I’m on my way to the Algonkian Writers’ Conference to learn some things, perhaps, and have the opportunity to present myself before those who would judge. As I scan our workbook I am aware of the traditional approach to novel writing that the organizers appear to encourage. That is, to have the characters well-drawn, the story arc mapped, the inciting incident clear, the overarching dramatic question solid, before even laying fingers to keyboard. I know writers who work this way and for them it’s the only way they can work. Terry Fallis gives a brilliant talk on this process and my dear friend, Lisa Llamrai has written two marvelous books with this method.
In my grade twelve Advanced English class we read and discussed the short story, The Odour of Chrysanthemums, by D. H. Lawrence. The story moved me to the point that I resisted criticizing the story. I wanted to allow it to rest in me. I experienced it through the senses and didn’t want it to be pulled apart petal by petal with the intention of knowing it more intimately, understanding its mechanism and thereby being able to imitate it. I stated my case and surprisingly my teacher respected my stance. For the same reason, I suppose, I wasn’t interested in studying English in University. I had deep resistance to picking apart literature in order to understand how it works.
Although it has taken me many more years to come to full understanding and appreciation of my particular path, I am grateful for the long process, and even more grateful for the teachers who appeared on that winding lane at just the right times. Barbara Turner-Vesselago noted that when I write from the body the work is strong. Sue Reynolds has also noted the energy of my work when it is kinaesthetic. Of course, I employ the powers of my intellect, but the real magic happens when the left side of the brain stands down and allows all that composted material of my life’s experience to bloom into surprising flora. The truth is, that I didn’t feel strong enough to withstand an approach that dissected, labelled and categorized. Instinctively I knew that the organic unfolding of story would be buried in heaps of “knowledge”. I can say this now as if I understood it all then, but that isn’t so. I could never defend my choices with any clarity, but I have a will that sets its path and keeps to it, even if I don’t know why or if I’m actually headed in the right direction. Somehow it’s worked. Even when I refused to hand over my uterus when I had cancer. Everyone around me thought I had signed my own death warrant. There was no logical reason why not. I was thirty-seven years old and my current husband had been sterilized. But four years later I had a baby in my belly. So that decision became clear… sometimes it takes a while to know what it is one is actually working with.
So it is with my writing. There is so much beneath the skin that I am not aware of until my fingers move across the keyboard, or until I pick up a pen and let the lines move like so much thread connecting the inside to the outside. This process isn’t tremendously gratifying to the ego, but it is a constant source of surprise and delight to me. The ego provides the scaffolding; the base on which the stories hang, because without a reasonably strong ego I believe there isn’t the confidence to even begin, to attempt to express what lies within.
I am happy to see that the editors to whom I will have the privilege to pitch my novel are among the best in the business. Even though the conference’s handbook deals mostly with a traditional approach to novel writing, I see that the editors available to us have a wide variety of authors and styles which they represent. So whether or not I come away with a book deal, what I will have is a rich and varied experience. I feel grounded enough in my craft that I can be open and available to whatever nuggets, suggestions are offered and utilize them accordingly. A sort of East meets West, if you will.
An added bonus is that I’ll be sharing this experience with four others from my writing community, and that chips off the edge of anxiety.