Finding the words

Finding the WordsWhat do words reveal? How do you describe the pain — the sheer anxiety — of getting those words from brain to paper to the streets? What do you do in that uncertain space between publication and the Next Great Idea?

31 Canadian writers talk inspiration, desire and breaking the rules in anthology Finding The Words. Words — the act of writing them, the art of using them, the slog of selling them — are the focus, and no two writers approach the topic in the same way. There are journalists, such as the fifth estate’s Linden MacIntyre, the Globe and Mail‘s Stephanie Nolan and freelancer Richard Poplak. There are plenty of novelists, including Alice Munroe, Pasha Malla and David Chariandy. There are also poets and filmmakers and songwriters.

In his introduction, editor Jared Bland (managing editor of The Walrus) writes, “As diverse as they are, each of these pieces reflects in a particular way on the role words play in all our lives — on what it means to be a citizen of a world both united and divided by the lines language draws.”

There are plenty of memoir-like stories, such as Heather O’Neill’s tale about her father’s struggle with illiteracy, and Martha Kuwee Kumsa’s realization that she needed to tell the story of her grandmother, who had been kidnapped and forced to marry at age 12, and never saw her family again. Globe and Mail South Asia correspondent Stephanie Nolan wrote a devastating, must-read piece about interviewing rape victims in the Congo. She was told no one would speak to her, but once there, woman after woman came to her — usually under the cover of darkness — and told their stories. Nolan filled her three notebooks, and resorted to writing on matchbooks, plane tickets, shampoo labels and anything else she could scrape up (paper is hard to come by in the DCR). “They gave me their words,” she writes. “I could give them nothing but the sight of those words being recorded. But the women knew: they could make it a story, the story of something that happened. It was their story, of what happened to them, and in that, if in nothing else, there is control, and there is power.”

On the business side of the craft, author and journalist Guy Gavriel Kay tackles what many writers often don’t think about: schlepping your words. There’s never been more pressure on wordsmiths to be their own promoters, he writes. “Take a “cult of personality” society, note a severe cutback in marketing budgets, mix in the seductive ease of “broadcasting” oneself online, be aware of reality shows with their vicious erosion of the very idea of privacy, and you have a literary world where the author is now his or her own marketing machine, however well or badly that machine is tuned.” 

The result? A “radical revision” in the author-reader relationship, where the traditional gap between the two all but disappears, Kay writes. Now, readers have been seen attacking writers online for late deliveries of manuscripts, or chastising them for taking holidays (which they knew about because the authors broadcast these life details on their blogs and Twitter accounts).

Because “the jury is still out as to how much this self-exposure helps a book right now,” the important thing, Kay stresses, is that writers calculate what the time and effort is worth to them.

Finding the Words also includes essays about the less tangible aspects of writing, about fears and anxiety and pressure. Annabel Lyon writes about coming to understand a character she previously despised; fifth estate co-host and Giller Prize winner Linden MacIntyre writes about the hidden potential of mediocrity.

“It’s a word that I’ve been afraid of for many years: mediocre, meaning ‘neither good nor bad… just barely adequate,” MacIntyre writes. “’Mediocrity,’ in the opinion of serious writers, is the opposite of ‘excellence.’ It is a fate, like atrophy and death, awaiting most of us, but one we struggle to transcend.”

Yet real power can be realized as more and more mediocre people decide it’s time for a change, MacIntyre writes. “Power lies in consensus. In the crucible of consensus, ordinary ideas become inspirational; common leadership acquires charisma; the mob, inspired, becomes an agency of human progress; mediocrity becomes…success.”

In a similar vein, author, poet and magazine writer Steven Heighton writes about the lost art of boredom: “The minute I get bored now I check my e-mail…And if there’s nothing there, there’s the internet. For almost all of my writer friends it’s the same: like me, they constantly, casually lateralize into the digital realm.

“The issue is that staring into space — in that musing, semi-bored state that can precede or help produce creative activity — is impossible when you keep interposing a screen between your seeing mind and the space beyond.”

Finding the words, Heighton writes, largely depends on a writer’s ability “to try less, to relax the mind so as to render it vulnerable to inspiration.”

In this vein, he offers words of wisdom from Buddhist teacher/writer Thich Nhat Hahn: “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

Of course, all that sitting and waiting for inspiration has its own personal toll. Elizabeth Hay (another Giller Prize winner) explains the terrible emptiness that festers in that grey area between a newly-published book and the next project. “The hardest thing about being between books is that you lose what’s been keeping you company. You also lose faith in what you’ve written and lose hope about what you’ll write in the future.”

My favourite essay was the piece by writer and journalist Stacey May Fowles about discovering the unexpected anxiety of publication. Her post-first-novel state quickly disintegrated from jubilant to inextricably housebound, and she found herself unable to cope with most everyday tasks. She didn’t expect to “fall apart so dramatically” when her first book hit the shelves. What Fowles found most disturbing is that absolutely no one told her it was coming. “I do think there’s something to be said about the tendency of first-time novelists to conceal the emotional consequences of publication from the naive scribes that follow in their footsteps,” Fowles writes. She admits that she, too is guilty of this: in the midst of her struggle, she told a class of high school students how wonderful it was to be a writer.

Fowles’s therapist admitted to treating similar neurosis in other writers. She offers her therapist’s theory, that “creative minds have the ability to see a situation from all angles, and while this makes them good storytellers, it also leads them to believe that anvils are falling from the sky. Those who are anxiety-prone focus on the possible, not the probable, and what is a good story but finding the most dramatic possibility?”


In this introduction to Finding the Words, Bland writes that “While we use language every day — sometimes gloriously, sometimes frivolously — we cannot forget that being able to do so is an essential right that must be defended.” All sale proceeds go directly to PEN Canada, an organization that fights for freedom of expression. All of the writers donated their work to the book, publisher McClelland & Stewart contributed warehousing and shipping costs and Friesens discounted its printing services.

If that — along with the promise of inspiration and you’re-not-alone reassurance — isn’t enough to pick up this book, why not simply judge it by its cover? Cartoonist Seth (of Walrus and New Yorker cover fame) designed and illustrated it in a beautiful and simple old-school style. Between the covers, you’ll find a lot of reasons to keep searching for those words.

For the list lovers out there, authors Pasha Malla and Moez Surani offered a crowdsourced list of writerly ethics. Their readers’ suggestions included: rule 21: Don’t live voyeuristically, seeing every human interaction as a potential source for sport. Rule 45. Don’t start drinking before noon. 47. Read more than you write.

Other ethical advice included the contradictory “always speak the truth. Even in fiction” and “never let the truth get in the way of a good story” and “never let a good story get in the way of the truth” and “be true to yourself”.  Which ones are you guilty of breaking?

“I can’t help believing in the Novel, poor old thing,” Karen Connelly writes (she’s written nine herself). Rather than fearing the medium’s demise, she thinks the desecration of the planet will actually boost it. “It will become a writerly responsibly to bear witness to that violence. Not enough of us are doing this yet, but I believe we will. I believe we will have no choice. Paradoxically, the novel will be reinvigorated by destruction.”

To borrow a phrase from Canuck magazine writer Chris Jones, Finding the Words is not all Smurfs and sunshine.

“I worry constantly about my future,” writes author Alain De Botton. “The writer’s life is suffused with anxiety. In a highly productive, entrepreneurial age, it seems odd, even insane, to be locked away in a room, trying to hammer words into their correct places. I often have intense longings to go to an office — in order to share the burdens of my work with other people, as workers in offices can.”

Dana Lacey is associate editor of J-Source.