I can take no credit for what follows but I thought it was so good, I am passing it along to the writers, readers and students of life in the audience. It was written by Steven Heighton. He is the author of twelve books, including … the novel Every Lost Country (May 2010) and the poetry collection Patient Frame (April 2010). With this post, Heighton concluded his week long guest editorship of The Afterword…[the Twittering arm of The National Post.]
The post followed up on a series of “memos to myself” that The New Quarterly, a Canadian literary magazine, recently asked writers to produce – memos the writer would relay back through time to his or her younger self, starting out in the craft.
Here is his post:
1 Could anyone else have written this thing? If Yes, start again.
2 Novelty is nothing more than a fresh combining.
3 If nothing is new under the sun, nothing is old either. Time cycles back. The ode, the epithalamion, the epistolary novel—all can be made fresh again in the right hands.
4 In the long run, curiosity and stamina trump talent.
5 What makes a period of intense creativity a joy: the way it integrates an adult’s productive power with the playful oblivion of a child.
6 Don’t feel discouraged when you find yourself falling out with your earlier work. Dissatisfaction is the price of improvement.
7 Improvement is not just a matter of amassing technique. Coming through a hard time, transcending a grief or an addiction—these can clarify and deepen your vision, while also improving your prose style by teaching you to focus on the significant and to exclude mere filigree.
8 Be wary of the “respectability” that comes with even modest success. The respectable lose their yen for transcendence and grow obsessed with fortressing a social position—two changes that contaminate the creative sourcewaters.
9 Never generalize. The world beyond the mind consists of nothing but exceptions.
10 Complicate it, complicate it. Truth is in the nuances.
11 Then simplify in the later drafts to drive the complexity underground, like a textual subconscious.
12 Because you want your work to have a teeming subconscious. In your early drafts, write everything that occurs to you, then cut ferociously. The material you cut—the rich or jagged silences you create—are the textual subconscious.
13 Or think of those editorial gaps as synapses that the good reader bridges with sparks of insight, helping to turn a now-collaborative work into a brightly firing circuit of experience and understanding.
14 There’s nothing less enjoyable than writing well, because it means excising the superfluous, self-indulgent matter that was the most pleasing to write.
15 Corollary: Learn to savour the violent, vandal delights of X-ing out and hacking away those primping passages.
16 The problem with poeticized novels is that they aim for beauty without truth—the reek of the real—and beauty without truth is kitsch.
17 Solemn, earnest overwriting feels like overwriting. Overwriting leavened by humour (think Lolita) and textual synapses (see 13, above) is a delight.
18 Good writing, to paraphrase Sir Ralph Richardson, is overwriting and getting away with it.
19 Good writing is underwriting and getting away with it.
20 The main virtue of overwriting is that nobody overwrites like anybody else. The surest way to sound generic and nondescript is to write too cautiously, to follow the rules at all times, to avoid affronting canons of taste. Writers writing ebulliently and extravagantly will sooner or later do it in their own way.
21 What makes the majority snicker now may be what makes the work last in the long run.
22 Don’t confuse story and plot. Story is narrative impelled by character. Thus it emerges from inside the material of your fiction. Plot is a dramatic contrivance deployed to entertain or to illustrate a theme. Plot is imposed on the material from the outside, and everything else in the work—character, detail, language, etc.—is subordinated to it.
23 If fiction writers gamble when they create main characters who are difficult to like, then they cheat when they concoct characters who, unlike you and me, are wholly sympathetic.
24 The writing life, like life in general, has a sacramental and a secretarial side. As years pass and duties accrue, the secretarial, clerical mode can grow like a lymphoma and start to squeeze life from the sacramental.
25 So learn to be irresponsible when necessary—without guilt. Let bills breed in unmarked drawers, let the inbox throng and fester. Lend yourself wholly to the momentum when inspiration insists; take care of marginal things in their own time.
26 If, as the psychologist Stephen Kosslyn has said, the mind is what the brain does, the story or poem is what the words do.
27 The dualism of our culture inclines us to see style and content—like mind and body, or body and soul—as separate. There’s no separation. Art, like life, involves a continuum of contiguities.
28 Don’t squander time and vitality keeping abreast of all possible trends in popular culture. Pop culture is a torrent of vogues, some deeply significant, some not. Keep an ear cocked and an eye prised and mostly what you need of the culture will find its way to you.
29 Refuse to feel ashamed of the autonomous observer that more and more detaches from you and in times of crisis, grief, elation, humiliation etc. hovers to one side coolly jotting notes.
30 There comes a point when an hour of sketching objects from life or learning to play an instrument will make you a better writer than another hour of writing or reading will.
31 Cast a spell and the small flaws don’t matter.
Pretty good advice. Check him out at http://www.stevenheighton.com