Publishing Tips

Tips on Attention

rob mclennan

January's Publishing Tip comes to you from rob mclennan. Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob is the author of thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). Check out reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at


Attention is a muscle, one that requires development. I know writers that require a soundless space and enforced solitude; I acknowledge that for some this is the only way to proceed, but it all seems a bit precious, akin to suggesting that one can’t do any work until life is perfect and calm (which never happens, as you know). Silence and attention are not mutually exclusive. So you want to write?

I suppose my response emerges from frustrations I’ve seen and heard over the years from a variety of people who haven’t been able to write, or have simply stopped writing altogether, because they haven’t the time. If it is important enough, much of it can be figured out. And what’s the hurry? Toronto poet Jay MacPherson had a worthy career built on two poetry collections published twenty years apart. Dr. William Carlos Williams sketched out lines on prescription pads between patients, and returned to his notes when his energy and attention allowed. One simply has to make the time to do the things one wishes to do, in the ways in which it works best for the individual.

Writing is remarkably easy, and yet, remarkably difficult. The easy part: you just have to sit down and do it. The hard part: you have to do this repeatedly, and in an ongoing manner, for years before anything might ever come of it. So you want to write?

Currently full-time with a two-year-old (with a new baby due in April), I work at my desk (across the spectrum of slow and furious) during the two mornings a week she is at “school,” as well as during her afternoon naps (which I know in due time will erode down to nothing). While at my desk, I do all the things I could never do while she around, thing that demand a deeper attention (fiction, reviews, poetry, etcetera): otherwise, I am able to poke at other elements of my work day during quiet moments she plays in her room, or looks at her books, or sits in front of one of her stories. It also means that when she is awake is when I do the bulk of house-chores, whether laundry, baking, cleaning or snow-shovelling, which the young lady often assists with (which is not necessarily a bad thing for a toddler to learn; it might take longer, but it allows her to be involved, and provides her with essential skills). Having a grown child as well, I am very aware of the tricky balance, one I know doesn’t always work, of attempting to be “present” with small children against what John Newlove called “the life of the mind.” I can’t always be at my machine, nor should I.

But when I am, my attention needs to be absolute; I don’t require silence, per se, but shut myself off (thanks to twenty-plus years of practice) from interruption. Even a couple of minutes can mean all the difference. I might not be writing when she is awake, but I can occasionally post pieces online, respond to and send out queries, and receive interview answers (and even manage to send out subsequent questions). I’ve even been known to get a little bit of reading done, here and there.

Prior to this, I was more than two decades writing, reviewing and editing full-time, spending much of my day in public spaces, including stretches in which I wrote afternoons in the food court at the Rideau Centre Mall. There was the period from 1994 to 2000 when I wrote six days a week, five hours a day at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Centretown, until it finally closed shop, and I was forced to move on. Until the week our daughter Rose was born in 2013, I sat every morning for fourteen years in a Second Cup at Bank and Somerset Streets, sketching out poems, reviews, essays and fiction, while reading three daily newspapers. My sessions in public spaces now a rarity: a few hours’ work in my favourite tavern every month or so, thanks to my wife, Christine, or mother-in-law.

Originally, attention was a muscle developed through need: living with partner and toddler when I was twenty-two and running a home-daycare, I wrote three nights a week in a coffee shop down the street from our small apartment from seven p.m. to midnight. Writing in our one-bedroom was impossible, and allowing myself to fall victim to endless distraction in a public space simply wasn’t an option. Within a few years, I was living in a shared house with roommates, who somehow thought if I was home, I was there to talk to them instead of attempting to work, which meant having to discover a new daily space in which to retreat. I’ve written in coffee shops, pubs, university libraries, taverns and food courts; on airplanes and Greyhound buses. If you want to get work done, you go get work done. I grew up on a dairy farm in Eastern Ontario: my father didn’t wait for ‘inspiration’ or the ‘right moment’ to begin chores; he woke daily and did the work.

I’m not saying every day is going to be productive and stellar. During my daily-stretches, I would have a week or two that felt like spinning my wheels, but knew that once I caught traction, I would be able to extend that out for quite a ways. While it might not work for everyone, the daily practice, and the momentum it can create, is the only way in which I get anything done. Other days, certain sessions were abandoned when the occasional visitor didn’t catch the hint that I was there to work, and not socialize. Still, it was the routine one could set a watch to (as my ex-wife once called it) that allowed me to filter out the distractions of environment, and focus on the immediate task of writing.

I think it was Zoe Whittall who once remarked on Facebook some time ago that a random stranger snarled at her as she poked away at her laptop, that “no-one writing a novel in a café is going to write anything worth publishing” (I am most likely butchering her story through my poor recollection). But the obvious question remains: why not? Who cares where or how you get work done, as long as you do? Obviously, my current situation requires fewer large projects, but there is so little time before children eventually begin school, so I am finally allowing myself to enjoy the moments that exist between work, and attempting a new kind of balance.

There is a reason I’ve never attempted the Banff Writing Studio or Sage Hill Writing Experience. I think I might enjoy the camaraderie and conversation, but I don’t feel as though I have a life I require to step away from, in which to work (my singular two-day experience at Banff in 2008 was completely foreign: the silence and solitude overwhelmed, and nothing was accomplished). I have set up a life in which I work.

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The Malahat Review posts “Publishing Tips” as a bimonthly guest column on its Publishing Tipswebsite and in Malahat lite. Follow it in order to learn how to improve your professional skills, from the writing of cover letters, to what house style means, to choosing a rhyming dictionary, to having an author photo (as opposed to a selfie) shot. If you have a Publishing Tip you’d like to share, email The Malahat Review at, with “Publishing Tip Idea” in the subject line. Tips should be 750 words or less. If yours is accepted, you will be paid an honorarium of $50.