Thursday, August 24, 2017

On Writing #138 : Lauren B. Davis

Lauren B. Davis

Recently, a student told me she was too scatterbrained to write her novel without help, and that she needed someone to crack the whip, set deadlines, help her focus, etc.  She said she needed an editor or a partner, or both.

This isn't the first time I've heard that sort of thing from writing students. Maybe such people are better suited to journalism, which thrives on deadlines; or writing assigned articles, where the subject matter and the word count are predetermined.  Not easy to get such work these days, of course. I wish I could wave a magic wand and give emerging writers more discipline and focus, or that I had an address book full of the names of editors just waiting to help unpublished writers write their first books, but I can't, and I don't.

What I can do is share some hard truths about writing:
  1. Only you can write your book.  Although editors and "first readers" can help you polish the finished product, unless you hire a ghost writer, no one is going to write your book for you.
  2. Discipline is required. If you can't crack your own whip over your own head and get your butt in front of a keyboard or blank page and learn your craft, focus and stick to it, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year...  well, see 1) above; no one is going to do it for you.
  3. Writers write.  We do it alone, mostly, although writing groups and/or creative writing programs can help us learn craft and give us, sometimes, useful feedback. Writers may talk about writing, they may read about writing, but that's secondary to their primary activity, which is the actual writing.
  4. Writers read.  I can't tell you how many students I have who say they want to be writers, but don't read.  I despair.
  5. There is no magic spell, or ritual that will make you into a Real Writer.  People always want to know, "What's your schedule?"  "What's your process?"  What they're asking is, "Tell me the secret..."  Okay, here's the secret: there's no secret.  Everyone finds their own way to the page.  There are as many methods and processes as there are writers.  Mine won't work for you.  Yours won't work for me. Meditation?  Tea?  Incense?  Candles?  Drawing a chalk circle around your desk and standing on one leg while reciting T.S. Elliot's The Wasteland? Sure, why not.  Try it.  Try anything, you never know what will work for you.  Ultimately, however, it's probably easier just to sit down and start typing.
  6. If you write for any reason other than that you love the process of writing, you'll be miserable.  Writing, the process of forming meaning from your experience in the world, is the only thing you can be sure of.  Everything else - publishing, reader response, critical response, financial success -- depends on outside forces beyond your control, no matter how relentlessly and masterfully you self-promote.  If being a writer is going to enhance your life, rather than make you psychotic, then your solace, your comfort, your joy, and your satisfaction must come from what happens when you sit in front of the blank page, not from what happens after you hand your manuscript over to an agent/editor/publisher/printer.
  7. Writing is a lonely business.  Even My Best Beloved, a man as supportive, kind and devoted as any in the history of time, has his own life and responsibilities and interests (as he should) and can't be expected to sit around gazing at me in adoration while I chase the muse.  I recommend getting a dog.  Being in relationship with a dog (or some other critter) is like being in relationship with one's own soul.  (But that's another essay, I suspect.)  Anyway, accept the solitude and find a way to deal with it.  Writers are not Nature's socialites.
  8. Writing is an inky fountain of frustration.  Then again, what worth doing isn't?  All great passions take patience, perseverance and a love of process.  There are a thousand false starts and dead ends and revisions upon revisions.  There are commas to be put in, and later that day, commas to be taken out again, as Oscar Wilde so famously said.  It can, and often does, take years to write a decent book.  If you don't like the idea of wrestling with the same angel for a very long (possibly dark) night of the soul, you might be better off doing something else.  But, if the idea of spending years deeply engaged in a single work appeals to you, pick up the pen and begin... and expect to begin again a hundred times before you're done.

"Fail Better" Samuel Beckett watching "Waiting for Godot," portrait by Tom Phillips (National Portrait Gallery, London)
  1. Starting a book doesn't mean you'll finish it.  I've started a dozen books that never made it to a hundred pages, and I've started I-don't-know-how-many short stories that never got finished.  Sure, you need to have enough discipline to stick with a good idea and craft it, shape it and polish it until it's done, but not every idea pans out.  Sometimes it takes a long time before you realize this.  But, since it's the practice of writing, rather than the destination of a best-seller list that's important, who cares? Samuel Beckett said, "Fail again.  Fail better."  Every paragraph I write is another part of the metaphorical forest of my soul which I'm exploring, and on that map, everything counts, even the little unfinished squiggly bits.
  2. Yes, you must understand grammar, and punctuation and spelling.  You can fracture the rules for effect, if your work is thus improved, but first I recommend what the rules are and why they exist.  Proper grammar, punctuation and spelling enables the writer to communicate effectively with the reader.  Butcher syntax accidentally, carelessly, and you are likely to confuse your reader, or make her snort in contempt.  Neither reaction encourages her to continue reading.  Okay, maybe you can make a mistake or two around proper use of "that" vs "which" without making it all a hopeless muddle, but you'd be surprised the damage a misplaced modifier can cause.  For a writer, learning the mechanics of writing is what learning about harmonics, syncopation and dissonance is for a musician.  Sure, you can play with these concepts, but only when you've mastered them can you manipulate them to the create the desired effects.
Still want to write?  Still think it's the path for you?  Good.  Then stop fiddling about on the web and get writing!

Lauren B. Davis is the author of AGAINST A DARKENING SKY, THE EMPTY ROOM, OUR DAILY BREAD; THE RADIANT CITY; and THE STUBBORN SEASON, as well as two collections of short stories, AN UNREHEARSED DESIRE and RAT MEDICINE & OTHER UNLIKELY CURATIVES.  Her work has been longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and shortlisted for the Rogers Writers Trust Prize. For more information, please visit her website at:

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

On Writing #137 : Ryan Pratt

On writing
Ryan Pratt

There are a thousand guidelines but no rules. Some of us want to escape reality or create a new one. Others prefer to ground themselves, alert to every tick of the clock. But crossing our legs won’t cut it. We have to focus on our breath and treat every ambient happenstance like the random, never-before-uttered revelation it is. What makes meditation challenging, and thus a practice, is knowing that we’ll be repeatedly sucked out of the present moment by thoughts, worries, doubts and distractions. Whether we sit for five minutes or two hours per day, the process becomes more to persevere than find bliss.

Writing’s a lot like meditation. A thousand guidelines, no rules, and that eternal why, lingering at the exhale of our self-criticisms: Why spend one’s precious life [insert verb here]? Surely, for every writer, the why is out there – but pinpointing it almost restricts it. If thinking about meditating spoils the act, it seems clear – the less we think about, worry and doubt why we write, the better we’ll write. The why is more mystical than personal.

An anecdote for the personal: As a teenager, writing helped negotiate a range of emotions that most of my friends sorted or suppressed over endless games of Golden Eye. But I couldn’t see through heartache, or write about other lives and neutral places that weren’t stunted by my gaze. Every intersection became a potential stage for some bloated triumph or failure. And my universe – though technically the size of St. Catharines, Ontario – diminished as suburban patches were absorbed, blocks at a time, into an all-important black-hole I called “poetry”.

That self-mythologizing was a roundabout way of figuring out who I really was: a self-absorbed kid. But it also revealed what I wasn’t: a poet. The real writing began once I dispelled with the baggage, acknowledged my privilege and realized that white, young men largely share the same knack for confessional clich├ęs. Issues of greater, worldly significance crept in from the margins and the why, repelled from the self, joined a community. Who knows: If I continue writing for decades, it’s possible I’ll end up in the fringes or spotlight of somebody else’s literary tradition. And hopefully, if such a thing occurs, I won’t take that too seriously either.

Because writing is alchemy. It doesn’t absolve us of hard work. But sometimes, a handful of ideas – devoid of shared timing, context or geography – will align in ways that work wonders, even if we can’t psychoanalyze why the synthesis feels so true. In those moments, writing has never been more and less about us, as if we’re simultaneously tapping into a subconscious yet collective stream of thought. Tell me that isn’t mystical!

Back in 2015 I celebrated National Poetry Month by sharing erasure poems sourced solely from those aforementioned, teenaged writings. I don’t recommend doing this. After 30 erasures and a lot of wincing, I fulfilled the project by destroying the original, worn-edged moleskins. It was my way of paying tribute – maybe not to the skills I lacked, but to the spirit that kept me writing each night. Whether that made a poet out of me doesn’t matter – it gave me purpose.

Stumbling upon fresh avenues of thought and expression is a thrill, near-bliss. And until we do, we persevere, have faith. That’s why, in spite of our thoughts, worries, doubts and distractions, we sit. And I reckon we’re better people for it.

Ryan Pratt lives in Hamilton, Ontario. His poetry has appeared in Great Lakes Review, Quiddity, and CV2, among other places. Rabbit months (shreeking violet press, 2016) is his debut chapbook.