On April 15th Shepherd in Residence will be released, and I will be, according to Canada Council, a mid-career writer.
What that means in Canada Council’s terms is that I will have had two books published. That’s how Canada Council defines a mid-career writer, because when you’re handing out money, you need to draw a few lines to decide who gets the bucks. Books published – and they mean by a publishing house, not self-published – is one way of evaluating the commitment and seriousness of a writer. The Ontario Arts Council requires that a writer have three paid publications before she or he is eligible to apply for grant money.
Commitment is really what makes the difference. There are a lot of would-be, might-be, sorta-are writers out there. I’m not knocking them. If they want to write, that’s great. Go for it. A writer is someone who writes. There are levels, though – levels of skill, talent and commitment. Talent may not be something that you can do anything about, but skill and commitment are anyone’s to command. They’re acts of will and effort, and to me that will and effort is what makes the difference between a would-be writer and a writer.
I believe it was Margaret Atwood who responded to a surgeon’s remark, “I’d like to do some writing when I retire,” with “I’d like to do some surgery when I retire.” That makes me want to stand up and cheer. Writing looks easy. All of us have stories; how hard could it be to put your pen on the paper and write them down?
I’ve listened to some of my father-in-law’s stories and said, “you need to write these down”. When he did, something about translating a story in the mouth to one on paper sucked the life out of it. He got all explanatory and – um – dull. He has no sense of how to tell story on the page.
If someone wants to tell stories on the page, there are things to learn to make those stories readable, lively, vivid and memorable: sentence structure, plot, character, word use, and dozens more purely technical qualities. Anyone can commit to the time and work necessary to learn them, and become a technically excellent writer. I’m pretty sure that anyone who wants to learn to write can write anything they decide they’d like to: mysteries, thrillers, horror, fantasy, drama, humour. It’s only a matter of skill, which is acquired through practice, and commitment, which is what makes you practise.
By asking for paid publication, granting agencies are looking for people who are committed to their work and to honing those skills. Publications that pay want value for the money and demand good writing skills.
Talent – that’s the wild card that’s hard to define or evaluate. I’m still not sure of the actual value of talent in writing. My favourite writers are those whose writing is so smooth and skilful that I would cheerfully read their grocery lists. Good writing skills can make a simple story outstanding – poor ones can make a good story boring.