This Writing Life

I’m heading off to BC’s Sunshine Coast next weekend (August 12-15) to attend the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts, in Sechelt, and to me that means High Summer and the opening of the annual LitFest and Conference season.

I realized that while sitting at my computer early this morning, going through old files, prior to my semi-annual purge of extraneous bumff, and the catalyst that prompted the insight was the discovery of an article (it was actually a Q&A interview, done by email) that I did seven years ago for a small newspaper in the Okanagan Valley. The reporter asked me only two questions, but they were meaty ones and they elicited answers that struck me this morning, in retrospect, as being every bit as relevant and true today as they were then, in 2003. And so I offer them here in the hope that they might resonate with some of my readers…

Question 1) I am curious about what makes writers want to help each other and share “tips” at conferences like the one planned for Salmon Arm. Why do you take part? Does your own writing benefit from the interaction?

Answer: I suspect it has rather a lot to do with the fact that, as a writer of fiction (I can’t speak for non-fiction writers) you spend months, and frequently years, in the basement, hammering away at a word processor as you try to write a book that tells an entire story—in my case an entire Tale—in your own words, and to do it so successfully and so personally that you will find yourself recognized by your peers and others as having a unique and distinctive style.

Then, once the book is finished and done, you emerge into the light again; they let you out of the basement and you immediately want to go looking for someone with whom you can share the joy and exhilaration of your achievement. Unfortunately, there are not many of those around. Because they are all writers of one stripe or another. No other person, be it spouse, colleague, friend or neighbour, can share your glee at that time unless they themselves are writers and have experienced the highs and lows of struggling to write something worthwhile … The degree of success achieved by the person with whom you share your experience is utterly irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether or not he or she has been published or is successful in the sales arena. The only relevance lies within the fact that he or she understands, as no non-writer ever can, the euphoria that is sometimes born of the never-ending struggle to find words that express, adequately, what you were trying to say when you wrote that phrase, sentence or paragraph that had frustrated you for such a length of time. Of course, there are never enough of such qualified people around when you need them, so we tend to go overboard in encouraging potential colleagues to join the fold, and we find ourselves becoming willing and happy to spend time at writers’ conferences and gatherings, encouraging emerging writers to continue the struggle and to persevere in the face of what can sometimes seem like an endless flood of rejections.

A cynic might say we do those things because misery loves company, but I think there’s a lot of truth to the other explanation I heard recently: that most writers are so astonished and overwhelmed by the satisfaction and enjoyment they glean from what they do, that they genuinely want to share the joy with others. And of course, there’s the additional consideration that, with every newcomer you can encourage to join the trade and drop all the so-called ‘normal’ things in life in favour of wrestling with the ever changing rules of language, you’ve successfully decreased the number of people out there who say, “Yeah, I know you’re a writer, but what do you do for a living?”

Question 2) How much of a writer do you need to be in order to take part in a “writers’ conference? Over the years, as a reporter and observer, I have heard several people wondering aloud if they are good enough to take part in one festival or another. Should you already be published? Should your goal be to become a professional? Tell me your thoughts.

Answer: You don’t have to be much of a writer to participate in a writers’ conference. You don’t have to be a writer at all. All you need is a modicum of curiosity about what goes on at these things, and perhaps the tiniest, most remote of proddings, no matter how deeply buried at the back of your mind, pushing you towards maybe writing something of your own, some day. It doesn’t matter what you think you might want to write about, either. You might simply want to write a diary of your own. Or you might want to turn an old diary written by someone else into a fictional story, or even a straightforward narrative of factual history, family or otherwise. Whatever it is, you can be part of the 99.9% of people who spend their lives saying, “Some day I’m going to write a book,” or you can do it. You can spend your entire life talking about writing that book some day, but the only way to do it, irrespective of who or what you are, is to plant your backside in a chair and physically write it, and it doesn’t matter whether you start at the beginning or in the middle. The most important thing is that you start. And sometimes, attending something as off-the-wall as a writers’ conference can be the kick-start you need to get going.

You certainly don’t need to have grand ambitions about writing dozens of books. If anyone had told me, back in the Seventies when I set out to tell the story that had popped into my mind, that I would write five big, fat novels before I even reached the point I had wanted to make at the outset, I never would have started in the first place.

Even as it was, I began by writing for myself, for my own eyes only, because I knew there was a story in me trying to get out, and I wasn’t sure that I could write it. And so for a long time I showed it to no one . . . I just kept punching it out, and doing a bit more research every time I got stuck for the answer to a question, such as, “How do you do that? How do you smelt iron? What’s smelting, anyway?” I kept digging, a little at a time and purely for my own pleasure, and the story kept getting bigger and bigger. I did that for ten years before I showed my work to anyone, and then I kept churning for three years after that before I grew brave enough to submit it to a publisher—by then it had been thirteen years, and there was a very real danger that someone could come back and say, “Sorry, Chum, you just wasted thirteen years of your life, because this is really bad.” Fortunately, that didn’t happen, but it could have.

Writing has to be one of the loneliest occupations in the world, because a writer is always alone during the creative process. People who attend these festivals—and most particularly the conference-style gatherings—can find out about what that kind of loneliness is like, and they’ll soon discover that they are nowhere near being as strange and antisocial and reclusive as they thought they were. They will quickly find out, too, that one of the most wonderful things about being a writer is that you can see yourself improving all the time. So to those people who might be tempted to whisper to themselves that they’re not good enough to attend a writers’ conference, I would like to say this:

“It’s simply not true that you are not good enough. But if you stay away because you really don’t think you are good enough, then you’re never going to know whether you were right or not, and that means you never will be good enough… The other side of the coin is that, even if you are severely impaired in terms of grammatical skills and vocabulary range, you can learn to overcome those problems. They’re only minor. What really matters…and the only thing you really need to have…is a desire to write, and a belief that everyone learns to write by simply writing, and by writing simply. There are no other, deeper secrets, so go to your festival, or your conference, dig in, and enjoy yourself.”