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Accountability

Writing is a solitary undertaking, almost never done communally, and that’s the way writers like it. The problem is that this solitariness means no one knows when we aren’t writing. And even worse, no one cares. So, it’s difficult to find the discipline to produce on any kind of regular basis. But what Burroughs said of Kerouac is true: a writer writes. If we aren’t writing, and we walk around calling ourselves writers, we’re lying. Plato would say, “I told you so,” but I digress.

We all have to find our way to be accountable to our work by being accountable to some outside force, although force is not a good word when it comes to writing. Force doesn’t result in good writing. Discipline does. There are a few things that have worked for me over the years. At one time, I rather fully believed in the muse, Erato, and now my faith is tempered by reason and experience. There’s still some magic and madness involved, no doubt, but crafting and work are requisite ingredients. When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, my supervisor required that I send her a report once a month. I dreaded it. But, I discovered that it was thoroughly affirming because as I started to prepare my report, I realized that I really did have plenty of activity to list. Research accomplished, proposals sent, publication submissions, pages written, and so on. At least once a month, I could feel good about myself.

Another thing that has worked for me is to get together with another writer (some people join writing groups) on a regular, committed basis, and talk about what’s getting written, getting submitted, getting thought. We’d set each other writing tasks for the next session, as prompts. It kept us thinking of our work and doing our work more regularly. Deadlines only work if someone’s going to mention them. Right now, I have my client expecting a draft by a certain date and the Canada Council expecting a report by a certain date. Two major projects for which I am accountable, but even given that, I have to feel the muse start to push from within, and then the writing happens. The writer is just as accountable to the muse as to the client, the publisher, the granting agency. The writer has to listen to them all.

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A Writer Writes

I’ve been writing all my life–as a child, on walls and on sheet music. When I was twelve, I decided to write a novel about war but was devastated when I got to the end of page one and realized I knew nothing about war. A high school English teacher encouraged the class to enter a writing contest in the local newspaper, and I wrote a poem for the purpose. It won. I still have the cheque. Poetry is my first love, and it was my first book: Shattered Fanatics. The second and third books are both biographies: The Business of Marriage and Medals and Pierce: Six Prairie Lives. Now, I’m working on a third biography and a second poetry manuscript. My work is far more polished now than it was when I wrote that my sister “is a pig girl” on the bathroom door jamb, although that was as sincere as it gets.

But, even though I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of pages, and even though I’ve been writing most of my life, I still find it difficult to be disciplined about it. I’ve never been a write-every-day writer. Sometimes, when I have a writing assignment, I find myself paralyzed, unable to start. But, I have learned enough about my writing process to know when I’m stalling and when I have to wait. It’s important to be honest. Tomorrow, I’ll be at my desk, sorting a mass of research for the bio. Somewhere in all that material, there’s a shape all its own.

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