Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Writing Life: Celebrated Canadian and International Authors on Writing and Life, ed. Constance Rooke

The third in a series of anthologies created to help raise money for PEN Canada is Writing Life: Celebrated Canadian and International Authors on Writing and Life (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2006) edited by Constance Rooke, following her two previous collections of essays, Writing Away (1994) and Writing Home (1997). Including pieces by fifty writers written especially for the volume, Writing Life includes pieces by André Alexis, Margaret Atwood, Russell Banks, Barry Callaghan, Lynn Coady, Camilla Gibb, Greg Gatenby, Elizabeth Hay, Michael Helm, Sheila Heti, Alistair MacLeod, Alberto Manguel, Yann Martel, Lisa Moore, Michael Ondaatje, John Ralston Saul, Russell Smith, Madeleine Thien and Michael Winter. As both writer and reader, I am fascinated to read how other authors work through bits of their writing process, weaving through their own versions of difficulty and perseverance; how they get a completed work from the empty page. A book such as this provides insight into the process of writing, proving again that it isn’t just something that interests insiders, but outsiders as well. As editor Rooke writes in her introduction:
Each of the essays collected here opens a door into a large space in which the partial answers given by individual writers gather and circulate. It's quite a crowd, and the opportunity this book affords for access to their conversation seems to me extraordinary. For each reader, even before the door is opened, there will be some points of entry that are more compelling than others – simply because of the name on the door, the chance to hear what a writer in whom we are particularly interested has chosen to say. And, of course, readers will like some pieces better than others; and their preferences will vary, which is just as it should be. But for me it is the book as a whole – the combination of all these separate voices, the often speaking individual decisions made as to subject or tone – that speaks most powerfully to the writing life. It is as if each voice helps the others to tell a larger story that is both fiercely individualistic and communal. (pp ix-x)
It's a strange thing, having as an occupation sitting in a quiet room making things up; a strange thing, to deliberately struggling with the growing beast of manuscript day after day, even taking over the mind during other activities. Authors are a distracted lot; they crave solitude, and, for the sake of their own sanity, have to find that happy medium between living in their own heads and living out in the real world (more than simply a financial question), which is always completely individual and often, unbelievably difficult. As former Ottawa resident André Alexis writes in his "Are You a Writer and Other Unanswerable Questions":

The novel was, in other words, a somewhat overdetermined mock-epic and the biggest surprise to me now is that, for three years, I worked at it diligently, happily, fulfilling all its obligations, dealing with characters and story and re-inventing the city of my dreams: Ottawa. I was writing and things were going well. (And by "going well," I mean that when I wasn't writing, I was engaged in a long, imagined conversation with Peter Gzowski (God keep his soul) on the subject of my work. Peter's death has, strangely, failed to interrupt our conversations about literature. The other presence to whom I justify my decisions is Leonard Cohen whom I have never met but who is, when we speak, always interested, though not always approving.) (p 3)
The only way to get through any piece of writing or any piece of work is by simply doing it, and listening to whatever piece of advice any more experienced writers can give. In a deeply personal piece by Madeleine Thien, author of the spectacular novel Certainty (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2006), she writes:

Back in 2001, I had gone to a lecture delivered by Carol Shields. Use everything, she had said. Don't save it up, don't put it aside for another story. Life folds and buckles. Give everything now. I looked at my novel and wondered if what I wrote reflected the life that I knew, the lives in the past I had tried to imagine. My words seemed always to be scratching at the surface, dodging the centre, stumbling. (p 396)
One of the most interesting pieces was from Newfoundland writer Michael Winter, who had long been working fiction from his own set of information and facts, and was forced instead to move away from writing versions his own immediate world, writing:

I live in Toronto now, but I grew up in Newfoundland. The first three books I wrote were influenced by things that happened to me in Newfoundland. My early stories were largely autobiographical, and when you write from that kind of material, you learn how to make it interesting to a reader who knows, or cares, nothing about your life.

All this changed when people I loved started to tell me they were hurt by the way I was writing about them. My brother, for instance, said that if I wrote about him again, he'd deliver a punch to my head from which I might not recover.

So I decided to write an historical novel. I saw a travelling exhibit of Rockwell Kent's Newfoundland work and thought his life would make a good novel. He was pretty much forgotten, out of fashion, but in his day the New Yorker published this ditty:

That day will mark a precedent
which brings no news of Rockwell Kent

I thought a memoir of an old man reflecting on his foolish youth would make a good book, and it would solve the issue of my writing about people I know and love.

But I'm not very good at research. (pp 407-8)
Part of what makes a collection like this interesting is in its sheer range, moving from a poem about Charlotte and Emily Brontë by Jane Urquhart, to a history of the author reading and author tour by Greg Gatenby, or the accidental move from Alberto Manguel from participating as a voracious reader into an accidental writer, to personal and even troubling stories of all the living that can get in the way, such as David Bergen's, which ends simply with "These are some days from my life. There was no writing in those days, but they made the writing that came after possible." (p49). Hopefully a collection such as this can provide some interesting considerations for the reader, and perhaps even an idea or two that can help through the long darkness of working on their own projects, and provide direction, struggling out to the light.

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