Developing your own voice is probably one of the hardest, most obscure things to explain. Does it mean image patterns, the rhythm that you write in?
Surely it also means the content that you keep going back to again and again. I would suggest that people not worry about that for a long time. Everybody at the beginning sounds like someone else. Maybe the best that you can hope for when you are younger is an amalgam of other people.
Eventually, if you keep on writing and listening to yourself and your obsessions, you are going to come out more and more in your own voice. I think that when you begin writing you don't even know sometimes what you want to say, or how to say it, so you start to sound like other people. It seems to me, what you are learning at the beginning is a lot of craft rather than voice. The voice is going to come when your works mature.
This hasn't happened too often. My mother has wished that I hadn't published certain things about her. She feels that it's her life and I shouldn't be writing about it. I actually understand this more now that I'm older, but the fact remains she had a huge influence over me and the way I perceive the world.
The real question is whether one is writing to understand or explore a relationship or just to let off steam. Writing out of raw emotion may be therapeutic but one has to take it further than that to create poetry. Usually this means approaching the subject or person with compassion.
A lot of beginning writers find it really hard to share their work? Do you ever experience that kind of fear?
Actually, no, I never had that fear. I was willing to talk about anything, anytime. You could put this down as part of my exhibitionist behaviour or as a rather outrageous type of self-confidence. I never felt that there was anything that I could not say.
It is very difficult. I have taught many workshops. I have had students who will show their poem in a workshop but would never show their mother, or show their friends. This is because they are afraid that they may be laughed at, or someone will say, "My God, is that what she really thinks?" You might write about a sexual experience you have had, but you cannot show your mom that. Moms do not want to know about that.
For me, as long as it is in good taste. Taste is very personal. It is coloured by our environment, by our society, by our culture, and by our peers. I think that we become less afraid the older we get. I think that for high school students and for young people in university it is difficult and frightening. If you are living with your boyfriend or your girlfriend and you write about a girl. You then show it to her and she says, "But that's not me. Are you seeing somebody else?" He says, "No! It's about you." It is really about the mythical woman. It is not personal, yet it reads personal. So it is very difficult sometimes to get that trust to come back to you. How you conquer that, I think, is by your desire to be a writer. For a writer, there is no subject that cannot be talked about, nothing that cannot be said.
Is there anything you would stress to young writers?
Reading is really important. You find out what's already been done, and different ways of approaching language. It's liberating to pretend you're someone else. Even just the vocabulary. Sometimes I'll think, "How would Alice Munro say it? Or Barry Hannah? Or Thomas McGuane? Or Joan Didion? Or Martin Amis?"
Sometimes I'll buy a novel that I don't think will be perfect, but the vocabulary will be worth it. I had an agent say to me once, "Gee, I wish you could be more commercial." I always wind up being fairly Jarmanesque. I'd rather do what I feel like doing and see what happens.
Did you have any formal training?
No, not really. I did go to university, but I took teacher training, specializing in English and Math. I only took one writing course for about a full year. A little workshop with seven people meeting in the evenings around a table, reading our stories to one another and talking about them and getting advice and criticism.
Even in university I feel that writers can learn from other writers. It is a way of shortening the apprenticeship. I took the long way and the hard way, by doing it in private and having to make all the mistakes myself. I don't wish I'd had or didn't have workshops. This was my way of doing it and eventually it paid off.
I think one of the most important things a writer can do is to read. Read other people's work, intelligently, to see what they did and how they did it. I taught myself that way. The true teachers for a writer are those writers that he or she admires. If you admire somebody's writing, then you want to write yourself.
I don't think people write to win prizes, we get sucked into competitions and contests because it's one way to showcase your work and it's a validation. It also creates a competitiveness and bitterness among writers and other people of the arts.
For me, writing is like a hen laying eggs: it's just a bodily function, it's something you have to do. If you love language, you like to shape it. It helps you to shape your own experience and hopefully to communicate other people's feelings.
A radio interviewer asked me whether I thought that winning the Stephen Leacock award was going to help my career and I had to laugh. People start thinking that writing is a career. Under career in the dictionary it says a standard job, but it also says going downhill out of control, and I think maybe that's what poetry is all about. If winning a prize makes you more willling to take risks in your writing, that's fine.
Do you look for inspiration, or does it find you?
I don't believe in inspiration. I think it's consistent hard work. Don't wait around. Simply go to work. When you get an idea, then sometimes it's really wonderful working because you get extra drive. It's like gardening. You create the environment and the conditions and things just grow.
If you love writing as a process, you'll always be happy, and it'll give you a great amount of personal satisfaction. But if you want the money and the fame, there'll always be someone more famous and somebody richer, so you'll be dissatisfied. So that's not the reason to have a career in writing. You spend a lot of time alone. It requires great discipline. You have to work whether or not you feel like it today; that's the only way to do it, day by day.
What part of your life influences your writing the most?
That`s a funny one. I`ve never thought of that, but I`d have to say the details. It sounds kind of corny in a way, but you know, the weird light coming off that glass ashtray.
This morning, for instance, I was at the petting zoo with my kids, and this peacock reared its head back and started that peacock yell, and you could see its breath, and I thought, "Wow, I`ve never seen that before." It`s those little surprise details, you know, I wanted to write that down, or to remember it as something kind of neat to record. So I`d have to say details make travel so good because you`re wide awake when you`re travelling, you`re excited. There`s also that element of danger and insecurity, all of that stuff, so you`re noticing all of these details.
What percent of submissions would you say actually get published?
Really small. On our rejection slip we say about three percent, but I actually think it might even be lower than that. We get a lot of submissions.
Do you think it`s important for writers to send work out to magazines and is it a good process for them?
I do. I don`t think it makes much sense to send things out to magazines if you`re not actually reading magazines because you don`t have a sense of what`s out there. You`re more likely to be rejected, so the experience might be more painful. But if you`re actually reading work that`s being published, it`s a way of measuring your work. It`s putting yourself in the world, taking part in a conversation, because I think that`s what literary magazines are. They`re conversations among writers.
Do you find it easier to write about things that you know from personal experience?
Two of the things I say to my students—I always begin my courses with
this—“Write what you know, and write what you care about”. And then, of course, there are always people that say— and they always do this for effect—“Write about what you DON'T know!” But people that say that are, I think, terribly dishonest, because they leave out the second part. And the second part is: “Go out and learn about it, and then write about it!”
I don't know anything about…astronomy, but I could write a novel about an astronomer if I learned about it. You have to know about it, otherwise when you tell the story you'll make all kinds of errors…and people who have any knowledge will know you're a fool.
The second half of what I say is “Write what you care about.” Writing is about emotion more than thought; if you want thought, go to philosophy. If I don't care about something, how am I to get you to care about it? You're here because you care about writing. There's a whole bunch of people who AREN'T here because they don't care about writing. They care about soccer, baseball, or science. So if you care about something, then you have a chance of getting other people to care about it.
W. D. Valgardson
Do you have any authors you particularly admire? And if so, who and why?
Flannery O'Connor…I tell people that one day I'm going to get to Georgia…and I'm going to get to put flowers on her grave. I think she was an incredibly brave young woman. She knew she was dying of cancer. Instead of giving up, she just wrote more. And that's why I have very little patience with students who then say, “Oh I broke up with my boyfriend/girlfriend. I couldn't write because the room was the wrong colour."
People have faced horrendous things in their lives and they continue to write. Flannery O'Connor wrote, knowing she was dying. Her stories are wonderful, and everyone, I feel, should read them. She was masterful when it came to creating atmosphere and creating characters, and observations of people. And she told a good story!
Hemingway, of course. I've always looked to from the time that I was in college. Also, Jane Austin and Thomas Hardy. These are all great authors of the past, but I've found they've been excellent teachers.
W. D. Valgardson