Craft 101: Listening to Learn

Craft 101: Listening to Learn

Ruth E. Walker

Recently, I attended the Festival of Authors, an annual celebration of books and the people who write them. Presented by the Ontario Writers’ Conference, the Festival held a perfect mix for me: authors I’ve read and know and authors I’ve haven’t even heard of.

Why is an author reading important? What can I learn from a new writer? And for that matter, what’s left to learn from a writer I know?

Plenty, from all of it.

Exploring the new and shiny

Just like when I first start to write something new, an unknown writer offers me exciting possibilities to discover. It’s a chance to sit back and listen to where they found their inspiration and what brought them to the page. I get to hear about their life before the book and where it has taken them.

For Greg Gilhooly, I Am Nobody granted him one more measure of freedom climbing out from under a decades-long burden. Graham James, the hockey coach predator, groomed Greg for sexual assault. And when he read from a visceral childhood scene of grappling with the nightmare of shame and confusion, the room was breathless and silent.

But it was the follow-up interview with knowledgable and gracious host Ted Barris that connected us all to Greg.

A teachable moment for every memoir writer: Your story may be filled with pain and you may have lost so much in living it but your strength lies in your clear-eyed backward glance. Truth telling versus blaming. Offering solutions. No “poor me” in this interview. A thoughtful and compassionate writer, Greg should be at many more festivals.

Katherine Ashenburg‘s life experience included radio producer, newspaper editor and nonfiction author…so naturally she would want to write a novel about the wives of two 19th century Swedish artists. A début author as she starts into her 70s (so début it was only Week One) Katherine is already working on her second novel.

Her reading was excellent. Nuanced and richly layered dialogue captured the unsaid as much as what was in the conversation. Then Ted and Katherine had a conversation that was equally intriguing about research and the source of inspiration.

Write when you’re ready, no matter when it is: Why write about Sweden? A years-ago trip to see artist Karl Larsson’s home in Sundborn triggered an idea that waited for the “write” time for Katherine to take it to the page.

Diving into the familiar

I first heard Brad Smith at a Whitby, Ontario author reading in 2000 after he published his second book, One-Eyed Jacks. It’s a novel I quite enjoyed, along with his next book, All Hat. His style was gritty back then with a distinctly Canadian spice of irony sprinkled with humour. The Return of Kid Cooper is Brad’s 11th novel and he chose to read one of the more “low-key” scenes. And there it was: distinctly spiced with humour and ironic tones.

Brad wisely chose to read something that showed off his skill with evoking time and place and rising tension: Montana at the Alberta border, cattle ranch in 1910, and a recently released killer sipping tea on the porch with two ladies. We were all sipping tea along with them. And knowing fireworks were coming.

A great lesson for when you read your work: choose a scene that whets the appetite but leaves them wanting to know more. That’s what Brad wisely did.

Similarly, poet Barbara E. Hunt chose to read just a few poems from her latest collection, giving us a glimpse into her approach to the maker-theme of Devotions. More than a book of poems, this is an interactive “colouring book”, inviting readers to make their own version with illumination edging on each page, ready for paint, crayon, or multimedia interpretations.

Make it an invitation: An homage to many of the homesteading skills of the past, Barbara’s reading was an invitation to discover much more between the pages.

And that is what connected all the readings and interviews for the audience. You, the audience, are invited to discover. The passions of the authors. The questions that drive them.  The discoveries they make. The serendipity of story beginnings. Their struggles. Their human qualities that find their way into their books.

It’s a validation for you, writer. You’ll find yourself reflected in an answer to a question or a way of presenting a scene. And you also learn: how to answer questions, how to choose a reading, how to connect with an audience.

Beautiful words sum it up

The evening kicked off with Festival patron, Wayson Choy, giving us a proverbial kick in the pants in typical gentle, encouraging and generous Wayson-style. “Find your truth and share it,” he said, reminding us that we all have “wonderful stories within and every right to tell them.”

If you ever doubt your ability to write a story (and who among us has not felt that doubt many times?) take a dose of Wayson. Write your truth. Listen to the life of writers whenever you get the chance. Read new voices along with the tried-and-true.

It’s all part of the learning journey for a writer at any stage.

DID YOU KNOW

There are so many opportunities to hear writers read their work and be interviewed:

In the fall, the International Festival of Authors is a 10-day offering of writers in Toronto and B.C. has the Vancouver Writers Fest. In several cities, look for the one-day celebration of books and writers at Word on the Street. Do some research and you’ll find authors reading from coast to coast to coast in Canada. From coffee shops to university lecture halls to writer organizations, there are plenty of events that feature authors and their books.

Even if you can’t get out to an author reading locally, you have no excuse to miss out on the experience of listening to writers discuss their work and occasionally read from it. CBC Radio offers up Writers and Company with Eleanor Wachtel and The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers.

 

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