Writer’s done good: A chat with Buffy Cram
Recently, I experienced one of the highlights of my year when I attended the Vancouver book launch for Buffy Cram’s Radio Belly. Buffy is my former UVic creative writing classmate and someone who has always intrigued and wowed me. She was this supremely talented, wise and quiet girl with beautiful bouncy curls and a cherub face. I had always wanted to know more about her. So it was really thrilling to see her accomplish something so grand – a fancily designed published book of fiction with her name on it! How many of your peers who are writers have published works of fiction? I’ll answer that for you: Not many. I recently asked her to answer some questions about writing, life and inspiration to get a sense of how the girl does it. She was nice enough to write back.
What did you think about the UVic writing program?
I started at UVic when I was 18. I had just come back from my “Australia -trip”—you know, the one most people do in their early 20s where they go wild, learn to surf and/or scuba dive and find themselves. I entered university thinking I was all worldly and unique—I wanted to be a journalist for National Geographic. Then, in my first journalism class, I met a whole bunch of other kids who had also just gotten back from Australia (or Thailand, Mexico, whatever) and also wanted to write for National Geographic. I recall our professor standing up at the front of class and explaining how hard it would be to get published in that kind of magazine. She tried her hardest to get us excited about writing for community newspapers and campus publications that term but I could already feel myself backing away from journalism. Over the next few years I found my way, slowly but surely, into fiction. UVic was a great place to be because there were courses situated all along the way between journalism and fiction. I ended up finding a home for a long time in creative non-fiction, which is how I first got published.
What were your impressions of me from writing class?
I remember sensing the east in you. I knew you were a Toronto girl and that always intimidated me a bit. You were pretty and blonde and smart and infinitely likeable. I remember wanting to hang out with you more but I was insanely busy those days, holding down three jobs in addition to studying. I often felt like I was missing out back then—like everyone else was having the quintessential “college experience” while I was at work. Is it true? Were you having more fun than me?
(Eds note: I had fun sometimes but I was actually jealous that you had all these jobs and were making money.)
Tell me about your journey after you were done Uvic. You’ve seemed to have gone all over the place.
After UVic I taught ESL in Vancouver and then Montreal. I had students from all over the world and that made me want to travel again. My boyfriend at the time was from Boston and since it wasn’t easy to live and work in each other’s countries, so we decided to travel and teach. We spent the next few years in Europe, Asia and South America. At some point during my travels I decided to start my MFA with UBC’s optional residency program, which meant I could do my course work from anywhere the world. My MFA luckily led to publication.
Where are you currently based?
After many years away, I’m back in Victoria. I plan on doing a lot of writing at the UVic library this summer. When I meet our doppelgangers I will befriend them!
Tell me about your writing process. I picked your brain a bunch at your book launch and you seem to have a similar process to me. Like you, I can’t write more than four hours at a time. You also said you do freestyle writing. How much of your work comes out of that? I write 1000 words before I get out of bed, morning-page style, but it’s more diary stuff than stuff I’d be able to use in my work.
Wow, I admire you for writing in bed every day! I try to write first thing when I get up too but most of the time I fail. I usually aim for an hour or two of “free writing” at some point before noon. This is the fun stuff, the thing that keeps me going and makes it all worthwhile. Then, later, I might go out to a library or coffee shop and work for another couple of hours on a specific project. Getting out of the house to write helps me feel like I’m a real person doing actual work rather than a monster who wears pajamas all day. (Eds note: Yoga wear softens the blow…highly recommend it.) Sometimes if I’m in a really good phase (and if I don’t have to go to work-work) I’ll do another 1-2 hour shift at night with a glass of wine. But there are many, many days where I’m lucky if I can just get one hour of freewriting done in the morning. I try to hold myself to at least that. As long as I do my one hour of freewriting I’m still allowed to call myself a writer, plus I’m a much nicer person to be around.
How did you become an author? How was your work first published? Do you just write and send it out? I want to be a published author one day…tell me everything there is to know!
I don’t think any writer ever knows what they’re doing or where they’re going when they start out writing their first book. Even at the story level, I never once sat down to “write a story.” All along it’s been one slow sentence at a time. All along there has been uncertainty and self-doubt. Being in school helped ease some of that uncertainty because at least I knew I would get a degree at the end of it all. And being in school, going through the workshop process on specific pieces is what gave me the confidence to send stuff out. As for publishing…my first published piece was a memoir piece I wrote in my UVic days called “Man Hands.” Much later, when I was at UBC I sent it out to Prairie Fire’s annual writing contest. It won third place and then went on to win a National Magazine Award. From then on I was a contest junkie. I kept submitting and racked up some wins and some honourable mentions. This gave me the courage to keep writing. I knew eventually it would amount to something, I just didn’t know when. I was prepared to keep writing stories and submitting for the next ten years if that’s what it took. I recommend every aspiring writer does the same: find a good writing group, rework and rework your stuff, and then send it out to contests.
How’s it been since the book was launched? I was certainly impressed at your Vancouver reading. It was so inspiring to see you so accomplished. You fit right in there with the other authors and read so well. It was like you were born to be there. How have you felt about this press tour?
Wow, thanks! To be honest—and I want to be honest here because it’s one of the things I admire most about your blog—getting published has been a pretty anxious and emotional thing. It’s strange going from being a reclusive pajama-wearing writer to being on stage. It’s strange to have my writing—such a private thing—become suddenly public. I feel like I’ve always written for my own mental and emotional well-being. Having readers is something I never really thought about until it was upon me. I was terrified for about six months leading up to the publication of the book. But now that I’m out there meeting readers, I’m overwhelmed by how wonderful they are. Readers are such warm and smart and compassionate people. I’d like to live the rest of my life in the company of readers!
What’s it like getting reviewed?
It’s a very weird experience. It’s a lot like a total stranger coming up to you at a party and psychoanalysing you based on your clothing or hair. Actually, it’s like having a whole bunch of strangers come up and do this one after another. One says your hair is funny. Another says it’s too serious. One says your clothes are cliche. Another says they’re quirky and alienating. But in the end, a lot of these different opinions cancel each other out. Besides, it’s just my clothing and hair they’re talking about.
Are you a full-time writer? Do you do other stuff to support yourself? Can you afford peanut butter AND jelly?
I always thought it would be dreamy to be a full-time writer but this past year when I was finishing up the book I became one by default and, actually, it turned me into a total weirdo. I stopped brushing my hair and started playing games on my phone. I couldn’t afford peanut butter or jelly. It made me realize that those other things I “have” to do to survive—like teaching, bartending, sewing—actually keep me sane. For the next year or so, while working on my upcoming novel, I’m going to be (re)launching a small line of handbags that I make from repurposed leather jackets. It’s fun and I can do it from home. This means I might become a weirdo again, but I suspect that’s what it takes to write a novel.
What’s inspiring you these days?
I’m so thrilled to be back in Canada where I speak the language. I love going to flea markets and asking people where they got the stuff they’re selling. I love talking to old people on busses. I like observing people at Bingo halls and breakfast buffets. And I like being able to talk to kids again.
Are you still writing while this is happening?
No and it’s killing me. It’s such an odd thing—I’ve done all this work to get recognized as a writer and now that it’s happening, I can’t get to the writing.
Tags: Buffy Cram, chatting with writers, dreams coming true, Elianna Lev, pajamas, peanut butter and jelly, Radio Belly, sweatpants, University of Victoria, UVi'c writing program, UVic alumni, Writer's Craft, writers, writing, yoga wear