Tag Archives: bookwright

On Writing Fiction

23 Mar

Let’s begin with the assumption that I am a fairly talented wordsmith.

Before I say anything especially important, I have a few small digressions to make:

Digression the first – why wordsmith? Why not wordwright, like playwright or shipwright? Wordsmith makes me think of blacksmiths hammering out cold, dead things like horseshoes and nails and old-fashioned hinges. Shipwrights make boats, the best of which have delicate wooden ribs, can slice through the cold saltwater like knives, and creak and groan like living things.

Maybe bookwright is the word I want. Think we could get that into the OED?

Digression the second – I say “assumption” because, of course, talent is subjective. For instance, reading Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone made me want to claw my own eyes out, but I know a lot of smart, well-read people who sincerely enjoyed it.

No, but seriously, that book is terrible. It was so bad that it went past good and then all the way back to bad again.

Digression the third – I also say “assumption” because even after all the positive attention, all the accolades and kind words, I still don’t really know that it’s fact. And yes, I Am Not Your Wife was reposted to the The Believer‘s tumblr, Thought Catalog, The Frisky, and Huffington Post, and yes, those things are huge, but I still don’t feel especially talented. Maybe the problem is that those things are too huge, and it’s overwhelming.

Like, fuck. The Believer. Are you fucking kidding me right now? Their contributor’s list is basically a list of ALL OF MY FAVOURITE LIVING AUTHORS EVER. Being published in The Believer is a writer’s wet dream. And I somehow managed to get on their tumblr without even trying?

And for sure there’s a part of me that thinks that all this recognition is fantastic, and it’s only going to lead to better things, and blah blah optimism blah, but there’s another part of me, and admittedly much larger part of me, that thinks that this is all a fluke. That I’ll never write anything as smart or interesting or touching as I Am Not Your Wife, and now, at the age of 30, I’ve reached my peak of greatness, and now I’ll begin my slow decline.

In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, etc.

But enough digressing. What I really want to talk about is my love-hate relationship with writing fiction.

So.

Let’s begin with the assumption that I am a fairly talented wordsmith.

I am also someone who likes to write fiction.

And I guess that for a long time I thought that talent was all it took to write a good short story, or poem, or novel. I didn’t really think about writing being something that you would have to study or practice or learn. I thought that you were either talented, or you weren’t, and that determined whether or not you were going to succeed.

Then, in the summer of 2007, I took a creative writing class at the Humber School for Writers with Miriam Toews and she was fucking amazing. She had so many nice things to say about my writing, and even recommended me to the Humber School for Writers’ in-house literary agent, and I left that program feeling like a fucking rockstar.

Anyway, on one of the last days of the program, Miriam and I were having a serious writer-to-writer talk (because I was sure that I was a serious, for-real, grown-up writer) and she told me to forget taking classes and workshops, forget trying to learn the craft of writing, and to just go home and write. And this seemed like excellent advice, because she’d never taken a creative writing class in her life and she’d won the Governor General’s Award for English Fiction. So clearly, she knew what she was talking about.

I took her advice, and I went home, and I wrote. I wrote like a motherfucker (digression the fourth: how does a motherfucker write?) and ended up producing a folder full of short stories and a novel.

And I couldn’t get a damn thing published. I mean, I came pretty close, but still. No cigar.

(Digression the fifth: when I was a kid my mother would always say “close, but no cigar.” This made me think that cigars were fantastic and wonderful and  possibly delicious, which, in turn, made me believe that if I could just get something right for a damn change, she would give me one and my life would be perfect)

After querying and re-querying every damn agent and publisher and literary magazine on the continent, I quit. I was done. I just couldn’t take the heartbreak anymore.

Now, when I say heartbreak, a lot of people think that I mean the pain of rejection – and that’s fair, because that’s part of what breaks my heart.

But the truth is that the bulk of my heartbreak comes from the thought that I’ve somehow failed my stories. Because it’s not the stories themselves that are the problem – in theory, they’re sound enough – it’s the wording, the structure, the believable setting and the fleshed out characters. In the hands of a better writer, these stories would have lived. But mine didn’t.

All my poor, innocent stories were all stillborn. I’d tried my damnedest to get them to live, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know how.

I fell in love with each one, and each time I had my stupid heart broken and my foolish hopes dashed.

And I get that it’s about practice. I get that you have to hone your craft, and that suffering for your art doesn’t mean starving somewhere in a cold garrett but instead the grim misery of grinding away at your craft day after day after day. I get that no one is successful right away.

But what happens to all of those stories that I wrote and loved? Are they just collateral damage in the fight to become a good writer? Do I forget about them? Pretend that they never existed? Delete from from my hard drive?

How can I keep giving my heart away, over and over again, to stories that will never see the light of day?

But I want to write fiction. And (perhaps more importantly) I feel happier when I’m writing fiction. So I’ve started that up again, and sometimes it feels amazing, and sometimes it feels terrifying, and mostly it feels like both things at once.

But the thought of trying to get my stuff published again, the thought of going through all that rejection again, scares me shitless.

It doesn’t help that I feel like I’m running out of time. Most of the people my age have Serious Grownup Careers that they’ve been building since their mid-20s, and meanwhile here I am without a single published (fictional) word to my name. How do I ever catch up?

And, I mean, never mind catching up, how on earth do I ever compete with everyone else, all the amazing writers and wannabe writers on the internet? What sets me apart from them? Most of the time, I think that the answer is “nothing” – I’m just another faceless, nameless word-o-phile floating in a sea of fellow literary junkies.

These past few years have been rough. I’ve had a few friends and acquaintances, all people my age, die within the last year or two. There was Artem, of course, who was only 27 when he died of cancer. Then, a few months ago, there was Ryan, who I’d gone to university with; he died in his sleep of unknown causes. Most recently there was a friend-of-a-friend who died of a massive heart attack at the age of 32.

I think I might be running out of time.

So with that in mind, I’m going to try to find a good writing class. I’m going to find someone who can help me iron out the plot and pacing issues that plague all of my writing. I’m going to grind away at this like I should’ve been doing all along. I’m going to do this. Because as much as I love Miriam and think that what she said was right for her, I’m not sure that it was right for me.

In light of that, if anyone has any recommendations for good creative writing programs, preferably in the GTA, but I’m willing to travel, I would love to hear about them.

And to anyone who writes fiction – I would love to hear about your experiences, be they failures, successes, or something in between. I would love your commiseration. I would love to hear how you keep yourself going.

Most of all, though, I want someone to tell me to keep going, that this is worth it, and that I’ll get somewhere eventually. Because right now it feels like I’m driving round and round in circles, and I’m in danger of running out of gas.

Anne Sexton, at her typewriter

Anne Sexton, at her typewriter