Writer in Residence

A sentence & a breath

By Alison Wearing

You want to write a book. Terrific! You've thought about this for years. In fact, whenever you tell your stories, people always say, you should write a book. And they’re right! You should. There’s just one thing.

Don’t give up too soon.

For even seasoned writers, a book is—hands-down—the most agonizing, sanity-squeezing, soul-flaying, and satisfying task we can undertake. It is the Mount Everest of writing. No, it’s the Annapurna (Everest is the 5th most difficult peak; Annapurna is #1). 

Which is not to say that you can't write a book. You can. But unless you have been writing and publishing for years, the following analogy might be helpful:

Let's say you've had a lifelong interest in climbing and your bucket list includes a great Himalayan peak. Which would be the wiser way to go about this: a) start with some small climbs, gradually increase your strength and endurance, improve your agility and skill, learn about proper gear, nutrition, pacing, dealing with injury, altitude, etc.; or b) fly to Nepal and start walking in the direction of snow?

Most, if not all, writers start small. We hone our craft by working on short, manageable pieces. Once we develop the literary muscles we need to shape and refine smaller works, we expand our range. And even then, books still bring (most?) writers to our knees.

By the way, this is meant to be encouraging. Because with the right preparation, tools, knowledge and practice, you can write your book. And if you are currently writing your book effortlessly, I salute and congratulate you. Onwards! If, on the other hand, you find yourself stuck, lost, cross-eyed or doubled over with psychic cramps (writing can do that), it doesn’t mean you can’t do this. It only means you might not be ready—yet.

In the meantime, don't focus on writing a book. Focus on writing a sentence. 

When we narrow our focus, we are able to sharpen our work at the most essential level. We can concentrate our efforts on creating sentences that glow, settings that glisten with texture, characters and dialogue that curl from the page like smoke, scenes that whirl with an internal rhythm and a strong centre of gravity.

By contrast (and here's an analogy for non-climbers), focussing our attention on writing a book is akin to driving across the country with a picture of our destination glued to our glasses. While it is important to pull back and see the horizon and arc of a book-length project at times, it is easy to spend so much time looking into the distance that we neglect what is in front of us: our next excellent sentence. 

Happily, writing a beautiful sentence, or a series of sentences that make up a finely-wrought scene or story is a reasonable, manageable task. It is also, notably, the only way any book has ever been written. Staying present in one scene or story will not only allow you to polish your skills as you go, it will give you the incentive you need to go on to the next piece with confidence and clarity.

As time goes on, you may begin stringing some of these pieces together, sensing a larger arc and discovering a shape to the material you might not have been able to imagine any earlier. But you won’t be able to see that until it happens.

Main thing is, you do not need to write a book right now. On the contrary, trying to write a book may be the very thing that prevents you from doing it.

For now, all you need is a sentence. And a breath.

And then another one after that.

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.

Alison Wearing is the bestselling author of Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter, an Indigo Top 50 pick shortlisted for the Edna Staebler Prize and longlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize, Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey, and Moments of Glad Grace. Her online program, Memoir Writing, ink., guides people through the process of transforming personal stories into memoir.