18 Oct 2007, 4:20pm
Books Creative Writing Ottawa

David Gilmour and Michael Winter Talk on Secrets of the Writing Life

The highlight of the festival yesterday for me was Secrets of the Writing Life. It was fun and brilliant, popping with ideas and positive vibe.

secrets of the writing life

Host Sean Wilson (left most) facilitated well with interesting questions and the novelists got on well. David Gilmour of The Film Club (center) and Michael Winter of The Architects are Here (right most) both fluidly exchanged ideas with humor and ease. The audience was mellow but interactive.

Both write from their lives, from their direct experience, in a pretty direct language. They agreed on the delicate art of “private vanities” as Gilmour put it. People in your daily life have tiny secrets that are mortifying for someone else to reveal. Winter related how a member of his family came to him angry about what got into the book, but it wasn’t what Winter would have guessed to be private or controversial but his saying something against the sloppiness of the man’s dog.

Gilmour compared it to photos of yourself. If you have 200 photos taken and 40 go into the book, to anyone else they might look equal but to you there will be 2 or 3 where you think you look terrible. Each anecdote is a story from a life, a snapshot that to your perspective may look flattering but tastes vary. There’s no way to predict without letting a person see what you wrote because ultimately the relationships are more important than the writing. (How did GB Shaw put it? Don’t treat others as you would want to be treated. Tastes and guilts are different.)

Both writer’s were asked what are essentials for a novelist. Winter replied that “you must have interesting friends. If not – move.” Your life and the lives you contact daily are your inspiration. Also “watch your attention. Where does it drift? What do you find yourself paying attention to?” Go with that. Write it down, you’ll never remember. Don’t use paper too nice. With a moleskin you can be inhibited. You may think that an observation is not important enough, may not be worthy of the page so you lose it. Don’t do that. Use some bankbook. It’s small and cheap and easy to replace. The best advice he had received was “don’t fix a scene, delete it.” The work is always stronger for just cutting something that isn’t quite working.

Gilmour said the key thing for writing is to write. Go to the hotspot of your life, whatever it is, passion or resentment or whatever obsession, and write from there endlessly. You can’t rewrite enough. The essential for a novelist is to rewrite. Once you have lived to a relatively young age, you stop noticing people. You have lived enough, felt enough, experienced so all you need to and you can spend the rest of your life refining that. Write, write, write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Great prose should be look effortless and look like the inevitable shape. That takes effort. Like Fred Astaire you have to do over and over until you can do it in your sleep and then it looks easy.

They were asked if there are any rules for writing. Winter said that you must have the characters do what you aren’t. All characters want to be alone in the room with their thoughts, or else go to the kitchen and get tea. You need to prevent them from doing what you are. (Singularly the most funny and accurate thing I’ve heard in ages and that explains a lot of bad poetry of solitude that just goes on and on. There needs to be that turning away from tendancy of the body’s moment when writing.) Also, one should cut out every time a character smiles. Does she also pluck at her shirt?

Gilmour agreed. “There’s no smiling in my books.” 😉 He added, if character smiles, it may be true but is it the most true thing? What else is happening?

She walked into the room and smiled.
True but so what?
What is truer for her?
She walked in, covered her mouth with her hand.
Truer. What would that say about motivation, reaction?
One can keep refining to get to a more exact characteristic in this way.

And as another rule, Gilmour added, never have a character ask another character how they are. It is a sure hack writer flag.

Winter said, write everything down about how you see before you know what you see. For example, he saw a man crossing the street. The man’s arms barked. He was surprised. Ears popped out of the crook of the arms. Winter went to write that down and found himself saying that a man crossed the street with a dog in his arms and the dog barked. He caught himself. That would be true but not true to the experience of how it was known. The man’s arms barked. Let the reader do the work, make the connection. You don’t have to spell it all out. “Return to the moment prior to the moment of knowing what it is. Tell that.”

Concerning writing complexly both guys were animate. Gilmour added that when you read a book the second time, it’s the first time. A book that gives up all its secrets in the first read is a second rate book. In great literature the shadows move. The book moves. It is a living organism in your hands. Like Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The first time he read it, it was because it was a gift and he was skeptical. By the end he was flagging down strangers asking them if they had read this thing. Even on the 4th reading it seemed like a completely new book.

When taking an audience question about writing essays both Gilmour and Winter felt it was a way the mind works. People are predisposed to think linearly, logically, or narratively. Both of them think narratively. They can research but information comes out in the form of stories. Winter added, “You have to write the book you are capable of writing, not pick up a chisel for someone else’s sculpture.”

I promised the Hubby a copy of The Film Club before I went as he had a meeting and couldn’t get out himself. As I flipped thru Winter’s book, I thought this would really good for reading aloud. Some novels can’t convert to spoken voice as well with extremely long thoughts, better for mind’s eye than throat. His anecdotes cover a lot of fascinating territory. Flipping thru the books was a good idea but not quite far enough. After their talks, in the evening both had sold out all their copies. Luckily there are more copies out there.

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