Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing. Random House Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca) and
As Always: Memoir of a Life in Writing. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca) and
The two texts at hand offer intimate reflections on the experience of the writing life for women in the middle and later decades of the twentieth century in Canada. In As Always: Memoir of a Life in Writing, Madeleine Gagnon describes ways that the act of writing, the desire to write, and the role of the writer weave through and within the various strands of her life. Gagnon, a Québécoise intellectual, theorist, radical feminist, and creative writer, asserts that to write is to live. As she puts it, “had my life not been written, I’m convinced it would not have come into full existence.”
Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing was edited by Shields’ daughter, Anne Giardini, and grandson, Nicholas Giardini, who sought to gather all of Shields’ material on the topic of writing from varied sources, including archived papers, interviews, letters, articles, and snippets from novels, as well as notes from Shields’ former creative-writing students. The result is a masterwork on the writing life that offers a rich resource to writers and readers. Shields engages in a serious dialogue about ways to think about writing—the act of writing, the structure of writing, particularly fiction—and what writing means in Canada to both reader and writer.
Shields and Gagnon share many similarities: both women were born in the mid-1930s, and both became mothers and writers in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Both writers remark that in approaching the blank page, they wanted to produce writing that they longed to read, particularly works featuring female protagonists. And both believed that creative writing could not be taught, and yet taught creative writing with great passion. Gagnon notes: “I spend an entire semester teaching my students that creativity or talent cannot be taught. But that you can talk about it, make speeches about it, and write about it for weeks, months, and years.” In a similar vein, Shields offers three of her “discoveries” about creative writing classes: “1. No one knows how to teach writing. 2. In particular, no one knows how to teach the talented. And 3. The talentless can be taught only a little.”
As much as I appreciated and devoured the body of Shields’ text, I was also taken by Anne Giardini’s descriptions, in her introductory essay, of her relationship with her mother and her mother’s work. When she lived at home, she would run her hands through her mother’s manuscripts—“like running [her] fingers through silk”—and her mother left her works-in-progress out in the open, never concealing them. She invited her five children to look through and comment on her works as they were being written, allowing the children to witness first-hand the stages of the writing process. I loved in particular Anne Giardini’s translation of Shields’ practical thoughts about time. Especially for a woman with a young family, time can seem to be lacking when it comes to intellectual or artistic pursuits. Giardini learned from her mother that “[t]here may not be a perfect time, and there may not be as much of it as we would like, but if we can find some bits of it, and organize them in a way that makes sense, then we may be able to turn those scraps and moments into something enduring—a poem, a story, a memoir, a novel. The days cannot be stretched, but they can be shaped.”
At the end of many chapters in Startle and Illuminate, the editors include a list of summarizing points, take-away thoughts under the heading “In Brief . . .” aimed at the creative-writing apprentice. Each of the “In Brief . . .” sections suggests to readers that through her thoughts about writing, Shields offers a set of instructions on how to write. My concern is that this kind of summarizing risks narrowing the complexity and nuance of Shields’ thoughts on writing to a set of rules. This minor criticism of Startle and Illuminate intensifies after reading Gagnon’s memoir, in which she treats writing as a way to re-experience and recapitulate her life. For Gagnon, her approach to autobiography and especially the passages in which she reflects on writing are in fact ways for her to reflect on her own life. She asks, “[w]hen will people understand that we are all, at the same time, past-present-future? And that if one of the terms is missing, we become orphaned from ourselves? . . . Long live the great craft of writing, which can bring all times back to life.” In other words, writing was Gagnon’s way of feeling connected to her past, present, and future selves. In light of Gagnon’s fervent description of writing as a way to give shape to her life, it would be productive to read Shields’ ideas about writing not only as a set of rules for student writers to follow, but also as a way of approaching her writing and thinking about her life. Read together, these texts elucidate ways that writing and life can mirror and influence one another, writing giving shape to our lives and our lives providing form for our writing.