Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Choose your weapon

I was about to write a post about the beautiful pens I received in the mail today. Two of them. My friend Duncan, with whom I worked in theatre in the late 90's, builds all manner of cool stuff when he's not doing great things as a technician. (As an aside, there is a review shortly coming to this site...) Anyway, he made these, and they are beautiful. Possibly the finest writing implements I have ever used. I digress.

These pens! Gorgeous pens. Thank you, Duncan!

As I said, I was about to write a review about them, but I've been distracted. You see, I love pens. See my previous post on pens, and you'll understand that for me it is not about having beautiful things (...if my Waterman could speak it would attest to its rough treatment at my hand), but about using beautiful, crafted, and substantially created things because they give mindfulness and gravity to everyday actions.

I was distracted because writing is my passion. I get carried away, not just in the writing, but with the act of writing, the ceremony of writing. Don't get me wrong, at its most basic, I understood a long time ago that to write a story on paper was story telling. Nothing more. I was continuing a tradition, a woven history of our people, with the tools I have at my disposal. Just as actors and musicians and painters follow traditions, I was following a long line of people who created in order to communicate.

What are novels, but stories told on paper? In that respect, I made a concerted effort to slow down my process. While at Concordia University, I bought a cheap fountain pen, and my lifelong affair with hands-on writing machines began. It took several computers, vintage typewriters, and an entire series of fountain pens before I had settled on my process.

Why does all this matter? Is it not efficiency, you ask, that makes great writing ... the ability to get as many words on paper as possible, to "get it all down" before forgetting the ideas? I reply with a hearty NO. I have come to trust in the literary compost bucket that is my brain, to know that if I forget something, it either wasn't meant to go in the novel, or it will come back at another time when I am actually working somewhere in the text that it will fit. Great ideas recur. And recur. And recur. Trust the process.

This is a lineage of my Grandmother's family, written sometime before 1857. Even mundane objects can be considered art.

Let me digress for a moment. The irony here is that the notes for this post, scribbled in a Tim Horton's on the back of a letter for work, were somewhere lost this afternoon, and I have not only remembered most of what I wanted to say, but can expand on it. It has fermented.

In answering the original question, of what makes great writing, the closest I can get to a definitive answer is this: It is story, yes. Plot is important, and wrapping up loose ends to a climax. It is compelling character, and the involvement of real, dirt-grit emotions, true, but that doesn't make great writing. The subtle act of choosing our words so carefully that it borders on obsession, that is what makes good writing great.

Great novels are like sex. If a writer is to just go for the gusto, without lingering on that which excites, with no room for play or real emotions, if they don't linger on every stage of the story to explore, to drive the story on with real engagement, then it's not enjoyable for anyone.

Which makes me wonder why novice writers want to rush this process. In rushing, we blow past what we really want to say. We miss the condensation of our ideas into that which is exactly what we mean, and we lose our opportunity to be eloquent.

My first novel took twelve years from the first story published in a literary magazine in Montreal to publishing. I wrote the first draft with an old manual Royal typewriter from the 1950's. There is something immediate about the careful clack-clack-clack on pristine paper, repeated page by page until the novel existed. It is a form of art in itself. I still have the stack of messy paper, in a box in the basement. It is art in the same way that a painting is - it will never exist as an original in any other form.

I painted this in 1992, and have lost my skill at painting. There will never be another like it.

So here is the advice for writers that inevitably comes with a post about writing. Find your hands-on muse. In the tower cranes I used to get grease on me, like a badge of honour, proof that you can do it the slow way, the right way, just as typesetters from the 1800's could be identified by the ink under their fingernails. Get dirty. I dare you. Bake your text into a clay tablet. Cut up a goose quill and find out what it was like to write in the 1400's. Make your own ink. At very least, buy a fountain pen. If you slow down your writing, the actual process of your writing, you may discover what it is to savour the words instead of spilling them.

My wife, Jennifer's, blog can be found here:
Cleverly Disguised as Cake

And my first novel, squeakyclean, here:
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