A True Story

A True Story

Ruth E. Walker

Mark Twain said it well: Truth is stranger than fiction. Write on, Mr. Twain. The best fiction feels real, often because it is imparting some kind of truth on human behaviour. But writers have to watch that their desire to “tell the truth” doesn’t push their stories into a place readers can’t accept.

Many a writer has met with this kind of criticism, “That’s not believable. That would never happen in real life.” But, again and again, we writers cry out, “Real life is unbelievable.”

Well sure. Sometimes so unbelievable to some as to put them in harm’s way.

Many didn’t believe certain politicians could ever rise up to achieve power – Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump come to mind here. And many people still don’t believe that COVID-19 is anything more than a flu bug.

Readers are the arbiters of what is an acceptable “unbelievable” and writers must remember that. If you receive that “unbelievable” feedback from editors or beta readers, take a closer look at how you set up what readers can’t seem to swallow.

Consider Germany in the 1920s and ’30s. Many factors were in place to allow Hitler’s hateful spewing to strike a resonant chord with much of the population. Now, consider what is unrealistic in your work. Did you offer any subtle threads early on to support it? Are there scenes where some character or characters doubt the “unbelievable” and give an opportunity for another character to explain? Did you make the illogical logical – making it fit the situation?

Dealing in “the truth” is tricky business for writers. As Mark Twain suggests, it is stranger than fiction.

Fiction becomes truth

My childhood was full of science fiction imaginings: space travel, aliens, robots, other dimensions, time travel. But it was all fiction. Until, that is, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and space travel became believable.

But aliens? Other dimensions? Time travel? Impossible. Imagine the US military ever taking UFO sightings as real…oh wait.

They have? Cool!

Now coined UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon), the strange documented sightings are the subject of a 2021 Pentagon report and investigative interest. The jet pilots and sonar operators were not all nuts after all. The possibilities boggle the mind. Are these elusive sightings alien technology or have foreign governments got some super secret experiments going on? Or are we being visited by our own future via time travelling tourists? “Look Mira. That’s what they called ‘cars’ back then.”

Do you see where I’m going with this? Were your writing wheels turning?

Truth becomes fiction

Strange and unbelievable truths have been an interest of mine for as long as I can remember. Odd, out-of-the-way museums and tourist traps have always offered up great stuff. In St. Petersburg, Florida, a taxidermy display of a two-headed calf was eerily intriguing. In that same over-filled museum – a true labour of love with faded typewriter labels and signage announcing each item – I puzzled over the series of plaster death masks of Beethoven and other famous folk.

All of this clutter cheek to jowl with the “world’s largest collection of seashells in North America.” How could anyone deny it. It was there in black and yellowing white, typed with the energy of righteous truth, right down to the errant “e” that always arrived a pica or two above the other letters.

One day, I’m writing a story about Elmira Everley who sits in a cramped back room, hunched over her old Underwood typewriter, unsticking the “e” key every time she has to use it. And she uses it a lot. Elmira loves Sebastian Kohl who owns this museum and he happily accepts any and all donated items, no matter their supposed provenance or condition…including the Underwood that Hemingway wrote on. Hmmm.

I’m not the only one inspired by real life. There’s been many unbelievable real situations that have found their way into books and movies.

Unbelievable facts

True crime writer Ann Rule wrote “The Stranger Beside Me” after discovering that the serial killer she was tracking turned out to be her friend, Ted Bundy. Imagine her shock to learn the sadistic murderer of at least 30 young women was the “kind” psychology student she worked with at a crisis hotline in 1971.

Life is full of intriguing situations and people. In 1928, Christine Collins reported that her 9-year-old son Walter was missing. Five months later, the Los Angeles police arrived with Walter who they found in Illinois. But Collins said it wasn’t her son. The boy said he was Walter and the police were convinced that he was. The poor mother was considered “hysterical” and ended up in a psychiatric ward for questioning. Eventually evidence connected Walter’s disappearance to a serial killer. This story – or a version of it – became the Clint Eastwood film “The Changeling.”

So many other true-life situations have been recreated in books. Emma Donohue’s novel “Room” finds its real-life roots in the story of Josef Fritzl who chained his own teenaged daughter in his basement for 18 years.

The life of five-year-old Sheru Khan who fell asleep on a train and ended up 1,500 kilometers away. Adopted by an Australian family, the now-adult Saroo Brierley used Google Earth to pinpoint his original home and family from bits of landmark memories he still held. The book “A Long Way Home” became the inspiration for the film, “Lion.”

Some real-life inspiration for you

Imagine attending a funeral for a woman, mourned by her husband and her seven children. She was brutally murdered and her husband is devastated.

But wait.

Who is standing on the sidewalk outside the funeral home? His beloved wife? Unbelievable!

You can bet her husband was truly shocked, especially after she proved not to be a ghost. But his shock wasn’t related to her being alive as much as what happened to the money he’d paid a gang to murder her. They told him they disposed of her body. Yet here she was. Who was in that coffin? What kind of hitmen choose to not murder the wife? What would happen next?

This February 2016 article in The Washington Post caught my eye. You can read all the details if you want.

OR

You can first wake up your muse and head to your creative space and see where this set up of a story takes you. What kind of hit men would take money to murder someone but then not do it? Did she persuade them to stop? Imagine what kinds of “moral codes” were motivating them. And why didn’t she just head straight to the police instead of letting the charade continue? And once again, who the heck was in that coffin?

There are so many threads to pick up without knowing the rest of story. Let’s see what you come up with. Then read the rest of the story. It’s unbelievable.

Thoughts on Writing Memoir

Thoughts on Writing Memoir

A few weeks ago, we ran a guest blog by Heidi Croot called “Is Writing Memoir Worth it?” Heidi gave us many reasons why, for her, it definitely is, and today we are pleased to add to those thoughts with a guest blog from author Ronald Mackay.

Guest blog – Ronald Mackay

My friend and novelist made a provocative remark: “I’ve always considered memoir as the pursuit of self-indulgence, by a writer seeking immortality, for a life insufficiently lived.”

His observation troubled me. I write autobiographical stories. So I had to ask myself: When I write memoir, am I merely wallowing in self-indulgence? Is my writing no more than an attempt to dredge up compensation for an inconsequential life?

His remark has forced me to think, both about why and how I write memoir.

Nostalgia and redemption

In Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Memoir inevitably means reflecting on one’s past. Nostalgia, like laughter, can be infectious. Both responses give us feelings of wellbeing. We enjoy the bitter-sweetness of remembering a cherished person, a place, or event – and the memory tends to be more sweet than bitter.

Nostalgia involves memories that we still hold dear, and those cherished memories are redemptive. And isn’t that redemption much more than mere self-indulgence?

Unresolved significance

While many of my memories are of beloved people or places, some of my most persistent memories are more puzzling than redeeming. These more puzzling memories bear the weight of what I have come to call “unresolved significance”.

Such memories haunt me precisely because they are both, compelling and bewildering. They can be distant in time, or recent. But they lodge uneasily like the filament of a stringy mango between teeth. They persist. They leave me disquieted and perplexed because their significance lies just beyond my reach.

Fortunately, I’ve discovered a way of addressing such unresolved memories.

I respond, annually, to an invitation to write short stories, for Authors Showcase. Guests are invited to respond to a concise, suggestive prompt like: “An inspirational True Story” or “A life changing event” or “A Travel Highlight.” I address that challenge by striving to make sense of one of these persistent memories that, for me, are still replete with “unresolved significance”.

I use reflection and hindsight to figure out and give meaning to the past.

Resolution

“Why,” you may ask, “do I harbour so many puzzling memories?”

Well, for most of my life I’ve lived in foreign cultures, odd places, and in many foreign languages — so, I have almost continuously been puzzled – and, to tell you the truth, I often still am!

Jokingly, I call this process “my therapy” because of the relief that comes from finally arriving at an understanding. I end up experiencing the comfort of a resolution to what had previously troubled me as a mystery.

Now whether I capture the exact truth or not isn’t the point. The point is that writing my way to a resolution helps me better understand some of life’s complexities. Writing memoir, helps bring light and order to my life.

Take my hand

The challenge lies in finding the right words to capture the moral essence of things remembered, and by capturing that moral essence, to uncover their meaning.

Alan Benett says: “The best in reading is when you come across something – a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special to you. It’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

That’s what I try to do when I write memoir, for both my own consolation, and for the gratification of that reader who feels my hand clasp hers.

Meet Ronald Mackay

Ronald Mackay has published two books about working in Tenerife in the early 1960s and an account of his two years behind the Iron Curtain in Ceauşescu’s Romania. By penning personal stories, he rediscovers people he has loved and admired, places he has cherished, and many salient life experiences that have molded his character.

Bedtime Stories

Bedtime Stories

Ruth E. Walker

Lately, I’ve been trying to change my sleeping habits to make room for reading at bedtime. Truth be told, it hasn’t gone as well as I hoped. I used to read before bed almost every night. But now? It’s a struggle.

Much of my working day involves reading as an editor. It’s a demanding task I enjoy and I’m pretty good at it. But it means that by the time I’m ready to hit the hay, my eyes are tired and my brain is fuddled.

Reading for pleasure at bedtime – reading to escape – I keep putting that off, reasoning “tomorrow night for sure.” I tried taking the task down to short fiction. I’ve tried reading on my Kobo. I’ve tried going to bed earlier. Sometimes, it works. But not consistently. And less and less often.

Why does my reading matter?

Reading was what brought me to language in the first place. And I feel a desperate need to find that excitement again. I can still clearly recall my mother’s finger tracking under the dark marks on the page. It was a flash of recognition, of connecting the sounds and words from her voice to those marks. “Look, Mommy. That’s the same one. A. And there’s another one. A. And that says and, right Mommy?” I was three years old.

In that instant, I recognized the power of the secret I uncovered. And soon after, I understood the power those words had to carry me away, open up new worlds and be something that belonged to me. Only to me.

As an adult, reading continued to feed my soul and when I read at bedtime, it seeded my brain with ideas and wild imaginings: the creative side of me.

Beyond the intrinsic value of me reading for my soul, my work as an editor benefits from reading polished, published work. But I must also read widely to be current on genre and discover new ways of putting sentences on the page. And it helps to keep my own voice separate when I edit other writers’ manuscripts. So, of course I read during the day.

Why does your reading matter?

Only you know your relationship with words and those first fledgling steps you took to books and reading. But I can be sure of one thing and if you can think back to those first books, so can you.

The more that you read and understood, the more your brain sparked with curiosity. Our developing brains needed that stimulation. Our imaginations needed to realize they were limitless. Our empathy and compassion needed books and stories to expand our humanity.

All of my 10 grandchildren have great relationships with books. From babies to toddlers to youngsters, books have formed a solid foundation. They pick the books. They enjoy the public libraries. And their parents read to them.

Books, storytelling and nightly bedtime stories are key to a child’s development. But it’s all part of the larger whole. The children’s publisher, Scholastic, shows how physical activities can support reading skills: patterns of clapping, foot stomping and movement help children recognize the rhythms and patterns in stories, for example.

But all that growth and development doesn’t stop with maturity. And I suspect my lack of bedtime reading has something to do with my so-so creativity. I can blame the editing workload, the garden makeover and the distraction of the pandemic all I want, but it’s time to get on with it. Time to get excited by the power of words — my words.

Time for a reading re-set

Last night, I took down from the shelf Frances Itani’s Tell. That novel has been on my shelf for three years, ever since I finished the last pages of her gorgeous novel Deafening. I kept the reading light on and read through the first couple of chapters — engaged and excited to rediscover the people of Deseronto post-WWI. And I put down the book, ready to sleep.

Tonight, I’m picking Tell up again at bedtime. I’m committed to gift myself with the time to read before going to sleep. May it be the first of many great books that will nudge my dreams and wild imaginings.

I’m making time to feed my slumbering soul.

Re-emerging: Pen in Hand

Re-emerging: Pen in Hand

Ruth E. Walker

I don’t know about you, but I suspect most people want to see the back end of COVID as desperately as I do.

My writing has suffered these past few months and I’ve been grateful to this blog for forcing me to engage BIC (bum in chair) and regularly pen some creative words.

But now it seems there is light on the horizon. Cases are way down. Second vaccinations are happening with greater frequency. Restaurants, retail and rec centres are easing back to life. And yeah, the warmth of early summer and longer spans of daylight are tickling our imaginations. My creative self is getting excited – and not just about COVID taking a walk into the sunset.

Just the other day Gwynn and I confirmed that Writescape’s long-delayed 2020 spring retreat was going ahead. Of course, we can’t keep calling our annual retreat Spring Thaw because it’s happening in October. So, we’ve just stuck with Writescape’s Fall Retreat: Re-emerging.

We’re thrilled that almost all the retreat participants who signed up as far back as December 2019 are able to join us this fall.

Reasons to get excited

Fully equipped cottage kitchen at Elmhirts’s Resort

Elmhirst’s Resort confirmed our cottages will be ready, and that all cleaning and safety protocols are constantly updated to meet the local health unit standards and provincial regulations. Elmhirst’s has always gone above and beyond to make our retreats an amazing experience and we’re confident that tradition will continue. Frankly, we expect that by October 15, our annual retreat won’t look too different than our retreats have for more than 10 years previous.

Writing on the deck

We will both still read and review 10 ms pages submitted to us in advance. And we’ll sit down for a one-on-one feedback session with those writers. And we’ll be available for individual consults that can be deep discussions or just bouncing ideas around. We’ll ensure each cottage is stocked with breakfast items so writing in pajamas remains an option. Gwynn and I will deliver group creativity sessions and there’ll be plenty of time for private writing. And lunch and dinner are always prepared so no need to stop to cook when you’re on a roll.

Of course, how some of this happens may be a bit different to ensure a safe space but the vibe we create: escape to focus on your own writing – that won’t change.

Heather M. O’Connor with Betting Game through Orca Books

Our philosophy has always been to curate a space in which writers can escape daily life and immerse in their projects. Over the years, we’ve watched stories, novels, memoirs and non-fiction books take shape and several secured a publishing home.

Writers on retreat find space in which to imagine, start, revise and/or finish their stories. Connections with other writers are made. Characters and plots discovered. Ideas for marketing and publishing tips are shared.

Maighread MacKay’s mystery series

All of that is what excites Gwynn and me. To see it unfold and know that we’ve had an important part in a writer’s journey.

Are you ready to retreat?

We still have room for a few more writers to join us. A $250 deposit guarantees your space. Our brochure outlines our agenda and registration details are on our website.

Aerial view of Elmhirst’s Resort on Rice Lake

Nestled on the shores of Rice Lake, Elmhirst’s Resort’s amenities offer guests many ways to reflect and rejuvenate. Given the past year, I can’t think of a better way to recharge my writing.

We’ve blogged in the past about the joys of writing retreats. One way or another, find a way to treat yourself and escape to write.

10 Signs You Need a Writing Retreat in case you didn’t know you actually needed a retreat. 😊

How to Pack for a Writing Retreat covers some of the things you might not think about bringing along. It’s more than stuff in your suitcase.

10 Peeks into a Writing Retreat shares prompts and tips gleaned from our decade-plus of companion workbooks provided at our retreats.

Of course, once you have gone on retreat Coming Home from Retreat: Reality offers practical and self-care tips when the heady joys of writing on retreat land back to face the daily grind of life.

And finally, Your Anytime Writing Retreat offers ideas and solutions for writers who can’t join us this fall for our Re-emerging retreat. There are ways to curate your own escape.

Last Word

Just a quick reminder that our Summer 21 Poetry Contest deadline draws nigh. Enter your 21-line poem — any form or style — for a chance to win full bragging rights and honours, publication on our blog and a copy of Gwynn’s newest chapbook, Ten of Diamonds.

Rules, regulations and details on our website.

10 Books for kids by Indigenous writers

10 Books for kids by Indigenous writers

Following on from yesterday’s blog on resources for educating ourselves on Indigenous issues and perspectives, here is a list of children’s books and resources to share with the little people in your life. These suggestions came from Ruth’s daughter, Alexis, an Indigenous Studies teacher and an active ally. (It was hard to choose; there are so many wonderful titles out there. This is just a start.)


1.  Fatty Legs –  Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, an inspiring memoir of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s time in residential school.

2. When I was Eight – Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, this book is written to make Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s memoir accessible for younger readers.

3.  The Water Walker – Joanne Robertson, a magical book that introduces children to how they can change the world by caring about our water. From Second Story Press, the book is available in a dual-language (Anishinaabemowin/Ojibwe and English) edition.

4. As Long as the River Flows – Larry Loyie (Oskiniko) and Constance Brissenden. A sensitive and evocative story of a Cree family’s last summer together before Larry (an award-winning author and playwright) was taken to residential school.

5.  I am not a Number – Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer. Beautifully illustrated, the story follows 8-year-old Irene at residential school. On her return home, her parents decide she and her brothers will not go back. From Second Story Press, the book is also in a dual-language edition (Nishnaabemwin (Ojibwe) Nbisiing dialect – English)

6. When We Were Alone – David A. Robertson. Robertson, a Swampy Cree author and graphic novelist wrote this book in response to the Truth and Reconciliation call to action for more curriculum resources. He saw a big gap for younger readers and wrote a beautiful story about strength and empowerment even when everything is taken away.

7. Bear For Breakfast / Makwa kidji kijebià wìsinyàn – Robert Munsch and Jay Odjick. Donovan wants to catch a bear for breakfast — but what does the bear want? Expect the unexpected from Robert Munsch and when he teams up with artist, writer and television producer from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabe community, Jay Odjick, the images are kid-appealing. Scholastic publishes this title in English and Algonquin dual languages.

8. & 9. Shi-shi-etko and Shin-chi’s Canoe – Nicola I. Campbell- (these two are by far Alexis’ favourites, and they go together. A rendition of Shi-shi-etko  via film gives her goosebumps whenever she watches it.) To quote the first book: “Can you imagine a community without children? Can you imagine children without parents?”

10. Baseball Bats for Christmas – Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak. When a bunch of spindly trees are dropped off in Repulse Bay 1955 (present-day Naujaat, Nunavut) the kids aren’t sure what to do with these “sticking up” things. But then…

We know it’s 10 on the 10th, but we couldn’t help ourselves. We wanted to include these resources, too:

Illustration by Jeff Lemire

Secret Path – Songs by Gord Downie, illustrations by Jeff Lemire. Inspired by the tragic story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack’s 1966 journey home from residential school, the late Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip wrote 10 poems from Chaney’s perspective. Downie collaborated with music producers Kevin Drew and Dave Hamelin, and acclaimed graphic novelist and comic creator, Jeff Lemire, resulting in an award-winning 10-song album and an 88-page graphic novel by Lemire, both of which inspired The Secret Path, a television documentary. In the video, Downie’s words and Lemire’s illustrations bring to life Chanie Wenjack’s story along with many others who tried so hard to get home.

From the Royal Ontario Museum’s Indigenous Voices program, the ROM-at-Home series offers young people activities and insights into indigenous cultures in a fun and engaging video session:

Angels: 215

Angels: 215

Gwynn Scheltema

Today’s blog title is a small echo of the beautiful, sad poem written by Louise B. Halfe-Sky Dancer, our present Parliamentary Poet Laureate, on June 3, in the wake of the terrible findings in Kamloops BC in recent days, titled: Angels: 215 >, 1820 – 1979; “The Past is Always Our Present”

She ends her poem with these lines:

It is time to release 
This storm
That consumes all this nation.
Awasis, this spirit-light, these angels
Dance in the flame.
The bones
Will share their stories.
Listen. Act.
These children are ours.
Could be……………Yours.

Her poem brings sorrow and reflection to all of us, but it is her call to “Listen.” and “Act.” that speak to me. How do we listen?

We seek out the stories that are being told, and no matter how difficult, we hear them in all their sad detail. It’s time to face the truth; to educate ourselves and to respond accordingly.

Honour and remember

If you are saddened by the unmarked graves of 215 children found at Kamloops, realize first that this horror is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. A visit to the Memorial Register of thousands of actual names of lost children at the website of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation brings home the enormity of this tragedy. Sadly, this list is not yet complete. More children still need to be found. But as NCTR says, “This register represents a starting place on our collective journey of honouring and remembering the children lost to the Residential Schools.”

Listen. Act.

TRC Report

A good place to start listening is with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report. The Commission issued its final report on residential schools more than six years ago. Have you read it yet?


Historical photo of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, once the largest facility in the Canadian Indian Residential School system. Already known to have been the site of 51 student deaths, recent radar surveys have found evidence of 215 unmarked graves. PHOTO BY NATIONAL CENTRE FOR TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION

This report details the harsh mistreatment inflicted on Indigenous children at residential schools. Perhaps start with the section “Survivors Speak”. The stories here are not fiction; the stories here are not creative non-fiction; the stories here are the true oral stories from the people who experienced things firsthand. Honour that. Read them.

And then read the “Calls to Action”

Treaties and Land Agreements

For my province, Ontario, more than 40 treaties and other land agreements exist. These legal agreements set out the rights and responsibilities of First Nations and the provincial and federal governments.

The Ontario Provincial Government website offers information about these treaties, including some images and transcripts and maps. It is interesting to note that it also gives this disclaimer “Please note that this map has some limitations and is one of many ways to learn about treaties. Indigenous communities may have different understandings of the treaties than is represented here.”

So, perhaps watch these videos for that different perspective: Indigenous voices on treaties where Indigenous speakers share their knowledge about the importance of treaties, treaty relationships and rights in Ontario.

Indigenous Canada – Free course

One way to better understand treaties and the Indigenous perspective, is to sign up for this free 12-week Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) course from University of Alberta’s  Faculty of Native Studies. “Indigenous Canada” explores key issues facing Indigenous peoples today from an historical and critical perspective.

The course is designed for those who know little about these issues and want to know more. Topics covered include: The fur trade and other exchange relationships, land claims and environmental impacts, legal systems and rights, political conflicts and alliances, Indigenous political activism, and contemporary Indigenous life, art and its expressions.

Read Indigenous Literature

As writers, we all recognize the power of story. Give voice to that power by reading Indigenous authors. I cannot begin to give you an exhaustive list of books and story and poetry collections, but I can help with these links:

Other Media

If you prefer to listen rather than read, I’d recommend CBC Radio One’s weekly documentary program “Unreserved” that interviews and profiles prominent Indigenous people in Canada.

First Contact on TVO Season 1 is also an enlightening series. Six Canadians, all with stereotypical opinions about Indigenous Peoples, go on a 28-day journey exploring Indigenous Canada, challenging their perceptions and confronting their prejudices about a world they never imagined.

This great online exhibit through the National History Museum in Ottawa promotes oral stories, as well as the Creation Story:

And of course, what would our current lives be like without Zoom and Facebook seminars? Coming up Friday June 18 is a round table discussion on Indigenous Literature presented by Saskatchewan Ânskohk Writers’ Circle Inc. (SAWCI), in partnership with USask. They also have a great line-up for the fall.

Is Writing Memoir Worth It?

Is Writing Memoir Worth It?

Guest blogger – Heidi Croot

You’ve just shipped your memoir to a professional editor. The release feels like death and rebirth all at once. While you wait, breathless, for feedback, someone asks, How did writing your memoir affect you emotionally? And a follow-up question: Was it a worthwhile journey?

Wait a minute, you think. The second question implies that the answer to the first might sound something like, “It emotionally crushed me.” Because that’s what many people believe, right? That doing a deep dive into a painful past means wallowing in grief?

Here’s how I answered those questions when they were put to me during a radio interview with Northumberland 89.7FM’s Word on the Hills in mid-May, mere days after my manuscript dropped anchor in my editor’s inbox.

A worthwhile journey?

Last question first: Was writing your memoir a worthwhile journey? A thousand times yes. And, why?  Because of how it affected me emotionally.

Writing my memoir, Hope is a Tyrant, bordered on magic. It was a process of discovery. A woodland trail of surprises. A delivery into the ready arms of acceptance and healing. 

I’ve written my way into seeing people differently, important people, like my mother, for example, whose legs were paralyzed by polio when she was eight. Writing helped me understand that the biggest lie in our family was she had taken her disability in stride. She had not. How could she? Polio was far too big. She wore the mask her father, medical staff and a harsh world handed to her.

I’ve written my way into understanding mysterious undercurrents in my family, such as what was behind my mother’s obsession with her charismatic father—her mainstay and intellectual companion during years of loneliness at home and in hospital. I realized through writing that fantasizing about him made her feel special, and therefore worth the burden she had been forced to place on her family, and this helped her banish shame.

To my chagrin, I’ve also written my way into learning a few things about myself. Naïve, brimming with blind, stubborn hope, lacking boundaries, I failed many times to see different paths I could have taken to dial down family drama.

“My” story became “a” story

But the best part about writing memoir is how it eventually stopped being “my” story and became “a” story. In Wallace Stegner’s The Spectator Bird, a clairvoyant suggests that painful memories should be looked upon as part of a narrative, like chapters. Reframing painful events as scenes allowed me to exchange subjectivity for objectivity. Prick the bubble of my self-importance. Reduce the event to realistic, if not amusing, proportions. “Stories,” says the clairvoyant, “are part of the accumulation you think will tell you something.”

Acceptance and equilibrium

What memoir told me is that some relationships cannot be fixed. It told me how to accept this. How to be forgiving, empathetic, and less judgmental. How to find my equilibrium.

Turning in my manuscript to my editor has unmoored me, with maybe a little grief mixed in. For years, working on the memoir had kept my imperfect self linked to my imperfect parents, and perhaps to hope, which—if I’m right about hope being a tyrant—makes no sense, but that’s another thing I learned: I can live with paradox and imperfect endings.

And that will be true even if the imperfect ending to my memoir-experiment means a stern call to action from my editor: the inevitable, yet welcome, shuffle, delete, clarify, go deeper. Familiar pages in need of edits will beckon like old friends, eager to shepherd me through new portals to unexplored places, where still more epiphanies wait.

It will be worth it

All of which takes us back to the beginning: Seize every opportunity to write your life stories. The experience will affect you emotionally. It will be worth it.

Meet Heidi Croot

Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County and is working on a memoir. Her corporate writing has appeared in numerous trade publications, and her creative work in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Writescape, Brevity, Linea magazine, the WCDR anthology, Renaissance, and elsewhere.

Take yourself on a date

Take yourself on a date

Gwynn Scheltema

When I read Julia Cameron’s seminal book The Artists’s Way, she introduced me to the concept of an Artist’s Date: a block of time set aside to nurture your creative inner artist.

This is how Julia Cameron describes it:

The Artist Date is a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore something that interests you. The Artist Date need not be overtly “artistic” — think mischief more than mastery. Artist Dates fire up the imagination. They spark whimsy. They encourage play. Since art is about the play of ideas, they feed our creative work by replenishing our inner well of images and inspiration. When choosing an Artist Date, it is good to ask yourself, “what sounds fun?” — and then allow yourself to try it.

Different times

In normal times, Artist Dates were small adventures pursued by yourself outside your normal environment: poking around in a thrift shop, visiting a museum or art gallery, or trying a new restaurant. COVID has changed our choices, but definitely not eliminated them. You just have to be imaginative and remember what is at the core: fun; new to you; sensory and solo.

Because our creative brain is a sensory brain, anything that stimulates the senses or fires up the imagination will work.  Have an adventure; push yourself out of your comfort zone. We all accept play is crucial for a child’s development, it is also beneficial for adults. Play can add joy to life, relieve stress, supercharge learning, and connect you to others and the world around you. Play can also make work more productive and pleasurable.

As a writer, be mindful and consider how you might describe what you experience in words. Notice physical details and the emotions that stir within you. Make notes of your discoveries to use later.

Listen and move

Try listening to music you don’t usually listen to or you’ve never listened to before. A new instrument, a new singer, a new cultural sound. a podcast that seems “too frivolous”. Spotify is your friend.

Or go down memory lane. Dig out old CDs that haven’t seen the light of day since your youth. Go online and find songs of a particular decade. Create a playlist of old favourites. Listen to your parents’ era music, or your children’s or your character’s.

Dance like no one’s watching. Sing like no one’s listening. Whistle.

Take a walk or a hike in a new place and listen for as many sounds as you can: birds, falling water, rustling leaves, chattering squirrels—or clang of garbage cans being collected, sirens, traffic, people, dogs…

Do something that involves physical movement that you’ve never tried or haven’t done in years: jump rope, whirl like a dervish, dig out the old hula hoop, do a new yoga sequence, balance-walk along a raised structure, make snow angels, go tobogganing, hug a tree.

Make something

Try a new dinner recipe, make a favourite soup from scratch, or bake bread. Get really adventurous and make yogurt or sauerkraut or preserves.

Attempt a simple carpentry project, try beading or macramé. Join an online paint night.

Play with LEGO or play dough or wax crayons. Make a blanket fort and read a book in it. How does that feel? Silly? Good!

Colour some pictures. What memories does that bring up?

Make a vision board, or an inspiration board, or a collage of the way you feel today. Try a craft, not because it has purpose, but because it’s fun.

Treat yourself

Do something, anything, that is usually considered a waste of time or an indulgence: lie on your back and watch clouds; take a bath with scented candles or scented soaps or exploding bath bombs or bubbles; re-read a favourite children’s book.

Pop open your favourite beverage or drink that third coffee without guilt. Mindfully cream your hands and feet or experiment with new hairstyles. Dress up in your favourite colour—all over, all in—just for a day. Dress down in your most favourite rattiest outfit with no judgement. Purge your closet. Guys, don’t bother shaving for the day.

Binge watch a new TV series or a movie you’ve been meaning to watch. Watch a movie you want to watch that you wouldn’t admit to anyone you wanted to watch it.

Have a tech-free afternoon. Sleep in a hammock. Snoop on virtual house tours on the real estate sites. Eat a whole bar of chocolate.

Expand your mind

Sign up for a course in a new genre or poetry or stamp collecting or genealogy. Randomly follow a writer in another genre on Twitter and engage to learn new perspectives, or join a group on Facebook that is totally new to you, like astronomy.

Make a list of 100 things that make you happy. Start a journal of the 50 things you want your grandchildren to know about you. Write a bucket list and illustrate it or scrapbook it.

Take virtual museum tours, watch virtual opera or ballet. Use apps to walk the Camino or Cabot’s trail.

Last words

Artist’s dates break the routine and unlock creativity and optimism. In these times they can give us a sense of fun to help fight the confinement many of us may be feeling. I did a quick count, and I’ve listed over 50 things you could try. You could no doubt come up with 50 more.

Artist Dates are not high art. They are meant to be fun. Ask yourself, “What sounds playful? What does my inner child want to do? What am I drawn to that others might label a waste of time, too silly, too frivolous?” Try doing that.

These three greats say it best:

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Albert Einstein

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” George Bernard Shaw

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” Carl Jung

Rearranging The Bookshelf

Rearranging The Bookshelf

Ruth E. Walker

A recent exchange of ideas on Facebook in a writers’ group page caught my interest. In short, a post from a writer was asking other writers if they felt “pressured” into including “LGBTQ” and “mixed race” characters into their stories.

The writer went on to suggest that the immensely popular (and rather sexy) Bridgerton series on Netflix was an example of political correctness because, despite being set in 1815 England, it included persons of colour among the aristocracy and upper classes. Oh my.

For me, it was a bit of head-scratcher. Casting on Bridgerton is, among other things, meant to challenge viewers to rethink history and imagine what might have been. It was a delightful binge watch and, frankly, it didn’t take too long for me to absorb the fiction of the tale and just sit back and enjoy the story.

No pressure here

I don’t feel pressured to include characters of colour or of indigenous heritage or those who are LGTBQIA2S+ any more than I feel pressured to write in a particular genre or narrative tense. I write the stories I’m meant to write with the characters who show up.

And isn’t that the role of fiction? To entertain, yes. But also to hold up the mirror and see us as we are? And what better way to remind us what we have lost over the years of separation and “difference” versus inclusion and shared visions? Bridgerton was refreshing.

I do know that books by marginalized authors are sorely underrepresented on mainstream bookshelves. So it makes sense to me that, as an understanding of an underserved market dawns on agents, publishers and booksellers, the demand for those books will increase. Rightly so.

But they are not books being written for any underrepresented groups. They are for everyone. Remember that those books will show us who we are. Those writers will hold up the mirror for us to see ourselves — ALL of us who make up our country. High-quality books will arrive on the bookshelves, some will be made into films or inspire television programs or win prestigious literary prizes. But more importantly, they will be read by a diverse, engaged audience.

It’s Black History Month in Canada

Black History Month in Canada was proclaimed nationally in December 1995, when the House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month. There’s more than a proclamation needed to create understanding. But it was part of a journey we’re all still on and there’s lots to learn.

For example, this week I learned that the church that Harriet Tubman attended in St. Catharines, Ontario, while tirelessly rescuing others through the Underground Railroad, still stands. The Salem Chapel counted Harriet “Moses” Tubman as a congregant from 1851 to 1862, at which point she returned to the United States.

According to the the church’s website: the majority of her clandestine Underground Railroad rescue missions started and ended in this British Canadian town. In 1868, when asked where and why she guided the freedom seekers, Harriet Tubman said, “I would’t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer; I brought them all clear off to Canada.”

Want to learn more about Harriet Tubman? Cornell University features a selection of several biographies. She may soon appear on the US $20 bill, but this courageous woman left a lasting influence on Canada and our history. And I, for one, didn’t even know that much. Clearly, I need to expand my reading choices.

Back to writing

So what does diversity in publication mean for non-marginalized writers? You must still craft the stories you are inspired to write. But it’s time for the majority of us to make room for those who have had fewer opportunities to have their words heard.

And if you want to expand your reading library, check out 49th Shelf online, a curated resource of Canadian books with a wide range of categories to choose from. From diversity and inclusion in Young Adult to African-American fiction, 49th Shelf is open for readers to discover a treasure trove of homegrown writers.

Moving Foward

Moving Foward

Guest blogger – Christopher Cameron

“I write for the same reasons I run: not for expiation but for exaltation; not to pull myself up from the depths, but to fly higher. I cherish the whole endless, chaotic process of writing, from first spark of inspiration to final revision.”

So says author and editor, Christopher Cameron on his website, and today, with permission, we repost his blog about running that originally appeared on January 1, 2021 on the Northumberland Festival of the Arts blog  A Journal in Time of Pandemic and Lockdown.

Moving Forward

Some runners wear headphones and listen to music or audiobooks, but I love hearing the sound of my shoes hitting the road as I run through the hills of Northumberland. Different sounds for different roads: pat-pat on pavement; critch-critch on gravel; and a kind of a wash-wash on dirt roads.

It isn’t unusual for me to run for several hours, and some people are amazed that I actually enjoy this. My reward is the peaceful contentment that comes from moving myself forward from one place to another under my own power. In the years since I moved to Meyers Island, south of Campbellford, I’ve run all of these pathways countless times, and most are as familiar to me as my own driveway.

Yet somehow, each run is slightly different, each path finds something new to throw in my way, and it is those differences that keep me guessing and engaged. Every step forward adds to my knowledge and experience for the next time.

You don’t have to go out and run for hours to know that some things are hard. Home-schooling children is hard; trying to run a storefront retail business is hard; isolating yourself from loved ones is hard. They were hard during what people are calling the “before-time.” They’ve been even harder this year. There have been more hills to climb, more trees fallen across the path.

People seem to like lamenting the loss of the good old days, and everybody is looking forward to a return to normalcy. Some on social media have been billing 2021 as some kind Elysian fields, where we can all go back to the wonderful life we led before the bad old days of 2020.

It reminds me of a Facebook group I followed for a while: a lot of people wondered why life couldn’t be like it once was, when ice cream was only five cents. I suspect that if Facebook had been around back when it “once was,” there would have been a group wondering why life couldn’t be like it was when ice cream was only one cent.

There were no good old days, unless you count Carly Simon’s maxim that they are happening today. There are just days, one after another, like steps along a path. We move forward, by running, walking, wheeling, or simply by living. We clear the hurdles any way we can and we keep going. When needed, we stop to help a fellow traveller along.

I think we should congratulate ourselves at the end of this year. It’s good to see how far we’ve come and to collate what we’ve learned so we can use it on the road ahead.

I used to have a mantra I repeated in the tough parts of a very long endurance event, when the night had settled over me and all my energy was gone: I’m alive and I’m moving forward. As long as these two things are true, nothing else can stop us.

It’s probable that 2021 will throw stuff at us we can’t even imagine yet. As the late Gilda Radner reminded us, “It’s always something.” Who knows? Maybe someday we will look back on 2020 and sigh wistfully, remembering when all we had to do was wear a mask. But we will have our experience, our vision, and our humanity to help us navigate our way home.

And isn’t it marvellous that we still have ice cream?

Meet Chris

Christopher Cameron enjoyed a long and successful career as a professional opera singer, performing on opera and concert stages across Canada. In 2009, he began a career as a freelance writer and certified copy editor.

His first book, a witty, irreverent memoir of his singing years, Dr. Bartolo’s Umbrella and Other Tales from my Surprising Operatic Life (Seraphim Editions), was published in 2017.

Chris lived in Toronto for most of his life until he and his wife Karen relocated to the banks of the Trent River in Campbellford in June 2017. Chris is also an ultramarathon runner, long-distance cyclist, and seven-time Ironman triathlon finisher. He blogs about reading, writing, and athletics on his website.