Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing edited by Anne Giardini and Nicholas Giardini

Published by Random House Canada, 2016.

Disclaimer #1: I apologize to the memory of Carol Shields for where her essay on Canadian publishing took me. Right straight to moose porn.

Disclaimer #2: I swear, I will review books on writing by authors I’ve actually read. These first couple of books just happen to be what I’ve had in front of me to read.

Startle and Illuminate is a book of essays about writing written by Carol Shields throughout her career and compiled/edited posthumously by Shields’ daughter and grandson. Confession: I’ve never finished reading a work by Carol Shields. I tried to read Happenstance for a book club and I couldn’t get past a few chapters. I had zero interest in the book and so put it aside and didn’t attend the book club that month. I know she wrote other books, but my experience with Happenstance (and the inexplicable fact that I ended up with not one but two copies of that accursed book!) made me turn away from this Canadian icon. Until now, as I’m looking for books on writing to read/absorb/review. So I tentatively started reading it; the forward by Jane Urquhart then the two long-winded introductions by first Anne then Nicholas Giardini made me wonder if I was going to regret picking this up, too. But once I started reading the essays, especially the first three or four stand out in my mind, I knew this was worth the initial slog.

I liked her turns of phrases and how her process included compartmentalizing chapters as boxcars in her head in order to keep track of the bits and pieces of her novel. Writing a novel scares the beejesus out of me, even though I’ve done it a couple of times before, albeit with not-great results, hence the fear. Something I found completely relevant to my current writing goals is how she describes a novel: “…long pieces of writing are made up of short pieces somehow sewn together.” This is right in the spirit of this site’s motto: “Every Word Counts!” I’m hoping that focusing on the shorter bits will help me overcome the idea in my head that I can’t write long form. I know I can; it’s a matter of getting words on paper/computer and making a novel. To quote the eternally wise Bob from the movie What About Bob?: “Baby steps to four o’clock.” I can make it to four o’clock. I know I can!

The most helpful chapters/essays for me were: “Boxcars, Coat Hangers And Other Devices,” “Myths That Keep You From Writing,” and “To Write Is To Raid.” These are amongst the first few chapters/essays and contain succinct advice that stand on their own outside of the whole (which makes sense considering these were essays published separately throughout her career). I found myself taking several notes from these three chapters, but not as many from the essays afterwards. Writing things down helps me remember them. It’s a muscle memory thing that tends to work at least some of the time.

The chapter called “Writing from the Edge” was a different take on Canadian literature. I didn’t know that in 1960, only five (!) Canadian novels were published. It’s hard to imagine such a small number in this day of self-publishing, small and indie presses, as well as the big publishers that only five Canadian books were published in an entire year. I know people who self-publish that amount in a month or two! Shields goes on to explain that the centenary of Canada boosted national identity to inspire Canadians to create “Canadian content,” a catch phrase that sometimes feels like a trap to those who want stories beyond the prairies. This chapter gave me something new to think about: do I want to set my stories in Canada or abroad? My current series is set in space, but when I come back to earth, how “Canadian” do I want my stories to be? Thinking about the things I’ve written and/or published, I don’t think my stories aren’t particularly Canadian apart from likely spelling and colloquialisms. Would anyone want to read Erotica Canadiana? I’m not sure there’s enough of a market for moose-inspired sexy stories. Or maybe it’s an untapped market?! Again. Something to ponder.

Adding this since I’m apparently not the first person to think about moose porn: 

In the section titled “Be Bold All the Way Through,” a chapter of short quotes all about writing, I was drawn most of all to these nuggets about poetry, my first love that I sadly don’t spend enough time reading or writing: “There is one line that unwinds a poem. A poem should be a flash of a camera; some part of it goes off.” And “The idea of rhyme in poetry comes out of prayer, incantations, ringing bell, hands clapping.” And “Poetry hands people an experience they’ve had but haven’t articulated.” I haven’t written a poem in a while. These lines make me realize I should get back to it, maybe revisit some of my previous work to see if I have a flash of a camera in there, and add one in if it’s not there.

Two sections that didn’t hold my interest at all were “Be a Little Crazy; Astonish Me” and “From the Letters.” The former questioned whether or not writing could be taught, which I found hypocritical from someone who taught writing. The premise to the latter was that letters written by Shields to her students about particular works included universal advice, which obviously went beyond my scope since I lost interest quickly in each letter. Sometimes, a letter about a specific thing really is a letter about a specific thing and shouldn’t be made into something grander. Or maybe I was just too tired to read between the lines. Regardless, I didn’t finish reading most of the letters. Life’s too short to spend it reading something that brings no joy/knowledge/truth about marketing lumberjack erotica.

Conclusion: all in all, Startle and Illuminate contained some sound advice on various topics of writing. Not every essay is a winner, but there are enough essays here that even seasoned writers should be able to glean something useful from Shields’ experience, although if you’re anti-feminist or get annoyed by talk of Canada and/or name-dropping, you might want to avoid this book. Also, if you write genre fiction instead of literary forms, this book may not be for you as it’s mostly focused on writing for literary markets. Thoughts about maple syrup/lumberjack/moose-inspired erotica are wholly my own and no reflection on Shields’ advice to writers.

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