Thursday, April 13, 2017

Give Me The Works: Words for Student Writers

Speech Delivered at Ridley College,
Literary Dinner, April 12, 2017.

by Gary Barwin

bpNichol, “The Complete Works.”

I want to start by talking about my failures, or at least one of them.

A few years ago, I gave a talk to a group of high school writers at the Toronto Public Library. I gave what I thought was helpful advice and I thought I told it in a clever and maybe even a funny way. The speech bombed entirely. The students hated it.

I wondered why. I mean I have great hair and I made references to popular rappers of the  day. Also I employed jocular and colloquial expressions intended to engage the youth to whom I was addressing my remarks, Daddy-O

But really, while I don’t really know what the student writers were thinking (and they didn’t come up and talk to me, though I wished they had) I have a few thoughts.

To start with, each writer’s experience of writing is their own. That’s the point. It comes from a place inside them that is curious, angry, emotional, and inspired. A place that is loving, tender, full of wonder, bitterness, curiosity, invention, humour, and dread. Full of the excitement of expression, of other writing, of discovering the self and the world. Full of confusion and/or conviction.

So for me to stand up and give them advice about how to write may feel like...well, it’s inevitable that I seemed presumptuous and out of touch even if my advice was actually ok. Or ok-ish.

I understand. No one wants to be told how to do surprise, discovery, or exploration. It’d be a bit like someone telling you how to find a boyfriend or girlfriend. Even if the advice is good, it’s annoying to be told what to do, especially from someone who you don’t know well.

This made me ask myself, What’s the worst piece of feedback that I ever received? On my first day of graduate school I was very excited to meet with my brilliant Pulitzer-prize-winning professor. I showed him all the writing that I’d ever done. He flipped through the stack of work, and said, with a bored look, “You have far too little to say.” Then he flipped through some more pages. “And you take far too long to say it.”

When I was in high school, I loved the work of a lot of writers. As the poet Dylan Thomas said, I “read indiscriminately and all the time with my eyes hanging out.” Some of my favourite writers were Franz Kafka. Samuel Beckett, Douglas Adams and JRR Tolkien. And the Nobel-Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney.

I loved his work because he used strange old words, words that had a physical feel to them. Words that had a taste to them, a history, and a music. And the words related to where I grew up in Northern Ireland. Memory, too, has a taste, a history and a music. I especially loved his his poem “North” which gives the following advice to writers. It says,

Lie down

In the word-hoard, burrow

The coil and gleam

Of your furrowed brain.

Compose in darkness.

Expect aurora borealis

In the long foray

But no cascade of light.

Keep your eye clear

As the bleb of the icicle,
Trust the feel of what nubbed treasure

Your hands have known.

On one level, that is basically a version of what everyone’s always told, Pay attention and “Write what you know.” But I think that it is also saying some other things. It says, “Trust the feel of what nubbed treasure/your hands have known.” That is, trust the texture of your experience and how it seems to you. Even if you’re writing about superintelligent shades of the colour blue, like in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you have your own sense of the world, a sense of other worlds. A way of exploring, leaping from one idea to the other. It’s about trusting your own imagination and your way of using it. It’s about exploring and developing not only the content of your imagination but the way it works, the way it processes ideas and connects things.

It’s true that  “trust the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known” sounds like it’s telling you to be a farmer feeling potatoes. There you are, a farmer with big calloused hands sitting on your duff at sunset thinking about how potatoes feel. Or maybe you’re not a farmer, but rather an assassin and you’re remembering what it felt like to squeeze your hands around the throat of an ignominious gnome as he takes his last breath. Beautiful. But then, maybe you’re the gnome.

For a writer, I think “trust the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known" also means to trust your experience of words, that nubbed treasure.  Nubbed. That’s a great word.  And “keep your eyes clear as the bleb of icicle.” Bleb is a great word, too. The poem says, “Lie down in the word-hoard”— the treasure house of language.

As a writer, words are your world. So when Heaney says, “trust the feel”: it’s like telling a chef, “Trust food.” I think about how much a chef knows about food—what it tastes like, how it feels in their mouth. How food has been part of their life since about the age they learned to speak.  Maybe the chef will make sandwiches out of twilight, expired luncheon meat and left over bits of the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards. Or maybe they will make the last meal that someone is ever going to taste. A chef thinks about how different foods might go together, what ways they might experiment with that food, and concoct a surprise or a memorable experience in the laboratory of their kitchen.

To me, that’s what a writer does. Experiment in the laboratory of their own creative kitchen. Well, that and staying in pajamas until three in the afternoon.

For me, part of  “trusting the feel” is about trusting the feel of making things up. Of doing something new. Like a scientist, trying something to see what happens. It’s the feel of pushing the limits to see if you can make something that seems more right—more representative of how you see or feel things or how you want to imagine things. Does this new way seem more exciting or intriguing to you? More fresh. It’s not only about remembering potatoes.

One day, I was thinking about what might be the opposite of potato. I went online and discovered a page explaining the idea of the negative potato, the anti-potato. “An edible cousin of the more widely known potato and a member of the negative tuber family,” the definition said.

Potato, potahto. Potato, anti-potato. In writing, rules and anti-rules. Whoever first made fire or ate the first lobster was breaking some serious rules. They had to, as one particularly terrible ad for a cremation service in Hamilton says, “Think outside the box.”

How do you decide which rules to follow and which rules to break? And how should you break them?

Every writer I talk to always emphasizes how important it is to read. Several friends suggested that I just walk up here and say the single word, “Read,” and then sit down.

Of course, if you like to write, you like to read. You like to read all the time with your eyes hanging out. But other than enjoyment, what does reading do for a writing?

I’m reminded of  that Steven Wright line: The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

It pays to see what others have done. In reading maybe you find out about those things that are possible that you hadn’t thought of. Or it helps you know what you want to do and what you don’t want to do. You learn what you like and what you don’t like. You learn what you would do differently. You learn to question what baggage you are starting with. What things you thought you should do, but don’t have to. What assumptions you made that you can question. But you also learn who is always left out of the story. What is always left out of the story. It’s easy to say “Think outside the box,” but first you have learn to notice the box and then to imagine an outside. And then you have to imagine ways of getting out of the box. Reading things that challenge you is one of doing this.

When I was writing this speech, I did like I always do, I went on Facebook and after a few hours, I realized that I’d forgotten why I went online in the first place. Then I remembered and asked my writer friends for some advice about what I should tell you.

A friend of mine, a psychology professor  told me that in a graduate seminar on creativity, Lawrence Hill, the author of the acclaimed novel The Book of Negroes, gave this advice. He said, "Sit your ass in the chair and write!"

I agree. Getting started is the hardest part. Taking the chance of trying. And you have to keep taking that risk. Bestselling authors who have written many books have expectations, doubt and fear. And they can find it hard to start something new, hard to keep going. When I wrote my novel, Yiddish for Pirates, I knew that it would require a lot of time, a lot of words. I knew that it would be hard not to give up, not to be discouraged, not to question my project. So I set myself a goal of a minimum number of words to write each day. I made charts projecting how many words I would have at the end of each day, each week, and each month so that I could see my progress. I could follow the graph as it went up the page as I got closer to my ultimate goal of a certain number of words. Each day I tried to write my best, but my main goal was just to get to the finish line. I could improve the writing later. So yes, sit in that chair and write because it’s all about the process. It takes time. And it doesn’t necessarily look like anything much until you’re done.

But telling writers, “sit in the chair and write,” is also a bit like telling someone who wants to be a firefighter, “just run into the house and save people.” After all, firefighters do need a certain amount of preparation and training. There are things to practice. As a writer, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. You do need to practice writing by starting with what you can reasonably manage. Start with a poem, or a short story as opposed to a fifteen book fantasy series about the Roman Empire and macroeconomics. Someone told me, if you want to write a novel, sit down and write twenty words. If you keep going, great. If not, at least you’ve got twenty words. I also remember asking the first one of my friends to have a book published how she did it. It seemed impossible. She said, “You write one page and then you write another until you have a hundred pages. Then you have a book.”

"Sit in a chair and write" can be crushing advice if you imagine that writers such as Leo Tolstoy, Margaret Atwood, or Toni Morrison didn’t write many drafts. That they just began writing at the upper left hand margin and kept at it until the book was finished without ever changing a word or throwing anything out. When I’m talking about editing, sometimes as a kind of show and tell,  I bring the amazing envelope that I received from the editor of of my YA novel, Seeing Stars.

When I wrote this novel,  I was already quite experienced, having written many books. And writing this particular novel, I had worked with an editor who read every chapter as I wrote it. I wrote five different drafts of the book. Then my agent sold it to a publisher who sent me actual money. I was feeling quite confident and professional. Kind of a big shot. Then I received the envelope from my editor with her edits. Every page of the 150 pages of my manuscript had seven or eight sticky notes on it with suggested edits. Every sentence had at least seven or eight red marks correcting or suggesting other things. That’s thousands and thousand of edits. I was gobsmacked. I thought I was professional and had nailed the writing of the book. But of course, my editor was working with me to make the book better. It was a good book. I just needed that conversation between me, my editor and the book.  A writer needs to remind themselves that writing is a also verb, a process of generating drafts and not a finished work. At least not until it’s finished. And even then, as I found out, there can still be more to do.

The process can be really energizing, and exciting. But sometimes sitting down to write can be terrible. It can be hard. It can be difficult and it forces the writer to reckon with difficult subjects and their own sense of doubt and insecurity.  Or the need to say what others aren’t ready to hear, or that they are not quite ready to say. As Farley Mowat said,  “If someone tells you writing is easy, he is either lying or I hate him.”  But that doesn’t mean that writing can be fun or satisfying.

I remember when I was editing Yiddish for Pirates, I knew I had to cut out a bunch of words that were just too much.  It was hard to just delete those things that I remembered working very hard on, things that I thought were really clever or sounded just so good. I knew I had to but I couldn’t bear to just delete them, so instead I removed them from the novel and copied them to another file on my computer. It was a way of tricking myself. At least the words weren’t gone forever. And if my editor asked, do I happen to have any terribly overwritten purple prose kicking about that we could add to the novel, I could say, why yes, I do. I have just the thing.

It’s really helpful to have other people read your work. Friends, classmates, teachers. It’s good to listen carefully to what they say. They’re not always right, but it worthwhile seriously considering what they say. Often as a reader they might identify a weakness, but their suggested corrections aren’t always right or the best way to solve the problem. I always listen careful to my editors, but then I often end up coming up with my own solution to the problem that they have identified. One of the first readers of Yiddish for Pirates was my mom. Usually, my mom just says complementary things and tells me how great I am, but when she read the novel, she said, “Gary, this is is good, but, um, that middle section...that middle section, it’’s kind of confusing. Confusing and….boring.” And then she had a whole bunch of ideas of how I should fix it. Mostly involving deleting the whole section.  She was quite insistent.  I did take what she said seriously. I thought hard about why she might have found that section boring and confusing. She was right that it needed fixing, but I realized that her solution wasn’t the right one. I came up with my own solution—mostly involved creating more suspense and more drama...drama in the novel, not with my mom.

I always tell my students, “The writing knows more than we do.” Language is a vast repository, a great archive, a word hoard, a storehouse of accumulated knowledge and experience. Everyone who has ever used those words is there in the language. Just by virtue of being a speaker of the language, you have access to this knowledge. You have access to something much larger, much deeper than just yourself. The language is its own internet. So trust where the writing is taking you. Listen to the writing. To your own words. You don’t have to know what you’re doing. You don’t have to have a plan. Creative writing is an exploration. You can figure it out as you go along. You can start with a plan or a direction, but it can evolve. “The writing knows more than you do” and by listening to it, you often discover things that you didn’t expect, things that were much more subtle, interesting and complex than your original idea and yet somehow express what you didn't know you were thinking or feeling. It can lead you to greater and more emotionally rich writing. It’s good not to insist on what you thought the writing was going to be. It’s like a parent insisting that their kid be who they want the kid to be rather than allowing the kid to discover who they are.

My novel, Yiddish for Pirates, is narrated by a pirate’s parrot around the time of Columbus. Actually a 500-year-old immortal Yiddish speaking parrot named Aaron. Aaron swaggers around trying to be as macho as the pirates in the story. In the middle of the book, I was writing a scene where Aaron meets another parrot. In the middle of this scene Aaron discovers that he is gay. I had no idea that this was going to happen, that my own character would come out to me as I was writing him. But I feel that by listening to my story and its characters, by trusting that the writing knew more than I did, I ended up with a much more interesting character. And a more interesting book. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the parrot was gay, but I really wasn’t expecting it. Maybe not even him?

I told you the worst advice that I ever received so I thought I should tell you about the best piece of writing advice that I was ever given. I took a class in university with the mind-blowingly inspiring writer, bpNichol. He told us to “keep writing.” The way to be a good writer is to keep writing, he said. I think that’s wise. Implicit in this, though, is to keep being curious and exploratory in one’s writing. Not to keep writing the same thing or the same way, but to keep trying to get better, to keep actively considering what makes writing exciting and interesting, what works and what is possible.

Writing. It’s an amazing thing that we humans can do. That we writers do. That you student writers do. In one way it seems so simple. A kind of elemental magic. We can say what we feel. We can say what we think. We can make up things.  We can tell stories.

My wife is a criminal lawyer. One night one of her clients pocket-dialed her. She called me over to listen with her. “Gary, Gary, listen to this, you won’t believe it.” Her client was in the middle of robbing someone’s house and on the phone we could hear him talking to his partner about what to steal. “Should we take that TV?” “No, too big.” “How about that stereo.” “Yeah, let’s take that.” I guess they got away with the robbery because the guy never called back looking for a lawyer when he got arrested.

I’ve just told you a little story. Does it tell us anything? Is it true? Did it happen?

We writers can change how people think. How they see. We can create worlds in people’s minds. We can change the way they move even with the rhythm of our words. We can make what is silent heard, what is unnoticed noticed. What is invisible visible.

The novelist David Foster Wallace once told this story: There are these two  fish swimming along, and they happen to meet another fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, guys, how's the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What on earth is water?”

The fish don’t know about water because it is always all around them. They have forgotten or they never knew that it was there . As writers we can make this water visible. The water is our human experience. Our language, our world and the universe that surround us. We writers can change how people think. How they see. What they look at. We can create worlds in people’s minds. We can remember what is forgotten. We can make sure that what is important is never forgotten. We can make memory come alive. We can imagine what is possible or warn of what might happen. We can surprise, delight, shock, move, and express solidarity and compassion. We can make what is silent heard, what is unnoticed noticed. What is invisible visible.

How do we do this? It's simple. bpNichol has a poem which is called “The Complete Works.” It is is a representation is of all the letters, numbers, and punctuation on a typewriter keyboard. Letters, numbers, and punctuation. That's how we do it.

Oh, and one more important piece of writerly advice that I’d like to give you before I close. This from the crime writer Elmore Leonard. "Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip."


Eccentric Scholar said...

Favorite line: “The writing knows more than we do.” :-D

gary barwin said...

Thanks. And I try to listen to it.

Of course, in my case, I think that practically everything knows more than I do.