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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