The Joy of Writing

Summer 2003 CSANews Issue 47  |  Posted date : Apr 20, 2007.Back to list

In Pierre Berton's The Joy of Writing, he has organized a wonderful "guide for writers, disguised as a literary memoir," and has also managed to avoid the typical how-to pitfalls.

"The Joy" comes through in Pierre's warmly conversational approach to literary craftsmanship. The book will appeal to anyone who loves to read, as well as to the aspiring writer.

Berton asserts that, "the lay person believes that writing is a cinch, and that there is some magic key to unlock its mysteries.? As a matter of fact, he includes some letters from several would-be authors at the beginning of his book. Some of them display an amazing cheekiness, i.e. "my idea would make Gone with the Wind look like the amateur hour," or "my biography is between Grapes of Wrath and Peyton Place." All these literary paragons require is Mr. Berton's assistance in getting publishers to recognize and appreciate their creations. These folks should pay heed to Berton's Rule No. 6: "Don't give up your day job."

In this, his 49th book, the prolific Pierre does dispense 30 of "Berton's Own Rules for Writers." They range from No. 1: "Understand your audience," to No. 30: "Flatter your media host." However, it all boils down to "Read! Read! Read! Write! Write! Write! Rewrite! Rewrite! Rewrite!? He says it right up front - "This is a book for
storytellers, but not for would-be-novelists."

In The Joy of Writing, Berton typically has conducted extensive research and includes lively anecdotes about many Canadian storytellers, as well as excerpts from their work.

At a certain point, many writers become so absorbed that they act positively anti-social. When Pierre tried to contact Farley Mowat about this syndrome, Farley's wife Clair firmly reported, "that he was writing and absolutely refused to take telephone calls."

We learn that Peter Newman wakes up at five in the morning, puts on his favourite Stan Kenton music, and starts to rewrite what has gone before.

Pierre compares organization of research methods by the likes of Ted Barris, Jack Batten and Knowlton Nash.

There's even some juicy gossip. When my husband interviewed Barbara Walters on his television show in Philadelphia, she graciously autographed her book about talking to celebrities: "To Bob - you could have written this yourself. But I'm so glad you didn?t." Years later, June Callwood confided that she had ghosted Barbara's book - a detail that Barbara had kind of forgotten.

Pierre reveals the secrets of ghost writers, as well as the horrors of authors being interviewed by hosts who haven't even read the book jackets.

To me, the most dramatic insights into the Berton creative process are the progressive drafts, revisions, ruthless editing, and even complete change of tense, from past to historic present, in writing his book, The Invasion of Canada.

Pierre takes us back to historic Michilmackinac Island and actually makes us feel "what it was like" to be there on that fateful morning in July 1812. He illustrates clearly his Rules 16,17 and 18: "Always describe the people, the places and check the weather."

Despite his successful half-century of writing experience, Pierre Berton is certainly candid about his own errors and misjudgments along the way. He is also very generous in acknowledging the professionals who have been instrumental in his success.

Berton admits that while he is comfortable and feels real joy in writing non-fiction, he has tried, but is literally incapable of producing a successful work of fiction, with the obvious exception of his wonderful children's classic, The Secret World of Og.

Rule No. 10 is: "Get yourself an agent."

In Elsa Franklin, Pierre got more than an agent. For years, Elsa has actually been his producer as well - handling Berton's dealings with editors, publishers and author tours. He quotes her typical dialogue with a publisher, "You know I cannot bring this offer to my client. He would consider it the worst kind of insult."

Rules No. 25 and 20 are: "Choose your editor carefully," and, "Suck up to your editor." Berton's personal dream team is made up of researcher Barbara Sears and his editors - "The three Jans - " Janice Tyrshitt, Janet Craig and his backstop in life, wife Janet Berton, "a former newspaperwoman with an eagle eye for a misprint or grammatical error."

Regarding research, Rule No. 22 is: "Never do anything yourself that somebody else can do just as well and for less money." In his chapter The Joy of Research, Berton acknowledges the need to get help when tackling a monumental historical project.

He does, however, find absolute joy in personally becoming a "time traveller" and immersing himself in a past century, reading old newspapers and copies of Hansard. Another bonus has been spending vacations visiting the actual locations of his books.

Pierre doesn't have a lot of time for book reviews. His Rule No. 28 is: "Don't read reviews, measure them." I don't, therefore, hesitate to plagiarize the author to end this review. "You could, I suppose, brand this book as just another memoir. I prefer to view it as an important and sometimes provocative teaching tool."

Personally I agree with Pierre Berton, and believe that The Joy of Writing should be included in the reading lists at schools across the country.