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Finding the Words: Writers on Inspiration, Desire, War, Celebrity, Exile, and Breaking the Rules

by Jared Bland, ed.

Editor Jared Bland opens this essay anthology with a story about his father. The two of them were walking near their home when 13-year-old Bland said something offensive. Bland’s father pinned him against the wall of their house and warned him never to say anything like that again. The moment changed their relationship. The funny thing, Bland notes, is that he can’t remember what he said to provoke his father’s ire. “Language exists for us as something sublime – and, for some, even divine – as well as something incredibly banal,” Bland writes. “Is there anything else that is so defining yet disposable, so immortal yet instantly forgettable?”

Finding the Words, the proceeds of which go to PEN Canada, features 29 authors describing their struggles with language. In essays, interviews, and stories, these writers talk about war, history, home, travel, and technology, and how these forces have shaped what and how they write.

Not surprisingly, a few recurring themes emerge. Steven Heighton, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Karen Connelly each talk about the burden of being constantly connected to electronic gadgets and the Internet. In Connelly’s essay, “How to Swim in a Sea of Shit,” she says, “I am inundated with ­[e-mails], suffocating in apps, entangled in online petitions and Facebook, not waving but drowning in a mass of language from which there is no escape.” Over the past decade writers have become too busy to be bored – a prerequisite for inspiration.

Tash Aw and Rawi Hage discuss the difficulties of being immigrant writers. “All these loyalties, these burdens on nationalism, ethnicity, and origins, become, after a time, an overbearing baggage that opens and fills with self-reflections, doubts, and demands,” writes Hage.

The writers in Finding the Words offer a window into the challenges of finding appropriate language to express themselves. The book is slightly voyeuristic, but it’s also moving, and leaves the impression that all authors have one thing in common: writing – that is, finding the right words – is a never-ending struggle.