Feb 152019

My first novel launched twenty years ago today. To mark the occasion I’m publishing the first of a series I’m calling the Fallow Essays, reflective pieces on art and cultural production from the vantage point of having spent two decades walking this path. Each will be accompanied by a recorded conversation with an artist peer.


I have a guy in my head.

I call him Niles. Picture a hulking acne-riddled teenage loser with a punk rock haircut, a white denim duster jacket and big boots, walking down the street muttering to himself angrily.

For decades, when I heard Niles behind me, I’d walk faster. Or cross the street to avoid him. I resent Niles, and he despises me. Or at least it seems like it. I’ve never talked to him.

I’m not much like Niles. I’m a middle-aged dad living in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood. For the past twenty years I’ve worked in the arts, making things: books, movies, games. I’m at my happiest when I’m working on a project. I also do community work that helps artists by providing resources and support. I like building things out of nothing, and I’m lucky to get to do it as much as I do.

With six novels, three feature films, a dozen games, countless zines and miscellania to my name, I am known for being productive. And I identify as such. When I lived in Vancouver in the ‘90s I found the scene too laid back: I felt like Superman, a normal dude on his own planet but an exceptional person on Earth. I went back to Krypton/Toronto so I could be with my peers, where my heightened production was normalized.

Back in Toronto in my mid-twenties, I learned something about myself. When a project came to an end, and I hadn’t started another one, I got depressed. My nihilistic interior voice (I hadn’t yet named him Niles) would start to yammer on about how it was all pointless to add another tiny crumb to the top of the gigantic mass of creative work. I learned that the quickest way to deal with it was to ignore the voice, and just start working on something, anything. As soon as my focus shifted and I got rolling, the voice disappeared and I was happy again.

At its root, I was scared of getting stuck in a vicious cycle. If I listened to Niles and didn’t bother making stuff, I would get depressed, and if I was depressed I wouldn’t be able to make stuff, and so on. I consciously dovetailed my projects so that before one ended I’d be ramping up another, just to avoid that dreaded end-of-project lull.

It was an effective coping mechanism for a long time, until it wasn’t.


“I like to keep busy.”

This is something people say, often apologetically. I like it because it admits that the thing you are working on is not as important as the act of working: it is your way of staying in motion. I like walking, because it tricks my brain into thinking something is getting done: I’m getting somewhere. Being on a bus or train can have the same effect. I look out the window content to do nothing for once, because I’m getting somewhere.

Sometimes I imagine that my brain is a stomach, constantly digesting. If I feed it complex logistical and creative problems, it will happily break them down into solutions and ideas that I jot down before they blow away. If I am not working on a project I tend to ruminate on things I’ve said to people, to impressions I may have left, to feelings I may have hurt. It feels like my digestive juices start to consume the lining of my brain-stomach, for lack of anything else.


By the time I turned 20, I had worked 20 jobs. Most of them lame, some of them downright shitty (5 of them were telemarketing).

It started when I was 9 and I wanted a Vic 20 to play computer games on, so I got a paper route. Later it was comic books, then it was punk rock records I mail ordered from Berkeley, California. Working allowed me the means to escape a banal suburban existence. At the age of 17 I shifted from consumer to producer, creating zines and making friends through the mail, and slowly realized that the less money I spent, the more time I got to create my own projects. And making my own projects was way better than working for someone else.

I had a taste for the pleasure of being busy with zines, but university gave me a real sense of how much I loved to work. In my final year I had a full course load and was also putting in 40-60 hours a week at the paper where I was features editor. On Saturday I would read a novel and Sunday I would write an essay on said novel. Every minute was occupied. And I was the happiest I’d been in my life to that point. I had autonomy with the paper, I was fulfilling my responsibility to complete my degree, I had a community with my fellow editors: I was firing on all cylinders.

Even today, having a packed schedule with lots of things to do will make me feel full, swaddled, comforted.

As long as they’re the right things.


When my kid was young, I realized I was having a very hard time enjoying my time with her. Especially on weekends, when seven or eight hours would stretch ahead of us until bedtime, I would feel an existential dread.

My kid was not the problem. She was an easy-going, good-tempered kid. I was the problem. I itched to get back to my own projects, and felt a lot of self-loathing that I couldn’t enjoy this quality time. I had told myself that raising my kid was a kind of project in the past, but my brain wasn’t buying that it was a worthwhile thing to do. I was irritable, depressed, and bored.

And I had a helping of guilt on top of that. I consciously value childcare as being worthwhile work, but I didn’t find it engaging. I felt like my own father, absent and ineffective and ultimately unnecessary.

I tried a lot of things to cope with it. I had a recurring task on Wednesday to schedule playdates or come up with an activity. My kid and I alternated hours of who got to decide what to do. If she wanted to play dolls for an hour, that was fine, it was a finite amount of time after which we’d go to the park and throw a frisbee around.

The measurable time and the variety helped, for sure. But the underlying issue was still there: why did I find spending unstructured time being unproductive so hard? In the past I’d only get like this on vacations — 3-4 days of doing nothing drove me a little bonkers — but now I was having to deal with it on a weekly basis. Something needed to change.


I found a therapist who was willing to work with me on this issue, and that’s when we named Niles. I don’t know if I had ever talked to anyone about my nihilistic feelings. I was a bit sheepish about them; they felt cliche, and didn’t jive with my positive, active self image. Like my punk rock teenage self, Niles takes himself a little too seriously.

In the process of finding Niles, the therapist made some guesses. Do you feel like you don’t have the right to be an artist? Do you worry that your work isn’t good enough? These are common enough anxieties, but they’re not mine. Writing and publishing has never been painful for me. It’s been mostly joyful. My therapist asked me what happens when I talk to Niles. I admitted that I hadn’t ever talked to Niles. I always pretended he didn’t exist.

She suggested I try. As I thought about that, I realize my avoidance of Niles was similar to how I’d behave towards an angry homeless person. Avoid eye contact, ignore, quickly move on. Why? Because he might want something from me. Because he might be aggressive or even violent, though this is less likely. But honestly I didn’t know, because I had never given him a moment. I never considered him part of me, though of course he was. He’d been with me most of my life.

So a week later, when I encountered a micro-lull (a moment after lunch without a task that demanded my attention) I started to hear Niles faintly muttering about how nothing was worth bothering with.

I closed my eyes and pictured walking on the stretch of sidewalk that goes under the bridge near my house. It’s dark and gloomy and coated with pigeon shit and feathers, alongside a steady flow of traffic that feels like a slaughterhouse chute.

I slowed down deliberately, anxiety in my chest, and he fell into step beside me.

“There’s no fucking point,” Niles said.

“OK,” I said, looking at him, his pocked sneering face. “I hear you.”

“‘I hear you’,” he mocked sarcastically. “Fuckin’ normie. Fuckin’ fake.”

I breathed and thought about all the impossible things I’d managed to do in my life. I braced myself for more.

“Fuckin’ waste of skin,” he said. But his voice was already getting quieter, as if he was talking to himself.

We came out the other side of the bridge, the sun bright. I noticed Niles’ eyes were red-rimmed like he’d been crying.

“You OK, buddy?” I asked, and reached out to touch his shoulder.

He jerked away from me, stepping off the curb and and into the speeding traffic.


Because I don’t run from Niles anymore, I can take my time with things. I’m able to enjoy my time with my kid and holidays more. And I can hang out with friends for hours at a time — hours! It’s really a big improvement. And being able to take my time with art projects might improve them too, allowing me to decide between a few different ideas what the world needs more of, instead of the idea that was closest to hand when I needed one. We’ll see.

It’s weird to be able to wander through my mental neighbourhood without rushing.

I’m coming to terms that what people traditionally parsed as my “artistic drive” was a collection of useful anxieties. And that maybe most drives come from that place.

Niles didn’t die when he stepped into traffic. The cars just whizzed right through him, he was that insubstantial. I still see him from time to time, but it’s not a big deal. He never does anything but talk a lot of doom and gloom. Maybe in my 20s he could have dragged me down, got me to fight him, prevented me from doing what I wanted to do. But not now.

Now, I don’t even resent him: I actually owe him a lot.

I’m sure he’d hate to hear that.


If you enjoy that kind of thing, you might like to listen to The Joy of Being Wrong, a podcast where I chat with other artists in the middle of their career. The first is with my friend Liz Hysen of Picastro, who happened to play her lovely music at the 1999 launch of Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask.

Illustrations: John Bergin
Feedback was kindly given by David Proctor, Keith McNally, Shannon Gerard, Bert Archer, & Conan Tobias.

If you’d like to see me continue to make stuff for another twenty years, you can encourage me by signing up for my mailing list:

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