Most events at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors feature authors reading from their finished novels, their glossy dust jackets sprinkled with glowing reviews, as though these works effortlessly materialized through sheer brilliance. In contrast, on Sunday October 23rd, the “Writer’s Craft” panel met at the Festival’s stage on Queens Quay West to discuss honestly the writer’s unglamorous struggle against fatigue, self-doubt, narcissism, procrastination, and the pressing demands of children, laundry, paying the mortgage, or writing a doctoral dissertation. Three generations of authors, Dermot Healy, Harry Whitehead, and Heather Jessup, in conversation with host Andrew Pyper, offered different perspectives on their craft.
First-time novelist Heather Jessup likened thinking about novel-writing from a writer’s, rather than from a reader’s, point of view to “kind of creeping into the house when it’s all not lit up and figuring out where everything is… And it really was like doing it in the dark. I had no idea what I was doing at first.” Her novel (The Lightning Field) took ten years to write, with help over the years from various mentors in Canadian creative writing programs and retreats. Now a creative writing instructor herself, she advocated the use of a simple kitchen timer to force a would-be writer to sit down and plug away at the work for a concentrated period of time.
Novelist, poet, short-story writer and playwright Dermot Healy, stressed the importance of working every day: “If you let one day go by, and return to the novel, you forget what it was about, because you actually lose the belief system.” Harry Whitehead, author of The Cannibal Spirit, agreed that the essence of professionalizing one’s novel-writing aspirations was “just bloody doing it.”
One audience member wanted to know if creative writing schools were of any use, or whether, give or take some polishing of style, one was either a writer or not. “You can’t teach someone their imagination,” argued Whitehead, “you can’t teach them what to say. But you can teach them ways to draw it out.” Jessup lambasted the Hollywood myth of the author languidly finishing his or her novel while lounging about in a robe, or typing the last page of the work and — ping! — placing it on a stack of perfect pages. Instead, writing, she said, is “annoying and tricky, and difficult. It is hard work.”
If creative writing is so much work, why bother? A novelist can hope, argued Jessup, “to keep someone company. I think that is a beautiful way to think about your reader when you’re writing.”