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I Didn't Plan to Write a Book

I didn’t mean to write a book. It happened accidently. I am a visual artist who, as a regular part of my practice, creates sketchbooks. They are mad scrambles of images: drawings, paintings, photographs. Collages of my life interspersed with bits and pieces—menus, notes, subway tickets. Nothing is too small, too unimportant, too trivial. A colleague once called them, rather unkindly, scrapbooks on steroids. I obtained a Master of Fine Arts with my “scrapbooks.” That pedigree alone gives them a certain amount of legitimacy. When I found myself diagnosed with breast cancer I had the romantic notion that I could spend hours while I was having treatments creating another sketchbook. I process so much of my life through creating art and this would be one more opportunity. The theory was solid. The practice, not so much. Still, I managed to create several over the course of three years.

(Do you need multiple literary agents if you write different genres?)


Column by Tina Martel, author of debut novel NOT IN THE PINK
(2014, Tina Martel). Martel is a Canadian artist whose practice includes
mixed media, painting, drawing, books, photography, installation and
video. She has been the recipient of numerous grants and awards and
has exhibited across Canada, the United States and in Europe. She has
been teaching fine arts in the post-secondary system for the last 15 years.
NOT IN THE PINK was a finalist in two categories: art and health/cancer
for the International Book Awards 2015. Follow her on Twitter

I decided to try to publish a compilation of my scrapbooks—an insider’s view of the messiness of cancer filtered through an artist’s mind. But, my scrapbooks lacked a story. They didn’t link. I had written numerous informational emails to family and friends during my treatments, cleverly avoiding the exhausting repetition of the “what happened this week” conversation. I elected to incorporate them with the images. Here it became complicated. To make it clear—I do not consider myself a writer. Admittedly, I teach higher education and I have to write. I write lectures. I write reports. I write grants. If “to do” lists count, I write a lot of those, too.

However, I am a voracious reader. I read with no hierarchy. Michel Foucault or Stephen King—only one of these authors I find genuinely frightening. But ultimately I am an artist. I followed the same advice I offer my students when they are faced with “what do I do/make?"—I tell them to be authentic. Listen to the voice inside. What’s important to you? What are you passionate about? If it is color—fine. If it is social content—fine. If it is exploration… you get the drift. I took my own advice. I drew on the story-telling background of my family. My grandfather could spin a yarn with the best and some of them were even true.

(Without this, you'll never succeed as a writer.)

I expanded on my emails. I wrote as voraciously as I had previously read. I stayed up late and wrote. I woke up early in the morning and wrote. Why is it all the best ideas happen at 4:00a.m.? As this graphic novel/illustrated narrative/graphic narrative (I remain unsure of how to describe my book) evolved I realized that I write like I make artwork. I throw it all at the canvas, wait, revisit, and then remove what I don’t want. Only this time I wasn’t capable of editing. It was all precious. Enter one great professional editor. I handed over my baby and let go. It might be more aptly described as an agonized wrenching, but I did it. One of the greatest moments I have had with my book is watching my editor’s face at a book reading. She was so focused as I read that I thought I was doing something terribly wrong. She told me later that while she was editing she tried to hear my voice reading. And she got it right. She could hear it. The rhythm, the cadence, the authenticity. There was that word again…

What did I take from all of this? You guessed it. Be “authentic.” Don’t try to create with anything other than your voice, be it verbal or visual. Then bring in the experts to help you sort it out. This was only one of the lessons I learned from this experience. Well maybe “don’t get cancer” but that is the subject for another blog.


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Agent Donald Maass, who is also an author
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