3 Canadian Books on Writing to Inspire and Affirm
Workbook by Steven Heighton, who recently won the Governor General's Award for his book of poetry, The Waking Comes Late, has written one of those gems that every writer should have on their shelf. It's quotable, shareable, and incredibly practical. Of course the best books on writing not only offer immediately usable advice on craft but they also convey inklings on how to live.
For example, Heighton says,
The writing life, like life in general, has a sacramental and a secretarial side. As years pass and debts and duties accrue, the secretarial, clerical mode spreads like a lymphoma and starts to squeeze life from the sacramental, creative side.
The subtitle of the book is: memos and dispatches on writing, and the memo format is very readable and enjoyable. There are memos to a younger self, to a writer a decade deep in the work, and memos to the writer himself. Equally instructive are Heighton's dispatches, on poetry, and on criticism.
On poetry, he says,
The world may not need poets, but the earth does. The earth needs poets to substantiate it lyrically, redeem it from its current invisibility, make it again tangible to a human world that's decimating nature, or in flight from it, hiding inside hard drives, the web and other digital habitats.
Lots of wisdom and truth in this slim volume which is affirming, no matter what stage of the writing life you happen to be situated. When you come upon things that you've learned perhaps the hard way, it's still awfully soothing to read things like:
The writing life's cruelest irony: while failure can make you miserable, success won't make you happy.
The writing life's cruelest irony: the creation of good fiction and poetry requires a life lived with existentially open pores, while handling the public side of a career requires thick skin, a closed carapace.
I've been quoting from Breathing the Page by Betsy Warland since I bought this book. In it she talks about the writer's materials, desk, table, the page, pencil, computer (with reminiscences on the typewriter...). There is beautiful advice and insight into the line. She says,
All lines require years of effort.
The line is our loneliness.
The line thrives on reinventing itself.
In one context it is aggressive, in another euphoric or tender. Writers determine how to score words in a line with many of the same considerations composers use in the scoring of notes on a staff.
I particularly like Warland's description of what she calls, "Heartwood."
Heartwood is the narrative's original germinating seed. It is the source from which the narrative authentically and inevitably materializes as the core of a tree's rings of growth. As a writer, you need to know what the heartwood is in each narrative to ensure that your writing finds its authentic, vital expression.
Heartwood is the elusive secret we keep from ourselves.
The chapter of this book that I am most fond of and frequently quote from is titled, "Sustaining Yourself as a Writer." Warland says,
The challenges of earning a living that sustains us are not so dissimilar to the challenges of writing. Sometimes it is possible to pursue them both as creative acts. I have had periods ranging from full-time writing to absolutely no writing time. Although we can understandably long for a period of full-time writing, we can't afford to pine too much for this.
It is essential for us to be inventive, tenacious, wily.
This has probably been one of the most important pieces of advice about the writing life, I've ever received.
Stranger at the Door by Kristjana Gunnars of the three books I'm talking about today, has been on my bookshelves the longest. Because in my case it's a measure of love for a book, I'll mention that this book is extensively dog-eared and underlined.
It's an intellectual book, deep and weighty. The works cited section is several pages long, and is a bit of a treasure trove unto itself. The preface talks about the author's time as a creative writing instructor and I can say that happily, I was one of her students, many years ago now. Quoting Adorno, Gunnars says, "What we attempt to do in the writing room is, to put it bluntly, "an exhortation to love."" Reading the essays that form this book one feels very much in conversation, which is how, Gunnars says, they came to be, from "an outgrowth of conversations with students."
In the first essay, "The Art of Solitude," Gunnars quotes from Thomas Merton, Paul Auster, Sharon Butala, Hélène Cixous, Franz Kafka, and Ben Okri in the first few pages, gathering their thoughts on writing as a vocation of prayer, poetry and meditation, and the writer's solitary need. She quotes Sharon Butala who says, "I see myself trying to be still enough and pure and quiet enough that I will become a hollow vessel through which 'the angel' - which I conceive of as the Creative Flow - will speak." She quotes Ben Okri, who says, "The highest kind of writing - which must not be confused with the ambitious kind...belongs to the realm of grace." And, "Creativity should always be a form of prayer."
Gunnars expands upon and synthesizes the thoughts of a wide array of thinkers and writers in such a readable and conversational/intellectual mode, that you feel as though you've taken a master class in writing by the time you're finished. She talks and deeply thinks about diasporic writing, cultural appropriation, and the theory of fiction. There are also essays on the home and writing, silence, and a particular favorite of mine, "On Short Books."
A line from this book that has stayed with me since I read it is this: "It has always seemed to me that good accomplishments are unlikely unless the life they come out of is good." As I said at the beginning of this piece, I believe that the best books on writing are also excellent on the subject of how to live, and this is certainly one of those.