CAN THERE BE a Canadian with an interest in creative writing who hasn't heard of "Mitchell's Messy Method"? It seems unlikely, given W. O. Mitchell's talents as a colourful media interviewee, not to mention Messy Method testimonials from former students (the Vancouver novelist L. R. Wright, among others) of Mitchell's many classes in creative writing. There's even a partial description of the Messy Method in one of Mitchell's novels, Since Daisy Creek (1984). The first step, explains the creative writing professor-protagonist to his class, is to indulge in "free-fall thinking":
Every day for an hour - two - three - try to capture whatever floats to the surface of your consciousness .... It isn't really writing. It's finding. Each of you has a unique, stored past. Until you prospect it you cannot know how artistically valuable it may be.
Step two, when the time comes to consider "destinations, both thematic and story," is where the real problems begin. In a 1984 Quill & Quire interview with Alan Twigg, Mitchell explained his view that if a writer follows his "blueprint" too closely,
... you end up with something that's thin, cheesey, one-cell deep, contrived, carpentered, with no life resonance. The blueprint is always tentative, tentative, tentative. The trick is to keep open the sea caves, so new stuff is always surfacing as you write.
Mitchell's latest novel, For Art's Sake, is a product of the Messy Method if ever there was one. Studded with material culled from Mitchell's own "unique, stored past" and moving to a rhythm all its own, For Art's Sake could have been produced by no other writer. Art Ireland, Mitchell's sixtyish hero, is a part-time painter who teaches in the faculty of fine arts at Livingstone University, the same Prairie institution where Colin Dobbs taught in Since Daisy Creek. Untenured and needled by an officious dean, Art likens himself to an "academic Eliza trying to make it across the river, jumping from sessional ice cake to sessional ice cake, with Simon Degree in hot pursuit." On the plus side, he enjoys living on his Prairie farm with Professor, his golden retriever, and Florence, his housebroken pig, not to mention his three human housemates: Win, the actor; Darryl, the poet who works in Sears' menswear; and Charlie, the sculptor who, like Art himself, is a widower. Then one day, the officious dean pushes too far and Art resigns. He fully intends to keep his promise to his dear, dead wife by becoming a full-time, freelance artist; instead, he becomes the mastermind behind the biggest art thefts in Canadian history.
With the purest of motives, that is. Expounding on his new vocation to Darryl, Win, Charlie, and the choir of pigeons on the barn ridge above their conspiratorial hayloft, Art declares: "Art is no longer for all; it is for the private consumption of the individual, wealthy and commercially elite." His plan to right this injustice is to steal important works from private collections, hide them until the owners have been compensated by their insurance companies, then leave the paintings where they can be safely found. When the new owners - the insurance companies - move to recoup their losses by putting the paintings up for sale, the successful bidders are most likely to be public galleries and museums with government funding. The result: fine art will become available for all to see.
Mitchell's own delight in this idea leads him to ignore the probability that on a scale of one to 10 in real life, the chances of Art's scheme even getting off the ground would rank somewhere below zero. In the novel, Art thumbs his nose at the establishment and very nearly gets away with it - but not quite. Maybe what he and Mitchell both could have used was a better "blueprint."