As seen on The Afterword, presented by the National Post
May 5, 2010
Toronto-based writer Sarah Selecky guest edits the Afterword this week. Selecky, a long-time writing instructor, has had her stories published in Geist Magazine, The Journey Prize Anthology and Prairie Fire, among others. Her new anthology of stories, This Cake is For The Party, will be published by Thomas Allen on May 8th.
Can you live with the struggle of writing?
Last week, three of my writing students came to me separately for advice. Rachel* was tired: she could see all of the flaws in her stories, but after she edited them she saw more flaws – she wondered when she’d ever feel like her writing was good enough. Arlene was revising pieces that she felt good about and submitting them to journals and magazines, but she was only getting rejection letters. Kevin had been dedicated to a project for some time, but was having a hard time putting all of the writing together into a unified form – he felt that his writing was finally skilful, but he couldn’t get himself to finish anything.
I used to tell people that I learned how to write by teaching other people how to write. But what’s more important is that I have learned how to be a writer (which is not the same thing – the verb feels different than the noun, when you’re living it) by helping my students be writers.
There were years when I wondered if I was ever going to finish my book. I used to tell myself Even if you never publish this book, you are still a valid human being (seriously). When I admitted this to an established writer I admired, she said she felt the same way. Only her mantra was, “Even if I never publish another book, I am still a valid human being.”
So this is what I asked Rachel, Arlene and Kevin: Can you learn to love what you’re struggling with? At the very least, can you make peace with it? Because it’s not going to go away. You’re not going to reach some point in your life when you start writing things flawlessly. It’s not like one day everything you write will be published instantly. And you will probably always struggle with what it takes to start and finish a new project, too.
When I wrote the stories in my collection, I continually felt like I was trying and failing and trying again and failing again. Fact: I still feel this way. But I believe that it is this process that is the true work of a writer. Just as much as the writing. It is inseparable from the writing. As long as we keep this in mind, we will be okay.
* (These aren’t their real names. Is it fiction?)