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Field Notes - Finding your voice
by Gloria Hildebrandt

I MUST represent a large proportion of Books in Canada readers in my dreams of writing a book and getting it published. Another large chunk of readers must be Those Who Got There Before Me; some of whom, after recognizing my interest, have asked, "When is your book coming out?" The answer is: soon.

That is, I will be like Virginia Woolf and write significant literature in the morning and walk my dog and pick mushrooms in the afternoon, just as soon as I get my professional/private/financial/emotional life into some kind of stability. But to my amazement, there are people who aren't bothered about stability, and are making the time to write short stories and books, even though publication is unlikely, remote, or only occasional. Some of these writers' commitments extend to faithful membership in disciplined support groups. One support group in Toronto has been meeting for nine years. Although none of the founding members still belong, the group retains a couple of its original principles: its focus is on fiction, and its members follow critical techniques learned from Anne Montagnes, who teaches fiction-writing at the University of Toronto.

The group meets once a month and socializes over wine before reading aloud written criticisms of a member's work. After hearing everyone's response, the author has a chance to speak. The member whose work is to be discussed next month distributes manuscript copies to the others, who take them home for careful consideration, and the cycle begins again. Four members of this group got together recently to talk about themselves as emerging writers.

"We are not beginners," says Verne Sparks. "We don't see ourselves as being here to provide support and comfort to the first faltering steps of someone who's decided that they want to be a writer. We're looking for people who have been doing it, and by virtue of that experience know they can do it and want to do it."

Also important is a member's attitude to criticism. "You can't fold up in a comer and cry or sulk if people don't like what you've written," says K. D. Miller. "Similarly, you can't deliver a blistering, egotistical critique that just shatters a person. You have to be civilized and you have to be professional."

Membership is not limited to those who have been published. Miller has had several stories published in literary magazines, won literary contests, and been included in the Journey Prize Anthology. Kim Aubrey and Andrew Macrae have each had one story published. Sparks, however, does not submit his work for publication. Macrae is quick to defend Sparks, saying "In all fairness, Verne writes rather long short stories, close to novellas, which are very hard to get published."

What group members have in common is the value they place on their identity as fiction writers. "We don't write fiction for a living," says Miller. "It's not feasible. This creates a particular problem because it's very hard to define yourself as a writer in society. Unless you make bucks at it, you ain't real. It's very hard to tell yourself and to tell the world that yes, this is very real, though I'm not making a big buck at it yet or ever. This is the most important thing in my life. And this is how, at least in part, I would define myself. "

"If you can't take yourself seriously, how can anyone else be expected to?" agrees Macrae. "Let's face it. That's one reason why we get together. We all view each other as writers. It's not that we sit around and stroke each other, but by taking each other's work seriously, there is a very strong implied affirmation of the worth of what we're doing."

Aubrey has three stories being considered by literary magazines, but only Miller and Macrae feel close to being able to submit a book for publication. Macrae is revising a draft of a novel, and Miller is gathering a collection of stories.

The group is concerned about the issue of voice appropriation. "I worry about it," says Miller, "because it seems to me that I have an imagination, and if I want to write as someone from Mars, the Martian community shouldn't get testy about it." Aubrey, on the other hand, sees no problem with the self-censorship that may be encouraged by this issue. "You do tend to be careful," she admits, "for instance, if you have a character who's a racial minority or somebody that you supposedly wouldn't know anything about. You do have to be a little careful, I think, in how you pre, sent." Aubrey also thinks that people are overreacting to the issue of political correctness.

Miller adds, "I find it almost impossible to keep track of what's politically correct or incorrect this week. I hope I'm not coming across as a bigot, because I really don't want to put anybody down. I think that if you write in good faith and if you write sensitively and honestly, you won't. I also think that to depict something is not necessarily to advocate it. If I write a story in which there is a horrendous rape scene, for example, it may be necessary for that story for me to depict it vividly, but under no circumstances do I advocate such behaviour. And I think this point has been lost."

The group seems to have little regard for the taboo against simultaneous sub, missions. Macrae anticipates no trouble with conflicting offers of acceptance, saying, "I should live so long." Relating his experience of having a story accepted in a literary magazine, he says, "I sent it to 15 magazines and they were the last one to reply and the only one to say yes. It took five months to get back to me. So if there are 15 magazines and each one takes an average of three months, figure out how many years before you can send it to one of them at a time, get their answer, and then send to the next."

Sparks doesn't think that right and wrong methods particularly matter in publishing. "I tend to think that it's all chance," he says. "I assume that publishers want to publish. They want to publish people they think will be successful, so they're motivated to some degree to make what they think are the best choices. And I'm in there shooting craps with a lot of other people. Maybe I'll succeed and maybe I won't."

"I'm even more tooth fairy than that," says Miller. "I think that when a writer truly finds his or her voice and the voice is fresh, somehow it's going to come through. What's Andrew going to do, for instance? Turn himself into Stephen King? Andrew's going to write what Andrew's going to write. And that is very definitely his voice and his perspective and sensibility. To be any kind of good writer at all that's what you have to do. You have to be true about it."


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