Writing Craft: On Storytelling With Cliff Cardinal

by Alison Wong


Cliff Cardinal is not known for writing stories for the light-hearted. A playwright and author known for tackling the gritty and risky side of life, his first piece of advice for the round-table of prospective writers was this: write what scares you. Write about the scary, embarrassing events and experiences because other people will relate to them more than you think. It is the job of the writer to document those moments that other people don’t want to talk about. Because it is the stories you tell from those moments that might compel others to tell theirs, and that is one of the most fulfilling things about being a writer.

The 90-minute workshop took place as a Q&A for the artist, with 15 or so people seated around a boardroom table asking the normal questions: how to begin telling a story, how to overcome writer’s block, and so forth. Cliff responded to each question with cleanly-articulated anecdotes of his own experiences with the writing process, talking with his whole body leaning back and forth in his chair, arms waving in the air and filling the room with his bright and loud presence. He has a very large presence, gathered by his experience as a stage actor in his one-man show. Early on in the workshop, someone asked him how he dealt with the repercussions or opposition from critics, particularly personal ones, for telling stories that stray far from ‘safe’ subject areas. His response? “F*** them.” That is the attitude that won him the Buddies in Bad Times Vanguard Award for Risk and Innovation in 2012, and that is the advice he passed on in this workshop. Letting that opposition get to your head leads to resentment, and that resentment fosters nothing but writer’s block. If the story is desperately begging to be told, then it needs to be told. Screw other people’s discomfort.

The other major takeaway, I think, from this workshop is this piece of advice Cliff received from one of his mentors: “Everybody is willing to starve for their art, but are they willing to learn how to draw?” I found this especially striking, because I hadn’t thought of it like that before. But it’s true; people do tout their devotion to, in this case, their writing dream, but are they willing to enforce the discipline needed to actually see it through? Cliff emphasized the importance of this discipline in being a writer because, as he put it, you have to put your heart into writing every day, otherwise this ‘writing dream’ is just a phase that fades out after a while. Nobody can teach you to write, though they can push you and inspire you. The best way for him to teach us how to write, Cliff said, was to “pick up the phone and call you and say ‘start writing right now’”. But, because that isn’t feasibly possible, the next best thing is to “set a goal, meet your goal, and write your words”.

I think everybody walked out of this workshop inspired to pick up their pens, open their laptops, and tell a story that takes people by surprise.