This may be hard for you to believe, but I swear it is true. No less an author than Margaret Atwood—a colossus among not only Canadian writers, but writers the world over, who has published at least sixty books over the past sixty years—has won only four more of Canada’s major literary prizes than I have. Only four!
That’s remarkable, considering that over the past twelve years, I have published a mere eleven books—six novels, four collections of tales, and one anthology of poetry—although there is a seventh novel and fifth book of tales on the way.
While it’s true that not one of mine has been nominated for a Giller Prize, a Governor-General’s Award, or a Booker Prize, Atwood has garnered only one of the first, two of the second, and one of the third.
Not an insurmountable lead, perhaps, if I keep plugging away.
I am jesting, of course. Whether the reason for this awards-discrepancy is the considered judgment of the Canadian literati, the fact that Atwood has a much larger canon of work than I, the possibility that she is actually a better writer, or all of the above (the likely cause), there is really no competition.
In fact, art is not about competing.
I have never spoken with Atwood, so I cannot say for sure. But it may be that, deep down, she writes for the same reasons I do—not to win awards, but to entertain readers; not to become famous, but to satisfy the innate urge to create something that never existed before; not because it’s a job or livelihood, but because it’s fulfilling!
The awards may be just icing on the cake, although they are some icing!
I have spoken with other authors over the years, and with artists of all stripes, none of whom has ever reached the level of fame that Atwood has. These artists are painters, sculptors, potters, singers, songwriters, dancers, actors—all of them doing what they do for the love of their art.
Some have won ribbons and prizes along the way, some have had their works juried into prestigious exhibitions, some have even sold many of their creations. But almost without fail, they tell me the joy they derive from their work is not from those final outcomes; instead, they say, the true pleasure flows from the process of conceiving and playing with a brand-new idea, developing and nurturing it, striving to transform the fledgling concept into reality.
In a word, art.
I do not belong to a writers’ guild, nor do I attend writers’ workshops to share my work with others. I prefer to lose myself, by myself, in the various, fictional worlds I devise—godlike as I form, destroy, and re-form what is to happen, engrossed in my endeavours to create the perfect story. Being alone like that can be lonely sometimes.
Happily, however, I have a kindred soul with whom I am very close—an artist who creates beautiful, one-of-a-kind works in dichroic glass, clay, and wood.
We disappear from each other’s environs for hours on end, both of us impelled by the same creative urges that drive artists of every sort. And when we come back together, we regale each other—usually over a glass of wine—with the trials and triumphs we’ve experienced in our latest efforts.
Neither of us can do what the other does, of course. Our strivings and struggles, like our talents, are quite different. But there is a shared understanding between us of the challenges we encounter, of the need to persevere, of the importance of releasing whatever is trying to burst forth from our creative cocoons.
And while we both celebrate the finish of each work, we find we still must deal with a pang of disappointment that the quest is over. At least until the next is begun.
What emerges is not always perfect—hardly ever, in fact. But as Atwood herself has said, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
So, it is the process, not the product, that matters most of all. With my storytelling, I never want to actually finish a novel; there is, no matter how many times I re-read each successive draft, an urge to continue to rework it. So, to save my sanity, I no longer try to finish. Instead, I simply stop when it seems best. And there the books sit for all to read, to judge, to praise or condemn.
Would I like to win a literary prize for something I write? Well, yes, I think that would be quite gratifying. But is that the motivation to continue writing, the hope that such a prize might be part of my future? That I might close the gap between me and the redoubtable Margaret Atwood?
No. I do not write for that purpose, nor do any of the artists I know pursue their passions for such transient glory. They do have a reason, though, for pursuing the quest.
In a word, art.