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Literary Smackdown

Donna Morrissey vs. Wayne Johnston: Write by day or write by night?

We've teamed up with The Next Chapter to present The Canada Writes Literary Smackdowns, an essay series in which authors sound off on various writing topics. No writers were injured in the making of this series.

Battle Two: Donna Morrissey writes when the sun's up -- and Wayne Johnston works the graveyard shift. Are you on Team Donna or Team Wayne?



You can also hear Donna and Wayne go head to head on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers.

Donna Morrissey: Day!

I go to bed at night chewing on a metaphor. I wake up in the morning with it gargling in my throat like mouthwash. I go to the computer and sit and spit it onto the screen and then spend the next five, ten, twenty, sometimes sixty minutes polishing it. I then go into the next sentence and the next and the next. The morning passes, I sometimes yell out to my daughter, not sure if she's home or if this is still yesterday and she's not back from Africa yet.   

The birds chirping outside the window is my white noise. The cars honking, neighbour yelling, kids arguing, dogs yapping is the energy I connect with and keeps me going. Silence kills me. It overwhelms me till I hear nothing but my breathing and it starts growing louder, sounding weird to me. Walking is how I drive my thoughts. I talk out loud, I move with an intensity, I blend into the chaos of city traffic, no one notices. Those times I find myself walking into the quiet of  night, swinging my arms and mumbling out loud, people stare at me. It disrupts my thinking. I like the anonymonity of daylight hours and crowds. 

When I am writing I am intense. I become so introverted my belly becomes sucked in, my face prunes, forehead furrows, shoulders hunch. I become so tense I ache at night as though I did a workout. I need the phone to ring. I need my friends to call, the mailman to ring, to bring me out of my knots. I need to relax my stomach and face and shoulders and smile and laugh for a bit before being sucked back inside my introverted state for another two or three hours.   

When I am writing I have no energy to plan family events or attend birthdays, dinners, etc. I have a big, beautiful, loving  family and they continuously feed me, plan my birthdays, send out my sympathy cards. When they go through rough times, when they need my limited services, whether it be speaking with lawyers, doctors, Revenue Canada, or personal confidences, I am honoured to receive their calls and shut it all down and be there for them. When my grandson is sick in daycare and everyone is working, I shut it down and go get him. I am the emergency sister and I thank God for the flexibility my own scheduling during daylight hours gives me. 

Donna Morrissey's latest book is What They Wanted. She's also the author of the award-winning Kit's Law, Downhill Chance and Sylvanus Now. Her screenplay, Clothesline Patch, which won a Gemini Award. Her work has been translated into several different languages. Morrissey grew up in the Beaches, a small fishing outport in Newfoundland, and now lives in Halifax.

Wayne Johnston: Night!

I became a night writer not long after I moved to Toronto from St. John's in the summer of 1989. 

The summer of '89 was a hot one and it had not occurred to me to get an apartment that was air conditioned. A few people I knew in St. John's had air conditioning, but it was so long since they had had any reason to use it, they could not remember how to turn it on and could not even say for sure if it still worked.

So I began to write at night when it was cooler. It was only by accident that I discovered the other advantages of night writing. It was quieter. All of Toronto by day seemed like Bedlam to me after so many years in St. John's. Here was a place where a fire truck would go by and people would not even notice, let alone follow it to find out whose house was burning down as people back home always did. Even at night, there was so much noise that I bought a white noise machine to help me sleep. When I switched to night writing, the machine was invaluable because I was now sleeping in the daytime.

But at night, the doorbell and the phone and fax machine were silent. No interruptions. I could not put off writing by calling friends because everyone I knew was asleep. For some reason I could not put my finger on, I felt more like writing at night. It felt somehow good to know that I was working while almost everyone else in the city was asleep. It was like I was getting a jump on the competition.

We moved to what turned out to be a noisier neighbourhood. It was even noisy at night. So I had my writing room soundproofed. This room, the Bunker, as I came to call it, has no windows, beige walls without decorations of any kind. It is halfway to being a sensory deprivation tank -- a place where, as the writer Annie Dillard puts, there are no obstacles to the meeting of memory and imagination

I write from eleven at night until six in the morning, sometimes later, always later if I am close to completing a book. It is not unheard of for me to go to bed at noon and get up when my wife comes home from work. If I get up at, say, three or four, I work until I hear her coming through the door, having stolen an extra couple of hours at my desk.

My wife and I never have breakfast together, but I will often wind down with a beer or two while she is having a bagel. 

Anyway, I am, at least, not who Leonard Cohen had in mind when he said of Canada: "Our writers keep banker's hours."

Wayne Johnston's latest novel is A World Elsewhere. His earlier bestselling novels include The Custodian of Paradise, The Navigator of New York and The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, which was an international bestseller and will be made into a film. Johnston is also the author of an award-winning and bestselling memoir, Baltimore's Mansion. He lives in Toronto.

Read more Literary Smackdowns here.

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