What to Grab Onto: A Newcomer’s Guide to Toronto’s Literary Huddle

Last week at the Coach House Wayzgoose I met a couple of the first year U of T MA in Creative Writing students, reminding me of how, just 5 years ago, my classmates and I finished our graduate department orientation in the early sun-dazed week of September and headed to another kind of orientation in bpNichol Lane.

Those first years of going to book launches in Toronto, I stood back as my more extroverted classmates approached their literary idols. I hovered as other writers beckoned to each other and cosily chatted by the bar. The venues were often loud, hot and crowded with various degrees of dampness depending on the time of year. Twenty dollar bills disappeared like burrowing moles. Being shy, soft-spoken, relatively unpublished and often too poor to purchase the new titles, I felt that any attempt to speak to writers and editors would be perceived as grabby and insincere. I conscientiously avoided everyone I recognized out of fear they might think I was warming them up for a favour.

But then, why move to Toronto, the self-proclaimed hub of Canada’s English-speaking literary world? Not many people are able to participate in that world, because of language barriers, distance, poor health, and so on. Here I was, young, able-bodied, well-educated– the main barrier to attending events being my own disinclination and over-sensitivity. Get out your eyeshadow, Phoebe!

5 years later, I still forget names and would prefer to stay at home with a new cookbook than to circle like a piranha in the gin-and-ink scented waters of the Toronto literary community. But I’ve found a few ways to fulfill my professional capacity as an up-and-coming poet while still having fun.

Get to know your own cohort first

It’s easiest to talk to other emerging writers if you’re also an emerging writer, no matter what age you are. Support others who are at the same stage of their careers as you by going to their events and mentioning their work to editors and they’ll do the same for you. Writers who only talk about their own work all of the time quickly get a reputation for being self-serving.

Stop dressing like a student

You don’t have to show up at a bar for a casual reading series in a full suit. Although one young poet who always wore a quiet blazer and tie to every event did so because I believe he’s more comfortable that way when he meets older writers and asks them for a coffee. Many people go to events after work and don’t have time to change, so it’s common to see a well-dressed, pin-stripped crowd in various shades of black. You might feel out of place if you’re in a bedazzled hoodie, especially if you’re already a self-conscious person to begin with.

Find a Pretext

I met many more people when I edited Echolocation during my second MA year, as I needed to email publishers and editors for review copies, ad-swaps and myriad other small requests. When I met them face-to-face, it was great to be able to thank them for their help. I’m also much more comfortable promoting organizational interests than I am my own. However, people can see your skills when you’re involved in some way in the literary community. Help with a reading series, offer to read submissions for a literary magazine, volunteer at a conference, etc.

Ask writers out for coffee (or to the zoo)

I don’t do this often, but it’s how Elizabeth Bishop met Marianne Moore. Proof enough that it’s a perfectly socially acceptable way to exchange information and to ask a writer about their particular area of expertise– maybe you want to know more about organizing a literary festival, holding a workshop, running a reading series, and that writer has experience doing one of those things. Offer to meet close to the writers’ home or workplace at a time convenient for them– after all, they’re the ones giving you their time.

Bring Cookies

Cookies are always appreciated, anywhere you go. Host Jacob Mooney frequently feeds Pivot Reading attendees with delicious oat-coconut clusters. I once brought a tabouleh salad to our program director’s house, and a tiny woman loved it so much she asked me for the recipe. That woman, I found out later, was the poet with 3 published books who has since become a dear friend. So bring cookies really means, remember that you have other interests outside of writing. When utterly star-struck, I’ve found refuge in talking about travel, families, babies, dogs, baseball, raw salads, etc. If I had talk all the time about the status of my manuscript I might bash in my own head with a pint glass.

Pace yourself

You don’t need to meet everyone every night at every event. The fall/spring book launch seasons last longer and longer each year, and it’s impossible to meet everyone and if you try you’ll end up forgetting half the names. Allow people to get to know you. A thank-you to someone for hosting the event, a quick chat over a festival book table– over the years these interactions add up and people begin to recognize you and your contributions to the community. Think about their point of view, having lived and worked in Toronto for decades and each year seeing new writers move to city. The famous coldness of Torontonians is mostly a sense of efficiency and even protectiveness. Is it worth it to learn your name if you’re only going to leave in a year or two? Be less in a rush. Act like you’re here to stay.

Come early/Stay late

Do one or the other, not both. Hosts and organizers appreciate first-comers as it means there’s less chance of someone walking in late during a reading. You can get a seat and talk with other early birds. Other people prefer to come late, after the first rush of the crowd or if they’re coming from another event. After the readings, the crowd thins, everyone’s on their 2nd or 3rd drink and starting to unbutton things, the organizer can finally sit down, and some of the best conversations take place on the patio as well as some of the most memorable moments. What will be yours?

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