Once you’ve actually managed to say “I’m a writer” to people, the next step is to answer questions about your writing and yourself as a writer. It’s not always easy for a writer, or any artist, to talk about themselves or their work. I certainly find it very difficult and could often kick myself for being so awkward. I’m not thinking here about a hard sell, or about persuading a publisher to buy your book, but simply enjoying sharing your writerly self with anyone who shows a friendly interest.
As an ex-dance critic, I’m used to looking at art and discussing artists’ ideas and backgrounds but two artists on this year’s Tour des Arts in Quebec’s Eastern Townships were so interesting and engaged – and engaging – when talking about their work that it made me realize how important it is not only to enjoy and ‘live out’ this aspect of one’s writing life.
Sculptor Almut Ellinghaus invited me into her Aladdin’s cave of a workshop and passed me pieces of her work in various stages of process as she talked about the challenge of creating minimalist, but very expressive, faces. We considered where a smile starts, feeling our cheeks – where and how the muscles moved when we smiled, how they affected the lips, the eyes.
Martin Gendron had just nipped out when we arrived at his showroom so I was able to look at his photographic works at leisure. I enjoyed – without any extra information or insights – the Hitchcockian atmosphere of his purposeful striding figures and their ominous shadows, the vertiginous effect of his architectural works. But when he returned and talked about his background in film, graphic design and architecture, and shared with us details about the kind of paper he uses, his processes and the movie he’s working on right now, I became totally involved in his works.
I wanted to draw people into my work in the same way these artists had drawn me in – but it’s not so easy when you don’t have an artwork right there full of color and perspective and line to talk about. Using words to describe a painting is easier than using words to describe words, although I’m sure visual artists would disagree! (Dance ain’t so easy to talk about either.) In any case, I decided it was high time I found a better way to respond to questions about my writing than “uh, well, they’re sort of short stories you know, eh?”
It’s All In The Story
The approach and ‘exotic’ headings of a Blue Zoo Writers’ link, based on Patrick Hanlon’s approach in his book ‘Primal Branding‘, immediately opened up a different way for me to think and talk about myself as a writer, and about my work.
Working through the sections in this link, I realized it’s all about narrative. Finding the stories behind my writing was very energizing. Two sections were particularly helpful in prompting me look at myself and my writing in a way that produced plenty of lively, personal stories to draw on.
- Creation Story: I’d always been a little self-conscious about the fact that I hadn’t always wanted to write. Many writers seem to have known they’d become writers from their earliest moments. Looking at my writing history as a story, that difference became something to note, something I could talk about. What had I wanted to do? What made me start writing? How did I find my way to writing fiction? (I write about this moment on my Welcome page). In retrospect, can I see any signs that suggested I might end up writing fiction?
- Creed: Discovering the narratives behind “what drives your writing” involves looking at your own belief systems and analyzing your written (not necessarily published) stories. I had to think: Why do I like to write this kind of story? Why do I write about these particular themes? And the complex structures? Where did they come from? Where else is that evident in my life? Might my fascination with mysteries have something to do with the fact that although my father was very much present in my life, I only learned how he escaped to England at the outbreak of World War II when I was in my twenties, and how he got the forged pass twenty years after that, and another unexpected and dramatic piece of information ten years after his death?
I hope that telling these stories will not just entertain the person I’m talking to, but entice them into my writing world. A bonus would be if then they’d tell me their stories too.