Learning A Writer’s Craft

Yesterday, I attended a conference in Guelph, Ontario called: From Canada to the World: the Cultural Influence of Lucy Maud Montgomery. I am a self-proclaimed Montgomery fan and amateur scholar. I have been reading and investigating her books since I was probably about nine years old. In the last six months, there have been a number of events, lectures and conferences celebrating the centennial of the publication of Anne of Green Gables.
One of the things that really made my heart race, was gazing at the manuscript for my favourite Montgomery book (right now) Rilla of Ingleside. You can see it encased in glass at the MacDonald Stewart Art Centre which is housing the exhibit, Searching for Home: the Lives of L.M. Montgomery which is based on the collection at the University of Guelph. There was such a profound energy coming from the tattered pages. Montgomery’s handwriting, where she crossed out what she either didn’t like or used to work on there. There, in front of me was the original document of one author’s creative masterwork. The hilarious thing was that the manuscript was used by a teacher for years in her classroom. It is a miracle I think that through those years of use, it wasn’t destroyed.

I had a similar experience a number of years ago when my professor of a James Joyce course that I took showed our course some of the collection of manuscripts available at York University. I cannot recall if it was Ulysses but I think it was. The writing was almost incomprehensible but it contained a kind of mystical quality to it. Here was pen and paper crafted by probably one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. And if one could start at it for a moment, one could get a sense of how he worked. Genius.

And that is what Elizabeth Waterson spoke about yesterday afternoon. Waterson is one of the pioneers of Montgomery’s work and has written extensively on her craft. In this lecture, she spoke showed how Montgomery’s creative process worked. As a person who is still trying to figure out what mine is, I was enthralled. Montgomery was, of course, an expert of her craft. She had watched and observed how others wrote and certainly played with writing techniques and standards of her day. (As any writer does.) Waterson showed how Montgomery would write as the artist “like a flash” scrawling down what was in her mind and from my point-of-view allowing the hand to move what the head and heart needed to come out. She would then stop, consider a word, cross it out, consider another word, cross it out and so on until she would get the right one. Other times she would have it crossed out with a note next to it. Waterson said that Montgomery’s note system began with the letters of the alphabet and there would be a number to it, for example: A1, B1 etc. and if you went to these notes one could see where she had worked out another sentence or whole phrase which would then get inserted elsewhere or back in its original home. Sometimes there would be little notations about something that would come to her that she would go back to later. This is how she worked.

When I was off work last week, I went “old school” and wrote from hand, double spaced, on lined sheets of paper. I know the “flash” that Waterson is talking about because I have experienced it. I also know that feeling of wanting to get the right word and working on one paragraph so long you think that you never get it, but then, in a flash, you do. I pondered what Montgomery would have done had she had Microsoft Word to do her writing. Would she have enjoyed its editing capabilities? I know that I do. Once I get to the point where things get moved around, it certainly makes things easier than cutting and pasting. But I guess that is what typewriters were for?

I think that the energy I felt on the manuscript was genius. The moment when all things are present and just for a moment, whatever the artist’s feelings about the universe, god and the cosmic order, they know on a molecular level that they are part of something. The moment when ones writing comes from a part of self and a part of soul. To me, this is what I hope for. To write something that will be part of myself and part of my soul and that perhaps, one day, someone will gaze at it and feel that kind of presence – even for a moment.


About Melanie J. Fishbane

My novel, MAUD: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery was published in 2017 through Penguin Random House on April 25, 2017. I hold an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Here I talk about my writing process, things I love, and creative people who inspire me.
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