Seeking unsolicited advice? ‘Don’t quit your day job’

Meanwhile, at University of Toronto . . . .

Creative Writing, School Blog

With his latest book, Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation, author (and instructor at the School) Ken McGoogan plunges
into the perpetual debate about Canadian identity: Who do we think we
are? He argues that the Celtic ancestors of more than nine million
Canadians arrived early enough and in sufficient numbers to shape the
Canadian nation. Ken has published a dozen books, among them How the Scots Invented Canada, Fatal Passage, and Lady Franklin’s Revenge.
He has won the Pierre Berton Award, the UBC Medal for Canadian
Biography, the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize, and the Canadian Authors’
Association History Award. Ken voyages with Adventure Canada as an
author-historian, and has taught creative and narrative nonfiction at
the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies for more than a

Lee Gowan, head of the Creative Writing Program at the School of
Continuing Studies had a chance to ask Ken some burning questions
about writing and teaching.

Lee: Last summer, you gave a talk at the Summer Writing School entitled Top Ten Things Every Writer Should Know. What was your number one tip?

Ken: Number one? Don’t quit your day job. In 2015, the Writers’ Union of Canada
published a survey of Canadian authors. Today, on average, we are
making 27 per cent less than in 1998. If we relied solely on
writing-related earnings, 80 per cent of authors would be living below
the poverty line. Our average income: $12,900. Median income: less than
$5,000. In the United Kingdom, things are even worse. The incomes of
British authors have dropped 29 per cent in the last eight years. Less
than 12 per cent of them make their living by writing, compared to 40
per cent in 2005.

Why are things so tough? We all know the digital revolution is
transforming the book industry, wreaking particular havoc among
independent booksellers. When a writer sells a book to a traditional
publisher, he or she receives an advance against royalties based on
projected sales. If a book is projected to sell 5,000 copies, the best
advance you can hope for is $15,000, and that would be spread out over a
couple of years. Wait, what about grants? Doesn’t the Canada Council
offer grants worth $25,000? Indeed it does. But a writer can only
receive two grants in any four-year period, which works out to a maximum
of $12,500 per year. Most granting agencies have similar conditions.
And landing a grant is ridiculously difficut. Too many applicants, not
enough funds. Until you write a “breakout book,” think of writing books
as a vocation. Don’t quit your day job.

Lee: What’s the best part about teaching Creative Writing at the School of Continuing Studies?

ken in tarbertKen: Best part: you’re working with people who want
to learn what you’re teaching. They’re interested and motivated and that
makes all the difference. These days, I teach online and also in the
week-long summer school. Moving to online forced me to clarify and
organize my thoughts. I could no longer skate by on my good looks and
one-liners (ha ha). Also, ten weeks is just about right. Some courses
run sixteen weeks, but in my view, that is too long. I like the summer
school for different reasons: mainly, the intensity. It is amazing how
much you can accomplish, and how well you can get to know each other.
Finally, I am proud to be associated with University of Toronto, one of
the leading universities in North America.

Lee: As an instructor at the School, you meet people
at different stages of their development as writers. Tell us about a
memorable experience of sharing your knowledge with students.

Ken: Working online, I have especially enjoyed
interacting with writers based in Japan, Uganda, Seattle, or Singapore.
Quite a number of my students have gone on to graduate studies, and a
few have published books. Usually that comes later. In class, I get
people to write on the spot. When I see a really creative response to a
particular exercise, I get a kick out of that. Last summer, one writer
knocked my socks off with a double-whammy, incorporating a point-of-view
lesson into an exercise on plotting. Last month, when I launched Celtic
Lightning in Toronto, I was thrilled to see more than a dozen
former students turn out.

Lee: Has teaching at the School had any impact on your writing?

Ken: I believe that, by compelling me to think about
craft (e.g., what is wrong here?), teaching at U of T has done so, yes.
I see the result when I compare my latest book, Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation, with How the Scots Invented Canada,
which I published in 2010. I do love that earlier work. But I think the
new one is broader, deeper, more original, and better crafted. It is
broader because it treats both Scottish and Irish figures. It is deeper
because it does not confine itself mainly to those who have lived in
Canada, but goes back to the 1100s and beyond. It is original in arguing
that (1) Canadian historians have been wrong to assume the limitations
of geographers; that (2) genealogists provide a better model for
historians; and that (3) Richard Dawkins has introduced a mechanism that
explains the transmission of values and ideas through generations and
across oceans. Is the book better crafted? I believe so, and think that
teaching has forced me to refine my craft, and to consider, for example,
how best to incorporate personal presence and use it as a unifying
device. You see the end result, I think, in Celtic Lightning. But that,
finally, is a matter for readers to judge.

Thanks so much to Ken McGoogan for sharing his story with us.  Visit Ken’s website and Twitter to learn about upcoming classes and events.


  1. Stephen Morrissey on February 1, 2022 at 5:17 pm

    Great interview!

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