How long have you been a member of NOWW?
Member of NOWW for over 20 years.
What do you normally write?
Genres and formats of my writing: I write mostly poetry and short fiction. Recently I’ve been trying my hand at creative non-fiction and have started a blog (www.awonderinglittlevoice.com). The posts will be short essays about things that spark my curiosity and wonder – like the tree frogs that showed up in my garden this summer or the symbolism of fire and light.
And who are some of your favourite authors?
My all-time favourite writers are Mavis Gallant and Bruno Schulz. I love Gallant’s subtlety and humour; her stories seem to unfold so naturally, you are not aware of any art or forced structure. On the other end of the realism spectrum, Schulz, a Polish Jew, described everyday life in a small, provincial town in the early 1900s as a journey through a mythical labyrinth where beds “disordered from the weight of dreams” stand “like deep boats waiting to sail into the dank and confusing labyrinths of some dark starless Venice.” He captures the magical thinking of a child’s mind like no other writer I’ve come across. I also like Colm Toibin, Don Delillo, Michael Christie, Frances Itani, and Neil Gaimen. There are many others. In general, I like writing that has a unique perspective or voice, and I don’t mind if there isn’t much plot as long as I feel the characters are real, if perhaps enigmatic, people.
Let’s get to know you a bit better. Tell us a bit about yourself.
I started writing, well, when I first learned how to make letters on a page. Journals, scrapbooks with notes and pictures of what I’d seen in nature. I was part of the Pulp Fiction Writers years ago – a group of us had so enjoyed one of Rosalind Maki’s writing courses at Con College, we got together to self-publish several chapbooks of our work. I’ve submitted several entries to the NOWW contest. (got 3rd in poetry in 2010!). My goals now are to go back to some work I think is worth revising, see what I can do to improve it and finding a home for it, and work on my blog of course. I write almost everyday, even if it’s a simple journal entry. And I follow Jo Fiorito’s advice and keep a journal of what I’m reading – what I like about it, what does or doesn’t work for me. My biggest challenge is fighting writer’s block – that cloud of razors in my brain that shreds to pieces any new idea as soon as it appears. Two things that help: reading poetry first thing in the morning (NOT the news) and forcing myself to write “pages” as I call them – just sitting down with a pad of paper and filling two to three pages with whatever comes to mind.
And where does your inspiration come from?
I’m inspired by nature and science. I like people watching too and am a bit mystified by today’s identity politics. How can you sum up a person with a few labels? Each one of us is a mix of contradictions and mysteries that defy labeling and can only be expressed through good art, like some of the writers I’ve mentioned above have the ability to do.
Can we see you at any upcoming NOWW events?
I’m looking forward to NOWWs upcoming workshops. I always come away inspired, ready to face another blank page.
Where can we learn more about you and your writing?
(See blog mentioned above)
And to end things off, tell us something surprising about yourself.
Surprising fact: In my next life I’d like to come back as a jazz pianist.
Holly will be leading a free workshop on sonnet writing on January 25, 2018 at 7:00 pm at the Waverley Resource Library. No registration is necessary.
How long have you been a member of NOWW? Since 1997-98 – Deborah de Bakker invited me to join and give a workshop at Confederation College. Jean E Penziwol was my student there, and protégée, let us say.
What do you normally write? I write it all! Lately my focus is poetry and poetic inquiry (a form of academic scholarship).
And who are some of your favourite authors?
Here are some who come to mind: Margaret Mahy, Roald Dahl, Aristotle, Thomas Merton, Isabel Allende, Kasuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, Jane Urquhart, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Wilkinson, Molly Peacock, Jan Zwicky, Yann Martel, and André Alexis. The last two came up out of my book club, which has always encouraged me to keep up with literary culture. Otherwise, I follow an idiosyncratic route, linking from books I’ve already read and liked, or else from an idea that comes to mind. For example, one summer I read nothing but dystopias. And I must also shout out to our regional writers; they are fam-jam!
Let’s get to know you a bit better. Tell us a bit about yourself!
Although I started my arts career teaching and writing for children, my interest in BIG IDEAS has led me into poetic discourse. All the same, small ideas make for good poetry, too. Poetry is really just a way of understanding life. When I say poetry, I don’t distinguish it greatly from story, which is just a synonym for how humans live life,
What’s your writing like?
For some time now, I have been absorbed by philosophical ideas such as: How is art a way of knowing? How does a metaphysics (personal and collective beliefs about reality and being) contribute to a grammar of art? These questions might seem abstract and abstruse, but they are ultimately what is behind poetics, the theory and craft of literature.
And where does your inspiration come from or who inspires your writing?
In terms of theories of art, I have been following the ideas of Umberto Eco, Northrop Fry, Elliot Eisner, Suzanne Langer, Giles Deleuze, Paul Ricoeur, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Richard Kearney and David Abram. An eclectic crew. One of them said this: “Because we are in the world, we are condemned to meaning, and we cannot say or do anything without its acquiring a name in history.”
Can we see you at any upcoming NOWW events?
I will be leading a free workshop on Sonnet Writing on January 25th.
Where can we learn more about you and your writing?
I have poetry published in a number or regional anthologies. I have two children’s novels, Dream Dad and Summer Dragons with Dundurn Press. My biggest social media presence is on Facebook, where I sometimes post poetry for my five friends.
And to end things off, tell us something surprising about yourself!
I can stand on my head. I still have all my own teeth. Iay ikelay otay eakspay inay igpay atinlay.
The Hosiery of Convention
Billy Collins says it’s nothin: just
a word, and then another, line by line
until you’re done; fourteen, thirteen, twelve
eleven; rock it with your thoughts, not iambs;
charms and pics instead of scansion; pitch
the hosiery of convention; ditch that girl
or boy’s dear ransome; blow out the blighted
pizzle, plant another row to-pickle.
But if the modern race ain’t for you; if
free-lovin verse has passed you; if you’d learn
the ease of rules; if you’d seek the wit
of fools; then come and sing a bygone song.
Within the sonnet's well-ploughed plot of ground,
let us reverse, where words of worth be found.
by Joan M. Baril
(3rd place winner in the NOWW Summer Flash Fiction Contest)
After the first few years, I never told my husband about the dream. I had seen him wince when I described the garden house. I realized he considered my dream an unconscious reproach against him for our crazy nomadic marriage. Neil is a mining engineer and we travelled the world together. But buying a house was impossible, not in the jungles of Ecuador or the mountains of Tasmania or the deserts of Arizona. So, for twenty-five years, I never mentioned the dream again even though its occurrence, every few weeks or so, gave me a happy-morning feeling.
The dream starts with an ordinary Canadian street and a front garden of foxglove, daisies, and roses. I love flowers. I always attempted a garden wherever we lived. At our mountain house in Kashmir, I grew blue poppies in painted ceramic tubs but abandoned them when we fled the insurrection. The nasturtiums beside our stone cottage in Scotland cheered a drizzly landscape. In eastern Turkey, I defended my plants from wandering goats. In truth, I loved the challenges of life with my handsome, adventurous husband.
As I breathe the scent deep of the flowers into my lungs, I admire the tall, stately house of cream stucco and green shutters. I drift towards it along the garden path. I mount the wide steps, and gently open the front door. All is silent. Sunlight dapples the hardwood floors leading to a comfortable living room with blue Oriental rugs, deep bookcases and pale leather furniture.
Here the dream ends. Happiness flows through me when I wake, ready to embrace the challenges of a new day.
But now, in Ottawa, I’m up early to drive Neil to the airport, his last northern trip. In a month, our wanderings end. Our condo in Vancouver, bought for our retirement years, awaits us.
Halfway back to our apartment, I brake hard. Is it possible? The house is identical. Lacy dawn shadows cross cream stucco, green shutters, and wide welcoming steps. Dazed, I get out and walk toward the garden. The honeyed smell of flowers enchants me. I float up the path.
An elderly woman in a long blue nightdress appears in the doorway, her face contorted, her hand over her mouth.
The spell shatters.
“I know you,” she says, pointing her finger. “You live in my dreams. Year after year, you walk through my garden straight into my house.”
We stare at each other. “Why not come in,” she says with a half-smile, holding open the door. “You’ve been here before. Maybe now you’ll find what you’re looking for.”
I step forward. I’m shaking. My dream has become a mystery, a strange step into another dimension. My Buddhist friends would call it a rare glimpse into “the reality beyond reality”. The early sun brightens, outlining the woman on the steps as fixed and immobile as a figure in a tapestry.
Her hand beckons.
I turn and run for the car.
Joan M. Baril is a Thunder Bay native whose stories have been widely published in Canada, mainly in literary magazines. Recently, she placed her sixty-first piece. Her prize-winning stories appeared in the compilations Twenty Miles on Snow Shoes and Canadian Shorts. This year she received the Kouhi Award for “outstanding contribution to the literature of Northwestern Ontario.” She believes Thunder Bay hides many ghost stories still to be discovered. She herself has lived with a ghost, discovered a ghost next door, and found a ghost in her dreams.
Joan’s blog, “Literary Thunder Bay”, follows the Thunder Bay literary scene.
by Sue Blott
(2nd place winner in the NOWW Summer Flash Fiction Contest)
Yahtzee with you is no longer fun. Drunk and blinded by the stinging smoke from your cigarette, you make stupid choices.
I cry out, “Wait!” but you roll again.
“What?” You rub your forehead, study the dice.
“You had Yahtzee! Five fives. Jeez, Larry!”
You giggle-snort and collapse back onto the couch.
I shake my head, sling the dice into the box, shimmy the lid on. I like winning but not at the expense of watching you spiral into stupidity. Together for seven years and you drink more and more until you flake out, leaving me to stub your stinking cigarette out so our house doesn’t burn down.
Time after time, you remember nothing.
I remember everything.
You exhale. “Let’s play that other game.” Smoke coils towards me like a snake about to strike. “Lists.”
“Lists. Okay.” A game that originated from counselling, a way of sharing and learning about each other. On a deeper level, the counsellor suggested.
I’m delaying going to bed. Why I don’t know. You’ll fall asleep in no time, perhaps in the middle of an embrace so I have to push the weight of you off me, your hand slapping my stomach as you roll over. Not on purpose, of course. That’s a no-brainer for me. Never physical abuse, just a gradual withering of love and respect.
When you choose a list, your favourite, I know I can’t tell you the last thing on mine.
“Hhmmm, let me think. I need tea. I’ll make you coffee—”
“ ’Sokay.” You point to the half-full scotch glass.
“So not okay,” I mumble as I walk into the kitchen, considering my list. The first things are a given. The cats. Marmalade—he’d never make it out on his own with that lame hind leg—then Tinkers and Siam. My journals, photo albums … Once you were my first thing on “A List of Things I’d Rescue From Our Burning House”. You still assume you are.
I know I’m top of your list. I am your list. You’ve never cared much for the cats.
I pour my tea, stir your coffee, my thoughts swirling with the dark liquid. How can I tell you that the last thing on my list is you? Until I can, all we’ll do is play games with each other.
In the living room, you’re sprawled on the couch, your lips strumming to snores. Drool glistens at the corner of your mouth. The cigarette has burned itself out in the ashtray. I watch you, know the peace a mother feels when her child is asleep at last. I cover you with the woollen throw scattered with blue hearts, your favourite from our Maritime trip. I tuck in your toes. You hate your feet to be cold. Leaving your coffee on the table, I carry my tea to bed where Marmalade will have warmed my pillow.
Tomorrow, I think, maybe tomorrow I can tell you the last thing on my list.
Sue Blott just loves writing! She is a member of a few Thunder Bay writing groups. Although Sue writes in many genres, she particularly delights in the challenges of flash fiction: how to convey so much in so few words. Not unlike this bio.
by Lisa N. Jones
(1st place in the NOWW Summer Flash Fiction Contest)
“There’s a reservoir in New Mexico,” she says, her eyes searching the harbour, watching the waves as they wrinkle under a heavy sky. “They flooded the area a hundred years ago. I think they were trying to irrigate the desert. Anyways, it was there a long time, and people forgot how it came to be there in the first place. Because really, why would it matter? It was just there.”
I nod absently. We are sitting on a bench at the Marina, watching sailboats tack gracefully out of the breakwater and into the open lake. Against the slate blue of Superior, the sails are stark wings drifting effortlessly. There’s no sense that they are struggling against the chop, even as they pass the lighthouse at the end of the breakwall. It all seems too easy, I think. I shift on the bench, uncomfortable on the hard seat.
”A few years ago,” she continues after a pause, “there was a drought. Not sure why, but it happened. All this water, gone. Must have terrified the locals.”
She pauses again; I wait. I know there’s a reason for this story. The best I can do for her is wait and listen. I am helpless to do otherwise.
“And you know what?” she asks, turning to me suddenly. Her voice is choked with trapped emotion suddenly released, the edges raw and sharp. “When the fucking thing dried up, guess what they found?”
I shake my head; I still don’t understand where this is going. My throat is tight and sore. I will not cry, I think. I cannot cry.
“They found a fucking town!” Her volume rises, her voice almost frantic. “A whole bloody town! No one knew it was there, not for a hundred years. Who forgets a fucking town? It even had a fucking church!”
I shift to face her, trying hard to meet her eyes. All I see are tiny cells, moving slowly but relentlessly, shape-shifting, gathering, splitting, attaching themselves to any available surface. For her, it is her pancreas. Terminal, they said. Treatment will prolong life, but not give any quality. Time to make decisions.
The tears fall freely down her cheeks: she who remained calm in the doctor’s office, thanked the oncology team, walked with quiet poise as we left the hospital. Now comes the wave of despair, and her words are gasps between sobs that grow louder.
“It’s not dying that scares me – I get that. I just don’t want to be forgotten. Promise you’ll never forget me.”
What can I say? I will always remember her voice? Her face will stay fresh in my mind? As long as I live, I will tell her story? It’s not enough. In this moment, I can promise nothing, so I nod, my own tears uncontrollable. Her head sinks as the sobs come harder, and I hold her, shaking with my grief, as we watch the water begin to rise slowly, steadily.
Lisa N. Jones: Born and raised in Dorion, Lisa has been a teacher for 30 years. She currently teaches International Baccalaureate English and Philosophy at Churchill High School. Along with four cats, three deer, and at least five raccoons, Lisa lives in Shuniah with her husband and daughter. Reservoir is the first piece of writing she has ever entered in a writing contest.
How long have you been a member of NOWW?
About three years. I was on the NOWW board for one year.
What do you normally write?
Young Adult – magical realism.
Do you have a favourite book or favourite author?
Don’t really have one – so many to choose from depending on my mood. Like everything from Ayn Rand to Calvin and Hobbes.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you found your way to writing:
I started writing much in the same way I do anything in life – dive in and learn as you go! I threw myself into writing a YA magical realism trilogy having no experience in writing at all. Sure, I dabbled in writing here and there: Christmas letters, the odd children’s story for my kids. But nothing serious until I heard a story from a young child soldier in Uganda and felt very compelled—almost obligated—to share his story with the world. From then on, it has been writing and editing and learning ever since.
Tell us a bit about your writing and your writing style:
My Stones Trilogy (two are available now) are Young Adult magical realism novels suitable for anyone 12 and up. Although they’re considered YA, I have a lot of adults reading them too, which is nice because it means my stories are reaching a wide audience.
I do a great deal of research for my novels: I read whatever books I can find on the subject, make notes that I refer to time and time again, and I go to the places I’m writing about. You can’t write about a subject as intense as Joseph Kony, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and child soldiers and have not visited Uganda at least once. I travelled extensively throughout the northern region of Uganda, interviewed many former child soldiers, including one of Kony’s wives and one of his body guards, and listened and watched and recorded everything. It was difficult at times because the stories were horrific but I felt, and still feel, very drawn to sharing these stories simply because they need to be heard.
Right now, I’m finishing up book #3 in the Stones Trilogy and have a couple plans for another novel. I just came back from Malawi where I did some research on the child labour situation there and hope to put out a YA novel that will bring this dark subject to light for a teen audience. I would also like to return to Uganda to interview a woman I met who has an incredible story to share about her nine years of captivity with Kony and the LRA. Too many people gain recognition in the news for things that really aren’t newsworthy or admirable. I like to share stories about people who deserve to be heard, because of their courage and their actions, not because of their status or cruelty or stupidity. There’s enough of that in the world.
Who has inspired and impacted your writing?
My inspiration comes from the people I meet. When they have a story that needs to be shared I am compelled to write it. I’m not really inspired by any author. I like simplicity in stories though. Never been much of a descriptive writer or a poet, although I do enjoy it in other authors.
My tip for writing? It comes from advice I gained from the ladies at Laughing Fox Writers, a local writing group I belong to: read five good quality books in the genre in which you wish to write. Read them again and study them with pen in hand. Make note of how things are done such as dialogue, description, action scenes etc. Absorb it all and then write. You’ll see a big change, a sort of “maturing” in your style. And you’ll like it.
Where can we learn more about you and your writing?
You can check out my website at www.donnawhitebooks.com and visit me on Facebook: donnawhitebooks, and twitter: donnawhitewrite, and Instagram: donnawhitebooks. I post a blog, every two weeks or so, on my website about my travels and interviews.
My books, Bullets, Blood and Stones: The Journey of a Child Soldier and Arrows, Bones and Stones: The Shadow of a Child Soldier are available on Amazon as a paperback and as an ebook. You can also get them at Chapters/Indigo and Coles across Canada. Here in Thunder Bay you can also get them at Gallery 33 and The Bookshelf, and of course any author signing events during the year. You can see where and when I’ll be signing by visiting my author page on Amazon.
And to end things off, tell us something surprising about yourself!
I do a pretty mean turn on the barrels and can do a fine zig-zag through the poles during the local horse show gymkhana. However, I’ve had to put that part of my life on hold for a bit since I became busy with writing and teaching. Right now, the closest I get to barrel racing is riding my little black Arabian mare who is more or less shaped like a barrel due to lack of exercise. Oh well. Maybe next year.
By Joan Baril
We hung on every word. Joe spoke in parables, most taken from his own life. His tapestry of tales gave us information about writing memoir, along with a context to help remember it.
He spoke about his time in the arctic, his early days at Lakehead University, his loves, his heartbreaks, all so personal and revealing that we, the listeners, just sat there, forgetting to take notes, our mouths hanging open. Soon we understood we were learning about memoir from Joe’s spoken memoirs.
Joe related stories about his childhood in Westfort, his family, his early writing days, his column in the Toronto Star, his books, his first publisher.
Joe told us about the career criminal, Ricky Atkinson, the leader of the Dirty Tricks Gang. Atkinson’s rough memoir became a book with Joe as co-author.
Joe went round the circle asking the participants about their writing. Many were writers or poets or playwrights. Others planned to be. The woman who sat beside me was a painter with a good idea. She wanted to write the story of each painting. What a book that would make!
Joe used these introductions to set up questions to answer later. Joe speaks slowly, softly, thoughtfully and also bluntly. The Westfort kid is still as tough as ever. When it was my turn, I said I wrote a few short memoir pieces, but to do so, I had to open a vein. He agreed. For him, it felt like slashing open an old sore on his arm, over and over. Joe rolled up his sleeve and pointed to the place where the ghost sore festered.
Memoir is not for the faint of heart.
I cannot retell his stories here. Too personal. They remain in that room. But I did make a few notes that I’ve tried to put in some kind of order. Of course, each participant in a workshop picks up what is personally relevant to them. I admit I spent a lot of my time jotting down side ideas that related to stuff I’m working on now. No doubt, others have a quite different set of notes from mine.
Become an observer. Carry a notebook all the time. Go to places where people hang out and take notes. Go to the mall and watch. The patterns change over time. Annie Proulx hangs around her local bus station. You can too. There’s lots to see for a sharp observer. Hone your observation skills. Joe described spending an entire day on a Toronto street corner just observing. That day became a book, Rust is a Form of Fire.
As a child, Joe was the watcher. Luckily for him, he came from a family of storytellers and became a storyteller himself. I believe he was a story collector from a young age. As a columnist, he talked to people to tease out their stories. He reads the obituaries, hunting for those true-life vignettes that stand out from the banal sweetness and obvious flim-flam of many death notices. (My note. In my opinion, the Winnipeg Free Press has the best obituaries.) Certain obituaries capture one’s imagination. You wonder what it felt like to be that person. Analyze why you’re attracted. What details move you?
There is no such thing as writers’ block, says Joe. If you feel blocked go for a walk or go to the mall and observe deeply. Or write yourself a letter. Describe the problem. And most importantly, if you are blocked, you probably need more research.
Writing. Keep the sentences short, one thought per sentence. Use clear, simple language. It must have cadence. Read it out loud. Read it out loud with a finger in your ear. (Why this works, I have no idea, but try it anyway.). You can teach yourself to recognize cadence just as you can teach yourself many elements of the craft. Read the King James’ Bible, a book swimming in cadence. Read or write poetry. Poets are a step ahead here because they are well acquainted with the beat and pulse of language.
Start your piece with your best shot, the incident that you remember the strongest, the item that is the most memorable, that has the greatest punch.
Joe says the New Yorker magazine taught him to give information clearly. He also likes cooking memoirs. A recipe is a model of concise and accurate writing. His goal is always accuracy and precision with laser-sharp details.
Joe mentioned a technique called “squeeze and release.” You cannot keep the writing at a high pitch all the time. You must slow down, ease off, to give the reader a pause or a break. A reader can’t take too much power writing for long stretches.
The question of dialogue came up. If you can remember it, use it. If it is in your notebook, all the better. If you can’t remember it, don’t make it up. It’ll sound phony. Never put modern phrases into the mouth of a historical character. Dialogue must be authentic to the times.
Readers. What happens when we read? We follow the story by making pictures in our minds using out imagination. Therefore, as writers, we must aim to capture our reader’s imagination. Why do we read memoir specifically? Many reasons. Perhaps because we want a good story, or to learn something. Maybe to find out, “what it was like.”
But readers can be our enemy. They get bored easily. They’re faithless. They sense when the writer is holding back, fudging the truth, skipping over information. The writer has to be fearless. The reader expects a point to the memoir. Otherwise they say to themselves, “Who cares?” There has to be a purpose that is clear and a resolution.
Observation while reading. Everything you read, whether it be newspapers, advertising or books, is a teaching object. Be aware of how the piece affects you. Pause. Note your own reactions. Why did you get interested here, bored there? Mark the place where it happens. Analyze the section. Note the emotion or lack of emotion the writing evoked in you? Perhaps you sensed the author was faking it? If something works, try to figure out how it was done. If it doesn’t work, figure that out too and, as an exercise, rewrite it to make it better. Joe said he often rewrote the poems in the New Yorker to teach himself to be a poet.
Detail, precise detail, is important but you can’t overload your work. There has to be space for the reader to imagine.
By studying writing, you can become your own editor. It is hard to judge your own material but you can learn to do it. Do not surrender the task to anyone else. Do not give away your power.
Getting to the Truth. You have to use journalistic methods. You must know that one person’s experience of the past may be different from your experience. Nevertheless, that does not invalidate your experience. You can use old photographs, diaries, cards such as condolence cards, and family letters. You can interview those who were present at the time. You can learn about the historical period. You can go back to the old house or visit the cemetery. Go to the sources.
You are the Narrator. But who are you? You are the point of view in the story, the “I.” You are the focus. You have to be shameless, put yourself out there. The reader wants to connect with you. The reader will soon sense an inauthentic persona. You have to know yourself. Not always easy. You have to show your emotion. You cannot hide. When Joan Didion writes, she is the chief character in her book. Joe, as child and adult, is the main character in his award winning memoir, The Closer We are to Dying. He admits it was not an easy book to write.
Joe’s Suggested Reading
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. (in Brodie and Waverley libraries)
Toast by Nigel Slater.
Stet by Diana Athill. (in Waverley Library)
The Way of a Boy: A Memoir of Java by Ernest Hillen. (in Brodie Library)
Night of the Gun: a reporter investigates the darkest story of his life. (Brodie Library)
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. (get the recent edition)
The New Yorker magazine. (available at Chapters and in the libraries)
Books by Joe Fiorito
The Closer We Are to Dying (memoir)
Rust is a Form of Fire
The Song Beneath the Ice (fiction)
Comfort Me with Apples: Considering the Pleasures of the Table.
Union Station: Love, Madness, Sex and Survival on the Streets of the New Toronto
The Life and Hard Times of Ricky Atkinson; Leader of the Dirty Tricks Gang by Ricky Atkinson and Joe Fiorito.
First published in Joan Baril's blog : literarythunderbay.blogspot.ca
Joan M. Baril, is a short story writer who has had fifty-three fiction and nonfiction pieces published in literary magazines including Prairie Fire, Room, Northword, Anitgonish Review, Other Voices, CanadianWomen's Studies, Canadian Forum, Herizons, Ten Stories High, The New Orphic Review.
She won several awards for her work including taking first place for short fiction in 2015 and 2016 in the North-western Ontario Writers annual contest. Her story, "The Yegg Boy' was nominated for the Journey Prize by the Antigonish Review. For several years, her columns on women's and immigrant issues appeared in the Thunder Bay Post and Northern Woman's Journal. In 1992 the Canadian government honoured her for her work with immigrants and for her column on immigrant issues. She has published articles in national magazines mainly Herizons and Canadian Forumn.
by Alex Kosoris
I think I’m pretty safe in suggesting that writers want to improve their writing. That’s probably the biggest reason why I joined NOWW and started attending writing workshops, although that’s only a small part of training yourself to write better pieces. Practicing writing is the number one thing you can do, but it can be argued that reading is almost as important. If you read a lot, the act of reading as a casual observer will do wonders in and of itself, but I find value in taking things a step further. I try to delve deeper to find out why I feel this way as a reader, to hit on what the author did to lead me to a certain feeling or conclusion. If you make a point of at least trying this in your reading, you start to notice common techniques emerging across vastly different work, and it becomes easier to understand what an author did to make you feel a certain way – or what went wrong when you started to dislike a piece.
Authors can take advantage of focused reading to improve a specific part of their writing. This can involve reading from a specific topic to ensure you aren’t writing over your head, or a specific genre in order to both understand what works within that style of writing and to ensure you don’t retread ground already familiar to fans of the genre. When submitting work to literary magazines and writing contests, it’s helpful to read previous winning entries to get an understanding of the makings of successful writing in order to direct the shape and feel of your writing for submission. NOWW has collected some of the winners from the annual writing contest in Twenty Years on Snowshoes, making it much easier for us to compare and contrast techniques.
I find it hard to imagine a compelling story without a clean, strong plot. In rare cases, a talented writer can keep you on the edge of your seat with a story in which not much happens. But also consider how the story gets propped up or dragged down in the way the author handles characterization, pacing, and description. The contest format imposes constraints on the freedom an author has to tell a story, mainly through the word limit. My favourite stories in Twenty Years on Snowshoes come from authors who understand this, consciously or not, and either embrace it or push these boundaries successfully. Shorter stories necessitate a limit to the number of characters you have time to fully flesh out; if you include too many characters, it can hurt their personalities or their perceived realism, and, consequently, the story as a whole. The other main constraint that presents itself is in the complexity of plot. An author trying to do too much with a story with so little space puts the plot, the pacing, and the readers’ emotional response in peril.
A sizeable number of the winning entries in fiction included in Twenty Years on Snowshoes share in the way vastly different stories are presented; for example: a story told through a naïve (often a child) narrator or protagonist with diverse themes, such as mourning, addictions, divorce, and closet lesbianism. Why does this technique work so well? I think that, by framing the story in this way, the author can influence the pacing by presenting bits of information through the point of view of someone who doesn’t understand the significance of what they see or experience. This allows the reader to slowly piece things together, injecting mystery and suspense into the narrative. It feels like a narrator is honestly telling us what little she learns or understands, rather than an author creating false suspense by refusing to reveal details. The big divergence amongst stories that employ this technique comes in the way the author treats this naive individual. My favourites in the collection go beyond the narrator as a casual observer, having them change as a result of the plot that they at least partially begin to understand by the end. In most stories using this style, the tragedy and drama happen almost out of frame, due to this lack of understanding from the key characters. By clearly influencing and changing them as we progress, this adds another tragic element up close: a loss of innocence.
Of course, this isn’t to suggest what I’ve outlined here will be the only things you’ll discover when analyzing these contest winners, but, rather, that by asking yourself what makes the stories work for you will help shape and improve your own writing.
Twenty Years on Snowshoes is available at all NOWW events and at Chapters. You can also call 345-0353 to get a copy. The cost is $20.
Alex was born and raised in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Between 2006 and 2010, he lived in residence in Toronto, Ontario while attending the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto . In that period he discovered his love of writing, spending much of his free time writing short stories. Alexander expanded one of these stories into his first novel, Lucifer, Alexander posts reviews on the books he reads on kosoris.com, and regularly contributes to the Thunder Bay arts and culture magazine, The Walleye.
By Joe Fiorito
I have just retired from a 36-year career in journalism; some of that time was spent as a CBC manager and radio producer; most of the time, I was a newspaper columnist. During those years, I managed to write a memoir and a novel and several other books; my latest is a collaborative effort, the memoir of one of Canada’s most notorious bank robbers.
But whether I was writing for radio or for the newspapers, or trying to make literature, all my work involved a reliance on the basic principles of narrative: give me a character, give me the details, let there be something at stake in the story, and if I have these things then I will take responsibility for laying all of it out with a beginning, a middle and an end.
The point of any writing, regardless of the form, is to show who we are, where we are, and how we are; but because there are only a few different kinds of story, each one of them depends for its singularity on an underpinning of close observation.
Because it’s all in the details; that’s what distinguishes one work from another, and it is what will make your own memoir stand out.
As for observation, and for what passes as truth, I remind you that if a dozen people see a thing, you will get a dozen versions of what happened; this is one of the hard realities of the memoir, and it is just one of the many things we will discuss in the workshop.
I’m looking forward to coming home.
If you are interested in registering for the Joe Fiorito workshop on Memoir, sponsored by NOWW on Saturday, November 4 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., follow this link: https://www.nowwwriters.ca/workshops.html
Joe Fiorito is a journalist who has worked a city columnist for the Montreal Gazette, The Globe&Mail, The National Post and the Toronto Star newspapers. He won the National Newspaper Award for Columns in 1995; the Brassani Prize for Short Fiction in 2000; and the City of Toronto Book Award in 2003.
He is the author of seven books:
Comfort Me With Apples (collection of columns)
Tango On The Main (collection of columns)
The Closer We Are To Dying (memoir)
The Song Beneath The Ice (novel)
Union Station (non-fiction)
Rust Is A Form Of Fire (non-fiction)
His most recent book, The Life Crimes and Hard Times of Ricky Atkinson, Leader of the Dirty Tricks Gang, has just been published.
He is married, lives in Toronto and is currently at work on his first collection of poetry.
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.