Why Writing is Not Such a Solitary Experience

Review editor at the Quill & Quire, Steven W. Beattie, was one of the 2018 Festival Delegates and in this guest post, he writes about the solitary experience of being a writer and how opportunities like the Delegates Programme offers writers a chance to engage with the community. Look out for links to guest posts written by Beattie’s fellow delegates!

By Steven W. Beattie

It is not groundbreaking to point out that writing is a solitary experience. Publishing is collaborative: a network of relationships between creator and editor, publicist, designer, marketing and sales people, distributors and booksellers. Even reading is a shared endeavour carried out between author and reader; though there is no direct connection between creator and consumer, literature finds its final fulfilment only when a writer’s work is processed through the sensibility of a reader. But writing—the act of creating characters and stories out of words and sentences and paragraphs crafted in such a way as to evoke an emotional response or aesthetic appreciation—that part is done alone. Writers are almost by nature solitary creatures, introverts who spend their days, in the words of Philip Roth’s E.I. Lonoff, turning their sentences.

Perhaps this is one reason the general public maintains a notion of writers as some form of rarified or exotic animal, a species that shares traits in common with others but is nonetheless a bit apart, a bit strange and esoteric. Social media mitigates this, at least to some degree; readers now have direct access to writers in a way that they never did in previous eras. They can reach out and provide feedback with the click of a button or a Facebook like. Any author who has been tagged on a blisteringly negative reader’s review will tell you that this is, at best, a double-edged sword. Or, as Marlon James put it onstage at his TIFA appearance last fall, the worst thing about winning the Man Booker Prize is that now no one believes his Tinder profile.

Social media have inculcated in many readers the expectation that they should have instant access to writers at the very same time as the internet has opened up the means of production, meaning that more people are able to publish than ever before. This also means that what might once have been a tight-knit community has inevitably scattered. New voices are appearing all the time, many of them from remote or previously peripheral locales, which is a net benefit for writers who have long found themselves shut out of the realms of publishing that allow them an audience and for readers who now find themselves with a multiplicity of voices, sensibilities and literary styles from which to choose.

But how is it possible, in such a vast and roiling sea of choice, for writers in particular to make the connections necessary to advance their careers and avoid the stultifying effect of being ignored, of disappearing beneath the swelling tide of so many different books and voices clamouring for attention? Book coverage in mainstream media has been contracting for years: fewer pages in major newspapers and magazines devoted to books means fewer people become aware of what is available and in many cases the same handful of titles get promoted across platforms and publications, leaving the vast majority of writers out in the cold.

Panel conversation (L to R) featuring Rinaldo Walcott, Vivek Shraya, Sarah Henstra and Rachel Giese at the 39th Edition of the Festival (2018)

Now more than ever, the need for countervailing forces is pressing. For the past six years, TIFA has sponsored a Delegate Programme as part of its annual festival in the fall. This programme, modelled on a similar initiative conducted by the Edinburgh International Book Festival, fulfils a vital role in bringing members of the writing community together, offering opportunities for networking and platforms to get new and exciting voices out to a larger, receptive audience. Each year, TIFA selects a roster of individuals to act as Delegates – these have included writers, journalists, bloggers and artists. This group operates as de facto festival ambassadors, attending events, mingling with the public, interacting with authors on and offstage, and providing feedback on festival events and activities.

In 2018, the Delegates at the Festival included such impressive emerging voices as Téa Mutonji, whose debut story collection, Shut Up You’re Pretty, is also the inaugural title from VS Books, Vivek Shraya’s literary imprint with Vancouver publisher Arsenal Pulp Press. Mutonji wrote on TIFA’s blog about her experience watching Shraya onstage at the festival: “Vivek writes nonfiction and is quite candid about her experiences, but hearing it live like that felt like we were trading places. In that moment, I felt like the mentor; I was the one diving into her work, finding ways in which it could connect to my own life, merging it as though it was my own lived experiences.”

For Kevin Hardcastle, who was participating as a Delegate for the second time in 2018, the experience offered a deeper appreciation of the new voices that are transforming Canadian writing by injecting it with a vibrant stylistic diversity and a variety of approaches to the craft and subject matter. Hardcastle identified the Craig Davidson, Eden Robinson, Cherie Dimaline, and Waubgeshig Rice (with whom Hardcastle participated in 2018’s only Facebook live conversation at the festival) as exciting writers worthy of notice.

Jason Loo and Andrea Scott, two cartoonists, were able to express through their art the experiences they had connecting with a series of writers and panels. Whitney French, editor of the essay collection Black Writers Matter, served as a delegate in 2018, as did poet David Bradford, who offered a worthwhile and relevant meditation on canon building, which in his conception involves as much what gets left out or ignored as what is included: “There’s much, much more out there, much of it a whole other kind of good, which isn’t the sort to ever quite shine through to the Booker, or to garner that kind of support.”

Facebook Live event (L to R) featuring Waubgeshig Rice and Kevin Hardcastle at the 39th Edition of the Festival (2018)

Bradford’s argument goes to the heart of why TIFA’s Delegate Programme is so valuable. For writers to survive, let alone thrive, in an environment that is overcrowded and attention starved, not to mention often inimical—in ways both subtle and overt – to voices from the margins, it is imperative to put in place institutional safeguards that ensure an opportunity for newer or unfairly neglected perspectives to break through. It is a point that writer Khalida Hassan, another 2018 Delegate, makes, writing on the TIFA blog, “When you come from somewhere else, there is a different kind of urgency to writing—or you feel there should be. The immigrant writer is keenly aware of the parallel selves who didn’t or will not make it out to find a safe space from which to write.”

One thing TIFA does through its year-round work in general, and the Delegate Programme in particular, is strive to offer a space for writers to grow and develop their contacts and the ability to create a viable network within national and international writing and publishing communities. In combination with the Festival’s International Visitor’s Programme, which brings together publishing professionals from around the world, the opportunity for Delegates to find a space for themselves among supportive peers is significant. The work TIFA does by way of providing this opportunity for face-to-face contact with authors, publishers, agents and other industry stakeholders, as well as the invaluable chance to mingle with the readers who can only benefit from an exposure to a more multifarious range of approaches to writing and literature, is essential in contributing to the ongoing evolution of the literary life in this country.

Other delegate posts to check out:

Look out for announcements of the 2019 Delegates and get to know them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as the lead up to the 40th edition of the Festival!