Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Betsy Warland

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Ten Questions, with Betsy Warland

Betsy Warland's latest book, Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing (Cormorant Books), is a must-read for creative writing students. Betsy talks to Open Book about her first experiences writing, and about how to create a cohesive collection of essays. To read a preview of Breathing the Page, visit the Cormorant Books website.

Open Book: Toronto:

When did you first start writing?

Betsy Warland:

After we studied Walter Scott’s “Lady of the Lake” in my grade nine English Lit class.


OBT:

What did your first write?

BW:

Where so many writers began – bad poetry!



OBT:

Where do you gather inspiration from?

BW:

Everywhere. If I was on a desert island – had only a few choices – I’d say nature (good match), music (particularly jazz and classical), as many of the books that companion me as I could carry (for certain, my dictionary), and my ongoing mediation practice as a Buddhist.



OBT:

How do you decide what subject matter to write about?

BW:

I don’t. It decides. It hunts me down. Occasionally it happens when I am asked to write a piece. Most of the time, however, my subject matter insists itself into my consciousness; ignites my curiosity. I believe that the narrative (whether prose or poetry) knows itself; knows where it needs to go; knows why it needs to exist. My job is to follow it: evoke it as faithfully and powerfully as I can; not get in its way.



OBT:

Do you spend much time revising your work?

BW:

Hah! I revise like crazy. Inscription is when I first get it down; composition is when I bring it into its throbbing autonomy. Both phases of writing are creative for me. Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing went through hundreds of revisions. After I had a solid first draft, I hired a substantive editor. Then later in the revising stage, I hired a copyeditor. My publisher/editor Marc Cote went through it thoroughly, and made the important suggestion that I write a twenty-fourth, final essay to pull the book together. This final essay, “Sustaining Yourself as a Writer”, has since become a popular free pdf download on my website. Finally, I worked with Cormorant Books’ copyeditor. In between all these crucial external edits, I was constantly revising and rewriting over the past twelve years.



OBT:

What Canadian writers do you admire? Why?

BW:

I will only mention one. If I attempt to list all those I admire, I will inevitably not remember some and be kicking myself later. Nicole Brossard. It is, in fact, hard to imagine my writing life without Nicole. She is among one of my favourite writers to talk writing with. There are the obvious connections: Nicole’s use of “blank space,” her sensitivity to language, her risk-taking formally (and often, politically), her intellectual and embodied passion. But what I most value is the philosophical and quietly spiritual quest in her books.



OBT:

Do you usually work on one piece of writing at a time?

BW:

No. I routinely am well into finishing one manuscript and am into the early stages of another manuscript. This combination works well for me. Running alongside of these two manuscripts, are numerous short texts I am asked, or choose, to write that are for more immediate publication.



OBT:

What are some of the problems you deal with often in your writing? Do you expect to deal with them in the future?

BW:

Humm, not sure if you mean subject matter, formal concerns, or practical but I’ll answer this way. I can’t say that I experience many problems in the act of writing itself. Challenges, yes! Endlessly. Although I complain from time to time, I actually relish challenges as they push me; intrigue me; signal me that the narrative I am writing is indeed a live wire which has much to teach me.

Like most writers, it is hard to access enough time to write: particularly periods of concentrated time. Grants can provide this but my luck with grants (to date) has been abysmal. Thus, I am working more than full time and am also a parent. For me, “the future” is now, so yes, I “expect to”.



OBT:

Your recent work is a collection of essays, how do you ensure this collection is cohesive?

BW:

Good question. There’s much I could say about this – it’s a narrative in itself – but I will keep it succinct here. Had I begun this book with a specific focus on an established topic, this would have provided the cohesion. This was not the case. I instinctively began writing the first essays (on the materials we work with as writers) in 1998. By 2002, I had written a number of the material essays and was teaching with them. In that year, some of my students urged me to write a second set of essays on the concepts with which I taught. Figuring out how to write the concept essays was a puzzle. These concepts were only expressed in conversations I had with writers with whom I worked. Eventually I found a way to translate the oral into a print-based style that worked. Then the next question was how to order these two different kinds of essays. This took years to figure. I wanted the order to be deductive and associative (simulate the actual process of perception), not reductive.

Then there the question of the essay titles – they were accurate, but didn’t always signal what they were about. Eventually I came up with the idea of an easily recognizable hook question located just below the title. This brought greater cohesion and clarity. Next came the concern about pacing: who wants to read twenty-four essays in a row? Also, people who had read the manuscript wanted more of a sense of me as a writer. I considered these concerns for a few years, then decided to intersperse short, more causal prose pieces that pace the book, provide some insights, and give the reader time to reflect and absorb. As I mentioned above, Marc Cote’s suggestion for a final essay also helped the book to gel.



OBT:

Finally, do you have any upcoming projects in mind?

BW:

I am well into “Oscar of Between”, a prose manuscript that employs the form I used in Bloodroot that is reminiscent of journal entries. I am calling “Oscar” a memoir of ideas. It is autobiographically based but plays with the inclusion of one fictive device. Generally speaking, it investigates the invention and impact of camouflage and the narrative position of betweeness.


Betsy Warland wrote her first two lyric prose essays in open if broken (1984) and was the Saskatoon Public Library’s Writer-in-Residence from 1993-94. In 2002 she taught a poetry workshop at Sage Hill, and is currently the director of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Frasier University, as well as the Vancouver Manuscript Intensive.

For more information about Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing please visit the Cormorant Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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