On Being Done, and Other Excellent Unanswerable Questions

Q: Does your writing process look different for different genres?

A: Yes and no. I always, always set myself a quota or a “to do” list in relation to the work of that day or that week. Often this is too ambitious and I fall short and end up in a shame spiral but that’s my own problem. But the rhythm of the work is dictated by the form. Fiction is methodical and slow: 500-1000 words a day (on a good day when I’m not running errands or dealing with a sick child home from school or just fretting futilely over the news), plodding along until there’s a draft. Poems come in a burst and generally at a sitting. Then I rewrite them for a year or three. The finished poem can be seen in the original one, but barely, like a faint outline under layers of paint. Plays are the most scattershot because these days I work mostly in collaboration with a specific theatre company, which means we’re building it together even though I’m the one writing it, so process is anyone’s guess and often segmented. Essays, when I write them, are very slow. I’d rather leap between things than sustain an argument. This is why I almost never write them.

Q: How do you know when a poem is done? I feel like I could edit, rewrite and rethink my poems endlessly. When is it done?

A: Who said works of art are never finished, only abandoned? Probably Picasso. Or the internet, attributing something to Picasso, who’s not around to set the record straight.

I believe this, to some extent. But I do think it’s possible to bring a poem to something like completion, and that over-rewriting can obscure the impulse of a poem. Plus then the poems presumably never see the light of day, and writers presumably want to share their work.

Here’s a few things:

Give it time. Don’t look at it for a month, at least. For real. Close the file, hide the notebook, whatever you need to do to keep your own eyes off it. When you look at it later you’ll have better judgment, a better sense of what works and what doesn’t.

Read it aloud. Not to an audience, but to yourself. Walk around reading it aloud. Poems are rhythm-they need to withstand being given voice.

Memorize it and recite it to yourself. If your own words feel right to you, that’s a sign you’re getting there.

And finally: try to reconcile yourself to the distance between what you imagine and what you make. I haven’t been able to do this yet, but I’m hoping to get there.

Q: I’m looking for something new to read. What are the books you ALWAYS recommend to anyone and everyone who will listen? Feel free to nerd out about them.

A: This is a delightful question. Here’s my top five right now:

Howard’s End by E. M. Forster. I have a quote from this book engraved on my wedding ring (if that’s not nerding out, I don’t know what is). It’s a touchstone for a lot of people, and has had multiple retellings and adaptations since it was published in 1910. It’s the story of two families, one deeply establishment, one politically radical, both moneyed, who intersect in surprising and disastrous ways, and their relationship to a working-class bank clerk. The book is as prescient on questions of class, responsibility, love, the perils of charity, and what we owe one another, politically and personally, as when it was published. I dare you to be unmoved.

White on White by Ayşegül Savaş. This book, by a young Turkish writer, knocked my socks off. I recommended it to everyone I knew. And some loved it, and some hated it just as intensely. So see what you think. An unnamed narrator travels to an unnamed European city to study the history of the female nude. This young woman appears to have almost no personal life of any kind. She exists blankly, looking at statues, describing light on walls. She strikes up a friendship with her older landlady, who tells her about her own unhappy marriage. That’s it. Not much happens. There’s no dialogue. But I was riveted and read it in an afternoon (it’s also short). It has a twist, almost, at the end, as if it was a horror novel disguised as experimental literary fiction. I stopped breathing, reading the last sentence.

Who Do You Think You Are? by Alice Munro. These linked stories unfold over the life of Rose, who grows up desperately poor in a small Ontario town, marries out, divorces, and tries to make sense of her life, from childhood to middle age. It’s a masterpiece. Read it now.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Smith’s first novel, published when she was 24. Two families, an oddball friendship between two exasperating men, Nazis, British racists, Muslim extremists, foul-mouthed gentlemen playing chequers, historical obsessions and the horror of growing up all collide in the story of linked London families. You will laugh till you cry. Smith is keenly aware of the horrors of history. And she still finds almost everything funny. This book is a gift.

Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler. I’m often sad Richler’s dead, these days. He’d have so much fun satirizing the current state of Canadian politics. Every week some news story sounds like a novel only he could write. But he’s gone. So read this. Barney is maddening, foolish, and wonderful. He’s the best company, at least confined to a book.

Q: Here are some questions from a depressed and indecisive mind. Apparently, I am constantly stuck between whether I should put myself, as a writer, out in the world or not. I mean I want people to know my story cause I have one but at the same time I’m afraid of people knowing that it’s me. I’d really appreciate if you could answer this.

A: Thanks for your question. It is, of course, a difficult one. I’m going to answer with a quotation from the dancer Martha Graham. Her words are something I often turn to when I feel like I’m not sure how to proceed, or why, or what the point is. This feels like a good thing to consider, as applicable to writing as to dance:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.