2017 Archives

From the Archives: Five Tips for Memoir Writers by award-winning author Lawrence Hill


Lawrence Hill is the author of ten books including the novels The Book of Negroes and The Illegal, and the non-fiction books  Blood: the Stuff of Life, and Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn your Book: An Anatomy of a Book Burning. He is a winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, and both CBC Radio’s Canada Reads and Radio-Canada’s Combat des livres. Lawrence is also a professor of creative writing, College of Arts, University of Guelph.

When I spoke to the author of the memoir Black Berry, Sweet Juice in 2008 and asked him what tips he had for aspiring memoirists, he shared the following. His advice is as relevant and wise today as it was 10 years ago.


Come to terms with what you are prepared to write, and what you are NOT prepared to write. Writing a memoir honestly will likely make the people close to you squirm, object, or feel offended for reasons justifiable or otherwise. Defining your territory and deciding its boundaries will be an important part of your work as a memoirist, although you may not have final answers until you have written a draft or two.


Juggle this paradox: the things that are most intimate and uncomfortable for you as a memoirist — the very revelations that make you feel the most vulnerable and exposed — are likely to be among the most engaging sections for the reader.


It may be a memoir, but write it like a novel. Scenes have to lift off the ground, and characters have to step off the page. Many of the elements that make for compelling fiction should also be present in strong memoirs: drama, conflict, uncertainty, bold characterization, vivid scenes, and pertinent and lively description of people and things. Generally speaking, showing a scene unfolding step by step engages your reader more immediately than editorializing or telling the reader things from a narrative distance.


Prepare to write adventurously and critically about yourself and to be open to learning something about yourself as you set your life down on paper. Treat yourself as a character — make yourself interesting on the page. Avoid using the memoir as a soapbox. Placing yourself in a strictly noble light and lambasting your adversaries will alienate you from the reader. Write without judgment. Allow readers to draw their own conclusions.


There may be sections of your life that mean much to you but that bore the reader. Share your work in early draft form with a trusted reader. “Trusted” doesn’t necessarily mean “intimate friend.” What you truly need is a friend or acquaintance who can step away from your actual life and tell you what sings and what seems uninteresting in your memoir. Receiving such advice from one (or more) people may help guide you toward more effective drafts.


For more, visit the author’s website, www.lawrencehill.com.


Copyright 2008 Lawrence Hill, for Allyson Latta.

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

Writer Sandra Shaw Homer, at Home in Costa Rica, Interviewed on VoicePenPurpose


Sandra Shaw Homer at the bow of the HS Schubert, North Atlantic


Writer Sandra Shaw Homer, whom many of my students and retreat participants know of by now, was recently interviewed by writing coach Amy Brooks for the VoicePenPurpose postcast series. In Episode 37, Amy chats with Sandra about the life experiences that have fuelled her fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, including her travel memoir Letters from the Pacific: 49 Days on a Cargo Ship (read the Kirkus review here).

Born in the U.S., Sandra has now lived for 27 years near Lake Arenal in Costa Rica’s spectacular northern highlands. One of the hardest working writers I know, she is published regularly in journals, both print and online. Most recently, her poem “Holding” appeared in Junto Magazine.

She was a guest speaker at my writers’ retreat near Playa Herradura, Costa Rica, in 2012, and a co-host for my retreat at Mystica Lodge & Retreats on Lake Arenal in 2015. Several of her published stories evolved from prompts during these retreats or from my website. (So if you still believe prompts are “just” exercises, banish that thought!)

In an email to me, Sandra talked about her process, and I asked her permission to share this advice:

“I think it’s really important to tell aspiring writers that they just have to keep plugging away. The [first] Junto acceptance was my fifth try with that piece.  My practice is to submit elsewhere the very day a rejection comes in.”

Sandra is currently seeking a publisher for her beautiful memoir Evelio’s Garden: The Short History of an Organic Garden in Costa Rica, and she blogs at www.writingfromtheheart.net.


Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

Season’s Greetings! Wordless Wednesday: December 27, 2017


©2017 Allyson Latta


Scroll through more of my photos here.

And these writer-photographer friends, from British Columbia to Newfoundland, have word-less but thought-ful posts to share: Read the rest of this entry »

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

Everyone Has a Story; Or, Five Things I Learned on a Writers’ Retreat in Italy

By Dale Synnett-Caron


Chiavari retreat writers hamming it up for a tableau on the sun-dappled terrace of Hotel Santa Maria (photo by Rick Brazeau, front centre)


If you’ve ever considered attending an overseas travel retreat that focuses on the craft of writing, here’s my advice: Just do it! 

Having participated in three writing retreats organized by editor and writing instructor Allyson Latta — two in Grenada and one in Italy — I can tell you that these creative adventures rock, whatever your genre, skill level, or writing style. A love of writing and commitment to exploring the world through words is the only real prerequisite.

Envision spending time in an exotic setting with fellow aficionados of the pen, savouring words and indulging in writing as a process of discovery. All this away from the energy-absorbing routines of your day job or home life. This instructional retreat included both skills-building and fear-facing (reading your personal work to others!), but there was also time for exploring, making new friends, laughter, and just kicking back and indulging in great regional food and wine.

Chiavari seaside promenade

The Italian Riviera Writing & Photography Retreat took place in the picturesque seaside town of Chiavari, Italy. This year Allyson teamed up with photographer Rick Brazeau, delivering an eight-day itinerary at Hotel Santa Maria — a real “home away from home,” everyone agreed. The chef and staff of the wonderful onsite Ristorante La Caracca served us delicious four-course evening meals, as well as a special lost-count-of-the-courses dinner on our last night.

Twelve of us took part in lively morning writing and photo workshops, helpful individual consults with Allyson on works-in-progress, and late-afternoon reading salons, an opportunity to read a piece of writing to the group and receive gentle feedback. British Columbia writer Deborah Vail, one of Allyson’s editing clients, happened to be in Lyons, and she drove five hours to join us to talk about her writing background and read from her recently completed novel manuscript Fault Line.

The program also allowed us free time between late morning and late afternoon to spread our wings, alone or in smaller groups — sightseeing, discovering the best lunch spots, writing, snapping photos, and soaking in Italian culture. Our final gatherings featured a showing of “best photos,” a reading salon focusing on flash stories, and, last but not least, the screening of an impromptu video collaboration between writer Catherine Malvern, and Karen Matthews of Edmonton, co-founder of Weasel Tale digital storytelling.

Group excursions included a Golden Hour Photowalk with Rick, a browse through Chiavari’s sprawling weekly town market, a short train trip to the quaint villages of Cinque Terre, and a ferry ride to the picturesque harbour of Portofino.

Here are the top five things, among so many, that I learned during the Italian Riviera Writing & Photography Retreat:

1. Everyone has a story to tell, in their own way.

Some writers have the gift of humour; others are masters of imagery. Still others are good at creating believable dialogue, which helps readers connect with their characters. Hearing and thinking about what other writers have to say — and how they say it — can encourage you to experiment with your own stories and deepen your skills.

2. Never apologize for your writing.

It’s an expression of your experience on this earth, your imagination. Develop grit. Be bold with what comes through your pen; a first draft can always be polished. You may write something and think, Whoa, where did that come from? Explore the bewilderment, as more than one writer has advised. Gems may be hidden there.

3. Be kind to yourself.

On retreat, you will no doubt encounter fellow participants who are at different places with their writing. In Italy, some had already published blog posts, stories, articles, or even novels, while others were just starting out. Comparing where you are in your writing craft with others is as pointless as comparing investment portfolios. Learn from others, but embrace your own style. What you write is an expression of your frame of reference, your imagination, your truth.

4. Your camera too has a story to tell, so let it speak!

Discover a new world when you take your camera off Auto and play with ISO, F-stop, and shutter speed to enhance your images. Absorbing a few basic principles will help you to take a better picture. Like the Rule of Thirds, which identifies the strongest focal points within an image, or the Golden Hours, the first and last hours of sunlight in the day, which lend a magical light to your pics.

5. Be open to trying new things.

This applies not only to your writing and photography but also to your experience while travelling. Immerse yourself. In Chiavari we took long walks along the seaside promenade; wandered the town, discovering medieval architecture, unique shops, and a beautiful botanical garden; and met friendly locals. (One of Rick’s photo assignments was to approach a stranger and ask to take their photo — which resulted in several memorable encounters — mostly positive!) And the group never grew tired of the delights of Aperol spritz — the most commonly enjoyed aperitif in northeastern Italy — and aperitivo, the cordial tradition of a drink and light meal of cheeses, crudités, and bread at the end of the day as a warm-up to dinner. Best appreciated on a sunny patio!

As for the writing, I returned from Italy with renewed enthusiasm, a full notebook, helpful tips, and workable ideas for several new projects. Attending this retreat was an opportunity to share my work and learn from Allyson, Rick and fellow writers, feed my creative soul, and, best of all, make lasting memories. I have the stories and photographs to prove it.


Monterosso, Cinque Terre


♦     ♦     ♦

Dale Synnett-Caron

DALE SYNNETT-CARON is a communications specialist  and certified Kundalini yoga instructor in Ottawa, Canada. The written word is an integral part of her professional and personal life.  In addition to her corporate writing, her work has been published in trade journals and the Globe and Mail‘s Fact & Arguments essays section.  She also helped to bring her father’s memoirs to fruition — editing and coordinating its production on his behalf.  When not working at her day job, Dale enjoys sharing her passion for yoga with others — helping them to build inner strength, manage stress, nurture creativity, and ignite their power to heal and balance. She has taught and practised yoga and meditation extensively in Canada and internationally, including at Allyson Latta’s retreats in Grenada.

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

Wordless Wednesday: November 1, 2017

yellow leaf against red


Scroll through more of my photos here.

And these writer-photographer friends, from British Columbia to Newfoundland, have word-less but thought-ful posts to share: Read the rest of this entry »

Wednesday, November 1st, 2017

Writing from Real Life: Daring to Be Heard, an essay by Ann Y.K. Choi



In high school I worked hard to cover up my depression. My mother was ill, and my family laboured to keep our convenience store open, as it was our only source of income. Because my grades were good and I was quiet, I kept under my teachers’ radar, quietly stabbing push-pins into my thighs during class. I was seventeen when I first attempted suicide. From that moment onward, every counsellor, therapist, and doctor, as part of one treatment plan or another, encouraged me to write. While the advice was well-intentioned and eventually helped, it took decades for me to stop associating writing with pain and anger.

I was in my forties by the time I was ready to share my writing. I wanted to capture my immigrant experiences for my daughter so that she could understand what life was like for her mother and grandparents upon arriving in Canada in the mid-70s. I signed up for a creative writing class through the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. Because the class was in an “academic” setting, so different from my bedroom where I wrote, I was able to ease into the idea of writing to publish.

Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety is a work of fiction, but at its core are threads of real-life experience. Writing it forced me to confront old hurt. Pain and anger that I had buried long ago, or that I hadn’t even known existed. The early years of struggling to learn English, being picked on at school, and adapting to life in Canada. Fearing for myself and my family in the store where we were regularly harassed and even robbed. Then, there was the violence at home. Even as I write this, my heart is racing, my breathing more rapid. Somewhere a part of me is crying. Some hurts never go away; we can only learn to manage them.

A demanding job as a secondary-school teacher helps, because during the day I am thoroughly distracted by my professional responsibilities. Still, working with at-risk students who also experience trauma, violence, and discrimination of all kinds poses other emotional challenges for me. Using on myself the techniques that also help them, I’ve been able to gain a sense of control. For example, knowing that when I am overwhelmed it’s almost impossible to write, I’ve looked for ways to create safe and encouraging spaces. My writing circle has proven to be one of the most invaluable.

The 11th Floor Writers was born out of a creative writing class I took at the University of Toronto. Eight to ten of us meet every second Saturday of the month. We’ve been together for ten years. This is my safe place to share rough drafts and to receive critical feedback. Now I also turn to my editor and agent, but in the beginning, before the book deal, my writing circle was it. Unlike friends and family, we meet to serve a specific purpose: to talk and listen to each other about our respective writing projects. We also attend literary events, especially supporting one another if a member is participating. I cannot overstate the importance of building relationships with others who write, and becoming part of a writing community.

I still have trouble staying focused for long periods of time when I’m writing anything, be it a poem or a personal essay. I’ve accepted this and allow myself regular unscheduled “brain breaks.” I get up and move away from the computer to recharge. When I’m working on an emotionally demanding scene, I can’t listen to music. It triggers emotions that overwhelm me, especially when I hear songs I used to listen to as a means of escaping or coping. This self-knowledge ensures that I avoid such triggers.

Mindfulness too helps me. When I feel myself inching towards dark places, or if I have a strong physical reaction to something I’m writing, I focus on an object – something I can hold in my hand, like a pen. I focus on the humming of the air conditioner, on things external to my body. Eyes closed, I concentrate on all the subtle flavours of a piece of dark chocolate melting in my mouth. Paying attention to the moment grounds me and allows me to return to putting words on paper.

People are quick to point out how wonderful it is that I can write anywhere, anytime. But when the writing doesn’t serve to relieve pain or bring clarity to internal chaos, this flexibility can feel like a burden. So I do not demand that I write every day. I can’t, and that’s okay. When I don’t want to write, I read. A good novel or poem takes me out of myself and recharges me mentally and creatively. My stress level lowers.

Someone recently asked, “Why do you keep writing if it poses such challenges?” I didn’t have an answer, and instead took the question to a meeting of my school board’s regional English department heads. There I asked fellow teachers for their help in understanding why so many writers persevere through personal pain to tell their stories. I learned from our conversation that I had been using my writing as a tool to engage others in dialogue around the themes I explore in my work: family, social identity, mental health and well-being, diversity, and immigration. Given my cultural background, the group reminded me, my writing fosters an awareness of voices not necessarily represented in mainstream media or books.

I grew up believing that silence was a strength and that suppressing my anger was proof that I was strong. But now I see the real power comes from sharing a voice and daring to be heard. Wielding that power is therapeutic; it numbs the hurt. More than that, it is my way of giving voice to those who may not have one. This, I realize, is why I keep writing.

♦     ♦     ♦

Ann Y.K. Choi

ANN Y.K. CHOI is an author and educator. Her novel, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, was shortlisted for the 2016 Toronto Book Award and named One of CBC Books 12 Best Canadian Debut Novels of 2016. The story was inspired by her family’s immigrant struggles and their lives spent in a family-run variety store. Choi lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.



Website: https://annykchoi.com

Twitter: @annykchoi

Facebook: annykchoi

Ann was guest speaker for Allyson Latta’s sixth annual Turquoise Waters Writers’ Retreat (2017), held in the Kawartha Lakes, Ontario, Canada.

Wednesday, November 1st, 2017