On November 16, 2014 I had the great honor to attend a workshop led by Yann Martel. Yes, that is right the prize-winning author of Life of Pi. And I thought I would share with you, my lover’s of the word, what I learned in the one-and-a-half hours that I spent with him. I later learned from his partner, Alice Kuipers (author of The Death of Us) that Yann does not “do” workshops and that this would likely be the one and last workshop he would do. I felt a greater sense of gratefulness and exclusiveness of being a part of this session. Let me pass on what I learned and help you in your own journey into the vast landscape of writing. Enjoy the lesson!
Writing According to Yann Martel
“I have never taken a single writing class in my life,” Yann said to the ten attentive listeners. Really? I thought to myself. How can this be true? Yann continued, “I don’t come from a writing tradition at all. If I had connect with it I would have benefitted from that tradition.” My rapid heart rate slowed and I felt my shoulders slump. He would have benefitted, that means I will benefit from all those online classes and workshops I have attended trying to find my stride as a writer and ultimately find my way into the publishing world.
Yann explained that he first came to writing through reading. He cannot imagine being a competent writer without being a competent writer. He was “turned onto writing by something that moved [him]” from what he read; the pleasure of it. But what a reader does not know is that went behind creating that novel. “Reading a good book,” Yan explained, “is your best teacher.” Asking yourself how the author created a particular moment, character, scene- this is the key to learning to write. Real pleasure is what shimmers in your mind, the character, the setting, that’s what is really exciting.
Yann further explained that the part of writing that he “never tires of is re-writing and rewriting.” He finds this “endlessly pleasurable.” Yann told his hungry pupils that he was “happiest understanding life through [his] stories. Through [his] stories [he] was understanding life” and that “everything [he] has written was [he] understanding life.”
This revelation gave me pause to think. What do my stories mean? Where do my stories come from?
Yann said that his writing is “self-exploring what it means to be a man and a woman.” For example, The Life of Pi he was a person coming from a completely secular background and he began to wonder what it meant to have faith. Science and technology have totally changed society, he expounded, so why would one what to believe in Jesus and faith? Life of Pi became Yann’s exploration of this question.
“Writing,” Yann said, “is my way of staying in school and continuing to learn. And bringing it all together is a cool thing. To pass on your message you must adhere to the rules. If you start adhering to the rules that each genre has, the rules will help us to convince a reader more effectively.”
He further explained that there does need to be a balance between your own authenticity and the rules. If you conform too much it becomes forgettable. A good story is co-written by the writer and the reader. The story isn’t on the page, it begins in the writer’s mind and ends in the reader’s mind. And, in order for that to work, you need to follow the rules. But we, as writers, must keep a mixture of impersonal and personal in our work.
“One temptation,” Yann told us, “is to overwrite because we come from a very visual society as seen in movies, TV. We are even told where to look through these mediums. Music is incredibly manipulative such as we have heard in the movie, Jaws, where the music tells us how to feel.”
Consequently, with writing we must find out what the rules are in our genre and then play with them. The reader must feel excited to experience your writing. “Less is more and this is key to writing,” Yann instructed us, “Adverbs are your enemy.” Readers want to come into account how they will feel on their own through our writing and not be told how to feel or where to look.
A tip from Yann while writing was not to “read great fiction when you are writing because it pulls you out of orbit.” Yes, writer’s are our best teacher but when we are writing our own pieces great writers can keep us from writing in two ways: 1. by keeping us immersed in their world and out of our own writing and 2. we become discouraged as we tell ourselves, ‘we will never be as great as they are’ and so, we give up. Therefore, read and learn, but do not read yourself out of writing.
Faulkner once said that, “you’ve got to kill your babies.” Yann explained that sometimes as writers we are too close to our writing and that we must be willing to let go. The very paragraph that inspired us to write the piece may be the very paragraph we may need to delete. Editors acts as an ideal reader. Editors will give us the objective viewpoint we need to sharpen our writing and make our writing captivating for our readers. Any writing that works must get the reader intrigued and create a sense of interest.
At this point, Yann reviewed the work we had submitted to him and gave us individual comments and suggestions. I leave you with his final words to us, “Real literature aims to be deeper and does rock our world.” It is my hope, dear word wayfarer, that you may continue to write, rewrite and craft stories that rock our world and it leaves your reader deeply moved and changed because of it.
Here’s a picture of myself with Yann Martel.
Until next time.