Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Waking Up in the Writers' Room

by Anita Anand
This is a story about errors, dreams, and other ways of seeing.
I never thought I would get a book published. I am happy, a little bewildered, and very apprehensive about the next step in the process, the attention that this book may or may not get. My book is not perfect; parts of it were written by my sub-conscious, and its beauty and its flaws will be in the eye of the beholder.
Two years ago, I took a correspondence course in creative writing at Humber College. A text was assigned. I don’t remember its title. What I do know is that somehow, I ended up ordering the wrong book. This wrong book was From Where you Dream, by Robert Olen Butler, and it contained strange but ultimately profound and helpful advice. One of the strange things was that it was very specific: “Write in the morning!” it exhorted. Yes, when you are still groggy! Write from where you dream!
The author provided many samples of writing that positively echoed with wonderfully lyrical, evocative, yet unobtrusive metaphors, which he felt certain emerged from the author’s unconscious mind.
His words rang true to me. It doesn’t happen often enough, but I have noticed a few clever, almost sly metaphors in my own writing that I don’t even remember writing. It is as though my keyboard were being operated by two sets of hands, one of which is connected to my unconscious mind. When someone else points out these metaphors first, I don’t know whether to marvel at the surprising wisdom and poetry of my own unconscious thoughts, or be embarrassed by what I might be revealing.
The dreams I remember are embarrassingly obvious, and they are almost always about embarrassing situations: finding myself half-naked at work, or in a public bathroom with no doors on the stalls, or voiceless, or in the wrong room, one reserved for people more worthy than me. In the past this was the white room, but recently I think it has represented the real writers’ room, the one I seem to have stumbled into by mistake.
I have always regretted not writing a letter to Margaret Laurence. She was one of my favourite authors when I was a teenager, and when she died, I was very moved to learn from reading her obituary that, first, we shared a birthday; second, she was very shy and found it impossible to believe that anyone enjoyed her books; and third, when she reviewed other authors’ works, her editor had to tell her to be more critical, more negative. I imagine her blinking in surprise. She told her editor that it was very hard to write a book, and that she couldn’t imagine tearing another author down.
I wished that I had known all this and had written to her that people really did love her books, they weren’t just being kind, but that, on the other hand, I agreed with her attitude of kindness when it came to writing reviews. I know that very few people would agree with us. Reviewers, we are told, are there to separate the wheat from the chaff. That is their job. I can’t agree, can’t understand why anyone would believe there is anything like objective worth in a work of fiction.
One critic’s wheat is another’s chaff.  For one thing, from the reviews I have read recently, everyone seems to be looking for something different. Jonathan Franzen wants “the internal lives of characters, with an emphasis on their emotions.” Sarah Woolf, writing about Véhicule Press’s own short story anthology Salut King Kong, wants innovation; fiction that will take her away from “the thematic stomping grounds of sex and youth” and depart from something she calls “Short Story Style”.
Steven Beattie, writing in Quill & Quire, would never enjoy anything I have written. “As a(n)… editor,” he writes, “I am not terribly interested in identity politics, which I realize is easy for me to say as a white man who has surely benefitted from the status quo ante…” For him, the writer’s focus “should be on story and technique, not the importance of the theme or the potential for improvement in readers.” Such concerns must never be “the foundational reasons” for writing anything besides essays.
So a person like me, who writes about such things as identity issues because they matter to her, even tend to haunt her dreams, should stifle this impulse in writing fiction because this would be writing for the wrong reason. If you have something to say, write an essay.
Personally, the only kind of story I dislike is one that has no point to it at all.  I like learning about life through fiction. That could make me an earnest, humourless sort of person, but a lesson I actually enjoy learning over and over is that everything is potentially absurd, from the Seinfeld moments of everyday existence to the self-doubt that plagues writers in contrast to the certainty of critics and editors. Life’s absurdity is a theme worth exploring. This is what drives me to write: something bugging me, something that I understand well enough to communicate, but which lends itself well to an easily accessible metaphor, like a dream about shyness. So that I don’t have to go and rant about it in an essay.

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