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Bookends: Advice on Writing from a Master February 17, 2017

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Klondike Sun, Uncategorized.
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Bookends: Advice on Writing from a Master

By Dan Davidson

November 16, 2016

– 730 words –

 

Startle and Illuminate: startle-and-illuminate on Writing

Edited by Anne Giardini and Nicholas Giardini

Random House Canada

204 pages

$29.95

 

“I’ve never been able to separate my reading and my writing life.” Carol Shields wrote in an essay entitled “Writers are Readers First”. I think that’s something that has been true of every writer I’ve had the opportunity to interview over the last 35 years or so. Over 70 scribblers of various genres and disciplines have passed through Berton House since it opened, and there have been 120 or so as part of my long association with the Department of Education’s annual Young Authors Conference.

One thing always comes up. You can’t write if you don’t read.

I met Carol Shields on the printed page rather than in person, joining the conversation that one has with the author of any piece of writing during her last three or four novels.

Some authors do make an attempt to write about the process, maybe in fiction or in essay form, in much the same way as bands seem to inevitably write songs about performance or about life on the road.

Pierre Berton wrote a book on writing late in his career, dissecting the process by which he had produced volume after volume of entertaining historical writing.

Stephen King tackled the issue in a couple or three novels about the lives of writers, but also in a valuable memoir on the craft.

This compilation by Carol Shields, collected together by her daughter and her grandson, is not quite that kind of book, and is perhaps not something that she had intended to issue herself, though the essays and letters of which it is comprised work the same way.

The concept was Anne’s, but much of the legwork, the digging into the material in the archived papers, was done by Nicholas, who notes that he learned a lot about the woman he had previously related to mostly as “grandmother” along the way.

With Anne it was a little different. She was also a novelist and she and Carol had traded ideas back and forth and given each other bits of advice over the years, This was part of how Anne was sure that there was a treasure trove of material out there, if it could just be pulled together.

Shields was a teacher of writing as well as a writer, and the last chapter of the book is taken directly from snippets of letters that she wrote to critique and advise students on what they were doing right or wrong with their submissions to her. These are kind of repetitive, comments about tightening up or expanding certain passages, getting the pacing of scenes right, what to say outright and what to imply, and an often repeated comment that “writing lives and dies at the sentence level.”

In one of the complete essays, the one I quoted at the beginning, she also notes of herself, “I saw that I could become a writer is I paid attention, if I was careful, if I observed the rules, and then, just as carefully, broke them.”

The 14 complete essays that make up the bulk of this book each concentrate on a particular area of writing. There is some overlap, as there is bound to be, but Shields spends time dismissing the myths that keep people from writing, the myths (as she sees them) about writing, talks about organizational structures to help move the work along, advises about raiding the work of others or of one’s own life, for ideas, discusses about what personal things need to be protected, and what may be exposed safely.

Each chapter is followed by a point form summary of its main points, as an “in brief” section, and sometimes as a list of writing assignments.

This is not a quick read. Both of the books I mentioned earlier had a degree of narrative flow to them that made them easy to follow. This is a more academic sounding work, good in a different way. I read it over a period of a few weeks, a chapter at a sitting, with some time in between to reflect on what she had to say. It was very worthwhile, but it did require one to pay attention.

 

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