Step one is acknowledging that writing is a martial art. Words have power. To this day, in many countries the first people executed in times of war are poets. In the West this may be lost, but we have the power to move masses. Creative literature can be used in defence – a rebuttal to false allegations. We all know the writing of Hurricane Carter. Writing can attack. There's apparently a well known book of Canadian literature in which a betrayed poetess outlines the real life betrayal of her poet partner. Slow literature, which may be brief, meanders within the details of the journey. It's all there.
If we all acknowledge our writing as a part of our martial way we can respect the power of each word and then perfect it. This is why reading is the most important thing that a writer does. Why many of us were encouraged to memorize poems in our youth. Such behaviour is akin to practising kata. Reading is free. Go to a library, borrow books from friends, find a quiet corner in a book store; if you consider yourself a writer this is the most important thing you will do. What you read is important as well. Only read junk for study. Have a list of classic and contemporary writers that you are always seeking. Go as wide as possible. If that means reading Japanese manga for inspiration, then read manga. Take as many positive things you can find, from as many fields of writing you can imagine. And then, throw away the bad lessons. This goes for competitions too.
You know what's good about literature competitions? Innovation. Things like the invention of slam poetry. You know what's bad? Every crappy slam poet to ever get on a stage. Here's the thing. As writers we are in competition. If it's not the literal competition that we sent $20 to, for some idiot judge to not short list us, it's the grant application that we're bickering about. Or, the weird judge at the poetry slam who was clearly scoring the attractive women higher than everyone else. Again, take the good and eliminate the bad.
This is not being done enough. I often read poetry that is soulless. The poet has taken so much of themselves out of the poetry -- so that it conforms enough to get published -- that it no longer is unique. Great, your work is being published, but the lesson has not been learned. Competition is good when you're someone like Kendrik Lamar. The current “IT” rapper who, in a song that was never released, gave recognition to his favourite compatriots and then proclaimed he would destroy them via his lyrical superiority. This unreleased song sent shock waves throughout the music industry in the summer of 2013. My point? If creative writing is a martial art, then the goal is not to conform, or become a caricature of oneself to be acknowledged – the goal of every creative writer should be to seek greatness. Reasons to write vary, but the long-term goal of a writer should always be some definition of greatness.
An old friend of mine used to tell me about a conversation that he had with his sensei. The sensei told him, “A black belt symbolizes that the student is ready to learn.” Having your writing recognized by the literary community is merely a first step. The next step involves creative innovation.
Leaves of Grass is the epitome of greatness reached. It is a series of poems that were written in a genuine attempt to define what American literature should be. It is not great solely on that innovation. It is a technical triumph. Has their ever been a work from Canada written at such a large scale? EUNOIA? Really? I've thought about it. Maybe that will be my third book of poetry – if I'm not swayed into a poetry/prose opus. Maybe a person with an actual Canadian passport should write the great Canadian poem.
All is not lost. There are a number of novels that fit. But it says something when the most powerful genre of a martial art is dying in a nation, as its oldest elements (spoken-word) are thriving and it lacks a work of greatness to center it. What would Judo be without hip throws? Or BJJ without the triangle choke? There are no poems that have that importance to Canada's literary cannon. It SHOULD be the goal of each Canadian poet to author the work that centers the community.
Speaking of finding a center, finding your personal center is integral to being the best writer that you are capable of becoming. If you have the time to meditate before you write – wonderful. If not, you can create a visual center by using mind-mapping. Build your map from the center out. Or, mentally gather your wild thoughts into your pen and visualize the order of them flowing out as you write. Centering yourself is an important part of any martial art. As is knowing when to walk away.
It is often said that the best martial artists are capable of winning a fight without fighting. It is the same with writing. Do not overload the page with details. Understand the moment when your best action is to stand up, and leave the page bare.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Dane Swan is a Bermuda-raised, Toronto-based internationally published poet, writer and musician. His first collection, Bending the Continuum was launched by Guernica Editions in the Spring of 2011. The collection was a recommended mid-summer read by Open Book: Toronto. In 2013 Dane was short listed for the Monica Ladell Award (Scarborough Arts) for his poem "Stopwatch."