A few words with author Ryan Knighton

Word count: 740 words

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Here is another in my series of interviews with writers about the process of writing. Today, I speak with Ryan Knighton, author of Cockeyed and C’mon Papa…

Ryan Knighton seems to be everywhere these days. I first heard him interviewed on Canadian public radio a few months ago. I liked what he had to say and quickly acquired a copy of his latest memoir C’mon Papa. I was entranced! His writing is sharp, clear and hysterically funny. That he became blind as an 18-year old (from retinitis pigmentosa) is the leitmotif of his writing, but he eschews self-pity and sentimentality in favour of a kind of wry cynicism.

He’s also, apparently, a writing machine. According to a recent story in Vancouver Magazine, he’s currently adapting his first book, the memoir Cockeyed (about how he lost his vision) for the screen. Although he’d never before written a screenplay, his first effort won him a place at the Screenwriters’ Lab at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute and a $40,000 award for science writing via a staged reading at the Tribeca Film Festival. His director is going to be Jodie Foster although the movie is on hold for now, while Foster works on other projects. Meanwhile, Knighton is adapting Ronald Wright’s novel A Scientific Romance and writing a travel book, Nothing to See Here. When not otherwise engaged, he teaches creative writing.

Can you briefly describe your writing day (how much time do you spend at it; where do you do it?)

I write in my office at Capilano University five days a week. I treat it like work, because that’s what it is. No waiting for inspiration woo woo stuff for me. I draft about two or three hours a day, and edit or rewrite for another two or three. Drafting belongs to the morning, editing belongs to the afternoon.

If you could wave a red pencil and magically change one bad writing habit that many of your students make, what would that habit be?

Their complacency for shitty verbs. Too many are too generic, dull and imprecise.  Students think the noun is god. God isn’t very interesting if she doesn’t animate the universe.

If you’re feeling blocked, what do you do to get yourself writing again?

I read somebody I admire. This is the universal advice. I’m writing a travel book right now. I pull up a Susan Orlean [author of The Orchid Thief] article whenever I’m weary.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to write a memoir?

An interesting life is not necessarily an interesting story. You have to first ask yourself if you’d buy and read this book you’re planning, and why. My belief is that great memoirs are about something bigger than the person or character we’re following. What is it about other than you? If you don’t know, you’re probably not ready to write one, or you may not have a memoir, just an interesting life.

What’s something you know now about writing that you didn’t know when you started your first book?

Memoirs ossify your memories. They sort of deaden the past, fix it in stone. You have a better understanding of what happened, but you will go back to the memories you’ve written less frequently than before. You’ll miss them, even though you have a book of them.

How long did it take you to write C’mon Papa?

Two years of drafting and editing, but I was also writing a movie and teaching part time, and I was a new dad. Cockeyed took me a dedicated year, by comparison. Both books are about 70,000 words — 250 published pages. But the first draft of Cockeyed was over 100,000 words, whereas C’mon Papa was about 85,000. The difference shows some modest learning about structure.

Do you think being blind has affected your writing style? Why (and how) or why not?

Oh sure. I listen to my writing. That’s a huge difference from “reading” it. It changes everything when your ear is running the show, not your eyes. Ironically, my agent says I deliver cleaner copy than her sighted authors. I like to think that’s true.

Can you name one author you really like to read? What do you particularly like about his/her work?

Michael Pollan [author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma] right now. Lucid, compelling, and he actually shows you something about the world that is complicated, specific and urgent. I love non-fiction. I love writers who tell me something I didn’t know, in a way that makes me want to read. I’m fairly reluctant to read novels anymore.

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