‘Essays on Writing’ Archives

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

12 Tips for Interviewing Seniors About Their Lives: guest post by novelist Elinor Florence

 

Yvonne Wildman

Yvonne Wildman of Kindersley, Saskatchewan, former RCAF photographer (Photo: Elinor Florence)

 

During November, the month of Remembrance, we read and watch many interviews with veterans. Sadly, our Canadian veterans are vanishing at the rate of about fifty each day.

Author Elinor Florence has interviewed hundreds of seniors in her career as a journalist, and also in her current occupation as a writer of the blog Wartime Wednesdays. I asked Elinor to share tips on interviewing an elderly person in order to preserve their precious memories, in whatever form, for future generations. This advice is invaluable for those setting out to write a memoir or to assist an older person — perhaps a loved one — write theirs.

 

Read the rest of this entry »

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

Facebook for Writers: Connections, community, and meaningful coincidence, guest post by Elinor Florence

 

Social media is a term that can conjure up images of faceless spam artists, and creepy Big Brother spying on one’s personal life. And it’s confusing too: it seems the virtual world abounds with options, from Twitter to YouTube to Instagram, and others that rise up and disappear again without a ripple.

For writers of memoir, fiction, and nonfiction, however, social media can be a powerful force. I maintain my own website, and I write a weekly blog. I’ve made useful connections on LinkedIn, and I love both Pinterest and Goodreads.

But my favourite research tool, one that has helped me countless ways in my writing career, is Facebook.

First of all, I wouldn’t be here today, writing on Allyson Latta’s blog, if it weren’t for Facebook.

I belong to a Facebook group called the RCAF Association, composed of people who post memories and photographs of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Someone in that group shared a link to a lovely post by Allison Howard called “Vanishing Letters of War: What We Stand to Lose” (one of Allyson’s blog’s best-read posts to date).

That link led me here, where I had the pleasure of learning about Allyson — her editing, writing, and teaching — and delving into the wealth of information on this excellent website. (I particularly enjoy her contributions to the photography series Wordless Wednesday.)

I know not everyone uses Facebook, and many who avoid it do so because of concerns about the following:

1. Privacy

You can get around this, however. You can create a Facebook profile by giving yourself a fake name. Then set your privacy settings on maximum, and avoid posting personal photos. That way you have access to everything on Facebook while revealing very little about yourself.

You do need a valid email address, but once again, you can set one up through Hotmail or another free service and use it for nothing else.

(If you need help with this, ask a younger person. My 30-year-old daughter, who writes her own homemaking blog called Miss Tweedle, is my personal “techie” and she is very patient with me.)

2. Time-wastage

My friends post some interesting items on Facebook, but also some pointless fluff, and yes, I do find myself chuckling at jokes and admiring pretty photographs of sunsets when I should be working.

Recently I discovered this solution: I downloaded an app called Anti-Social, which allows me to block any website I don’t want to see, for a period of up to eight hours.

Every morning after I have finished drinking my coffee and answering messages, I tell it to block Facebook for the next eight hours. So far it’s working well. You could, of course, use willpower — something I apparently don’t have.

 

At its best, though, Facebook helps me — as it can help you — with writing and research.

stereoscopeMy soon-to-be-published novel, Bird’s Eye View, is about a young Canadian who joins the British air force in the Second World War and becomes an interpreter of aerial photographs, spying on the enemy from the sky using a three-dimensional instrument called a stereoscope (see photo at top of post).

Because my focus is the Second World War, and specifically women, I have joined about a dozen Facebook groups ranging from the RCAF group to another more general group called Friends of the Forties, to another called Canadian War Brides, to another called Women of World War Two.

Not only do these groups attract members who are interested in the wartime era, but also they include experts: librarians, historians, and authors. These people point me to books I haven’t read, and websites I haven’t seen, and even other specialized Facebook groups.

Facebook allows you to connect, for free, with hundreds, even thousands, of people who have the same interests. In fact, one billion people are now on Facebook: one-sixth of the world’s population. So through it there is an untapped source of knowledge out there that can be accessed pretty easily. You can ask questions too, either by posting on the group site or by sending another group member a message.

When proofreading my novel, for example, I needed to find out in a hurry whether in conversation the No. 6 Bomber Group in Yorkshire would have been called “Group Six.” I messaged one of my Facebook group contacts, an air force historian, and the answer came back straightaway — “Don’t call it Group Six! Everyone calls it Six Group!” (This may seem a minor point, but thank goodness I checked, as I know from bitter experience that military buffs are my harshest critics).

When researching your family’s history, you can seek out Facebook groups devoted to particular towns, schools, or places of business. I belong to a group called You Know You Grew Up in North Battleford If You Remember . . . People are on there day and night, posting old photographs and reminiscences. I venture to say almost every community in Canada now has such a group.

Maxwell Cassidy

Maxwell Cassidy

A woman from Australia named Janet Mears posted on this group site, asking if anybody remembered her great-uncle Maxwell Cassidy who was killed in an air crash in 1944 while stationed at North Battleford, Saskatchewan.

I was able to contact Janet Mears and tell her that my mother, who is still living, was once Max’s girlfriend! We exchanged emails and photographs — including a picture of my mother that had been in Max’s possession.

This wonderful experience provided material for my blog post called “Memories of Maxwell Cassidy.” Janet was particularly touched to learn that I had immortalized Max in my wartime novel, and even given my character the same name.

Facebook is also a great way to promote your own writing, whether you are published or hoping to be published. After I completed writing my novel last fall, I still had many interesting stories that hadn’t made it into the book. So as a way of sharing them I created a weekly blog called Wartime Wednesdays.

Each Wednesday, I post a link on my Facebook groups, where I receive useful feedback as well as readership. Through a free program called Google Analytics I’m able to see where my Wartime Wednesdays readers are coming from. So far, a whopping 44 percent find my blog through Facebook.

Facebook even led to another small publishing success. When I wrote a blog post called “My Dad’s Best Christmas: 1945,” I posted the link on Facebook, and another writer emailed to ask if he could include it in an upcoming book that he is editing about air force servicemen.

My personal page is for family and friends, but because I want readers to find me, I also have a Facebook Author Page where I post items visible to the public. If you are already a Facebook member, you can “Like” my public page called Elinor Florence – Author to receive updates on my publishing journey. I post there once or twice a week.

You may be thinking: “But Facebook is mostly for young people.” No longer. We baby boomers are taking over. A recent Facebook Demographic Report shows that teenaged users declined by 25 percent over the past three years, while the number of users over 55 exploded, with 80 percent growth. (I suspect that’s why the teens are leaving.)

Finally, much of my moral support on this writing journey comes from Facebook. I live in Invermere, British Columbia. It’s a small mountain resort town without writing groups or courses (although the beauty and the peace make for an ideal writing environment in other ways).

Recently I posted on my Facebook Author Page that I had completed the final proofread of my novel, and that I was terrified about having missed some egregious error. (Remember all those military historians, just waiting to hold my feet to the fire.)

I received heartwarming messages from many people congratulating me on passing this important milestone and sharing their own related experiences.

And that was awfully reassuring.

♦     ♦     ♦

Elinor Florence

Elinor Florence

ELINOR FLORENCE grew up on a Saskatchewan grain farm, a former Second World War training airfield. Her journalism career took her from Carleton University in Ottawa, to writing for her hometown newspaper in North Battleford, then the Western Producer in Saskatoon, the Red Deer Advocate, the Winnipeg Sun and the Vancouver Province.

Weary of city life, Elinor and her husband moved their young family to the mountain resort of Invermere, British Columbia. For the next eight years, she worked from home as a regular contributor to Reader’s Digest where she specialized in the “heart” stories. But she returned to her newspaper roots when she purchased her own weekly paper, the Columbia Valley Pioneer, and turned it into an award-winning community staple. Four years ago, she sold her newspaper to fulfill her long-held dream of writing fiction. Married with three grown daughters, Elinor loves village life, historical research, old houses, and flea markets. Her first historical novel Bird’s Eye View will be published by Dundurn Press in October 2014. It is available for pre-order from Amazon.ca.

Read more about Elinor and check out her blog, Wartime Wednesdays, by visiting her website: Elinor Florence.

Or send her a message on Facebook!

 

 

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Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

Memoir as Survival: On Writing Lorenzo’s Heart by Jennifer Massoni Pardini

 

I remember the shaking leading up to when I delivered. The sign, my nurse said, that things were happening, changing. That it was normal. But I’m shaking now, all these weeks later. Is this normal? . . .

My memoir began as running, single-spaced pages of notes like these. I’d open the Word document in the morning after my husband left for work and input what I’d often woken in the night to record on a pad of paper by the bed. Written in the dark, the scribblings weren’t always legible later, and I wondered if anyone else would be able to decipher what I transferred onto the computer — the outpourings of a woman who had lost her first child at six months pregnant, who had chosen not to let him live a shortened and severely negotiated life with just half a heart.

At the time, I had been working on a novel, but it now looked like someone else had written it. In truth, someone else had. I no longer wanted to read much less write fiction. Instead, I devoured memoirs that related to my experience. Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Monica Wesolowska’s Holding Silvan: A Brief Life, and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water all helped. They are stories not only about losing babies, but also of surviving them.

Three weeks after losing my son, Lorenzo, I couldn’t shake the need to release my own story from my body, where much of the trauma had occurred and where all of Lorenzo’s life had been lived. In Santiago, Chile, where we had moved from California two years earlier, our distance from those who knew us best added to the overall isolation. But I also found it a relief not to have to show anyone that I was okay when I wasn’t. Instead, I wrote, through my grief, which now felt like the most fundamental part of me, and with the wholly shifted perspective it had summoned. Energy, which is difficult to reclaim after loss, began brewing.

Part of that energy fueled a search — I was trying to understand the specifics of what had happened to our son, to my husband, and to me.

Lorenzo’s Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome wasn’t caused by anything I did or ate or drank. He had it because two or three or four out of 10,000 babies simply do. Overwhelmed and sometimes paralyzed by what we had had to do to spare him the pain of managing such a heart and the damage it would have caused the rest of his body once he was born, I felt compelled to retrace the steps that led to our impossible decision and to my hope that we had done right by our son. Finally, I needed to figure out how we were going to live with our choice, and without Lorenzo.

I knew it couldn’t wait, even though friends and publishing colleagues advised me to write once I had at least temporal distance. While time serves many personal stories, raw and undistracted immediacy seemed to serve mine. After feeling so alone during those early months, I also wanted eventually to help others by sharing our story. In vulnerability, there is strength.

After several weeks, I had over one hundred pages of every thought, emotion, and observation as it had come to me. What I didn’t have was structure. Finding it proved to be the most challenging part of the writing process. It helped to break down the experience into two stories.

The first was the intense week that began with the diagnosis of Lorenzo’s heart, which happened on a Monday in Santiago and ended with our decision to terminate, on a Friday in Northern California, where we had flown to gather second opinions and understand our options for treatment. Day by day, Part I asks the reader to walk alongside us as we learn about our son’s heart and the severe interventions that would be required to extend his life — but never guarantee it. In showing how we ultimately let our baby go, without his ever knowing pain, I aim to illuminate what is a rare, an isolating, and in many cases and countries a stigmatized experience.

The second part was everything that would follow that decision. But where to draw the line, especially as I was still living it? As I adopted a puppy to nurture, sought acupuncture treatment, began volunteering at an orphanage, and examined the medical, legal, and political framework for our decision? (The exact number of mothers like me, for instance, is undocumented and therefore unknown.) I decided to chart the first year: a monumental quantity of time to cross after losing a child, but a manageable period to document on the page.

By also limiting the story to a time period that wouldn’t necessarily see the arrival of another child, Lorenzo would remain at the forefront, which was vital to me. This is his story as much as mine.

At its most basic, shaping my notes into a memoir was an act of survival. Together, both parts of the story aim to decipher grief, and to help other parents like me or those who know parents who have gone through what we have. It’s important that we — that our babies — are seen.

When I reached the one-year anniversary of losing Lorenzo, I was newly pregnant. I didn’t know then what I know now, looking at my daughter as she naps next to my desk — that I would survive, and that she would, and that her heart would be whole. The odds were low that another child of ours would have a congenital heart defect like Lorenzo’s, but once you are the statistic it’s difficult to trust in anything like numbers.

The only number we wanted was four: four chambers of the heart. Until I saw them on the ultrasound screen and even after I did, all I had was hope.

♦     ♦     ♦

A longtime magazine editor and contributor, Jennifer Massoni Pardini has been published most recently in The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Literary Mama. In 2011, she earned her MFA in English and Creative Writing from Mills College. Jennifer is currently completing work on her memoir Lorenzo’s Heart: The Anatomy of a Decision. She blogs at www.jennifermassoni.com and collects hearts in her son’s honour with The Chain-Link Heart Project.

 

 

 

 

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Monday, March 31st, 2014

Make the Judges Care: How to up your odds in a writing contest, by Anne Mahon

 

 

Writing contests are like speed-dating events: nervous writers with only minutes to make a lasting first impression, and judges hoping (at times praying) to find a recipient worthy of their affection and commitment.

I learned this recently as a first-time judge for a creative nonfiction writing contest sponsored by my city’s main newspaper. One week, 93 entries, 1,500 words each. It was like impatiently combing a patchy 600-page book for the best six-page excerpt.

I was excited to join my two co-judges in seeking out the most memorable pieces of writing. Yet, although we did read a few great pieces, I was shocked at the amount of mediocre, even careless work that had been submitted. Judging the contest was a hugely informative (and formative) experience, generating in me an urgent, humble concern for my own writing.

Here’s what I learned:

The opening paragraph sets the tone for the encounter between writer and judge (or reader). As a handshake and eye contact — or lack thereof — can turn a speed-dater on or off, so too can an opening paragraph. The opening sets the tone for the experience the reader will have “inside” the piece. If it’s unexciting, expectations plummet and the overburdened judge starts looking for an excuse to move on to the next piece.

There must be substance to back up the accepted invitation. Once you’ve made it past hello, judges are looking for effective voice, character development, dialogue, and emotional truth. Use these to make the judges care.

Good content and craft must go hand in hand. Superior content delivered in a flawed writing style won’t impress — but neither will the most beautifully crafted piece, if the story isn’t meaningful.

Clichés make your writing sound stale. The overuse of clichés among the submissions was jaw dropping. In the quest for a voice that’s fresh, better to replace a cliché with a clean, simple phrase. Even topics can feel cliché. The contest received an abundance of pieces about travel, dying and dementia-affected parents, and relocation. If you choose to write on a popular topic, your approach must be insightful and unique, your craft impeccable.

Every paragraph, every sentence, and ideally every word should have purpose. Edit, edit, edit. This unseen effort demands a ruthless pen, but separates the extraordinary from the ordinary.

The ending is the final opportunity to impart something unforgettable. Like the last taste of melting chocolate on your tongue, it should be satisfying and leave a hint of what was. Or do the opposite and slam the reader to the floor in shock or wonder.

Don’t underestimate the significance of the title. Avoid those that explain, or give away too much. Among 93 entries were four identical titles that restated the broad topic of the contest: “An Unfamiliar Place.” Yawn. My favourite titles were curious ones that evaded easy definition or held multiple meanings.

Check carefully for typos and minor errors. Vigilant proofreading is a must; otherwise judges will think you do not value your work and their time enough to take maximum care. Reading aloud is a great way to catch tiny errors.

Use 12-point font with black ink unless otherwise noted. Our contest’s winning entry was selected independently by two of the three judges on the first read; however the third judge had not read it because of its varying shades of purple ink. She had eyesight and forgiveness issues. When pressed, she refused to read it, and eventually excused herself from the panel. Lucky for the winner, the story’s language was gorgeous, the content distinctive and memorable, and the remaining judges were unanimous and committed.

Two factors that affect selection are completely out of the writer’s control: the calibre of the contest’s other entrants and the personal taste of judges. Enter the smaller contests; your chances will improve. As for taste, my personal preference was for clean writing that stayed out of the way of the story. A style that sounded new, creating either pop or a pause of appreciation was even better. And don’t underestimate the power of humour, even when writing on a serious topic.

Ultimately writers must write for themselves. Chasing contests and valuing yourself based on their outcomes will leave you unhappy, and always searching. If you love writing, keep writing. No matter what. Keep reading too. You never know when you’ll find yourself stepping into the pages of something special.

 

♦     ♦     ♦

Anne Mahon’s first book The Lucky Ones: African Refugees’ Stories of Extraordinary Courage won the Manitoba Library’s 2013 On The Same Page Book Award, promoted as the book every Manitoban should read. All author proceeds are being donated to two local charities assisting refugees. Visit www.annemahon.ca for more information.

(Anne was a student in my University of Toronto SCS writing course Memories into Story.)

 

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

Vanishing Letters of War: What We Stand to Lose, an essay by Allison Howard

So what of now, in this age of abbreviated e-mails and text messages? I pondered this question when I shared my father’s letters with my son . . .

 

Collage by Allison Howard

 

“KILL FATTED CALF. LEAVING FOURTEENTH QUEEN ELIZABETH”

My father chose these words from the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son to signal to my mother that he was homebound from England after serving as a pilot during the Second World War. She was no doubt joyous to receive that brief message, having said goodbye to Dad almost a year earlier and after only three weeks of marriage. She’d waited out his absence with his rigid Presbyterian parents who, though kind people, would abide no social life or frivolity under their roof.

Dad served as a flight instructor in Canada as part of the Commonwealth Air Training Program during his entire tour of duty, but was the victim of a military bureaucracy that, ironically, scheduled him to sail for England the day after peace was declared. The impossibility of reversing paperwork combined with the nervousness that prevailed over the definitiveness of war’s end meant that many ships continued crossing to Europe with troops aboard in the weeks after Armistice.

The “first over, first back” policy was undoubtedly fair but meant a delay for my father’s return. This was compounded by the fact that he was struck by appendicitis around the time he was scheduled to return, resulting in a long hospital stay in England.

So it was February 7th, 1946, almost ten months after the end of the war, when my father sent the telegram.

In the meantime, my mother had kept busy working in a science lab and comforting herself with Dad’s frequent, entertaining, and sometimes poignant letters, including this one written a few days into his rather luxurious crossing on the Queen Mary:

On board we have a number of civilian internees. (I don’t know why they’re aboard.) Last evening two of them produced musical instruments, a guitar and a mandolin and in a corner on deck, sheltered from the wind a little impromptu concert and singsong took place. The music played, tended toward sad, dreamy gypsy songs … It was rather picturesque there on deck with the wind blowing and everyone clustered around two nondescript characters playing sentimental gypsy songs. I sang too and thought of you and enjoyed the singing but wished I were with you. I miss you an awful lot wifey. I hope it won’t be long.

My father’s war experience was infinitely different from that of so many of the soldiers who’d gone abroad. For him the war was an adventure served with the cockiness and derring-do of one who never saw combat and was experiencing his first freedom from a religiously repressive household. But the only way we can know this is through his letters. In the absence of a journal, letters can serve as a kind of abbreviated memoir of the writer’s life — albeit focusing on just a slice of time. Often truncated, letters oblige the reader to search for meaning, context, and consequence. And in this search, family histories are constructed.

§     §     §

I came across Dad’s letter and a small clutch of others recently while helping my mother move to a retirement home. Mostly written to my father and saved in an old brown envelope, they gave me a rare and personal glimpse of life in the war years. Some from buddies overseas or stationed in Canada, some from family and friends updating him on home life, they describe training, postings, convalescence, domestic life, love interests, and more.

I was often struck by the eloquence of the letters. It is hard to imagine a young man today writing of his convalescence from war wounds as did this good friend of my father’s:

I am beginning at last to feel at ease in a conv. hosp. Our new div. is not as elaborate as Divadale(?), but is more homelike and pleasant. It is smaller and the spirit here is grand. I have never experienced such companionship amongst everyone, staff and patients. The home is lovely, the surroundings beautiful. There are many small rambling green hills with patches of wild flowers, daffodils, narcissi, violets, lilacs and many other flowers. Looking out on it I think we have found Utopia. I have never seen so many different types of birds. Some of the lads caught 4 red foxes, they are pretty little animals.

We know much about the battles, the strategies, the geography, and the politics of the world wars through the glut of meticulously researched books about them. But only through letters from those in the trenches, on the battlegrounds and in hospitals, in the liberated towns and elsewhere affected by the aftermath, do we know of the personal experiences: the suffering, crushed spirits, and anger; but also the determination, camaraderie, and hope.

§     §     §

So what of now, in this age of abbreviated e-mails and text messages? I pondered this question when I shared my father’s letters with my son — particularly meaningful as my son is a military pilot who has twice served in Afghanistan. He said, “You know, Mom, those letters were how we really knew about the wars and we’re not going to know about current and future wars in that personal way because no one writes real letters anymore.”

We discussed how brief e-mails sent home do not capture the essence of the grit and fear and triumph that letters once did. Yes, we are able to communicate more frequently and instantaneously, and occasional Skype calls are a luxury the families of bygone soldiers couldn’t even dream of. But so much of what we receive are only brief descriptions written in haste and with wariness of security concerns.

Probably because of the rare occurrence of actual letters, I do so treasure the description my son wrote to me shortly after his arrival on his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2005:

I’ve seen many sides of the local population. There is quite the desire to rebuild in many parts as you see new buildings going up and billboards for cell phones and the like; but, across the street you see women in Burkas and a 4-year-old kid watching a herd of goats. The people generally seem indifferent to us here as the average local is more concerned about their daily survival; however, on the other side, some have a look that they do not want foreigners on their soil. These are generally the ones who profit from the instability such as drug trafficking, which is a huge problem, and source of much of the money that funds much of the violence and pays many of the war’s bills.

The weather is hot to say the least, it’s well over 40 degrees every day and as yet there was one day with clouds. The terrain is spectacular, as mountains swell over 20,000 feet and some remain snow-capped year round. The mountains are steep and very unforgiving and a constant challenge. It really is a beautiful country.

Having recently completed a degree in Military History, my son is acutely aware of the void that will exist for future historians when they come to try to understand the personal experiences of today’s (and tomorrow’s) soldiers. This void is not unique to the experiences of war, of course — it will exist for many aspects of our everyday lives.

For while we still write, we write in a different way — e-mails, frequent and numerous, are not generally kept for permanent record; blogs detail the minute details of people’s lives, but too often lack the unselfconsciousness of those earlier letters, which weren’t written for a broad audience. Those letters weren’t spell-checked and grammar-checked and proofread; they were the honest, spontaneous thoughts and observations of the writer for the eyes of one reader, or one family — an uncensored view into a world we might otherwise never have known.

Without those letters, so many details, perhaps seemingly trivial at the time, will be forever lost to future students of history, genealogists, memoir writers, and family historians.

Dad passed away on September 11, 2002, exactly one year to the day after a traumatic event that’s part of another kind of war. That date is one on which the world acknowledges a collective pain and the importance of remembering, but for me it is also a personal time of reflection. I am grateful to have even a little of my father’s story, as told in his war letters home.

♦     ♦     ♦

Allison Howard, beside her Little Free Library. For more about this initiative, see http://littlefreelibrary.org

Allison Howard, beside her Little Free Library. For more about this initiative, see http://littlefreelibrary.org

ALLISON HOWARD is a former social worker living in Penticton, British Columbia. Besides enjoying the many outdoor activities that the beautiful Okanagan Valley provides, Allison is an avid photographer who shows her work at galleries and other venues. She is also co-editor of A Memoir of Friendship: Letters Between Carol Shields and Blanche Howard and has published personal essays in Canadian Woman Studies and elsewhere. Allison sees a link between the creative worlds of writing and photography, and the simplicity and charm of life in British Columbia’s southern interior encourages these twin passions. Visit Allison Howard Photography.

 

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Tuesday, January 21st, 2014