What I Learned Today at the Wild Writers Literary Festival

Well now, I’ve had a grand day at the Wild Writers Literary Festival in Waterloo. I went to two Writer's Craft Classes and a Fiction Panel. In Alison Pick's workshop "On Character," we wrote down lots of details about one of our characters. I wrote down things that I didn't know I knew about my character, for example, that she never finishes a cup of tea or coffee. Then we were interviewed by someone else in the class as if we were that character. I realized that I don't know things about my character that I should know such as whether or not she has siblings. The workshop with Kathleen Winter was called "Childhood and Intuition as Literary Inspiration." She told us to go for a walk every day ("the longer, the better") and carry a notebook ("the tinier, the better") to write down ideas, to really notice our surroundings and the emotional feelings they invoke. She told us she uses a slightly bigger notebook to write once a day with her non-dominant hand. We did a writing exercise: a childhood memory you'd never written about before and if we wanted we could write it using our non-dominant hand. I tried it, and it was remarkable. Because you have to write slowly, your mind has time to concentrate on what you're writing and think about it in ways you wouldn't have if you were writing at your normal speed and using the side of your brain you usually use. I found I had an entirely different emotional reaction to an incident from my childhood that I've thought about many times. I will be using these techniques and others she told us about during the workshop. Because of today at the Wild Writers Literary Festival, I feel more positive and hopeful about my writing than I have in a long time.

wild writers festival sign.jpg

Reading at the Banff Centre

I read a story on May 3rd on the first night of the Readings from the Writing Studio series. I wanted to be a reader on the first night because I wanted to get it over with. My fellow writers said I didn't look nervous which is remarkable because I was shaking and felt like I couldn't breathe. I kept wondering if I was actually going to be able to read the whole story before I started gulping for breath.


Photo taken by Caroline Adderson. She really tried to get a photo when I was looking up but had no luck.

Photo taken by Caroline Adderson. She really tried to get a photo when I was looking up but had no luck.

The 3-Day Novel Contest

(A slightly different version of this piece was published in the Waterloo Region Record in September 2006.)

OK. I admit it. I did it for the “I survived!” sticker. And the right to wear the t-shirt that reads “I survived the International 3-Day Novel Contest.”

Over the Labour Day Weekend, I participated in a contest in which you attempt to write a novel in three days. The rules are simple: start at midnight on Friday and finish at midnight on Monday.
I felt prepared. I’d done the notebook shopping and the pencil shopping and picked out a comfortable outfit to wear while writing. I had a sketchy outline and names for some of the characters. I knew how I wanted it to begin and I had an ending in mind.
How hard could this be?
Friday night I did some late-night grocery shopping, picking up snacks to fuel my creativity - chips, instant soup and fig newtons. I went to Tim Hortons and got a big thermos of coffee.
I was ready to go.
I drank coffee and wrote. The words were flowing. In fact, they were spilling out of my pencil almost faster than I could commit them to the page.
I had nailed the setting. I had introduced some of the characters. The contest didn’t have a page limit, which was turning out to be a good thing. This is great stuff I thought, as I feverishly scrawled away. I was on a roll.
Too bad the judges for the Three-Day Novel contest can’t hand out the Giller Award. Or the Governor General’s Literary Awards. Or the Orange Prize. Or choose the books for Canada Reads.
On Saturday morning, I hit some glitches. I realized I’d introduced the town but hadn’t placed it geographically. I could see it perfectly in my head but it wasn’t coming to life on the page. There were lots of characters, lots and lots of characters, but they weren’t distinguishable in any way from each other and they were, for the most part, silent. I don’t like writing dialogue, so I’d been avoiding it.
But I didn’t panic; I would fix these little problems in my editing phase. The key was just to keep on going, right? So I did. But any flow I might have imagined was receding. By dinner the story lurched from scene to scene like a person learning to drive a standard.
Sunday morning was even worse. I figured it must be just a low caffeine level. I sent my husband to Tim Hortons for coffee. Later, I went to Tim Hortons. Too bad neither of our kids could drive.
If I tried to take a break somebody would inquire, “Shouldn’t you be working on your novel?”
I was starting to get cranky.
I re-read my masterpiece. There were pages and pages and pages about the orange cat named Earl and a big-breasted woman named Jane. Freudians would have a field day with this stuff. “Do you think it is possible?” they would ask, “to cure this woman of her fixations about cats and large bosoms?”
Sunday afternoon around 2 o’clock, I waved my husband and daughter off to their annual back-to-school tea. A few minutes later I asked my son, “Would you think any less of me if I didn’t finish?”
He said. “No, of course not, Mom,” but was he telling me the truth?
By this time, I didn’t care. I wrote my ending and shut the notebook. I changed out of my special writing clothes.
When my husband and daughter got home, I told them I had given up. They, too, assured me it would be impossible for them to think any less of me.
I typed up my story. It wasn’t as massive as I thought it was mid flow. It was more of a novella than War and Peace. Good thing the contest had no minimum page requirement.
I submitted it anyway. I made a list of some of the things I'd learned during the contest:
1. I need to work from a very detailed outline.
2. Drinking copious amounts of coffee doesn’t help.
3. Family members asking, “Shouldn’t you be working on your novel?” doesn’t help.
4. Wearing a specifically chosen writing outfit, no matter how comfortable, doesn’t help.
But despite all of that, can you guess what I’m doing next Labour Day Weekend? It will be something completely different. I’ve already got a character in mind – a large-breasted black and white cat. I think I’ll name her Pearl.

Reading Out Loud to a Crowd

Reading out loud to a group always makes me very nervous. And this time was no exception. The Department of English Awards Ceremony at the University of Waterloo was held on March 31st. I received the English Society Creative Writing Award for Prose. I read a small excerpt from my story "Queen of the Road" and I was aware of my voice (and my knees) shaking the entire time. My husband and son went along for moral support. I was too nervous to eat anything beforehand; my husband said the food was good and the potato salad was particularly delicious.

Photo by Keith Masterman

Photo by Keith Masterman

Reflections on a Winning Story

My story, "Dad Now and Then" won the Short Grain Fiction Contest! My story will appear in the fall issue of Grain, the journal of eclectic writing. It's bittersweet because my Dad died in January. I started the story in 2013. The inspiration for the story was how my Dad's dementia made him different than when I was younger.

About a month ago, I saw an animal jumping through a field of tall grass. I could only see glimpses of the animal; I couldn't tell what it was. My first thought was I'll ask Dad. In that moment I felt happy that I could ask him and he would probably be able to figure out what the animal was. But as soon as I had that thought, it hit me again that Dad is gone, I can't ask him anything anymore. From happy to sad in seconds. I watched an episode recently of Amazing Race Canada in which the contestants went for a short flight in a floatplane. Dad would have loved to have seen that. He would have known what kind of plane it was and would probably have had a story about the time he was in a plane much like it or he might have known someone who had a similar plane. Maybe he would say but their plane was always on wheels, they never did put floats on it. I miss him.

Here's the link to Grain magazine:

Grain Magazine

Another Story Published

My story "A Life in Lists" was published in this year's issue of the White Wall Review. I'm so excited! After seeing my words in print, I can't stop smiling. I've been working on this story for a long time but finally felt it was finished after I workshopped it in the summer of 2014 at the Sage Hill Writing Experience in Saskatchewan. If you're looking for a worth-the-money writing workshop, this is a great place to go.

A New Desk Means a Fresh Start

This is the desk I got from my parents on the weekend as they no longer have room for it. I've had my eye on it for years. In my house it looks exactly like I often pictured it would. I think maybe it's happier, too, because instead of just sitting in the basement with stuff piled on top of it, its drawers have been dusted and filled and it's going to be useful. It's made of oak with a layer of brown leather on the top, has six drawers (three different sizes!), two trays that pull out, and lots of compartments in the main drawer. It's a solid desk, a you-can't-help-but-feel-organized kind of desk, a dream desk. Now that I have it, I have absolutely no excuses for putting off writing, which is kind of scary. But I'm all set up with my notebook and one of my favourite pencils (freshly sharpened) ready to go.

Advice on how to do a reading

Some years ago I attended the Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop. We got lots of great no-nonsense advice and practical tips from writers such as Isabel Huggan, Wayson Choy, John Metcalf, Antanas Sileika, Nino Ricci and Miriam Toews. Alistair MacLeod read to us and at lunch the last day we celebrated his birthday with cake. But for me the best thing to come out of the week was that I read something I’d written to a big group of people. From behind a podium. Using a microphone. For me, this was a big deal because all my life I’ve avoided speaking in front of a crowd. And to me, a crowd is more than three.

From the start of the workshop daily announcements were made about the optional student reading to take place on Wednesday night. Somebody said, “You’ll be glad you did it. You’ll never get a more supportive audience.” Someone else said, “As a writer in Canada, you’ll never get a bigger audience.”

At coffee breaks the instructors would mingle and ask, “Have you signed up yet? You don’t have to read for the entire three minutes, you can just get up and read a paragraph if you want. It’s just to get the monkey off your back.” The third day of the workshop I signed up. It would be good for me. By this time the monkey felt like an overweight gorilla.

On the morning of the reading, I woke up with a big knot in my stomach. At breakfast, when I mentioned that I felt ill, someone said, “Maybe it was something you ate.” But I recognized it for what it was – just plain fear. At dinner, all I could eat was fruit. My stomach was no longer knotted; it was doing back-flips. A woman who teaches drama had a couple of pieces of advice. Bite your tongue, it gets the adrenaline flowing” and “If you don’t breathe, your audience won’t, so you should pause and take a breath so that your audience will too.”

One of the instructors came and sat with us. “It is a big fear,” he said, “apparently it ranks higher than the fear of death for most people.” I guess he could tell from the looks on our faces that this wasn’t helpful because then he said, “Well they always say it helps to picture your audience naked.”

Another member of the class said she had some good advice too, “Don’t drool and keep your pants on.” This didn’t seem very age-appropriate somehow.

The last bit of wisdom came from my friend’s roommate, “Curl your toes. It forces you to stand up straight.”

All the way over to the Assembly Hall, I was concentrating on remembering all the advice I’d heard. Curl your toes so you won’t breathe. Picture yourself naked and drooling. There was some trick to help you stand up straight, but what was it? Make sure the audience keeps their pants on. No, no, that wasn’t it. I couldn’t recall whether I wanted the audience to breathe or not. The good thing was I was so busy trying to sort out all the advice that I almost forgot to be nervous.