Tag Archives: writer

Experiment with Something New

I’ve always said that I am not a novelist, that I don’t have a novel in me. I’m a poet. But, lately, I’ve been thinking about trying something new. When I was an undergraduate, I wrote stage plays and screenplays. My very first attempt at writing was a novel (I was twelve and wrote a page). Prose isn’t entirely alien to me: I’ve written loads of non-fiction, including three book-length biographies. And, I’ve written a book-length poem. Mash all of that together and I wonder what I’ve got.

Writing prose has always struck me as work for more patient people. I am not a patient person. All that plotting and characterization. I’ve always felt more of a single-speaker, single-moment kind of writer. The short lyric poem. I love economy of words, perfect word choices, tight construction. Sharp and incisive with a punch. When I took on The Hungry Grass and realized it wanted to be a long poem, and not a collection of lyrics, I headed into uncharted territory. I really didn’t know if I could do it, and maybe that’s the whole secret. I didn’t know if I could, but I set out anyway. I’ve done that a lot in my life. The BA. The MA. The PhD. I really didn’t know if I could do any of it.

For no reason that I know of, the idea of writing a novel has surfaced again. It has done this a few times, and I toy with it, and then I shelve it. I think, “The gods didn’t make me a novelist.” Perhaps I need to take the suggestion more seriously. Or, more lightly. Maybe I should stop thinking of it as such serious business and just start playing with ideas. Maybe I should give myself an assignment. When I first wrote a stage play, it was an assignment in my drama intro class. Thank you Dr. Tyson. When I first wrote a screenplay, it was an assignment in my creative writing intro class. Thank you Prof. Oordt. Those projects have never seen the light of day since I left university, but that’s not the point. The point is that those forms were unfamiliar and uncomfortable to me as a writer, and if they hadn’t been assigned, I might never have experimented with them.

Maybe I should experiment with something new. Maybe I should just set out.

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The Thing About Literary Awards

Everyone knows that Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize. I feel somewhat vindicated because I have been telling students for years that if a Canadian writer deserves the Nobel, it’s Alice Munro. Mostly, response to the announcement was gracious, and then, feeling very left behind, Bret Easton Ellis says that Munro is overrated and now will always be overrated. How embarrassingly petty and petulant.

The thing about literary awards is that, while we know they have aspects of the political (doesn’t everything?), the pool is so deep that hacks don’t win them. Literary awards are not like the Teen Choice Awards, where persons devoid of talent sometimes win. It isn’t even like the Academy Awards, where the pool is sometimes pretty shallow. We know the Nobel Prize is Eurocentric, we know it is androcentric, but look at that list–every European and post-European male who has won is a notable writer, someone whose work is worthy of being read.

The pool for the Nobel Prize is never shallow. Every once in awhile, the committee remembers that there is Asia and Africa and the Americas and even Australia, once. We can and should prod the committee to broaden its line of sight. But don’t let’s diminish the greatness of those who percolate to the top. The thing to lament is not that Alice Munro won, but that now it is less likely that William Trevor will be awarded. That makes me sad.

But when I see the shortlist for the Booker Prize or the announcement of the Nobel Prize, I know the recognition is deserved. I never wonder what on earth were they on in the committee room. I always think that my things-to-read list just got longer. It’s how I encountered Jaroslav Seifert and Wislawa Szymborska and Imre Kertesz and Jose Saramago and Naguib Mahfouz. What I should do is set myself the task of reading at least one book by every Nobel laureate.

I’ve read some Alice Munro. But there are 110 literature laureates (only 13 of them women), and I bet I’m halfway through, if I’m lucky. Maybe a third. Think how much bigger our worlds would be if we read through the Nobel list.

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What Happens To Us When We Don’t Write

The great and noted Irish writer Edna O’Brien said this week that if she found out today that she couldn’t write anymore, she’d die tomorrow. I don’t think she means that she’d take matters into her own hands. I think she just means that it would be the end of her. There’d be nothing so dramatic as a heart that suddenly stops beating. But, it is a heart sickness.

Any of us who has a passion for something will become heartsick if we can’t do it. And if we’re being honest, most of us are probably heartsick most of the time. The day-to-day drudging, the demands of whatever, sucks up all the energy, all the imagination, all the time. It happens slowly enough that we don’t really notice. We just get tireder and tireder. Sicker and sicker. Sadder and sadder.

When I cannot write because I’m so busy making a living, I begin to tell myself that I’m not really a writer after all. I tell myself that if I were really a writer, I would pop off tomorrow from despair. Ergo, it matters not that I am not writing. It’s a sick thing that the mind can do to a person.

But when I manage to shove everything else, with some force and violence, out of my way, and begin to coax and plead with the words to come back, I begin to feel my heart healing. When I can keep at it, I begin to wish I could feel like that all the time. I remember that it is possible to feel productive and happy and solid. It happens when I do the thing I do.

I’m not so arrogant as to say that I was born to write. But I know that writing is my thing that I do. The planets align for me when I do it. We should all do what makes our planets align.

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Go Ahead and Ask

I’m always telling students that one serious difficulty facing the writer is that nobody cares if you don’t write. It’s a solitary business, and nobody else is affected when we don’t produce. That only happens when we do. But it’s tricky when someone does ask how the work is going. We often make the mistake of thinking that it’s a serious question, that someone really cares.

Only after we expound passionately for two or three minutes do we notice the look in your eyes and think crap–you were just being polite. So, we mumble our way into silence. Sometimes, it’s really stressful to be asked because the writing isn’t going anywhere at all, and we want to scream at you to stop asking because nothing’s happening and it makes us feel like useless failures. When that happens to me, I respond with some ultra vague generalities. I might say it’s coming or that I’m thinking about something.

The other night, around a table with friends, someone asked what my next project would be, and I started talking, forcing myself to believe that those friends really cared about the answer. They asked some questions. I believed they cared. And I have to say it’s nice to be asked. If you know a writer, ask how the work is going. Risk being shouted at in frustration. Risk a wail of despair. Risk a passionate two minutes. Try to care. Try to make us think you care. It only takes a few minutes, and it means a lot. It’s the cheapest fuel there is.

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A Metaphor of Stone Fences

Even as the morning was happening, I knew it was a metaphor, and by the time it was over, I experienced such a euphoria at my accomplishment that I stopped in at the church and lit a candle. It all started when I set out to walk to Synge’s Chair, the spot on the north end of Inis Meain where J.M. Synge used to sit and contemplate. It’s a beautiful spot for a writerly person.

On my last visit here, I was told it’s possible to walk all around the edge of the island, and I decided to set out, but I didn’t get committed until later. This is a very rocky place, without enough soil to support trees and only rare bushes. On my right, as I proceeded counter-clockwise (another metaphor, now that I think on it), there was a high barrier of piled rocks, so that while I could hear the ocean, I couldn’t see it. I stumbled and tripped and teetered over shards and stones and occasional bits of grasses until I came to a stone fence, which I climbed over. I did that about six times.

As I searched for footholds, I pointed out to myself that maybe I shouldn’t do that, that it was foolhardy and didn’t I know my age. I replied that in that case, this was probably the only time I would ever do it. So I kept on. I started composing my apology to the search and rescue people who were going to have to come out and find me after I sprained an ankle or broke a hip. All the time, I could hear the ocean and sometimes I could see the spray. I wasn’t wearing a watch.

And then, I came to the end of the high barrier and could see the ocean. I could also see the flat stone platform that circles the coast on the sea-side of that barrier. And I thought to myself of course I did it the hard way. ¬†I always do it the hard way. It happens without even trying. I have a gift for it. But, for my own mad reasons, I didn’t turn back, didn’t give up. And I felt such relief when I got to a bit of road and the walking got so easy, even though it was all uphill. When I got to the spine of the island and could see the dun, I began to feel elation. I felt a euphoria of accomplishment, and parched as I was, I took a few minutes to light the candle as a gesture to the universe before heading home. I’d been gone three hours.

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Writers and Taxes

I am convinced that no writers should do their own taxes. It can’t possibly work out to our benefit. For a few years, I tried, because an accountant costs. I’d fill in all the boxes and end up owing some outrageous amount that I didn’t have anyway. How could that be right, I’d think, living right on the poverty line, at best. Then, I tried using the taxation software, but it has no brain. It can discern nothing. Just because I entered something on one line, did not mean that it would deduce that I should get a deduction on some other line. Tax forms are entirely biased against right-brain people.

Numbers happen on the left side of the brain. I think there’s a plot against artists. I think it’s sinister. The revenue people do not look over my tax return and see everything I miss deducting. They only look for things I miscalculate that would mean a larger payment. Come on. A person living at the poverty line or lower has to pay every year at the end of April? So, I started paying an accountant to sort out the meaning of all my bits of paper. She takes them seriously. She doesn’t laugh aloud at any of them. She’s worth every cent because I know that, whether I get a refund or have to pay, it would be way worse for me if I still tried to handle it myself. It’s a bonus that my income isn’t so pitiful as it was.

Today, I got out my file folder and started sorting statements and receipts. I do not dread it. Adding up the category totals isn’t scary at all. And there’s a bonus: some of the receipts are like looking at pictures. Because part of my work involves travel, I look at the receipt for cheese from Sheridan’s in Galway and cannot help feeling wistful. Over cheese. As I do the currency conversion for the Belfast taxi receipt, I remember the trip to Milltown Cemetery and Bobby Sands’ grave. When I see the receipt for accommodation on Inis Meain, I can see the green door of Synge’s cottage out my window.

Accepting the truth that I cannot complete my tax return with anything like accuracy has meant that I can take a perverse pleasure in preparing my papers for the accountant. Perhaps I could write a poem for her. Or, at least, about my receipts and the memories they conjure.

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Location, Location, Location

For the past while, I’ve been thinking about writing spaces, about a writer’s optimal writing space. I don’t know that every writer has one, but I’m willing to bet we all do. It behooves us to take the time to sort out what physical space we need in order to produce. We have to sort out what is the poser in us, that might list all sorts of esoteric eclectic elite requirements and situations, all to make us seem like writers, while the real writers around know it’s all a scam, an avoidance technique. They know it because they’ve tried it themselves, many times.

Arthur Rimbaud needed light and a desk. Period. William and Dorothy Wordsworth needed to walk. Jane Austen seemingly needed a pen and paper, since she wrote surrounded by people in the living areas of her house. What solitude? The Bronte sisters (all three: Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) needed each other as audience and wrote novels as part of their conversation. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg employed a smorgasbord of barbiturates and alcohol and marijuana. I don’t recommend it.

What I’m wondering is this: when we say we need to go sit on a mountaintop or at the seaside in order to write, are we stalling? Deceiving ourselves? We might all agree that it would be nice to go to the mountains or the seaside, and these surely can be inspirational places. But as I sit here on a mountaintop, I know that I could accomplish at home what I’m accomplishing here. It’s a discipline issue. I know that what I need in order to work in a sustained way is solitude and a block of time, and unless I announce in a loud voice that I am off-line for X number of weeks, the day-to-day keeps coming at me, and I am unable to ignore it. I need the world to co-operate, and it doesn’t. Being here in the studio is a blessed thing, and I know it’s a privilege.

Here, I don’t have to make my bed and clean my bathroom. There are no meetings–sorry, I’m out of town–and no little errands. If I could learn to lie (say I’m out of town, but not go) and live in a mess, I could stay home, sleep in my own bed, have every shred of research in reach. What I need, in terms of optimal writing space, is solitude and separateness. I accept it. I am not going to think that if Austen could write during family hours, I should, too. I can’t. I am not going to think to myself that a little squalor wouldn’t be so bad. It would. So, I take myself away to the mountain or the midlands or the islands. If the prophets needed the desert, the mountains, the wilderness, who am I to argue?

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Thomas Hardy’s Life Story

One of the things I love about reading authors’ biographies is making connections between the life and the work. Academic departments traditionally have a lack of respect for biographical criticism, although department members regularly research and write biographies, an irony that frustrates me no end. An historian once informed me that biography isn’t history, and I replied that history isn’t either. What we both meant was that these are not “real” or “true,” necessarily. They’re both all about storytelling and making meaning from events. What’s important is to start from the original data rather than to read backwards from the stories and to assume that everything in them happened exactly that way. Not everything that goes on in a novel is something that happened to the author.

But writers write what they know. They borrow from anywhere to get what they need, but they also use their own lives. Readers need to be discerning. In the case of Thomas Hardy, one of my great loves, and the focus of my Master’s degree, there are a few staples that recur: an architect, older woman/younger man, social class divide. When Hardy was a young man, he trained as an architect, and when he married, he was beneath his wife in terms of class. Characters need to do something, and what they do needs to be convincing. In Hardy’s marriage, social class was a barrier, and he works that out novel after novel. Also recurrent are Hardy’s philosophical convictions. For one thing, he believed that we are in the hands of an unkind Fate. Novel after novel.

But most interesting to me is that he struggles, book after book, with the question of to whom does a person really belong–the one to whom a person is married or the one with whom a person has a bond. Transgressing societal order, in terms of this dilemma, is at the heart of Jude the Obscure. Hardy lays the blame at society’s judgmental feet. When we read a writer’s work, we read what concerns that writer, and it’s couched in aspects of the life.

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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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Currently Writing

My current bio project has required me to change my method, and I’ve had to adapt to someone else’s timetable. When I was writing¬†Pierce: Six Prairie Lives, I was working on a personal project, not being paid for it, and working largely on my own timetable. The research took years, and I could pursue any line of investigation I wanted. In the end, the voice was all my own, interpreting all the research as I saw it. Everything meant what I decided it meant.

Writing for hire is a completely different beast. For one thing, it pays, making it a very nice beast. But that also makes it a more demanding beast, in terms of finishing the manuscript and in terms of the subject’s image. There is a fixed (supposedly) timeline, set out in the terms. The client has last say, and therefore controls the research entirely, what to share, what to withhold. The writer writes, and having writ, waits for the client to approve.

For the last week or so, as I try to sort all the research, I’ve been thinking about an article I recently read. The subject was the biographer’s voice. If the biographer’s voice doesn’t emerge, then it’s nothing more than transcription. That’s a sobering observation. If I’d wanted to be a stenographer, I would have gotten a different kind of training. My hand, my critical eye, will be present in the shape of the finished project, but I have to create a place for myself in the story of someone else’s life. I hope to be there in the transitions, those spots where meaning and connections are made. And, I have to accomplish that in such a way that the whole reads as though there is one voice only. It will take deft handling.

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