Geoff Hancock, former editor of the now-defunct Canadian Fiction Magazine, wrote an essay called “Alchemy and Opening the Mail.” The gist: he knew a great piece of writing when it hit him. Most rules of writing centre around what not to do. What to leave out, like “ings” and filters. Rules might help bad writing become good writing. What defines a piece of great writing?
What I’m looking for has to do with heart. Great writing writes without a veil. It reaches inside and asks “Are you honest of each word?” It crosses out every one lie on the page. I’m talking diction. Subject matter. Moral stance. Syntax. To do otherwise, to write looking over our shoulder, is, I think, to write with what American author and instructor John Gardner referred to as a kind of frigidity.
Next to my kitchen table where I write, I have a piece of paper tacked up on a cork board. It says, “All chips in,” in red ink. It means to write holding nothing back. Think of running a race. Saving a friend. Having five minutes left to live. I try to write the kind of story I want to read. Not writing what others want to hear. Or writing what a judge wants to read. Seriously, what does she know? (And, yes, I’m mocking myself, here.)
The author of a winning story has written what he or she knows to be true, a phrase Bill Gaston often tells his students. Write what the story needs. Write what sounds right rhythmically to the sentence, and also because emotion carries its own rhythm. Write what your character tells you, because you know this character. Most bad writing is about fear.
When I look back at the progression of my work, starting with journals, through to my submissions to lit mags, onto my university studies, and beyond, I can see my journey from bad writing to better writing to okay writing. Great writing doesn’t follow a don’t-do list. It has heart and appeals to the senses and loves language and most of all, isn’t scared. When you ask me what I am looking for, it’s the same thing as asking me what great writing is or what it is I try to accomplish (mostly unsuccessfully) every time I sit down to write.
What is your view of writing contests in general? What is their importance, or lack thereof?
Contests. As a way for writers to practice the art of cultivating a thick skin, they’re not bad. Writers do better in the world if their relationship to their work is solid and not swayed too much by winning or losing contests. Which isn’t to say don’t enter them, or eschew sending work to literary magazines or trying to get agents or book deals, or grants. Submitting one’s work is part of the game if one wants make a living writing. However, separating one’s self-worth from the work can be difficult.
The Journey Prize appears to have changed your life, very much for the better. If you could recommend one thing to aspiring writers submitting their work with crossed fingers, what would it be?
To view a win in terms of its strategic value, but nothing more. After all, if a loss says nothing negative about your work, then, conversely, how can a win say something great? Aim for balance, and always be thankful for what you have.
At what point in your life did you become aware that writing was something you loved to do and could also do extremely well? What inspired you to pursue it as a career?
I grew up writing. I have journals going back to the time I could print, and even before that, when I misspelled words like cat. I became inspired to pursue it as a career when I had a brush with mortality. You figure out what you want to do and you do it with all your might. Wanting to write was the no-brainer. Buying time to do it has always been the trickier part of the equation. But the day I become aware that writing is something I can do extremely well, I’ll let you know.
“Floating Like The Dead”, your sensational collection of short stories, has been incredibly well-received by the literary population. Short stories are often a form that isn’t widely popular. Do you prefer writing in this form more so than a novel or other types of fiction?
I wish they sold better. I love the short story form and the way they seem akin to the poem in the sense that you bring a focused kind of reading attention to the line. I was chatting with a writer the other day, who is both a prize-winning novelist and short story writer. I’ve been trying to write a novel and I was explaining to her my initial struggle in switching to the longer form. “I thought the novel would essentially be just a longer short story,” I told her. She told me she thought the novel had more in common with the screenplay. Its form is essentially dramaturgical. And that’s when I realised why I’d been having so many structural difficulties with my new project.
The poem and the short story are cousins and the screenplay and the novel are cousins and I’d like to write poems, novels, more short stories, and children’s books.
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