Over the years I have had the opportunity to attend hundreds of author readings. Many I remember for being particularly wonderful and a blessed few for being rather dreadful. Almost without exception each reading closed with a question and answer session and without fail the author is asked the following question: “What advice do you have to give to aspiring writers?” I have heard this question asked of first time novelists and Pulitzer prize winners, poets and essayists and children’s book authors and historians. Most of the answers I have heard were, I have to say, forgettable. I say that because I’ve forgotten them. However I do remember two pieces of advice that I would pass on to anyone trying to live the writing life.
The first piece of advice is practical. Patrick Lane, who is one of Canada’s greatest poets as well as an essayist, novelist and teacher, said that to be a great writer one had to first be a great reader. I don’t know if these are his exact words, but in my mind I can hear his emphatic growl; “Read as much as you can. Read voraciously and read indiscriminately. Don’t just read the writers that people tell you are great - read everything and everyone. You have to see all the different ways that writing is done before you can hope to find your own voice.” These words affected me deeply, and even though I have not pursued the writing life I made a conscious effort to avoid reading the same types of books and writing styles too often. Years after I heard Patrick Lane give this advice I stumbled across a similar quote by William Faulkner:
“Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.”
That Patrick Lane had reached the same conclusion as Faulkner seems a very strong validation of the importance of reading.
The second piece of advice I have never forgotten was given by Timothy Findley. He was in Calgary touring in support of his book Pilgrim and after his reading the line-up to get books signed was hundreds of people long. After about an hour of signing and chatting, two teenage boys timidly approached the table. As Findley signed their books, one of the young men screwed up the courage to say that he wanted to go into drama in University, but that his parents were against it. Findley’s hand froze in mid-signature and he looked up at the boy with fire in his eyes. “Never, ever, let anyone talk you out of following your passion!” he said in a voice tinged with anger. “Whatever you feel you were put on this earth to do you must do it no matter what anyone says!” Again I can’t say these were his exact words, but these are the words as I remember them. I could see that boy instantly resolved to follow his passion.
I have thought of that young man often in the years that have past. He would be about thirty now. Did he follow his passion?
Have I followed mine?
And you? Do you truly wish to be a writer? If so, then from this day forward, don’t let anything or anyone stop you.
For books with more inspirational insights and writerly wisdom, click these covers to link to the library catalogue.