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In Writing Life, fifty celebrated authors reveal surprising truths about what it means to be a writer, and about the sparks that can result when ...
In Writing Life, fifty celebrated authors reveal surprising truths about what it means to be a writer, and about the sparks that can result when writing and life intersect — and sometimes collide. Provocative, candid, often very funny, personal, and passionately engaged, this inspired collection will take readers deep into the heart of the writing life.
Margaret Atwood revisits how she came to write five of her novels; Russell Banks reveals why he doesn’t do research; John Berger and Michael Ondaatje discuss gate-crashing characters and the magical instant when a work begins; Joseph Boyden takes time out from promoting his first novel to go moose-hunting; Margaret Drabble considers the “wickedness” of stealing material from real life; Howard Engel describes the stroke that took away his ability to read, and where that left him as a writer; Yann Martel reflects on the impossible, necessary challenge of writing about the Holocaust; Lisa Moore shows how crucial the mess and vitality of family life are to her writing; Alice Munro shares why she might “give up” writing; Rosemary Sullivan negotiates the risks and responsibilities that come with telling the story of a life; Susan Swan wrestles with historical fact, fiction, and Casanova.
Proceeds from this volume will go to PEN Canada in support of its vital work on behalf of writers in prison around the world and in defence of freedom of expression both in Canada and abroad.
Writing Life Contributors List
John Ralston Saul
Each of the essays collected here opens a door into a large space in which the partial answers given by individual writers gather and circulate. It’s quite a crowd, and the opportunity this book affords for access to their conversation seems to me extraordinary. For each reader, even before the door is opened, there will be some points of entry that are more compelling than others — simply because of the name on the door, the chance to hear what a writer in whom we are particularly interested has chosen to say. And, of course, readers will like some pieces better than others; and their preferences will vary, which is just as it should be. But for me it is the book as a whole — the combination of all these separate voices, the often startling individual decisions made as to subject or tone — that speaks most powerfully to the writing life. It is as if each voice helps the others to tell a larger story that is both fiercely individualistic and communal.
The curiosity many of us have about writers, both en masse and as individuals, seems to me an entirely natural thing. It follows from our having touched their minds, from having had our minds touched by them, in our capacity as readers. The two previous PEN Canada anthologies, Writing Away (1994) and Writing Home (1997), had wide readerships and raised a good deal of money for PEN Canada in part because of that curiosity — the desire for a new sort of encounter with the contributing writers, a fresh angle of vision on the writers themselves. The stature of the contributors, general interest in writing about travel and the idea of home, and the quality of the essays themselves all contributed to the success of these anthologies. But there was something else at work as well, something that helped them to deliver on the promise of a significant encounter between writer and reader. In the Introduction to Writing Home, I put it this way: “The attraction of Writing Away as a title had partly to do with the idea of ‘away’ as a direction in which writing points. But if that is one pole for the energy of writing, surely home is its other. We yearn both ways. ‘Away’ and ‘home’ are the destinations of writing, the places we get to inside ourselves through writing and also through reading.” By indirection, as it turned out, these essays spoke eloquently both to the writing life and to the immense personal ground that is shared by writers and readers. This time, I thought it would be interesting to ask writers to address the subject of writing directly.
Writing Life (like the titles of the previous anthologies) is a title that works grammatically in two ways, with “writing” as an adjective modifying the noun “life,” and with “life” as the noun object of the verbal “writing.” So our title refers to the writing life — what it’s like — or to writing about life, and the intersection of writing and life in either case. I was endlessly surprised by the individual essays as they came in. I would be astonished that this particular writer should say that, stunned by a writer’s frankness, surprised by the choice of subject or the way it was approached — or simply knocked out by the quality of the writing.
I was not surprised that the book as a whole would reveal great intensity of feeling about life and about writing as a vocation, or that it would speak so forcefully to the relationship between reading and writing. But I was impressed by how differently these passions were articulated and by how they are felt to combine and cohere as the heart of the writing life. Again and again, we encounter the writers’ foundational and continuing experience as readers, their wonder at the imagination and skill of other writers — other people — that somehow, miraculously, succeed in taking us into the presence of life. We see how that feeds the desire to write, which becomes a need as the writer’s own creative powers are discovered and developed; and we see how the act of writing holds out the promise of an ever-deepening connection to the heart of life.
I believe very strongly in the force that unites writers and readers. When people in university English departments were first discussing with great enthusiasm the Death of the Author — a death, reported by Roland Barthes, that accorded new power and freedom to critics and readers working on the author’s textual remains — I rebelled. I didn’t want the power to be taken away from writers and given to me. I didn’t want the author to be dead, or exiled from the relationship between reader and text; for me the idea of the writer as a human being — the individual, living or dead, who wrote these words and was mysteriously present in them — was indispensable. There was the book, there was me, and there was the person who wrote the book; I read alone, and the writer writes alone, but the words connect us. Take the writer out of my own reading experience, erase the splendid fact of a person needing to write just these words, and my lights would go out. The world, depersonalized and bereft of urgent voices, would shrink horribly. In truth, though, the theory of the Death of the Author had no power over me. My faith was too strong. Still, I was worried about other readers, especially new, young readers, about what they would lose if this death sentence on the writer as secret sharer were to persist. And I wrote an essay called “Fear of the Open Heart” in which I sketched out something I called a theory of intimacy and tried to describe the very peculiar and precious kind of relationship with a writer that may exist in a reader’s heart.
So this book is for readers who are curious about writers — about particular writers, but also about writers generally. Taken as a whole, it offers a map of the writer’s journey, revealing the complex interplay between the writing and the reality it seeks to express, at various stages both of the writer’s life and of the creation of particular works. The individual essays provide pieces of a larger story, casting light for us on the diverse phases and aspects, tribulations and satisfactions, and anxieties and ambitions of the writing life. Together, they reveal a profound, inescapable commitment to what writing can do — to the intersection of writing and life, to the heightened sense of life that writing can deliver. And this is the groundwork that connects writers to readers who are not writers, to all other writers, and to anyone who wants to write.
If all of this sounds too desperately earnest, or idolatrous or mystical or whatever else, I can only ask for your indulgence. The anthology itself is brilliantly varied. It is, for example, often wildly funny. There are raucous complaints about interruption or the need to bend oneself out of shape to promote the writing. There is also deep appreciation of the ordinary, personal life lived outside of writing, its wonderful mess and vitality, the blessed relief it offers, its insistent, competing claims and essential complementarity. There is tremendous self-doubt and palpable misery, but also calm assurance and glee at success. There is ample praise of other writers, but there are also comic blasts of the competitive spirit. The work of writing is seen to bring everything from agony to bliss. The solitary and collaborative and public and political dimensions of the writer’s life are explored, together with the life that is abundantly shared with family and friends. We are given detailed accounts of how a particular work came into being, or the special challenges it entailed. Several of the essays speak to the risks and responsibilities that must be negotiated when writers borrow from the lives of people close to them or address a foreign culture or deal with historical fact. Some speak about the research, about other kinds of excavation, about imaginative as opposed to factual truth, about profound experiences that precede the actual writing, and about scruples and doubts and the arduous process of revision. Several address the gap between one’s first immaculate conception and the achievement of the work itself.
The precariousness of the writer’s life is made very clear by the essays in this book, a precariousness that is not, as one might expect, related primarily to the notorious difficulty of making a living from writing. Hard as those issues are, they are seen to pale next to the precariousness of the writing itself, the passionate, often frustrated will of the writer to get it right, to achieve the vision, to write life truly. Often, in reading the essays that make up Writing Life, I found myself thinking about what a splendid but impossible profession this is, how very different it is from most others.
What makes it so terribly hard, I think, is the lure of greatness — and the special difficulty for the writer of distinguishing between success in life and success in work, because “life” is what one writes, because one writes against death, because writing may or may not endure, because life is always on the line. Writers are led to the desire for greatness by their knowledge of what writing can do; and the passion for excellence — including the hope of greatness — is a necessity of the writing life. Many people are ambitious about their work, believe in its value, want it to be first-rate; and reputation and the respect of our peers matters to us all. But something else is afoot in the case of writers, something that is externally imposed and that must be fought against. An expectation of fame exists in the public imagination for writers (and artists generally), an expectation that does not exist for teachers or doctors or engineers or business people. The work of doctors, for example, is understood by everyone to be important, and it is well-paid; everyone knows that we need a great many highly skilled doctors. But what of writers? What of the vast majority of writers who make very little money from work that is read by very few? Are they important, or only the few who achieve fame? Do we need the many only for the sake of discovering the few, perhaps the very few? Is writing a lottery with long odds, a good bet if you win, but largely useless (quixotic or self-indulgent) if you do not? And to what extent is “winning” in the public eye a true measure of excellence?
Writers know that they must be on guard against the poison that follows from an interiorized need to win the Giller Prize or the Governor General’s Award or the Griffin Poetry Prize or the Booker or the Nobel, or to sell vast numbers of their books. At the same time, they have a perfectly natural, honorable desire for the work to be read and its merit recognized. They also need to make a living. They want to do so, if possible, from writing what they need to write, giving to that as much of their time as they can. And all of this means that prizes matter and that writers must care about and participate in the effective promotion of their work. Seeing how writers negotiate this perilous terrain is one of the many fascinations of this book.
Looking back now at Writing Life, I am struck by the honesty and courage and rigour of the writers assembled here. Their absolute dedication to the writing itself, to writing truly about life, moves me deeply. And I love the humour and self-deprecation and ordinary humanity that shines through as well, the leavening — the lightness of touch — that complements and takes nothing away from the seriousness of the writer’s mission. My hope is that readers will be similarly moved and delighted.
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The goal of Writing Life, the reason that so many people have worked so hard to make it possible, is to raise badly needed money for the work of PEN Canada. Ultimately, of course, it is the readers who may choose to buy this book who will determine the success of our common venture. And so I want here, finally, to tell you something about PEN Canada and its work.
PEN Canada is one of the most active of the 141 centres of International PEN operating around the world. We are a human rights organization of writers and other supporters of free speech, and our mission is to defend “freedom of opinion and the peaceable expression of such opinion.” Enshrined both in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that is vital to the protection of all other human rights. We see this every day in the work for which PEN is best-known: our struggle on behalf of writers in prison around the world. Overwhelmingly, these are people living under oppressive regimes who have chosen to speak out about abuses in their own countries. Jail is intended to silence them and hide them away.
Our primary goal is to secure the writers’ release from prison, and to do this we mount various public campaigns and seek the support of our own government to exert pressure on foreign governments. The close monitoring we provide and the very public light shed on the case of each imprisoned writer adopted as an honorary member of PEN Canada also sometimes helps to protect the writer from torture, or to ensure that medical help is provided or that the writer’s family is not also victimized. Some of our members become “minders,” writing letters to these writers that let them know someone far away is watching closely and trying to help. A huge amount of our energy is directed to this, and we often fail. I think, for example, of the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed in Nigeria about a decade ago on trumped-up charges, but in fact for his fiercely articulate support of his people’s most basic human rights. An intense political campaign was mounted to prevent that outrage, a campaign in which PEN Canada played a leading role. I remember his words of encouragement to us, not long before his death by hanging, his concern to assure PEN that its efforts had not been wasted, whatever the outcome. But there are clear successes too: in the last three years, PEN Canada has helped to secure the release of twenty-seven unjustly imprisoned writers. And all of it matters.
The two other principal areas of PEN Canada’s work are home-based. For many years, an essential part of our mission has been to stand up for freedom of expression whenever threats to it have arisen within our own country. We take action, for example, in cases where written material is seized at the border, books are banned, journalists are compelled to reveal their sources, or proposed or enacted legislation poses a threat to free speech. And in recent years we have taken on a third major area of activity in support of writers in exile. In this work, PEN Canada has been the world leader, chairing this effort for International PEN and making great strides within Canada. There has been a good deal of talk in Canada about the desperate situation of immigrants whose credentials are not recognized here. Our Writers in Exile program addresses the particularly difficult case of writers who have fled oppressive regimes (often with the assistance of PEN) to take up a new life in Canada. Writing, as we know, is a precarious profession at the best of times. Imagine, then, what it is to try to begin again, often in a new language, and without the support of one’s fellow writers or any recognition of one’s past achievements. Imagine, too, how much the rest of us can learn from hearing the stories of these writers in exile. PEN Canada seeks, in a variety of ways, to support and welcome them into our community. (For example, with assistance from PEN Canada, twenty-three Canadian universities, colleges, libraries, and towns have so far provided placements for these writers.)
This is our work — which all the writers in this book and about seven hundred more writers across Canada have chosen to support with astonishing generosity and in many different ways. It is work funded entirely through members’ dues and fundraising efforts such as this one. You can help by buying and urging others to buy this book — and also, very importantly, by choosing to become a member of PEN Canada. Please think hard about this, and consult the membership information you will find at the back of this book. A high priority for us now, for political as well as financial reasons, is to increase dramatically the number of readers who are members of PEN Canada. The more members we have, the better our chances of being heard.
And it just feels right, the bringing together of writers and readers — secret sharers in the pain and affirmation of life — in the work of PEN Canada. I think of something Saul Bellow said once about fiction, that it lacks everything if it lacks a sympathetic devotion to the life of somebody else. We do not write or read only to understand our pre-existing selves; we do it, we engage in this private, mysterious form of communication, in order to become larger somehow, to feel and embrace more fully the reality of others. We are all in varying ways and degrees in exile or in prison; we are all in varying measure stifled in the expression of what is in our hearts. But sometimes there are words that pass through prison walls, words that by connecting us can help to free us. And PEN Canada’s work merely takes this truth about the ordinary writing/reading life into the high danger zone, into a space where we know that human lives are literally at stake, and where we know that we must act. We act in solidarity with one another, and ask you to join us.