Author David Adams Richards signs books in Australia.

Wise words from an older writer

On Saturday, Aug. 15, the Port Medway Readers’ Festival was graced with the presence of David Adams Richards, who has won too many awards to count, and whose body of work will be regarded with awe by any Canadian author, as well as those American and Commonwealth readers and writers who are lucky enough to have heard of him.

Richards has been writing a long time. His first novel came out in 1974, when I was four years old. He was just 23 then, but already his voice possessed a level of mastery that–let’s face it–most writers won’t come close to achieving in their careers.

Someone in the audience asked him last Saturday if he had ever started a book and failed. The answer was no–but he did go through a rough patch, he said, when he made the transition from lyrical to analytical.

My ears perked up, because I’d never heard anyone say that before, and it struck a chord with me. He went on to explain that most writers of literary fiction start out with a highly lyrical voice, and that as they develop–if they develop–that voice tends to become more analytical as they get older. By his own account, Richards had some difficulty with this transition, because it happened as he was working on a particular book, and he struggled mightily to adjust to his new voice at the same time as he tried to bring the thing to fruition.

Not to get too dramatic, but I felt as if the ceiling of the ancient Port Medway Meeting House (circa 1838) had opened and a beam of Richards-induced light had penetrated my brain. This man had just put into words something that I had been trying to understand about myself for nearly a decade and a half.

I was keenly aware that something about me had shifted after I wrote Eddie’s Bastard, but I was confused about what it was. Why couldn’t I produce the same kind of work again, as everyone seemed keen to have me do? Had I lost my touch? Had I psyched myself out? Was I a one-trick pony? Certainly I had the desire to write, and the stories kept coming. But they were different, and people responded differently.

Now I understand why. I knew I had changed, but I had no perspective on it. Thanks to an older and wiser writer, I have some sense of what’s been shifting in me all this time, and I can see that it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me. It’s natural. I guess I never had the courage to embrace it fully. Now, though, I see it clearly.

Maybe a wall has been knocked down. Maybe a dam has just burst. Or maybe the words will just come a little more smoothly now that I know whatever has been happening to me has happened to others, too.

There’s another simple truth involved here, one that’s taken me closer to 45 years to understand and accept: things are always easier when we don’t feel quite so alone.