Keep going. Don’t stop because you’re discouraged or think you don’t know what you’re doing. It may always feel like that — even when you’ve become established — but you can’t tell how much you actually know and how well you were actually doing until much later. It’s all about process. Find a way to enjoy (or at least find satisfying) the process. I came across a melody I’d written when I was fifteen. Though I can create so much more sophisticatedly now, I loved its beauty, its charming simplicity and was impressed by its intuitive craft. I’m glad I kept going despite having no idea which way to proceed way back when.
As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist” I had the pleasure of interviewing Gary Barwin
Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, and multidisciplinary artist and the author of 30 books including the national bestselling novel Yiddish for Pirates which won the Leacock Medal for Humour and the Canadian Jewish Literary Award, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was long listed for Canada Reads. His writing, music and art have been published and presented internationally. His latest book is Imagining Imagining: Essays on Language, Identity and Infinity. garybarwin.com
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I often think about the idea of “home.” In fact, in my latest book, I have an essay entitled “Triaspora” exploring the complexity of this kind of belonging. My grandparents were Lithuanian Jews who left before the Holocaust to escape rising Fascism and Antisemitism. South Africa was a place that would accept them and so they moved there. My parents later emigrated because of Apartheid and ended up in Northern Ireland. We left there when I was a child because of “The Troubles,” the violent political unrest due to the conflict between pro-British Unionist and Irish Republicans, and immigrated to Canada where we’ve stayed for fifty years. All through my childhood, I thought about my relation to these places and “nostalgia by proxy” for countries I’d never been. That said, I had a rich childhood of music, books, mountains, and play. Coming to Canada, snow was a revelation. I think about my first winter when my father and I cross-country skied through some woods, the branches bright with snow, and encountered deer between the trees. It felt like a fairy tale.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
As a child, I wrote, made art, and played music. It was a natural way for me to speak to my experience of the world. It never occurred to me to do anything else and so I continued and it became my career. I’m grateful that no one told me it wasn’t possible. In order to advance my understanding, I did study writing at university and also eventually got a PhD in music composition.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Once I was doing a performance in a long narrow performance space. I usually don’t behave like a diva (really!) but for some reason that night I complained to the organizer that because of the venue, the audience, many of whom were quite far away, didn’t pay sufficient attention to my performance. She said, “Well, considering that, during your performance, someone in back had a heart attack and was carried out on a stretcher by ambulance attendants, they paid attention pretty well.” I think about this and how I really believe in the idea that making art should be a dialogue with its audience. Obviously, this was one time where other concerns distracted me from this important goal. I felt like such a cad!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I like to work on many projects at once. I’m midway through a new novel currently entitled The Comedian’s Book of the Dead and it is narrated by the character of Death, a former comedian whose son has died. It’s been fascinating and challenging to write about such a difficult subject (death and grief) but yet to find a voice that is filled with energy and even humour. I am putting the finishing touches (with my musician son, Ryan Barwin) on THE QUICK FROWN BOX an album of music created with voice, instruments and typewriters. And I’m at the beginning of a collaboration with artist, singer, and composer Tor Lukasik-Foss on a major multimedia performance piece that explores ideas of the self and ventriloquism. Also, I think I have to clean the kitchen this morning.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I’ve had the great honour to meet many major artists and writers and this has been exciting and inspiring, However, what has been most interesting to me is the people who have approached me after a performance, particularly after reading from my novels which engage with Yiddish culture and the Holocaust. These older people come up to me to share a Yiddish joke or expression and then to tell me their experience of the Holocaust. It is so profoundly moving to have these conversations and to be trusted with these stories.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?
I love making stuff. The process of trying out things, exploring the material (words, sound, visual, ideas), of making mistakes and maybe following the consequence of that mistake, of stumbling, of orienteering without a compass. I love listening to the language and seeing where it takes me. I love listening to what is happening inside my own head — it’s a psychological and cultural sponge and Mixmaster. Picasso said that he believes in inspiration but that it must find you when you’re working. I think that is wise and in fact that inspiration comes because you’re working, following the materials where they take you. I tell my writing students that “the writing knows more than you do,” which is to say that by attending closely to the language, you have access to all the associations, possibilities and resonances inherent in the remarkable archive, the uncanny technology that is language and culture. It occurred to me when writing Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted, my last novel (it was long and involved and required lots of research) that I really had the sense that making art was akin to dousing for water. That creativity is about noticing how the stick twitches in your hand, the mysterious connection between the inside and the outside that is being human.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
What I hope for is that my work leads people to their own perceptions, ideas and feelings. That the work opens up possibilities for them to notice and understand more about themselves and the world. More about language, sound and sight. That by paying attention and thinking through ideas and experiences, my work brings surprise, depth and freshness to my audience. I believe goodness results through being as aware as possible of ourselves and our patterns of being, belief and perception, as well as the pure present pleasure of interacting with art, with living itself. In a more direct way, I do try to mentor and support other artists and to build community around the arts. I greatly value the support and community that others have provided for me.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
A video of Five things I Wish Someone Told Me Ihen I First Started: https://youtu.be/o8Uv37hEPDw
1 . Keep going. Don’t stop because you’re discouraged or think you don’t know what you’re doing. It may always feel like that — even when you’ve become established — but you can’t tell how much you actually know and how well you were actually doing until much later. It’s all about process. Find a way to enjoy (or at least find satisfying) the process. I came across a melody I’d written when I was fifteen. Though I can create so much more sophisticatedly now, I loved its beauty, its charming simplicity and was impressed by its intuitive craft. I’m glad I kept going despite having no idea which way to proceed way back when.
2 . Decades later, when you look back at your earlier work, you’ll find that the old you was ok. If only you could tell them, “Good work.” When my For It is a Pleasure and a Surprise to Breathe: New and Selected Poems was published I wished I could tell my younger self that I was quite proud of him. He’d have really appreciated it.
3 . Do the things that really interest and excite you, not what you think you should be doing. When I decided to write a novel (I was 50), it ended up being narrated by a 500-year-old possibly immortal gay Yiddish-speaking pirate’s parrot. My wife said, “Really? People are going to want to read that?” This has been my most successful book, a national bestseller that’s been optioned for TV. Also, even if your work isn’t popular, at least it is with you. Create what inspires you.
4 . You’ll feel envious and jealous of others. The writer Paul Quarrington said that “Envy is the writer’s black lung disease.” What to do? Know that it’s natural. One of the best ways to deal with it is to take that feeling and use it to help other people in your field. It makes it not all about you and at least you can feel you’re doing something valuable and helpful. When I go on social media (it’s an envy machine!) and find I feel this way, I post something in support of others’ — something about them or their work. I’ve done something good, it makes me feel better, it gives me something to do with the bad feelings, gives me perspective, and it helps the other person. It is difficult to be an artist. It’s easy to feel you’re missing out.
5 . As young writers, people imagine a bunch of supposedly romantic ideas about being an artist — you’re tortured, poor, heavy drinking, alone, suffering. But really making art is about being part of a vibrant community of other artists, even if only through their work. You might like to be a bit of a hermit but art isn’t about the solitary genius creating things without history or context. It’s always implicitly collaborative. Also, being safe, secure, and able to have what Virginia Woolf calls, “a room of one’s own” where you have the time and space to create is vital. Whatever that room looks like depends on you. Toni Morrison wrote her first book on the subway. And being healthy, happy, satisfied, looking after yourself, if it’s possible for you, is really the best way to keep going, to have a good life, and to create art. Not to be self-satisfied or too artistically comfortable, but to be able to be brave and risk-taking while attending to your human needs.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I don’t really think in movements, rather, I proceed from a belief that steadily contributing work adds to the conversation and hopefully contributes for the good. I believe that helping people notice their own noticing — their own feelings, perceptions and ideas — and helping them unpack the assumptions and biases our language, culture and position steer us toward, is inherently good. With the multiplicity of ideas, facts, and beliefs currently surrounding us, the most revolutionary and beneficial approach is to help people attend to what is going on inside them and in others, in a way that isn’t driven or distorted by fear, power or money.
We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.
Really, I should consider who is the best cook in the world or who has access to the best eggs. And I do resist the idea that change comes from an individual rather than a broader community. However, right now, I think I’d love to meet with Naomi Klein. I think her analysis as expressed in her books and public appearances, has wisely and incisively synthesized and articulated many of the important issues (climate, media, capitalism, culture, geopolitics) that make the world what it is today. I find her a humane and inspiring voice who seems humble, empathetic and hopeful despite everything.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
I am at garybarwin.com, @garybarwin on Twitter/X, Instagram and Facebook and @Gary_Barwin on TikTok. I’m also available via telepathy at:
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Gary Barwin: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.