Reading is to writing like breathing is to yoga. Sage words from Alberta writer Aritha van Herk.
My writer friend Lori Hahnel (author of Love Minus Zero and Nothing Sacred and mother of Diorama Dan the author of Tofu Man) and I went to Aritha van Herk’s presentation of Writing: The Dubious Occupation at the Alexandra Writers' Centre.
Aritha is the award winning author of five novels and 3 works of non-fiction including the most recent Mavericks: an Incorrigible History of Alberta. She is a professor at the University of Calgary.
Ariths says the profession of writing bears the weight of a lot of romantic claptrap, and there is a difference between being a writer and writing.
Being a writer evokes images from the beat generation of writers swilling whisky and smoking cigarettes in a dark lounge while wearing berets and reciting poetry. Aritha points out that the reality of writing is the exact opposite. It leads to numb bum syndrome from butt in chair time; you have to keep going at all odds; and, you have to get through a lot of bad writing to get to the good stuff.
In order to become a writer Aritha says you have to do two things: write and read. Write is a verb and she can’t underline the word read enough times.
The dubiousness of writing as a profession lies in the contradictions inherent in the reality of writing. Aritha outlines that writing as a profession can:
- be a ruthless mistress;
- lead to anti-social behaviour (butt in chair time);
- create creatures of grumpiness ('cause our butts are sore from being in the chair);
- lead to inactiveness (see: butt in chair time); and
- lead to wildly and inappropriately social behaviour (like when we’re promoting a book).
I commented, in my interview on the Indie-Debut 2010 website that I’m either at home in my sasquatch writing cave wearing sweat pants, chomping on sour ju jubes, swilling chai tea with five days growth of leg hair, or I’m all cleaned up with fresh lippy applied and ready for my close up.
Two more bits of sage advice Aritha offered up: tell lies with impunity and let got – stop all manner of restraint (again two things that contradict how one must act in real life but are essential for writing).
With a nod to the ‘read everything in sight’ advice, including traffic signs, menus, cereal boxes – here’s a sign I read in Inglewood before Aritha’s presentation. It’s on the storefront of the local refundable bottle depot. And people say we don’t treat artist well around here – look we bottle poets! What more do you want?! I’d like to go in and ask them to take me to the shelf that has the bottled poet!