Another kind of classroom

© Cheryl Andrews

I’ve read a lot of début books over the past year or so – fiction, non-fiction, memoir, collections of short stories and poetry.  I’m not kidding myself either, as much as I love to read and have since first getting a handle on phonetics, something has shifted since I started writing.  I read these first books with an eye for the writing elements that would have made them stand out in the slush pile – that got them published.

This latest reading passion turned into quite a classroom!  (I’ve added the début category to my book shelf, if you are interested in checking out the 18 titles/authors.)  What have I learned?  Is there one factor that made these first books stand out in the heap?  Yes, I think so.  Even when the writing is weak:  thin dialogue, weighted down by cliché, continuity doesn’t flow, or descriptive passages are like trying to ‘take a sip from a firehose’, if the story line is gripping, I ignore and most times forgive first-time-published faux pas!  Sound arrogant?  It feels a little like it, but I’m a rampant consumer of books and a tough critic from that perspective.

But is it enough?

Since I started writing in 2006 when I took my first writing workshop, I’ve been beleaguered with doubts about my abilities and constantly wondering if a formal education (perhaps graduate work in the liberal arts) would hush those qualms.  Recently after some really bad writing on my novel, the question of education re-surfaced. I decided to scan a a long list of favourite authors’ bios for their credentials (John Irving, Toni Morrison, Alice HoffmanTom RobbinsBarbara Gowdy, etc., etc.)  and found a mix of self-taught vs. formally educated writers.  To my amazement my all-time favourite writer fell in the former category!

Lessons from Lessing

I’ve been reading Doris Lessing (a self-educated writer who quit high school at age 14) ever since a friend passed along a copy of The Grass is Singing some 30+ years ago.  It was her début novel in 1950.  I fell in love with her voice and style.  I agree with her critics, she is courageous, ambitious, brilliant, experimental, wise, curious and a shrewd visionary, fully deserving of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature.

So, did I learn anything in this latest bit of research?  Yes.  Doubt may not be such a bad thing after all.  If questioning my abilities keeps me reading, then I will be in a continuous state of learning about what it takes to be a writer!

Bye the way, at Bearly Used Books in Parry Sound (15 minutes from my cottage) I recently found pure Lessing  treasure: The Golden Notebook and a hard copy edition of The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and The Snow Dog.  I read Mara and Dann in 1999 as soon as it was released.

I’m heading to the end of the dock now to enjoy the sun and read the Mara and Dann sequel!  After that I’ll be on the hunt for a copy of Alfred and Emily, which Lessing claimed in 2008 would be her last book.