‘Essays on Writing’ Archives

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

Literary Nude, an essay by Carin Makuz

 

“Der Bücherwurm” (The Bookworm), by Hermann Fenner-Behmer

 

Sometime in my early twenties I wandered into a gallery of contemporary abstract art in Edmonton. It’s possible I was just getting out of the cold for a minute. Art hadn’t yet entered my life in a big way, and I’d certainly had no exposure to abstract work. Seeing it fill a room, I was struck by the colours and shapes, intrigued, but I didn’t understand how it could be art … what was artistic about blobbing paint onto a canvas? So with all the smugness of the ignorant, I asked the gallery owner that very question, in pretty much those exact words. I can still remember how earnestly she answered — as if it were very, very important that I understand this.

She began by insisting that any artist worth their pigment would approach the work from a different place than blobbing. That might be how it appeared to anyone watching, and freedom was sometimes the motivation in this work, she said, but the painter would also possess an understanding of the fundamentals, the basics of structure, balance, and light, and they would most likely have studied the classic and most difficult subject: the nude. All this, she said, regardless of their own unique and personal style. That would come later.

I don’t remember many exchanges from my twenties, but I had the feeling that what she was telling me went beyond painting, and I’ve thought about it countless times and in different ways over the years since.

It was the idea of the nude that got to me. Who would ever make the connection between the human body and all those red and orange squares, that splash of green on a canvas? I began to wonder if every discipline had its form of nude. Is it scales to a musician, a basic white sauce to a chef? What is it for a sculptor, a dancer, a glass blower?

A few years later I took my first writing workshop. The instructor talked about the importance of reading. Not a problem, I thought. I like to read. Next! But there was no next. Reading was his sole focus for the entire workshop. How to read. I was stunned. What a waste of time. I already knew how to read. I was there to learn how to write.

He talked about the scope of literature, that everything from Shakespeare to Alice Munro was fodder for study, and that study was less about appreciating collective words on a page than about analyzing the choice of those words, the form of those sentences and paragraphs. He explained how it was these components, not clever-clever ideas, that made the whole thing live and breathe and move, and that the approach to writing had to be from the inside out, which meant an understanding of structure, not merely story.

Once again the nude came to mind.

Reading, of course, was the literary nude. But not just reading. Close reading.

In exactly the same way that it’s not enough to paint or sculpt the human form by merely looking at it, or even admiring it, we can’t learn to write by merely reading. The popular advice to students of writing to Read read read! And then read some more! is excellent, of course, but loving books isn’t all there is to studying craft. Craft is knowing what’s beyond the shape of what we’re reading, looking  past the outer “skin,” the words, and finding the structure that exists in every story — the style, wordplay and rhythm; the cycles of romantic, tragic, ironic, and comedic modes. Where is the tension, and how do scenes shift? How did we get from here to there? It’s finding the bones and the musculature that gives a story the ability to stand on its own before it’s dressed with the details of action, character, and dialogue.

Francine Prose, in her book How to Read Like a Writer, says we’re born with the instinct:

“We all begin as close readers. Even before we learn to read, the process of being read aloud to, and of listening, is one in which we are taking in one word after another, one phrase at a time, in which we are paying attention to whatever each word or phrase is transmitting. Word by word is how we learn to hear and then read, which seems only fitting because it is how the books we are reading were written in the first place.”

And then we grow up. And we get busy. And no one reads to us anymore. And we don’t listen all that well anyway. But so what? I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with getting through a stack of books a little too quickly, because, well, just LOOK at that stack … or reading simply because we enjoy it … as long as we make time for The Other — the slow, deliberate read. (I’ve discovered that dissecting one short story by Alice Munro is easily worth a month of “pleasure reading.”)

We have the idea we know what an ankle bone looks like, but unless we truly focus on it — and probably for longer than we ever thought necessary — unless we take the time to notice how it’s connected to the leg bone, we run the risk of being a blobber.

Which, I’ve come to realize, is an entirely different thing than blobbing with intention.

♦     ♦     ♦

 

Carin profile shotWhen not writing, CARIN MAKUZ can be found wandering the shores of Lake Ontario muttering about darlings that won’t take a hint. She is a workshop facilitator for abused women and youth at risk. Her work has been published widely in journals in Canada, the U.K., and the U.S. and broadcast on CBC and BBC radio. She is the creator of The Litter I See Project, and combines text with photography, reviews books, chats with writers, and generally thinks out loud on her blog Matilda Magtree.

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

The Mirror That Is Memoir — a guest post by Dace Mara Zacs-Koury

Woman Looking at Reflection

 

My father’s death and burial in 1994 in Latvia, and my subsequent discovery of a dark family secret dating back to the Second World War compelled me to write. I knew little of his or Latvia’s past, and so I set about talking to relatives, revisiting overseas, learning Latvian, and digging into historical research, finally turning up Father’s war records. Little did I know when I began that I was embarking on a twenty-year writing journey.

Read the rest of this entry »

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

Quotables: “At some point in my life I decided that I was going to write like hell”: 15 writing tips from Nick Ripatrazone (The Millions)

 

I once took a novel writing course that my professor said would stretch us to our limits. It did. I hated the draft of my novel: all that seemed to happen is that my characters would go on walks through the woods to a pond, fish, talk, and repeat. One night when my roommate probably wished I would go to sleep, I wrote my professor a long e-mail, and he responded the next morning with the single best writing advice that I ever received: “worrying isn’t work.” It’s not. Writers love to worry. We — it’s okay to admit it — are rather melodramatic. Worrying has never finished a paragraph or fixed a slow opening. You can worry away your writing life, or you can catch yourself the next time you start to worry, go for a walk, and replace those worries with work.”

Read the full article here: “Don’t Worry. Don’t Wait. Write,” The Millions, November 21, 2016

And visit Nick Ripatrazone.

 

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

“Warm life preserved by the pen”: Memoirist Laurie Lee and the valley he loved

 

Writer Laurie Lee

Writer Laurie Lee

 

Some places capture your heart because they are yours, and others, because they belong to someone whose words weave a spell that draws you in.

My husband and I were on an autumn vacation in the Cotwolds and on our way to Sheepscombe, a picturesque village in Gloucestershire, when I realized how close we were to Slad, the childhood home and final resting place of English writer Laurie Lee. Of course, I insisted on a little detour.

Read the rest of this entry »

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

Seven: On learning to embrace revision

Guest post by Alexandra Risen

Photo: Jon Sullivan

 

I haven’t been a debut writer forever. It just feels that way.

Likely because of how often I revise-restructure-rewrite-rethink-reword-reassess-review. Enough times to learn one thing: Even if you are writing memoir, the truth can be said myriad ways and almost always better than the last time you said it.

My personal memoir about my garden started as twenty short stories, edited several times by creative writing teachers and fellow writing students. Two years later, I asked an agent if they were publishable.

“No,” he said. Not maybe. Not gentle.

“Reassess your approach. Then restructure.” He patted my stack of paper where I had naively typed “Confidential” under the title, as if someone might actually want to steal my brilliance.

I pushed my embarrassment and insecurities aside and registered for a memoir course at University of Toronto. I read breakout books like How Not to Write a Novel, Bird by Bird, and The Plot Whisperer. I loved my memoir instructor, and after the course ended, I begged her to be my Final Project adviser. On her advice, I thought more deeply about themes and tension and narrative arc; I rewrote and saw the story take on a new shape.

Before I submitted it to the university evaluation panel, my adviser told me she believed I had talent and that the manuscript had strong potential, but there were too many storylines.

I knew better.

My agent reviewed it again.

“Too many storylines,” he said. “Rethink it in simpler terms.”

I joined a weekly workshop, where, chapter by chapter, over another two years, I rewrote, they reviewed, and I reworded. I tried new software like Scrivener and read more books, with inspiring subtitles like Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish with Confidence. The thing is, deciphering software and extra reading are ideal time-consuming activities for a procrastinator. I was starting to enjoy writing.

Somewhere between reading, rethinking, and rewriting, I read (I don’t recall in which book) that a manuscript is often complete after seven revisions.

Seven?

Liberty.

Harsh workshop criticism that used to depress me became a rung to draft number seven. I sought input. Please, I’d beg my husband, I’ve only had feedback on this scene five times — I need two more!

My goal to finish my book was replaced by the desire to reach the lucky seven edit for each chapter. Every misplaced comma and inaccurate word, every removed adverb and exclamation mark was a step closer. Draft six didn’t resemble draft two. Chapter One became Chapter Seventeen. Chapter Three and Eight disappeared. None of it mattered anymore. Cutting a scene didn’t hurt — it was a relief. I was shedding those unwanted last five pounds. Cleaning out the junk drawer. Throwing away those favourite comfortable but sloppy pyjamas.

Life is a series of revisions.

Today, some of my new best friends are editors. I can’t resist them. I stalk them. They are artists, wielding their pencils and applying Track Changes to better the literary world.

When my agent landed my book deal, the acquiring editor said, “I love it!” and then she promptly had me review, reword, and revise.

 

 

Alexandra Risen

Alexandra Risen

Alexandra Risen’s Unearthed is her meditation on love, acceptance, and our interconnectedness with nature, a memoir to be published Summer 2016 in the United States by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and in Canada by Penguin Random House. She is one of three founding editors of the online literary magazine Don’t Talk to Me About Love, which explores love in fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and art.

Alexandra studied memoir writing with instructor Allyson Latta, who was also adviser for her Final Project toward the Creative Writing Certificate at University of Toronto. An excerpt from that version of her memoir was a finalist for the university’s Marina Nemat Creative Writing Award.

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016