Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Roadblock All Writers Set for Themselves Every Now and Then

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When I teach classes in creative writing at U of T’s School of Continuing Studies and at Haliburton School of the Arts, I have on occasion faced this predicament: A bright, talented, energetic student sets limits upon their work by deciding far too early what the story is about.

Here’s a hypothetical situation: A man – we’ll call him Jerry, as I don’t think I’ve had a student named Jerry – wants to write a fond memoir of his grandfather. “I’m working on a memoir of my grandfather,” he announces, “because my grandfather was a great influence on my life.” This may be true. Jerry clearly reserves some of his fondest emotional space for his grandfather, long passed.

But, as I read Jerry’s work, there is a monotone to it – the writing is clear, the images are coming together, the voices sound authentic, but the story is entirely happy, and the lack of emotional range makes the story lose energy very quickly in the reader’s ear.

When I point this out, Jerry defends. “This is a happy story, it’s about my grandfather.”

Case closed, from his point of view, but I persist and here’s why: The happiness can only exist for the reader if it is presented in contrast to scenes that elicit a variety of emotions. The contrast makes the light shine brighter, makes the story feel more real. The contrasting scenes need not be exceedingly dark, but they must provide a difference. The happiness the narrator feels in the presence of his grandfather must feel earned. The reader needs to feel the influence of the older man by seeing and feeling the change he made in young Jerry’s life.

I often attribute the reluctance to explore a story among young writers (and, as writers, we are all young) to an unwillingness to listen to their own work. By this I mean putting away a draft for a while and then coming back to it and hearing what it has to say, and also to hear what’s missing or, more importantly, what’s hinted at but not explored.

One of my favourite meditations on the process of self-editing is Susan Bell’s great book The Artful Edit (W.W. Norton & Company, 2007). For clarity, when I say self-editing, I mean the process in which a writer makes their work better, more full, more clear, more powerful, more vivid, more whole, less cluttered, completely unconfusing. What I am not referring to is self-censorship, that awful thing that social duty requires of people in day-to-day conversations. While often referred to as self-editing, self-censorship is anything but. I’ll do another post on self-censorship (and its evils) later this month.

In The Artful Edit, Susan Bell lays out practical guidelines, advice, and exercises to help writers to better understand and deliver their own work, and she does so against the backdrop of exploring the relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and editor Max Perkins during the writing and revising of The Great Gatsby. In this illustration, the work of Perkins is to help Fitzgerald to better see the story he is trying to write, and has nothing to do with grammar or sentence structure; the writer took care of these aspects well enough on his own.

Which brings me back to Jerry. The challenge he faces, which all of us face, is to find the full range, depth and subject of the stories we write, which we can only do by writing freely, listening closely to what we write, and then daring to explore the parts of the story not yet fleshed out. In order to do this, we must remain loose in our hold of “what the story is about.” The story, if held loosely, will tell us what we need to know. We will see how to make the happy story all the happier by showing how the characters were helped, to make the sad story all the sadder by showing the potential for what could have been, to make the redemptive story all the more satisfying, to make Jerry’s grandfather stand out on the page the same way that Jerry experienced him in real life.

1 comment

The contrast makes the light shine brighter, makes the story feel more real. The contrasting scenes need not be exceedingly dark, but they must provide a difference.

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Ken Murray

Ken Murray lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario. He teaches creative writing at Haliburton School of the Arts and at the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. His fiction and non-fiction have been published in journals, newspapers and magazines in both Canada and the United States. An avid athletic amateur, he likes kiteboarding, skiing, snowboarding, running and cycling. He is a volunteer broadcaster in community radio and dabbles in several sports. Eulogy is his first novel.

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