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 in 2003:

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.