The Writer's Attitude

The Writer's Attitude

by Pierre Berton
copyright © Pierre Berton

At 83, Pierre Berton is one of the world's most-prolific non-fiction writers. A journalist and author of dozens of books, he gave the following advice about the craft of writing to an audience of journalism students at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Good evening.

Mr. President, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. I've written that writing is a weasel word. By that I mean that everybody in a sense considers himself a writer. Those who write a letter home to mother, those who write their long scripts for Christmas, telling everybody what they're doings were. Those who write a business letter or keep a diary. They are writers, or at least they think they are.

The late great Margaret Laurence was being examined by a doctor, and he discovered that she was a writer and said, "Oh you're a writer," and Margaret agreed that she was. He said, "well I plan to be a writer too, when I retire."

Well you know there are two kinds of writers. There's the kind like Margaret Laurence, to whom writing is a calling and a way of life. And the doctor, to whom writing is something you do when the mood strikes you or take on as a hobby, like bridge.

The other day somebody called me a born writer, and I took issue with that because I don't think there's such an animal. I don't think writers are born, I think they are made. I think what we writers have is a desire to express ourselves in public. And we hold that in common with other artists, and even with politicians.

Well, writing requires an attitude, which means that you do not wait for the muse to strike you. Where you don't stop writing because you've got a pain in the neck or the ass. You write, write, write. Sinclair Lewis, the great American novelist was once asked to address a group like this, and he walked up on the stage, and he looked at the group and said, "how many of you want to be writers?" And a forest of hands shot up, and Lewis looked at them all and he said, "well why the hell aren't you home writing?" And he walked off the stage!

In my teens I was raised in Victoria B.C., and my mother was a member of the Victoria and island branch of the Canadian Author's Association. And they used to meet in our living room, so I overheard a lot of them. One of the things that they talked about was getting a formula for writing. And one of the authors discovered that the secret formula was known to a man named, he used the name Kenneth Robeson, in writing in a series of popular magazine pieces under the title of Doc Savage Magazine, which I used to read. Some of you remember Doc Savage, the man of bronze. So it was decided that they would ask Kenneth Robeson to come and speak to them, and give them the secret of writing. Of course he turned them down. It occurred to me then as it does now, why they didn't go out and buy copies a lot of copies of Doc Savage, and read it and find out what his formula was by taking it apart, which is what professional artists do. But they didn't. Because the secret of writing is that there's no secret. There's no magic formula that you can employ.

I get letters from people all the time saying, "could you please tell me, I want to become a writer, could you please tell me what I do. If you could write me by return mail, I'd like to get going right at once." And you know, what do you say to them? I don't know? You just say, "You know, it's a hard business. You've got to be prepared to spend the next ten years. It's easier if you're a doctor and they ask you, 'well, how do you become a doctor?' He tells you, it's ten years of medical school or something like that.'" But you can't say that to writers.

W.O. Mitchell, good friend of mine, great prairie author used to wander in the streets of High River Alberta, where he lived, staring up at the clouds above and the earth beneath, wandering around. And the people used to come up to him and say, "hey Bill, when are you going to get a job?" They could not understand, that all the time he was doing that, he was writing in his head. That the words, the paragraphs and the chapters of his great Canadian novel, Who Has Seen The Wind were coursing through his mind, but in those days, a job was a specific word that didn't have anything to do with writing.

I actually did answer somebody, a young student that wrote me and said to me, "what is some advice about writing?" And I gave him nine words. "Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Re-write, re-write, re-write."

One of the things that I can suggest to would-be writers is that they read a lot of good stuff by other writers. Read good essayists, read good novelists, read good non-fiction, and get the feeling of writing in your head, get the cadence in your head. One of the problems of non-fictional writing, which is what I do, is that you have to read a lot of bad stuff. You know, bad memoirs, bad letters, and so on, but you have to read it to get the information.

I had a good experience with my first book, which was about the royal family, from Queen Victoria to the present Queen, a series of character studies. I don't ever read my own stuff again, I'm so fed up with it when I finished, but I got this out because I was doing this book, and I read a few pages, and I thought this was better than I thought it was. It reads professionally. And the reason it did was because, when researching the royal family, I was reading some very good writers. English biographers, English essayists like Francis Donaldson and Roger Fulford, and Hector Bolitho and certainly Lytton Strachey who wrote as you know, about the Queen herself. I'm going to read you just a short section about the Queen Mary that I wrote because it was influenced very strongly by Strachey. Here;'s how it goes:

All her life she brought order out of chaos. Through palace and castle, cellar and attic, her stiff regal figure plied ceaselessly, cataloguing and arranging, sorting and sifting the immense legacy of royal knick-knackery, from rotting African elephants' tusks to Ch'ien Lung vases, left behind in utter disorder by Queen Victoria, who never threw anything away but never knew where anything was. Like the underbrush and the ivy, the dowager Queen snipped away at it for most of her life. Sloppiness and waste she could not abide. Pieces of knotted string were carefully and personally unraveled and rewound into tidy bundles to be placed with similar bundles in a specially labeled drawers. Crumpled pieces of tissue paper and creased sheets of wrapping paper were uncreased and refolded and stored away for future use. Half sheets of notepaper were preserved and used envelopes were used again. Christmas cards were pasted neatly into scrapbooks and presented to hospitals. A sample card of each year had been preserved in another scrapbook since she was five years old and this lively pictorial history of her era was presented to the British Museum. Every photograph, public or private, ever taken of her was preserved in a scarlet-and-gold album with all the details inscribed beneath in the neat royal hand.

The frugality she learned as a child was never forgotten. As a princess she always asked her dressmaker to submit estimates before giving her an order. As a Queen she went carefully through each account before it was passed for payment. London is dotted with antique-dealers who have been the victims of her bargaining sense. All her life she was price-conscious and she insisted that the prices of goods she bought be marked clearly enough so she could read them through her lorgnette. She could not abide an unnecessary electric light glowing in her home. Sometimes, according to her habit, when asked to dinner, she sent a bottle or so of her favorite wine ahead to be served to her. But if there was any left, she frugally brought it back home again. It was not surprising that by saving and investment she became the wealthiest member of the British royal family.

Well, I could not have written that if I had not have read some great English books. I got a feeling for the kind of writing. I don't mean you copy anybody's writing. You can't. Robert Louis Stevenson, when he was young, purposely tried to copy the styles of some writers he admired and, by doing that, he arrived at a style of his own which was quite successful. It's important to read the good stuff but you also have to read the bad stuff, if you are doing research. That was true of my book, Klondike. I came across an interesting diary when I was writing that book. It was by a man named William Ford Langworthy, a young Englishman who had decided to go to the Klondike at the time of the great stampede and dig for gold as they put it. He landed up in the first year 1897-98 that winter on the shores of Great Slave Lake, and there he wrote in his diary about how he was going to get rich in the Yukon. After that, the diary continued, I read it all until he got to Dawson. Now an interesting thing happened when he reached Dawson; he never mentioned digging for gold. Because it was not the digging for gold that had attracted him, it was getting there and the fact that after two years and a great struggle through the mountains he had gotten there and that was prize enough in itself.

That got me thinking about the whole Klondike business, about the gold rush, the stampede, as an allegory of life. Because the stampede wasn't really a search for gold, it was men's search for themselves. The search for self. People would build their boats and go down the Yukon River and build a cabin and so were learning something about themselves. And so, before I wrote Klondike, I sat down and read John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress which is itself an allegory. I didn't try to copy the style of the writing or the feel of it but underneath the superficial story of the gold rush, I remembered that the real story was man's search for himself. Here's the example from that book. This is about Sam Steel, the great mounted policeman who ran the gold rush like an army maneuver. This is at the Chilton pass:

Here, from his perch on the very summit of the mountain wall, high above forest and river, far from the tinny cacophony of Skagway, Steele the iron man, could gaze down, godlike, on the insect figures striving to reach his eyrie - on the whimpering horses and the cursing men and on the women bent double beneath man-sized loads. It was a scene that was almost mediaeval in its fervour and its allegory, it was enacted against a massive backdrop: the cloud-plumed mountains in the foreground, the rolling hills in the middle distance, and far below - as if in another world - the bright sheen of the ocean and the tiny outlines of shuttling boats disgorging, endlessly, more human cargo, and, glittering wetly in the pale sun, the flats of Skagway where William Moore had once reigned as a lonely monarch. And hanging over the whole, like an encompassing pall, the sickly-sweet stench of carrion, drifting in the wind.

And I think that it was useful to read the Pilgrim's Progress to be able to write that kind of thing for Klondike. It's a different kind of book entirely.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got as a writer was from my old story editor in the Vancouver News Herald, Jack Scott, who said to me as he handed me back a piece of copy to be re-written, "always describe the people. Always describe the places. Describe their dress, describe what they look like, describe the background."

In describing people, it's important to give a physical description, but you must give more than a physical description. You must try and make it quite clear what kind of people they were. Here from my book, Promised Land, is part of a character sketch of a man named Issac Barr who was really a swindler, who brought a lot of poor Englishmen to farm a colony on the Alberta-Saskatchewam border.

Barr had all but abandoned the church, but he received a licence to preach during the summer at St. Saviour's, London, and so was able to wear his clerical collar, a considerable asset, since it put the odour of sanctity of his project. He was a short, thickset man, with a broad moustache and plump, bland features. Although he was blessed with the voice of a bull he could, on first encounter, be soft spoken, courteous, and convincing. As one of his future colonists put it, "You could not help but trust him." But there were serious flaws: a lack of temper, an autocratic bent. He was not able to delegate authority, and he had a tendency to gloss over unpalatable truths. Yet he had an imaginative mind, and he certainly had a way with words.

Barr was intoxicated by words, and he knew how to use them to the best advantage. As far as he was concerned, once a plan took shape on paper it was half way to completion. As he scribbled away that spring and summer of 1902, churning out articles for no fewer than thirty-two publications, the grandiose scheme of an all-British colony in the Canadian West began to balloon in his mind. What a coup it would be! To place hundreds, even thousands of stout British yeomen and tradespeople, the finest stock in the world, in a colony all their own! No foreigners - no Slavs or Germans or Swedes, and certainly no Americans - would be allowed to creep in. This would be an Imperial undertaking.

Always describe the places. Always describe the people.

Hansards, for anybody writing about the history of politics in this country is the most valuable piece of material you can get because everything that was said is there. When I was writing The National Dream, I was reading the Hansard right through, especially on the great debates on the contract for the Canadian Pacific Railway. So I knew what they were saying. But I also had to know what they looked like and I spent a great deal of time studying beard and moustache styles, yes, because there are about 19 of them in representative parliament from huge soupstrainers to little whoosh's.

I studied the kind of clothes they wore and what they carried in their hand when they wore the cane and gloves and so on.

Always describe the people. Always describe the places. The easiest thing to describe and the most important for the places would be the weather. I once wrote about three paragraphs just about snow, the piece about the War of 1812 and it was about a page. I could have said, "it was snowing," but that wasn't enough because the point was that the Americans, in our writing, threw everybody out of their houses and burned the town. They threw invalids, old women, children, cripples, into the snow of Newark which is now Niagara-on-the-Lake. And without the presence of weather, the story lacks a certain texture.

Snow. Snow blowing in the teeth of a bitter east wind off the lake. Snow falling in a curtain of heavy flakes. Snow lying calf deep in the streets, whirling in eddies around log buildings, creeping under doors, piling in drifts at the base of snake fences. Snow clogging the brims of top hats, crusting mufflers, whitening horses' manes, smothering the neat gardens of summer. No day, this, to be out in the storm: better to crouch by hearth or kitchen stove, making peep-holes in the frosted windows from which to view the white world from behind the security of solid walls. But not on this day.

So it was necessary to approach this story of Newark in the snow, to describe it as thoroughly as you can, to get the feeling - the chill. Here is a description from my book The Arctic Grail which I hope will give the idea of what I'm talking about when I say always describe the places.

By mid-June, the expedition had crossed the Atlantic and entered Davis Strait, and the officers and their crews had their first view of the icebound sea in all its splendour and all its menace. Here was a crystalline world of azure and emerald, indigo and alabaster - dazzling to the eye, disturbing to the soul. No explorer who passed through this maze of drifting, misshapen bergs ever failed to record the feelings and sensations that engulfed him when he first encountered the glittering metropolis of moving ice. To some the great frozen mountains that whirled past seemed to have been sculptured by a celestial architect, for here were cathedrals and palaces, statues and castles, all brilliant white, coruscating in the sun's rays, each one slightly out of focus as in a dream. Some reminded Parry of the slabs at Stonehenge; there were actually some upright pieces supporting a third resting horizontally on top. Ross was confounded by the intensity of the colours - the greens and blues and the blazing whites. "It is hardly possible," he scribbled in his journal, "to imagine anything more exquisite .&nbps;. . by night as well as by day they glitter with a vividness of colour beyond the power of art to represent. . . ." Both men were awed by the strangeness of the savage realm they'd invaded. Soon they would enter unknown waters. Meanwhile, it was comforting to encounter the whaling fleet - there were some three dozen ships flying the British red ensign - and to hear the cheers of the whalers as they passed through. It was, Parry thought, rather like coming upon a flourishing European seaport. But he also knew that this was where civilization ended.

It's important when scholars write a book of history that they write what happened. But for us popular historians, that is not enough. You must also write what it was like, and I can't underscore that too much - write what it was like. What did it feel like? What did it smell like? What did it sound like . . . the sweet stench of carrion drifting in the wind, the call of the whippoorwill haunting the night? This is what gives a book texture and gives writing a dimension. Here is a scene from the Dionne Years, in the farmhouse of the Dionne's, the first week the five little babies were born, in 1934.

As night fell and the family vanished upstairs, Marie Clouthier was alone with the kerosene lamp, the sleeping mother and nurse, and the five babies, clinging to the slender thread of life. It gave her an odd feeling as the night closed in. Over the measured breathing of the sleeping women she became aware of the nocturnal rhythms of the northern spring - the unending chant of the frogs drifting across the swamps and above that an unaccustomed cry, plaintive and haunting: the call of the whippoorwill. She had never heard it before but would always remember it and when, on occasion, she caught it again on a spring night, her mind would go back to those lonely hours when she sat in solitary vigil in the sleeping household and willed the tiny creatures in the incubator to hang on to life, at least until dawn.

What we're talking about here is two things: texture and cadence. It is texture that gives a story its richness and its depth. It is about plot. It is cadence that gives the prose rhythm. You'll note in the two stories I've quoted from, the point of view, is not the author's point of view. It can be; in one case the point of view is that of Sam Steel, in The National Dream, and the other is the point of view of the nurse sitting in the front room with the sleeping babies. Texture and cadence.

I'm very much affected, as I think most writers are these days, by the movies. You know, in the old days, books used to start very quietly. Even if you read Dickens or somebody, he doesn't jump in. You can't do that now; you've got to, especially if you're writing for a popular audience, who have television, and movies and the radio and everything else. You'll notice that the James Bond films, they pioneered some of this, they begin this way. James Bond has an instant adventure, even before the titles start. You know, he cheats death, he's shown to be resourceful, handsome, etcetera, and we get interested in him, and then they say the title of the movie and who's in it. A lot of movies start this way, especially action movies, and I find myself looking for ways to start. I think the start these days is terribly important. Or as Billy Wilder the great author, writer and director used to say, "Grab 'em by the throat and never let 'em go."

So when I'm writing and I think most of us when we're writing, think in terms, think visually, in terms of close-ups, panning shots, dollying in, establishing shots, so on. And if you think that way, you learn to fill in the blanks. If the faces in your picture are blank, you know you haven't done your homework. You've got to go out and find what that guy looked like and what he was. If the background is hazy or fuzzy, then you've got to do some research and find out what kind of a background it was - when that last spike was driven. We know the trees or what was snow; it was a foggy morning because we've got photographs to prove it.

Talking a bit here about style: it's been said that a computer given a piece of writing by an author can identify his style in any other book, because your style is something that belongs to you, it's part of your personality. It's also true that within your own style there are many styles. And think of The Comfortable Pew which was a book quite critical of the Anglican church, and which the style is really uptight, you might say tight-assed. And the reason it is, is because I was writing a very serious book, and I just finished writing three books of humour, and I thought, I cannot use that style for a book as serious as a book on modern Christian religion.

Tom Wolfe was really the start of the new journalism, wrote for Esquire. Tom Wolfe was sent out by Esquire to the west coast to do some research and write a piece for them, and he had great trouble. Finding a way of writing it. And he wrote his editor, the great Arnold Gingrich at Esquire, and said, "I can't write this," and Gingrich wrote him back and said, "Yes you can, write it as you would a letter home to a friend." And that's a pretty good piece of information, I quite often use that advice when young writers say they have trouble getting started. Write it like a letter home. I was driving in a town one day from Kleinberg where I live to make a speech to the Canadian Club, and I was going over the speech in my head, and I thought to myself: "why am I giving this speech away to the Canadian Club for nothing when I can turn it into a book?" And so I went home after that, having given the speech and thought about it, and I wrote a book called Why We Act Like Canadians, which was very successful. I had great trouble getting it on paper until I remembered Arnold Gingrich's advice to Tom Wolfe. And I wrote it as a series of letters to an American friend, describing Canada to a friend whom I called Sam - pretty obvious, eh.

Of course, I wasn't writing to Americans at all, I was writing to my fellow Canadians. But I was using that technique, the letter writing technique, to get the story across in a lovely way, to spread my arms a little, to give me a little, make it easier, make it more conversational. I just last year finished a book called Cats I Have Known and Loved. And that was a wonderful book to write because, writing about my cats, I was writing about cat people who are crazy about cats. I mean cat people are absolutely insane. You should see the number of cat pictures that people are mailing me now because of this book on cats. And they're telling me long stories about their cats and what that cat does and these are all remarkable cats with brains like Einstein and so on. So that book is written very loosely, as opposed to The Comfortable Pew which is written very tightly. The style is loose, as it should be.

For cats I did not need a research assistant. The cats did that job for me. But I want to talk for a moment about research assistants. They're very useful people to have if you can afford them. The way I can afford them is I give them a piece of the action. Barbara Sears, my research assistant on about 12 or more books of narrative history, and she's very, very good - so good that people are trying to steal her from me and use her for themselves. The first thing I think you have to know is that research assistants, unlike the common attitude, she does not, or he does not write the book for you. She's not a writer, she's a researcher. So that when Barbara brings me material, I don't want a lawyer's brief, I don't want a condensation. I want all the documents. Her job is to find the documents in the archives or newspapers or books and so on, get them to me, and I decide which one I'm going to use and how I'm going to use it and how I'm going to arrange it in the book. So I have to read everything. In fact, I read it all twice. First time right through and the second time more carefully. I think the general rule is, don't do anything yourself if somebody else who makes less money can do just as well as you can. Save yourself for the tough stuff. I was doing a book called Hollywood's Canada, and I asked Barbara to find me as many films as she could about Hollywood's take on Canada. There were about a hundred of them. And what she did was not just find the films, which was a long, difficult process, but she got a projector and strung it up for me because I'm mechanically inept. So all I had to do was press a button and look at the movie.

When I was working on Vimy, Barbara took commercial ads in some veterans' magazines, saying we wanted to talk to people who had been at Vimy Ridge, and about 80 people wrote in. And her job was to find these people, to talk to them on the phone or by mail, see what they had to say, and then turn them over to me and I'd interview them in depth. And one of the great guts of Vimy is the personal stories of people who were there. A research assistant can also find out sources for you; finding sources is very difficult sometimes. I don't want to go to the library and pore over long lists; she does that. And she saves me about a year on every book I write, and it's well worth the time she spends.

I'll say the same thing about editors: the writer who gets a good editor is a very lucky man. There aren't many good editors. I've had the same editor, freelance, for the last 20 odd books, Janice Tyrwhitt. She used to work at Macleans with me and then she went to the Reader's Digest. And she is tough as nails, and that's what you want. I used to find the editors were afraid of me, didn't want to hurt my feelings, but I want people to hurt my feelings. I want to be told honestly by somebody I trust that this piece of writing is a bunch of crap. You know, when I finish a manuscript, I think, "wow, this is probably the best thing I've ever done in my life, this is a great work of art. Boy, wait till the critics see this! They'll carry me through the streets on their shoulders. I've never done as well as this, and I think, I won't even bother to show it to Janice. She doesn't need to see it. But I think well, maybe I will, as a courtesy." Back comes 70 typed pages telling me what's wrong with it and what I have to do which means really I have to rewrite great chunks of it, but then rewriting is the name of the game. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. The amateurs don't understand that you rewrite some things more than once. Peter Newman writes his books about 12 times. I write four or five full drafts. By that I mean I put them right to the typewriter, which I use instead of the computer, and then I rewrite certain paragraphs 13 or 20 times over and over again until they sound right, until the cadence and the rhythm is right. Make sure the texture is there, that the thing is all of a piece, because storytelling, you know, which is what we writers are involved with, is really a series of scenes. Those scenes have to be sharp and visible. It's the order of the scenes. They don't have to be a narrative order. They can be an expository order, any kind of order, the order you choose that makes the book. But even more important, is how you link one scene up with the next one so the reader doesn't realize what's going on. How to move from one scene to another seamlessly without bump, bump, bump, bump, bump, which is the way some books, bad books, go, bump, bump instead of smoothly. You know, this is what I call the "meanwhile back at the ranch" symptom. That's a crude way of getting from one scene to another, "meanwhile back at the ranch, Joe" but you have to use that technique and figure it out for yourself how to do it and that's part of the ingeniousness that's involved in writing.

Storytelling. We all tell stories, and the world is composed of bad storytellers and good storytellers. A good storyteller knows how to get a story across. He goes home to his wife and he says, "The damnedest thing happened at the office today!" Got her attention right away. "What is the damnedest thing that happened at the office?" She wants to know. "Well you know Joe Flaherty? He walked into the boss and smacked him across the jaw!" Holy cow. Now he's got the two main characters in the story, the boss and Joe Flaherty, the smack across the jaw, and the fact that this is a very odd thing that happened at the office, and he's got it all in two sentences. After that he can go back and say, and she'll say, "well give me the details," and then you go back and give the details, but first you do what the movies do, you start with a pow. You grab 'em by the throat as Billy Wilder said. You know, a bad storyteller would say, "Yeah, a funny thing happened at the office." "Yeah what was it?" "Well, you know Joe Flaherty?" "No, not Joe." "You know Joe, he's the one that works . . . no is that him? No, I think, he's the one who has that girl with the red hair you know." And he goes on and on and you think: "Get to the point!" And there's that awful phrase, "Oh gee, I forgot to mention, in the middle you know." And we all have to avoid that.

Writing. What is writing? Some people think of writing as walking into your office, sitting down at the typewriter and starting to write. By the time you hit the typewriter, the writing should have been done. It's in your head. Writing is thinking and dreaming. Every night when I go to bed, before I go to sleep, I think and I dream about what I'm writing, and I was interested to find out that Lytton Strachey himself was a great hero of mine, would think up whole paragraphs, sentences and even chapters in his head before he would start to write, and that's a kind of a technique I use. And when I wake up in the morning I continue that process before I get up. And I must say, at parties, where I'm supposed to be Mr. Hail-Fellow-Well-Met drinking away with my life fans, if I'm in the middle of a book, I'm thinking and dreaming about that book. I can't let it go. Once you start writing a book it is with you. It haunts you. It follows you wherever you go, in your car driving, which means I'm a lousy driver as some of you know, but you gotta keep thinking about it before you put it on paper.

And then of course, once you've got the book finished, and you've got your newborn baby bound in your hand and you're examining the cover, by then, because it takes eight months to get a book ready, you're onto another book. But oh no! Your publisher and your publicists want you to go out on the radio and television and talk about the last book! And I get orders from Mrs. Franklin down here who's my agent. "Don't mention your next book! It's not on the stands, you can't sell it." And so, the last bit about the writing is walking around on television panels or writing speeches, which is what I've been doing for the last half-hour. Thank you.