Monday, September 19, 2016
"It's not about the writing"
Sept. 10, 2016 "It's not about the writing": I cut out this article by Craig Davidson in the National Post on Feb. 5, 2011:
Before Christmas, I was at a literary gathering, which I don’t generally attend for the simple reason that they frequently lead me into the types of exchanges I will shortly document.
There was this … person. She was emblematic of a certain personality you run into at literary gatherings. A sessional instructor of English composition at a Quebec university with an expression of perpetual distaste etched on to her face that made her mouth look like a cat’s clenched-up fanny. She seemed unsure how she’d even gotten to this party, as if someone had slipped a gunny sack over her head and dumped her here, much to her dismay. She gave off a nearmasochistic vibe: This party and its denizens were several echelons beneath her.
This woman insinuated herself into a pleasant talk I was having with another woman, a screenwriter and freelance writer — a lifestyle we hold in common, as a freelancer-slash myself (slash-novelist, slash-news-paperman, slash-magazine editor, slash-bus driver, slash-librarian, slash-unemployed). The screenwriter and I were having a candid discussion about the realities of writing for a living, and the compromises you make. This other woman eyed us slantwise down her nose, giving me the impression we were trapped in rifle sights. If I could have leapt, unobtrusively, out the window in a hail of shattering glass I would have happily done so, severed veins be damned. A snippet of our conversation: Screenwriter “It’s not like I always get to write what I love. Have to make the bills.” Me “The way it goes. You work on what you have to so you can devote time to what you love.” Horrible person “You should never work on what you don’t love. Why waste your time? It should always be about the writing.”
Oh, you tiresome, nettlesome, burdensome, irksome shrew. Just disappear, why don’t you? Atomize and vanish, go back to haunting the Special Collections section at some drafty university, you wraith-like non-entity, you. You aren’t even a hot bag of gas — you are cool, vaporous, and you slide down my neck like rock slime.
Of course, she was dull. Of course, she was stuffed to the tops of her clichéd tortoiseshell glasses with unearned elitism. She was a fraud because she had no real clue what we were talking about, having not had our experiences. Most of all, she was boring in the way all types are ultimately boring: Their colossal sameness makes them so. You may think such people couldn’t possibly exist outside the pages of Richard Russo’s Straight Man. Yet, sadly, they do, in the (pale, sun-starved) flesh, in dizzying profusion in certain social settings. Their existence inspires in me a wearying depression.
Why? For all the reasons outlined above, but most of all because such buffoons make me feel poorly about the choices I’ve made with my own writing lately. Odious as that person was, one thing she said was patently true:
It should be about the writing. Mostly, anyway.
Which, it pains me to say, is something I’d gotten away from in recent years. Somehow I fell into this mindset where the primary consideration became: Will this sell? Which was looking at things from the wrong side of the desk — as an agent/editor/publisher, rather than a writer. I got strung up wondering if an editor would
Anything you approach from an impure angle tends to flee be thinking: Is there a feasible demo for this? Rather than: Is this a decent piece of writing that readers will enjoy and connect with?
(When I say “somehow I fell into this mindset,” I am being disingenuous, in that I know exactly how it happened: I wanted to keep writing, and to do so I had to maintain favour with editors and publishers. It inspired a certain sick desperation, heightened by the fact I was trying to make a go of it as a freelancer — a rough gig at any time, not to mention at a point when print journalism, in its many forms, was in perpetual collapse. The spectre of living under an overpass eating Alpo from a tin can was very real for a couple years there.)
Anyway, this internal debate — Will it sell? — was by then occurring on a scene-byscene, sentence-by-sentence basis. I found myself clinically dissecting bestsellers. The Da Vinci Code had short, poppy chapters. So I’d have short, poppy chapters. Eat, Pray, Love had a loopy narrative voice. So I’d have a loopy narrative voice.
I approached writing a book as a complex equation: The Guaranteed Canadian Bestseller Formula™. Take one spunky heroine (preferably Mennonite), add one northern canoe trip, a dash of illicit buggery (a priest or close family member, either works) and set it in a harrowing post-apocalyptic world where the spunky heroine, OfNomi, has lost the right to her own body … blammo! Instant chart-topper.
What I resisted seeing was that the writers whose success I wished to ape hadn’t set out to achieve it with the mixture of dire desperation and cold-eyed cynicism I’d developed. They were writing at least partially from their own experiences about topics that inspired them. They were — as the sourpuss at the party kept harping on — just writing. That they happened to write something that compelled a great many people was a product of their passion and understanding rather than any kind of self-conscious targeting of potential readership.
So what did I end up with by following my silly formula? Just about what you’d expect. One godawful stitched-up Frankenstein of a book that will never see the light of day. Such flawed creative conception worms into the book itself, tangling in with the words and robbing it of that critical, unmistakable joy of creation. The writing creaks with the freight of a writer’s own worries and fears, and of his attempts to shoehorn it into something that might be all things for all readers. I ended up with a book that was still me, yes, in that the ideas were mine and the narrative drew, at least in part, from my own experiences, except everything was freighted with baggage that wasn’t part of my earlier work — books that were flawed in many ways, but at least didn’t suffer from a sense of authorial secondguessing in hopes of currying favour with an audience.
It’s that old story, same in books as it is in love: Anything you approach from an impure angle, from a state of desperation rather than joy, tends to flee rather than come to you. If you press too hard, wanting it so much that you’ll do anything to get it, so much so that it twists your original outlook and intentions, chances are you’re not going to get what you seek.
My opinion: I'm going to put that in my inspirational quotes.
I was stalking success rather than wooing it. I was rifling success’s trash cans and peeping through its window with a telephoto lens — where, before, I’d simply marched up to success’s front door, said: “This is me, take it or leave it,” and success was smitten enough with my boldness to let me in for awhile.
What I’ve finally come back to is that purer state of happiness that I used to enter when writing. From the moment I first started writing, right up until my first book came out, I never really cared about an audience; sure, I wanted readers and knew at some level I needed them if I was to forge a career, but I wasn’t weighed down under self-summoned expectations. That all changed, and I needed to get it back.
I thought back to my days in Miss Jeffries’ Grade 10 creative writing class, where my thoughts went along the lines of: How can I entertain myself ? (and as a secondary notion, How can I totally gross out anyone who reads this, particularly Courtney Smith, with her neon green scrunchie, whom I sort of like? — what can I say: I was 15, and not the suave Lothario I am today). I had to rekindle the joy I’d felt when the page just opened up, I fell in, and there were no limitations or worries about target demos, what editors will think, the booksellers, the whole apparatus I’d no knowledge of when I’d first said to myself: Hey, it would be pretty cool to write all day long.
I’ve likely wasted a few years, unless you wish to count it as part of a treacherous learning curve. Mea culpa. I don’t know what to say, other than I’d never really contextualized myself as anything other than a writer — it is what brings me the greatest joy, career-wise — and I was willing to do anything to be one. Which, ironically, held me back more than if I’d just gone back to that unfettered sense of fun that writing once held for me.
And I’m grateful to be able to say that it still does hold that fun. It’s nice to know that I may be many things, but a total masochist is not one of them.
But still, those are the realities. I need to hold a day job. I need to satisfy my publishers — and I want to, wherever possible. Books need to be publicized. Books need to sell. These are the rules at a certain level, and to play the game at those levels means accepting the rules.
The uncomfortable paradox that I’ve settled into is that it both is and isn’t just about the writing. But it should start being about the writing. The basic joy and love of it.
What comes after, once a book makes it into the hands of an agent/editor/publisher/publicist, can get a little thorny. They have a job to do and you need to understand that. And then there’s buzz and critical reception and just plain bulls--t luck. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, you shouldn’t kill yourself over it — and I say so despite the fact I do kill myself over it, often several times over.
These are the waves you’ll have to ride. But that’s a lot of being a writer, anyway: riding those waves. Hopefully, you catch a big one someday and ride it like hell. Then you may get caught in dead calm and have to paddle awhile. But if it’s something that makes you happy, as it makes me happy — even when it’s driving me mad — you put up with it. Writers aren’t the most realistic people out there, but after you’ve been at it awhile, that sense of realism usually settles upon you.
And it’s that sense of reality that sets me in such antagonism against people like that person at the party.
It’s not just about the writing, you idle dingbat. It’s about sacrifice and compromise and good fortune and dedication and clear-headed rationalism and holding your head together and learning to live with who you are and existing within your own limitations while still harbouring the sense that someday you might shatter them.
It’s about riding the waves. Once you’ve been through it, come talk to me. Until then, shut your yapper and enjoy the mulled wine.
Craig Davidson is the senior editor at Maximum Fitness magazine. His most recent book is Sarah Court, published by ChiZine books.