How to Write is a perverse Coles Notes: a paradigm of prosody where writing as sampling, borrowing, cutting-and-pasting and mash-up meets literature. This collection of conceptual short “ction takes inspiration from Lautréamont’s decree that “plagiarism is necessary. It is implied in the idea of progress. It clasps the author’s sentence tight, uses his expressions, eliminates a false idea, replaces it with the right idea.”
Already early in the twentieth century, the modernist Ezra Pound asserted that poets should “make it new,” and of course by “it” he meant “the tradition”: the materiality of pre-existent writing. The assertion is by no means original, much less post-modern: John Donne, for example, argued centuries ago that “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume.”
How to Write is an instruction manual for the demise of ownership. A multitudinous dialogue of writers and subjects, words and contexts, it unleashes a cacophony of voices where authors don’t own their words, they merely rent them from other authors. Containing ten pieces of conceptual prose ranging from the purely appropriated through the entirely recomposed, and covering a range of texts from the anonymous to the famous, it includes samplings from, among many others: Lawrence Sterne; Agatha Christie; Bob Kane; Roy Lichtenstein; and every piece of text within one block of the author’s home. Its title story is an exhaustive record of every incidence of the words “write” or “writes” in forty different English-language texts picked aesthetically to represent a disparate number of genres.
With How to Write, beaulieu suggests writers and artists would be better served to “make it reframed, make it borrowed, make it re-contextualized.” By recasting the canon with cut-up directions for successful writing, catalogues of events, and lists of vocabulary, he gleefully illustrates Picasso’s dictum that “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”
Author of four books of poetry and two volumes of conceptual fiction, derek beaulieu’s work is consistently praised as some of the most radical and challenging contemporary Canadian writing. beaulieu’s fractal economies (Talonbooks, 2006) includes a cogent and widely-discussed argument for poetry which works beyond conventional meaning-making, pushing the boundaries of syntax into graphic design, gesture and collaboration.
How to Write
by derek beaulieu
Read by Karis Shearer
A recent issue of Atlantic Monthly featured Richard Bausch’s essay “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons,” an ironically titled tirade against guides to writing and their impact on students of creative writing, in which Bausch complained that “a good book is not something you can put together like a model airplane. It does not lend itself to that kind of instruction” (30). In other words, a good book should be created through innate talent and attention to craft.
According to that premise, derek beaulieu’s new volume is not a good book. Constructed like a model airplane, beaulieu’s equally ironically titled book How toWrite is actually a work of conceptual fiction produced from a very specific set of “instructions,” most of which can be found at the back of the book. Conceptual writing, as Kenneth Goldsmith puts it in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing,” “means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair” (98); the creativity lies in inventing the concept itself, not in the actual execution of the work. By thematizing the very idea of “instruction” in such pieces as “Cross it over it,” beaulieu’s slim volume challenges received ideas about genius and creativity: “Cross it over it,” is a “series of pornographic instructions pertaining to both tying a tie and composing poetry” (67) that implicitly suggests poetic composition is a masturbatory process. Pillaging directly from other sources, How to Write takes as its subjects both the production and reception of literature. “How to Edit: A,” for example, “is an exhaustive record of every incidence of the word ‘edit’ in the over 1,100 different English-language texts stored at Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org) which are indexed as starting with the letter A.” “I Don’t Read” – the only section of the book for which a description of the method of composition is absent – is presumably a catalogue of what people claim they “don’t read”: “I don’t read printed text in Braille font. I don’t read yellow journals, not even as I wait in the checkout line. [...] 5 Reasons I Don’t Read Your Blog and How to Change That” (26). One of the best pieces in this collection, however, is about the interpretation of literature: “Nothing Odd Can Last” takes thirty-six “alphabetized questions from Coles Notes-style websites on Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” Taken out of their original context and juxtaposed with one another, these questions’ humanist and author-centred assumptions become all the more explicit and even absurd owing to the fact that the pronouns have no clear antecedents: “Could it have been omitted” Does the author guide his pen or does his pen guide him?” (11) and “Is there any importance to this, or is it just the author’s bawdiness” Is there sufficient justification for such passages in the book” Or should the reader say to heck with it?” (13). Absurd as these questions may appear in this new context, they remain legitimate within a particular paradigm of reading – a paradigm perpetuated by Coles Notes and reinforced by online study sources – making them well worth interrogating.
According to Goldsmith, “Conceptual writing is good only when the idea is good” (101). In the case of How to Write, then, the idea is “good” in that it has generated poems that thematically provide useful critiques of traditional approaches to reading and writing, while formally raising questions about authorship and contemporary writing technologies.
- issue of MATRIX (#88, Winter 2011, p.59-60)
“It is fitting that in How to Write beaulieu makes manifest a very old idea, one that concerns Northrop Frye in his essay “Canada and Its Poetry” (1943): “Originality is largely a matter of returning to origins.” Appearing new, How to Write suggests, is about new ways of discovering, and stealing from, those origins.”
—The Bull Calf