"Writing is a mysterious process, and this vagueness about it makes it into a mystique. Writing is so various; it rises up from so many curiously undetectable springs, it has so many contradictory intentions, and critical judgement swings so wildly that what is good writing in one decade is execrable in the next.
"Like every mystique, it has its sets of shibboleths, its injunctions and freedoms, some of them true or untrue, helpful or harmful, and a good many constitute a systematic discouragement for the beginning writer. Let me mention a few of these myths.
"Writing is a performance. This statement has the impact of aphorism, and aphorism is something we must fix with a wary eye. It sounds good; therefore it must be true. Most writers will say that writing is a matter of groping your way to some kind of truth, an act of exploration. Joan Didion plainly said that she writes so she can know what she is thinking, and V.S. Pritchett, a writer I particularly admire, said that he wrote so he could feel out the surface of what he is and where he lives. Notice the implicit modesty of these statements. And notice the moderate though not unintelligent voice. And notice how these assessments remove the burden some writers feel that they must make every word shimmer and every insight dazzle. Survey the whole field of fiction and you will see that pyrotechnics are only a small part of it. There is a great deal of moving people around and listening to what they are saying.
"Another injunction, a double one this time. All fiction is a form of autobiography. And the command: Write about what you know. This is a serious problem for a beginning writer since there's a good chance he undervalues what he knows and a good chance, too, that he doesn't want to risk exposure. Writers of course draw on their own experiences, but the fact is, few draw directly. As Alice Munro wrote in an essay entitled 'What is Real' in the magazine Canadian Forum, she requires for her fiction a portion of actual experience that acts as a kind of starter dough -- I'm assuming you're familiar with bread-baking terminology. John Irving, a writer I have grave reservations about, said in an essay that his writing comes out of the act of revising and redeeming actual experience. Pritchett goes all the way, saying a fiction writer's first duty is to become another person.
"One of the most discouraging admonitions is this: Don't write until you have something to say. How often have you heard that one? Clearly everyone has something to say, whether she writes it down or not. You don't get to the age of six without knowing fear or intense happiness. You don't get to the age of twelve without having suffered. You don't arrive at eighteen without knowing what it is to love someone or, just as painful, not to love someone. Everyone has something to say; it may not be codified or arranged in the neat linear patterns of philosophy or the point of view of political commitment or as a moral conviction, but the raw material is there, the 'something' to write about.
"There's a novel in everyone. You've heard this one. It's a myth that has suffered misinterpretation. There probably is material enough and more in every life, but does this mean that anyone, given time, can write a novel? Time is what you sometimes hear people say they need. In fact, I have heard of one writer who got so tired of hearing people say 'I'd write a book if I had the time,' that when he came to write his autobiography he titled it I Had Time. Time isn't enough. Skills of observation and skills of language (attention to rhythm, extension of vocabulary and distortion of syntax) are required. A feeling for structure. Stamina -- for it takes an extraordinary effort to write even a bad novel or completed short story.
"Finishing has always seemed important to me. The end of a story is as important as the process. The feeling of completion, however imperfect, is what makes art -- when we feel something being satisfied or reconciled or surrendered or earned."
About the artist:
The imagery today is by Jana Heidersdorf, a young illustrator and animator in Germany whose art is inspired by folklore, fantasy literature, and the natural world. Her work is filled with animals, birds, and various forms of aquatic life, viewed through the lens of myth, surrealism, and the darker side of fairy tales. "There is mystery in unpredictability and wildness," she says. "I have an undeniable romantic side that idealizes the rawness and chaos of nature, especially opposed to our need as humans to categorize and order everything. One of the reasons I primarily like to draw animals, or at least non-humans such as mermaids, is that we cannot apply our set morals to them. They can be scary or dangerous, but never evil. That’s something that fascinates me."
Words: The passage above is from Startle and Illuminate: Carol Sheilds on Writing, edited by Anne and Nicholas Giardini (Random House Canada, 2016). All rights reserved by the author's estate.
Pictures: Jana Heidersdorf's art above includes illustrations from her "Raven Brothers" series, inspired by the Grimms' fairy tale The Seven Ravens, and from her "100 Mermaids" project. Identification can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artist.