Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Risky writing

I really had to dig Steven Heighton's essay Hooked on esthetic risk that appeared on The National Post's Afterword blog earlier today. If you recall, I touched on the importance of taking risks in writing in my recent review of The Golden Mean, and I found myself agreeing with virtually everything Heighton had to say in his essay today.

If there is one writer in this country who can speak from experience about risk-taking in creative writing, it's Heighton. This is a guy whose work has moved fluidly between novels, short stories and poetry over the last 20 years, and no one could ever accuse him of writing the same book twice. I was pleased to read another Canadian author write so passionately about the need to explore new perspectives, to take on new challenges and write outside of one's points of reference. Heighton says:
Some years ago I realized that it was getting too easy for me to write from the perspective of characters of roughly my age, who shared my library, my stack of CDs, my frame of socio-political reference. Needless to say, that cruise-control ease was no guarantee of quality, or even authenticity. At any rate I was starting to bore myself ... So writing from the point of view of women—the gender I knew less about and, for a number of reasons, found more interesting—seemed an apt gamble on many grounds. Gamble, yes, because transgendered writing of this kind is harder, no question. But harder is good. Extending yourself creatively is good, flying the plane manually again is good, finding new constraints to work within is good.
I was especially heartened to hear a successful writer articulate and stand up for the importance of taking these sorts of risks, considering that one of the two protagonists in my own new (and still very much in-progress) novel is a Korean woman born in 1928. It gives me hope that this sort of thing not only can be done, but should be encouraged.

The only quibble I have with Heighton's essay is that he implies that the "repetitive story syndrome" he's fighting against is limited to middle-aged writers. Not so. I'm often surprised how many young scribblers, especially in this country, simply repurpose the mood, structure, approach or themes from their first book in their second and third books and beyond. Part of it might be the pressures of the book business, part of it might be the bureaucratic pigeonholing that goes on in our various arts administrations, and part of it might be the writer genuinely trying to stake out a long-term "vision" for his or her work. But I'm with Heighton. Doing the same thing (or even a similar thing) book after book after book would bore me silly.

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