Steven Heighton’s memos on writing and reading

December 13, 2011 by · 4 Comments 

Workbook: Memos & Dispatches on Writing. Steven Heighton; $18.95 paper 978-1-55022-937-0, 80 pp., ECW Press

“We make of the quarrels with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” So said W.B. Yeats, whose tidy observation provides the springboard for Steven Heighton’s little book of musings, or “memos,” as he prefers to call this collection of thoughts on writing, reading, and criticism. The epigrammatic structure of Heighton’s book, reminiscent of Marcus Aurelius, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, results from the author’s sense that fully formed essays are inevitably incomplete; the Hegelian cycle of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis will necessarily only lead to the discovery of a second thesis that will begin the process over again, and again, and again ad infinitum. “I grow impatient with the enterprise,” Heighton writes in his foreword, “and yet the alternative would seem to be mendacity through omission, which is akin to propaganda.”

Heighton is not a propagandist; he is a careful and thoughtful writer who uses the short, sharp shots in this book to sketch out an artistic manifesto of sorts, a fractured and meditative riff on Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (the young poet, in this case, being a youthful version of Heighton himself). His numbered lists of memos address subjects – insecurity, jealousy, fear, failure – that occupy all writers’ thoughts, whether or not they admit to them. Thus, number eight under the heading “On Criticism”: “The writing life’s cruellest irony: while failure can make you miserable, success won’t make you happy.” In “A Devil’s Dictionary for Writers,” failure is defined as a “phenomenon that allows writers to retain their friends,” and a “writer’s writer” is “one who lives at or below the poverty line.”

These observations are refreshing in their honesty, directness, and humour. Also refreshing is Heighton’s refusal to compromise on the discipline required to write and read well, at one point excoriating lazy readers who are “unwilling or unable to empathize with characters different from themselves.”

Throughout, Heighton is concerned with emphasizing the importance of complexity and nuance, whether he is addressing writers, readers, or critics. Of the last, he quite accurately recognizes that the “bad reviewer’s art involves universalizing, in authoritative, pseudo-objective language, a totally subjective response to a book,” and notes that “you can always criticize at a higher level than you can compose; you can always spot flaws in a classic novel that you could never hope to write yourself.”

Heighton is especially hard on writers who abandon fidelity to an artistic vision in favour of mainstream acceptance and recognition: “Careerist writers don’t confront and relish challenges, they crash into obstacles, which they naturally resent and fear.” He rejects the careerist writer’s definition of success, which is inevitably caught up more in the pursuit of awards and accolades than a focus on artistic purity. He urges readers who are interested in truly significant art to bypass recent award winners and buzz books and turn their attention to those volumes that have stood the test of time, although he also recognizes the “small masterpieces, initially neglected” that “still languish unread.”

If there is a contradiction here, it is one that Heighton would likely embrace. Despite his book’s formal affinity with Kierkegaard’s epigrams, Heighton is not a fan of either/or propositions. He is aware of complexity, and confident enough to allow it free rein.


4 Responses to “Steven Heighton’s memos on writing and reading”
  1. Thanks for bringing some needed attention to this little gem of a book. I just read it the other night–in one sitting, it’s that brief–after first learning of it in Bryson’s “Underground Book Club” blog.

    What particularly resonated for me was Heighton’s musings on the need for a writer to embrace the idea of sometimes doing nothing and allowing boredom –so difficult in our hyper-connected and busy world. He also explores the value of paying attention to the subconscious mind –the “nightmind,” he calls it– where the richest ideas originate.

    Wonderful and honest work from a great writer! (And a great Christmas gift idea for the wordsmith, even on a “writer’s writer” budget.)

  2. “He rejects the careerist writer’s definition of success, which is inevitably caught up more in the pursuit of awards and accolades than a focus on artistic purity.”

    Huh? Are there really writers who ‘pursue’ awards and accolades? The writers I know just try to write the best books they can. They aren’t foolish enough to think that awards are anything more than a crapshoot, luck of the draw. And what’s he mean by ‘careerist writer’? What’s wrong with writing as a way to earn your keep? The vast majority of writers don’t and would give their right arm to be able to. His definition of careerist writers (who “don’t confront and relish challenges”) smacks of pure snobbery. This is clearly a mid-list writer engaging in a public act of self-justification.

  3. Steven W. Beattie says:

    “Are there really writers who ‘pursue’ awards and accolades?” You’re kidding, right?

  4. Nope. I think all writers aspire to have their works well-received, of course. But in what way can they ‘pursue’ awards, which most of the writers I know (at least) acknowledge are a crapshoot?