Creative writing illuminated from the other side

How Carol Shields contributed to the canonization of women’s literature in Canada

The front cover of Carol Shields' Startle and Illuminate.

“Language, which is useful in the province of the intellect is a relatively clumsy vehicle in the expression of emotion and of narrative movement,” Carol Shields wrote in her work Narrative Hunger and the Possibilities of Fiction. 

I had never heard of Carol Shields before I held her latest work. But upon learning she died thirteen years before it was published, I knew I had to read it. Startle and Illuminate is a collection of the late author’s words of wisdom, compiled by her daughter and grandson, from decades of correspondence, lecture, workshop and conversation with and for other writers — particularly aspiring young women writers. 

Shields’ discussion of what it means to be a writer, a mother and a mouthpiece for Canadian women delves into definitions in a way that made me reconsider everything I thought I knew about fiction writing. 

Startle and Illuminate is a half memoir, half writer’s survival guide and delicious in its entirety. The major attraction of the work is that Shields wasn’t only a woman, but a mother and a writer during a time when Canadian literature was taking its first steps. 

The book grapples with the connection between reality and literature, what it means to write both and their collective dependence on language. “Can we set aside an attachment to honesty?” Shields asks, as a means of abandoning the notion that, even in fiction, we can only write the truth. 

“Can we accept the fact that fiction is not strictly mimetic?” I found myself agreeing with Shields’ suggestion that fiction doesn’t have to be parallel with reality — why shouldn’t we push the boundaries of reality with our writing? 

In light of the title, it isn’t surprising that Shields’ work would aim to startle us and illuminate the truths behind the writing process. 

It was genuinely difficult to avoid tearing through the collection of works in one sitting. As a woman, a writer and an avid student of all things, I appreciated Shields’ sage advice and kind words.

The latter half of the novel is sprinkled with letters sent by Shields to fellow writers in response to their demands for advice. Her advice proved straightforward, her critiques rang true and her praise was not only plentiful, but genuine too. I felt as though I was learning about the nuances of how to write with proper pacing, flashbacks, references and syntax through her own written words. 

The main takeaway from Shields’ writing for me was understanding the historical struggle of Canadian women writers to be heard. The acknowledgement that women can make art, share their unique insights and have important opinions is a victory that Shields is partially responsible for. 

Curious to know everything there was about her, I offhandedly mentioned what I was reading to my aunt, who is also a Canadian writer. She told me that Shields came to talk at one of her university writers classes, and that she had been markedly kind and incredibly insightful. 

Shields led a conventional life for a woman growing up in the time that she did. She married an engineer, raised a family, and gave the impression of being rather outside of the writing community. During that time, Canadian literature was dominated by men who had highly regarded writing careers that spanned decades. She shared this with my aunt, who had a similar experience when stepping into her career as a Canadian writer.

I was altogether unsurprised to hear firsthand of Shields’ kindness. More importantly, it had me wondering where Canadian literature would stand today without Carol Shields as a pillar.

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