Write Beyond the Boundaries

Write Beyond the Boundaries

Ruth E. Walker.

Earlier this month, I attended a cottage-country film festival in the Village of Haliburton, catching the last three of five films on offer. There were no red carpets, no star-studded galas.  And the sole  “paparazzo” was equipped with a nifty cell phone. Nonetheless, it was a life-changing moment for this writer. I gained a deeper understanding of three vital pieces of any creative enterprise.









But first some background

Doc(k) Day is a documentary film festival, organized by THOSE OTHER MOVIES Haliburton, a non-profit organization run by volunteers. It’s part of the Film Circuit, a division of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and has brought some fabulous festival films to the Haliburton Highlands.

I love TIFF and attend one screening a year in Toronto with my friend Heidi. A film festival with Heidi is often an adventure, so much so that I blogged about it on my own website. There was a bit less excitement at Doc(k) Day, but no less a moving experience.

The three documentaries I managed to attend were excellent. Directed by Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais, and created and narrated by Lawrence Gunther, What Lies Below is a remarkable film about the interconnectedness of the world’s waterways and how so many of us are blind to what is happening to an ecosystem we can’t see. All the more moving when you learn that documentarian Gunther has been blind since childhood.

Garry Beitel’s In Pursuit of Peace explores the world of peacekeeping in the 21st century and how Canadians are still filling that role despite our political shift to combatants instead of peacekeepers. It’s an excellent, and often daunting, glimpse into the challenges of conflict resolution in our fractured world. Nonetheless, I was left feeling optimistic.

Perspective.  Perception.  Persistence.

Cameraperson from Kirsten Johnson, renowned documentary filmmaker and cinematographer (Citizenfour, Fahrenheit 9/11) was in a class unto its own. Breaking boundaries of documentary film-making, Johnson gives the audience access to a kind of filmic memoir. From her personal catalogue of outtakes, side projects and shot set-ups, she marries highly personal film sequences with scenes in post-Serbian-war Bosnia, a day-in-the-life of a Nigerian midwife, a Brooklyn boxing match and several other fascinating snippets of people, places and events.

At first, we never rest long in any one place, and it is a challenge to make connections between the disparate scenes. But eventually, the struggle lessens as the camera’s eye guides us to understanding. We return to familiar scenes and people, hear their words, learn their fears, comprehend their circumstances. And the energy of the whole begins to take shape.

At least, it did for me. Judging by the audience reception, the film moved many others to new perspectives. But we had to slow down our process. We needed to allow our perception to make room for different, for strange, for fresh. And we had to be persistent in giving the film time to take us there.

A writer can learn from film

Here is where the writer in me was doing an internal dance for joy. What if I took that same approach with the book I plan to start writing this summer? Slow down the process. Make room for different ways to explore and take in the research. Allow “strange and fresh” room to take hold of my imagination. Be persistent in this slow-cooking process of inspiration. Let the shape of the thing that I will eventually write find its own way into my mind.

I’m used to chasing after my ideas. To following my characters on their journeys. To setting out with a question as my launch pad. Instead, I’m going to let the question come to me. Maybe it won’t even be a question. Maybe it will be something I’ll perceive for the first time. Some new perspective on an old idea. Or a persistent voice whispering in my ear.

Disparate scenes from the past might mingle with today. Like Kirsten Johnson, maybe I’ll find a new way of storytelling. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, let me know if a film has ever spoken to you as a writer the way Cameraperson did for me.


Our website holds an archive of all our blog posts. You’ll find useful tips, interesting insights and practical advice from the Writescape Team and a few guest bloggers. And don’t forget to visit our retreats and workshops section to discover what’s coming up with Writescape. You’re always welcome to Escape to write with Writescape.

Permission To Write, Ma’am? Granted!

Permission To Write, Ma’am? Granted!

20160606_091236Imagine a sprawling kids’ camp tucked into 60+ acres of hills and trees edging a clear lake. This Ontario cottage-country paradise has everything a kid could want.

Water sports. Mountain bikes. Pine cabins. Sports fields.

Pottery studio. Dance studio with a sprung floor. Professional performance theatre.

Pottery? Dance? Performance? At a kids’ camp?

You betcha. For decades, the Durham District School Board has transformed Camp White Pine into the Durham Integrated Arts Camp (DIAC). Like magic, the arts-focused Haliburton summer camp becomes an annual arts fest for Durham Region students and this year, 350 teens soaked it all in.

Senior and junior concert bands. Jazz bands. Ensembles. Songwriting. Drumming. Dancing and movement. Music theatre. Black light theatre. Improv.

Drawing. Painting. Pottery. Printmaking. Textile arts. Sculpture…

And creative writing.

Liberated voices

I’ve recently returned home from teaching Creative Words, an elective program for the Grades 7 to 12 students at DIAC. I had 35 students spread over 3 classes. It was spectacular, challenging, surprising and gratifying.

On day one, I told them “Creative Words is not about spelling. It’s not about grammar. It’s about your words, your way.” I don’t think they believed me at first but it didn’t take long for them to discover the joy of freefall writing, the depth that writing gets to when you use all five senses, and the value of “owning your words.”

I led the class in much the same way as I facilitate my adult workshops. The students were surprised when I said “no censorship” but then I reminded them that they still must respect each other and the words on the page. Every word has to be there for a reason, not just shock value.

By mid-week, students were clamouring for “more freefall” and willingly trying whatever crazy exercise I had them experiment with. I knew things were going to be okay when students charged into the studio declaring “I love this class!” And frankly, so did I.

“Trying on” words

Creative Words students used their own work in their culminating project, aptly called “Wear Your Words.” Selecting an excerpt from a piece they created — poems, stories, anthems– they wrote them on T-shirts. Some students had just a few words. A couple had pages’ worth of words. Several added images. And some chose to let their words stand alone. At the week’s-end celebration, a few bravely read their work in front of other campers, and three participated in a poetry slam. Most of the students wore their T-shirts to the celebration, and so did I.


I was immensely proud of my Creative Words students. All of them took risks. All of them wrote every day.

There were a few tears as we wrapped up. Some of those tears were mine because it is really an honour to be among young people who are exploring their narrative voice. For most of them, my workshop was the first time they had feedback from a professional writer. It’s an intense few days of exploration, discovery and acceptance. But encouraged to express their words, their way, they found their voice.

I didn’t discover my narrative voice until I was nearly 40. So I’m happy these young writers didn’t have to wait that long.

School with a difference 

DIAC-2016DIAC is a temporary school, complete with a principal, administrative staff and teachers. Granted, some of the teachers are on mountain bikes or in canoes, and some of us (me, for example) are guest instructors without teaching degrees, but it is school nonetheless. We take attendance. We have rules. But we also have fun. Best of all, we encourage students to explore their creative selves, to see themselves and the world in relation to arts and culture. And to celebrate all that it means. Because, after all, to an artist at heart, it means a lot.