‘Essays on Writing’ Archives

Literary Nude, an essay by Carin Makuz

 

“Der Bücherwurm” (The Bookworm), by Hermann Fenner-Behmer

 

Sometime in my early twenties I wandered into a gallery of contemporary abstract art in Edmonton. It’s possible I was just getting out of the cold for a minute. Art hadn’t yet entered my life in a big way, and I’d certainly had no exposure to abstract work. Seeing it fill a room, I was struck by the colours and shapes, intrigued, but I didn’t understand how it could be art … what was artistic about blobbing paint onto a canvas? So with all the smugness of the ignorant, I asked the gallery owner that very question, in pretty much those exact words. I can still remember how earnestly she answered — as if it were very, very important that I understand this.

She began by insisting that any artist worth their pigment would approach the work from a different place than blobbing. That might be how it appeared to anyone watching, and freedom was sometimes the motivation in this work, she said, but the painter would also possess an understanding of the fundamentals, the basics of structure, balance, and light, and they would most likely have studied the classic and most difficult subject: the nude. All this, she said, regardless of their own unique and personal style. That would come later.

I don’t remember many exchanges from my twenties, but I had the feeling that what she was telling me went beyond painting, and I’ve thought about it countless times and in different ways over the years since.

It was the idea of the nude that got to me. Who would ever make the connection between the human body and all those red and orange squares, that splash of green on a canvas? I began to wonder if every discipline had its form of nude. Is it scales to a musician, a basic white sauce to a chef? What is it for a sculptor, a dancer, a glass blower?

A few years later I took my first writing workshop. The instructor talked about the importance of reading. Not a problem, I thought. I like to read. Next! But there was no next. Reading was his sole focus for the entire workshop. How to read. I was stunned. What a waste of time. I already knew how to read. I was there to learn how to write.

He talked about the scope of literature, that everything from Shakespeare to Alice Munro was fodder for study, and that study was less about appreciating collective words on a page than about analyzing the choice of those words, the form of those sentences and paragraphs. He explained how it was these components, not clever-clever ideas, that made the whole thing live and breathe and move, and that the approach to writing had to be from the inside out, which meant an understanding of structure, not merely story.

Once again the nude came to mind.

Reading, of course, was the literary nude. But not just reading. Close reading.

In exactly the same way that it’s not enough to paint or sculpt the human form by merely looking at it, or even admiring it, we can’t learn to write by merely reading. The popular advice to students of writing to Read read read! And then read some more! is excellent, of course, but loving books isn’t all there is to studying craft. Craft is knowing what’s beyond the shape of what we’re reading, looking  past the outer “skin,” the words, and finding the structure that exists in every story — the style, wordplay and rhythm; the cycles of romantic, tragic, ironic, and comedic modes. Where is the tension, and how do scenes shift? How did we get from here to there? It’s finding the bones and the musculature that gives a story the ability to stand on its own before it’s dressed with the details of action, character, and dialogue.

Francine Prose, in her book How to Read Like a Writer, says we’re born with the instinct:

“We all begin as close readers. Even before we learn to read, the process of being read aloud to, and of listening, is one in which we are taking in one word after another, one phrase at a time, in which we are paying attention to whatever each word or phrase is transmitting. Word by word is how we learn to hear and then read, which seems only fitting because it is how the books we are reading were written in the first place.”

And then we grow up. And we get busy. And no one reads to us anymore. And we don’t listen all that well anyway. But so what? I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with getting through a stack of books a little too quickly, because, well, just LOOK at that stack … or reading simply because we enjoy it … as long as we make time for The Other — the slow, deliberate read. (I’ve discovered that dissecting one short story by Alice Munro is easily worth a month of “pleasure reading.”)

We have the idea we know what an ankle bone looks like, but unless we truly focus on it — and probably for longer than we ever thought necessary — unless we take the time to notice how it’s connected to the leg bone, we run the risk of being a blobber.

Which, I’ve come to realize, is an entirely different thing than blobbing with intention.

♦     ♦     ♦

 

Carin profile shotWhen not writing, CARIN MAKUZ can be found wandering the shores of Lake Ontario muttering about darlings that won’t take a hint. She is a workshop facilitator for abused women and youth at risk. Her work has been published widely in journals in Canada, the U.K., and the U.S. and broadcast on CBC and BBC radio. She is the creator of The Litter I See Project, and combines text with photography, reviews books, chats with writers, and generally thinks out loud on her blog Matilda Magtree.

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

The Mirror That Is Memoir — a guest post by Dace Mara Zacs-Koury

Woman Looking at Reflection

 

My father’s death and burial in 1994 in Latvia, and my subsequent discovery of a dark family secret dating back to the Second World War compelled me to write. I knew little of his or Latvia’s past, and so I set about talking to relatives, revisiting overseas, learning Latvian, and digging into historical research, finally turning up Father’s war records. Little did I know when I began that I was embarking on a twenty-year writing journey.

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Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

Quotables: “At some point in my life I decided that I was going to write like hell”: 15 writing tips from Nick Ripatrazone (The Millions)

 

I once took a novel writing course that my professor said would stretch us to our limits. It did. I hated the draft of my novel: all that seemed to happen is that my characters would go on walks through the woods to a pond, fish, talk, and repeat. One night when my roommate probably wished I would go to sleep, I wrote my professor a long e-mail, and he responded the next morning with the single best writing advice that I ever received: “worrying isn’t work.” It’s not. Writers love to worry. We — it’s okay to admit it — are rather melodramatic. Worrying has never finished a paragraph or fixed a slow opening. You can worry away your writing life, or you can catch yourself the next time you start to worry, go for a walk, and replace those worries with work.”

Read the full article here: “Don’t Worry. Don’t Wait. Write,” The Millions, November 21, 2016

And visit Nick Ripatrazone.

 

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

“Warm life preserved by the pen”: Memoirist Laurie Lee and the valley he loved

 

Writer Laurie Lee

Writer Laurie Lee

 

Some places capture your heart because they are yours, and others, because they belong to someone whose words weave a spell that draws you in.

My husband and I were on an autumn vacation in the Cotwolds and on our way to Sheepscombe, a picturesque village in Gloucestershire, when I realized how close we were to Slad, the childhood home and final resting place of English writer Laurie Lee. Of course, I insisted on a little detour.

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Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

Seven: On learning to embrace revision

Guest post by Alexandra Risen

Photo: Jon Sullivan

 

I haven’t been a debut writer forever. It just feels that way.

Likely because of how often I revise-restructure-rewrite-rethink-reword-reassess-review. Enough times to learn one thing: Even if you are writing memoir, the truth can be said myriad ways and almost always better than the last time you said it.

My personal memoir about my garden started as twenty short stories, edited several times by creative writing teachers and fellow writing students. Two years later, I asked an agent if they were publishable.

“No,” he said. Not maybe. Not gentle.

“Reassess your approach. Then restructure.” He patted my stack of paper where I had naively typed “Confidential” under the title, as if someone might actually want to steal my brilliance.

I pushed my embarrassment and insecurities aside and registered for a memoir course at University of Toronto. I read breakout books like How Not to Write a Novel, Bird by Bird, and The Plot Whisperer. I loved my memoir instructor, and after the course ended, I begged her to be my Final Project adviser. On her advice, I thought more deeply about themes and tension and narrative arc; I rewrote and saw the story take on a new shape.

Before I submitted it to the university evaluation panel, my adviser told me she believed I had talent and that the manuscript had strong potential, but there were too many storylines.

I knew better.

My agent reviewed it again.

“Too many storylines,” he said. “Rethink it in simpler terms.”

I joined a weekly workshop, where, chapter by chapter, over another two years, I rewrote, they reviewed, and I reworded. I tried new software like Scrivener and read more books, with inspiring subtitles like Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish with Confidence. The thing is, deciphering software and extra reading are ideal time-consuming activities for a procrastinator. I was starting to enjoy writing.

Somewhere between reading, rethinking, and rewriting, I read (I don’t recall in which book) that a manuscript is often complete after seven revisions.

Seven?

Liberty.

Harsh workshop criticism that used to depress me became a rung to draft number seven. I sought input. Please, I’d beg my husband, I’ve only had feedback on this scene five times — I need two more!

My goal to finish my book was replaced by the desire to reach the lucky seven edit for each chapter. Every misplaced comma and inaccurate word, every removed adverb and exclamation mark was a step closer. Draft six didn’t resemble draft two. Chapter One became Chapter Seventeen. Chapter Three and Eight disappeared. None of it mattered anymore. Cutting a scene didn’t hurt — it was a relief. I was shedding those unwanted last five pounds. Cleaning out the junk drawer. Throwing away those favourite comfortable but sloppy pyjamas.

Life is a series of revisions.

Today, some of my new best friends are editors. I can’t resist them. I stalk them. They are artists, wielding their pencils and applying Track Changes to better the literary world.

When my agent landed my book deal, the acquiring editor said, “I love it!” and then she promptly had me review, reword, and revise.

 

 

Alexandra Risen

Alexandra Risen

Alexandra Risen’s Unearthed is her meditation on love, acceptance, and our interconnectedness with nature, a memoir to be published Summer 2016 in the United States by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and in Canada by Penguin Random House. She is one of three founding editors of the online literary magazine Don’t Talk to Me About Love, which explores love in fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and art.

Alexandra studied memoir writing with instructor Allyson Latta, who was also adviser for her Final Project toward the Creative Writing Certificate at University of Toronto. An excerpt from that version of her memoir was a finalist for the university’s Marina Nemat Creative Writing Award.

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

12 Tips for Interviewing Seniors About Their Lives: guest post by novelist Elinor Florence

 

Yvonne Wildman

Yvonne Wildman of Kindersley, Saskatchewan, former RCAF photographer (Photo: Elinor Florence)

 

During November, the month of Remembrance, we read and watch many interviews with veterans. Sadly, our Canadian veterans are vanishing at the rate of about fifty each day.

Author Elinor Florence has interviewed hundreds of seniors in her career as a journalist, and also in her current occupation as a writer of the blog Wartime Wednesdays. I asked Elinor to share tips on interviewing an elderly person in order to preserve their precious memories, in whatever form, for future generations. This advice is invaluable for those setting out to write a memoir or to assist an older person — perhaps a loved one — write theirs.

 

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Wednesday, November 25th, 2015