by Sue Blott
(This blog was originally posted on 2/28/16)
I recall a jump rope chant. I’m six again in the alley beside my house, rope slapping against cobblestones; my red leather shoes with perforated edges tapping the slippery stones; the stones themselves, steely blue grey at their best like ice cubes from a North Sea storm. Aloud I chant as I skip:
Sausage in the pan
sausage in the pan
sizzly sizzly sizzly
sausage in the pan
Something spectacular happens at the ‘sizzly sizzly’ part, something which sets this verse apart from the other verses of the chant. Perhaps a sideways jump, feet to the left, feet to the right, to emulate the zeds in sizzle. I forget. No matter. The memory is what counts...a memory captured by this book, Old Friend From Far Away The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg. The memory is as rich as the rhyme itself, unearthing sounds and smells and the rhythm of life. I’m glad to have recovered it because it can take me places in my writing, any form of writing, not necessarily only creative non-fiction.
Such is the beauty of Goldberg’s book—her explanations and exercises act like fish hooks snagging unsuspecting memories and dragging them to the surface. I bought the book last fall at Banyen Books in Vancouver along with some Tibetan hand-rolled incense and a deep red glass heart. Before I had finished the book’s introduction (entitled “Read This Introduction”) I knew it would fast become another writing book staple.
I read it as a bedtime book first, anxious to bask in her words, skipping from mood to mood, exercise to exercise, perhaps cautious of murky memories. If I merely read the book instead of working through it, all those circling shark-like feelings would remain below the calm surface of my consciousness, right? Not so! Several times after I put the book down and began to drift to sleep, a fresh insistent memory or a powerful emotion stirred by the book made me drag myself back from sleep to quickly write it down and snatch its essence. Not necessarily a relaxing bedtime read!
Imagine the magic of working through the book, committing to her exercises, absorbing her words. Already I have several poems inspired by a simple read through.
Old Friend from Far Away is divided into ten sections. Each section contains an eclectic mixture of short explanations or anecdotes, often from Goldberg’s own life, and exercises.
Dip into any section, let her words ignite: “Writing has to move us. Writing is alive, a living process...Whatever is hidden or secretive will look for a way out. You’ll write about a grilled cheese sandwich and bubbling up in the middle of the cheese will be incest, deception, and adultery.”
Do any exercise, prepare for surprise: “When did you pretend not to care? Go. Ten minutes.”
“Write a last letter to someone...Allow truth, like an open bowl—don’t try to put a lid on it or a bow.”
Natalie Goldberg’s first writing book, Writing Down the Bones, is one of my all time favourites, one I refer back to time and time again, one I regularly recommend to other writers. Old Friend from Far Away is now another steadfast favourite. As I read it, I find one hand turning the skipping rope all those years ago and the other hand holding a pen:
Pen across the page
pen across the page
sizzly sizzly sizzly sizzly
pen across the page
Something spectacular has happened. I’ve touched the raw nerve of an old memory and ignited it, if only for a book review. But don’t just take my word for it. Read the book and, in Goldberg’s own words, “...let’s pick up the pen, and kick some ass.” Go. I double dog dare you!
By Dorothea Belanger
This blog was originally posted on January 24, 2016.
Psst, have you heard? Sitting is the new smoking and it’s killing us! Studies show that sitting a mere three hours a day shortens life expectancy. Then there’s the chronic injury and pain degrading that quality of life. I experienced this first hand when I cut back teaching to two days a week to write a novel, [no pressure there, ha]! White Flowers was inspired by stories about the 400 German Prisoners of WWII who’d been interned on Lake of the Woods and a trip I took to visit cousins in Berlin.
In my 40s, I started having brief bouts of back pain. A physio diagnosed unstable ribs, taped them in place every now and again and told me to remain active. I carried on fine with my full life: family, work, writing, yoga, swimming and walking.
As I began to write more, I knew that sitting in front of a computer didn’t feel good so I invested in a highly rated office chair. The accompanying DVD illustrated how to adjust the arm rests, the lumbar and the seat pan to support me. I was sure this chair could launch me into the galaxy of novel writing for many pain-free hours!
Unfortunately it was all for naught. One day I leaned forward to get out of the car and blew a few discs. I spent the next few months lying on the living room floor in pain. When I became mobile, I was limited and needed carry out at the grocery store, couldn’t put on my socks and was unable to read let alone write.
What followed was years of trying different ways to write. Initially, heating pads and lumbar supports on the chair were my best friends and enabled me to put together a grant proposal. I sent a chapter of White Flowers to the Northern Arts division of the OAC and was successful. This bought me more time to write and was an affirming boost.
After brief sessions at the computer, I’d continue working by walking and talking into a hand held tape recorder. In this way I modified an excerpt of White Flowers for The Writers Union of Canada Short Prose contest and made the short list!
Icy roads made walking in the winter treacherous so my husband rigged up an old treadmill to fit under a table. I could walk at a slow speed and type or write with a pen but not for hours. I set a kitchen timer and alternated between the chair and the treadmill every 30 minutes.
But I was still fragile and watching out for what might set me back was utterly consuming. Riding my bike over a little bump the next summer caused my spine to lock up and I walked around like the Tin Man for a week. Someone suggest a chiropractor. I don’t understand how the cracking of my neck, mid back and and sacrum works but this weekly 10 minute treatment was a turning point. Between cracks she explained that given the right cues, your body will heal. The following week I told her swimming, my old standby for staying in shape, was causing arm pain. She told me to try a mask and snorkel to keep the neck neutral.
Body in neutral, three natural curves in the spine. I’d heard that often in yoga classes and decided to take it seriously. I placed a full length mirror against the wall to check how I was sitting in the chair. I looked a bit hunched, I certainly felt sluggish. I tried a stability ball and on it I could sit taller, there were three curves in the spine and I felt perkier! By alternating between the ball and the treadmill every 30 minutes, I could write for two energy-filled hours a day.
Charles Wilkins presented a writing workshop at the Word on the Water Writing Festival in Kenora. Not only had he rowed across the Atlantic, he’d taken notes and written a book about it! I was in awe of that physical feat and inspired by his thoughts on a sense of place in writing. To test them out I wrote an article about how stories can deepen a connection to place which was published in Canada’s History.
I decided to put White Flowers on hold in favour of shorter articles. I needed to have a sense of completion. Figuring out how to chop carrots and vacuum with out seizing up was too consuming alongside the scope of novel writing. [Now I can chop carrots indefinitely at the kitchen table, it’s lower than the counter. Vacuuming is still iffy so I break it up over several days or let the house get dusty.]
I’d been a member of NOWW for many years. I enjoyed the writing by others who shared the same geography of northwestern Ontario in the NOWW HEAR THIS magazine. Meeting them at workshops in both Kenora and Dryden was like an invigorating transfusion of fresh ideas to take back to my own writing.
I attended the Sleeping Giant Writers Festival in Thunder Bay. While reading a new excerpt of White Flowers out loud in Miriam Toew’s master class, I immediately sensed how it fell flat. Miriam made polite suggestions but at lunch I got the best feedback from another participant: try putting the scene in the present tense, to make it more immediate. I met Miriam in the hallway that evening and babbled on about the difficulty of making historical material come alive. She listened, paused and said: just think really hard.
I drove back home fired up for another year of writing. Now I allow time for “just thinking really hard” while writing, after all, it’s what I did to heal and strengthen.
And when I read, I ask myself, how is the writer making this scene more immediate? These tips mentioned in passing have pushed me forward to better writing. I can’t emphasize enough how instructive it is to belong to a community of writers. The only time I use my office chair now is for the monthly NOWW board meetings I attend via Skype. I don’t want all the movement on the ball or the treadmill to draw attention and after all these years, I can sit there once a month without atrophying, it’s no problem!
Summer is often a time when writers take a break and enjoy the great outdoors for a while. But you don’t want to stop writing altogether! That’s why NOWW has launched a new contest that will keep you writing.
The NOWW Flash Fiction challenge is now accepting short short story entries of 500 words or fewer. Not only is it a relatively light and breezy summer writing exercise, the top three stories will earn cash prizes and publication in our blog this fall.
What’s Flash Fiction?
Flash fiction stories are, well, short. Sometimes called ‘micro-stories’, ‘postcard stories’ (if a postcard is part of the contest)—or ‘short short stories’—flash fiction challenges the writer to fit a complete story into very few words. While there isn’t a paint-by-numbers formula for flash fiction, there is a certain art to it. It’s not about trying to squish a 3,000-word story into 500 words.
Here are a few links to help you get a better idea of the craft—and to get the creative juices flowing:
http://flashfictiononline.com/main/ (Example pieces)
https://www.hysteriauk.co.uk/2017/04/07/starting-flash-alex-reece-abbott/ (A UK contest with tips from the judges about how to write flash fiction)
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/may/14/how-to-write-flash-fiction (Another how-to written by David Gaffney)
Two members of the NOWW board will judge the contest.
Never tried flash fiction? Now is the time to give it a try. You have two months to write—and edit—500 words. That’s about seven or eight words a day!
By the way, this blog post is 363 words.
How long have you been a member of NOWW? About a decade and a half ago I was one of NOWW’s youngest members for several years. It was such a diverse and supportive community, one where I felt comfortable sharing my work. Returning seriously to writing in the last year prompted me to return to NOWW. No surprise, NOWW is as supportive and welcoming as it used to be!
What do you normally write?
When I participated in readings as a teenager, I brought mostly novel excerpts and poetry to the table. My focus has broadened to include nonfiction, and I am a regular contributor to The Walleye. I have also written for Lake Superior News and Nature Conservancy of Canada’s blog, Land Lines. I love having the opportunity to interview people and learn more about interesting topics.
My novel—one that has been in my head and in the works for years— is the kind of writing I take absolute pleasure in, a form that feels familiar. While I am still putting together the building blocks of writing nonfiction and magazine articles, my fictional work has a flow to it that I love.
Do you have a favourite book or author?
I enjoyed reading Joseph Boyden’s books for their visceral quality and intimate reflection of Canadian history and culture, although I have to admit that I’ve become a bit more skeptical of his authenticity given recent news. I thoroughly enjoy Jennifer Egan’s novels. She’s a skillful novelist and I’m especially attracted to how she conveys the thought processes and inner struggles of her characters.
Let’s get to know you a bit better. Tell us a bit about yourself and your inspirations.
I’m a lifelong outdoors enthusiast, and I take pride in rattling off a long list of outdoor sports that I engage in as much as possible. I am convinced that I wouldn’t be writing without the influence of the natural world. Some of my best ideas emerge while running or hiking on bush trails or country roads.
Tell us about your writing style.
My novel began as a series of scenes, in no particular order, that I gradually put together into a 333-page first draft. This process was like building a brick wall or sewing a quilt: I linked those scenes together, adding transitions the way someone else might smooth over mortar or sew pieces of fabric. I didn’t actually create a plot outline until I was about a third of the way into the book.
I pride myself in creating complex characters and writing with attention to sensory detail. I love the feeling of being completely immersed in a scene, and I want to convey this to a reader as best I can.
Can we see you at any upcoming NOWW events?
My favourite NOWW events are workshops. I really appreciate having the opportunity to learn from others who have more skill and expertise than I do.
Where can we learn more about you and your writing?
I can be found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/emchristensenwriter and on Wordpress at https://emmachristensenwriter.wordpress.com. I use social media to update others on where to find my published work, and to post travel blogs and slice of life pieces.
And to end things off, tell us something surprising about yourself!
My favourite random fact about myself is that I refuse to own a car that doesn’t have a standard transmission. I’m a self-admitted control freak and it appeals to me to be able to decide when to shift gears.
By Tim Gwyn
The clearest benefit of my attending writing conventions is that I got a publishing contract through one. But that’s not the whole story, and it certainly isn’t why I started going.
When I first wrote fiction, in my tweens and twenties, I didn’t have a lot of training, just a desire to create stories. When I came back to it later, I realized I needed more skills.
I live in Kenora where there isn’t as much for writers as there is in Thunder Bay or Winnipeg. I found out about a small convention in Kenora called Word on the Water. That was my first exposure to a Blue Pencil Café, a quick critique of a few pages of my writing by an established author. The 15-minute time frame forces the focus onto problems that jump out at the first reading, and often results in bite-size suggestions that are easy to digest. I signed up for a workshop, too.
After that, I went to the C4 LitFest in Winnipeg. This was a small writing convention that spun off from the much larger Central Canada Comic-Con. I went because I had finished my first novel, or at least written it through to the end, and didn’t know what came next. I went in thinking writing the book was the hard part. I attended panels on editing, querying agents, pitching publishers, and self-publishing. I came out stunned and demoralized, but wiser and ready to brace myself for the long haul.
Many conventions offer longer workshops or seminars, in addition to the one-hour panels and presentations. I’ve learned all sorts of stuff, from how to create a story by starting with random characters, to writing for the five senses. Don’t forget the Blue Pencil sessions. They’ve been a powerful tool for me, and it’s fun to get input from famous authors.
I said earlier that I started going to conventions to learn about writing, and I still do. But I have another reason. To meet people. It feels good to have friends and acquaintances in writing circles, and it’s also helpful, often in unexpected ways.
At every stage of my writing, I’ve found help at conventions. People I’ve met have helped me as beta readers, exchanged novels with me for critiquing, offered me a venue for a public reading, invited me to join a critique group, provided a reference so I could take an Odyssey online course, helped me write query letters, given me contact info for agents, offered me tips on reducing word count, explained why my opening pages were not winning over agents or publishers, offered me a publishing contract, and contributed a back-cover blurb to help promote my novel.
I met my freelance editor at a con. You can find one online, but I felt better approaching an editor I had seen speak on a panel. The clean manuscript that came out of our work was much more marketable.
After that, I went to conventions to pitch my novel to publishers. That’s another thing I prefer to do in person. My successful pitch was actually made at a party.
It’s not all business, of course. Sometimes socializing is just being sociable. When I was trying to interest publishers in my novel, my motto was: “I’m going to pitch everybody before I quit, and I still want to have friends when I’m done.” I enjoy having lunch or a drink, even with people who turned me down, because they were willing to take a look at my work. They were on my side, and they still are.
Some of the larger conventions contact me now, instead of the other way around, and I sit on some of the panels or moderate them. I do a slide show on Alternative Aviation in SF, and I try to help people write better aviation scenes, because that’s my specialty. More generally, I advocate joining a critique group and getting an editor.
This winter, I heard that an old friend was setting up an afternoon of writing panels at the library in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. I haven’t forgotten the people who came to my small town to help writers, so I felt it was worth the drive to give something back.
I’m a regular at Keycon in Winnipeg and Can*Con in Ottawa. The cons I go to lean towards speculative fiction, because that’s my field, but you can find one closer to your own interests, or attend a con that offers thirty-one flavours like Calgary’s When Words Collide, and peruse the programming for your kind of thing.
All the conventions have websites, so you can find them online and see what they offer. I recommend joining a mailing list if you’d like to keep an eye on a convention without signing up right away. That way, you’ll be able to see how the programming is shaping up, and you’ll get advance warning as they start to sell out.
If you joined NOWW to meet people and gain skills, those might also be good reasons to consider attending a convention or two. Expenses are tax deductible if you have a business, by the way. Yes, you can learn about that at a convention, too.
Good luck, and have fun!
Timothy Gwyn is the pen name of Tim Armstrong, a professional pilot in Kenora. His speculative short story, “The Emperor’s Dragon” will be in the June issue of NewMyths.com, and Avians, his young adult science fiction novel, is being released by Five Rivers Publishing on August 1st. His website is at timothygwyn.com and on Twitter he is @timothygwyn.
by Charles Campbell
This April I was excited to participate in the 5th Anniversary 10x10 Play Showcase, my third year involved with this festival of locally written plays. In both 2015 and 2016 I was a playwright and had the opportunity to see my work performed. My 2017 contribution was different—I went from having my work staged to directing a piece written by someone else.
Taking someone else’s words and translating them into a 4-dimensional event was both a challenge and a thrill. I have not changed my mind about how hard it is to write a good play, but I do have a new appreciation for the skill required to take written words and bring them to life. The experience also taught me some lessons about writing plays which will inform my submission for 2018.
Know your characters: As a writer, I crafted dialogue for three characters and described the set. Talking to the directors of my plays was easy; they asked questions about motivation and I answered, sometimes with “not sure exactly”. As a director, I had to be sure: actors who understand how to approach their characters are better at bringing them to life. In a 10 minute play the script won’t have all the answers, but the writer should.
I will be putting more thought into motivation and tone before submitting my next play. Writing requires an ear for dialogue, but a play is more than a reading. Achieving emotion on stage requires that the actors can understand what drives their character.
No Close ups: The big writing money is in Hollywood and we all spend a lot of time watching movies and television, and that makes it easier to write screenplays. But it makes it harder to write a stage play. As a director, I learned that there are no close ups on a stage—no tight camera angle is available to exclude the rest of the stage. In order for the audience to focus on a single character, a prop or a specific emotion, the script has to provide clarity and vision.
As a writer, I now know that when I want to focus on one character, they must be given the tools to command the stage. I cannot simply write “everyone looks at James” in the stage direction, and expect it to happen. James must be given a task that will draw attention to him—and I better not have Ishmael and Sue continuing to dance the tango in the background.
Be Open to Wonder: A play is not static —it is a creative partnership with the director and performers who are responsible for interpreting the writer’s words.
Reinterpretation can happen with novels and short stories, but descriptive language, inner monologues and omniscient narrators provide readers with more details and limit how far they can stray from the author’s vision. And even if a reader does misinterpret my novel, how would I know? Readers don’t walk on stage in front of large crowds and perform the books they are reading.
I am going to cheat now and share the first lesson I learned as a playwright. No matter what I think I have written, someone can take my words and create an experience I would never have foreseen. I know I’m not unique—I’ve discussed this experience with other 10x10 playwrights. Sometimes we are disappointed, other times amazed, occasionally confused.
And we don’t have to sit alone and second-guess reaction to our work. The writer, director and actors get feedback every time a performance ends. Ultimately that is the best (and worst) part of the experience: the audience tells us what they thought of the work. Hopefully we get to bask in applause, but what if they didn’t like it?
As a writer, you can always blame the director.
Charles Campbell is an accountant by day and writer by evening and weekend. Although he has had succesfully submitted his tax returns for decades, he is far more proud of having his plays selected for the 2015 and 2016 10x10 showcases. Charles joined NOWW to get away from financial statements and to dedicate more time to develop his writing, but much like Michael Corleone, he's been 'pulled back in' and is serving as Treasurer.
How long have you been a member of NOWW?
On and off for 3 or 4 years.
What genres do you write in and what format of writing do you do?
I’m known mostly for my picture books, which I also illustrate. I also write middle readers, young adult and adult books of short stories and poetry. I’m completing a few books this year: an adult novel, a middle reader and a new kind of book I call an Encyclobook—a combination of various kinds of writing and visual art, much like what you might find posted on a Facebook page. I also write an arts column for the Chronicle Journal called, “Art on the Edge”.
Do you have a favourite book or favourite author?
I’m a big fan of the art historian, Alan Gowans. His account of the history of art was invaluable to the direction I took with my own work.
Let’s get to know you a bit better. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you found your way to writing:
I’m fiercely independent and either too practical or impractical, depending on your viewpoint. I have never owned a car, love biking, never been married or lived with a woman (not opposed to either – just haven’t found the right woman yet) or owned property. I like travelling to foreign countries and can’t stomach the monotony of regular work. My lifestyle is a result of the “itch.” I get physically and mentally ill if I can’t be creative. I’m strangely upbeat and optimistic despite the low income and my solitary lifestyle. My few friends are intellectual oddballs from other parts of the country and the world. They are smarter than I am, which is a good way to learn and keep oneself real.
My dedication to becoming a writer began when I was continually presented with terrible children’s stories to illustrate. The Canadian publishers I worked with seemed to have no discerning ability when it came to kids’ books. I lacked the writing skills at the time to get my ideas onto paper, so in my early twenties I began writing children’s books, short stories for adults, and poetry. I took on various paid writing jobs and learned to design my own books with both text and illustrations. I’m now a professional writer and visual artist expanding my repertoire to include middle readers, YA novels and a novel for adults.
Tell us a bit about your writing and your writing style:
Writers don’t realize how easy they have it and they need to stop complaining about how difficult writing is. They have the advantage of using a person’s visual identikit – an image bank, to create entire worlds with words that would be enormously difficult to achieve as a visual artist, either in the form of a graphic novel or a film. Being a visual artist has given me a great advantage over other writers. Learning programs and design techniques necessary to create my own books has also given me an income greater than most authors. I’m not opposed to working with publishers, but I can be more discerning and practical about the business relationship.
The novel I’m about to complete is called We Play You, based on a true story about an artist with a troubled background whose work is stolen, along with every other artist’s work in the gallery by the gallery owner. The artist’s search for his art leads to an insurance company responsible for stealing art worldwide. This is the first novel of a series where an artist uses his skills to help hunt down a criminal organization. I’ll be looking for a publisher for this book, but will self-publish a short run to test it out locally.
To satisfy the visual art side of my brain and career I’m creating a book called an Encyclobook, (which I mentioned earlier), based on the Facebook format where people post images, memes, personal accounts, and links to essays and stories. The format of the book will be similarly random featuring the best of past visual and literary work I’ve created over the years, along with new works created for the project. It’s going to be a lot of fun to put together.
Who has inspired and impacted your writing?
Every time I’ve answered a question about inspiration I’ve been as honest as I can, but I’ve noticed that I give a different answer each time. There is no one source. All is blended, but I do try to be original and take advice as to where to get inspiration. Although Tom Wolfe of Bonfire of the Vanities fame is disliked by many writers, his advice and writing style is something every writer can learn from. As a former reporter he talks about the value of research, of getting out of the house and talking to people and experiencing the world in order to feed the imagination. Many writers and visual artists look within themselves for inspiration thinking the modern mantra of expressing oneself is paramount. Wolfe argues that you can only do that successfully just once in your life with a novel. After that you’re plumbing the same depths with variations on the first book. And you will lose your audience. Feeding yourself with other people’s experiences and the activity and reality of the world around us will take a writer to new heights and help them find an audience who never thought to venture where a courageous writer might go.
Can we see you at any upcoming NOWW events?
Next year I will certainly enter the contests. I’ve been meaning to for a while.
Where can we learn more about you and your writing?
My website and blogs can be found at www.duncanweller.com. Twitter is: https://twitter.com/DuncanWeller Pinterest is: https://www.pinterest.com/duncanweller/ Blog for news is: http://duncanweller.blogspot.ca Blog for Art on the Edge articles is: http://duncanweller1.blogspot.ca
And to end things off, tell us something surprising about yourself!
As well as being a Canadian citizen I’m also a proud European citizen, but sadly for only a couple more years due to Brexit. I smoke a cigar once in a blue moon.
by Graham Strong
Memory is flawed and unreliable. No event can truly be remembered in precise detail – and even retelling the memory tends to change it.
That was the central theme of Denise Chong’s workshop “Writing Memory – Writing Truth” which she presented on May 13, 2017 at Mary JL Black Library. Chong, who has written four non-fiction books and the highly anthologized “Being Canadian” speech from 1995, explained to a packed room why the slipperiness of memory is important for both fiction and non-fiction writers to realize.
To illustrate this, Chong related a phenomenon she experienced when writing The Girl in the Picture. The book tells the story of Kim Phuc and the famous image of her when she was nine, running naked away from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. Chong tracked down the reporters who were there that day to get their version of the story. Although they all witnessed the same bomb drop – and all from essentially the same vantage point – they all described it completely differently.
Chong gave us an exercise in our own memories. She asked us to write down a fairly easy one – a memory from that morning before the workshop. She drew out more details from some, and showed us that memory is a sensory experience. The sound of pills hitting the table. The feel of the cold tap in the bathroom. The smell of horses in their stalls during feedings. We realized that telling the story was changing it.
“A memory is most pristine when it's taken to the grave. The moment it's shared, it is contaminated,” Chong said.
In another exercise, we described a person in our lives in a progressive series of steps. We started with their physical appearance, but then moved into their gestures and personality, and delved deeper into why their gestures and posture and personalities evolved – why they did what they did. The point of the exercise was that we can find greater truths in these vignettes than through physical description alone. It’s an excellent demonstration of how to develop characters, or in the case of real people in a non-fiction book, how to convey their personalities.
Other aspects of the workshop included how to collect memories, where to look for them, and how to coax them out. Chong talked about using props such as the time she created a layout of the napalm attack with toys for the journalists to play out their memories of that moment. She gave other tips for getting to the truth including talking to others of the period to get their sense of what the world was like then – even if there isn’t a direct relation to the story, it helps give the story context. Sometimes that’s the only way to gather the details.
"If a person dies with their memories, we need to find the living link,” she said.
Chong revealed different methods of getting people to open up and to start talking about their deepest – and perhaps secret – memories. Most important is connecting with them and putting them at ease. People like Kim Phuc have been asked questions all their lives and might have a put up a barrier.
Chong said that the day Phuc came to their interview session in short sleeves (revealing the horrific burn scars on her arm) she knew the barrier was down. Chong also talked about how for her first book, The Concubine’s Children, she took her mother out to eat because her mother loves to eat and it was a way to probe her senses. Another way Chong triggered her mother’s memories was to take her to locations from her past. Listening to her mother talk to old friends or simply talking while they drove around in the car helped as well.
Research is especially important because it helps you raise a flag if something seems out of place, either by trick of memory or (as she warned) by people who for many reasons do not want to tell the truth. Sometimes timelines get confused, so if you can find any definitive ways of pinpointing exactly when a story happened, it can help clarify memories.
One workshop participant asked the question that is in every writer’s mind: had she worried about a subject of hers telling her that she got it wrong? Chong related one incident in which the subject objected to the word “several” instead of “three” along with other similar seemingly minor quibbles that nonetheless were important points to the interviewee. Another question was about violating the privacy of someone after they have died. Chong said the writer can tell the story by being as truthful as possible and by showing “human temperament in all its dimensions”.
The role of the writer in retrieving memories is to mediate the tension between their need to have the interviewee look back and to remember while that person wants to move on and to forget. Paradoxically, to be effective, the writer must find a stance between intimacy and distance, attachment and detachment, trust and skepticism. It can be a difficult line to walk and writers need to “bring an artfulness to the role,” Chong said.
In the end, it comes down to this: if memories can’t be trusted, the stories related to those memories demand extra scrutiny. Through research, talking with other people, and tricking the mind to dig down deeper, we can get closer to the true story. Our jobs as writers, especially non-fiction writers, is to mine as much information as possible, then write it down in an artful way to compile a version that’s as close as to the facts as possible.
Graham Strong is a full-time freelance marketing writer, journalist, and ghostwriter and has been a writer his entire life. Graham is a former Editor-in-Chief of Argus, the Student Newspaper of Lakehead University, and helped transition it into one of the first digitally produced newspapers in North America. Graham won an Honourable Mention in NOWW’s first writing contest in 1998 for his short story Hat Trick. Professionally, Graham provides marketing writing services to businesses and organizations around the world. He also writes for several news outlets including the Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal and the Northern Ontario Medical Journal, and has written for Canadian Press. In his spare time he is writing his first novel. Graham lives in Thunder Bay with local potter Noël Keag and their three incredible sons. His favourite writers are Paul Quarrington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hunter S. Thompson.
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