Hope is an activist

TRU Department of English Chair, George Johnson (left) has written a picture book about how kids can get involved in activism, the first in a series. The protagonist’s name is Hope. FULL STORY

Don’t give me b.s. about writer’s block

August 07th, 2012

In early December a truck backed up to the loading gate of a store in the Woodgrove Mall in Nanaimo and the driver and the swamper began unloading books. Thousands. Rented tables had been set up and a desk installed with a phone and a computerized cash register which flaunted a crude sign saying “Booktique”. A couple of small bottom-left corner adverts appeared in the daily and thrice-weekly. Come and get ‘em, approved step right up, ladeez ‘n’ gennelman, the cheapest books, yes, sir! Remainder time in the old town tonight!

I sniffed but did not buy. Top fiction, coffee tablers, do-it-yourselfers, happy sex life stuff, top writers, all mint, a sight to break a bookstore owner’s blood vessels. The tables emptied and were filled again. A week before their January lease ran out a sign went up. Everything 25 per cent off. Three days later, 50 per cent off. I hit them. When I left I pushed a scrounged supermarket cart with 37 books, from Amis to Updike to Bissoondath to Wall Street shenanigans to T.S. Eliot and even a thesaurus because I figured when you’ve been in the word business for 51 years it was about time to have one. At home I peeled off the little stickers and added up the prices and Ye Olde GST and it came to $987. I checked my 18-inch computer punch-out and I’d paid $81. Is this any way to run an industry? Is it an industry?

It is hardly a badge of honour that I predicted this happened to Jack McClelland, the street-smart and bravado-muss publisher of McClelland & Stewart. I told him the paperback would overwhelm the hardcover within ten years – I was out by two years – and that hardcovers would only be bought to give to Aunt Martha at Christmas. Now the dear old lady has passed on. A heart attacked bonked her as she was reading the hot part of a Joan Collins paperback.

We pride ourselves on our indigenous industry, proclaiming it at dinners and celebrations like a Mountie singing “O Canada” atop the highest peak, tipsy on fermented maple syrup. But how healthy is it? Have we been fooling ourselves? BC publishers overall in 1991-92 made a net profit after grants of a mere 2.7 per cent, including calendars. What a horrendous game. Where are the rewards?
Most of those in publishing make coolie wages without the bowl of rice thrown in. How many successful writers of fiction even make a bare living? If time was money, who would work for 45 cents an hour? How many poets make a living? None, really, not even our famous and self-serving ones.

Publishers don’t go the safe and sane route either. Each and every one has a bent gene or a twisted chromosome which keeps them in the business, nourishing the hope they’ll be hit by The Big One. That’s why I admire the Howard Whites and Scott McIntyres of this world.

Through it all I admire writers. When I was 12 I took out The Seven Pillars of Wisdom from the Carnegie Branch in Winnipeg and the librarian asked me why and I remember saying, “Because it is the thickest book in here.” And I read it, all umpteen-thousand pages. Lawrence lost the original manuscript on a train and the fool didn’t even have a dupe. So he wrote it again.

Hardly a week goes by when I don’t get a letter from someone asking how to be a writer. I recently spent two hours on the phone with a young woman in North Bay, her nickel, explaining why it was crazy for her to challenge her hopes and dreams by trying to write a novel. I felt like hell when I rang off. But I knew I hadn’t convinced her one iota.

I don’t believe anyone can be taught to write. I’ll amend that. If a person can write, then they can be taught the niceties. But you’ve got to have it and if you don’t, you’ll never get it. Simple as that. Joe DiMaggio? He had the right swing. Frank Sinatra was born with that two a.m. and whiskey-rubbed voice.

This is the Old BB talking to you, not Prester John. You’ll have that love of words or you don’t. A passage you read will make you cry. Don’t be ashamed of those tears. You’ve got to look at the world around you, driving down the highway and seeing smoke coming from a lonely old cabin and wonder, “Who lives there? Why?” And as the miles roll under, your mind is still on the people inside. What are their hopes and dreams? Or is the old codger watching porno movies while drinking his own moonshine? Your mind has to be active. Sometimes you feel your head is going to fly off.

Don’t give me that b.s. about writer’s block. There ain’t no such thing. Never was. That’s an excuse. Head down, charge ahead. Let the dialogue swell out of you in a might gush. To hell with plot. If a writer can keep me turning the pages, then that’s a writer. If you can’t grab me in the first few paragraphs, I’m gone. That’s the way 90 per cent of folks choose books from the library. Can you think of a better way.

She smiled as she saw David wend his way through the luncheon crowd and Luigi’s, now the president of the company, so tall and handsome, confident. As he reached the table he kissed her brow and said, “A good day shopping?” She reached into her purse and said, “Yes, I bought a little something for you.” As he looked up from the wine list she pointed a small pistol at him. His last word as she shot him between the eyes was, “Marlene!”

There. Right off the top of my head, that’s an opening paragraph. It won’t ever be considered literature but it is writing. I meet friends who sit around a garret floor drinking cheap plink by candlelight discussing Proust and talking oh so deliberately offhand about the great book inside them. They ain’t got nothing but intestines and other awful looking things in there. Writers write. No one should be considered a professional author until they have had three books published by reputable publishers.

Some will read this and think, “He’s crazy.” Maybe. Meanwhile I’m off to the Scotland of my ancestors and Wales of lyrical words and songs. I’ll stride for the open road and watch for old and lonely cottages and wonder, “Who are they?”

I haven’t read this over yet so I don’t know what I’ve said, but I’ve been writing. If you’ve got this far I’ve been writing something with interested you. Damn it all, that’s what it’s all about. So write! You might have that gene or chromosome. If it is in you, you’ll know it.

Essay Date: 1995

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