Lost amidst all the controversy engulfing the increasingly polarized world of CanLit last week was an article by the poet and critic Jason Guriel in the Walrus titled “What Happens When Authors Are Afraid to Stand Alone.”
In it, Guriel wrote that being a member of a writing community is detrimental to good writing, and that serious scribes are brave and mature enough to know that – while the rest of us are too busy kibitzing to pay attention to our craft, I suppose.
I was in the midst of reading Guriel’s piece when the latest scandal broke. As I observed the furor surrounding the resignation of Hal Niedzviecki as editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada’s magazine (after making dismissive editorial statements about cultural appropriation in an issue dedicated to showcasing Indigenous writers), I couldn’t stop thinking about what the idea of community had to do with everything that was happening.
It was finally put into words – and not my own – as I sat listening to Jesse Wente’s interview with Matt Galloway on CBC’s Metro Morning on Monday. The raw emotion in Wente’s voice and the measured truth behind his words stood in stark contrast to the flippancy with which the stories and feelings of Wente’s own community had been treated by the old CanLit and Canadian media guards. “We are beholden to our communities,” Wente said before he broke down, exhausted and demoralized by the repeated requirement to explain why thought must be given to words before they are spoken, written or tweeted in the dead of night, and why a call for compassion is not an attack on freedom of speech. “When we [as Indigenous writers] say these things, we know exactly who will hold us responsible. Who is that for non-Indigenous writers when they don’t have connections to that community?”
Who, indeed? And who will it be if we as writers shun the idea of community, as Guriel suggested, if we refuse to go out into the world looking for connection, ever, and if we use as reasoning for avoiding our contemporaries arguments like the fact that it becomes difficult to “bloody” the work of another artist in a review if we’ve met her at a party?
Solitude and selfishness only worked when the majority of writers looked and sounded the same. Pull back the curtain on that cantankerous, solitary writer you’re certain must know something you don’t and you mightn’t find a literary genius after all, but rather a small person pretending to do magic.
I’m not saying writing isn’t alchemy. Every time I have a good writing day I wonder how I got so lucky. I keep crystals on my desk, I wear talismans around my neck, all in the hopes that these items will help me catch the pieces of gold I can’t see but can feel rushing past me every moment of every day. And so, when I go out and meet people, whether they’re writers or readers, I dread questions such as, “How do you do it?” The truth is, I don’t always know. So perhaps it would be better if I locked myself away.
Trying to answer those questions makes me a better writer, though. (It also means I spend less of my advance money on crystals.) And communing with other writers has made me a better person. It is hubris to suggest that there is no one like you, no one who can do what you do. One of my best days was the day I realized there were people out there who understood me. It took time, admittedly, to find my writing community. I had some false starts and I got hurt. Writers are like anyone else: Some of them are excellent and some of them are lousy. All of them feel jealousy. And all of them feel, at one time or another, that they haven’t a clue what they’re doing. The ones who have a problem admitting that are the dangerous ones.
Communing with other writers means knowing that when you emerge from your writer’s cave you will find people who know why you are so raw, so sad and so absurdly exhilarated, all at the same time. Communing with other writers means that the part that comes after the writing – feedback from agents, editors, reviewers (some of them out for blood), readers and the threat of rejection by any or all of these people – isn’t so terrifying.
To suggest that one must be isolated from the world in order to produce work that offers genuine connection to the reader is nonsensical – especially today. It also suggests there’s only one way of doing writing and that anyone who is doing it differently is just dabbling. And to believe that good writing can only happen in complete isolation appears to seek to exclude many from doing it. It would definitely exclude me. I’m a mother and I’m uncomfortable with the assertion that writers are selfish and therefore bad parents. (As I wrote this, I became so caught up in it I lost track of time and was late to pick up my kids from school for lunch. But my children don’t think I’m selfish; they think I’m absent-minded.) Which is another reason I need my community: to remind me of the things I might forget or overlook. These can be small things, such as the new novel plot I described over dinner has some holes and big things, such as reminding me, in moments of fear or weakness, that I’m good at what I do and that it was our writing that brought us together in the first place.
There are limits to communing, of course. I don’t tend to advise attending writing workshops, which feel to me like inviting a group of strangers to an ultrasound appointment, strangers who aren’t going to reassure you, when you’re at your most vulnerable, that your baby is going to be just fine, but who might instead tell you that he looks a little small and probably won’t have friends when he grows up. It’s my belief that first drafts especially are lonely work and need to stay that way.
As with any community, there are certain rules of decorum that must be observed. It can be hard to talk about writing when one is in the middle of that lonely first draft. It’s definitely hard to talk about writing when it isn’t going well.
Importantly, being a member of a community does not preclude you from speaking out when you don’t agree with what other members of your circle are saying. The cowardly facelessness of social media can feel like a community; sometimes it is, but more often, it isn’t. Stepping away and standing alone might be necessary. But there is also bravery in standing in solidarity. Don’t forget that.
Sometimes, communities break up and new communities are formed, using a combination of what was learned before and what must be learned in the future, by listening. I think this is where the CanLit community finds itself now. And I hope it’s not true that the old community would rather self-destruct than simply move away from the podium once in a while and allow others to speak, others who are just now finding their voices – only to have them buried in an avalanche of defiant protest by members of a group who don’t understand what it truly means to be silenced.
Writers are not alone and shouldn’t pretend to be. We are beholden to one another and we are responsible for our words. No one person can speak for all of us and a loud chorus of voices cannot speak for one person. But we’re in this together; there’s no way around that. In the face of the scandals currently plaguing the literary community in this country, that’s a brave thing to admit.
Marissa Stapley is the author of the novel Mating for Life, and writes the Shelf Love column each month for Globe Books.Report Typo/Error
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