Saturday, October 31, 2009

John Irving On Writing and the Start of NaNoWriMo Tomorrow

Tomorrow is the first day of effort on my NaNoWriMo Project. For those you who haven’t read my previous blogs on NaNoWriMo and want the details go here.

This week has been a week of contemplation… I really did not (yet) progress any further my novel plan, and I admit I am not as prepared for writing the novel as I would prefer. However,  I am much better prepared mentally and this blog is in part to explain my epiphany as it is to tell you about some neat things which have been happening in the City.

Toronto's 2009 International Festival of Authors

This week has been the week of the International Festival of Authors in Toronto and our city has been host to a great number of renowned authors who are front and centre in the media as much as involved in the IFOA events such as readings and author panels. The Globe and Mail has done a great job of covering these author events and I would suggest checking out the dozen or so pod casts recorded at the events to see if your favourite author is included.  The Pod casts can be found here.

The highlight of the Festival is tonight’s event where the Scotiabank Giller Prize Finalists, authors shortlisted for the richest literary fiction prize in Canada, close the IFOA reading from their books. Kim Echlin, Annabel Lyon, Linden MacIntyre, Colin McAdam, Anne Michaels are the 2009 Giller Prize Finalists.

As a consequence of all these literary events we have had lots of author stuff going on and in the news.  Last Sunday I listened to one such event,  a radio interview with John Irving on Michael Enright’s Sunday Edition on CBC Radio 1.

CBC's Michael Enright's Interview with John Irving

I listened with great interest to the program, eager for any secrets on novel writing that he might reveal and there was more than one ah ha on my part. Aside from that, which I will deal with in a moment, John Irving came across as warm and calm in demeanor as well as articulate and insightful. He spoke as one who has reflected a great deal about how he approaches his craft and in general as a man whose opinions were carefully thought through before being expressed.  I guess this is to be expected as spent many years as a University Professor.  I liked the man.

The most pressing topic for discussion during the interview, was the nature of his latest novel, Last Night in Twisted River. It’s protagonist features a man who's a lot like Irving himself – it is set in New Hampshire (not unique for a John Irving novel, admittedly), the main character is a writer who has a cottage on Georgian Bay and studying with Kurt Vonnegut at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. These are all things one would discover reading John Irving’s bio – but was the novel really meant to be about John Irving? Apparently not.

Entwined in the ensuing discussion was the concept that what is revealed about this novelist in his novels is as much about what they don’t say about him as it is about what they do say about him - if you are interested in more you will need to listen to the podcast - it is an interesting line of thought.   Of course we all know that novelist use bits and pieces of their life circumstances and the people around them – but that does not make it autobiographical. To put it in the way we often see rolling across the screen when seeing a movie, “any similarities with people living or dead is just a coincidence” particularly true if the work is published as a fictional novel.

As mentioned, I was eager to hear John Irving tell us about how he crafts a novel. I was very surprised to hear that it normally takes him 4-6 years from planning to completion.  Wow, I guess my novel is going to be a longer project than I had previously thought.

Most interesting was that he does not start the first draft until he is able to write the last sentence of the novel. When he starts writing the draft he is re-telling a tale that he has entirely thought through. He says that after he writes that last sentence he is able to write and complete the entire novel without changing more than a semi colon in that originally written last sentence! He absolutely sticks to the rule that if he cannot believe he has really written the last sentence of the novel he will not start the first draft. I was very impressed – he must have his novels extremely well planned out!

That got me to thinking I am not even close to being ready to start my novel by his standards… I still haven’t even gotten as far as the ending. I have managed to put those thoughts aside – after all nothing ventured nothing gained. As one of my friends pointed out when I discussed this with him – I can always just kill everyone off as the ending LOL…

In truth though, for me I think there is a greater danger to never start the novel because putting off starting with the excuse that more pre-work is necessary.  I am not John Irving – so I won’t let my lack of an ending stop me from throwing my hat into the ring with the 150,000 world wide who have registered for NaNoWriMo this year and who will write the first sentence of their next Novel tomorrow morning. Incidentally, last year there were 1,700 NaNo participants in the City of Toronto alone! But I digress…

A second interesting bit of information is that he writes his novels using pen and paper and types them on one of several IBM Selectric Typewriters he owns.  He believes that the keyboard allows one to write too fast and (my words) the writing gets ahead of the thinking.  Hmm, have to think about that one.

The last nugget of information which I found very interesting and insightful had to do with the role of re-writing in getting a novel finished. John talked about the years he spent involved in college level wrestling and how it taught him the discipline of practicing some small detail until it was precisely correct in its execution. He said this helped give him the stamina for a lot of rewriting – successful authors have to accept the fact that much of their time is spent rewriting their novel. He said that after he finishes a first draft he will rewrite it completely 3 or 4 times!

This certainly helps put into perspective what I can accomplish in writing my first draft of my novel in November. If I will need to plan to re-write it entirely several times, I should just spend the whole month getting it done, getting the creative ideas to flow through my fingers into the written page (ok, displayed screen)  and turn off “my inner editor”. If I don’t focus on how I am saying something, but just telling the story however it might come out, it will be easier. Not to mention removing one distraction – the desire to rewrite a paragraph until it says exactly what I want it to say, which will surely eat up lots of hours, if I can use my blog writing experience as any measure.

After listening to the Irving interview I felt less pressured to produce a "good" product and more interested in just going through the process and seeing how creative I can be with my ideas and letting my story tell itself - whether I cross the finish line with completely written novel of 50,000 words ready to share with friends is not the point. I will worry later about turning it into a "good" novel and proclaim now that I will not share the first draft with anyone.

If you want to listen to the CBC interview of John Irving, it is available on Podcast here. To see what wiki has to say about him go here.

Cuban in London's Blog and the Zadie Smith Essay

Before I end this blog, I really have to spend a paragraph or three telling you about another blog which has been helpful to my state of mental preparedness. A Cuban In London is a blogger I follow on a regular basis. A side from his regular contributions in the music, literary and opinion category, he has a regular Tuesday feature I have been following.  CiL has been sharing with us, by installment, an essay by Zadie Smith, called What Makes A Good Writer?

I can't include any quotes from her essay in this blog due to copyright restrictions but she did express a thought which particularly resonated with me.  She said, and l paraphrase here, novels are all unique but they share the ability to command our attention and take us out of our ordinary lives. (please see CIL's blog and the 8th installment which deals with style and quality for the quote I am referring to.)

One thing I have taken away from this thought  is that there is a great breadth of room for novels of all types and as different as night and day – I might add this is true for all creative mediums and means that no one approach or style or genre is any more or less than the other.  I smile as I recall one friend who was surprised that I would want to write sci fi  or another when I said I wanted to try a romance - both implied by tone that it was a lesser form of novel than I should attempt.

Each week when the next installment of Zadie's essay arrived, it has given me reason to stop and think about the art and craft of writing and the effort I am planning to undertake starting tomorrow.  I appreciate the genius of CiL as recognizing the essay as something which needed to be shared with a wider audience and his efforts to do so and I look forward to the remaining installments.

I won’t review more of Zadie Smith’s essay here, suffice to say that I recommend a read of the blogs (which started early Sept and runs for about another month or so each Tuesday). Go here to start at the first installment.Part 1 of Zadie Smith's Essay "What Makes a Good Writer"  Also, don't skip the reader's comments they are always interesting and often better illuminate and add to thoughts expressed in the essay itself.

And So For November!

For the month of November I will resist the urge to give you more than a progress report on my NaNoWriMo effort, but I promise a full accounting of the month’s madness in a few retrosopective posts in December!

1 comment:

  1. I say him on 'the hour' on cbc it was a very good interview and good luck with NaNo.
    Thanks for sharing and all the very best.


Related Posts with Thumbnails