Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Work Book" by Steven Heighton

Steven Heighton began attracting attention as a young writer at about the same time as Russell Smith and Andrew Pyper, but the three probably had less in common than was generally supposed. Their differences are more apparent now, but even back then Heighton struck me as the most serious of the three. By serious I don’t mean the best but the one who appeared to take writing as a solemn, even a sacred task.

That seriousness is certainly apparent in Work Book: Memos & Dispatches on Writing, a book small enough to slip into a pocket but that has a good deal of concentrated thought about writing in it. These are not journal entries or private thoughts, but personal musings intended to be read by others. They are divided into chapters such as “Memos to a Younger Self” and “On Reading”, and there’s also an essay (but also made up of broken paragraphs) on Heighton’s late mentor, Al Purdy.

Certain subjects come up over and over, most especially careerism, ambition, and competiveness. These entries sound like warnings of an author to himself and are perhaps the closest the books comes to a confessional tone. There is also much on authenticity, on language, and on the differences between fiction, essay, and poetry. There is the occasional Zen-like aphorism: “Every moment spent in full attention is a moment spent in eternity.”

Reading some of Heighton’s entries, I found myself nodding in agreement. For example, I too see writing is a kind of play, and believe that all writers (no matter how large or horrific the subject) retain something of the make-believing child in them. At other times, I found myself dismissing them as mere truisms (art comes from suffering) or as surprisingly conventional and wrong-headed (“Male writers are driven by a fear and hatred of mortality”). Sometimes the assertions (historical novels are easier to write than fiction set in our own time) seem quite ridiculous.

But the point isn’t whether or not I happen to agree. Heighton is a thoughtful person and he takes writing seriously enough to want to understand better what’s going on. He knows not to be complacent—as a writer or a human being. He encourages the reader to think hard too, to listen to his own life rather than simply let it slip by unaccounted for. It’s this insistent self-reflection that I find stirring and even inspiring.

(Steven Heighton, Work Book: Memos & Dispatches on Writing. ECW Press, $18.95.

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