Arts & Entertainment

A difference with ‘writing’ and ‘writhing’?


Bernard Heydorn

With this week’s Caribbean-Canadian Literary Expo being showcased in Toronto, it’s perhaps a good time to discuss a question that I get asked regularly - how do you become a writer? As trite as it may sound, the answer is simple – by writing and writing and writing… It was Hemingway who said, "Writing is re-writing."

You can go to school, and attend courses and workshops, take degrees in journalism and such like, or sit at the feet of the masters, and at the end of the day, still have a blank sheet of paper staring you in the face.

Many writers come from the ranks of common people and many get their stories from the common man and woman, stories based on experience, be it their own or someone else’s. There is a story in every belly, if you dig far enough. Behind each book there is a man or woman, behind each man or woman a story. There are no dull people, only people who are blind to others and to themselves.

Folks say to me, "Oh - I’ve written a story. Can you re-write it?"

"Why do you want me to re-write your story?" I ask.

"You’ll make it interesting," is often the reply.

That raises the question, do you write for yourself or for someone else? I think that essentially you write for yourself but hope to have an audience – a kind of contradiction. You get an itch, a bug, which can only be relieved by scratching. So you take up a pen or pencil and you scratch and scratch and scratch … (write and write and write…). It can bring tears to the writer and the reader. It can take your breath away.

Is there money in writing? Are you kidding? If you go into writing to make money, you are either a fool or delusional or both. If you want to do things for the public, to make money, then you become a public servant, or a businessperson, or a politician. You write for the love of writing.

Writing like genius is essentially 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. That gets around the question of whether writing requires genius or talent. Writers come from every age group but good writers tend to grow old on the job; they never retire. In fact, quite a few write at least one book too many! Generally speaking, our younger writers are in their 60’s and 70’s.

As a writer gets closer to death, he/she tries harder. You hear them say, "Oh, I have at least one more good book in me." Death is a great incentive to writers; perhaps that’s why it is such a common theme in stories, poems and books.

Words are the writer’s tools. Like any tool, they can be used rightly or wrongly, for good or for evil. In terms of style, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, "Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!" When it’s simple, it’s a pleasure.

In the end you have a book or story, long or short.

The story need not be long but it may take a long time to make it short. That is where editing comes in. I’m fortunate to have a good editor - my wife. It’s good for both of us. It gives her an opportunity to vent her spleen on me in a constructive manner – by making red marks on a page rather than red marks on my head. All the criticism, displeasure she feels toward me, can be worked out as an editor or critic. I get the benefit of that sharpness, that cutting, that carping, that exactitude that leads to improved writing. That is what editing is all about, putting you through the grinder.

I could never be a good editor and that’s why I have to disappoint people who want to send me their manuscripts for reading, editing, critiquing, reviewing, re-writing and such like. I could never tell a writer, "Your book sucks!!" I can’t bring myself to read a book if it "sucks", and that’s true even of some "famous" books or well-known writers that I pick up to read.

At the end of the day, what have you done as a writer? You have put some words on paper and pushed them around. A few may live in memory but most will disappear. Yet writing is it’s own reward.

Late last night, my wife and I were coming home on the Toronto subway, when I noticed a man staring at me. He got off with us at the last stop and was walking right next to us as we entered the parking lot, still looking at me. My wife was getting more nervous by the minute and I quickened my step. Suddenly he made his move.

"Excuse me," he said. "Are you Bernard Heydorn?"


"I read your book Walk Good Guyana Boy. I never laughed so much. I shared it with my elderly parents and children. They enjoyed it too. I’m Guyanese." He went on, "We were poor like you. I read your articles in the newspaper all the time..."

We chatted for a while and I said, "That book will probably outlive me."

He smiled, thanked me, shook hands and we parted.

I tell you this little story, thinking, what activity do you know, (I say activity rather than profession because profession implies you have something to "profess", whereas writing is more to confess), where you can make no money, search and cleanse your soul, be thought intelligent, even a genius, considered a man or woman of letters without maybe even seeing a university door, make people laugh and cry or make them angry, and leave a legacy for generations to adore, spit at or simply forget?

I summed it all up in my first book, Song of the West Indies, where on the dedication page I wrote, "This is not a book you hold, it is a man. These are not pages you turn, they are his soul."

If the sun still shines and the creeks don’t rise, I’ll be talking to you. My books are available on my website

Caribbean-Canadian Literary Expo: Opening Minds Building Bridges


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And there’s more. On June 20th and 21st, in downtown Toronto, a veritable embarrassment of literary riches awaits us. Caribbean authors from Canada, from around the world and the Caribbean itself, will converge upon our city to share their works with the community at large. This is an event that has never happened before in Toronto on such a scale.

There will be poets, novelists, spoken word magicians, dub poetry performers, ole talk raconteurs, children’s authors, storytellers, publishers and many others involved in the literary arts. In the Marketplace of the Design Centre on Bay Street, booths will be overflowing with books to browse and buy. Author signings, readings, dub poetry performances and workshops on a number of related topics from "how to get published" to "writing for young people" will be held over thecourse of the two-day event.

The evening programme, "Voices at Sunset" will take place in venues across the city such as the Bambu, Ashanti Room, Burke’s Bookstore, A Different Booklist and the Knowledge Bookstore in Brampton. These events are free and promise to be amazing encounters with a wide variety of artists at each of the venues.

The theme of this Caribbean-Canadian Literary Expo (CCLE) is "Opening Minds, Building Bridges" and it is being organized by the Caribbean community and the CARICOM Consular Corps in Canada. Many other organizations are also involved such as the Tropicana Community Services Organization, United Way, the Toronto and York Police Services, the Association of Black Law Enforcers (ABLE), and many schools and libraries.

Writers who will be visiting us include Pauline Melville (Guyana/UK), Merle Collins (Grenada/U.S.), Colin Channer (Jamaica/U.S.), Earl Lovelace (Trinidad), Nancy Morejon (Cuba) and JouJou Turenne (Haiti). Toronto and indeed, Canada on the whole, has proven to be fertile ground for Caribbean writers and many, many of them will be present during the days and on evenings.

The opening Gala on June 18th promises to be a memorable event, marked by call-outs to authors, creative greetings, and dub performance. The inaugural CCLE award for literary arts will be presented to Dr. Jan Carew, writer and literary elder, by Austin Clarke. The function will be graced by many distinguished guests including the Deputy Secretary General of CARICOM, Dr. Edward Greene.

Publishing is a vital part of book production and the Caribbean Publishers’ Network (CAPNET) will also be attending the expo. There is a special publishers luncheon at which networking between Canadian and Caribbean publishers will be facilitated. It is a fact that the majority of Caribbean books are published outside of the region and are often sold in the Caribbean (when they are available) at unaffordable prices. The presence of Caribbean publishers such as Ian Randle and Julie Morton is a welcome sign of possible change in this equation.

The fact is that this literary event, pan-Caribbean in scope, including representation from the English, French, Spanish and Dutch Caribbean, is a phenomenon that is without precedent in Canada. Its ambitious reach speaks volumes to those of us who support the ideals of a unified Caribbean entity, on grounds that transcend economics and speak also to cultural sharing, to improved mechanisms for disseminating knowledge, and to the straightforward task of getting to know each other better not just through our elites, but through ordinary everyday interaction. The reading of each other’s literary arts, the performance of instant acts of recognition at our imaging, our writing and our telling of our lives, is a step that remains to be taken by Caribbean people as well as those who are marking out the new global territory of the Caribbean Diaspora.

Unfortunately, insularity and petty inter-island rivalry still mark our relations with each other, even in a space as unmapped and difficult as Canada is for many of us. Inhabiting this literary space for two days is more than a nostalgic outing, it can pave the way to new ways of seeing ourselves and our political and spatial presence in the new world order that is evolving around us, whether we participate in it or not.

For a full schedule of events, both day and evening, the website is The telephone contact number is (416) 438-2345. The event will take place at the Design Centre, 234 Bay Street, on June 20th and 21st. It is free of charge except for a few specialized workshops. For those originally from the Caribbean it is a rare treat, for second-generation diasporic folk as well as Canadians at large, it will be a treat unlike that of the tourist brochure. Plans are underway to make this a biennial event and if it happens, it will be one more significant Caribbean contribution to this city where many of us are putting down deep roots. The success depends upon participation by the community, of course, and the community is called upon to do its part.

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