Wednesday 5 August 2015

The Unbearable Humiliation of Writing

On Monday I took a seat at the back of the bus and took a new book out of my (B.A.'s, really, but I stole it) tweed bag. The lady who sat next to me stole covert glances at the title which was, embarrassingly enough, How to be a Writer.

"Two of my books have been published," I silently informed her, in case she read minds, too. "One of them was published in three countries."

It shouldn't be embarrassing to read a book called How to be a Writer. After all, it wouldn't be embarrassing to be caught reading a book called Be Your Own Plumber. In fact, I bet the woman beside me on the bus would have been impressed had she caught me reading such a book. Angling for Dummies might have sent her mind off on an amusing train of thought having nothing to do with me. Step-by-Step Guide to Dressmaking--now that would be a worthy book, and one I almost bought in a charity shop during last Saturday's excursion to North Berwick. However, I was embarrassed by How to be a Writer. That said, I was less embarrassed about reading such a book than I had ever been before in my life, for there I was actually reading it

Now I wish someone had given it to me, along with the typewriter, as my combination Confirmation/Elementary School Graduation present. Of course, even then it might have been too late, and I would have rolled my eyes and repeated that old half-lie, "Nobody can teach you how to write." 

And that probably seemed true at the time, for I thought nobody had taught me how to write--beyond the alphabet, phonics, basic grammar, punctuation and spelling. As a matter of fact, I had taught myself how to write, mostly by reading for hours and hours a day. I read so much, my parents actually discouraged me from reading, and when I stopped reading novels--except for university classes, and I rather despised myself for having to fall back on them to get a degree--I accounted it as an acquired virtue.  

Yes, I know: sad. 

I taught myself to write also by keeping a diary for thirty years and by writing stories. In Grade 5, possibly as a PR stunt on my behalf, the teacher asked me to read my latest story--horror, complete with falling into hell by accident--to the entire class. Although I was convinced that they all hated my guts, they fell silent and listened with rapt attention. Sadly, it did not improve my attitude towards them, but it did give me that first heady rush of the storyteller's power over others. 

My great ambition was to write my first book by age 14, as Gordon Korman had with This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall!, but I was utterly daunted by the prospect and remained so for decades. Finally I wrote a novel by filling three thick blank books outside Dooney's Café in Toronto in longhand while buying cappuccino and little meals I could barely afford. I have never read the damn thing, but by then I had guessed that the only way to write a novel was to put one word in front of another until I had more than 60,000 words. To do this, I had to sit in one place for hours at a time, returning to it daily, and block out the demonic voice that said "This sucks." 

It wasn't until I started to teach writing skills at a community college that I realized the demonic voice that had prevented me from writing a novel before age 14, age 24 and age 31, possessed other people, too. In fact, this demon seemed to possess all my writing students. When, clearing my throat, I mentioned his existence, they all laughed and nodded. He sat in their heads, telling them their writing sucked. I don't know why they were laughing, unless it was from the relief that he wasn't picking on just them.

I advised them that the only way to finish their homework assignments was to block out the Writing Demon's voice until they had finished their first draft. Write up to their minimum or maximum without a single cross-out, I said, and only then go back and change things. 

"How long can you do that for?" asked a student.

I said I didn't know, but I would find out.

I found out. But I can't remember how long it did take. (Two months, maybe?) Indeed, I have never returned to that manuscript. I have never sat down and read it. I may never sit down and read it, for I am not sure I could take the pain of the humiliation of having written complete rubbish.

Writing the rubbish, I can do. Editing the rubbish....

The difference between an amateur and a professional, claims How to Be a Writer, is not in the writing but in the rewriting. Amateurs write. Professionals rewrite.  In fact, the author recommends the writer complete not one or two or three drafts before allowing his work to be exposed to the glance of another, but eleven. ELEVEN! I haven't written eleven drafts in my life. I have written--at maximum--three, but generally I have had one master draft and erased and corrected, first with a pencil and then with a computer. In between, when I typed, I typed one copy. Sometimes I might write and then type, but when it came to stories, my friends just had to put up with white-out.

Eleven drafts! ELEVEN!

I would think that by eleven drafts,  I would be so sick of second-guessing myself, I would throw up every morning before facing the computer. However, I would probably be spared the sick horror of discovering a really stupid mistake in a draft AFTER I had sent it to an editor, famous agent or publisher. And, as a matter of fact, I am a lot more careful in my paid assignments than I am in anything else. Of course, such assignments are usually no more than 800 words, and I edit, cut, spell-check, read and reread like crazy to make sure they are actually under 800 words. Over 800 words, and someone else starts cutting for me

Another good reason to write eleven (honestly, though, eleven?) drafts is so that you can de-friend your characters. Until I was 19 and quit writing fiction for years--a sad story, let's not go there--I just blatantly wrote stories about people I knew. My friends. Our enemies. Teachers. Star Trek characters. These started as scripts. Come to think of it, I  think they also ended as scripts. I wanted to be a playwright but almost never saw any plays. (Personal revelation: no wonder I thought theatre began and ended with Marlowe, Shakespeare and Shaw: I was taken to see only Marlowe, Shakespeare and Shaw. And the two occasions I branched out--on my own--I was vapourized by the sight of full frontal nudity.) Anyway, scripts. Scripts meant dialogue, and I had a good ear for dialogue. Dialogue and plot were the be-all and end-all, as far as I was concerned, and being able to reproduce my friends' verbal quirks was--I believed--my greatest skill. 

It was fun, and it was funny, and the lightning pace of written conversaton never gave me enough time to think "This sucks"--which I never ever did until the Great Shock. And, meanwhile, I assumed that other writers, REAL writers, made up THEIR characters from absolutely nothing.

Since then I have understood that only God can make something out of nothing. Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh--all the 20th century authors I most admired--made up characters out of bits of their friends and family. "Linda" of The Pursuit of Love is part Nancy, part her sister Diana, part her sister Deborah and part of whatever alchemy goes into making characters unique beings you remember forever as if they were real people. "Fabrice Sauveterre" was a Nancy-eye view of her lover Gaston Palewski, who in real life had such appalling body odour, it is a mystery how he managed to have as many lovers as he did.  "Catriona McClelland" of Ceremony of Innocence is a number of women, mostly older and smarter than me, who have scared me rather a lot. "Denis Erlichmann" is a highly romanticized portrait of a German seminarian whom I very much doubt his friends (who are also in the novel) would recognize. "Suzy" is both me at 19 and all my writing students under 23 combined, but particularly the baby-faced one I worked so hard to help and dissed me so much in the Teacher Evaluation form. 

However, the good thing about all these models is that I hadn't seen them in years or they were away in Germany, completely innocent of the liberties I was taking with my memories of them. The tricky task now--I hope 11 drafts can solve it--is to refine and change my current cast of characters so much that my circle of acquaintances doesn't assume that I am taking revenge on some helpless friend by making him or her the villain. If he's blond, he must be Piotr (and how cruel to make him a spotty coalminer!). If she's dark-haired, she must be Anita (and how bitchy to suggest she might ever use a ouija board--well, women all hate each other, you know). Being chastised for cruelty is like sugar to the yeast of the Writing Demon, who roars up whenever given a chance, because if there is anything he hates, it's creation. 

On the other hand, such accusations can be a spur to indignation because it is an insult to one's ability to capture the people around us perfectly. "If I ever write a character entirely based on you," I have said more than once, "you will be left in no doubt." And indignation is great--it gives you someone to be mad at other than yourself. And as we know, women have a big problem with blame: the female creed seems to be "If at first you can't succeed, tell yourself you are a disgusting human being and develop an eating disorder." Really, we should be more like men and say things like, "You know, the editor of Blood & Aphorisms is clearly brain-dead, and I'll show him!"

And meanwhile, I say it again, I wish I had read "How to Be a Writer" when I was twelve. Indignation with an unappreciative public should be balanced by humility, and if even fantastic swing-dancers keep on taking lessons, well, then, heck, maybe I could still learn a thing or six million.


  1. Dear me. Well, given how you speak of yourself as a child and teenager, I suspect that, had you read the book at 12, you would have gone whole hog for the 11-draft thing. And perhaps it would have discouraged you completely after a while and you would no longer be writing. So there is also that to consider.

  2. Actually, I know all too well what it's like to write 11+ drafts, because I used to do it all the time when writing history papers. With non-fiction, my writing demon isn't so much severe as merely hyperactive. He will suggest a dozen or more alternative ways of saying a thing and then won't rest until I've tried them all. I used to use up a whole 500-page block of foolscap to write a 30-page paper. He's even worse with fiction, because between his mockery - not really a problem with historical writing - and his suggestions, I can't hear myself think.

    If that sounds like boasting, it is. My demon gives me so much trouble that I need to have *something* to boast about...So while I sympathize, I think you should be grateful - lucky duck - to have a demon you can shout down for long enough to let you write a whole book. Or several.


  3. The re-writing sounds rather like Orson Scott Card. I had the enjoyable opportunity of listening to a couple lectures recently. He apparently does around 7 plus re-writes for all of his works.

  4. Thanks, Anna and Mari! I will have a look at his writing books. Seven is better than eleven. Blah!

    1. I was just estimating... I'm sure he's done more than that for some things!


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