Monday, April 28, 2014

Seven Writers

When I first started writing, there was no internet. There were typewriters, mailing lists when you could afford stamps, and pencils worn down to nubs. My pencil sharpener was a small Buck knife my father gave me on my tenth birthday. I was broke, and college was not an option for me.

The biggest thing I had starting out was the dream of one day being part of something that affected the world around me. My goals back then seemed simple enough-write something that moved people, not only for my lifetime, but for years to come.

I would romanticize about the writers who came before me like The Lost Generation or The Beats. I would daydream about their interaction with one another and pondered if I would ever be part of something so special. Who would be my friends in the world of writing once I was finally published? Would we be grouped together like The Beats for the subjects we wrote about, linked together like Hemingway and Stein, or Kerouac and Burroughs, or Plath and Sexton? Would we write without fear of not being accepted by the masses like Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and Harry Crews? Would we be given some fancy name like generation this or that? But most of all, would our work live on for folks to read years after we were gone?

These questions have played through my mind over the last 25 years. Yet recently they seem to be speaking to me stronger than ever. It could be an age thing or maybe just where I am after so many years of being a writer causing me to look inward.

I reached out to a few of my companions in the world of writing: Liz Worth, Brandon Graham, Lisa de Nikolits, Kateri Lanthier, Narcisse Navarre, and Jacqueline Valencia. Their works are similar to my views of writing and poetry. As a writer, sometimes you need to take in the energy of the artists around you, get inspired and recharge your creativity by hearing their stories. So, I emailed them and asked three simple questions about their journey in the craft, the beginning, the now, and what they believe will live on long after they’re gone. Here’s what they had to say.

1. When you were first starting out as a writer what was the driving force in your writing?

Liz Worth, My first entry into writing was through making my own zine in high school. At that time my drive was based more around the act of creation. Creativity was, and still is, a priority for me, and I think at first I was driven to challenge myself to create a whole publication on my own, from start to finish - the content, the art, the cutting and pasting, the photocopying, the dissemination.

Later, my driving force became more about being heard. There were stories that I had lived that I had tried to tell to so many people in so many ways but no matter how I said them, I never felt I was heard, and so my driving force shifted from creating for the sake of creating and became something much more personal, much closer to the heart.

Brandon Graham, In some academic setting, around the time I moved beyond intuitive writing and began to study the craft of language, I was assigned the book, The Wound and the Bow by Edmond Wilson. The collection of 7 essays explores the role of suffering as an impetuous for creativity in the lives of writers, artists, and musicians. The case studies are interesting, the Hemingway essay really stuck with me. But the basic idea, all people driven to create are trying to heal some emotional damage, hit me as being absolutely true.

Of course it would, given my own history. I had moved every couple of years from my birth until my sophomore year of High School. I was always a stranger, always standing on the outside trying to find a way in. Just as I would settle into a new group of friends my family would pack and move to a new state. Sometime in elementary school I began reading, writing, and drawing. I carried a book or a sketchbook around with me, filled every other page of my sketchbook with text, little descriptions, observations, things I overheard people say. And the habit traveled with me across eight states. Along the way I won a couple of writing competitions, inherited a WWII era portable, manual typewriter from my grandfather as well as most of a set of barrister bookcases. Through all of that, I never thought to wonder why I wrote, why I would sketch habitually.

Wilson's essays created a frame through which I could safely gaze back at my life. I saw an isolated boy, with a turbulent home life, and constantly churning, and intermittent peer support. When I left a group of friends, a school, a place, a home, a life, it was best to shed the skin completely and just keep slithering forward. So I rarely kept in touch with people from my past. I deeply cherished past friendships. But I held that inside, as part of the narrative I told myself.

It is a common theme in many artist's journeys: the role of artist as being outside, and gaining a perspective that allows for insightful social commentary. In my novel, Good For Nothing, the character Dean fills this role. He is older, wiser, and because he is a gay man of his generation, he has lived somewhat apart from the mainstream.

So, I suppose love of language, affection for good literature, and a creative imperative born out of a desire to find a place in the world, to understand how people relate to one another, a desire to belong; all of these informed my early drive to put words on paper and push them around until they stacked up right.

Kateri Lanthier, I was a bookish kid. Reading led me to writing and still does. In that way, I’ll always be a curious eight-year-old, excited by the power of words. My father’s parents and my mother worked as librarians, and my dad had many collections of poetry and critical texts from his MA studies: books were all around. I remember being both fearful of and fascinated by a book-jacket photo of Ezra Pound. I also had a lovely teacher in Gr. 3. He encouraged us to write short stories and poetry. I still value the encouragement of well-read mentors. I’ll never outgrow that, either.

Lisa de Nikolits, As a child I believed that I was the reincarnation of Emily Brontë and that I was therefore destined to write. I am still not convinced that I am not Emily Brontë!

Jacqueline Valencia, I wrote a lot of poetry as a kid. Mostly lyrical musings that eventually I made into songs as a teenager. University stuff got in the way of most of that and essays took over. I loved writing them and continued on that format for a while. We didn’t have blogging so much in the 90s, at least for me, since I grew up pretty sheltered, so I’d make mini reviews or thoughts on a film or book I read and kept that in a grid notebook. From about 23 to around 35 years of age, I suffered a huge bout of writer’s block. After a while I just blogged my every day, out of internet socialization. I was pretty much a loner and found a new way to get to know people that way.

I would say it was about seven or six years ago that I got serious about writing again. I pulled out my abandoned manuscripts, realized how silly they were and burnt them. I started off new. My driving force transformed from relating experience to my main way of communication. Positing ideas, opinions, challenging the way and reason I wrote, I found that the only way to be a writer nowadays is by bringing something new to the table.

Narcisse Navarre, I started writing for personal purposes when I was fourteen, filling journal after journal with poetry, rantings, ravings, and just about anything that struck my fancy. My daily meditation through words was soon a habit and in a few years I made the transition to the web, sharing my daily life with a captive online audience. I had a blog before the word even existed. In spite of penning 1000-3000 words daily in this manner, the thought of writing a novel didn't occur to me until 1998 when I was possessed by the very vicious, nameless immortal protagonist of An Endless Hunger. This hateful character would not let me go. He insisted I sit down and tell his story–and I reluctantly did. I wrote 60,000 words, hating him more and more as I went along. Finally, I abandoned the project until 2012 when I released a portion of it as a short story.

2. What is your motivation today to keep writing?

Liz Worth, The act of creation is still a major priority for me, and much of my creativity manifests through writing. I don't always feel like I actually have a choice in it; there is this burning urgency to follow through on these ideas that I get for poems or stories or other projects and I can't ignore it. It just has to happen. I feel like I'm just a vehicle for these words to flow through.

Brandon Graham, Strange to realize as I write this that in order to feel more connected to the world I spend my creative explorations alone, for great spans of time. Books are long projects that demand focus and stamina. For me, something close to a religious level of faith in my writing process works as a reasonable stand-in for actual confidence or ego. But even with those forces at play, I still get exhausted, and even periodically experience a complete loss of faith.

When I was younger I once piled all of my first three years of college art and poetry into a corrugated box and tipped it into a dumpster, lit it on fire. It simply didn't live up to the ideal I'd formed in my head. For a decade I went through a cycle of creative bursts followed by ridiculous and dramatic gestures of disgust with my own ineptitude. Each time I regrouped and started again. Eventually I became bored with the quitting part of that cycle, and simply kept going. The only alternative is stopping. And I've learned I'm simply not a happy or nice person when I don't find a way to write or make things.

A part of the transition in my thinking comes from fatherhood. I used to write for me, for a personal catharsis, a meditative act. But once I considered the world my baby girl, and later my baby boy, stood to inherit, I began to feel more invested in the shape of the world I leave behind. I began to consider audience and message. And I became assertive about making my voice heard. I decided to make an impact.

Kateri Lanthier, I can’t help it—I have to write poetry. It’s a full-blown compulsion. When I think of lines at inopportune moments, I’m desperate for a way to record them—I usually have a notebook but I’ve sometimes texted lines to myself (I am a maniac…). I also try to memorize my poems. I stopped writing poetry for 15 years—the “poetry coma”—and when the brainwaves started again they wouldn’t stop. Reading is essential. Poetry, obviously, but fiction and non-fiction, too—every kind of text, as well as the quips and quick turns that people make in conversation or online posts. I’m an obsessive collector…I bathe in those words and images, argue with them and dream them.

Lisa de Nikolits, The desire to become a better writer with each work. To work the characters harder, to come up with creative and engaging and unusual plots, to express unique thoughts and ideas and, primarily, to challenge and explore people's morals and motivations. I am fascinated by what I consider to be (wo)man's essentially amoral character and I love nothing better than to put people into unusual situations and see what unfolds, as their moral foundations are attacked.

Jacqueline Valencia, There’s always room for improvement. I think that says more about why I do what I do. I want to keep getting better. If I ever believed I was better or best at something, I’d have to re-evaluate my priorities. I want to be “new to writing” forever. You can only get better and learn or stagnate. I never want to get writer’s block again. It’s painful.

The only reason I’m a poet is because it’s what comes closest to what I create. I want to be worthy of the craft. The craft is replete with practitioners. I love writing. Period.

Narcisse Navarre, This might sound a bit crazy but up until 2010 I had no idea I'd be a novelist or a writer. One day, I kid you not, I woke up and there it was, my purpose in life–lightning striking. I'm driven by a need to follow this zany, spontaneous dream wherever it may lead.

3. Out of everything you have written what do you hope will live on one hundred years from now?

Liz Worth, I hope everything I have written lives on! But if I have to choose just one thing, I would love for my poetry collection Amphetamine Heart to live on. I rarely think anything I do is perfect, but to me, that book is everything I hoped it would be. There is nothing I would change in it. It captures a moment in time in my life and it says everything I wanted to say at the time.

Brandon Graham, I'm not convinced it's productive to consider this question. Mostly because I have to play mind games to be able to write novel length work. The notion of writing what people might consider literature is daunting. It means I am skinny dipping in the same waters as Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner. I have trouble placing myself in that pond.

And, to my mind, when the discussion turns to the legacy of something I have written or may write, it shoves my narratives into the realm of literature. Then I get stressed, have one of those crises of faith I mentioned above.

To quote Kafka, "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us." With that notion as context, it is easier not to think of a book as a finite project, but just a convenient cluster of pages that mark a step in a life-long process. It's easier to keep making axes and hurling them at the world, than to consider them important or meaningfully or literary.

Perhaps the only answer is: whatever axe I am currently honing, that is the one that matters, that's the one to heft and throw, watch it tumble end over end, and pray that it hits it's mark.

Kateri Lanthier, Ha! I doubt that anything of mine will survive that long. These days, I’m trying to write poems in which there’s something at stake. Maybe someone will come across a lyrical bit like “From gold chains of laburnum—beautiful, poisonous—/The God of Love leans out too far, drops every arrow in the water/ And ceases to exist.” It would be like finding a snippet of pretty cloth in a chest of drawers. But given the vicissitudes—the perversity—of what gets preserved, it’s just as likely to be “I might sound like a goose in an opera gown, but I say again, I love you.”

Lisa de Nikolits, I haven't written that one yet! Out of the books I have written... hmmm.... That's like asking me to pick my favourite offspring! I can't do it!

Jacqueline Valencia, Hell, I don’t think I’ve written anything durable yet. I’m always playing with letters and words. Sure, there are a few things I’m proud of in my writing, but no one thing has come out to me as “the one thing that I want to be remembered for.” Besides, writing is like continually cerebrally giving birth to something. When it’s out of you, it doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to the reader or the viewer of the work. There’s no right or wrong way of interpreting a poem or a piece of art.

Hell, I’m both too old to be worried about what people think and too young to be thinking of what I want to be remembered for.

Narcisse Navarre, Wow, that's deep and I'm torn. My nameless villain in An Endless Hunger has such a powerful pull that I think that novella has a chance of becoming a real classic. If I had it "my way" I'd want "The Books of Lirios" trilogy (in progress) to be the kind of dark fairytale/romance that survives the test of time.

After reading my friends’ answers, I truly believe if we never sold another book or fell on hard times and were homeless, we would continue to write. Even if it’s scratching poems in the sand and watching the winds wash them away, we would not stop. Seven writers whispering what’s within them each day trying to make a mark in the literary world.