Notes from my seminar at USask

There’s no value in trying to work on an idea you don’t love. If you don’t love it, you’ll never make it sing. You need to love it. That’s more important than anything else I’m about to say.

Hi everyone! Before we get started, I just want you to know, I’m going to be posting this talk on my website for free after we’re done here, so if you walk out of here and you’re like “Aw man, Casey Plett said this super-brilliant and I didn’t write it down because I was just enraptured!” You know. I got you! Just go to caseyplett.com, it’ll be the first post.
So.
Opening the Door
“Write with the door closed, re-write with the door open.” is a famous quote from Stephen King’s “On Writing,” who in turn got the lesson from an editor. King said you should begin your story with the intent of it being just for you, and then open it up for others to criticize. Was he right? When do you open the door? How do you balance the humility of seeking (and handling) criticism if it conflicts with what’s exciting you about a piece of writing?

First of all, I’d like you to take out a piece of paper and a pen.
And I’d like you to answer this question. You won’t have to share it with anyone, don’t worry, this is just for you:
What frightens you most about sharing your writing?
I want you to take two minutes and think about your answer and write it down.
In my experience, everyone’s got different answers to this. The reason I asked you to do this is because I want to posit something to you. That fear? That fear. It will likely, in some form or another, always be there. It’s unlikely you will ever defeat it. Me, at this stage in my career I’m pretty damn fortunate, I’ve got things pretty good and I still have to deal with mine.
But if that fear is concrete, and something you can write down on a piece of paper, then you can recognize it as something to deal with, to keep at bay. And it is something you likely will have to deal with, in order to properly open the door.
By the way I’ll just volunteer what frightens me most about sharing my writing. My fear is that the reader is going to think I’m a bad person. I always think like, people will look at my writing and go “This is what’s on your mind? You could’ve written about anything and you wrote about this? Ugh, you’re sick in the head.” I always have to fight that.

Let’s go back to that Stephen King quote. “Write with the door closed, re-write with the door open.” What I love about that quote, in addition to it just being a wise thought, is the imagery of the door, or rather that of a writer in a room. So much of writing, for me, is being alone, in a room, with a notebook, a pen, a keyboard. And it is about somebody else who you’ve never met, alone, in a room, with the fruits of your notebook, your pen, your keyboard. It’s about you, alone, speaking to another person, alone.
Having that said, while that truth exists, there’s also a parallel truth to that, which is that it’s impossible to get to that reader alone. I would absolutely be nowhere as a writer without not only smart editors, but also friends who I could turn to to read and critique my writing and support my life in all sorts of ways. Many of whom are also writers whose work I read and critique and also support however I can. What I might call a community of support.
That notion of the lonely genius writer? Oh, toiling away in a room with his genius and creating great works! It’s true that writing can be a lonely venture, but it’s only one part of the equation, and the other part is community. Friends, teachers, editors. And I think actually there is something patriarchal and reminiscent of ooghy masculinity, this idea that a writer works and works by themselves and eventually emerges with something great and amazing they then bestow upon the world.
Writing doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t take place in a vacuum. In my opinion and experience, there’s a part of the work that’s being alone, and a part of the work that’s community: Friends, teachers, editors. When you begin to involve community, that’s when you open the door.
Now, I’m going to guess that there are people in this room who maybe are going “I’m just starting out, I don’t know other writers, I don’t have a writing teacher, I don’t work with an editor, like…crap!” And I want to tell you that’s fine, if you keep going, you will. But if you don’t have people around you, you know…join writing groups. If there are open mics or reading series’ or book launches in your town, go. Go online and search for writing support, and most importantly, find people who are interested in the same work you’re interested in, and go from there. Maybe introduce yourself to each other in this class after this is all over. I won’t go on this point too much more because we could do a whole nother master class on what community means for writers, but if you’re alone, keep writing, and keep trying to find people.
Does this all make sense so far? Does anybody have questions?
And so I’m interested in the relationship between these two things, the loneliness in writing and the relationship we have with our community, the people who give feedback: Friends, teachers, editors. Readers!
Overview of some basic tips:
So we’re going to do another exercise in a bit, but I’m going to give a few more thoughts here about that transition I make from creating something alone, to opening the door and showing it someone else.

1) Sometimes a piece of writing will follow me around. I’m doing the dishes, or I’m grocery shopping, and then it hits me like, no, no, this one part still isn’t right. Sometimes I have an idea of how to fix it. And sometimes I’m totally at loose ends. For me, I send stuff out for critique when I’m out of solutions. If I know how to fix it, I just haven’t done it? It’s not ready for my friends or editors to see. But when I’m out of ideas to fix it, that’s when I start e-mailing people. When I’m like, “This piece is not perfect, but I’m not at a point where I can make it any better on my own. I have taken myself as far as I can. Someone else needs to come in.”

2) I don’t know about you, but I definitely write about some intense subjects, that are intimate and hurtful, and hearing criticism about work about those subjects can really sting. It can be scary. It’s always going to sting. I’m not exactly a veteran, but I’ve been publishing work a decade and criticism hasn’t hurt any less, and I don’t know any author who’s like “Oh yeah, I got over it, I can take anything now, ha!” Criticism is going to hurt. And to me, depending on the subject matter, I have to do some inner processing, basically, before I send the piece out for critique. You know, it’s like going out in minus thirty, you bundle up, it’s still gonna suck, but you bundle up and it sucks less.

3) On that note. If you’re not showing someone something because you’re scared, for reasons of self-loathing or insecurity or fear…or if you’re blocked from writing something you want to write about for those reasons. That’s totally real. It happens to all of us, and we all have our own ways of figuring out how to deal with it. But you have to figure out a way to deal with it. Here’s a story. I had a friend who was a writing teacher, teaching an introductory creative writing class. And in this class, she made everyone write a secret down on paper. And she said don’t worry, you don’t have to show it to anyone. So everyone writes something down on paper. Then the teacher said “Ok now take the paper and crumple it up into a ball.” Everyone crumples the paper. Then she says: “Now throw it in the center of the room.” Everyone freaks out right? But they do it. She says: “That fear you just felt. You should be able to go there when you’re writing.”
Now personally I wouldn’t do that in a class. But I take her point about being comfortable with that feeling.

And to me that’s one of the most beautiful, intimate things about writing. At the beginning it’s just for me. I don’t have to show anything to anyone. There’s like thirty pages of a thing right now on my hard drive that TERRIFIES me, and I haven’t shown it to anybody yet, and I probably will, but I don’t ever have to if I don’t want to, and that freedom of privacy puts my soul in a calm enough place that I can make stuff. I still really treasure that.
4) I’m really grateful for friends in my life who give good feedback but aren’t necessarily writers. They’re more friends who I can just trust to be honest with me about what they’ve read, and who have a good detector for my bullshit. If you have people like that in your life, hold them close.

5) Finally, a key transition point for me? When I’m moving from that inner, private creating-for-myself stage to opening it up to the world? A key thing I do at that point, is I print the piece out, I take it somewhere out of the house, like a café or something, and I mark it up with a pen as if I were an editor. It really works for me, it’s like I’ve tricked my brain into thinking the piece isn’t mine and I can just be like “This word should be different, and this paragraph would be way better if I cut this line” and blah blah blah.

Does anyone have questions about this so far?
(Hopefully you’re at 20 min by this point? YAYYY)

So, another exercise. I’m going to pass out a short passage here. And here’s what I want you to do. I’d like you to read it twice, first just to get familiar with it, and then second I want you to take out a pen and make notes where you think something could be better.

So as maybe you know, this is the beginning of the novel A Complicate Kindness by Miriam Toews, came out fifteen years ago. Winner of a Governor General’s, a best-seller, blah blah blah.
I asked you to do this for a few reasons. First, you’ll notice on the hand out, that I didn’t photocopy from the book, it’s typed out in a Word doc the way you would just see it if you were writing this on a computer screen. I think there’s something really instructive of looking at something the way a writer might, notice what’s solid and what you think perhaps could work better, and apply what you’ve learned to your own things.
And personally, so I really love this book, and I think this passage is brilliant, but even I have identified points like “Oh, I might cut that word out,” or “this sentence could’ve been more interesting this way.” And I think it’s actually a really useful thought exercise to do this with work you admire. You learn where the cracks are, and where the really solid foundation holds up, and that gives you stronger tools for your own stuff.

You don’t always have to go to the extent of re-typing something from scratch, but I do think it’s useful to re-read work you love over and over, you start to understand how the thing is built. I knew one girl in school, who re-wrote one of her favourite short stories by hand because she wanted to understand its sentences better. It’s not the worst idea.

I also asked you to do this to make a second point, where is that there’s no magical juncture where something *becomes* a good piece of writing or a publishable piece of writing. There’s nothing metaphysically that’s different between this prize-winning author and the kind of dreck that I was sloughing into my computer at 19. You just keep working on stuff.

Any questions here at all?

Before we go here, I’m going to leave you on one more story, specifically about fiction and the notion of writing that makes efforts to speak against marginalization and the awfulness of the world, the power that fiction can have to change, provoke, and question things.
You know, I wrote this story once called “Other Women” for an anthology called The Collection: Short Fiction From the Transgender Vanguard, which on its release was the first thing I’d ever written to end up in a book. Towards the end of the story I wrote, the main character has sex her high school best friend, and that sex turns non-consensual, and eventually she leaves in a fight and goes and sleeps with her friend’s roommate. I’ve since had trans women come up to me and say that story did something for them, and I’ve seen that story talked about in the context of trans women experiencing sexual assault. Those trans women readers telling me this means the world to me, it really does. It really does.
But, I didn’t write it thinking that would happen. I just had this story I had to get out and I felt so alone writing it but I just had this force in me telling me I had to do it. From wherever the fuck my own mix of experiences and creative inspiration comes from. And when I did think of how the story might be received? I didn’t imagine good things, I thought trans women readers would hate it, I’d thought they’d think that I was giving us a bad name. The state of trans art and representation was a lot different just nine years ago, and I was so sure that this story was like…shitting with the door open, so to speak.
Now, like I said, it means the world to me that it didn’t shake out like that. But my takeaway from that experience wasn’t to focus on how my writing could be good for the world, my takeaway was that focusing on that wasn’t helpful.
The point I wish to make is that so much of the exciting stuff books are capable of, the cathartic and intimate and world-changing power that specifically fiction might hold—to me that power is not necessarily harnessable or predictable in the act of writing. I’m not saying this is the case for everyone, but thinking of how my writing might collide with the world doesn’t help me, and maybe it doesn’t help you either, and if it doesn’t that’s okay.
Thinking about a reader—a person alone in a room who feels like I do, that helps me. Thinking about “the world” is like ahhhhh! No.
Now, this is not to say that when we are publishing work, we shouldn’t consider how the world will react. I do believe publishing work is not free of moral considerations, I do believe in sensitivity reading, and I do believe in being conscious of politics and ethics when one is finishing a work and preparing it for publication. I do think there’s a lot of truth in that. So I guess what I’m trying to share is that for me the course of writing something relies heavily on itinerary. That for me the first parts of that journey involve shutting out the world, and the last parts involve letting it back in.