How I Wrote It

How does Ivan Coyote start writing? By making a list — and cleaning their house

Ivan Coyote's 11th book Tomboy Survival Guide is a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.
Ivan Coyote is the author of Tomboy Survival Guide. (Robin Toma Photography/Arsenal Pulp Press)

Ivan Coyote's Tomboy Survival Guide is an emotional collection of poignant stories and coming-of-age memories in Yukon and B.C. The book is a finalist for the prestigious Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction, an annual $60,000 award recognizing the best in Canadian nonfiction writing.

Below, the seasoned raconteur (check out Coyote's tour schedule here) tells us about how they wrote Tomboy Survival Guide

One rock at a time

"I do this kind of rock-pile idea. I did that with this project. I made big, long lists of every vignette and idea and topic that I wanted to address. I would go to that list when I sat down to write and I'd pick out the one that jumped out the most at me. I made my way slowly through the list. At the same time, I was always working on the tiny, short bits; I call them literary Doritos. I've been informed that they're called prose poems, but that title doesn't resonate with me. I've been working on them for a few years now.

"I see it as though you're building a stone fence. You go and come back with one rock and put it down. You go back and get another rock and put it down. You get a pile of rocks and then you start to build the fence. Once the fence starts to take shape you decide, 'Oh I need a little stone here. I need a little mortar here.'"

1,000-word days

"When I have a deadline, I do those lists and then I have 1,000-word days. I have an imaginary calendar with imaginary gold stars. They don't have to be 1,000 perfect words. But I make a commitment on a writing day that it's going to be 1,000 words and I just force myself to sit there until it happens. Often, what will happen is that I'll get on a roll, especially after I've done it for three, four or five days in row. Then a 1,000-word day will turn into a 3,000-word day."

Rituals

"I write at my kitchen table. I like to have the TV or the radio on, turned down low to something that's vaguely interesting but not too distracting, just some white noise in the background. Cooking a soup or stew or stock or roasting something in the oven is definitely one [of my rituals]. I like having that domestic vibe going on. I have to clean the house first. I just can't get anything done in a messy house so usually a good writing bout is preceded by establishing some kind of peace and order. Sometimes you see those things like 'A creative mind is a messy desk.' Not this creative mind."

Fine editing

"I never really feel finished. I've never experienced a feeling of closure or 'The End.' If you talk to the guy who edited Tomboy Survival Guide, I was constantly tweaking it. If you can find a typo in that book, I will buy you the beverage of your choice because I went through that thing on my phone in airports six or seven times. I noticed that there were page numbers in the centre when previously according to the format they had been in the bottom right corner. 

"I never really felt finished with it. I felt like I had to let it go and let it turn into a galley and then let it go and let it turn into a finished copy. That book meant a lot to me. I talked about some really difficult things, both topic-wise and from an emotional standpoint and I wanted to be as close to good as I could make it. It was more me trying to make sure that it was as close to what I actually felt about everything in perfect words." 

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