W.B. Yeats believed that we turn our arguments with the world into essays, our arguments with ourselves into poetry. But is his idea—for all its neat symmetry, its epigrammatic authority—true of all writers who work in both forms? Giving the question some thought, I realized my own arguments with the world, and with myself, are more likely to gel into a form that's neither essay nor poetry.
Before I settle on a name for the form, let me explain why I use it. The brevity I can't seem to force on my fiction (I'd love to write four page stories, or 150-page novels) or even on my poems (I admire the haiku, but my natural leanings launch me onward for another ten, twenty, fifty lines), I bring automatically to these inner “arguments,” which take the form of short, tight paragraphs, epigrams, memos. (“Foreword”)
The thing that really appeals about Steven Heighton's new Work Book: memos & dispatches on writing (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2011) is that it is exactly what he says it is, a collection of short notes, memos and otherwise dispatches on writing itself, boiling down from what most write of, the “writing life,” into something far more helpful, with far more depth and meaning. With five books of fiction, five collections of poetry and a collection of essays already under his belt, Heighton's concerns are less about the adventures and other considerations that come with being a writer, delving directly into the act of writing itself. Some of the titles will give a sense of where this small collection is going, whether “Memos to a Younger Self,” “Memos to a Writer a decade deep in the craft,” “On Reading: fifteen memos to myself,” “On Criticism” and “On Poetry,” for example. Here is a sampling of some of his notes: “Poets or fiction writers who publish criticism are always striving to clear the ground for their own work.” (“On Criticism”); “Let failure be your workshop. See it for what it is: the world walking you through a tough but necessary semester, free of tuition.” (“Memos to a Younger Self”); “Always start by giving a book the benefit of the doubt, as if broaching the book of a known master. This is a reciprocal gift on your part, a generosity the writer has earned over the year, or years, of work it has taken to complete the thing. For the first twenty or thirty pages, even if it doesn't seem much good, stick with it and its author. It may be as unsuccessful as it looks, or it may be something new—something you have to learn to read.” (“On Reading: fifteen memos to myself”).
Certainly, there would be admirers of Heighton's work that might be frustrated by Heighton's lack of talk about more specific things, whether the vagaries of the Kingston literary community he's been part of over the last number of years (including Mary Cameron, Joanne Page, Eric Folsom and the late Tom Marshall and Bronwen Wallace), or even more specifically about his own works, the way George Bowering wrote the essay “Parashoot!: Diary of a Novel” about composing his novel Shoot!(Toronto ON: Key Porter, 1994), a piece collected in his own A Magpie Life: Growing A Writer (Toronto ON: Key Porter Books, 2001). Instead, Heighton has boiled down what he sees as the most important lessons he's learned in his years of writing into a series of small notes, each providing their own light upon his published works if you know where and how to look. Given the sheer amount of “How to Write” books that exist in the market, often given far closer reads than most literature, Heighton's slim volume will seem like a godsend, as an experienced and successful literary writer imparts to readers and writers alike some of the lessons he's learned, most likely the hard way.
There can be just one final arbiter of your work. Refuse to appoint anyone else as your judge and appraiser, executioner, potential approver—the one reader, fellow-writer, critic, editor, or publisher whose acceptance of your work will stand as an ultimate verification, a proof of arrival, relieving you of that imposter-feeling every artist knows (a feeling that simply shows your aesthetic conscience is still active). Resign yourself to the road, there's no arrival. There's no map either, come to think of it, but the sun is rising and the radio is on. (“Memos to a Younger Self”)
The only piece in the collection that could be considered more of a straight essay is the last in the collection, “On Trying To Wear Al's Shirts,” presented originally at the University of Ottawa during a conference on the work of the late poet Al Purdy, reprinted in The Ivory Thought: Essays on Al Purdy (Ottawa ON: University of Ottawa Press, 2008):
I remember saying to Eurithe, shortly after Al's death, that I thought Al was a man who had always taken death very personally. And she said, “Yes, I think that's true.” I will add that I think his life's work in poetry was a way of talking back to death, to time and gravity—the gradual attrition of the flesh. In fact, Al competed with death—not just with other poets, mentors, and himself. I sense that for him this vying with death was the ultimate competition. And the beautiful fuel of his poems.