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The Creative Writer

By Gregory Betts

Canada’s most generous author, the poet bpNichol, once watched the mass-media magician Uri Geller perform his spoon-bending tricks through the television. That’s all we writers have, he mused, the power to bend spoons.

Canada’s most garrulous critic, the professor Frank Davey, picked up the throwaway line and wrote a book on the premise (as professors are wont to do). Essentially, he argues, the con in literary power is, like magic, based more on belief and outright fraud than anything vaguely real (what is real? Thank god postmodernism is dead (Is i/t?)).

Poets know the con implicitly, and laugh about it nervously over excessive alcohol consumption. Burping and blurbing each other.

What we know is that the Creative Writer is an always-shifting role, especially in a society that relies on literacy while distrusting literature. Once said to be occult legislators, writers have been given the task of building the national identity, or else capturing the best thinking of a civilization, or else inscribing (and reconciling) its failures, or else diverting the attention of the masses.

Freud once called art a salvo on all the repressed desires of a population. Without art, we’d swiftly descend into episodes of Game of Thrones (with GoT, however, we pretend to like each other more than we do. “I’ll not eat that baby today.”). Davey’s sense of the con is, ultimately, insufficient in assessing the value and function of the Creative Writer.

What is a poor poet to do?

These are tricky times for writers. Private lives are now often used as more important determinants of literary merit than the books themselves. It is not uncommon to read about Twitter posts in book reviews. Sheila Heti once wrote a lovely book called How Should a Person Be?, which title we can twist to ask How Should a Creative Writer Be? or maybe What Should a Creative Writer Post?

Despite Nichol’s joke, his model of Creative Writing is more instructive and delightful (a small Alexander Pope joke there, for the fans). Nichol wrote constantly, and well, but also served as an editor, publisher, organizer, and community leader. He showed up at other people’s readings, listened not to their difference from his ideal, but for what they were trying to do with theirs. His model of being a Creative Writer involved helping others become more themselves, creating spaces to make that happen.

That he is thanked and acknowledged in hundreds of books of all genres, across the country and beyond, attests to his galvanizing, widely felt impact. Even Ron Mann’s iconic film Comic Book Confidential is dedicated to bp. He was a community-oriented author. He was legion, an avant-garde force. A generational talent. WWbpD?

While he was a singular figure, Nichol’s model suggests that we are a long way from experiencing the writer as an inspired genius, scribbling down their overflowing emotions somewhere near the crest of Mont Blanc. (As the evil American poet Vanessa Place jokes, on Twitter, “Poetry: because emotions don’t line-break themselves.”) The age of the genius isolate is done.

The Creative Writer, instead, might be thought of as an interconnected node in a network of figures that collectively make up the literary field. The pantheon of heroes includes publishers, editors, bookmakers, booksellers, webmasters, audiences, and more. (Only the critic is suspect, for the critic isolates the work from the ecosphere, and tries to taste the forbidden fruit.) Writing increasingly functions much the way all of our social milieu now function through diverse, digital systems of task-oriented communities. bpNichol’s spirit of generosity becomes all the more essential when acknowledging the back-up band behind every literary soloist.

What we know so far: the Creative Writer is not bound or defined by any particular physical attribute, mental aptitude, ideological predilection, or geographical determinant. CanLit used to be synonymous with FarmLit, which used to be synonymous with boring. We know, now, that great writers can come from small town Ontario (thank you, Alice Munro) or live in big cities (thank you, Ann Carson). We know they can be politically activist, or entirely abstract. Personable or incorrigible, they can steal, cheat, and mock the collective knowledge of any group, including you and me, and they do.

There is a growing consensus even amongst writers that the life of the author and their various beliefs on arcane topics matters more than the works they produce. Here is where Davey’s skepticism about the con of populism might be worth remembering: power, that is, real power—the power of social structures and state apparatus—and literature are strange, ungenerous bedfellows. If literature is recognized only as a tool of ideology, and condemned only to serve in the culture wars, it loses its unlimited potential to reimagine every aspect of human affairs. It quickly loses its joy, its rich embodied thinking, which is its blood.

But the Creative Writer can join the culture wars through their work, if they want, or can try to bend spoons, or can write a poem about the bent spoon as a symbol of our galling times. The Creative Writer remains, after all, an aspect of the world—but only so long as they are writing. Otherwise, they are naught.