by Valerie Poulin
Write what you know. This is the advice you get. From editors and writers, in classrooms and email dispatches, in magazine articles, and on websites.
You say what you really know is lost love and regret, but this is not all you know.
You know the restlessness of young adulthood, complacency of job and workplace, unrealized dreams. You know the state of apathy. A long-held position. You know that, too.
If you were to write what you know about work life, it would be about the monotony, the tedium of working at a job filled with routine. Your protagonist would work on the line in a factory, at a desk job, or as a night janitor. She could be a traffic cop, or a toll-booth operator. You would apply what you know about the dissatisfaction of doing unfulfilling work. You would write about job loss. About being outsourced, restructured, eliminated.
You know relationships. You recall successes and failures. You know the relentless hope of dishonest friendship, of hurtful words by teachers, of unkind remarks by pastors and priests. You remember what it felt like to be deceived — by a salesperson, an estranged sibling, a stranger on the street. Anyone on the job site. Everyone in authority.
You know what it is to be an outsider. To feel like the ugliest person in the room, the dullard at a party, the least successful person in your social circle.
And you know what it feels like to be discarded, unwanted, rejected.
You know people: Annoying co-workers, unloving spouses, saucy dependents, secretive neighbours, like-minded board members, political foes.
You know romantic love, and write about hook-ups between social workers and single bar owners, between artists and best friends, and affairs among co-workers. You know about first love, parental love, unrequited love. Self-love. Write about it.
You think of your love for animals and make your main character a zoologist, a veterinarian, a dog-walker. A pet owner.
You know what it is like to lose a child, a brother, a sister, a transgendered friend. You know loss. You know sleepless nights and the truest definitions of “tragedy” and “aftermath”. You know the struggles associated with “survivor” and “suicide,” but you can deal with those words later.
You know emotion: fear, joy, guilt; hostility, curiosity, gratitude. Put your characters in situations you are familiar with: friendships, marriages, divorces, motor vehicle collisions, drug deals, funerals. How they behave in these situations is their business.
You create specific experiences from general ones. That’s what makes your characters—and you— come alive.
Inner life is what you know; it adds to the depth of your characters. You apply the emotion of your experiences and your characters become what you are not: plucky, daring, outspoken; empathetic, trusting. Fearless.
You write what you know, and this makes your telling memorable. That’s when it becomes a story.
Valerie Poulin is an internationally published poet and author of features, profiles, and general-interest articles for a variety of publications. She works as a freelance technical writer. Valerie also self-publishes chapbooks of poetry and small story collections. The Lakehead appears frequently in her work.
How long have you been a member of NOWW?
As a member of NOWW for 15 years, I’ve enjoyed writing workshops in the Kenora area. Charles Wilkins inspired a large group at the Kenora Library by reminding us that stories tell who we are, give us identity and contain our morals, beliefs and what is important to us. Mike Laverty gave a workshop in Dryden that served writers from Kenora, Sioux Lookout and Atikokan. The writing exercises revealed how many of us are inspired by the rich and exotic landscape we writers draw on in northwestern Ontario.
I served on the NOWW board as regional representative from 2015 to 2017. It was wonderful to work with this dynamic group of writers and to get to know all about the different kinds of writing happening from Marathon to Kenora.
What do you normally write?
I write creative nonfiction and short stories. I’ve also completed a script for a play. This was prompted by an eight-week playwriting course led by Mark St. Germain in Sarasota, Florida last winter.
Do you have a favourite book or favourite author?
I have many favourite authors: Elizabeth Strout, Ian McEwan, Anne Tyler and Carol Shields. There are two books I like to reread: Swann, my favourite Carol Shields novel, and Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. In Swann, I enjoy the humour and the respect accorded to all the characters and the structure. Dostoevsky’s portrayal of Raskolnikov’s moral anguish as he contemplates murder is riveting and profound.
Let’s get to know you a bit better. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you found your way to writing:
I turned to writing after I stopped playing the flute. I’d finished a tour of Northwestern Ontario and Manitoba with a chamber music trio. Though the concerts had been well received, I decided that the number of hours needed for practice and rehearsal didn’t match the market demand. I began writing after I was accepted into a class led by Carol Shields at the University of Manitoba. I am strongly committed to the power of story and to that end, I’m involved with a storytelling initiative in Kenora where community members are given the opportunity to share their personal journeys publically.
Tell us a bit about what interests you now:
Currently I’m interested in the ways marine biologists are saving coral. Over the past 15 years, my husband and I have witnessed first-hand how coral is bleaching in the Caribbean. There are marine biologists who’ve made the decision to be hopeful and are propelling their hope towards solutions. I’d like to explore this subject in fiction.
Who has inspired and impacted your writing?
Here are two writing quotes that inspire me. Amelia Gray says, “writing seems to work best when it’s fighting to get at some truth.” Well over 100 years ago Dostoevsky said, “the main idea of the novel is to depict the positively good man. There is nothing more difficult than this in the world, especially nowadays.”
Will we see you at any upcoming NOWW events?
I look forward to participating in NOWW workshops and submitting to the NOWW writing contest, if I can keep my word count down!
Where can we learn more about you and your writing?
I don’t have a website or any social media platforms yet. It’s on my to-do list! I graduated from the University of Toronto with a bachelor’s degree majoring in music and minoring in English. I’ve published nonfiction in magazines and anthologies on a wide range of subjects including travel, music, parenting and perspectives unique to where I live. I'm a past CBC literary award winner in the creative nonfiction category and have been short-listed for the Writers Union of Canada Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers twice. After a twenty-five year career as a music teacher, I continue to share music-making on a volunteer basis with adults who struggle with mental illness. I've been married for thirty-four years and have two grown sons.
And to end things off, tell us something surprising about yourself!
I took up golf two years ago. I resisted for many years because I thought it would take up time better spent reading and writing. Not only am I hooked on the game, my writing has benefited! There isn’t time to overthink your swing because you’re playing with a group and each group needs to move along. I find that forward moving flow, from one fairway to the next, has transferred to my writing practice. My daily word count has gone up!
By Jayne Barnard
What do fish-gutting, trap-lines, and cross-country skiing have to do with crime-writing?
They’re all ways to think structurally when creating good stories.
A good crime story is, first and foremost, a good story. One of the above is specific to crime writing. During The Crime Writer’s Toolkit workshop on October 3, we’ll talk about all of them, and how they interact for the best possible story dynamics.
Consider how many stories you read that are driven by the pursuit of something—an answer, an object, a person—pulling you through with the gradual revelation of long-kept secrets, or luring you into expecting one ending and then switching it up in the final paragraph. Would you keep reading if there was nothing you wanted to find out? Those are all standard tropes of crime writing, even in the hands of authors who aren’t writing what you might think of as a typical crime novel.
First, for those whose exposure to crime writing begins and ends with Poirot on Netflix, some background on what crime fiction is:
Crime fiction embraces a wide field. It encompasses mystery, suspense, and thriller sub-genres, each with their own sub-genres such as cosy, hard-boiled, political, police-procedural, or slasher/serial killer. Each sub-genre (except the last) might be written for any age group. There might be paranormal elements or a science-fiction setting. It’s a big tent, even without considering another very popular arena of crime writing: true crime, which may be biographical or auto-biographical, strictly factual or verging into creative non-fiction. My quarter-century of published crime writing—and all my awards—are for crime fiction; I’ll be leaving discussions of crime non-fiction to those more skilled in that sub-genre.
Like any other genre, crime fiction has its conventions, the concepts that devoted readers expect to find and will feel cheated if those aren’t presented, or are presented poorly. These conventions include clear victims, villains, and sleuths, the Hook, clues and red herrings, turning points, black moments, and more. Fair Play is the Prime Directive: the reader should be able to arrive at the answer to the central story question through a close reading of the text, and if they are surprised by the solution, they should be able to spot all the well-buried clues on a re-read.
Romantic suspense might fall under crime writing or under romance, depending on which tropes carry more of the story. Romance readers will overlook a lot of improbable crime solving if the journey toward true love is holding their interest, while readers of crime fiction will throw a book across the room if the police detective prematurely reveals the progress of an investigation to the adorable love interest. Crime readers may lose patience with the ‘kissing bits’ and want to get on with the mystery. The romantics may baulk at a convoluted plot that makes the crime reader’s heart sing. Getting the balance right is very much a matter of becoming familiar with the conventions of both genres and then choosing which of those to include, ignore, or turn on their heads.
Unlike in pure romance and much of romantic suspense where the central story question is always the same (How will the two protagonists end up together?), the story questions in crime fiction vary by their sub-genre and spread across the full spectrum from frivolous to deadly. Mystery questions might be anything from “Where’s the missing pet?’ through “Who stole the queen’s jewels?” to “Who killed Mr. (or Ms.) Boddy and why?” In a suspense novel, the question is often “Who is behind this peril to me and those I hold dear?” In a thriller we often know who the villain is and the question has become “Can our protagonist evade this clear danger and outwit the villain?” Elements of all three might be combined in a single piece of crime writing.
The elements of mystery are everywhere, almost invisibly underpinning fiction and non-fiction alike. Learning what they are and how to use them effectively allows you to not only write crime fiction, but to shape any piece of writing for maximum reader engagement.
In the October 3rd workshop we’ll develop the main components of a joint crime plot, using easy-to-recall diagrams to shape our story like we’d prepare a fresh-caught fish for the pan, stringing out our clues and red herrings like traps on a line to ensure Fair Play, and pacing the reader’s journey through our story as if they were on a cross-country ski over the knolls and gullies around Thunder Bay.
Join Jayne Barnard on October 3rd, 7–9:00p.m. at the Mary J.L. Black Library in Thunder Bay for The Crime Writer’s Toolkit, a free NOWW workshop.
JE Barnard is a Calgary-based crime writer with 25 years of award-winning short fiction and children’s literature behind her. Author of the popular Maddie Hatter Adventures, she has won the Dundurn Unhanged Arthur, the Bony Pete, and the SWG Award for Children’s Literature. Her works have been shortlisted for the Prix Aurora, the Debut Dagger, the Book Publishing in Alberta Award, and three Great Canadian Story prizes.
Jayne attended high school first on a NATO base in Germany and then in Kapuskasing, Ontario, where her Air Force father was posted next. Her childhood of camping, boating and fishing fostered a love for the wilderness and a passionate respect for the environment. When the Flood Falls, the novel that won the Unhanged in 2016, will be released by Dundurn Press on July 14, 2018. Two more titles in The Falls Mysteries are scheduled for the following years, each rooted in the society, politics, and geography of Alberta’s Eastern Slopes. Jayne is a past VP of Crime Writers of Canada, a founder of Calgary Crime Writers, and a member of Sisters In Crime. She is represented by Olga Filina of The Rights Agency.
How long have you been a member of NOWW? Describe your experience serving on the NOWW board.
I’ve been a NOWW member since 2000, the same time I joined the Thunder Bay Writers Guild. I was a board member of NOWW for two years then served as president for three years. I will continue to serve next year as a non-intrusive and hopefully helpful past president. The experience as president came at a perfect time for me because I’d just retired after a 34-year career at Lakehead University and I wanted to do volunteer work. When the NOWW executive asked me to become president, it was an easy decision. NOWW has given me the opportunity to connect with many intelligent and wonderful people both inside and outside of the organization. The board members’ and member volunteers’ willingness to get involved has been exceptional. Had I not joined the Writers Guild and NOWW, I would not have made the friendships that I value so much.
What do you normally write?
That’s a loaded question because right now I consider myself a Jane of all trades and a master of none. My favourite genre to write is creative non-fiction incorporating humour. I also dabble in fiction, i.e., short stories. I have written three novels but they all need work and so if I get the courage, I may rewrite them. This year I decided to enter a play in the local 10X10 contest. My play Golf Lessons (I have a love/hate relationship with golf) was selected for the 2017 Showcase and the actors and director did a terrific job staging it. Ironically, I may be best known in Thunder Bay for the poem I wrote that is etched in granite at the Spirit Garden at the Marina although I don’t consider myself a poet.
Do you have a favourite book or favourite author?
Just one? My favourite book is Stone Diaries by the late Carol Shields set in my favourite city, Ottawa. Years ago I read almost everything James Herriot wrote and even named my last dog, Alfie, after him (Herriot’s real name was Alf Wight). When I lived in England I read everything Angela Huth wrote and had the opportunity to bring her to Exeter to our writers circle to do a workshop. I love to read the work of authors whom I personally know including Charlie Wilkins, Elizabeth Hay, John Pringle and more recently, Jean E. Pendziwol.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you found your way to writing:
Thirty or so years ago I read a book by Robert Fulghum called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. That book inspired me to want to write personal essays about every day things. I moved to England for four years and while there took a fiction writing course at Oxford University. When I returned to Thunder Bay I joined the Thunder Bay Writers Guild and the feedback I’ve received from the members has been second to none. Guilders are truly a talented, generous and insightful group of writers. They seem to enjoy my creative non-fiction pieces the most and I enjoy writing them to make people laugh. Before becoming president, I entered the NOWW Writing Contest and in 2012 placed 1st and 3rd in the fiction category. I’ve published stories in local anthologies such as Twenty Years on Snowshoes, Fuel and Fireflies and some literary journals based in England. I often set stories in places I’ve lived such as Ireland or Arizona. Writing is what I do when I’m not being NOWW president, at my exercise class, golfing, connecting with friends or cutting the grass.
Tell us a bit about your writing:
The past three years, my writing has amounted to a piece every four months for the Writers Guild. My last personal essay was entitled The Idiot Box about my life history with television and I had loads of fun writing this piece. A short story I recently wrote was set in Ireland about a Catholic girl who wants to join a Orange Order, i.e., Protestant, marching band. My partner is from Northern Ireland and so I am quite familiar with the relationship and history between the Catholics and Protestants. When I write fiction or non-fiction pieces I always do research, usually via the Internet.
Who has inspired and impacted your writing?
Recently, I’ve read the work of David Sedaris and love how he writes a humorous story about every day happenings. I also enjoy the humour column on the last page of the UK’s edition of Good Housekeeping magazine by Sandy Toksvig who again, writes about everyday things. Because the state of the world right now is not so funny, if what I write makes someone smile or even laugh, I feel as if I am doing a good thing.
Will we see you at any upcoming NOWW events?
I attended the launch of Twenty Years on Snowshoes on September 5th. Also, I will be organizing and attending the upcoming memoir workshop with Joe Fiorito on November 4th. I participated in his workshop years ago at the Sleeping Giant Writers Festival and it was terrific. I enjoy his writing and if you haven’t read, The Closer We are To Dying, I highly recommend it.
Where can we learn more about you and your writing?
I have a story in the NOWW anthology, Twenty Years on Snowshoes. I am not particularly savvy when it comes to having a platform, i.e., website or Twitter and my Facebook page is more personal than writing-related. Every year I attend the Tucson Festival of Books and all the presenters keep stating that to make it in the world of writing you must have a platform. Not there yet. Maybe this year as I segue from president to past president.
And to end things off, tell us something surprising about yourself!
In 1997 I attended the Queen’s Garden Party at Buckingham Palace and in 1998, ran the London Marathon. That is two. Never been very good with numbers and that is why I’m a writer. J
by Rosalind Maki and Deborah de Bakker
We are very excited to announce that on Tuesday, September 5th, NOWW will celebrate its 20th anniversary with the launch of Twenty Years on Snowshoes: Winning Stories from Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop.
NOWW has come a long way and achieved a great deal since its first official publication—a one-page flyer “Announcing an exciting new organization for writers” that was mailed out in August 1997 to as many writers as we (Charles Wilkins, Jim Foulds and ourselves) could find addresses for. In the ensuing twenty years, NOWW has offered its members, and the community at large, writing classes and workshops, readings by national and regional writers, public recognition in the form of the Elizabeth Kouhi and the Margaret Phillips Awards, an annual writing contest—in other words, opportunities to learn, participate, honour and share.
Twenty Years on Snowshoes, with the stories—both fictional and personal—that live between its covers, is a testament to the success of NOWW. As the book’s editors, we are proud to have played a part in its creation.
After working on a manuscript for several months, editors eventually succumb to a form of blindness, seeing only what they expect to see on the page, so we are most grateful to Marion Agnew and Graham Strong for their hawk-eyed proofreading of the galleys.
The launch of Twenty Years on Snowshoes will be held in the first-floor Dawson Room in the Prince Arthur Hotel and Suites, following the AGM which starts at 6:30. Do come for the AGM; however, if you can only make the launch, arrive around 7:15.
We encourage you to attend and join the celebration. Twenty Years on Snowshoes, which has a cover price of $20, will be available on September 5th only for a special launch price of $15. So start making your Christmas list. And do bring your friends.
But, first, we invite you to read the Introduction to Twenty Years on Snowshoes, which appears below.
The twenty stories in Twenty Years on Snowshoes have been selected from among all the winners in the fiction and memoir categories in the annual writing contest held by Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop. In some small way this anthology is a fulfilment of one of NOWW’s original aims in 1997: to establish a modest publishing program. Thus, it seems an appropriate way to celebrate NOWW’s twentieth year. Kudos to NOWW’s current president, Jane Crossman, for pitching the idea, and to the executive for supporting it.
NOWW’s intent in running an annual writing contest is to stimulate writing in Northwestern Ontario and to recognize exemplary writing in the region. The NOWW Writing Contest, in its first incarnation in 1999, challenged Northwestern Ontario writers to write a story in 1000 words or less (not counting the title), using the phrase “The Good News Café.” And our very first Literary Awards Party, where the winners are announced, was held at that fine establishment.
From these humble beginnings the contest has grown in popularity. Most years entries exceed a hundred, reaching a noteworthy 229 in 2009. And the contest consistently attracts entries, not only from the region, but also from across Canada and, in some years, the USA.
The contest has also grown in breadth, to include as many as five categories, including the mainstays of poetry, short fiction and memoir, and a variety of others, such as children’s story, flash fiction, novel excerpts, humour, romance and scriptwriting. Since 2016 the contest has included a category—generously sponsored in memory of Bill MacDonald—for fiction or non-fiction in which a Northwestern Ontario setting figures prominently.
In 2006, in an effort to eliminate any appearance of bias in the judging—and to kick it up a notch —we decided to choose judges from beyond our own writing community. So, for the past eleven years, the final judges have included many of the bright lights of the Canadian literary scene, including Antanas Sileika, Lynn Coady, Kim Moritsugu, Jane Urquhart, Fred Stenson, Veronica Ross, Ann-Marie MacDonald and Louise Penny. And their praise for the stories and memoirs they chose as winners was unequivocal: “Heart-breaking toughness.” “A wonderfully evocative meditation on family, memory and the pain and promise of forgetting.” “Narrative sophistication.” “A wonderful read.” “This story is well built, spare and cleanly written.” “A raw and powerful story.”
It is these winning stories, and more, that have been selected for this anthology.
Twenty authors. Twenty stories, both fiction and memoir—“the twin of fiction” as Michael Ondaatje calls it, for what is memoir if not a telling of one’s own story, using the same tools as the fiction writer: scene, character, dialogue, tension?
What do we look for when we begin a story? Well, we want tension—a reason to keep going. We want characters who engage us, details that are vivid, fresh, surprising, a story of human experience. We want to be transported. In this collection, a young woman heads out alone into the blistering cold of a January night, a cop looks for meaning in the wake of his son’s death, a widow and widower discover love and joy and beauty amid the paraphernalia of life, a boy watches helplessly as his family disintegrates, a river rises, a wolf tracks, a man dies, a man is saved. Secrets are revealed and secrets kept. Here find parents and children, husbands and wives, music and laughter and tenderness, snow and ice and brutal nature. Here find stories of longing and of loss, and of love in all its infinite permutations.
Mavis Gallant says in her essay “What is Style”: The only question worth asking about a story—or a poem, or a piece of sculpture, or a new concert hall—is, ‛is it dead or alive?’ These stories are alive. Read them. Be transported.
Rosalind Maki and Deborah de Bakker
by Sarah Mendek-Walker
(This blog was originally posted 4/7/2016)
On February 16th for the first time in many years, I read my poetry at the NOWW monthly reading.
Considering my education background in Theatre Arts, I was excitedly nervous. I know you are probably thinking that’s an interesting way to put it. But, it is true. I’ve always enjoyed writing and performing, but it is a little different when you are writing and reading something personal.
I really did feel like the newbie!
The great thing about the night was that it felt very warm and welcoming. It is always an encouragement when everyone around you is so positive. I felt honoured to read my work. It sparked a light of encouragement in me that had been dimmed for so long, as other life adventures presented themselves.
The NOWW organization is something everyone should consider, especially if you want to be a writer and you consider Northwestern Ontario your home. NOWW finds ways to welcome every writer, no matter what stage you are at in your works of writing.
It’s never too late to put the pen to the paper; it’s never too late to shine.
Two people, stand corners opposite from one another.
They lock eyes studying each other,
Mysteriously wondering if their eyes had met before.
They slowly meet in the middle of the room.
Dazed, confused, but certain they continue to stare.
They touch hand in hand, it’s intense and warm, and their embrace is familiar.
But still, their eyes don’t recognize the mirror they are looking through.
There is a passion within their pulses.
A rhythm, their heartbeats sync in unison,
As a melody is heard from inside the walls timing their moves as they slowly drift and weave closer together.
The melodies and harmonies of each other’s bodies keep them distant from the chaos in the room.
There is a trust unexplained, a language not spoken.
Yet some how it is completely translated through each other.
They are dancing.
They are loving.
They are whole.
They are strangers and no one knew.
By Graham Strong
I took a creative writing class in university, and the second-most important lesson I learned was the power of trying new writing approaches to unlock creativity. Our assignment was to write a poem in the style of e.e. cummings. It was the magician’s classic trick of misdirection – we were so busy trying to write in his distinctive way that we didn’t notice our own creativity at work. Even though I’m not exactly a poet, the highest mark I received in the course was for that assignment.
Why did it work? It’s simple: it helped the writers in the class get out of our ruts.
Ruts are a natural thing. Humans are designed to learn pathways to success by exploring what works and bumping into what doesn’t – and then following those pathways to success over and over again. But as useful as that is for a species, it’s deadly to creativity.
Here’s a secret: that well-worn, rutted path is just one way to the finish line. There are other successful paths yet to be found. As creatives, we need something to knock us out of our cow cart path and find new – and more interesting – directions.
Flash fiction can help us jump the tracks. It is a chance to experiment and grow as writers, no matter what type of writing you normally do. The format is compressed enough that you really have to focus on telling the story in a short amount of space. That in itself forces you to be creative. It also makes you think about different ways of getting your story across to your reader because of the strict confines of the writing form.
Challenge yourself as a writer by giving flash fiction a whirl. Then enter your best story in our summer Flash Fiction contest for a chance to win cash prizes.
You’ll find yourself exploring new fields in no time!
(PS – the most important lesson I learned, in case you were wondering, was how to take criticism. Very important for a writer!)
Some Writing Prompts to Get You Started
Stuck on what to write about? It’s a common affliction – so common in fact that there are dozens of websites out there to help you out with writing prompts and story ideas. Here are a few writing prompts to rev up your imagination:
Nothing tickle your fancy? Check out: http://writingexercises.co.uk/random-words-exercises.php for a nifty little program that generates eight one-word prompts at a time.
Graham 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.
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.