"Sometimes I can't believe that I managed so long. It was such a struggle financially for my entire life until now, but I wouldn't change anything about it."
About Nadia Bozak – author
Nadia Bozak is the author of the novels Orphan Love (2007) and El Niño (2014), the first two parts of her Border Trilogy, published by House of Anansi. Thirteen Shells, a collection of linked short stories will be published by Anansi in 2016. Selections of these stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Walrus, Joyland, and Prairie Fire.
Nadia holds a Phd in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto. Her doctoral work concentrated on the relationship between the technology and industry of cinema and the biophysical world, resulting in her book The Cinematic Footprint: Lights, Camera, Natural Resources published by Rutgers University Press (2012).
Nadia is a professor of English at Carleton University in Ottawa where she teaches creative writing. She is writing the third installment of her Border Trilogy.
1. What is the force that drives you forward? What fuels your ambition?
Sometimes I think I’m crazy to do what I do. I struggled for a long time as I tried to support myself as a writer. I just recently got a full time job as a university professor… so now I’m also trying to balance my academic life with my creative life.
I made so many sacrifices, but I don’t know that I ever really questioned it. I never really questioned my ambition or wondered where it came from. I just don’t feel that there’s anything else that I could have done. I feel that I’m in the right place. I feel very lucky. I make a living writing, reading, interacting with students, and I’m with other writers all the time.
Is there something inside of you that makes you need to write?
I think for all writers – and for all people – it’s really important to have an outlet of expression. That’s writing for me. It’s also how I think through things. Sometimes I’m struck by a thought or a question that I don’t really know the answer to. The only way to get to the answer is to write.
In his book “Letters to a Young Poet”, R.M Rilke says something about writing the question… and I think that’s what writing is about. You’re grappling with things and thinking through problems. Even if you don’t produce an answer, it’s the process of just thinking it through that’s important.
I also love writing because I love writing. I love engaging with words and telling stories. There’s nothing I love more than telling a story.
2. Can you talk about your greatest “failure”? (something that led to your most significant shift in consciousness, and made you who you are today).
It’s not necessarily a failure, but my decision to do a doctorate really set back my creative writing career. Because I published my first book the first or second year of my Phd, and instead of pursuing the trajectory of that first book I kind of let it go and devoted myself to my academic research. I got really lost inside that space and I started thinking in different patterns. I started becoming very analytical, and theorizing a lot. And I loved it, I loved what I was doing… but my brain started changing shape, and I lost my creative voice. It took me a long time to go back and be able to write creatively again. It took me years to go back and put aside that tendency towards self analysis when one is writing, and just be able to do it in a more intuitive manner.
For the first book I wrote, I was undisciplined as a writer. I’d never taken any classes in creative writing. I just wrote it on a whim, and it was all the rawness in it that made it what it is, and gave it life. I need to go back and find ways to find that again. That ability to turn my brain off when I’m writing is important.
After finishing my Phd I wrote another book – a creative novel. And it was horrible. I had to throw it out. It was the kind of book that an intellectual writes, and it didn’t make a lot of sense, it was sort of esoteric.
For a long time I thought that doing the Phd was a failure. It was such a set back from doing the creative work, but I can see now how doing the Phd gave me a lot of discipline as a writer in terms of the discipline to log lots of writing hours. So I think in the end it’s become an asset – and now that it’s done I just have to accept that it’s part of me. I guess I’ve learned to see it in a different light.
3. Are you happy? What does happiness mean to you?
Yes, I’m very happy. I mean, there’s little things that I think we probably all want to change about our lives, but I just feel happy in the sense that I feel so lucky. Sure I could complain about little imperfections, but I have a really great job as a professor and writer, and really great friends and family. I have nothing to complain about at all. So yes. I feel very happy.
I think happiness is like love, in that it’s based on a feeling of security. And I think that the definition for some people of being in love is feeling secure with someone else. |So maybe happiness is feeling secure in your life and in your self, rather than letting your security be defined by anything material.
Recently I’ve been writing and teaching poetry. I’ve been getting my students, and myself by default, to stop and really start to see beauty in the world and praise it. I think that part of feeling secure and being in the moment at the same time, is just the stopping and being able to recognize certain things that give you joy… even if it’s on a very simple level.
4. What do you think is your greatest strength? On the reverse, can you identify a personal challenge (something you currently struggle with)?
My greatest strength – which could also be my greatest weakness – is my sensitivity. I’m a very sensitive person. It can be great, because everything can be twice as beautiful… but then everything can also be twice as ugly. But I feel that without that kind of sensitivity I would never be able to be a writer. I can perceive in ways that are maybe unique to me, and find those little details that build characters and instigate interesting stories.
But it can also be very difficult to deal with to. “Grow that thick skin” is what so many people have told me to do… but I’ve never been able to do that. And I’ve realized that I don’t want to. Because if I had this very thick skin, I wouldn’t be the writer that I am. So it’s a strength, but you have to be able to balance it.
I tell my students to embrace their thin skin, while maybe finding strategies for protecting it more. I encourage them to really embrace that side of who they are.
For a personal challenge.. sometimes I can be a little impatient as a writer. There’s a lot of pressure put on writers to produce. I got this from Rilke: I’ve learned that you have to write as if eternity is before you. You have to be patient and write as if you have forever to do it, so that you can live in the moment and really enjoy the process of writing.
Sometimes it can be easy to forget that with the apparatus of the publishing industry barring down on you. People are talking about sales and marketing, and there’s all these prizes and short lists to think about. It can be easy to forget to just enjoy the writing process.
5. When did you first realize that you wanted to be an artist? Can you talk about that moment or time in your life?
I’ve always loved story telling. I read a lot. And the other thing I did a lot of is listened to people talk. I loved listening to people tell stories.
I also told many interesting lies as a kid… I had a very active imagination.
But the defining moment for me was when I got to grade 8. I’d been reading a lot, and I started reading poetry. I started reading E.E. Cummings and Leonard Cohen, and I decided to imitate them. I started writing my own poetry.
That same year I read a lot of books that captivated me. One was ‘A Clockwork Orange‘ by Anthony Burgess. I wrote an essay on that book about it’s social context. That assignment got me reading at a higher level, and also thinking about literature at a higher level. I didn’t really look back after that.
Writing has always been apart of my life. I didn’t even think about publishing until I was much much older.
6. Habits, routine, morning rituals — What are the positive things you do daily that have had the most significant impact on your life and work?
Running is very important for me. I run almost every day. Have you ever read Haruki Murakami ‘What I talk about when I talk about running‘?
No, I haven’t.
Well it’s his life’s relationship between running marathons and writing novels. It’s a fantastic book.
I feel in a similar mindset. I find that if I write, I have to balance that static mental time with an active time where my unconscious can sort of work through what I’m writing. Every day I have to do some sort of physical activity. I have to get fresh air, and allow myself a break from the writing. That break is sort of part of the writing process.
7. How do you deal with doubt? Where do you go for support?
Writers and artists are filled with self doubt, I think.
I don’t have such a problem with doubt anymore, but between graduating university and writing my first novel there was a lot of doubt. I wondered if I would ever be able to get my creative voice back.
During those times when I’m really doubting myself, I might look back on pieces that I’ve written that I really like. Or I might read other writers on writing. I’ll read someone like Murakami who emphasizes really living in the moment and being patient,. Everyday you log hours on your keyboard, and you log hours on the road as you’re running, and you just have to keep doing it, he says.
I definitely look to other writers for inspiration. I know that some of my favourite writers overcame desperate circumstances. I can get inspired from them.
I also have a really great editor, and she’s given me so much support. So if I’m ever really self doubting I can go to her and get a pep talk.
But I don’t really doubt my writing anymore. There was a time when I doubted the quality of it, or its capacity to reach people… but I don’t really do that anymore. I think that as I’ve matured as a writer I feel more secure in the stories that I tell and the characters that I develop.
8. What, in your opinion, are the qualities of someone who is a “great” artist (in whatever discipline)?
I think for writers an essential quality is being able to spend a lot of time by yourself. I think a lot of people can write well, but it’s that ability to stick with something long-term and see it through that’s important.
As a writer, you’re often alone, and you have to be able to get yourself away from friends and family in order to focus. For many people I think that’s very lonely. Enduring that kind of solitude can be hard, so having that ability to work like that is important.
I think too that being able to take constructive criticism, and listen to people who read your work is very important. ‘A poor musician blames his instrument.’ It’s the same with writing or any kind of art. As a writer you’re meant to reach people, but if they don’t understand what you’re writing, you have to pay attention to that.
Ultimately art of any kind is about communicating with others, so you need to develop that cognitive bond with your audience.
I also think there’s a sparkle in people who create. There’s something unique about the way they see the world, and their need to want the world to see what they see – their a unique vision. I don’t think everyone has that. I get this a lot when I’m teaching creative writing. You see a group of say 20 people. They all really want to write poetry, but only a very few of them are able to hook the reader with some kind of very interesting insight. Or make them feel and respond in a visceral sort of way.
So I guess I’m talking about talent. There needs to be talent as a starting point.
9. Any advice for artists on a similar path? (Perhaps advice you wish you’d been given when you were first starting out).
It’s very important to align yourself with other people in your field. It’s really important to belong to a community of likeminded people.
When I started writing I was very solitary. I didn’t want to share my work with anyone. I had no interest in taking creative writing classes.At the time my personality was just so introverted. But I went to Banff and I did their writer studio there, and that’s when I first started feeling like I was part of a community of people. And I could see how much support you could get from that, and how great it is to share your work and get feedback, and also how beneficial it is to give feedback to others.
If you isolate yourself, you’re going to miss the feedback. You’re going to miss the support. And on a professional level, you’re going to miss the networking, which is an important part of it as well.
10. Could you talk a little bit about your relationship to money? Has your relationship to money changed over the years?
My dad and mom were artists, and we never had much money. I learned early on how to do without. For my dad, his job in life was to not have a real job. He had other kinds of jobs so that he could do his creative work.
I never thought that I was in it for any kind of money. It was always just… my dream was to have enough so that I could keep doing what I was doing – being creative. And I feel as though I’m finally in a position where I can keep doing that with this university professorship.
It’s taken me years to get to this spot, and sometimes I can’t believe that I managed so long. It was such a struggle financially for my entire life until now, but I wouldn’t change anything about it.
11. Ever experience flow/being in the zone? What does it feel like for you, and can you tell us about a time when you experienced it?
I wish I could say that I’m always in the zone when I’m writing, but I often have to create these artificial environments like… I have to go places where there isn’t any internet connection, for example.
If I can escape distractions, then I can get in the zone. And when I am in that state, it’s forward, it sweeps you. Don’t look behind you, because you’ll get lost. You can give yourself over to it, and time just flies. It’s a great feeling, but it’s not always there.
I guess when you write you always want to regain it. So it’s frustrating when you don’t have that flow.
In my life though, I’ve found that if I can sort of cut myself off (from internet primarily), I can achieve it pretty easily. But I go to great lengths to do that too. From September until January I didn’t have any internet connection in my house, so I could get up in the morning and write without feeling any pressure to check my email or anything. It was just great.
12. What are some of your favourite books?
One is Haruki Murakami “What I talk about when I talk about running?”
The other is “Letter’s to a Young Poet” by R.M Rilke’s. It’s just full of inspiration.
About The Creative Life Interview Series
“Theatre is a safe place to do the unsafe things that need to be done” said John Patrick Shanley. Likewise, Creative Life is a safe place to share ‘unsafe’ things that need to be said.
The stories and interviews from this site share the personal experiences of courage, fear, vulnerability, flow, creativity, and happiness from the perspective of the artist.
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