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Mathew Henderson: It's Ok To Be An Awful Writer

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Mathew Henderson will be appearing at Trinity Bellwoods Park on Saturday, June 22nd, from 12 - 4 pm at A Literary Picnic, part of Luminato Festival 2013. With the theme of "Beginnings" as inspiration, over 60 authors will take to three stages to share selections from their work and offer insight into where a story begins, and how writers confront the blank page. Many of the participating authors will also be setting up their own picnic blankets "backstage" for one-on-one exchanges with the public throughout the day.

On each Saturday leading up to the festivities -- as well as on the big day itself -- The Huffington Post is presenting blog posts from selected authors on how they personally handle writing that daunting first word. So far, we have heard from Ania Szado and Evan Munday. Today, we feature Mathew's contribution. And check back in next week for Martha Schabas's take.

It's okay to be an awful writer. In fact, I suspect most great writers are also terrible writers. It all depends what you show people.

I think this is the key to beating the empty screen. Because it's the pressure that kills, right? The urge to write the next great novel, or make a boatload of money with scandalous, (un)literary smut, or prove what a deep, deep thinker you are with stark poems about the common man. The pressure is too consistent, too constant, to ever get anything done.

So, yield to mediocrity, accept that the next word you write is likely going to be the wrong word and keep going anyway. The real worst case scenario isn't that you might write something bad--you have a recycling bin (real and virtual) that can and should overflow with bad writing. The worst case scenario is that you might write nothing at all.

When I sit down to draft now, my sentences have more clichés than your average pop song, my metaphors are mixed, and I indulge every urge for an easy adverb or adjective. And then I cross most of those sentences out.

The real work of writing is rewriting. It's the nitpicky editing, the big cuts, the salvaging of good lines and sections from otherwise horrible stories and poems. You can't be great all the time, but, hopefully, you can be good once in awhile. The best poem from my first book spent a long time being the weakest of the bunch, and knowing that gives me a lot of hope because the readers and the critics don't ever have to know just how bad rough writing is, unless, of course, you tell them.

Some days it isn't so tough to sit down and write something decent. I've had to learn to identify the presence and degree of inspiration. There is the sudden, overwhelming inspiration that can strike you when you're in the middle of making supper and propel you through a short project with ease. This kind of writing isn't difficult. But there is also the steady inspiration that gets you through a year-long project, day by day. This is the work part, and it's not easy.

Full disclosure:

1. Each and every time I go to write, I have to remind myself that it's okay to fail. It doesn't stick with you. The pressure doesn't go away. I sit down, and I want each word to be the next word of the best thing I've ever written.

2. Some people write very slowly, word by word, editing as they go. They are rare and beautiful creatures. You're probably not a rare and beautiful creature. You're probably like me.

3. A true list of things which were filtered out of the drafts of this short blog post:
  • Several references to Fruit by the Foot and Bubble Tape as analogies for writing.
  • A Wayne Gretzky quote, which I planned to criticize, thereby alienating every reader.
  • Play-Doh.
  • A writing = emulsified liquids analogy.
  • Two attempts to reference Evan Munday's blog from last week.
  • Irish Setters.
  • "Fail Better."

Mathew Henderson's first book of poetry, The Lease, was inspired by his work in the Alberta and Saskatchewan oil fields. The New York Times called his work "spare and eloquent...The Lease cuts into its primary subjects -- grease, technology, physical labor, alienated sex, mud, fear, profound loneliness -- like a welder's oxyacetylene flame."

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