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How authors approach the art
of creative writing.

Izze Siemann

Monday, Oct 11, 2017

The iconic song that concludes Hamilton, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” elicits a fundamental inspiration for creativitythe idea of sonder, that each individual is living a life as complex and intricate as our own. I myself wonder whether or not my stories will matter, and marvel at the vast number of narratives to which I will never have access. I fantasize about capturing an emotion that others have experienced but could not decipher. I imagine my words, tugging the soft skin of a cheek into a smile. The first time I saw Hamilton, the play moved me to tears; hearing the amalgamation of powerful instruments and voices, in the name of storytelling, reconnected me with the power of the written word.

This anecdote represents a common sentiment among aspiring 21st-century writers. While the dream of one day publishing—or even creating a finished work at all—floats at the forefront of writers’ thoughts, the reality is far from encouraging. In 2012, bibliographic information provider R. R. Bowker calculated the publication of 2,352,797 books in the United States alone, with 49,553 of them being fiction. This value does not include books published online, nor written song lyrics, nor blog posts.

With so many writers constantly at work, distinguishing between their works and styles might seem challenging. However, each author comes from a different background and approaches the same task from a different angle. Ultimately, each writer has a different story to tell, and a unique way of telling it.

“The connected impulses to understand my own thoughts by entering into a strange sort of conversation with the page, and the desire to tell stories to an audience [initially made me write],” Naben Ruthnum, who received his Masters degree in English Literature at McGill in 2011, wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. Ruthnum’s novella, Cinema Rex, won both The Malahat Review’s 2012 Novella Contest, as well as the 2013 Writers’ Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. Now, the author writes fiction professionally.

Ariela Freedman, associate professor of Literature at Concordia University’s Liberal Arts College, connects her love of creative writing with her love of reading.

I've always loved reading, and a desire to write is an extension of my love of books,” Freedman wrote in an email to the Tribune. “[Even] after I established myself as a writer of literary criticism, I wanted the freedom and breadth of fiction. Ultimately, I think my writing is an expression of my desire to make sense of the world through the page... Imperfectly!”

Imperfection and a love of books are common threads that these authors weave into their writing journeys, over the course of years of work.

"Connectivity, whether to the mind, the community, the emotion, or the unwritten, brings writers together. The journey on which the author travels in order to identify these networks are often synonymous with the journeys they travel in reality."

Keith Maillard, professor of Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia, has written 13 novels and one book of poetry. He vividly remembers the instant he decided to pursue writing.

“I [was] reading a book called Axel’s Castle by Edmund Wilson [...],” Maillard explained. “[At] some point I put the book down and looked up at my friend. I said to my friend, who was playing [hymns on] the piano, [...] ‘I’m going to be a writer.’ [...] What drew me to creative writing was the notion that it was bigger, wider, more interesting, more cosmopolitan, more tuned into the universe, than this little dump town where I lived.”

Connectivity, whether to the mind, the community, the emotion, or the unwritten, brings writers together. The journey on which the author travels in order to identify these networks are often synonymous with the journeys they travel in reality.

Benjamin Hertwig, who also earned his Masters degree in English Literature at McGill, weaves the threads of loss and healing together to depict his experience as a soldier in his debut book of poetry, Slow War, which is now a finalist in the Governor General’s Literary Awards.

“The book is my experiences as a young soldier [in] Afghanistan and the aftermath,” Hertwig said. “[It’s about] what coming home was like, [and] what trying to reintegrate into school and various communities [was like....] The entire decade of my 20s was transformed into something different, and was impacted by [my time at war].

His collection offers no easy answers about the complexity of war and the aftermath thereof, but Hertwig draws from his emotion to tell his compelling story.

Freedman, who spent a year in Israel, also draws on her experience in a different country. In her recently published novel Arabic for Beginners (2017), Freedman explores themes such as motherhood, marriage, and the idea of home.

“[Israel] has been, you could say, one of the ruling fictions of my life,” Freedman wrote.

In all three of these cases, authors use writing to push past their observations, and transform those observations into words, sentences, and stories. Maillard faced small-town isolation, Hertwig survived war and trauma, and Freedman ties universal topics into a cultural perspective. They transform the power of a place and personal emotion into melodic art.

A writer’s job requires meticulous attention, grueling hours, and patience. Developing a process for creative writing is complex, complicated, and often confusing. Maillard gave up writingas he could not even afford to go to the dentistthe same day his career was resurrected by the news of his first publishing deal. Freedman called her process messy. Ruthnum described his career as a “ series of accidents and bursts of hard work here and there.” In light of his book tour, Hertwig labelled his week crazy.

"It's like doing a giant puzzle when you don't have an image of the final product on the cover of the box. Eventually, I can start to determine a shape and then I write into the gaps."

The freneticism of a writer’s lifestyle often feeds into their creative process. Freedman equates writing a novel with solving a puzzle.

“There is a long period of free writing, when I'm not sure what I have or where I'm heading,” Freedman wrote. “Then I discard a lot of material, and move around the rest. It's like doing a giant puzzle when you don't have an image of the final product on the cover of the box. Eventually, I can start to determine a shape and then I write into the gaps. After that, I discard more materialoften reluctantlyand I polish what remains.”

Ruthnum follows a similar tactic for shorter pieces, attempting to push a draft forward quickly, taking the time to edit later. For longer pieces, he writes in longhand and on the computer until he has around 100 pages; from here, he sometimes outlines and creates timelines.

Maillard takes a very different approach to crafting his tales: He begins with characters. Only once he begins to think of his character as a real person does the story come to life—beginning with other characters who develop alongside the first. They start having conversations within the author’s head, at which point, a story begins to form around them.

The job of creating a new literary work can be exhausting, but the outcome has the potential to impact and bring meaning to lives in unimaginable ways.

After dedicating his whole life to writing, Maillard has gained perspective on his first attempt at producing something, and the eventual outcome of the novel.

“I tried [...] writing a novel [in university], and all I did was write the opening of it over and over again,” Maillard said. “So I had 26 basic versions of the same opening! They always started in the same place: It started with a university student that looks suspiciously like me, and he’s exhausted because he’s been going to class and [...] he has a nap in the afternoon. He’s been asleep for a couple hours, and he gets up, out of his little ratty apartment, and walks outside, just at twilight, in the rain. So I had 26 openings of him standing there, at twilight, in the rain, just woken up, and I never could get it.”

After creating an image of an ethereal sky and the scent of the sidewalk after rainfall, Maillard eventually did write that novel. Morgantown, about university students, remains one of his favourite novelseven after writing 12 others. He finds the fluctuating nature of young adults’ mindsets, either exuberant or depressed at any given time, a topic worthy of exploration. Although this novel did arise from 26 failed introductions, the characters and their stories prevailed in the end.

The preliminary journal entries, stories, poems, screenplays, songs, and creative articles that authors produce early on hold value, as they can eventually lead to improvements in writing techniques and evolved drafts. Ruthnum put emphasis on this early stage in his overall story as an author.

“[The] work leading up to [the Journey Prize]—writing bad stories that gradually got better, making attempts at screenplays when I was a teenager—that was the stuff that mattered more,” Ruthnum wrote.

Studying the motifs and tropes of other writers can help budding authors develop a style and rhythm. Each piece must resonate in some way, and encourage readers to feel—although each individual will feel something different.

“There are certain writers that you will like, and you should read all their stuff, and figure out why you like them and what it is they’re doing that you want to do too,” Maillard said. “You should always carry a little notebook with you wherever you go, because [when a] thought passes through your mind, you can jot it down. Otherwise it might get lost.”

He even keeps paper by his bed, in case he has an idea while he is drifting off to sleep.

Freedman recommends sharing work with friends—without whom she may not have published her novel. Ruthnum encourages regular work habits and ravenous reading.

“Find supportive communities of writers that allow you to advance in your craft, and in your compassion for one another,” Hertwig added to the ‘how-tos’ of writing.

He recommends going into a local bookstore, to the magazine section, and to find magazines that writers personally enjoy and find inspiring. It is important to read about and learn from those magazines, and then submit work to them.

Above all, authors need writing to be happy and fulfilled, and must be prepared to go through hell to make their work known to the world. In short, don’t write if you want an easy life.

“[Young writers] receive a lot of rejections. I can recall at one point receiving 19 rejections in a row from literary magazines,” Hertwig said. “Even writers who publish in New York, or who are doing all of these amazing projects, are still receiving rejections.”

All challenges aside, creative writing is important: Words have the power to change lives, and bring to light stories that may never have been told otherwise. The art has the power to invent new worlds and new lives, and to create emotions that bring human existence into question.

“Writing allows you to be interested in anything,” Maillard said. “You can get interested in some weird topic, and [maybe] it’s a story, and maybe it’s a novel, and that gives you the excuse to go and research all this strange stuff.”

As a writer torn between the many possible avenues science reporting and novel writing can offer, I completely agree with Maillard: Writing is freedom.

Knowing that your art, your words, and your creativity have changed lives is wholly satisfying—especially when blood, sweat, and tears contribute so abundantly to the finished product.

These are four authors among the world’s profusion, and they each bring entirely divergent methods, styles, and histories into the creative writing context. They represent a modest proportion of the world’s works, but a peek into their rationales might just change someone’s life.

Although I have yet to develop my own methods and advice as a creative writer, I do know one thing: Those who live and die to tell their stories learn unexpected things about themselves, others, and the power of art.