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These to be relayed back in time to a writer starting out
i. Interest is never enough. If it doesn't haunt you, you'll never write it well. What haunts and obsesses you into writing may, with luck and labour, interest your readers. What merely interests you is sure to bore them.
ii. Let failure be your workshop. See it for what it is: the world walking you through a tough but necessary semester, free of tuition.
iii. Embrace oblivion. The sooner you quit
fretting about your current status and the long shot of posterity, the sooner
you'll write something that matters—while actually enjoying the effort,
at least some of the time.
iv. Allow yourself to enjoy it. Squash the temptation to accentuate, poeticize, wallow in the difficulties of the writing life, which are probably not much worse than the particular difficulties of other professions and trades. Take a tradesman's practical approach to your development: quietly apprentice yourself to language and the craft, then start filling up your toolbox, item by item, year after year.
v. Ignore Byron who wrote that "We of the Craft
are all crazy." He was largely right, of course; ignore him anyway.
To romanticize The Writer as pursued by furies, enthused by Muses, beset by demons—this is nothing but professional self-importance and self-pity. Writers have no monopoly on poverty, humiliation, self-doubt, or aggressive inner demons. Close your door and get on with it.
vi. Momentum and enthusiasm can mean pretty much the same thing. When working on a longer project, ruthlessly guard and prolong the momentum.
vii. In writing, as in life, "personality" is not character. Never try to be cute, to be winning, to audition for the reader.
viii. Never try to be cool. A writer afraid of seeming square will never write anything truly cool. The purest definition of cool, after all, is not caring what people think.
ix. Stand on the side of artifice—of worked and
earned, elaborated form. Life gives us enough of life. We approach art for
something different: more distilled, catalyzed, charged, and signifying.
x. Avoid earnestness and solemnity—those Upper Canadian birthrights—by cultivating a grown-up, crap-detecting irony. But don't always use it. Irony is effective only in balance with other modes and tropes. Much current discourse renders itself void and dead by the ceaseless, indiscriminate use of irony.
xi. Don't be afraid to be earnest, either, if the work demands it (see viii, above).
xii. Stop straining to be "original" and, with luck and applied time, it just might happen.
xiii. You can only write authentically within the bounds of your own sensibility, but you can read and appreciate far beyond them. To develop a broad and generous vision, you've got to.
xiv. You don't "graduate" from poetry to short stories, or get promoted from stories to
The Novel. The only graduation is to better writing.
xv. Careerist writers don't have friends, only allies. This is reason enough not to be
xvi. Careerist writers don't confront and relish challenges, they crash into obstacles,
which they naturally resent and fear. This is reason enough not to be careerist.
xvii. There can be just one final arbiter
of your work. Refuse to appoint anyone else as
your judge and appraiser, executioner, potential approver—the one reader,
fellow-writer, critic, editor, or publisher whose acceptance of your work
will stand as an ultimate verification, a proof of arrival, relieving you
of that impostor-feeling that every artist knows. (A feeling that signals
only that your esthetic conscience is still active.) Resign yourself to
the road, there's no arrival. There's no map either, come to think
of it, but the sun is rising and the radio is on.
Steven Heighton's works copyright © to the author.