Blunting the Knife

Blunting the Knife 

Alison Sinclair  

©2001, Alison Sinclair

A while ago at one of the annual Canada Book Days, I discussed revision with a man who said wistfully that when he started to polish his work, he polished and polished until he found himself left with "merely a handful of dust."    One woman I know longs to write, but cannot progress beyond the first paragraph because of her inability to be satisfied by her own words.   And another has a novel she has been writing and rewriting for ten or more years.   Each draft pleases her as little as the last. 


In her book Silences (a terrifying read for any writer), Tillie Olsen adds up the years lost to writing -- and the writers lost to writing -- from the external and internal forces she calls silencers.   This includes the one Louise Bogan called "the knife of the perfectionist attitude in life and art." 


As a sixteen-year-old I wrote longhand, working each paragraph over and over again before adding it to my fair copy.    Sometimes I became discontented with the fair copy, marked it up, and recopied the whole.    2,500 words was a long story for me.    Later, the knife cut more deeply.    Mainstream writing was ascendant, whereas my bent lay towards science fiction.   For several years I lived a double life, my writing self split at the root.    A friend and I shared authorship of a long, shaggy space opera whose writing amounted to an addiction.    On my own I scrawled tedious short stories modelled on what was being published by the literary magazines and small presses of the day.    The space opera, though full of life, was undisciplined and unpublishable;  I hardly thought of it as writing, and made no effort to develop my craft through it.    The mainstream stories were simply dreadful. 


Reclaiming my creative territory was a process that took years, marked by some distinctive turning points.    Banff Centre School of Fine Arts summer school was one.   Banff instructors taught the freefall method, wherein we had to spend time every day for three weeks hammering out whatever occurred to us on typewriters too primitive to have error correction -- no exercises, no set pieces, no assignments, nothing.    Natalie Goldberg describes a form of freefall in Writing Down the Bones -- a book I would highly recommend to any writer paralysed by the knife. She advocates writing in longhand, whereas for me the transition to the keyboard was an essential part of my liberation.    Quite simply, the ability to produce more words in the same time meant that individual words or even individual phrases were less precious.    And I could make my false starts evaporate with the touch of a key. 


Another process which began with Banff, and is ongoing, was the discovery of community.    I worked for years in virtual isolation apart from my one collaborator/friend and our shared fantasy space opera?.    Banff was my first experience of having people listen with respect as I began to articulate what was non-mainstream about my imagination.    I have actively sought out those people since. 


Later, there were my editors.     One of my powerful internal censors took the form of 'the worldly adult,' whose task it is to remind me of my childish unworldliness.    In my first book I had committed the solecism (at least in the modern literary climate) of writing a manuscript with a good man at the centre, and I dreaded having to defend my unrealistic characterization.    So the most important sentence in the editorial notes for Legacies was the observation, "Lian is a secular saint."   I released a long held breath.   She approved. 

Nevertheless, perfectionism cost me years of work.   It delayed my development and gave me the sense of my own mortality as a writer.   I know how completely I can lose myself and my writing.    So, perfectionism is the enemy.   Outwrite it -- try freefall, on a typewriter with no correction key, or in permanent ink in the cheapest scribbler you can find, if you are hampered by the sense of defacing paper (I have a crate full of notebooks too beautiful for my scrawl). If you are accustomed to longhand, type, if accustomed to typing, write.    Go for volume; don't reread;  don't look back.    Read biographies of writers;  even better, read their notebooks and journals.    Find out just how much unpublished and unpublishable material they produced on their way to writing those seamless final versions, and learn how they blunted the knife.    Recognize a hostile environment when you find yourself in one -- one in which writing, or your type of writing, is considered worthless.    If you cannot negotiate, escape.    Seek out the company of your own kind.  Take a writing course, go on a retreat, participate in an on-line forum.   Resist the urging (external or internal) that claims writing is only worth spending time on if ... if it's literary, if it's published, if it earns money. Study your own work patterns, and work with them as much as your situation allows.    There is no 'right way' to write, and running counter to your own physical and mental rhythms is one sure way to make work harder than it should be.    Above all, recognize that paralysis is neither natural nor healthy for a writer, even when it masquerades as virtue.