Writing and Mowing the Lawn: Ethan Canin Discusses a Writer’s Creative Process

Composer Bruce Adolphe and novelist Ethan Canin discussed the creative process at a Jan. 27 event that was part of Off the Hook Arts 2017 Winterfest at Colorado State University.

Danielle Steel, the best-selling author alive with 800 million books sold, was Ethan Canin’s high school English teacher. (Her last name was different back then.)

He remembers her as an elegant woman who wore a full-length fur coat. In reality, he said, it was probably a regular coat with a faux fur collar.

Steel had the students write every day, which meant grading 30 papers five nights a week. “She taught me how to work,” Canin said.

She also gave him the gift of encouragement, telling him that whatever the assignment was, he could write a story instead.

Canin, in conversation with celebrated composer Bruce Adolphe, appeared at Off The Hook Arts Winterfest last night, Jan. 27, at the University Center for the Arts, Colorado State University. The event was a fundraiser for a free music education program in public schools.

The author discussed the creative process and his latest novel A Doubter’s Almanac, which he said is about math but is really about “doing the difficult thing.” One book reviewer called the protagonist a “topologist who can map the world but not the heart.”

The book has been described as “blazingly intelligent,” “elegant and devastating,” “staggeringly ambitious,” and “a work of exquisite and enduring beauty.”

The son of renowned violinist Stuart Canin and a public school arts teacher (his cousin is Serena Canin, second violinist of the Brentano String Quartet), Canin was an English major as an undergrad at Stanford University, then went on to Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Harvard Medical School.

He continued writing short stories during medical school and his two-year residency. Some were published in The Atlantic Monthly. Doctors told him in the halls, “Ethan, I really liked that article.”

He found it amusing that these people, so steeped in the world of science and facts, couldn’t step out of that line of thinking. “I wondered, ‘Do they think these stories are true?”

An audience member asked why he continued working on fiction when most medical students are too busy to engage in any extracurricular activities.

“Because I wasn’t supposed to,” Canin said with a smile.

He now teaches at Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He said he can’t write for more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time, but admitted later those short bursts sometimes turn into two hours.

And when he gets stuck, he’ll mow the lawn for an hour. He said that’s how writers work; they do the dishes, they raise families. He considers himself lazy, but having a book contract provides motivation.

When he was younger, Canin said, he couldn’t write stories of more than 15 typed pages. Now, he can’t write anything under 1,000 pages. (A Doubter’s Almanac is a weighty 576 pages.) Even though his stories have been called “ breathtaking,” he said short stories can’t fit the big issues, such as death.

At one point he asked jokingly if long-form fiction is dead. But he said people want stories. “Art is about emotion.” Schools should teach students how to write personal essays instead of the standard five-paragraph essay, he said, because it’s a wonderful form that teaches important lessons. Starting with a personal story and developing it into a universal idea helps you understand yourself, and the world, better.

That skill would come in handy for high school seniors, Adolphe said, mentioning that his daughter – before completing colleges applications and the accompanying writing assignments – had never written a personal essay.

The final question was, “Are you working on another novel?”

“I’m working on a novel. But it’s not going anywhere,” Canin said, smiling. “I’m going to have to abandon it.”

Katherine Valdez has abandoned three novels, and thinks she’s finally getting close to the right idea. Follow her at Secrets of Best-Selling Authors: www.KatValdezWriter.wordpress.com/blog, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest, Amazon, and Medium.




  1. Excellent summary!!! By the way, I talked to the English teacher afterward and told him I agreed with Ethan, that in order to truly study and appreciate anything, you must try it yourself and that personal essay teaches us who we are. He disagreed. He said that’s the job of the Creative Writing teacher and his job is just to teach kids to love literature and that maybe only a few will. Plus, he said, no one wants to read 30 badly written personal essays by angsty teenagers. So clearly, he is no Danielle Steele!

    I was watching The Lady in the Van (great movie) and the narrator (who is an author) said this, “ You don’t put yourself into what you write, you find yourself there.” That’s personal essay.

    Teresa R. Funke

    Author, Speaker, Writer’s Coach

    Find me on Facebook , Linked In, and You Tube or read my blog, Bursts of Brilliance for a Creative Life at: http://www.teresafunke.com/blog

    • Danielle Steel probably got a lot of story ideas from those angsty teenagers. LOL. I agree with you and Ethan Canin. Writing personal essays has taught me so much about myself, and helped me process life experiences. Thanks for sharing this and recommending The Lady in the Van! I’ll check it out.

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