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Carol Shields Scares Me

Years before Marcus said, “You should write,” (see last blog) I’d been told the same things by friends and colleagues. The fact that someone could sit down with a blank sheet of paper and tap out whatever they wanted was an idea too rich for my blood. So bound up in personal entitlement, so luxurious, so utterly fulfilling. Mine had been a life of hard work and struggle to fit into the “team player” mode of getting things done. I mostly hated it and only flourished when left alone to do my work.

And that’s exactly when writers excel, when left alone. Not a piece of some elaborate puzzle where everyone’s contributions must be praised and sorted and squished together into something resembling a cohesive whole. It’s taking concepts, storylines or characters and layering and connecting until there is a judicious whole. All of these layers and connections born of your own mind, your own research and your own bravery.

Recently, I’ve learned that bravery in writing can translate into bravery in reading. Reading forensically to study style, voice, intellect and the way different writers play with structure has left me awestruck at times. The most recent example has to do with Carol Shields and her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Stone Diaries. Many times I’ve been shocked to find fault with great works of literature. Her book elicited none of that.

Flawlessly executed, no missteps, not one word out of place. My initial thought was that I might as well just stop writing. My second thought was that it would take an incredible act of daring to learn what I could from these literary Gods and keep going.

After mentioning this to a writer friend, she laid her hand on my wrist, looked me directly in the eyes and said, “Unless. That is the book of hers you must read. Do not move on until you have.” I’m glad I paid attention.

Another perfectly brilliant book. After reading the last page, I dropped it onto my bed and wondered at the power of her work. I began to do some research and one of the first quotes I read was, “With my own writing, I'm interested in the idea of the arc of a human life, as a plot in itself. It's the only plot I'm really interested in.” While it takes fortitude to write, it also takes the same sort of mettle to simply get through one of these human lives. She writes of this courage with subtle, beautiful prose and it’s worth noting that this last novel of hers was written not long before she died of breast cancer at the age of 68.

Carol Shields had early advantages and educational opportunities which lead to a wonderful career path and provided her with a lifelong profession and immersion in her craft. Her natural fascination with the written language and striking intellect shine through on every page – in every paragraph. Metaphors leap from the page as original snippets of word art. And underlying it all is her sense of what it is to be human, to be a woman. Nowhere is this more true than in her last book. There is nothing strident about her work and yet her viewpoint is powerful and ever present.

After my initial shock wore off that it was possible to write with such a ferocious grace, I knew I could only move forward, seeking my own opportunities, writing what scares me.

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