A Writer’s Education

Liberal-Arts2There’s an old joke that many of my writer friends know well:

A neurosurgeon and a writer are introduced at a party, and the neurosurgeon hovers near the writer, “So what do you do?”

“I’m a writer.” Warily, she takes a sip of her wine.  “And you?”

“I’m a neurosurgeon, but when I retire I think I am going to take up writing.”

“Funny”, the writer drains her glass, “when I retire I was thinking of taking up neurosurgery.”

The truth is that I’ve been writing since I was a child, as have most writers I know.  And, like so many writers, I have spent thousands of dollars and many, many years on my education.  As would any neurosurgeon.

For those who adhere to the 10,000-hour rule, while this blog in no way means to discourage you, it’s important to note that recent years have seen disclaimers and caveats to Anders Ericsson’s original study (see Time and BBC News).

While I do believe in practice, when it comes to a writer’s education, I am a passionate advocate of a liberal arts education. I applaud Alan Wildeman’s recent Globe and Mail article, “We ignore liberal arts at our peril.” Wildeman writes, “as a multicultural country playing in the global arena, Canada needs a citizenry that learns and studies human differences, social behaviours and cultural traditions. It needs a citizenry that encourages respect for human rights, and encourages artistic creation and appreciation of the arts. The humanities and social sciences engage in these intersections and contribute to what makes us human.” If one wants to be a writer, a liberal arts degree is one of the best preparations: “with its focus on the broad spectrum of human endeavour…. to ensure that our self-reflections are broad…and that we do not forget the importance of enlightenment and reason.” Above all, a liberal arts education forces one to read and read widely, often difficult texts that make one think hard and critically. I cannot stress how important this is to the craft of writing.

If one has not had the benefit of a liberal arts degree (and even if one has), then if one wants to write, there’s a good deal of book larnin’ to do – and not just the kind that offers to help you sell and market and write your novel or poetry. Reading. Taking liberal arts courses. Engaging in critical thinking. Challenging comfortable assumptions. Reading the masters. Reading. Reading. Reading. (The Importance of Reading)

Or try neurosurgery instead.

This week’s great un-/ undersung CanLit title worth checking out: 

Santa RosaWendy McGrath “What is real when seen through the eyes of a child? When does the harshness of reality transform idyllic memories? The young narrator…seeks the answers to these questions as she tries to make sense of the disintegration of her parents’ marriage—a process echoed by the slow disintegration of their neighbourhood. In subtle poetic prose, Wendy McGrath evokes afternoons at the fair captured in overexposed photographs, and a family’s disquieting day at the beach as moments that exist apart from time, in a place where every sense is heightened, and where every memory is sharpened as if in a lucid dream where understanding lies just beyond reach.”

Writing Quote: “I quickly saw the immense power of a liberal education. For me, the most important use of it is that it teaches you how to write. In my first year in college, I took an English composition course. My teacher, an elderly Englishman with a sharp wit and an even sharper red pencil, was tough. Now I know I’m supposed to say that a liberal education teaches you to think but thinking and writing are inextricably intertwined. When I begin to write, I realize that my “thoughts” are usually a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them. Whether you’re a novelist, a businessman, a marketing consultant or a historian, writing forces you to make choices and it brings clarity and order to your ideas.” – Fareed Zakaria, Indian-born American journalist and author, host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS (b. 1964)

Writing Tips:  “Reading before writing… becomes a way of conversing with other writers.”- Stephanie Vanderslice   “You must try to know everything that has ever been written that is worth remembering and you must keep up with what your contemporaries are doing.” – Richard Bausch

Writing Prompt: Inviting __________________ to dinner. (e.g. Shakespeare, your favourite author, Tommy Douglas, Lady Gaga, etc.)

Funke-y Self-Publishing – Is it for You?

pink-typewriter1-1Sooooo… best-selling children’s author, Cornelia Funke, has created her own publishing company, in essence, turning to sophisticated self-publishing strategies to gain creative control over her work.  In a Publisher’s Weekly article, Funke “cites creative differences with her U.S. publisher [Little, Brown],” as the motive behind her decision.  Not only did she see her Reckless series as better suited for ages 14 and older (and she argued with her publishers about pigeonholing her for younger readers for seven years), Funke was adamant that her first chapter remain where it was and her ending remain as it was.  Also intending to publish her backlist through the newly minted Breathing Books, her arguments for this bold move make such good sense:  “I want to be a sailboat so I can fit into other places. If I have to figure this out myself, good! I feel I’m at a time in my career when I can afford to do this, and where I can say, as long as I cover my costs, I’m fine. I have many traditional publishers in Europe, Asia, and South America who still earn me money. And I can finally be a storyteller for all ages.”

What a fine example of why self-publishing or, in Funke’s case, taking the publishing bull by the horns is such a fine new model.  One can’t help but admire her and, for those who write, hope to emulate her.  But, of course, I must offer a caveat.  Cornelia Funke has sold 20 million copies of her traditionally published books worldwide.  (The very article that I cite above was shared 1.4k times in but two days; Facebook cites 19,733 likes for her author page and she has thousands of Twitter followers.)  She is adored and loved and followed and tweeted about on a daily basis. Her audience is loyal and eagerly awaiting, so there is every likelihood that this new venture will prove a resounding success (and if it is not, she will not starve in her Beverly Hills home).

Those who want to self-publish are seldom as well-placed as Funke.  So necessary to successful self-publishing are the co-joined investments of time and money in order to create a professional product, market and sell it. If you don’t have Funke’s resources or a similar fan base, the road to a self-published bestseller is hard, indeed.

As writer Hugh Howie shares in Publisher’s Weekly, “successful authors work their butts off either way. There is no such thing as a lazy successful author. With a publisher or not, the author will be expected to market themselves. They will do interviews and go on grueling book tours, or they will be asked to write blog posts, to read and blurb other books from the publisher, and so on. Both sets of authors will be expected to engage with their readers on Twitter and Facebook. They will do signings at bookstores, or they will sit at craft fairs. The ones who eke out even a part-time living will outwork their colleagues who don’t. Forty hours of writing on top of a full-time job and caring for a family is the norm.”

Phew!

But hats off to Cornelia Funke for her derring-do!  I wonder if the same might be accomplished with a handful of intrepid and audacious CanLit authors who’d link arms and create an independent publishing company for publishing their own books.  It’s been tried to some success before…

This week’s great un-/ undersung CanLit title worth checking out: 

Food for the GodsKaren Dudley   “Dudley has quite elegantly and creatively taken a classic Greek myth and woven it into something unique. The base idea of taking Pelops, someone who had been served up as food for the gods, and making him into a chef, is brilliant. It is the ultimate source of all of the conflict in the story….The author’s love for mythology is apparent in this story, through simply defining it as a fantasy does not do it justice. It is equal parts mystery and comedy, not to mention being raucous thanks to a certain pair of gods who are just trying to help.” – Winnipeg Review

Writing Quote: “The good news about self publishing is you get to do everything yourself. The bad news about self publishing is you get to do everything yourself.” – Lori Lesko, self-published American author

Writing Tips:  “If you have market aspirations for your book, buy your own ISBN (International Standard Book Number) and create your own publishing company.”

Writing Prompt: “Empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there. What is it like to be the old man silenced by the stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the rollercoaster…?” from Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby

Part Two – Another Ten (Under -rated/-recognized) Titles

????????????????????????????????????????On my way back from vacation, I heard a segment from CBC’s The Next ChapterHost Shelagh Rogers spoke with writer and academic Randy Boyagoda on a topic related to this and my last post:  those books that “fly way under the cultural radar,” the ones that don’t get noticed (or enough notice) to catch the attention of the awards committees or nominators. How do such books (often from small and/or regional publishers) compete with the literary giants and their behemoth publishers?  What is the virtue of seeking out the undiscovered “hyperlocal” book?

In effect, selecting off-the-radar titles returns to the reader his or her reading agency – the right to select a book because something about it speaks to the reader rather than reading tastes being pre-determined and/or directed by a list.

Here is a transcript of the pertinent segment (the entire segment begins at 42:10 at the link above):

SR: What’s the conventional way that [hyperlocal] books find readers in Canada?

RB: That’s the challenge…beyond a community of already committed readership that poets and other writers have… the primary means by which books are read and discussed today is the prize or the prize economy….We read prize list announcements….If it weren’t for prizes, many books that otherwise would be very much worthwhile reading would be ignored, and that is…probably the best argument for literary prizes: that they bring to wider attention books that otherwise may not enjoy the hearing that they would deserve. But I think prizes also can have… a negative, a cramping effect upon our literary imaginations.

SR: So what happens these days to books that don’t win prizes or make a long list, even?

RB: ….If it weren’t for those prizes, these books really do kind of slip away because we have such an accelerated understanding of why and how books matter….Books tend to matter basically in this country from late September until…early November and then again during Canada Reads. And it seems…like a kind of strange way to… understand the life of a book.  That right after a given prize season….[overlooked books] kind of ‘[wither] on the vine’…a sad image of a book that should have a life beyond a prize season. But why is it? We’re all kind of invested in this….  American English professor…James English… [has] written a book about this called The Economy of Prestige, and it’s basically a study of literary [and other] prizes and their constant, rampant proliferation and why and how these things have come to matter so much to our understanding of what we should listen to, what we should watch, who we should read…I think he makes a very persuasive argument that [prizes] kind of speak to almost a loss of our own self-confidence… why do I want to read this? I want to read this because I think it’s important; I think it’s interesting or this book critic has made a good argument or this book columnist has made this good argument for it instead of I want to read this because it won a prize.

SR: Well, literary prizes are awarded by juries made up of people so there’s subjectivity involved; there’s human appetite, human frailty so it’s not like running a race where there’s the first, second and third place medals that are obvious. How do you think readers should view the mechanics of prize-giving?

RB: [Reading only prize-winners] wouldn’t have been the case… 25-30 years ago when books…had a more prominent place in our culture as… common documents for conversation. So what have I done? In my own reading experience, I kind of reacted against [the prize-award system] in discovering this local, this next door poet and seeing my world around me in a very exciting way.

So in celebration of seeing our world around us in very exciting ways, I offer the next ten titles for your consideration and reading pleasure.  Hereafter, I will endeavour to include an under-represented/-read Canadian title in every blog post.

Stone Soup – Kate Marshall Flaherty  (poetry collection recommended by Randy Boyagoda) – Inspired by the poetic folktale… the cauldron of these inviting poems effortlessly blends ingredients both earthy and spiritual, jaunty and tender, compassionate and ecstatic. The poems encompass generations of family and friends and embrace a wide spectrum of cultures and traditions to reveal heights and depths of our common humanity from fresh and surprising angles of vision.

The Wolf’s Head – Peter Unwin – Unwin lays out the history of the lake and its lands… the stories of the…men who sought the Ontonagon Boulder, the strangling dread of Mishipizheu, the maddening determination of voyageurs….filled with extraordinary facts, humorous anecdotes, and an understanding of the people.  In simple, witty language that endears and engages, Peter Unwin brings Lake Superior to life like no other writer has, delivering in vibrant prose, the history of the Wolf’s Head.

Kissing Keeps Us Afloat – Laurie MacFayden – Kissing Keeps Us Afloat is humorous and joyful, uninhibited and sassy. In love with words and images, MacFayden positively swaggers in these exuberant poems that are loose and open and stylish. The poems touch on fear and loss, revenge and regret, but come back to the sensual, back to love, and to the beauty of the world.” – Shawna Lemay

Crown Shyness – Curtis Gillespie – “’Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what’s happening around him knows that what he’s doing is morally indefensible. He is like a confidence man, preying on the vanity, loneliness and stupidity of other people, gaining trust and then betraying them.’ In many ways, this quote sums up Crown Shyness….Gillespie’s tale is powerful… ending with a gut-punch climax.” – Quill & Quire

Gaits – Paulette Dube – A poetic look at movements made by animals and humans during a cycle of four seasons. The poems are rich in their simplicity, and convey the depth and mystery of the animal-human connection. Reverse anthropomorphism occurs and the humans come away having (un)learned something about the citizens of the forest while deepening an understanding of themselves….that as a species we are lost and lonely without our connection to the land, but that this connection reverberates with consequences.

The Alchemists of KushMinister FaustTwo Sudanese “lost boys.” Both fathers murdered during civil war. Both mothers forced into exile through lands where the only law was violence. To survive, they became ruthless loners and child soldiers, before finding mystic mentors who transformed them to create their destinies.The Alchemists of Kush is both a powerful and vital contribution to Canadian literature that looks at contemporary Edmonton from an African-Canadian perspective.” – Wayne Arthurson

Spider’s Song – Anita Daher – Stuck in Yellowknife with her crazy grandmother, AJ is one angry and lonely girl. Her blog has become her main source of contact with the world where she reveals her innermost hurts—the absence of her mother and of her father, who abandoned AJ when she was just a little girl; and the moving around she and her mother have had to do every few years for reasons she has never understood. And recently, she’s begun to cut herself—a powerful habit and shame she is trying to overcome. A gripping, chilling tale.

Body Trade – Margaret McPherson – Weaving together two stories of survival, the main narrative follows Rosie and Tanya, two young Canadian women who leave NWT and head south on an ill-conceived road trip through California, Mexico and Central America. The story takes a life-defining twist when their search for freedom and adventure beings them into contact with predators of the Central American sex-trafficking trade. Body Trade asks: To what terrifying places will we journey, and at what cost, in order to save our own lives?

The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of MatchesGaetan Soucy (trans. Sheila Fischman) – The peculiar narrator of The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches is an unnamed adolescent unsure of what to make of the world or who they are, even whether they are male or female. When the family patriarch dies, the family’s isolation is broken, and shocking secrets are revealed. Filled with intrigue, suspense and flights of fancy, Gaétan Soucy’s novel is an original and challenging work of fiction. Heralded as a literary star in Quebec, Soucy deserves to be read everywhere in Canada.

Fruit – Brian FrancisFruit tells the story of 13-year-old Peter Paddington as he tries to fix everything wrong about himself before his Grade 8 year ends. Specifically, to lose weight, get a boy friend and silence his talking nipples. Although lauded by CBC Canada Reads in 2009, I’d hate to see this novel fade into oblivion. It deserves to be read and re-read (and taught) across the country. “Laugh-out-loud funny.” – NOW  “Hilarious and gentle.” – Booklist

 

(And thanks to all who suggested The Book of Mary by me!  Shucks.)

* You’ll note again a decidedly Edmonton/ Albertan bias, but that’s just fine.

 

Writing Quote about prizes: “As for me, prizes are nothing.  My prize is my work.” – Katharine Hepburn, American actress, memoir writer (1907-2003)

Writing Tips:  “Want to win big literary prizes? Make sure your story is about men” – The Guardian

Writing Prompt: A man down on his luck realizes he has psychic mind-reading abilities. He improves his life by playing poker. Everything goes really well for him until one day he comes across another psychic at the tables.