Who’s your biggest influence as a writer?
Sometime way too long ago to admit, a friend told me about a guy who stood out on the streets of Toronto selling his books.
A crazy guy, with a crazy name: Crad Kilodney.
In an era before self-publishing (think 1972), he typed his own stories and printed them off himself. Then stood outside, all year long, in all kinds of miserable weather, getting the word out thanks to sandwich boards around his neck.
This is how I first met him.
This is what he looked like. Sometimes with the pipe, sometimes not.
Most pedestrians on the busy downtown sidewalks he occupied rushed past pretty quickly. Trying not to make contact with the greasy-haired guy selling – ahem – literature.
Okay, so it wasn’t exactly literature. Actually, it was the kind of crazy, train-of-thought, free-associated ranting my mother might refer to as “verbal diarrhea.”
I don’t believe my mother ever opened up one of those grimy little books that must have come home with me from time to time.
*** Caution: a small excerpt of his writing is below which contains some NSFW / adult content. I’m warning you now so you have time to shut the window. (Also, any of these images of his stories could contain inappropriate language so don’t click if you don’t want to know.)
It was the kind of writing our parents hated, which is probably why my brother, my boyfriend at the time, and many more of us absolutely loved this stuff.
Ate it up.
Ate him up. We’d hang around, pestering him, proud to know a real “character.” A street author!
He usually had a smile for us; we bought his books, probably in greater numbers than the adults who rushed past. He was almost always happy to stand and chat, because that’s what he was doing anyway. Standing. And if someone willing came along, chatting.
Permission to write - badly
Soon after I devoured my first Crad Kilodney book, I sat down at a – something; I want to say typewriter, but it may have been a keyboard, and it may have been a pen – and wrote a story.
A terrible, free-associated, train-of-thought rant of a story. Garbage in, garbage out.
I’m absolutely, 100% certain that it was a terrible story. Something to do with the Garden of Eden. There was a ton of sex and nudity and probably a few other unsavoury details.
It was not a children’s book.
But I am also absolutely, 100% certain that that moment, buzzed from Crad’s stories, was what set me free to write badly. And unless you give yourself permission to write badly, you cannot ever succeed as a writer.
It was that “O Captain! My Captain!” thing, when you are 17 or 18 years old, and every English teacher in your life has told you, “This is how to write,” and you realize that if you follow that model you can never, ever become a writer because the words are so lifeless and uninteresting.
The Barbaric Yawp moment, to quote another dead white guy quoting a third dead white guy.
These days, my writing is mainly headed in the opposite direction of Barbaric and Yawp.
These days, I believe in editing. I believe in respecting your reader. I believe in professionally-designed covers and interior illustrations. Heck, I believe in white space, something Crad never seems to have embraced in his oeuvre.
Yet I mustn’t for a minute hold my glossy books in my hand and gloat about how far I’ve come. Have I really?
Blood, sweat and tears
I can’t help thinking that he wouldn’t even bother self-publishing now that it has become so easy. There’s no challenge to it. You build your files, you submit them, and a few days later… a book. It’s cheap and it’s easy, and trashy in a way Crad’s books never were. His books were all about blood and sweat and tears.
There’s so little blood, sweat and tears in self-publishing these days. So little photocopying, stapling, and almost no cutting and pasting in the literal sense. I try to put my heart into it, but nothing I can do will ever come close to the kind of heart Crad put into his writing career.
The day after his funeral in April, a friend of his set up a website dedicated to preserving his memory. And since he was a Toronto institution, some of his books are being digitized into the public domain.
Still – even though he was indeed a legend, and even though his works were pivotal in my own life, I don’t know how much of a literary afterlife Crad himself will enjoy. The stories are, well, they’re strange. And without the man himself, somewhat lifeless.
Crad on the writing life
Yet some of his hard-knock lessons about the writing life translate surprisingly well into the digital era, with all of us self-publishers setting ourselves up on whatever digital street corners we can find.
I find myself smiling, reading this piece all about making it as a writer, written back in 1988:
*** Caution: NSFW for language.
Near Holt Renfrew, a well-dressed man smoking a big cigar came by with a couple of his friends, and he stopped, made a dumb remark, shoved $3.00 in my hand, grabbed one of my books, and threw it on the ground. Then they all went away laughing.
Then there's this woman I've been bumping into for five or six years at least, who calls herself an international radio personality (her initials are J.D.). She has never once bought a book from me, but she'll stand there in her fur coat and say, totally without shame, "Oh, but I tell all my Yorkville friends about you!"
A Yuppie asshole who wasted twenty minutes of my time wouldn't fork out $3.00 for a book, but he gave me lots of advice and talked about his success writing books on the subject of making money. And in more than eight years on the street, I have never made a sale to anyone in marketing. I've met numerous marketing experts. Not one of them had the decency to buy a book from me, but I was supposed to be grateful for their advice.
One shithead had some great advice: I should publish huge. print runs and have my books in every corner variety store at 25<£ apiece, or I should become a jewelry vendor and just put some of my books on the table along with the jewelry. And this moron is getting $700 a week advising corporations on their marketing problems!
Do me a favor: if you bump into me on the street, don't give me advice. If you can't afford to buy a book, I forgive you, but don't utter the sentence "You know what you should do?" unless you are God.
(read the full article here)
It’s still true today, isn’t it? The people who waste our time? The people who are all about “you know what you should do?” but who would never blow three bucks on a Kindle version of our books?
Oops… I already used up my bitter quotient for the month in my last post, about crowdfunding your kids’ book, so I’d better reel it in a bit.
Inspiration comes in funny packages sometimes. The sages who point us on our path in life are not always clean or cute or pretty. But they are the ones who give us permission to write; to let our words out into the world.
For that, and for Crad, I’m grateful.
RIP Crad Kilodney (June 1, 1948 – April 14, 2014).
- Wikipedia entry
- The Crad Kilodney Literary Foundation
- Canadian media Obits: Globe and Mail, CBC, Toronto Star
- Crad’s blogs: New Writings, Archives