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Writing Life: Celebrated Canadian and International Authors on Writing and Life

by Constance Rooke, ed.

Reading this collection of essays and memoirs on the vagaries, challenges, and joys of the writing life, a composite portrait of the Canadian Author slowly emerges. Curious, slightly earnest, lovingly self-absorbed but concerned with the injustices of the wider world, this Canuck Everywriter is more comfortable pacing his home office in a pair of frumpy carpet slippers than chasing the almighty dollar. They are odd creatures, these writers, but not too odd. They won’t get drunk and hit on your date; if anything, their fount of anecdotes, apt literary quotations, and non-didactic liberal humanist beliefs make them the perfect dinner-party guests.

Perhaps this repetition of tone is less conspicuous when the collection is taken as it is probably meant to be: one or two pieces at a time, over a month of bedtime readings or during an extended stay at the cottage. After all, one can only read so many artfully constructed metaphors for the creative process before the eyes begin to glaze over. But reading the collection as a whole, it’s hard not to wonder why Canadian writers feel such a strong compulsion to present themselves as so fundamentally unthreatening.

Luckily, a few of the pieces dare to challenge and even offend, and in the process present a far more credible and compelling portrait of the typical author: acquisitive, ego-driven, insecure to the point of pathological, the stealer of other people’s life stories and darkest secrets. In “On Behaving Badly,” Lynn Coady pines, half-ironically, for the days when writers were supposed to get drunk at readings and mock the bourgeois complacency of the audience, while Margaret Drabble (one of the few non-Canadian contributors) sums up the slippery ethical position of the author with devastating candour: “Perhaps writing is theft, and the using of the lives of others is morally, if not legally, criminal.” There are also some genuinely engaging glimpses into the psyches and daily rituals of those who choose to recreate the finest and saddest moments of life through the medium of the written word.

It’s nice that Canada has so many authors that our Gentle Readers would be proud to take home to meet their parents, but as the best pieces collected here demonstrate, it’s a hell of a lot more fun to hang out with the afflicted and the difficult than the polished and the professional.