
So it’s both of those things: the world becomes bigger but also our ideas of self, at least the pursuit of what that might be, become bigger.
K: What are some of your recurring themes? What are some of the things you notice you keep returning to?
P: I like the idea that life is worth the process, no matter what the process is. Now I say that with great humility because I’ve never been abused, and some of the horrific historical stories or the Ugandan documentary I did recently diminishes the authority of my statement.
But people in those types of situations also live amazing lives—Viktor Frankl, for example, in his Man’s Search For Meaning about the Holocaust. We are riveted to the kind of person who risks everything in trying stand in that madness with some sort of dignity. Same with the Ugandan documentary, you see people that are still alive, still trying to find some beauty, some order, some sense within their lives.
I think a recurring theme is that life is a process, an evolution, that is worth the journey. I have sort of this redemptive desire in my work, to state that fact. It doesn’t mean that you can’t get killed at the end of the story. You can get shot at the end of the story, but it just had to be worth it [laughs], as strange as that sounds. That is important to me.
I am not nihilistic. Nor am I an existentialist who believes at the end of the day this has no meaning. It is important to me that there is a redemptive side to being here. I believe that and I don’t shy away from that—even if I fail in that.
I saw recently Werner Herzog in his fascinating documentary Grizzly Man—which I really enjoyed—he said, “I believe the universe is based in hostility, murder and chaos.” Then when he listened to the tape of the guy being eaten by the bear, it terrified him, petrified him, made him shake.
And I thought if you believe the world is truly based in chaos and horror and murder, you shouldn’t be shaking when that happens because that’s a natural state to be in. But it is not, and I don’t agree with Herzog at all in that. I think he is a great director but I don’t agree with that conclusion and I know that he doesn’t deep down agree with it either. Otherwise he wouldn’t shake when he heard someone being eaten by a bear, because we don’t want to be eaten by bears—bears being in that moment a metaphor for chaos or brutality or death or whatever.
There is a yearning for beauty and to connect and see that it is not just random and chaotic. Anybody can see that. Einstein said it when he said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” So for me, I do kind of believe in order on a certain level. Despite all this incredible chaos. That’s my bias.
Kim Linekin has contributed film reviews and interviews for NOW magazine and eye Weekly in Toronto, Fast Forward Weekly in Calgary, the Director's Guild of Canada magazine, and CBC national radio.
|copyright 2006 Pete McCormack|