Thursday, October 27, 2016

On Writing #111 : Sandra Nicholls

Thoughts on writing
Sandra Nicholls

Sarah Tsiang is one of my favourite poets. Her wonderful book of poems, Sweet Devilry, singlehandedly got me back into writing poems after a break of about 15 years, during which I ventured into fiction and lost whatever instinct it is that finds you looking at the world in the language of poetry. Sarah is also behind a Facebook group which I find wonderfully refreshing – Bitter Writers. As Sarah explains on her page:If you’ve just landed a big contract, or received a great review, or been handed the Nobel prize for literature – fuck off. We don’t want to hear about it. Bring us instead your stories of defeat, rejection, and general malaise. No humble brags, no asking for affirmation. Embrace what sucks to be a writer”

Bitter Writers also got me thinking about why I write, and what I hope to achieve by writing. It’s easy to dismiss Bitter Writers as the ramblings of a horde of malcontents, disillusioned and discontented writers who are ticked off  because their manuscript got rejected a kazillion times, because the promised contract fell through, because they couldn’t get an agent/publisher/book deal/any recognition at all, and so on. Yes, a lot of us are bitter. We slave over our novels and our short stories, self doubting and second guessing for years on end. We worry they are destined for the slush pile, that no one will even read them, let alone publish them. We struggle to find the time to work, most of us having to earn a living some other way. And in the midst of all this we go on Facebook only to find that a fresh hell awaits us there – the success of other writers!!!  Humbly described, of course, as in the oh gosh variety, I can’t believe my book was nominated for the (name any) prize. Or goodness gracious, I just got this great review in (name any) magazine. I am so proud to have my book featured right next to so and so’s (insert name of famous author).

Too much of this daily comparison can be soul-destroying. It may negate your ability to write anything at all, as you find yourself caught up in a straitjacket of self-recrimination. I should be doing more self promotion! More submissions! More contests! More schmoozing! There is always something you are not doing. You just have to make sure that one of them is not writing itself.

Like many writers, I find that the process of writing is what I love the best. When I am writing I feel more alive than at any other time in my life. Or at least as if I am doing what I was cut out to do. (Destined to do was what I wanted to say, but that sounds a bit pompous.) Every time you sit down you are faced with the possibility, the hope, the promise that this time, you might get it right. I imagine that’s how a gambler feels, about to throw the dice, that little frisson of excitement. Maybe this time. And so back you go, time and time again, story after story, paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence. So why isn’t this enough? Because frankly, we know it isn’t. The reward of a job is a job well done? Not if it sits in a drawer unread. Not by a fucking long shot.

Writing is your art. The art that chose you. You can’t imagine not doing it. But as Facebook and the enormous success of all the social media outlets tell us, what we like to do best, what we need to do as a species, is to communicate. Blogs, tweets, instagrams, posts, podcasts, pins – we are drowning in these shared messages to each other. Bitter Writers, case in point. You feel so much better when you realize other people have experienced what you have – and are able share rejection, anger, frustration. Even humour. Actually, often humour. It helps, because being human is not easy.

So when you, as a writer, carefully craft a poem, a story, a are trying with everything that you have to share the experience of being human, in the most faithful way you can. This getting it right; it isn’t just about language and cadence and style, it’s about being as authentic as you possibly can about whatever or whoever you are writing about. It’s not easy. There are a million ways you can get it wrong. And you want people to get it. It’s exquisite torture, trying to write and be truthful. We’re quite good at lying. I imagine that every writer who struts and flaunts her successes all over social media has experienced the same insecurity and frustration as the bitter writers have. So when you find yourself gritting your teeth and poking pins in a voodoo doll (insert name of famous writer here) bear this in mind – they’re probably lying.

But when you are writing, when you are flat out steaming at your desk or wherever you choose to write and the words are forming themselves on the screen or the page just as you want them to, it may be as close as you’re going to get to the truth. A truth, anyway. And you need to share it. Because maybe if two people share a truth, maybe ten people can, and maybe thousands. This isn’t egotistical grand-standing or assuming false self-importance. You are trying to say something, and you want people to hear it. To comment. Perhaps even to be moved. The truth can’t stay trapped between you and your manuscript. The whole point of writing, of any art form, is to communicate. To grapple with the intangible and get it down. But not just for yourself, surely. So if no one is willing to look at your manuscript, to even consider publishing it, or reviewing it, your chances of communicating get slimmer and slimmer. You get bitter. You are a bitter writer. Of course you are.

When I finished my first novel, I sent it on a dare to one of Canada’s most successful literary agents. To my great surprise (okay, I hear the gosh in there, touch√©, but hear me out) she called me and said she would like to try to get it published. After a year, not a single publisher was willing to take a chance on it, despite very positive comments. So I self-published. Then I tried to get it reviewed in magazines and newspapers, and no one would touch it because it was self published. Slimmer and slimmer. In the end I sold 500 copies myself, by setting up readings and promoting it as much as I could find time and money for. And now I am coming to the end of a complete second draft of a second novel, one I have been working on for over 6 years. I am about to wade once again into the murky waters of trying to get it published, trying to get it read, trying to tell this story. I am trying not to feel bitter before the process even starts. I am trying to remain optimistic, and to keep an open mind.

But, I am a writer. I deal in the truth, at least as far as the story I am telling. A cumbersome and unwieldy section of my brain is primed up for rejection, for not even getting that far – the invisibility of the slush pile that never even gets read. Or noticed. Or discussed. Or slammed. Whatever.

And yet, I have at least two more novels floating about in my head. A book of short stories. A new book of poems, oh glorious day. I read something recently (on Facebook, of course!) that said not trying was the real meaning of failure, and there is some truth to that. Bitter writer or not, I can’t stop. I won’t stop. I’ll continue trying to get it right, because I can’t imagine my life without writing. 

Sandra Nicholls has written two books of poetry, a novel, song lyrics, reviews, and numerous short stories. Her novel, And the seas shall turn to lemonade, was short listed for the K.M.Hunter Artists Award for Literature and was published in the fall of 2011. Her second book of poetry, Woman of Sticks, Woman of Stones, won the Archibald Lampman Award. A poem from her first collection, The Untidy Bride, took third prize in the international Stephen Leacock competition. That collection was also a finalist for the Pat Lowther Award. She has just finished her second novel, The Third Road, set in Malaya during the Communist uprising of 1948. Upcoming projects include a book of short stories, The Museum of Swallowed Objects, a third book of poems, Songs for Invisible Ladies, and the libretto for an opera about Emily Carr, with Toronto composer David Occhipinti. Sandra lives in Ottawa, where she works as a speechwriter for Library and Archives Canada.

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