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Forgive Your Parents, Forget Your Childhood
by Dennis Mccloskey

A FEW WEEKS BEFORE he died - on November 7, 1990 Hugh MacLennan wrote to me from Montreal, responding to a question I had posed a few weeks earlier: "What advice would you offer a person who aspires to a writing career?" I had asked the author who is best known for his 1945 novel, Two Solitudes. "Get a job which will support you and write as well as you can;" he advised. "In time you may make a breakthrough." His practical, two-fold tip reminded me of Somerset Maugham`s famous remark that there are actually three rules for writing the novel. "Unfortunately no one knows what they are," the English novelist and playwright added. So it is with giving advice to prospective writers. No one knows the best recipe or the proper route to becoming a successful writer. That doesn`t mean there aren`t plenty of people willing to take on Ann Landers`s role and impart their well-meaning jewels of wisdom - mainly because it costs them nothing. My rule of thumb is to consider the source and listen to practical tips on any topic - as long as it`s short. (For example, never play cards with a man named Doc and don`t eat at a restaurant called Mom`s, as Nelson Algren famously advised.) In his 1951 book A King`s Story, Edward, Duke of Windsor, said the only positive pieces of advice he received came from a courtier who told him: "Never miss an opportunity to relieve yourself and never miss a chance to sit down and rest your feet." A career in writing affords one the same opportunity - depending on how you look at it - because we sit all day resting our feet and relieving ourselves of all the creative thoughts that flow from our minds where they`ve been stored over a lifetime. But not everyone welcomes advice, and "those who want it the most always like it the least" observed Lord Chesterfield in 1748. And not everyone needs pointers on how to choose a field. Robert Benchley said it took him 15 years to discover he had no talent for writing, but he couldn`t give it up because by that time he was too famous. Recently, I thought of the many people who would like to pursue a writing career but are leading lives of quiet desperation because they don`t have access to a well-meaning mentor or a well-known author to direct them on the path to literary nirvana. So, I contacted a number of Canada`s best-selling authors and asked them what advice they would offer a person who aspires to a writing career. Most of the responses I received were concise and succinct. Pierre Berton says his best advice is two-fold: "One, read as much as you can and try to see how other writers did it. Two, write as much as you can. There`s nothing like trial and error." Many of the comments I received are surprisingly similar. Aritha van Herk suggests reading a book a day - "a good book." Likewise, Max Braithwaite says: "Read a lot. And write!" And here are some more suggestions, tips, opinions, comments, and bits of encouragement for those who want to write professionally, from those who have been doing it successfully: ROBERTSON DAMES: "Sit down and write. You will teach yourself; nobody else can teach you to write like yourself and there is no sense in writing like anybody else:" ROBERT MUNSCH: "One, get a job that pays money. Two, write in the evenings. Three, hustle a lot. Four, quit the day job if you can." FARLEY Mow,: "Stay away from writing courses and similar traps, and read, read, read as if your life depended on it (as indeed your hoped-for literary life truly does). Write like a person possessed. Keep a voluminous daily journal and don`t let a day go by without heating up your typewriter or, heaven forfend, your word processor, to incandescence. You can`t spell? Don`t worry about it ... neither can V` JOY FIELDING: "Don`t worry about what people might want to read. Concentrate, instead, on what you want to write. If something really interests you, the odds are that it will interest a lot of other people as well. Also, forget about your childhood. Chances are it`s of interest only to you and your immediate family:` JANE RULE: "I don`t know anything about writing as a career. For me it`s been an obsession - a fairly expensive one for the first 20 years, during which I ignored all good advice to stop. Writers, like other people, don`t want advice. They want encouragement and there`s very little of that around until long after it`s needed." GORDON KORMAN: `Read a lot, write a lot, and always plan before you write a single word. Get an agent! (I can`t stress this enough.)" MAX BRAITHWAITE: "Learn by trial and error. Don`t waste your time and money on writing classes. Study the specific market you want to write for and write to sell, not to show friends. They cant give you an objective assessment and they arerit the ones buying your manuscript." JEAN LITTLE: "Read prodigiously. Only by reading many fine books can you come to understand how books work. Your best teachers are always other writers. Start writing and keep writing. Always remember that you are not writing to please your family or friends or writers` groups but for a weary editor and other total strangers. If this excites you, keep going." MARIE-Ct2,iitE BLAIS: "Be patient because it is a difficult career. Try not to lose confidence in yourself, in your work, and be constantly curious about human problems and human tragedy. To have a sensitive soul is important, too." MATT COHEN: "Many beginning writers have an abundance of talent but few have the energy, the concentration, or the technical skills to transform a promising first draft into an accomplished final draft. Unless he or she is a born genius, in which case reading articles like this is a waste of time, the best thing an aspiring writer can do is to read good books - their contemporaries, the classics, and everything in between:` JUNE CALLWOOD: "Read, read, read. Forgive your parents:" ERIC WRIGHT: "Take a course. All my life I have been very skeptical of courses in creative writing, journalism, and business, on the grounds that hardly any of the leading practitioners in these areas had any formal training. Now I think that there are good, other reasons to take a course in writing - at least fiction writing. You can begin to find out what you can do more quickly in a formal program than alone in an attic. Inside a program, you will be forced to produce and you will have to get used to exposing your work - the minimum requirement for the aspiring writer. A lot of people I respect claim to have learned something from teachers and you may, too:" TIMOTHY FINDLEY "Stop threatening to do it and do it. Once you`ve started, refrain from boring your family and friends with doubts about your ability to do it. Doing it means submitting it. Start the series of rejections early. Publishers are a bit like figure-skating judges: they expect you to make a few embarrassing appearances before they`ll take you seriously. However, keep the rejected work; it may some day be tamed into literary gold. Don`t set out to write a best seller. Simply try your damnedest to build, word by word, that marvellous book your imagination has let you glimpse. Try keeping a notebook. Use it as an artist uses a sketchbook. Try to capture someone or some place in words. It`s not only a good exercise, it may find a place in one of your stories. Ask yourself if you shouldn`t really stop trying to be a writer. If your answer is that you can`t stop trying, then you are a writer. And so, good luck!"

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