Thoughts on Books I've Read

Startle and Illuminate

Startle and Illuminate By Carol Shields.

Edited by Anne Giardini and Nicholas Giardini.

Published by Penguin Random House Canada.

Publisher’s blurb:

Shimmering with her unique style, sense, humour, vision and wit, Startle and Illuminate is a book of advice and reflections on writing by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carol Shields that is destined to become as valued and essential as Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

An essential work from one of Canada’s finest writers, Startle and Illuminate stands as a reflection of Carol Shields’ devotion to the writer’s craft. Drawn together by her daughter and grandson from decades of correspondence with other writers, essays, notes, comments, criticism and lectures, Startle and Illuminate helps answer some of the most fundamental questions about the craft: Why do we write at all? Can writing be taught? What keeps a reader turning the pages? How is a writer to know when a work is done? In her own words, Shields reveals her thoughts on why we read, and more importantly, why we write: for the joy of the making, to reimagine our world, to discover patterns and uncover forms that echo our realities as well as interrogate them.

What I liked best

To begin with, I am a huge fan of Carol Shields’ writing, so I read this as soon as it hit bookstores in 2017. She (I don’t think), ever intentionally wrote a book on craft, so we need to thank her daughter and grandson for bringing all the pieces together from letters and essays etc.

They have done a wonderful job of curating Shields’ wisdom into cohesive chapters. And at the end of each chapter, they provide a summary of tips from the preceding pages. A device that makes the book easy to dip back into; for help or encouragement, when you (or is it just me?), are lost in your own manuscript.

I particularly enjoyed the section highlighting feedback she gave to her students. She sent critique notes on each student’s work in progress, but the notes read as a warm letter from a friend. She is never harsh, her respect and understanding for the vulnerability each student risks by sharing work is evident. She gives them specific advice, but also encourages them to trust themselves.

There are two bits of wisdom that she repeats often to her students, that I now try to keep in mind while I write:

“My comments—mostly noted in the margins—have to do with sentence structure, sentence variation, tense changes. This may seem boring stuff, but writing lives and dies at the sentence level.”

And the idea of “thickening”

“Many of the things I’ve mentioned may be what you’ll want to go back to when you’ve done your first draft. (Everyone arrives at a final draft differently.) But you might try—and I do suggest this—doing it as you write: thickening, explaining, describing, taking it slowly, letting the pages breathe. And occasionally going a little deeper, a sudden plunge that takes the reader by surprise.”

What makes Startle and Illuminate one of my favourites, is how personal it feels. Like a chat over tea. Yet there is a lot to be learned from its pages.

Side note – I met Carol Shields once. November 24th, 1994. It was at a bookstore outside of Toronto. I think it was Oshawa or maybe Whitby. That part of the memory is weak.

My husband knew how much I wanted to go have my books signed. We were living in Trenton at the time, so that would have been about a 90 minute drive. I hate driving that stretch of highway, so my husband took the day off work to drive me. (That’s the type of behavior that has kept us married 33 years.)

We arrived long before the signing. When Carol Shields arrived (also early) I was standing by the bookstore with 5 books: The Orange Fish, The Box Garden, The Republic of Love, Happenstance and The Stone Diaries.

I had my son with me—he was 17 months old. Carol Shields took time to chat with me about writing and babies, while she signed each book, before the official signing even began. I was able to be back on the road before the room filled with other fans. She didn’t have to do that. I’d say she gave me about 10 genuinely engaged minutes of her time. It must have been wonderful to be one of her students.

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