Monday, October 21, 2013

On Writing #13 : Sean Johnston

On writing
Sean Johnston

I have always known there was something special about a community of writers, and I have found the support of many writing communities beneficial. But I have always been troubled by publicly identifying as a writer. This unease has been with me my whole life.
    Too often the word community ends up excluding. That is, there are passwords and catch phrases that allow us entry or deny it. All communities have them and writing communities are no different. You enter a new one and suddenly an unfamiliar name is used in conversation to demonstrate authority or convey the speaker’s access to the inner circle. You have to know new names to be included. Even Joe Smith, someone might say, didn’t get a grant this time, even Joe, as if he is the gold standard.   
    So you go and read the work of this person, Joe Smith, which exists in many copies at various branches of the library and you see that no, he is not someone you should have known before moving to this community; he is an average writer of some local renown and that renown comes likely from his facility with teaching local young people about writing.
    But in the exchange that led you to your assessment of the work of Joe Smith you have gotten to the heart of what discourages – that the intimacy between writer and reader is properly anonymous and that how you want to approach this community of writers is as a reader, not as a fellow writer. What happens when you empty a book in one single sitting on those rare occasions when you have the time and the right book and the solitude is something that is private, really. It is a communion with your own imagination, brought on by the recitation of another’s similarly private engagement with their own imagination. The book and the reader are emptied. The ego is gone. There is total surrender. Then soon afterward the ego enters again as you rearrange the blocks of your life after the book has changed you.
    It’s too hard to be honest about this in public. When you sit at a reading, if you are moved then what follows is embarrassment—you were alone and naked while this stranger beside you had her own unknown experience and now you politely nod as if the intimacy you’d shared just heartbeats ago was not intimacy at all, and you have not changed. If you are not moved you have just seen someone dance naked, or play with props, or wear something garish, and you are forced to pretend all is normal, this is adult behaviour, nothing is wrong. And you leave into the darkness depressed, because you feel like a liar. It’s like a racist joke has been told and though you did not laugh, neither did you voice your disapproval.
    We have built a new church and it’s just the same as the old. When we talk about writing there is an element of the testimonial, of the redemption story, and there is something evangelical about its promotion. But in “How to Speak Poetry,” Leonard Cohen writes: “Respect the privacy of the material. These pieces were written in silence.”
    I know that when I say these things they can easily be misread—or maybe that I misread them as any human does, trying to cast myself as the hero in whatever story I tell. It seems arrogant, it seems that my reticence stems from some not-so-hidden belief that I am somehow more devout in my application to this art’s demands than everyone else. But I know it’s not exactly a virtue. I know it’s also a kind of miserly guarding of my own energy in ways that mentors I’ve encountered along the way seemed, thankfully, to avoid.
    The way to do it maybe is to talk about the work of someone you admire and somehow in the process describe yourself. But if you look that thing in the face you find you can’t believe it. It’s not true, so you fall 100 metres like Wile E. Coyote. Who can ever speak of Kafka or Barthelme knowing he does it as a way of speaking of himself?
    So if you can think of something that is not writing, then do that. I admire someone who bakes or cooks and cleans as he goes, because I cannot. Old smooth concrete that’s clean. A lawn that’s like felt on certain nights as you drive up and your headlights sweep over it.
    This is portable. I admire the man who walks slowly and earnestly, to the best of his ability, with his backpack full, to some weekly appointment I cannot imagine. I don’t know what he may do.
    That’s love for you, he’ll say, and mean it.
    Now I am back to the problem: I am not as free of cynicism as that man is. He has a real-life counterpart. I saw him in South Dakota, in a launderette and one of his shoes was horribly large and misshapen. He was silent, and his companion was a thin man who looked about my age, though his face was older, and spoke a lot, often repeating himself. He’d say things like “Lived all my life in a college town, never did go to college.”
    Who am I to him? Mine is a life of privilege, and though I remember the jobs I had where I was cold and wet and tired, and though they lasted about 20 years and at the time seemed as if they would never end, these days I am warm and dry and if I am writing this I have cleared enough space and time to be alone with my thoughts, and to read. So is it possible to apply the effort that man with unequal legs applies as he walks in the heat to some appointment in which, whether duty or recreation, he finds pleasure? It is not.
    Nothing in my life is clean. It is unclean not in the way of some disease, but in the way of an unmade bed and books unfinished. I can untidy. I can’t tidy.  I am useless. I have made no clean breaks in my life. What clarity I find, I try to mark down, and sometimes it stays clear, but often it doesn’t.
    I respect that same effort in the work of others, but I prefer to be alone when I discover it. I give away books by authors I admire, but still feel somehow as if I’m not doing my part.
    Then just as I was going to send this off, another example appears: UBC announces a writing prize, which is lauded on social media by someone I admire, and someone who is tireless in his support of art and culture in Vancouver. But the prize, while sounding good, is nothing. It consists of a contract with a literary agency and also with a publisher. That’s great, but it’s a prize that is open to only UBC students and alumni, so it is simply formalizing something that is done informally anyway, and its purpose is not to give one more writer a chance (if this were really the purpose, it would be open to people from all schools or from outside of the creative writing factory completely)—it’s purpose is to get publicity for the school, the agency, and the publisher for something they already do. And while it’s true that UBC has nurtured many writers, it’s also, of course, home to huge creative writing classes in large lecture halls.  There is no pedagogical justification for this approach to creative writing; the only motivation is financial, of course, and perhaps it can be justified in some way by its subsidization of the workshop classes that follow in the upper year classes, but I don’t think so.
    Anyway, this popped up on my screen while I was worrying about my goodreads profile. Should I remove certain books that I rated poorly before identifying myself as the author of my books? Would it hurt me later to have rated poorly a book by a publisher with whom I would like to publish? Would it cause certain authors to rate my new novel poorly and would that even be that bad, as long as they gave it a rating? Does anyone read these things anyway?
    I don’t know, but it reinforces the difficulty I have with belonging to this larger community of writers. I don’t want to hurt people. I like them. I know them as friends. But then they write books, and how do I read them as I should properly, as books written by strangers?

Sean Johnston's latest book is the novel Listen All You Bullets (Gaspereau, 2013). He's also the author of The Ditch Was Lit Like This (Thistledown, 2011), All This Town Remembers (Gaspereau, 2006) and A Day Does Not Go By (Nightwood, 2002), which won the 2003 ReLit Award for short fiction. He lives in Kelowna, BC, where he co-edits Ryga: A Journal of Provocations and teaches at Okanagan College.

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