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Language Arts & Disciplines Composition & Creative Writing

Startle and Illuminate

Carol Shields on Writing

by (author) Carol Shields

edited by Anne Giardini & Nicholas Giardini

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Aug 2017
Composition & Creative Writing, Canadian, Creativity
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2017
    List Price

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Shimmering with her unique style, sense, humour, vision and wit, Startle and Illuminate is a book of advice and reflections on writing by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carol Shields that is destined to become as valued and essential as Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

An essential work from one of Canada's finest writers, Startle and Illuminate stands as a reflection of Carol Shields' devotion to the writer's craft. Drawn together by her daughter and grandson from decades of correspondence with other writers, essays, notes, comments, criticism and lectures, Startle and Illuminate helps answer some of the most fundamental questions about the craft: Why do we write at all? Can writing be taught? What keeps a reader turning the pages? How is a writer to know when a work is done? In her own words, Shields reveals her thoughts on why we read, and more importantly, why we write: for the joy of the making, to reimagine our world, to discover patterns and uncover forms that echo our realities as well as interrogate them.

About the authors

Carol Shields was born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1935 and moved to Canada, at the age of 22, after studying at the University of Exeter in England and the University of Ottawa. She was the author of over 20 books, including plays, poetry, essays, short fiction, novels, a work of criticism on Susanna Moodie, and a biography of Jane Austen. Her 1993 novel The Stone Diaries won the Governor General's Award for Fiction, the American Book Critics' Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. It was also a runner up for the Booker Prize, bringing her an international following. Larry's Party (also available from BTC Audiobooks) won England's Orange Prize, given to the best book by a woman writer in the English-speaking world. Carol Shields died in July 2003 in Victoria after a long struggle with cancer.

Carol Shields' profile page

Combining a spirited fairy tale plot with an eloquent mediation on the nature of happiness, The Sad Truth About Happiness by Anne Giardini is a luminous first novel by the daughter of the late Carol Shields. Written during her mother's final struggle with breast cancer, The Sad Truth About Happiness shares much in common with Shields's haunting last novel, Unless. Giardini was a columnist for the National Post for three years and is the author or numerous essays, stories and articles. She is one of five children, and lives in Vancouver.

Anne Giardini's profile page

Nicholas Giardini's profile page

Editorial Reviews

“Whether you’re a reader or an aspiring writer . . . this book has a lot to say about how to write and read. It also . . . has something bigger to say about how to live.” —Toronto Star

“In the same vein as Stephen King’s or William Zinsser’s ruminations on writing, this new collection of letters, essays and teaching notes by CanLit treasure Carol Shields breaks down the building blocks of good storytelling for any writer who doesn’t know where to begin. It will make you long to pen passages worthy of Shields herself: illuminating, rich with detail and conveying the extraordinary in the ordinary.” —Canadian Living

“What is valuable . . . is the glimpse this slim volume affords into the creative mind of an author whose work continues to exert an influence on the development of literature in Canada more than a decade after her untimely death.” —Steven W. Beattie, Quill & Quire (Editor’s Choice)

“For anyone missing the Shieldsean way with words, [Startle and Illuminate] is not merely instruction—but a gift. . . . [Startle and Illuminate is a] highly readable collection. . . . There are also some sharp observations about how women have been marginalized in literature. . . . Perhaps you are not a writer, but a reader who misses the mastery of Shields’s prose, the excitement of reading new (‘new’) words of hers. This book is for you too.” —Marsha Lederman, The Globe and Mail
“Shields, a dedicated stylist, polished her prose until it gleamed like the family silverware. . . . Ardent and curious students of writing must read Startle and Illuminate.” —Toronto Star
“Shields’s collected thoughts on writing provide insight and guidance. . . . Shields was well-known for certain views on literature and these are included, along with fascinating details on how a few of her novels came about. . . . Startle and Illuminate is a good handbook for any writer to keep close by, and will also be of interest to the general reader who wants to know how in blazes writers turn ordinary words into spellbinding stories.” —Winnipeg Free Press
“Shields was a craftswoman of words—one of Canada’s finest—and in Startle and Illuminate her own daughter and grandson invite us into an apprenticeship. The timbre and frame are language and perception, the geometry and physics of our interior lives, and Shields was a master, a saint, of the discipline. . . . Reading Shields with the Giardinis is hardly to realize we’ve been given lessons in writing because all that seems minor beneath the startling discovery we’ve just been invited into a life fully lived.” —Pique

“[W]hat struck me most [about Carol Shields] was her warmth, the humane quality of her wisdom, and the generosity of her presence. . . . Startle and Illuminate reads with the force and impact of a singular work, rather than an assemblage.” —Robert J. Wiersema, author of Black Feathers, Vancouver Sun
“[M]arvelous. . . . It provides wisdom on writing, publishing, fiction, reading, and generally life itself. . . . [Shields] leaves a tremendous legacy with this book.” —

“[W]hat Carol Shields has done with her strongly opinionated Startle and Illuminate is something more than just create a guide for aspiring authors; she has created a guide to our senses. . . . She has shown us that ‘to write is also to read,’ but infinitely more importantly, to do both is to experience. . . . [I]t is her witty and humorous style, use of easy to understand diction and subtle anecdotal approaches to advice that make this book a stellar guide not to authors solely, but to people and their senses. . . . It is a work of brilliance and a reward for your senses, most importantly—your sense of creativity.” —The Ubyssey, newspaper of the University of British Columbia

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