The Joy of Writing: a Guide for Writers, Disguised as a Literary Memoir
Reviewed: March 2, 2009
By: Pierre Berton
Publisher: Doubleday Books
314 pages, $34.95
Depending on whether you count the couple of dozen books for younger readers
or not, Pierre Berton produced either 50 or over 70 books during his prolific
lifetime. His biographer has noted that he always seemed to have something ready
for the Christmas season.
How did he do it? The short form of the answer is perhaps to be found in the
quotation from Jonathon Swift that he used to begin this volume, which appeared
Then, rising with Aurora’s light
The Muse invoked, sit down to write;
Blot out, correct, insert, refine,
Enlarge, diminish, interline.
The book opens with quotations from letters to the author, all of them asking
for advice on how to get published. The book is his answer, or at least the
answer to how he did it. It is a memoir, and is more candid about his creative
processes than than the accounts in his two volumes of autobiography.
In its seven chapters you will find the expanded version of his “30 rules
for up and coming writers” which are listed in short form at the end.
He includes a couple of rejection letters from his earliest attempts to get
beyond daily journalism. You will also find examples of the various stages of
Berton’s attempts to write a number of books, reproduced typed pages from
different drafts, along with commentary on what was wrong with them, who persuaded
him that there were problems, and how he fixed them. One of these shows how
much work went into writing a small section of Klondike.
There are examples of his successful use of file cards and binder notes, advice
about how to look at the business and promotion end of being a writer, and recommendations
about the joys of recycling.
In the latter case, it would be enough to note that material he first researched
for Klondike later turned up in Vimy, Marching as to War and his last book,
Prisoners of the North. But, even more telling is perhaps the many volumes of
recycled newspaper columns and television scripts that allowed him to keep up
that book-a-year habit along with the fact that he was even able to recycle
his mistakes into this book and turn it into something new.
This is, of course, a book for people who like reading and habitually read the
afterwords and “constant reader” notes that some writers put in
their books. I’m happy to say that I have it because I was able to be
of a wee, tiny bit of assistance in some of the research on that last book of
his and this one arrived with a thank you inscription. I’m annoyed with
myself that I lost it when we were cleaning house one summer and that it only
turned up again behind some other books while I was reading A.B. McKillop’s
massive biography over the holidays. It was referenced in there enough times
that I knew I had to read it, and now I have.