Allie McFarland interviews Barbara Langhorst
Allie McFarland: The USask MFA mentorship program is (as you know) unique in Canada, but what do you think it brings to the program? Or, what do you think about the practice of mentorship more broadly in relation to writing and emerging writers? What does mentorship entail in your mind (both for giving and receiving)?
Barbara Langhorst: The mentorship program in the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan is first-rate, in my experience. The mentors bring professional experience as working writers to the students, revealing another dimension of the writing life as it exists outside academia. This year, this is especially obvious, as the Director of the MFA Program (Jeanette Lynes) and several of the mentors in the program have been shortlisted for a variety of Saskatchewan Book Awards.
One of the strongest aspects of mentorship is the connection between generations of writers—the construction of a network of writers and writing that supports both mentors and emerging writers. The mentors have a wide variety of approaches and interests, and help the students develop individualized reading lists that broaden the experience for both parties. As a mentor, I draw on my own experience with my supervisors in grad school, both of whom were very supportive but practical—they advised me to expect a lot from myself, especially about the amount of reading and writing that needed to be done in a limited time, and so I have high expectations for my students, too. However, the relationship in the MFA at the U of S is also beneficial to the mentors, who revisit problems they have dealt with (and some they have not), and learn from their students, as much as the other way around. I have had the great opportunity to work with two brilliant students, and learning how to help them has helped my own writing.
I have had the enormous good fortune to be mentored by fantastic writers, such as Robert Kroetsch, dennis cooley, Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Sandra Birdsell, and Guy Vanderhaeghe, and in all cases the experience was extremely helpful in developing a sense of myself as a writer. Kroetsch and cooley, in particular, tended to say, “You’re the poet,” and give support with relatively little technical advice. As a mentor myself, when some practical advice about craft is expected, I try to leave the work in the writer’s hands as much as possible, only identifying areas that need to be rethought or worked through, rather than offering my own solutions.
AM: Thinking about the advice from your mentors and your approach to mentoring, what do you consider ‘writing’—the physical act of sitting down and putting new words to page, or do you include the revises / redrafting / editing processes as ‘writing’? And what is the most exciting part about writing to you?
BL: All acts of putting words on the page and moving them around is “writing” to me. Composing the first draft is the most exciting, dangerous type of writing, I find. It jolts the adrenaline like nothing else, especially when I feel like I’m channeling a story that is begging to be told, but it can also be terrifying, because pursuing the wrong intuition, following the wrong choice in plot or character, can mean months of rewriting.
I try to keep the joy of composing when I revise by looking at scenes (or even the novel as a whole) and seeing whether the piece needs to be retold from another perspective or a different point in the action, and by looking at the entire novel as a poem, where pieces can be moved around as I do words in writing poetry. Sometimes I go back, as I did in Want, and completely rewrite several chapters right at the beginning. I also use a headset to dictate sometimes, if I want a new perspective on the work. With Want, when I wasn’t sure about the structure, I wrote out the plot, cut it into scenes, drew the paper slips of scenes from a hat, taped them down in that order, and then cut and pasted the novel into that order, smoothing as I went. In the end, I reordered the book again, but that randomization helped me to see which scenes were necessary and where they needed to be. I also changed the point of view to first person on the third draft of Want, and moved it from present tense to the past. In my current novel, I think I am working much more confidently with the structure—but I do hope that confidence is justified. Time will tell.
Perhaps the form of writing that seems least like real writing is the synopsis, yet I wrote three synopses for Want, and the process showed me the characters’ motivations in ways that I hadn’t realized before. I enjoy responding to editorial suggestions, as they, too, show me the novel in ways that are new. Time at the keyboard is happy time for me—all of it—even when I can’t write as well as I’d like. The goal is to become better, and that only happens by doing.
AM: Your novel Want was shortlisted for a Saskatchewan Book Award. And your collection of poetry, Restless White Fields, won both the Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book award and the Saskatchewan Arts Board Poetry Book award. These are amazing accomplishments, and I’m curious what you think about the role of these types of awards / recognitions in relation to the community aspect of writing that your mentioned earlier?
BL: I am tremendously grateful for the awards offered in SK and AB…as Doug Barbour at NeWest has often said, being nominated is as much an affirmation as winning. Many good or even great books miss being nominated simply because there are so many good books published, and thus being nominated is a truly heart-lifting gift. I always enjoy attending the awards, and am really looking forward to seeing old friends and meeting new ones. Many of those nominated this year for the Saskatchewan Book Awards are writers I’ve known and admired for almost twenty years—and many of them are part of the MFA in Writing program at the U of S. It’s fabulous to be among them. SK writers are so generous with their time, energy, humour, and friendship. I would never have written if I hadn’t come to SK, I know that. It’s a phenomenally supportive community.
Interview by Allie McFarland, RVRB editor, co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project, and reluctant poet.