Word City has a raft of brilliant and talented editors. I joined them just over a year ago and have been humbled by their expertise and commitment. So, this month I asked the team to share their moments of epiphany: the piece of writing advice that changed them and helped them develop during the long, often rocky, and always endless journey of becoming a better writer. What they have shared is fascinating, generous and insightful. I hope you enjoy it!
The first piece of advice comes from Managing Editor Darcie Friesen Hossack and is a fascinating take on structure:
My first writing teacher was Giller-finalist Sandra Birdsell. After a desperate struggle with my short stories, Sandra told me to look at everyone and everything contained in them like a lawyer seeking truth at trial (or at least like a lawyer seeking a version of the truth!). She instructed me to cross-examine each character, each scene, action, item and colour until I understood how and why they all belonged. It was the beginning of an awakening for me, because after a few successful stories, and not knowing how I had made them work, I now had a method to understand what I had done and needed to do again. I still use Sandra’s advice, although instead of a legal framework, I tend to look at storytelling through the lens of a journalist, asking Who, Where, What, When and Why as I write. Why is always my favourite, and the deepest, well to draw from.
Next up is Sylvia Petter, Word City’s Contributing Editor for Fiction. She offers us “Romancing the rhinestone”:
In 1997, I attend the Summer Workshop run by the Humber School for Writers at Humber College in Toronto, Canada, and worked for an intensive week with Wayson Choy, author of The Jade Peony. At this workshop we learnt how to revise our stories, how to pare things down and give setting to our images.
Nugget: Only have one wonderful metaphor per page, at the most: one perfect diamond stands out much more than a necklace of rhinestones.
If you enjoyed Sylvia’s advice above, and I know I, for one, will definitely be applying this to my poems, you can read more gems here in one of Sylvia’s articles:
Next is Lori D. Roadhouse, our Consulting Editor. This is heartfelt advice indeed:
I am very fortunate to have had many people guiding me and motivating me to be a writer, right from early childhood. My parents were both avid readers, and taught me to read before I was three. I have fond memories of Mom taking us by bus to the only library in my hometown. Mom worked in the school library, and always brought home exciting and challenging books to pique my interest. My teachers were always asking me to compose an essay or poem for some school assembly, and my school friends would ask me to write a poem to commemorate a crush, a new relationship, or a break-up. Most of my school yearbooks feature at least one of my poems, and I even have a book called Easter Bunny Stories, published by my Grade 1 teacher, which has my first published piece! I have just retired as a reading and literacy professional, and spent most of my adult career promoting reading and literacy to all ages of humans, beginning in infancy. Early literacy is essential to reading proficiency, which is the key to writing success.
Clara Burghelea is Word City’s Managing Editor for Poetry whose wise words on recurring themes and revision really resonated with me:
I was first told to find, name and explore my obsessions, those themes/subjects that kept showing up in my poetry. With that in mind, I had to embrace them and then make sure that although they were recurrent, I had to always find a different form and language to express them. It was a surprising moment since I had no idea I had to turn inwards and do a little bit of soul checking.
Another thing that got stuck with me was the importance of revision and how each poem had to shape and shift several times before reaching its potential. And even then, once the poem ended up in print, it was ok to have second thoughts and rethink/reimagine a different form for the poem.
In brief, poetry writing is, to a certain extent, about acceptance and generosity to the work and us. This also refers to the way we read the poetry of others and how we strive to create a safe, common place where we are allowed to err and grow together.
Geraldine Sinyuy, Word City’s Contributing Editor for Critical Reviews explains how the concept of “write what you know” came at just the right time for her work:
I started writing in my early teens. I was a passionate reader of every piece of writing I came about. I even memorised and said many passages of the books I read by heart. I wrote poems and short stories in my teens. Since my orientation of written literature was mostly European books where I read about the daily life and topography of these people in the books I read, I wanted to reproduce stories that spoke about similar people in similar settings. Consequently, while I was in secondary school, I met Tangyie Peter Suh-Nfor who became interested in my poems and short stories. I became the guest speaker of the radio program: “Literary Workshop: A Program for Creative Writing and Literary Criticism” which he ran. When I handed him one of my short stories which I had written after reading The Basket of Flowers by Christoph von Schmid and a lot more books by the Ladybird Publishing House, the man discovered that my diction and setting were far from my Cameroon African setting. I talked about castles and cottages, snow and hamburgers, meadows and lawns. Even the names of the characters in my story were foreign names. Tangyie Peter Suh-Nfor told me to contextualize my writing. He said, “Write about the things that people here can recognize. This is because you have not travelled. When you will travel, you will understand.” That made writing much easier for me since I now write from my own foundation. I recently attended a meeting held by the North West / West Anglophone Cameroon Writers Association during which one of the writers shared a piece on writing tips. He mentioned audience as one of the things we should put into consideration when writing. That point on audience made me to share my experience with Tangyie Suh-Nfor and how my early writings were fed by the settings, peoples, cultures, and beliefs of the faraway lands which I read about in books.
Olga Stein is Word City’s Contributing Editor for Creative Non-fiction. She shares her steep learning curve and offers generous insights that every writer can take to heart:
As a young girl, I wrote poems and short stories. Then, once I started university, I put aside my creative writing like some beloved set of brushes and paints. I had to focus on doing well in my political science and philosophy majors, which meant honing my essay writing skills. Sure, literature courses were part of my degree, but my English studies were to be a minor part of my program. That ‘minor’ designation went on to shape my general attitude toward every type of creative writing for decades; I thought that there was no room or time for it amid the ‘serious work’ I had to do. As a college and university instructor in literature and the humanities, I tend to want to kick myself now and then for having believed such guff in the first place. Among the things I’ve learned during my more recent scholarly adventures is that one of the most magnificent literary critics in human history, Longinus, praised the philosopher Plato as a poet in his On the Sublime (dated to the 1st century AD). Some 1700 centuries later, Percy Bysshe Shelley did the same in A Defence of Poetry (published in 1840). Perhaps more fascinating still is that both Longinus and Shelley referred to Moses as a poet. Surely one implication of this is that truth requires poetics, or that the deepest truths are things that are felt, experienced—rather than probed or calculated with a compass.
On a more practical note, I received helpful advice when writing my dissertation from my supervisors at York University. Allan Weiss, for example, kept stressing that the dissertation should do rather than announce to readers its intentions. Separate but related advice came from my main supervisor, Susan Warwick, who urged me to make declarations rather than timidly hypothesize that something was likely to be the case or that one or another conclusion may be justified. She also reminded me not to end paragraphs with quotes—that is, not to let someone else have the last say in something of my making. I’ve grown increasingly grateful for their assistance. In hindsight, this advice goes to the heart of what it means to create anything, which is kind of like asking that others let you speak up in a room full of people already engaged in fascinating conversation. It takes a lot of courage to impose on other people’s time and mental energies, and to justify making such demands to oneself.
For the longest time, I was acutely aware that anything I write and expect others to read was more of an imposition than an offering. I still feel that way, but now I have the confidence to do it anyway because I know that I wouldn’t present my work without investing thought and effort into that small creation. Everything we do involves an overcoming—of ourselves. I know that every writer knows this, yet here I am saying it anyway. Why? To remind others and myself that what we do involves struggle, but that when we take time to look around, we see others—equipped to the hilt with the same gear—making the same arduous climb.
A big thank you to all the editors above for their generosity in sharing this advice. It got me thinking about my own journey and how, five years ago, on a residential writing course, I had a tutorial with Caroline Bird. Caroline is a remarkable poet and an incredible tutor. She had interesting and constructive things to say about my poetry but one piece of advice has really stayed with me. She suggested that I could make my poetry “less well-behaved”. Now, every time I write, Caroline is on my shoulder whispering this advice as I push hard at boundaries, try to make the white space around the words work as hard as the actual words, and take more risks in how I layer my work and what I reveal. I will always be grateful to her!
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