Category Archives: From the Desk of the Writer-in-Residence

Writing the Necessary

The second of two posts reflecting on the role of the writer in today’s world, and why what we write matters—urgently.

The Role of the Writer, Part 2: Writing the Necessary

Sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror—for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us. – Harold Pinter, 2005 Nobel Prize speech

When I was a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada listserv, there was a regular debate about the topics allowable for discussion. Some writers felt that the listserv should only be concerned with “writing” matters—for example, copyright, freelance rates, information about publishers and agents, etc. Other writers argued that everything was of potential interest to writers, and that we shouldn’t shy away from issues that weren’t strictly literary.

I happen to believe that writers no longer have the luxury—if they ever did—of walling themselves off from the world. In fact most writers have no choice. If you live in Egypt or China or Colombia, where writers who fall afoul of the government are regularly imprisoned, you cannot help but be aware of political issues. Writers in many countries often find themselves having to write in disguised ways in order to address the issues where they live.

North American writers are, for the most part, relatively fortunate. Few of us go to prison for our writings. But the truth is that most current North American literary fiction has become too safe. It risks too little. The American blogger Brian A. Oard refers to our fiction as “suburban realism . . . narrow and domesticated . . .” The Canadian writer Mike Barnes calls it “duvet realism.”

Literary fiction today rarely deals with the “big issues,” as nineteeth-century fiction did. Which is odd, because we find ourselves facing unprecedented global crises, from intensifying climate change and massive species extinction to the corporate capture of governments and worldwide surveillance. “The inescapable failure of a society built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth’s living systems are the overwhelming facts of our existence,” says the Guardian columnist George Monbiot. “As a result, they are mentioned almost nowhere. They are the 21st century’s great taboo, the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbours . . .”

Surely it is writers, of all people, who should be addressing these issues in some way, or at the very least not ignoring them? This doesn’t mean writing didactic novels about what we ought to do. But it does mean recognizing where we are in history and what role writers might play in these troubling times.

“Some kinds of writing are morally impossible in a state of emergency,” say the writers and editors Kathleen Dean Moore and Scott Slovic. “Anything written solely for tenure. Anything written solely for promotion. Any shamelessly solipsistic project. Anything, in short, that isn’t the most significant use of a writer’s life and talents. Otherwise, how could it ever be forgiven by the ones who follow us, who will expect us finally to have escaped the narrow self-interest of our economy and our age?”

Two years ago Moore and Slovic issued a “call to writers,” asking them to respond to the planetary emergency of climate change. “There is essential work to be done in our roles as academics and writers, empowered by creative imagination, moral clarity, and the strength of true witness,” Moore and Slovic wrote. “[Writers] must write as if the planet were dying.” They continue: “Surely in a world dangerously slipping away, we need courageously and honestly to ask again the questions every author asks: Who is my audience—now, today, in this world? What is my purpose?”

That’s the question I’d like to leave readers with. As a writer, who is my audience, and what is my purpose? What kind of writing is necessary at this point in history, and how might that affect what I write about? Where do my particular imaginative landscapes fit, and how might they contribute, as all imagination and storytelling once did, to help people make sense of, and respond to, their world?

What is the most significant use of your life and talents? Or, as the poet Mary Oliver puts it:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Being the 2015–2016 Writer-in-Residence at the library has been a joy and a privilege. Thank you to all those who shared their work and their thoughts with me, whether by email, in person, or at a workshop.

Until April 30th you can reach me at After that you can reach me at

Happy writing to you all!


Resisting the disimagination machine

As I wind down my residency at the library, a two-part reflection on the role of the writer in today’s world: why we need the imagination more than ever, and why what we write matters—urgently.

The Role of The Writer, Part 1: Resisting the disimagination machine

“Paper is the strongest material in the world,” says the English writer Nadeem Aslam. “Things under which a mountain will crumble, you can place on paper and it will hold: beauty at its most intense; love at its fiercest; the greatest grief; the greatest rage.”

As writers, it is paper that we’ve traditionally entrusted with our words (even if today those words are sometimes virtual!) It’s paper sewn into books that holds the world’s memory, and fiction and poetry carry the history of the world’s imagination.

Yet imagination today seems to be under assault, or at the very least, suspect. We pay lip service to imaginative activity, but we also dismiss it as ‘daydreaming,’ ‘fancy,’ ‘building castles in the air.’

In fact we only really value the imagination if it can be harnessed to some money-making end. We call this “being practical.” And we behave as though the practical world of reason and logic and planning is the only real one.

Remember Thomas Gradgrind, the hard-nosed school superintendent in Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times? “Facts alone are wanted in life,” he announces to a terrified class of school children. “Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

Gradgrind is a caricature, but his utilitarian approach to life has become, if anything, even more entrenched in contemporary society. The writer and teacher Henry Giroux has a term for our modern world: the “disimagination machine.” We seem to have forgotten that we humans have used our creativity to invent everything from tools to clothing to language, and that nothing exists without the imagination.

The American cultural thinker Arlene Goldbard has another term for our time. She calls it “Datastan.” It’s a place controlled by data, by statistics, by the logical mind. It’s a world that has no time for the imagination, which it considers irrelevant, if not downright dangerous.

But in a society that is always teaching us to forget, we need the world of imagination to remember who we are. We’ve always used the arts to express something otherwise inexpressible: our deepest emotional and spiritual selves. Arlene Goldbard calls this world “Storyland,” and it comes alive each time a reader opens a book and plunges in.

Storyland is every bit as real as Datastan (something we know when we lose ourselves in the world of a book). In fact, it’s more real. What we call reality changes—the world of Datastan didn’t exist a hundred years ago—but the world of Storyland, the world of the imagination, has always existed.

Storyland is a place that all writers, and all readers, are invested in preserving because it’s where our minds are at their freest. It’s a place where readers and writers collaborate in creating those fictional worlds, those theatres of the mind where we are nourished by the real and the authentic.

Storyland is also a place where we gain strength to resist the forces that want to control our minds and our beliefs and ultimately our souls. It’s a place that reminds us who we actually are—storytelling animals who are part of the natural world and the whole cosmos, and whose bodies are literally created from the elements of stardust.

When we live in the world of Datastan most of the time, it can be hard to find paths that take us out of it. But there are many such paths and many secret doors, and we can share with each other—we can whisper to each other—the names of those doorways. That’s how, as writers and readers, we resist the disimagination machine.

Next blog post (April 14): The Role of the Writer, Part 2: Writing the Necessary

It’ll be my last post as the 2015–2016 Writer-in-Residence. You can contact me until April 30th at




Inspiration, perspiration, and plain old sweat

“Do you only write when you’re inspired?” someone once asked me at a book reading.

“Where do you draw your inspiration from?” a reader of this blog asks. “How do you write when you’re not inspired?”

Ahhh… the vexed issue of inspiration! Has anything ever been more romanticized or misconstrued in the artistic life?

The answer to the first question is no, but I wish it was yes. It would be wonderful to be consumed with divine fire every time you sat down at your desk, dashing off work in a fevered trance.

That’s certainly how I thought writers wrote, back when I was much younger—a morning’s worth of passion followed by an afternoon of answering fan mail and being interviewed by famous journalists.

Certainly my fantasy did not involve having to do laundry, though sadly that’s closer to the truth.

“There is a popular notion,” says Mason Currey, the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, “that artists work from inspiration—that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where, and artists channel this energy, or tap into it, or become the conduit for it.”

Which doesn’t mean, as Currey, explains, “that inspiration doesn’t exist, or that some work is not more inspired than others. It merely means that you should work each day regardless of whether you feel the urge to; it is the process of working itself that will give rise to new ideas [my emphasis]. And with steady application, you can expect to hit inspired patches from time to time.”

In other words, “inspiration” is not a one-time thing, a bolt from the blue that sends you rushing to your desk or wherever you write. Those flashes of illumination will also come while you’re working—“like striking matches in a dark cave that keep going out,” as one writer described it.

The initial inspiration—let’s call it the trigger moment—can come from anywhere, to answer my second questioner. The key is to learn to pay attention, to be alert to the world around you for what it might offer, whether it’s a memory, a dream, a story told by a friend, a photograph (the possibilities are endless).

That trigger moment must also begin to obsess you, to haunt you. For example, what was it about that young woman you saw on the street? Why do you remember her? And why was she wearing a fur coat on a hot day? You don’t know the answers, of course, so you have to write about her to find out.

William Faulkner famously described the inspiration for his novel The Sound and the Fury as the image of a little girl standing in the branches of a pear tree looking through her grandmother’s bedroom window and wearing dirty knickers.

But inspiration alone will not produce written work. As Currey says, “Waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration.”

He quotes the American painter Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”

No matter how exciting that initial ah-hah! may be, the writing only happens by actually sitting down to write. This may seem so obvious as to be ludicrous. But writers live in their heads a lot, and some of us convince ourselves for longer than we should that someday we will indeed write that magnificent novel that’s going to make our name. Someday. Not now, because we don’t have time, but someday, soon, there will be time…

The future, though has an alarming habit of turning into the present. Waiting for the right time, or divine fire, or whatever, is deadly. The time to begin is now, and that’s where the plain old sweat comes in. That initial inspiration may fade into oblivion, but you must keep faith with it by writing. As the French writer Colette used to say tartly to those who asked her for advice, “Who asked you to be happy? Work!”

Writing requires, above all, patience, tenacity, and perseverance, no matter the obstacles or the disappointments. It’s a matter of painstakingly acquired discipline, earned through repeated practice. As a practicing writer you learn that, whether you feel inspired or not—especially when not—you sit down at your desk anyway. Being a writer requires steady, diligent—and yes, unromantic—application.

So the next time you pick up a book in a bookstore and think, “Oh, if only I had that kind of inspiration … ,” remember that its writer sat down and wrote. And rewrote. And trusted that inspiration, when it was needed, would come.

If you’d like to get in touch, please contact me at


Next WIR blog post: April 4

The Big Questions

Now that you’re all practising the writerly self-care discussed in my last blog post, we’ll move on to the Big Questions!

The biggest of all, of course, is: How do I get published? Broken down into: Where do I submit my work? How do I find an agent? Do I need an agent? Etc.

Let me say off the top that these questions are a distraction for the developing writer. Think of yourself like an apprentice painter in, say, Leonardo da Vinci’s studio. Your job at this stage is to learn everything you can about your craft—by writing often, reading voraciously (including books about writing), and finding a support community of some kind. A writing course, a workshop, or an online group can provide feedback and help you feel less lonely.

Here’s the truth: The only way to get published is, first, to write a good—a stellar—book. Yes, mediocre work gets published, sometimes because the author is already a brand. But both publishers and agents will tell you that competition is fiercer than ever, especially if you’re starting out, and what they want is only the best, freshest, most original work.

Winnipeg reviewer Charlene Diehl, a writer and poet herself, says this about the books she reviews: “I’m on the lookout for writing that is fresh, authentic, arresting, and for a certain something that marks this book as a creature with its own force field, its own voice. It’s hard to define exactly what that “certain something” is, but it’s obvious to me when it’s there, and almost as obvious when it is missing. It’s not so much about whether the book is to my taste—often the books that call out to me are books I wouldn’t necessarily choose. It’s more about the distinct impression that I’m in the presence of a living thing, and it deserves my respect [emphasis added].”

Okay, so you’ve given it your best shot and you have this “living thing” in your hands. You’ve written and rewritten your novel umpteen times. Your writing group says it’s awesome. Your creative writing teacher says you should send it out. You’ve even hired a professional copy editor to make sure the grammar and punctuation are error-free (always a turnoff when not). What do you do next?

First, you do your research. A very good source for agents currently accepting manuscripts is Chuck Sambuchino’s Literary Agents Blog. Don’t let the term “literary” put you off if you’re writing horror or mystery or speculative fiction—many agents who take these are listed too. But you have to read carefully and make sure they’ll be interested in your genre of novel. Check their websites—don’t just rely on one blog source, as information dates quickly. A good Canadian source for agents (both Canadian and American) is Brian Henry’s blog Quick Brown Fox.

Second, you write your synopsis, which you can do while you’re assembling a list of agents to submit to. Sambuchino’s blog provides samples of synopses that succeeded in landing their author an agent or book deal. A synopsis is a summary of the highlights of your novel—its premise, its characters, its narrative arc—written in present tense. It should be a page to a page-and-a-half in length. Busy agents (or publishers, if you’re submitting there) don’t have time to read more, and will be put off by something overly long.

Writing a good synopsis can be almost as taxing as writing the novel. For a detailed how-to, see Jane Friedman’s excellent website. There’s plenty of other online sources too.

Once you start sending out, keep your submissions to three or four agents (or publishers) at a time. (Some agents and publishers will tell you on their website they don’t accept multiple submissions, but most will assume that writers do it anyway.) If  you get rejected, you can take another stern look at your novel before you send it out again to the next three or four. If you’re very lucky, you might get some feedback, or even a request to re-submit once you’ve revised.

Finally, persevere. I once heard the writer James Lee Burke describe how his agent sent out his fourth novel one hundred and eleven times before a publisher finally accepted it. In an ever more risk-averse era, agents and editors want to be sure that a book will sell, though the fact is that no one ever really knows. The first Harry Potter, for example, got rejected multiple times. (In that case J.K. Rowling had an agent, but was rejected by a number of publishers.)

Finally, accept that despite your best efforts your novel may not get published. Many writers write several novels before finally publishing one. You may have to stick yours in a drawer and go on to the next. It’s all part of that apprenticeship I talked about earlier. Ars longa, vita brevis, as the saying goes: Art is long, but life is short. It will take you a lifetime to learn your craft. You’ll always be learning more.

In fact, start your next novel or short story while you’re submitting. It’s always better to have several irons in the fire. But whether you’re accepted or not, keep a bottle of champagne in your fridge. If you’re accepted, call all your friends and writing colleagues and celebrate. If you’re not, break out the bubbly anyway, and toast your sheer grit, your determination, the fact you actually finished your book and risked its rejection out there in the cold cruel world.

And then… go back to your desk, sit down, and start writing.

If you’d like to submit a manuscript, request a consultation, or suggest a blog topic, please contact me at


Next WIR blog post: March 21

Writing past dark

I’ve stolen the title of this week’s blog entry from a book called Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life by Bonnie Friedman. (Remember, “Mediocre writers imitate; great writers steal”!)

“So much in the writer’s life used to torment me, but I could not talk about it,” says Friedman. “I felt wrong and ashamed . . . I assumed that the problems were unfixable (I was stupid) and also simply in the nature of writing (the craft demanded misery). Weren’t many writers depressives? Wasn’t the work itself famously onerous?”

Writers and artists seem particularly susceptible to envy, depression, fear of failure, loneliness, and self-loathing, among other dark beasts. We’re sensitive souls and yet we have to develop thick skins to deal with the inevitable rejections. But even before sending out our work, we’re often so busy rejecting ourselves that we’re doing the work of critics for them.

Friedman wrote the book for herself, she says, in order to avoid unnecessary suffering and to provide “a self-care kit for the long hike ahead”: “With unnecessary suffering, all that happens is that you squander the prize that others worked hard to bestow.” And she describes the enthusiasm and hunger with which other writers responded to her book.

The green-eyed monster is definitely one of the biggies. Sarah Manguso says “All writers will envy other writers, other writing. No one who reads is immune.” There’s plenty to be envious of—the apparently sudden fame, the five-figure book deal, the writer you knew in a creative writing class who has suddenly “made it.” Ah, those illusory goddesses of Fame and Fortune!

Yet few writers experience such “success.” Most are like the solitary figure described by the writer Rich Farrell: “The world sensationalizes and lionizes the exceptional case—that twenty-year-old writer with an uncanny wisdom—rather than the quiet tinkering monk, hard at a lifetime’s quiet work.”

Friedman points out that even Shakespeare felt envy (“Desiring this man’s scope, and that man’s art’”). As she says, “Shakespeare desired another’s art? Dear Lord, whose?”

Friedman’s book is essential reading for coping with these darker emotions that most writers are reluctant to acknowledge, let alone talk about. We’re only human, after all, and as we launch ourselves on the immense task of becoming writers (or simply finishing a manuscript), it’s easy to lose heart, to convince ourselves we’re not worthy, not among the chosen, not up to the task.

Worst of all, perhaps, as Friedman says, is “the suspicion that perhaps, after all, one is in fact deluded, unspecial, unmagical, that the map one is departing into will never bloom on the page into real almond blossoms and tumbling blue rivers and dank cathedrals.”

Like Friedman, I used to think that suffering came with the territory. Like most writers, I suspect, I’ve experienced all the dilemmas she identifies. “Most people wrongly assume that writerly self-care happens by itself,” says Friedman. “Caring for the writerly self is a decisive component in being able to keep writing, and writing better.” I’ve learned, belatedly, that you can be a writer AND learn to feel good about what you do rather than beating yourself up all the time.

Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life by Bonnie Friedman is available to order from McNally Robinson and other local bookstores. Please do NOT buy from Amazon. Support independents in order to support your local cultural community. (McNally’s has an online ordering option for those of you who live outside Winnipeg.)

If you’d like to submit a manuscript, request a consultation, or suggest a blog topic, please contact me at


Next WIR blog post: March 3

Revising and re-visioning

“What is your revision process,” asks a writer who came to see me about a manuscript, “and when do you know it’s done (is it ever done?)?”

A great question! Answering it, though, reminds me of the answer given by the writer Somerset Maugham about writing a novel: There are three rules for writing the perfect novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.

Writing is rewriting, as someone else once said. Revision is where a bunch of story seeds begin to come to life as a coherent whole. It’s an essential part of developing a manuscript. So here are a few tips (not rules!) that have worked for me.

  1. Set your first draft aside to “chill.” You want to put some distance between yourself and your story. I leave first drafts for at least a month, and often longer.
  2. Using a hard copy of your draft, or Track Changes online, go through it like an editor. Imagine you are reading it for the first time. Make comments and suggestions in the margin or on sticky notes. It can also be useful at this stage to make an outline of your novel. Keep it simple or you’ll get bogged down in the details. Be ruthless. As Hemingway said, “Kill all your darlings.” If a beautifully written scene doesn’t further the story, turf it.
  3. Open a new screen and begin your second draft anew. (My students are always horrified by this!) I usually have my first draft beside me in hard copy (so I can refer to notes). But your job now is to re-envision the work, and you can’t do that if you’re merely tinkering with the first draft. You may need to begin at a completely different point. You may be changing point of view or tense. Although some scenes or sections may end up more or less intact in your second draft, that needs to be because they really belong—not because you’re clinging desperately to them!
  4. Once you’ve reworked your draft, set it aside, as above, and repeat. I find I need a minimum of four major drafts (with many sections rewritten far more than that).
  5. I have a sense of “finishing” a work when I can’t take it any further by myself. At that point a writer needs either a very good first reader (someone who can read critically) or an editor. It’s worth it to pay an editor, especially as agents and publishing houses these days expect manuscripts to be essentially finished, with little need for in-house editing. You’ll also learn a lot from working with a professional editor. You can find one through the Manitoba Editors’ Association or the Editors’ Association of Canada. The Manitoba Writers’ Guild also runs a mentoring program that matches senior writers with “emerging writers with a clear commitment to writing.”

The poet W.H. Auden said “A poem is not so much finished as abandoned.” The same is true of the novel or story. Some writers get stuck—I’ve met those who’ve been working on the same novel for 20 years—but at some point we need to have the courage to let go, live with the work’s imperfections, and move on.

There are a gazillion books and websites on writing. This website has a useful and comprehensive list of steps to revising, including specific questions to ask of your work. Try out those tips that seem useful to you. You’ll gradually develop your own revising and editing process.

In A Passion for Narrative, the writer and teacher Jack Hodgins says that you write your final draft—and then you write your real final draft. In other words, just when you think you’re finished, you realize or discover something that needs work. Or feedback from a fellow writer or editor raises issues you hadn’t thought of. What do you do? You yell and scream and tear your hair out, of course—and then you buckle down to the next revision!


Next WIR blog post (Feb. 10): Fear, loathing and envy

Keeping the bum in the chair

For our first blog of the New Year, I’m going to talk about a topic suggested by a writer who came to see me for feedback.

“How do you stay motivated and focused so you can finish a project?” this writer asked, adding that “I have lists and lists of ideas for stories, but sitting down and completing one can be challenging!”

How do you get your butt in the chair and keep it there for long enough to write your story/novel/memoir?

When I started out as a writer, there were many mornings when cleaning the oven seemed more appealing. Writing is hard work—there’s no getting around it. In the beginning I found that sometimes I had to ‘trick’ myself into doing it. Here are some strategies for working on that pesky first draft.

  1. If possible, write at the same time every day or week. Make it a habit. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle.
  2. Begin with a regular ritual, one that works for you (e.g., having that second cup of coffee, reading a passage from a book on writing, taking a walk round the block). When the ritual is finished, go to your desk. (Or, if you’re the kind of writer who works best in cafés, go there.)
  3. I find the best way to get started is to read over what you wrote the day before and lightly edit. Whether you’re thrilled or horrified by what you wrote, keep going. Leave major revision to the next draft.
  4. If you hit a block (‘I’ve no idea what happens next’), try writing a different scene. Or step away from your desk and write somewhere else so it doesn’t feel like work. Another suggestion I’ve heard is to give your problem to the character. What is the character trying to tell you? Are you trying to impose a solution rather than allowing it to flow organically from the material?
  5. Allow yourself breaks. Stretch, get another coffee, whatever. I find I can write solidly, with focus, in two-hour ‘chunks,’ but everyone is different. (And yes, I do check my email!)
  6. Set a time or word limit. Once you’ve reached that, stop. It’s better to leave your desk when the writing is going well than when it’s fizzling out.
  7. Provide yourself with a ‘carrot’ or reward of some kind when you complete your day’s work. (Mine, unfortunately, tends to be something sweet to eat!)
  8. Some days will be less productive than others. C’est la vie. If you’re really struggling, leave it for another day. Sometimes you need to back off and let the subconscious handle it. Being playful instead (‘I’ll go sit on the sofa with my notebook and a pencil and fiddle around’) can sometimes help.
  9. Don’t beat yourself up if (a) you have to miss a scheduled writing period or (b) the writing doesn’t go well. You’re human, not a machine. Creative work requires a lot of trial and error.
  10. After a writing session, give yourself a pat on the back for showing up. To quote the writer and teacher Janet Burroway: “Writing is mind-farming. You have to plow, plant, weed, and hope for growing weather. Why a seed turns into a plant is something you are never going to understand, and the only relevant response to it is gratitude. You may be proud, however, of having plowed.”

Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, now in its ninth edition, is the classic text for those of you interested in writing guides. And the techniques outlined are equally useful for creative nonfiction.

The good news is that the practice of writing gets better with time. I gradually came to love being at my desk every morning, and now I get very edgy and irritable when I’m away from it for too long.

So hang in there! And if you have questions, or comments, please email me at


Next WIR blog post: January 27, 2016

Editing the first draft

You’ve finally done it! You’ve finished your first draft! You stagger off to bed, or down a few stiff drinks, or celebrate in some other way. What comes next?

The best thing to do with your draft is to put it away. Let a hard copy ‘chill’ in your bottom drawer. Do NOT be tempted to take a peek. Let your subconscious go to work. Ideally, start another writing project, maybe a short story. I always have at least two projects on the go so that, when a draft is chilling, I can work on something else.

How long you leave your draft is up to you, but I’d recommend at least a month, and preferably longer. That way you can ‘forget’ your novel, or at least the details. The task ahead of you is to read your draft AS THOUGH YOU’D NEVER SEEN IT BEFORE. You’ll be reading with your editor’s eye, critically, pencil in hand. Make notes, in the margins or using the ‘Comments’ function, as you go. For larger structural issues (e.g., this chapter belongs after the next one), make notes in a separate file. You can put any additional insights that occur along the way in this file too. In a sense you’re carrying on a dialogue with yourself about the story.

You may be amazed how much is obvious now and how much better you know your characters (Of course Florence wouldn’t wear that red dress …). You may find yourself cutting (if you tend to overwrite) or expanding (if you tend to underwrite). It may now be very clear that certain scenes are unnecessary while other episodes (dramatic ones) are not developed enough. You may even decide to change point of view at this stage. Be prepared to “let a bomb go off,” as a writer friend of mine put it. In other words, don’t be wedded to what you’ve already written, tempting as it may be. This is the stage for drastic changes. Where you aren’t sure, you can insert questions: Would this scene work better in Chapter 18? Do we need to know about Alex’s drinking problem earlier? Etc. Trust your intuition. If you have a niggling feeling that some aspect of the story isn’t working, trust that feeling.

How many drafts does a work of fiction or nonfiction need? Very broadly, I would say three major drafts, but parts of the work may require much more. Each book is different. And each writer differs; some writers write more slowly and do less revising. However, it’s a very rare book that requires no revision. Some writers are notorious for continuing to revise even at the proofs stage, when it begins to cost their publishers money!

Editing is like anything else—you’ll get better with practice. Learn to be ruthless. Kill all your darlings, as Hemingway used to advise. No matter how deathless your prose, a story that drags will not be read (or published). Your job is to get your ego out of the way and do whatever’s necessary to make the book better. “Unless you really have to write,” Hemingway also said, “go and do something easier, like climb Mt. Everest.”

And for a hilarious take on the “joys” of the writing life, check out Edward Gorey and his priceless illustrated story The Unstrung Harp (available from the library or online). It’s about an upper-class English writer, one Clavius Frederick Earbrass, well-known author of (among other titles) More Chains Than Clank.

Here’s poor Mr. Earbrass after finally finishing his latest novel:

Mr. Earbrass has been rashly skimming through the early chapters, which he has not looked at for months, and now sees The Unstrung Harp for what is it. Dreadful, dreadful, DREADFUL. He must be mad to go on enduring the unexquisite agony of writing when it all turns out drivel. Mad. Why didn’t he become a spy? How does one become one? He will burn the MS. Why is there no fire? Why aren’t there the makings of one? How did he get in the unused room on the third floor?

Have a wonderful holiday season, and here’s to a productive writing life for all of us in 2016!


Next WIR blog post: January 13, 2016

Writing the First Draft

Some writers love the first draft stage. All that blank paper (or computer screen) to play with! Who knows who will turn up, or what will happen? Other writers (like me) prefer the editing stages, when the blank screen is not so intimidating and there is actually a draft, no matter how terrible, to edit.

But getting down to the first draft can be daunting. Many writers have rituals before they start—sharpening pencils, for example, or reading from a particular work (Flannery O’Connor used to read a passage from the Bible). Rituals are a way of summoning the muse, of preparing the ground so that we can enter the mild trance state that produces our best writing. (If you’re curious, there are many more examples of famous writers’ rituals.)

But let’s say you’ve got your butt in the chair and the morning ahead of you. Where do you start? And how do you keep going?

I offer you two words to keep in mind: 1. Vomit. 2. Surrender.


The first rule is simply to write and keep writing—no matter how terrible you think it is. Do not wait until you “feel” like writing, or are “inspired.” These times will be rare (it would be much easier if they weren’t!) Writing is a craft, and you need to show up and practise it. As the American fiction writer Karen Russell says, “Showing up and staying present is a good writing day.”

Do not give up because you don’t know where the story is going, or because of your own fears about the writing. Russell says, “I’ve decided that the trick is just to keep after it for several hours, regardless of your own vacillating assessment of how the writing is going.” She adds: “I think it’s bad so much of the time.”

Think of yourself as a miner mining ore. Much of what you mine will be what miners call “overburden” – the stones and dirt that contain the gold. But hidden among the overburden will be the precious ore of your novel (or short story or memoir). You just can’t see it yet. So keep the faith, and keep vomiting!

“The periods where writing feels effortless and intuitive are, for me, as I keep lamenting, rare,” Russell says. “But I think that’s probably the common ratio of joy to despair for most writers, and I definitely think that if you can make peace with the fact that you will likely have to throw out 90 percent of your first draft, then you can relax and even almost enjoy “writing badly.”


An instructor of mine used to say, “The first draft is where the characters get together and tell the author what the story is about.” The most important thing you can learn is to surrender to this process. Don’t try and will the story into being. If you try and control events, the characters are likely to lie down and die, and may refuse to ever get up again. Like actual humans, they want free will! Accept that the beginning of your story may seem very fragmentary, but that illumination is granted in tiny increments along the way.

I should add that I didn’t always trust this fragmentary process. When I was first starting out as a writer, I often rejected these impulses because I felt they weren’t enough. I wanted a story to arrive whole! I believed that, if I was a “real” writer, that’s what would happen. The fact is, for me at least, it’s rare—very rare—that they do.

Surrendering is counter-intuitive in our culture, which emphasizes goals, direction, and being in control. But the more you can surrender at this stage, the more you can relax into that place authentic writing comes from. You might even learn to enjoy it!

The secret life of the story

The novelist Jack Hodgins talks about “the secret life of the story.” For example, you may find yourself describing a room with a blue lamp in it. You have no idea, at this early stage, why there’s a blue lamp. It’s only after several drafts that you discover that the blue lamp is, in fact, a key symbol or event in the plot, something your subconscious knew long before you did.

So let the secret life of the story emerge, and trust that something larger than you is helping guide the process. The more “rational” stage of editing comes later. If it helps you to have an outline, by all means write one, but don’t be wedded to it. Let the story, and the characters, surprise you. Let the unpredictable happen. And when you’ve put in the writing time, hang up your pick and your miner’s headlamp and allow the subconscious to go to work.

P.S. I’ve had a couple of suggestions for topics from readers, which I’ll discuss in the New Year. If you have one or two of your own, don’t hesitate to let me know at

And if you have a manuscript you’d like me to look at, please send it along to the same address (see the Writer-in-Residence page for guidelines).

Best of the season to everyone, and make vomiting and surrendering your New Year’s resolutions!


Next blog post (Dec. 16): Editing the first draft

Dealing with the inner critic


I’ve been asked by a few writers what to do about writing anxiety and negative self-talk.

There you are, writing happily (or at least finally sitting at your desk), and then it starts.

Who do I think I am? My Grade 8 teacher was right. I’m not a writer!
Or: The page I wrote yesterday is awful. I’d better just tear it up and start over.
Or: That’s the wrong word, I know it’s the wrong word. The whole sentence sounds terrible. Maybe I’m better off not even trying.
Or: If I was really a writer, I’d write better and faster from the beginning. I bet that’s what Margaret Atwood does.
Etc., etc., etc.

We all hear those critical voices in our heads, and they quickly paralyze us. That’s partly because we’re always attempting the impossible—the task of transferring what is in our heads to the page. Our vision is larger than we are. And so we let ourselves become overwhelmed by faint-heartedness and fear. It’s easier not to start. It’s easier to give up.

It’s almost impossible to produce anything while listening to this incessant internal criticism. The good news is that you can do something about the inner critics.

birdThe writer Anne Lamott says: “Quieting these voices is at least half the battle I fight daily. But this is better than it used to be. It used to be 87 percent.” Here’s an exercise she suggests:

Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar. Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail, drop it in the jar. And so on. Drop in … anyone who is whining in your head. Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away…
[from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life]

Another option is, first, to accept the voices in your head. That sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but it prevents you putting so much energy into resisting or fighting them. Let them know you appreciate their advice, but they need to go away until you’ve finished your first draft. Then, and only then, invite them back. Keep them firmly in check, though. You want to look at your work with a critical eye so you can revise/edit, but you don’t want to sabotage yourself.

Two enemies of creativity

I recently came across a powerful passage about creativity by the craft artist Ann Wood that I wanted to share. It expands on my first blog post about the importance of ‘unknowing.’

Two great enemies of creativity are inertia and uncertainty. The fix for inertia is simple—not easy, but very simple: start, move, take a step forward. Certainty is trickier. Our brains are built to be efficient. They categorize, assume, learn, repeat, and create habits and rules. It is work to notice – to really look at things, consider them outside of their familiar context or history or purpose. Autopilot is easy and comfortable and I catch myself slipping into it, in little ways and big ways, all the time. I see what I expect to see because subconsciously, it is already a certainty. And often I feel myself bumping up against rigidity in my thinking because I’m headed somewhere that conflicts with what my brain considers a given, a known quantity or a proven or even familiar course of action.

Certainty isn’t open, it isn’t creative, and it isn’t curious – it doesn’t have room for possibilities, and possibilities are magic. I wonder:
What would the world look like if we could forget everything for just a moment?
What would my own possibilities look like if I could un-know all I believe about myself?

Next blog entry (Dec. 2): How to write first drafts