Steven Mayoff: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist

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Embrace failure. It’s common knowledge that we learn more from our failures than our successes. I always think of a quote attributed to Samuel Beckett that most writers know. It’s a bit of a cliché among writers, but like all clichés it has a truth at its centre. “Ever tried. Ever failed. Never mind. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

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 Steven Mayoff.

Steven Mayoff is a novelist, poet and lyricist. Born and raised in Montreal, he has lived in Toronto for 17 years and moved to Prince Edward Island in 2001. He has had four books of fiction and poetry published, with a new novel, The Island Gospel According to Samson Grief, to be published by Radiant Press in October 2023, as well as a musical, Dion: A Rock Opera, for which he wrote the lyrics, with music by Ted Dykstra, that will receive its world premiere at Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre in February 2024. His web site is

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I was born in Montreal and I grew up in the suburb of Chomedy, Laval. My dad owned a delicatessan and later worked as a counterman, cutting smoked meat in pretty much every deli in Montreal. I had a brother and sister, both around 13 years older than myself, who were living their own lives, although they often took me places. Movies, the beach, sporting events, stuff like that.

My parents weren’t getting along and when I was 9 my mother and I went to Glasgow, Scotland to live with her younger brother, who was an artist and teacher, and his family. My sister was living in London at the time and there was a plan for she, my mother, and I to live together. But my mother became ill and passed away, so I ended up returning to Canada to live with my father in Chomedy.

For about a year it was just him and me and a succession of live-in housekeepers. I lived a very free and unsupervised life, hanging out with friends, staying up late. Then my father started a relationship with a woman who worked at his restaurant. I ended up living with her and her children, while my dad lived on his own. It was a strange time. A lonely time. I remember being very unhappy. When I was 12 they married and my father lived with us. Sometimes I felt part of that family, but also quite separate from them.

I had friends, but I also liked to spend time alone, just going for long walks. Totally living inside my head. It was a perfect training ground to become a writer. Discovering this schism inside me, where I felt very much a part of my surroundings but also quite separate from everything.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

My relationship with words felt mystical, in a way. There were shelves of books in my house, although I don’t remember anyone reading that much. I used to sit and stare at the spines of books, fascinated by the titles and the names of the authors. Sometimes I took them out and read random passages. I was also obsessed by our record collection, mostly musical theatre soundtracks, some opera, and my brother’s rock and roll 45s. I’d listen and lip-sync along. I just assumed that the singers were making up the words off the top of their heads. But yeah, book spines and pop songs. That’s where I started to get interested in words.

In my last year of high school, I had a friend who wrote poetry. I was always in awe of that. I couldn’t understand how he did it. And then I started to try my hand at it. The head of the English Department in my high school was the first person to recognize my interest in writing. She was very encouraging. She predicted that I would become a poet. I was flattered, but had no real idea what I was going to do with my life. She was the first person to publish me in the school literary magazine. I had quit school by the time the magazine came out. I was living with my sister, her husband and their son in a farmhouse in Cornwall, England. A friend sent me the magazine. I couldn’t believe it when I saw that it had three of my poems in it.

I drifted much of my life, doing a variety of jobs but with no clear direction. Writing was something I always did, but more by default, as a way of staying sane. A release-valve for a pent-up imagination. I self-published a chapbook of poems when I was around 20 or 21. I used to do readings in Montreal at open mics. About 7 years later I had my first piece published professionally in the Malahat Review. It was a prose poem about my brief time in Glasgow. In the mid-90s I had a postcard story published in Grain Magazine. It made Honourable Mention in a contest. I was also writing lyrics and collaborating on songs with Ted Dykstra, a pianist who was studying acting. But I didn’t really start focusing on writing fiction and getting published until 2001, when I was 45, after I moved to PEI with my girlfriend, who I’m now married to.

As you can see, I’ve been playing the long game for a very long time. I’ve been focused, but in a meandering sort of way.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

In 2010, when I was in Toronto doing a series of readings to promote my first book, a story collection called Fatted Calf Blues, I was slated to read at the library in Uxbridge. I took a GO bus to get there and I may have gotten off at the wrong stop, but I remember walking for the longest time before I finally got to the library. I was very hot and tired. The man who had booked me showed me where I was supposed to read. There was a table, where I set up the books that I had brought along to sell, and there were a few chairs set up. But there was no audience. The guy who booked me then went through the library and assembled a small audience from people who had only come to browse through the stacks. There were five in total. I was a bit disappointed and figured this would go quickly. I expected to read for twenty minutes tops and then beat a hasty retreat. But much to my surprise, small as the audience was, they were very engaged by the stories. They asked many questions and asked me to keep reading. They kept me there for over an hour. It was the first time I had a sense that my writing could reach people and make some kind of impact. A most gratifying experience and a great lesson about not prejudging a situation.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

The project I’ve been working on lately that I’m very excited about is a rock and roll novel, tentatively titled Behind The 4th Wall. It’s about a struggling middle-aged poet who is writing a memoir of when he was the resident lyricist in a band called The 4th Wall during the late 70s and early 80s. It has an interesting structure that I’m trying out. Every chapter starts with the past tense, first person perspective of the memoir, then shifts to the present tense, third person perspective of the poet’s present-day life, where he has reunited with the drummer from his old band to search for the band’s long lost leader, the poet’s song writing partner.

I also have a short story collection and a poetry collection on the back burner. Each one is roughly half way there. It’s great to have a few things on the go. Something as intensive as a novel can feel a bit endless at times, so it’s good to be able to take a break and work on a short story or a poem, something you can finish in a shorter amount of time. It gives you a sense of accomplishment and recharges your batteries so you can return to the larger project feeling refreshed.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

There was a period of about 6 years, from 2004 to 2010, when I did writing workshops every year, often two a year. These were intensive, week-long workshops. Kind of like sleepaway camp for writers. Many times the instructors were name writers in Canada, such as Michael Crummey, Anne Simpson, and Daniel MacIvor. The best known writer I encountered was Alistair MacLeod. Mostly known for his short stories, his novel No Great Mischief went on to win the International Dublin Literary Award. I took workshops with him twice. He was a very entertaining instructor and quite a raconteur. He also had a very dry sense of humour. One time we were walking together and I was feeling quite privileged to have some alone time with such a celebrated writer. I suppose I wanted to impress him and mentioned that I had twice been published in the Windsor Review, a literary magazine for which he was the fiction editor. I think I said something like, “By the way, you’ve published me twice.” I tried to make it an offhand remark. He looked at me and said simply, “Oh.” Then after a short pause, “You must be good.” He had a very subtle way of putting you in your place, but always in a friendly and playful way. His writing had a similar subtlety.

He also paid me one of the most memorable compliments I ever got. Most of the workshop sessions were conducted as a group, but he also met writers for one-on-one appraisels of the stories they had brought to the workshop to work on. During my one-on-one he said that I had good verbs. By which, he meant they were descriptive and not flat. It felt great to hear that. He also told the workshop group something that I’ll never forget: “We write about whatever is troubling us.” It may sound simple, but I think he was getting at the essence of writing. Why we take the time and trouble to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboards in the first place. The need to work out some inner conundrum.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?

I don’t draw inspiration from any particular place. As far as I’m concerned inspiration is everywhere like molecules or dust motes. I don’t really choose what to write. More likely it chooses me. My first novel, Our Lady of Steerage, came from my uncle (the artist and teacher in Glasgow) telling me how his parents travelled from Romania to Cherbourg, France with their 5-year old son and infant daughter (my mother). On the way the boy died. In Cherbourg they had to sedate my grandmother to get her on the ship going to Canada. On the ship she grieved for her dead son and ignored her infant daughter, so a young Polish woman took care of the infant. They all ended up in Montreal and when my mother was 13 she worked part time in the store of the woman who had taken care of her on the ship. The woman was in a bad marriage and one day tried to kill herself by swallowing iodine. My 13-year old mother found her and got help. My uncle thought this would make a good short story about what goes around comes around, the woman taking care of my mother and then my mother saving her life. But when he told me this, I was ready to try writing a novel and this story became the core of it, a theme I could expand on.

When my first book came out, the story collection I mentioned earlier, I realized that every story was based on something in my life, a place I knew, an experience I had, a job I did, a person I met. I realized that all those years when I thought I was drifting aimlessly, I was really just living my life and gathering real-life experiences to turn into stories. If anyone was to ask me what they need to do to be a writer, I would say just get out there and live your life. Do jobs you love, jobs you hate, fall in love, break somebody’s heart, get your heart broken, travel so you can find your way home again. Stories are an accumulation of who we are and stepping stones toward what we want to be.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I ask myself this almost every day. In terms of the stories I write, I can only hope that they have a positive impact on readers. At the very least, in a Hippocratic sense, I hope I have done no harm. In a more personal sense, I try to be of help if the opportunity comes my way. It’s easy for me sometimes to fall under the illusion that I’ve gotten to where I am on my own. But I know that’s not true. I have had much help from friends, family, and colleagues. So, if I can pass it forward, so to speak, and help anyone who needs it, in a seemingly small way or in a bigger way, I try to do it. Whether its reading and critiquing someone’s manuscript, writing a recommendation letter for them, promoting them in some way. Things like that. People have done things like that for me, so I consider it important to do the same for others.

Much like inspiration, I think these things come to you, rather than you going out to look for them. I think you should just follow the path that you believe has been laid out for you, or follow your bliss, or however you choose to think of it, and the tests will find their way to you. Hopefully, when called upon to help someone out, I will always strive to do the right thing.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1 . Embrace failure. It’s common knowledge that we learn more from our failures than our successes. I always think of a quote attributed to Samuel Beckett that most writers know. It’s a bit of a cliché among writers, but like all clichés it has a truth at its centre. “Ever tried. Ever failed. Never mind. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

In the novel I’m currently working on, my protagonist works at a call centre and posts this quote in his cubicle. When asked by his suprvisor, “How do you ‘fail better?’” he replies with a joke: “Years and years of practice. So, when you meet somebody you haven’t seen in a long time and they ask how you’re doing, you can say ‘Things weren’t too good for a while, but I’m failing much better now thank you very much.’”

I find the idea of “failing much better” kind of comforting. A couple of times I have read things I had published years earlier and was embarrassed by them. It’s possible I will read the novel I’m writing now many years after it has been completed and be embarrassed by it. Our standards change. What were once deemed as successes, don’t always live up to our ever-developing criteria. The ironic sense of hope evoked from “failing better” makes playing the long game — which is vital if you want to be a writer — that much more appealing.

2 . Celebrate procrastination. My writing life is defined by the four P’s: Patience, Perseverence, Procrastination, Productivity. And to be clear, they are not four separate things, but rather their energy is intertwined in such a way as to play off each other. For instance, the patience one needs to develop one’s writing chops is always informed by persevering at one’s craft. The same with procrastination and productivity, which I consider two sides of the same coin. Things that we might do to avoid writing such as reading, surfing Youtube, or even going for a walk (I plead guilty to all), allow the subconscious some down time to work out story problems we might have been grappling with to no avail.

The reason I have singled out Procrastination for this list is because the #1 rule I have often seen on similar lists for beginning writers is: Do Not Procrastinate. While I understand why that rule might be there, I don’t necessarily agree with it. I assume that you have decided to be a writer because you have things to say, but you may not be sure how you want to say them. There is no set time limit or schedule for the gestation period before you are ready to get started on a poem, or story or a novel. I’ve thought about novels for years before I sat down at my desk.

There are many ways to get started. Sometimes one might need to do a certain amount of research before one is ready to write. Or getting your initial ideas in order in an outline is a good way to lead up to the main event. And you know what? Sitting in your favourite spot or going for a walk and just letting your mind run free is just as valid a way to let the ideas flow as anything else.

I used to worry and feel guilty when I wasn’t writing. Sometimes I still do. But after a while, with a few published books under my belt, I happily procrastinate, secure in the knowledge that somewhere down the line I’ll be sitting at my keyboard with a good idea of how to get the ball rolling.

3 . Flexibility is key. We all have a narrative in our heads. A plan or a schedule of how things are supposed to go. Mine was common to most writers. Publish that first book, most likely a story collection, with a small press. Perhaps get a couple of good reviews. Maybe even win a modest literary prize. Get some attention from the public and hopefully get signed by a decent literary agent. Then write that first novel so your agent can get you a good deal with a larger publisher and get ready for the big breakout and public acclaim.

I got the first part somewhat right. A story collection with a small press. A lukewarm review that said some nice things in a major newspaper. Made the short list for a modest literary prize that was deemed prestigious in indie circles. When I wrote the first draft of the next book, a novel, I took a chance and sent it to a well-known agent, who advised me on how to proceed to the next draft and signed me with the proviso that I would take said advice. It was good advice, although it entailed a lot of work, but I knew whatever happened I would end up with a better novel. So I signed. That’s where my inner narrative suddenly took on a life of its own and veered sharply from what I expected to happen into stonecold reality.

I’m not going to go into the gory details, but that agent and I soon parted ways. It was devastating for me and badly shook my confidence, but I eventually got past it. It’s a complex and often drawn-out process, but slowly you start to reassess what is important or necessary for you to keep going. When I realized literary success with all its trappings was not going to come anytime too soon, something that I consider amazing happened. I started to love writing for its own sake. I recognized that, despite this huge setback in my career, I was good at what I do and how much I really love it. I entirely eschewed the idea of having a writing career. Instead, I would have a writing life. A career depended on too many things I had no control over. Whether I would find an agent. Whether I would get published. Whether I would find a readership. I decided if those things were in the cards for me, they would come eventually. Or not. But what I could control was making writing a central part of my life. Doing it on my own terms, which means persevering patiently and procrastinating in a productive way.

Staying flexible and learning how to adapt is not the same as settling for less. It is about reimagining your life to get more. It is having what you want by wanting what you have.

4 . Trust in your natural rhythms. When, after many years of what seemed to be aimlessly driting through life, I finally decided to focus seriously on writing. I was extremely lucky that the situation I was in allowed me to write full time without needing to hold down a job. I hasten to add that for many years I did hold down low-paying jobs while also writing on the side. But my new-found decision to focus more seriously happened to coincide with a turn of luck that gave me the time to do it without distractions. It was every writer’s dream come true. But as is often the case, be careful what you wish for because one day you may get it. So now I had all the time in the world to write, which in my mind meant that I should be writing all the time. Like, at every waking moment. The pressure was on. I needed to show I was worthy of this incredible piece of luck that had blessed my life.

After a long period of guilt and frustration from feeling I was never working hard enough, I slowly started to produce stories and poems. I also started working on a first novel. I had no methodical way of working. I didn’t sit at a desk for a set amount of hours or try to make it a 9–5 job. I had worked 9–5 most of my adult life. I wanted my writing life to feel different. More organic. More in tune with a different kind of timing. I decided that what was important was to work consistently. Even if that meant writing every other day rather than day to day, even if it meant five sentences a day rather than five pages a day, then that was okay. Some days I would write more, other days less. I decided to trust in my natural creative rhythms, not really knowing what that meant or bothering to define it.

My rhythms felt haphazard, and yet I was finishing stories and poems. I was actually finishing chapters of my novel. I won’t be so arrogant as to say they wrote themselves. It was hard work I put in. I merely put it in at my own leisure. This all started around 2001. By 2009 my first book of stories was published. By 2015 my first novel came out. A few years later a chapbook of poems and a full-length collection of poems came out in 2018 and 2019 respectively. This year a fifth book, my second novel, will be published. And I have two other completed book-length manuscripts that I’m shopping around. The more I produce, the easier I feel about following my natural rhythms, putting my faith in the power of procrastination, and letting patience and perseverence be my punch clock.

5 . Follow your fear. On the corkboard above my desk I have two quotations from poets written on an airmail envelope. The first quote is by John Berryman that reads: “We must travel in the direction of our fear.” The second, by Rainer Maria Rilke, goes: “Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasures.” While these pearls of wisdom can be applied to many facets of life, for me their greatest relevance is regarding writing. Digging deep into a character can sometimes be an ugly business. While all of us strive to be the heroes of our own lives, we also have a dark side that is not always easily confronted. This is what I love about writing fiction. How it allows me to think about the human condition and the ways it manifests in various situations and relationships. My perspective is both objective, because these characters don’t really exist, but also subjective, because these characters are my creations. When they do terrible things or think terrible thoughts, I do not have the luxury of judging them. I have to let them exist on their own terms as I want to exist myself on my own terms.

One of the book-length manuscripts that I’m trying to get published is a trilogy of novellas that are linked by the intertwining themes of sexuality and power, but as seen through the lens of the creative process. The first novella deals with four writers who are supplementing their incomes by writing erotic stories for a mysterious collector, who solicits them through a bookseller acting as intermediary. The collector suggests a contest for the best erotic story for a large cash prize. Once I came up with this premise, I knew that I was going to have to write the erotic stories. I suppose I could have not done it, but I realized I had an opportunity to reveal some facet of each writer’s personality through the stories they submit to the contest. Still, the prospect of writing erotica, and some of it probably with very explicit language, was something that worried me. I wanted the novella to be taken seriously and not seen as a flimsy excuse to write sexually tittillating scenes. I was afraid of not being taken seriously. Which was exactly the predicament my characters were in. They all took themselves to be serious writers who were only lowering themselves to write this trash to make extra money. But I had the feeling they were doing it for more than just money. That it had something to do with the fundamental reason we need to tell stories. It was a case of following my fear to explore who these characters were at their core and digging into their real motivations for writing this stuff.

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. 🙂

It would be a movement to reassess the importance of the imagination and how it fulfills a need in people that is as fundamental as food, clothing and shelter. The need to tell stories in all their forms, from personal histories to cultural legends, is hardwired in us. My first attempt at writing a short story was meant to be memoir of a brief period of my childhood in Glasgow, Scotland. It was written about 16 years after and I realized I couldn’t remember a lot, so I just made things up and decided to call it fiction, although I ended up getting it published as a prose poem.

To me all storytelling is fiction for one simple reason: we have to make choices. We have to decide what to tell and when to tell it. What comes first and what follows after that. What to tell and what to hold back, or more importantly, what not to tell. Letting the reader or listener imagine it in their mind. What blanks to leave empty for the reader to fill in. In an interview, the novelist Phillip Roth said that writing fiction isn’t about inventing events. It is about inventing consciousness. Real-life events are often used in fiction. It doesn’t mean the events didn’t happen. It’s just a way of seeing them, and possibly understanding them, in a new way.

We need to value the imagination and imaginative thinking, creative thinking, not just in writing or other art forms, but in all spheres of life, as way of connecting to our sense of compassion. Business. Law. Agriculture. Science. Religion. Politics. We need a movement of the imagination that will touch everyone in a fundamental way. To remind us of what we all have in common with each other and what makes us different from each other and how the two things are inextricably linked.

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.

I’d like to meet the poet Matthew Zapruder, whose excellent book Why Poetry I recently reread. I think it is essential reading for anyone with an interest in poetry and writing in general. In the book he quotes the poet Richard Hugo talking about the difference between prose and poetry. As I understand it, the primary purpose of prose is to relate a story or an idea and language is there in a supportive role for that purpose, to help express that idea. In poetry, it is just the opposite. The primary purpose is to explore language and a story or idea is there purely to support that exploration, to underline the vagaries of language. I consider myself foremost a storyteller, but I write poetry to challenge my relationship with language and hope that it will inform my prose fiction. I think it would be very interesting to discuss the crossover possibilities of poetry and prose with Zapruder over bagels and coffee.

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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

It was my pleasure. Thank you for your interest.

Photos by Thelma Phillips

Steven Mayoff: 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.