Writing conversation :

Catharine writes :

Time after time, when I put the question ”How do you get what is in your head down on paper” the person I am talking to comes up with a genuinely interesting fresh response. Sometimes it is a rather puzzled murmur. ‘Oh you know…’ sometimes it is a vivid description of how a writing project begun and brought to a conclusion. A four year old gave me her poem. My schoolfriend, Katherine Tyrell, immediately replied ‘if it doesn’t work, don’t get your knickers in a twist!’

Lets’ be clear – this question about writing was not my idea. It was put to me by a fifteen year old student from Northern Ireland,sitting with a group of about eight fellow students in the lobby of Concordia University, here in Montreal. These students had all come out to Canada on a two month programme with Wider Horizons. The conversation was about my book Polly of Bridgewater Farm: an unknown Irish story. Someone asked if I was going to do a sequel. Then this young woman sitting beside me sprang to life, “What I want to know” she said firmly and formulated a question we’ve all been talking about ever since in conversations and in this Tuesday blog.

This question was right up Neil’s alley – he began writing when he was nine years old. I am a late bloomer, as you’ll see if I ever put up some of my earlier efforts.

What would you say to this young woman?

Have you ever tried to write and failed?

Do you have something half-completed?

Do you have something tucked away in a drawer that no one has ever seen?

Were you encouraged or discouraged by your teachers?


  1. 1
    Vin Smith Says:

    It used to be tougher. You had to put a piece of paper in the platen and then hope you didn’t place so many words that fell out of the sky haphazardly onto the typing paper that you simply had to roll it up into a ball and give it a toss. For me the scrunched up remains of my hopeful prose usually went into a waste paper basketball court replica for a receptacle.

    Nowadays, I have often started out way off base, but with digital equipment I somehow manage to pull it all together without having a pile of refuse in the corner.

    A book–to take my favorite writing form–will either drop dead or gain a life of its own. If the latter, it all comes together, in an untidy sausage-making process that after copious rewrites, the loss of much pulled-out hair, and numerous doses of analgesic, actually resembles a book. The former? Dead manuscripts sit in a moldy box on the shelf–for what good purpose I may never know.

    I have written forty books. Nine are published. A number of the thirty-one remaining will be shielded from others’ prying eyes.

    I was only discouraged by a teacher once–when I was a teenager over half-a-century ago. I learned a valuable lesson from that: “Those that can, do… Those that can’t teach! Do not ever listen to teachers again! They spend no time on their stuff because they know they can’t write a lick!”

  2. 2
    ssstephaniep Says:

    Catharine writes :

    Wonderful to hear from you, thanks for the encouragement. This whole experience is amazing.

    To be continue…

  3. 3
    John Says:

    Hey Vin, the nonsense in your final paragraph above goes a long way in explaining why 80% of your books are unpublished. I fail to understand why Catharine finds that kind of thing encouraging, particularly given Neil was a teacher.

  4. 4
    Carole, on behalf of Catharine Says:

    Sitting here in Maine roaring with laughter. John, I thought Vin’s piece was priceless and the fact that he’s been following the blog all these years and has often spoken of how much he appreciated Neil’s writing is encouraging in itself. I’m encouraged too by the fact that you took the time to write. – Catharine

  5. 5
    Vin Smith Says:

    …Wow, John! You sound just like my teacher–half-a-century back! The only thing he ever got published was a few rambling letters to the editor! Here I thought I was doing good, publishing nine books out of nine tries–with another ten or eleven I would rather hold onto for a while for various reasons. The rest? Just practice I suppose. They were written from twenty to thirty years ago…

    Serious writers (I do not take you for that John) often ask me for advice…
    One question I get asked frequently is how do I approach writing? What processes do I use? Outline everything? Just let it flow? How do you reach deep down to your muse?

    I consider these questions to be a single query. The reason is simple. The process of writing is not all that complicated. The execution of said process—well that’s pretty much a task you can only learn by doing, and it takes a great deal of time. That’s why some of my old manuscripts only act as practice exercises while they gather shelf dust.

    Writing is like any other occupation. I read a nice article in the Sacramento Bee recently about an eighty-year-old bartender in Old Sacramento. He had everything down pat. He didn’t study a manual one weekend and then emerge fully formed as a bartender. He learned as he went along. Putting it into words? Not so easy. The gentleman says can give you some general principles, but basically, you learn by first watching a master such as himself, and then you put the finishing touches on your bartending skills by—well—bartending…

    Learning to write is governed by the same principles…

    You learn to write by… Now, don’t get ahead of me here (do that and you will be wrong). You learn to write by first reading. Read voraciously. Read everything you can get your mitts on. Pour over classics, sure (you probably did that in school), but make sure you read contemporary material so you do not come off as a fugitive from the nineteenth century. Before you actually learn to bartend, you must read about “mixology.” Before you get anywhere with writing, you must study the language, usage conventions and a few hard and fast rules. Then, lest you sound like a pedantic fussbudget English teacher, read widely. Read constantly. Even on occasion, ask questions of other writers.

    Then write. Write a lot. Be prepared to throw away most–if not all–of the early work. Unless you are like me, a New England product of a family of pack rats. I cannot bare to throw anything out–except old pizza boxes. I don’t even sell my used equipment; I give it away to aspiring writers. So, you can easily see, John, why I do not mind storing manuscripts. Besides, I have on occasion cannibalized scenes from one dead-in-the-water manuscript for an exciting, current work that seems full of life.

    When your writing station begins to rope you mornings to your desk like a cowboy’s lasso drags a dogie, you will be writing prolifically. My wonderful late friend, Lauran Payne, the author of the superb western Open Range, who lived just down the street from me, once simply said, “…write about a million words and then you will be where you want to be as a writer.” I agree with that. By the way, his book was made into a terrific movie by Kevin Costner, who hired his friend, megastar actor Robert Duvall, to co-star with him. Great flick. Great book!

    Along the writing trail you will iron out your own process. How you get ideas. How you apply yourself to the task of producing “page count.” Whether or not you outline. Your method of editing. These days I edit as I go along. Word processing allows you to do that. In other words, the nuts and bolts will work themselves out. As long as you have prepared yourself with proper education, which for a writer means you read constantly, and you write continuously.

    Do these simple tasks and you WILL BE A WRITER!

  6. 6
    John Says:

    If serious writers are asking you for advice, you’re quite right in leaving me out of that lot. Anyone who advises others “to not ever listen to teachers again” based on the fact he was once discouraged by one is dispensing advice I don’t need.

  7. 7
    John Says:

    The British author W.H. Auden used to ask young people why they wanted to become writers. If they answered by indicating they felt they had something to say, he’d discourage them. If they answered by indicating they liked to play with words, he offered some encouragement.

    “A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.” W.H. Auden

  8. 8
    Catharine Says:

    I am sure Neil is chortling at this back-and-forth between Vin and John. There is nothing he liked better than a good argument.
    Vin: I would interested to know how you first came across the blog and what kept you following it all this time? What was your opinion of Neil’s views?
    For anyone looking at this blog for the first time, if you are interested in reading any of the posts that Neil wrote in the past (over a period of 4 years) you can enter a search subject in the search dialogue box which is right down at the end of the left-hand margin.
    Thank you for the interesting quotation from W.H. Auden – a lot to think about!

  9. 9
    Vin Smith Says:

    One day I simply found an E-Mail in my inbox from Neil’s blog. I checked it out. I was shocked at how I agreed with virtually Neil’s entire mindset revealed in the conversations. I shouldn’t have been so surprised–Neil turned out to be a progressive, even as I am. The problem seems to be–especially in the U. S.–that in spite of the right wing’s claim otherwise, most commentators and their bosses are dead-brained conservatives.

    I suppose that’s logical. Most major publishing and broadcast syndicates have always been owned by the money men–and they are almost always conservative ideologues. That holds true, from William Randolph Hearst to Rupert Murdock.

    But Neil spoke a different language. Don’t get me wrong; before the Neocons and then the Tea Party mental midgets hijacked the American Republican Party, there were actually savvy conservatives in many places. The late Paul Harvey was one of them. I was a big admirer of Mr. Harvey. Once, when I attended one of his speeches in Long Beach, California, Harvey said, “…Jesus asked us to be fishers of men… We have become keepers of aquariums, robbing each others fish bowls.”

    Without question, Neil McKenty was the Canadian Paul Harvey. Or, perhaps Paul Harvey was the American Neil McKenty. I didn’t usually agree with Paul Harvey’s politics, but I always agreed with Neil McKenty. It takes a big mind to be a progressive in a nitpicking conservative English-speaking western culture—where the watchword is always, “…what have you done for me lately?”

    Neil McKenty often came out with well-turned phrases that caught my attention. But more frequently, he would write very simple truths that we often basically overlook. Like this bit of information from his book, In the Stillness Dancing: The Journey of John Main.

    “The great illusion that most of us are caught in is that we are the centre of the world and everything and everyone revolves around us… This is a very easy illusion to fall into because in the opening consciousness of life it seems that we are understanding the external world from our own centre. And we seem to be monitoring the outside world from an interior control centre. And so it seems as though the world is revolving around us. Then logically we begin to try to control that world, to dominate it and to put it at our service. This is the way to alienation, to loneliness, to anxiety because it is fundamentally unreal.”
    It would be incredibly hard to try and think of another writer who affected me more. I can think of a great philosopher who perhaps had an equal influence on me… None other than Socrates. That ancient Greek fellow—using the aptly named Socratic Method—often taught by asking his students questions. Neil McKenty had that down pat. Recently, I told Neil’s widow, my great good friend Catherine, that I would have taken any course that Neil decided to teach—even it if was Underwater Basket Weaving.

    You may remember that the American country singer Willie Nelson sang that his heroes have always been cowboys. My heroes have always been teachers. That’s why one fellow’s ridiculous statements on this blog blasting my honest—and accurate—observation that English teachers make very poor writing teachers got me into a fit of belly laughter. Let’s see if I can make this perfectly clear: Do you entrust a PE teacher to teach calculus—who knows nothing about the subject? It happens—but it’s a mistake. People should not teach subjects they know nothing about. What kind of teacher ought to teach young writers? That’s simple: Creative Writing Teachers! The teacher who tried to discourage me over half-a-century ago wasn’t even a REAL English teacher. She taught social studies. They gave her the mantle of CREATIVE WRITING TEACHER because she had once published a poem in the local newspaper.

    In the U. S. education has a very long way to go…

    Writers… Be very careful who you ask questions of about your writing. Make sure it is a creative writing teacher. Better yet, ask an editor…

    I make my living as an editor… Among other things… Polyfacetic am I, and I thank my mentors for that. A good many tidbits came my way from Neil McKenty over the years. Readers are in luck, however. Neil’s writing will not disappear. The wisdom from his agile mind—especially those searing questions that made us think—will always be around, as long a the World’s lingua franca—English—is written and spoken.

    Sorry about that, Francophones…

  10. 10
    Catharine Says:

    Am most appreciative of your significant assessment of Neil’s work. I used to marvel how he could pluck a metaphor out of the thin air.
    I agree with your view on the passage from The Stillness Dancing. Neil left his beloved CJAD radio Show ‘Exchange’ at the height of its success in order to complete that book.
    Rereading Neil’s first ever Christmas Letter to friends and family in 1998, I realise how happy he was working on that biography of a little-known Irish Benedictine monk, John Main. It was published first by Darton, Longman and Todd in England. Then by Paulist Press in the USA. The Irish Times asked its readers to name their favourite book of 97′. The president of Ireland, Mary MacAleese choose In The Stillness Dancing as a book that had a strongly positive affect on her own life.
    When Neil first started the biography, he only had about 2 weeks holiday time from his radio work to interview people who had known John Main (whose death at the early age of 56 shocked all of us who had known this remarkable man in Montreal).
    We rented a small apartment in Pimlico, I remember sitting there putting coins in a payphone in the bedsit, while Neil was out doing interviews. We had been given Father John’s address book with 40 names in it – no other papers were available.
    I was trying to track down 2 army men in Scotland who had been part of a tiny intelligence unit sent with the allied army as it advanced into France. Young Douglas Main, as he was then, aged 18, was part of that unit as it attempted to focus on signals from German spies left behind the retreating German army. This intelligence unit was traveling in an old rickety ambulance.
    To my delight, I was able to track down one of those Scottish soliders, who had no telephone. He remembered vividly taking long walks talking with this brilliant 18 year old who had a call to some form of spiritual life and service. ” It was always with him”.
    We learned from other sources that Douglas Main resisted this call for a long time, no way did he want to become a monk. He was having too much fun doing all sorts of other things, including studying Law at Trinity College, Dublin, where he was a wine steward. Earlier, he had joined the British Foreign Service, and was sent to post-war Malaya. There he eventually met a Hindu swami, who had founded an orphanage for children of the four great religions in his country, insisting that each child be free to retain their own tradition.
    This man, who spoke 18 languages, raised the level of education in his country and later chaired the first inter-faith conference in what became Malaysia. From him, this talented young Irishman, Kerry-born, learned a simple form of silent meditation, using a single prayer-word or Mantra.
    Much later, the same Irishman, now headmaster of a school in Washington, D.C. and a Benedictine monk to boot, Father John Main, rediscovered this same form of prayer in fourth-century Christianity, written about in the tenth-century and passed on in monasteries such as the one on Skellig Michael off the coast of Southern Ireland.
    I got so fascinated by the whole story of this intriguing personality, that on our next trip to England, I started asking questions about this small, secret intelligence unit that young Main had been part of. I tracked down the people who were looking after Enigma, the decoding machine that been found by Polish agents. I asked some many questions that I was told in exasperation I needed official clearance.
    Part of the reason behind my questions was the to me puzzling discovery of Father John Main’s gift for Irish-storytelling. Growing up on a farm outside staid old Toronto of the 30’s I never run into anything like this before. How was I to tell fact from Fiction? For a while, I even questioned the existence of the Swami, that is until I talked to a judge who had also been in Malaya. He set me straight.
    Finally I gave up from trying to sort up fact from what I now realise what was an extraordinary gift for turning ordinary life into something unique and special.
    My viewpoint shifted, (and so did Toronto’s thank goodness, and people from 70 or more countries poured into the city after the war).
    For Neil, as you can imagine, trying to capture this extraordinary character on paper was a riveting challenge that occupied four years of his life – and happy ones they were.
    A friend in Ireland said to me ” That book is Neil’s legacy” It got her through a very painful operation. I think she could well be right, although reading what Vin has just written here on the blog about Neil, I think Neil’s legacy is hard for anyone of us to measure at this point.

  11. […] loved Vin Smith’s story of his 40 books, some published, some […]

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