Publishing and the Nature of Creativity with Patricia Westerhof
By Lucy Farcnik
Would you like to start with a brief explanation of what your book is about, or what it intends to do?
My book, The Canadian Guide to Creative Writing and Publishing, is a guide for beginning and emerging writers who want to find out where the bar is set for publishable writing in Canada and how to reach that bar. It’s for people who want to learn more about the writing life in Canada, with sections on how you get published, what you need to know, what you need to do, what you should avoid. And it also contains appendices that have a wealth of information for writers. They were a drag to write, but they're useful.
At the risk of sounding incredibly cliché because it is the go-to question in every interview, what inspired you to write this book? Especially since it seems more like “work” than a creative piece.
Well, this was my pandemic project, and, like a lot of people, I wasn't feeling particularly creative during the pandemic. Still, there is a creativity in figuring out how to convey information in a useful and yet engaging way. I guess it was the right time for me to do something that required more grunt labour and problem-solving than pure invention.
And then the other thing that inspired this book was that when I started teaching creative writing at University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, I got a memo advising me to use texts that were Canadian in my courses. I thought 'there are no Canadian how-to books that would be appropriate for the course that I teach.' And so I decided to write one.
How do you get such a content-heavy research and advice-based book down? What’s your process?
So, I thought of it like cleaning a basement or garage, or packing up your apartment for a move. You look at it a section at a time, and you just do it. It takes commitment and work– like all writing. But for this book, I really needed to divide up the work into smaller tasks and tackle them one by one.
How do you make a nonfiction, instructional book not boring?
Keep the chapters short, I think. Write concisely, and break the content up into sections. Use lists. Include activities. I also use a lot of analogies throughout the book.
In thinking about publishing and writing a book about publishing, what piece of your own advice did you use the most in trying to publish this book?
If only I followed my own advice! I have to remind myself regularly to separate composing from revising, to trust the process. I remind myself to write freely, to get my thoughts down in a messy way and see what comes out. I fight the urge to revise something that I might not even keep. I wrote a lot about that in the book, but I still occasionally find myself stifling my creative thinking by pausing to polish instead of just allowing myself to write what Ann Lamott calls the “shitty first draft”.
I always remember the SFD (shitty first draft). You said that to us in Writer’s Craft in high school, and we all thought you were so edgy.
How was publishing this book different from publishing your fiction?
When I first proposed this book to my agent, she was more excited about it than she was about fiction, because nonfiction sells better in Canada, for the most part. I’ve also been noticing that when you publish a nonfiction book, you're suddenly seen as sort of an expert on the subject, which doesn't necessarily happen when you publish fiction, even if you did a ton of research to write that book of fiction. I'm getting a lot of requests to do writing workshops and to talk about the publishing industry in Canada, which is great. But I'm glad I'm working on a fiction manuscript again because it can feel a little bit dry to talk only about the nuts and bolts of writing and publishing.
Yeah, about the process and not the product.
Yes, I feel like the conversations related to this book always go back to process, whether it's mine or other people's processes of writing.
Intermission for Finnegan the Cat, who saunters in indignant at his lack of attention from the interviewer.
How does where you’re writing affect what you're writing? Do you have any fun writing spots, or was it mostly an office affair?
I write mostly in my office. And I have a beautiful view. I have glass doors that look out into my backyard, but when I'm writing, I don't look at the scenery. I see only the screen in front of me, picturing whatever problem I'm trying to solve in the manuscript. So it really doesn't matter where I am. I just need a quiet space, and then I'm inside my own head when I'm writing.
Another interesting thing I find is that once I get into the groove of writing, when I stop and do something else, whether it's chopping vegetables for dinner or going for a walk, I will continue to write in my head, and I frequently have to return to my laptop or pick up my phone to make a note, because I don't leave the manuscript behind when I leave my writing spot. I carry the writing with me. I think a lot of writers find that once they're really involved in a book, it doesn't really matter where they are. Writers carry their manuscripts in their heads, and they can find themselves writing wherever they are. I wrote my first book of short stories mainly during my daughters’ swimming lessons, soccer practices, and piano lessons. I would just write in my head while I was waiting for them.
As a longtime teacher of young writers- *cough cough* myself- what would your biggest piece of both publishing and writing advice be? Is it to just like, keep going?
Keep going is huge; it’s a great piece of advice. Persevere, keep honing your skills, keep polishing. I think a lot of people send out work before it's ready. You know, they're submitting to contests, and they're disappointed that they didn't win. But they don't always recognize the level that they need to reach, the level of excellence. Writers need to get feedback. They need editors or beta readers or critique partners. If you were pursuing a sport professionally, you would find out from a coach what you're doing well and what you can improve on. Yet some emerging writers are too easily pleased with their first efforts and don’t think they need to learn the craft or get feedback. And then they are surprised when their work keeps getting rejected. So putting in the work to hone your skills and then seeking useful critique are prerequisites to success.
Why is publishing important for young writers?
I think it's a mistake to pour all of your effort into creating. It's not a mistake to pour tons of effort into writing the best possible pieces you can– you need to do that. But unless you also learn about the business side of writing and how publication works, you put yourself in a position where you're waiting to be discovered. And the publishing industry doesn't work like that. No one is going to discover you. Doing nothing to pursue finding an audience is like hoping to win the lottery without buying a ticket. So while young writers are reading books about the craft of writing, they should also be reading about the publishing industry and how it works. They should figure out things like, do they need an agent? If so, what do agents do? Is self-publishing ever a good idea? Should they publish short pieces before they send out full manuscripts? If they learn about the industry, then when they’ve got polished pieces, they can immediately pursue finding an audience for those pieces.
What are the necessary snacks and drinks for good writing?
Never write on an empty stomach. Coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon. Gum to chew when you get to the tricky sections and you just have to keep going. And, of course, chocolate. Dark chocolate is essential.
What piece of writing does everyone love that you can't stand?
Okay, I'm going to qualify what I say. Back when I taught high school English, I soon learned not to put my favorite pieces of literature in the curriculum– the stories or poems that moved me, that resonated deeply for me. It would feel too personal when students reacted to that piece I loved with distaste or indifference. The relationship between a piece of writing and the reader is personal and subjective. No book is the same for two people. I can't stand Hemingway, but people I respect love Hemingway. I met someone once who purposefully wrote sentences in Hemingway’s syntactical structure because she so admired what she saw as the brilliance of his sentences. Hemingway just doesn't do anything for me, except maybe irritate me. Rupi Kaur is another example. Millions of people love Rupi Kaur’s poetry. It doesn’t speak to me, but I am not a person to say, “I don't like this; therefore you shouldn't like it either.” People need to find the writing that appeals to them. Reading widely helps, as the more you read, the more sophisticated your taste will become. I have a whole chapter in my book about reading as a writer, because reading is an essential part of developing your writing skills.
Finally, how has publicity for the book been? I know you had a book launch at Type Books in Toronto, which has a very Montreal flair to me, despite not being in Montreal. How does the publicity side work for writers in general, and you specifically?
These days, marketing budgets are small. Events tend to be local. But this book lends itself to workshops and Q&A's and creative writing class visits. So I've been doing those events and some podcasts, and interviews, of course. I'm doing a community writers’ workshop with an independent newspaper here in Toronto next month, and will participate in writing festivals later this year. I like doing writing workshops–it’s a really nice way to promote a book. Instead of showing up and saying, “Ok, here I am; buy my book,” I can say, “Here I am, and let's do some writing together” or “Let me help you learn what you need to learn so that you can connect with an audience.” I like that role. I genuinely like helping young writers move forward in their writing lives.
Portrait sketch by Andrés David Garcia Salazar