Issue # 188 - Suzanne Stewart

Suzanne Stewart


Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing by Carol Shields, Eds. Anne Giardini and Nicholas Giardini. (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2016, 198 pp., $14.99). 


She died in 2003, leaving behind the fruits of a flourishing literary career: nine novels — including The Stone Diaries, Larry’s Party, and Unless — collections of short stories, poems, and plays, and several works of non-fiction, both biography and literary criticism. Carol Shields was 68, her writing voice silenced prematurely.

   Now, we hear her speak again — autobiographically, this time.

        In Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing, Anne and Nicholas Giardini, Shields’ daughter and grandson, have collected materials from her essays, letters, notes, and lectures that “illuminate” her life as a writer and her thoughts on the writing process. The book is written, so to speak, in Shields’ own voice. Her words, unearthed from her papers in Library and Archives Canada, have been pieced together in a single, fluid narrative, as if they were uttered while we read, in a single sitting. Shields’ lyrical, unassuming, and delightfully probing voice comes alive again, after its silence for thirteen years. 

     The book has been marketed as a “guide to the writing process,” one that will rival Stephen King’s On Writing or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. But Startle and Illuminate is more than a writer’s handbook. The work is duplicitous, in the positive sense of the term, as having “a twofold structure,” or presenting “two or more matters in one.” The book crosses two genres: handbook and autobiography. These twin pillars form the architectural core of the book; they are different, but “one.” 

     Autobiographically, the book is tightly framed, its focus specific: a woman whose life was intensely devoted to writing. All other aspects of Shields’ life are filtered out, even though she was a wife, mother, grandmother, teacher, and friend, who experienced the day-to-day circumstances that any human being encounters. The book omits the messy details of life. Its chronology is pared down to moments of literary significance: first publication dates, speaking engagements, teaching appointments, and letters to students and other writers. We do learn that Shields was an American, born in 1935 in Illinois, that she was an avid reader as a child, that she obtained a B.A. and M.A. in English literature, that she married and lived in various cities in Europe and Canada, and that she settled, ultimately, in Winnipeg, where she taught in the English Department at the University of Manitoba. Still, all of these autobiographical details hang on the singular thrust of the book: the story of a writer’s life. 

     This remarkable purity of detail, which deepens the reader’s appreciation of her devotion to her calling as a writer, also stands in sharp contrast to the domestic texture of her own works.  Her fiction, especially, embraces the lives of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. “I was writing to fill up on the natural gas of the quotidian,” Shields says. “More and more I trusted daily detail, wondering why domesticity ... had been shoved aside by fiction writers .... I wanted wall paper in my novels, cereal bowls, cupboards, cousins, buses, local elections, head colds, cramps, newspapers.” But this is not what Startle and Illuminate offers; we learn, instead, about Shields as a writer.     

     In places, hints of Shields’ daily life do emerge, particularly in relation to her family. In her introduction to the book, Anne Giardini recalls how she and her four siblings “watched” their mother work — “as the pages stacked up beside her typewriter” — and Shields, in turn, invited her children’s response to her writing. She was “not secretive,” Anne says, about writing. Her mother “shared generously,” and that familial interaction encouraged the children, too, to write. The book also offers glimpses of the domestic restraints that shaped Shields’ writing. She learned to make use of snippets of time, “any time,” here and there, especially when the children were at school. Family life undoubtedly molded her modest, but disciplined, practice “to write two pages a day,” small units, Shields says, that she built up over time into a more substantial work — a novel. She was content with incremental progress, bits of observation and fragments of conversations that she preserved, from day-to-day, in her book of Notes and gradually developed into stories.       

     As these minute details about Shields’ life reveal, she approached writing as a social activity, an art that involves people. Writers must learn to live in the world — “to notice things,” she says — and to share their ideas with each other. For Shields, writing was simply — but reverently — a thread through her daily life.

     Startle and Illuminate, in that respect, is beautifully punctured with charming anecdotes in which Shields, while discussing a particular point, veers off unexpectedly into personal recollection. “I knew very early ...,” “Like most children I started out believing ...,” “I remember once seeing a story in which there was a rather awkward page ...,” “Let me suggest to you that when a writer sits down to write ...,” “One of my discoveries has been ....” These informal asides soften the tone of the book, giving Shields — the accomplished writer — a modest human presence, in which she throws off the authoritative stance of an expert.

     While this autobiographical strand of the book is inward looking, an expression of the writer’s self as it emerges over time, the book’s other genre, as a writers’ handbook, looks outward. Shields projects her voice towards others: to help, share, correct, and create community. She speaks of “kindness and trust,” as she offers herself with generosity, sensitivity, compassion, and honesty, as a singular reader with sharp insight, who delights in conversation. This aspect of Shields’ character is particularly pronounced in the chapters on her teaching and in the excerpts from her letters. Shields talks. She provokes exchanges, bringing writers together in community.

     “Haven’t writers always, in fact, functioned this way — teaching, coaching, mentoring, advising, editing and influencing other writers — in garrets or coffee houses or the courts of kings or in country houses, through correspondence, or by the simple dissemination of their book?” she asks. Yes, but Shields was less solitary, surely, than most writers, and Startle and Illuminate is another instance of her “dissemination,” a book that Shields likely would have published herself, had she lived. Startle and Illuminate is full — bursting — with ideas, and this profusion of remarks suggests that she envisioned a work of this nature long before it was “written” posthumously.             

     But what was Shields’ advice to writers?  What makes this book an astounding “guide”?  

     Shields’ advice is solid, wide-ranging, and thorough. She comments on pacing, the importance of the setting’s concreteness in time and place, the authenticity of a narrator’s voice, careful craftsmanship of every sentence, disciplined daily work, an author’s modesty, writing that strains for the truth, the difficult balance between the disorder of life and the structure of art, a willingness to build up content from small scenes, and the intricate relationship between the world as we know it and the colouring of the imagination.

     But some of Shields’ advice stands out. It sparkles with originality, especially where her metaphors give freshness to her ideas.

     How do novelists keep all of their “disorderly material on track?” she asks. Shields’ method is to imagine “a series of similar-sized boxcars lined up on a track.” “All I had to do,” she says, “was fill them up with ‘stuff,’ and I would have my novel.” From the start, she titles her boxcars and gives them a “timeline”: nine months, one year, seven days, birth, or childhood, for example, each phase of which is one car, a container to fill. The process of giving aesthetic order to life is less daunting, she says, with “a little train of boxes (or else hangers on a coat rack),” even though she doesn’t know, at first, “what’s going in them (or on them).”  

     Using another metaphor, Shields tells writers “to raid.” Work “as thief,” “as scavenger,” she says. “Be bold all the way through.” The world is a treasure chest of materials, a “cosmic lost-and-found bureau,” and writers must commit themselves to “borrowing,” finding “narrative scraps,” and rescuing lost stories — unapologetically.      

     Metaphorically, again, she speaks of scenes and plots in terms of cooking, inviting her students to “thicken” their writing, as if narrative that is thin is also tasteless and bland. “I think you need to ‘thicken’ your scenes,” she writes, encouraging her student to “use more sensory description of people, their faces, their clothes, their gestures, their surroundings, but particularly ... what they are thinking.” “Tell us about the weather,” she says, in another instance, “the time of day, the furniture.” These details will “‘thicken’ your scenes.” Like a heavy stew, stirred laboriously, this kind of writing, Shields suggests, is deliciously dense and evenly paced: “thickening, explaining, describing, taking it slowly, letting the pages breathe.” Then, the writer can dart with “a sudden plunge that takes the reader by surprise.”

     Shifting to metaphors from archaeology and architecture, Shields conceives of stories as material that is “excavated” and, then, built up. The world is a “storyboard,” she says, but “a large portion of the human experience fails to make the narrative record.” Most stories have been “lost,” or left inaccessible. As writers dig — and “raid” — in order to retrieve forgotten stories, they fill the “narrative cupboard,” beginning modestly with “life-bites,” little anecdotes, and heard or overheard conversations. Piece by piece, the structure takes shape, from artifacts, historic narratives, paintings and documents. In this way, any story is “furnished” and “solidly built.” (This is what we see in Startle and Illuminate, too, which was excavated and carefully constructed.)   

     But this aspect of the book — its practicality as a handbook — also contains its principal flaw. Each chapter concludes with a list of bulleted statements, titled In Brief, which summarize the instructive contents of the chapter. The feature doesn’t work. The juxtaposition of Shields’ fluid and lyrical voice with these chapter-end lists is jarring and incongruous. It turns the work into a textbook, with box-like inserts. The publisher has made a poor editorial choice, here.

     The book hinges, instead, on Shields’ musicality.

     Her voice is enticing. We hear, rather than read, the book. Shields speaks fluidly. As readers and listeners, we rarely encounter evidence of the multiple materials that were pieced together: no footnotes, endnotes or an index, few dates, and only occasional references to specific sources. (In this respect, the book is beautifully edited, its pieces woven together with meticulous care, like the multiple threads in a delicate piece of silk. We do, indeed, encounter “two matters” — autobiography and handbook — in “one.”)   

     This musicality is the essence of Jane Urquhart’s complimentary tribute to Shields, in her foreword to the book. The “undeniably extraordinary” quality of Shields’ writing, Urquhart says, is “the sound of her voice.”  It is “bell-like, musical,” a sound that “would sing in the mind long after she had said it.” Startle and Illuminate is “a treasure,” Urquhart adds, “in that it captures the sound of that voice ... the voice of the spoken word.” Here, it is Shields’ non-fiction voice, used in conversation with authors and friends, as she “pondered aloud what it is to be a writer.”      

     But this enchanting oral quality is silenced as each chapter concludes. It is clipped by the flatness of the lists, which imperfectly recreate the intricacy of Shields’ voice, reducing it to cryptic statements that we are invited to memorize, not ponder. The magic of the music — the resonating bell — deflates. The editorial hand is too intrusive. The In Brief points reduce writing to a mechanical practice, even though Shields remarks, throughout the book, that “[s]o much in a writer’s life is unwilled, capricious, inexplicable, and unrecorded.” “I think I fall on the intuitive side of writing,” she says, “not always knowing everything.” “A novel is a wild and overflowing thing,” its narrative “jumping from idea to idea, leaping.” Shields is most “at ease,” she says, with an “organically spilling, unself-conscious, disorderly, unruly, uncharted and unchartable pouring out of voice.” The lists break the spell of this voice.     

     That flaw aside, the book is admirable in all other respects. 

     But does it startle and illuminate its own readers, as the title suggests? Shields uses this phrase in a modest way, in a letter to a student, when she speaks of the importance of individual sentences: “a line that uses words in a striking sequence, where the compression startles and illuminates.” For Shields, a careful craftsman, sentences carry weight.   

     As a whole, the book does, indeed, illuminate. In fact, Shields uses that word to refer not only to a writer’s craft, in composing sentences, but also to the value of literature. “Do we accept the fact that fiction is not strictly mimetic, that we want it to spring out of the world, illuminate the world, not mirror it back to us?” she asks. “I’ve always believed fiction to be about redemption, about trying to see why people are the way they are.” Fiction, like non-fiction, illuminates: it tries to see.

     That is what Startle and Illuminate does, too, most profoundly, I think, in relation to Shields’ view of writing as an act of generosity. She reaches out — to family, friends, students, and other writers — to invite people into her writing process, and to invite herself into their journeys as authors. But Shields’ vision of community is even broader than that: a writer’s commitments extend, as well, to the reader. The writer–reader relationship, she says, “must be one of the most intimate in human experience.” Here, again, is her social view of reading and writing. She overturns the conventional notion of writers as “seekers of solitude.” “The reader knows the writer, not just the written work,” and “longs to be part of that knit.” The illumination goes that deep.      

     But does the book startle?

     This quality is less obvious, at first. Shields, as we know, likes ordinariness, the simple “arc of a human life.” The silence that society imposes — its fear of “intimate interrogation of strangers” — gives the novelist “a freshness of opportunity,” she says, “to bring spaciousness and art into the smallest, most ordinary lives.” In this respect, Shields’ own writing has a tranquil quality; it doesn’t dart, with abruptness or unevenness. She dismisses the fictional convention of “so-called epiphanies ..., those abrupt but carefully prepared-for lurches toward awareness, the manipulative wrap-up that arrived like a hug in the final paragraph.”  What, then, if anything, in this book, startles the reader?  

     Even a statement like this — Shields’ dismissal of epiphanies — embodies exactly what startles about her writing: the striking metaphors that emerge all too naturally from prosaic assertions. Shields has the ability to dress up and sharpen language with figurative freshness. We are caught off guard — as we are with her boxcars, raids, excavations, buildings, furnished rooms and thickened soups, as images for writing.      

     Shields seeks personal, authentic stories, rooted in human experience, but the language that springs from her quotidian material startles the reader, not with spectacle and drama, but with a beauty of language that transcends life’s ordinariness. “[U]sing the great world about me and the droplets that fall from it,” she says, provides the fiction writer with material. In this simple statement alone, we enjoy the elegance of her words: refreshing “droplets” squeezed from the harshness and plainness of the world. In Shields’ writing, then, we see the power of literature. For her, the world is eloquently “dressed in ... fictional robes.” She creates this effect, phrase by phrase, “one word placed surprisingly against another.” Shields’ writing startles less by its subject than its language — the diversions, distractions, metaphors, randomness, surprises, and intricate textures.      

     Startle and Illuminate was miraculously written by three people, but Anne and Nicholas Giardinia, after creating the narrative, step into the background to allow Shields to emerge as the author, as if the idea had been conceived and executed by her. That subtle layering, a creation of three minds “in one,” beautifully disguised, is another aspect of the book’s capacity to startle and illuminate, as it awakens and enlightens readers to the magnificent potential of the literary voice.