Write what you know is a time-honoured adage often offered to budding young scribes. But for Kegan McFadden, it’s precisely the opposite approach that bears the greatest creative fruit.
“I think it’s some of the worst advice you can give a writer,” the Winnipeg native says. “I’d rather start from a place of not knowing, or trying to figure something out, using the page as a sounding board.”
McFadden often had the “write what you know” saying tossed at him while developing the text for his new collaborative book, he, 20 delicate poetic portraits of men at different moments in their lives. But it was the desire for a sort of lack of clarity that sparked the project in 2011. He had the idea to write something about “the failures of men” but no clue what exactly would happen beyond that. Instead, he sat back at the computer and let flow a stream of words, trying to avoid passing judgment as bits and pieces filled the page.
The book combines McFadden’s text with New York artist Nick Kline’s Boys’ Shirts, a series of close-up black-and-white photos of striped polo shirts from the 1950s. Hinting at the typical optimism of television in the Leave It to Beaver era, the images provide an odd contrast to McFadden’s dark-tinged poems. His protagonists dodge garbage hurled by homophobic neighbours, wake up to piss-soaked sheets and accidently stab each other with forks.
“Writing in the 21st century, I can see how that optimism faded away over time,” McFadden says. “Don’t get me wrong: I like to think of myself as an optimist. But I’m also a realist in that I can see the flaws in things. I think maybe I relish the faults, because they’re more poignant than perfection.”
Pieces often started with a single image, something that had happened to McFadden personally or that he overheard at a party. Certain moments (like his musing about whether prairie boys make the best sailors) carry the scent of autobiography. Others (like his sketch of a pot-addled video-game fiend) feel more distant. His characters remain nameless throughout, a technique that both blurs the lines of his own story and compensates for his liberal borrowing from the experiences of others.
“It should be exciting to see how people react or if they even recognize themselves in my words,” he says. “The characters are archetypes, really: the stoner, the boozer, the forgetful, the hopeful, the lost or the needy. It isn’t all autobiography, and it’s not 100 percent fiction. But honestly, I don’t see how those categories can be so clear-cut anymore, if they ever were.”