Nov 112011

The author skating two miles from the Lake Ontario shore.

This is a chapter from Steven Heighton‘s Workbook: memos & dispatches on writing (just published by ECW Press)—amazingly enough, a book of aphorisms (epigrams, whatever–short, pungent thingies). Many of you will recall that ages ago, when dg had the energy for such, NC used to have aphorism contests. It was mentioned then that, in fact, people, real writers, often wrote aphorisms and published them in books. It is an astonishing form, little taught in the creative writing schools, and here is living proof of its exuberant viability.

DG had the devil (yes) of a time picking from the book. Every section is deft, dry and delightful. There is a section in which Steven writes to himself as a younger writer.

Let failure be your workshop.  See it for what it is: the world walking you through a tough but necessary semester, free of tuition.

There is a gorgeous section on inspiration (& boredom).

(It’s the Buddhist teacher and writer Thich Naht Hahn who says instead, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” A small act of subversion in a society that has no use for stillness, silence, inward vision—that extols speed, productivity, the manic pursuit of things that by their nature can never be caught and retained.)

This book is an embarrassment of riches. In the end, dg chose the chapter of definitions (the definition is one of the ancient forms of the aphorism).

Steven Heighton’s most recent books are Workbook: memos & dispatches on writing and the novel Every Lost Country.  His 2005 novel, Afterlands, appeared in six countries; was a New York Times Book Review editors’ choice; was a best of year choice in ten publications in Canada, the USA, and the UK; and has been optioned for film.  His poems and stories have appeared in many publications—including London Review of Books, Poetry, Tin House, The Walrus, and Best English Stories—and have received four gold National Magazine Awards.  He has also been nominated for the Governor General’s Award and Britain’s W.H. Smith Award.  In 2012 Knopf Canada will publish The Dead Are More Visible, a collection of short stories including “A Right Like Yours,” which appeared in Numéro Cinq.

See also this little interview with the author. And Steven’s earlier appearances on these pages: A Right Like Yours, Four Approximations of Horace, from Every Lost Country, and Herself, Revised.



If God is in the details, the Devil is in the definitions

AMBITIOUS: writer more successful than oneself.

BUZZ: ignorant consensus of readers who have not yet read the book in question and for the most part never will.

COMPLAINT: not actually a form of criticism, though often mistaken as such by reviewers.

DEADLINE: date by which writer must perfect excuses for not delivering in time.

FAILURE: phenomenon that allows writers to retain their friends.

FRIENDSHIPS, OF YOUNG WRITERS: akin to the urgent, insecure alliances of small countries in times of war.

GOOD FICTION: a collaborative confidence trick.

GOSSIP: weapon in the ancient, unconscious war waged by the group against the individual.

HIGH INFANT MORTALITY: problem endemic to literary novels, a low percentage of which survive their first two years.

HUMOUR, WIT: for some reason a proof to many readers, and critics, that a writer lacks aesthetic seriousness (hence, a failure to recognize the seriousness of play).

LITERATURE: an education in complexity.

MEMO: the musing of a harmless drudge.

NEGATIVE CRITICISM: art of creating, out of an instinctive hostility towards work that tests or spurns one’s vision, a calm, orderly argument.

Thus, NEGATIVE CRITIC:  writer in the business of disguising a club-wielding caveman in civilized tweed.

PROMISING YOUNG WRITER: middle-aged writer whose work is finally gaining notice.

PROMISING YOUNGER WRITER: late middle-aged writer whose work is finally etc.

ROYALTY: foreign celebrities who earn more in daily investment income than most writers earn in a lifetime.

WRITER: someone trying to extend childhood—its exuberant creativity, its capacity for timeless absorption—all the way to death, thus bypassing adulthood altogether.

WRITER’S WRITER: one who lives at or below the poverty line.

—Steven Heighton


  5 Responses to “The Devil’s Dictionary for Writers — Steven Heighton”

  1. These are delightful and all ring true! Together they form a brief biography for most writers:)

  2. All in all, the best author photo ever.

  3. I’m serioiusly considering the application for Canadian citizenship. These are terrific. Will be buying the book. Thanks for bringing them here.

  4. Made my day – THANK YOU! I think these definitions work for visual artists as well…

  5. Wickedly, devastatingly good in their brutal honesty. The meditations on failure and writers, especially.

    Thank you, for this remarkable introduction, and here are some definitions of mine that you may enjoy:

    “An Aphorist’s World: from A to W” Cheers, Yahia

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