I have recently returned from a writers’ retreat which involved, amongst other delights, two full days of writing workshops with an impressive line up of authors. The biggest draw for me was the author, Miriam Toews, whose book, All My Puny Sorrows, I read last summer and loved. The other draw was the fact that the retreat took place in Iceland.
Putting Iceland aside for the moment, it can be cause for apprehension when you meet an author you admire. You want so much to like them. In the case of Miriam Toews, because her book deals heavily with autobiographical content, I felt I had a pretty good idea of what kind of person she was. I felt certain I would like her. In fact, my notion of myself as a discerning reader depended upon it.
The room for her workshop was laid out with tables in the shape of a U facing a single chair at the front. Toews chose not to take up residence in the facing chair. ‘We are all writers,’ she said. ‘There is no divide here. I should be sitting with you.’ Compare her words with those of a celebrated visiting writer on a different retreat I attended some years ago, who said from his position of splendid isolation, ‘You too could be sitting here one day.’
I was right about liking her. Toews’ workshops were disarmingly laid back. We basically hung out as a group chatting about various aspects of writing. There was no mystique or pretension about her. She spoke passionately about the writing process and gave an honest appraisal of her own limitations.
This comradely approach was shared by the other authors. Neel Mukherjee told us, for example, about the rejections he had encountered on his journey towards the Man Booker shortlist. Adelle Waldman divulged how the failure of her first novel to achieve publication made the writing of the second so much harder, because she no longer laboured under the dreamy expectation of success. She also described the awkwardness of justifying her existence to friends and family when all she had to show for herself was a string of part-time jobs and a word document.
These successfully published authors agreed that the dividing line between recognition and anonymity was very fine. Once upon a time, they had been on our side of the line. They had the courtesy to suggest that what separated ‘them’ from ‘us’ could simply boil down to luck. But, of course, it isn’t only luck. There is also the writing itself.
Many people want to be ‘a writer.’ There is a whole industry built around fanning the aspirations of wannabes, including creative writing courses and retreats such as this. And now, with the advent of self-publishing, pretty much anyone can get to live the dream, however transient and flimsy that dream may be. But what really matters isn’t which chair you take in the workshop. The important struggle isn’t the struggle to get published. It’s the struggle to write well. Fortunately, we also talked about that. We looked at ways to make our writing better. We looked at novel openings, first person narratives, subverting the rules, changing point of view, character psychology and other useful topics.
There is the tortured genius type of artist who cannot bear to converse with mere mortals about his or her creative process. But most writers, I have found, are more down to earth people who aren’t interested in promoting a mystique about themselves, but are genuinely eager to communicate whatever lessons they have learned about how to make their writing work.
Of course, authors also do these gigs merely to pay the rent. But I suspect that, as empathy is a necessary attribute for a good writer, so then good writers naturally incline towards reaching out and helping others along the way. Which brings me back full circle to Miriam Toews and my relief and happiness to discover that I liked the ‘real’ person behind the quirky, funny and soulful prose of All My Puny Sorrows.
Talking of circles, what about the Golden Circle? What about Iceland? Ah yes. That was pretty good too…
For those interested, details of the retreat can be found here