‘Guest Posts’ Archives

The Lives of Fallen Soldiers: Writing the Biographies for Going Down of the Sun

by Philip G. Winkelaar

 

 

“I made an appointment with the niece I’d been told about, and was rewarded with tea and some family stories. It turned out that she had documentary evidence in the form of letters — from the deceased and his brothers, who had also served. In that moment I realized I could — in fact should — dig deeper.”

 

For years I hardly noticed the brass plaques on the walls of my church that list the people who volunteered and those who died in the two world wars. Except, that is, on Remembrance Sunday, when we have a special ceremony at which the names of the dead are read out and a minute of silence observed. The sounding of the Last Post or the piper playing a lament always moves me.

One year, after that solemn service, as I contemplated the nine names on the World War I plaque, a woman pointed to one and said, “That man’s niece lives across the lane from me.” I looked at her, and at the plaque, and recalled a recent newspaper article about the volunteer refurbishment of that soldier’s grave in England, nearly a century after his death.

In my career as a family doctor, I was continually reminded that one person’s illness affects many others — the family and friends, employers and co-workers. So, of course, must the deaths of these soldiers have affected those around them — why else would the members of the Knox Presbyterian Church congregation have spent effort and funds to place these memorials? That led me to ask other questions: What were the people like — were they destined to be heroes, or were they ordinary people? What kind of family did they have? How did they grow up? Since they were all members of the church, should I assume that they were all paragons of virtue? I had served briefly in the armed forces, and knew how unlikely that scenario was!

I had visited military cemeteries in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and knew that during both world wars soldiers were buried in the land where they were killed. Their bodies were not brought back to Canada, as they are now. So I asked myself, where are their graves? And how did they die? Were they all killed in action? Were some of the deaths due to so-called “friendly fire”? Did some die in accidents? Throughout history, deaths in time of war have as often been due to disease as to wounds. Was that true of some of these men?

I decided to delve into these questions first by reviewing the newspaper article about the grave rehabilitation. I made an appointment with the soldier’s niece I’d been told about, and was rewarded with tea and some family stories. It turned out that she had documentary evidence in the form of letters — from the deceased and his brothers, who had also served. In that moment I realized I could — in fact should — dig deeper.

My research started with church records. Some were held at the church itself and others in the City of Ottawa Archives. The soldiers’ service records are held by Library and Archives Canada. Many of them have now been digitized and are online.

With so many records available, I realized that I didn’t need to restrict my investigations. I could expand these to include all the soldiers on the plaque. City directories revealed the neighbourhoods where they grew up, and the occupations they (or in most cases their parents) pursued. Ancestry.ca was another source of information, as were birth, marriage, and death records, all of these giving insight into family backgrounds.

School records from a century ago have largely disappeared, but if you don’t shoot you can’t score, so I tried all the sources I could think of and was rewarded with data that allowed me to visualize not only the young men as students but also their school environments, which were quite different from that I was familiar with and even more changed today.

Regimental histories, written years or decades later, can paint a picture of the events of battle and the conditions the men faced. Regimental war diaries were written within hours or days of events, and although sadly clinical and short, they also illuminate the actions.

Veterans Affairs Canada maintains a website devoted to remembrance, called the Virtual War Memorial. This site has additional information, and some photos, provided by interested parties.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is responsible for maintaining all overseas war graves (an exception was the one being refurbished) and gives basic information about the location of cemeteries and details of the location of individual graves. Photos of the graveyards reveal the serenity in which the fallen now lie.

Admittedly the mass of information was intimidating. I stumbled on contradictions between sources, which had to be resolved, and I had to sort out the relevant from the merely interesting. The latter created rabbit holes into which one could dive, emerging hours later with anecdotes entirely unrelated to the matter at hand.

I began by writing brief outlines of each of the men on the plaque. I then refined these. On the basis of some good editorial advice and criticism, I realized that the backstory I found fascinating had to wait until I had presented the individual, and that some of what I found interesting was likely to be boring to a reader.

A major challenge cropped up – I knew not every soldier was without failings, some failings, though, might be more sensitive than others. Should I reveal those? Then I had to ask myself, was this to be a hagiography or a true story? Ultimately I opted for the latter; though I knew I risked being accused of blackening someone’s memory, I declined to whitewash it.

Next, since I was dealing with nine individuals, I had to decide the sequence in which to present them. Age? Date of enlistment into the army? Date of death? Alphabetically? Or something else? I finally decided to order them as they appear on the plaque. The church members must have put some thought into the order. Who am I to gainsay their decision?

Two brothers were among those who died — should their stories be told together, or separately? Because a single event can affect individuals differently, it seemed to me it would be unfair to one or the other to combine them, so I had to decide how much needed to be repeated in both stories.

The same question came up when dealing with men in the service who had experienced the same events – they were individuals, each seeing the event from their own point of view, so there was bound to be a certain amount of repetition. The same was true of school events. Ottawa was a small city, and many of the volunteers went to the same schools at the same time. And, of course, many of them attended the church and Sunday school together. Did they have other common threads?

I belong to a writers’ group, and I presented my stories there. Based on others’ response and advice, I revised each of the profiles. Again. And again. I sought advice at a writers’ retreat — and revised everything again. I sought affirmation from my spouse — and revised some more.

I chose a title. Going Down of the Sun is a phrase from the “Ode of Remembrance,” taken from Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen,” first published in The Times of London in September 1914.

Perfection will always elude a writer. But the centenary of the 1918 armistice takes place this year, and I had researched and written the stories for all those who died in the Great War, 1914 to 1918. What could be a more appropriate time to make their lives known once again? So I went ahead and published my little book, finding my own printer and paying for it myself. I was so immersed in the writing and rewriting that I gave no thought to finding a sponsor, nor even to the issues of marketing. I did send the manuscript to an eminent military historian, Tim Cook, for comments. I was gratified that he had the time to read it and in fact reward the work that had gone into the book with genuine praise.

I finished it. I am proud of what I did. I am happy, and my wife now sees me again. But I find myself looking forward to 2020, the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, knowing that the men commemorated on another plaque also deserve to have their lives chronicled.

That will keep me out of trouble.

♦     ♦     ♦

 

PHILIP G. WINKELAAR’s career as a family doctor spanned nearly forty years. For fifteen of those he served in the Canadian Armed Forces, regular and reserve. He has always been interested in learning about people and hearing their life stories. Retirement gave him the opportunity to delve more deeply into those experiences. A lifelong Presbyterian, he is also an elder at Knox Presbyterian Church in Ottawa, where he lives with his wife Linda.

♦     ♦     ♦

The Launch!

The launch for Going Down of the Sun will take place at Knox Presbyterian Church, 227 Elgin Street, Ottawa, 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, November 4, the beginning of Remembrance Week, in honour of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

To purchase a copy ($22.95 plus mailing), please contact the author at GoingDownofSun@gmail.com.

Friday, November 2nd, 2018

She Writes, Indeed, an essay by Suzanne Adam

 

 
Suzanne Adam and I met in 2010, while I was leading writing workshops at Los Parronales Writers’ Retreat in Santiago, Chile. I was a structural editor for her first memoir, Marrying Santiago, which was later awarded the 2016 Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award. Suzanne, a member of the long-running Santiago Writers, is about to release her second book, a collection of personal essays. She shares her editing process and pre-publication experience here.

 

I read and reread my manuscript and am satisfied. It is ready. Time to make the big leap . . . Or is it?

As I read the text yet again, doubts flood me. I’ve read it so often that it sounds flat to me. Will readers actually find engaging this mixed bag of expanded blog posts, travel pieces, and musings from my past? Will a publisher be interested?

There is only one way to find out.

A friend of a friend recommends She Writes Press. I check out their website. It’s a hybrid press (author and publisher share expenses), designed to give more opportunities to women writers. That’s for me. Copy. Attach. Send.

Days later, the publisher’s name appears in my email inbox. She’s accepted my manuscript, Notes from the Bottom of the World, A Life in Chile! Then I read on. My manuscript needs work, she writes, and she assigns me to Annie, an independent editor.

Weekly thirty-minute Skype sessions with Annie are equivalent to a semester in creative writing. We first tackle structure for this essay collection, written over the past three or four years. Picking the first and last piece is easy, as is arranging the essays in chronological order. I’m filled with satisfaction when themes and chapter titles reveal themselves to me bit by bit. I cut up colored index cards, big pieces for chapter titles and smaller ones with essay titles, and set them out on the floor to organize. It’s like a game. I move the cards back and forth and gradually see my book taking shape.

In addition to perfecting my writing skills, I must become a saleswoman. It doesn’t come naturally to me.  I dread facing this aspect of publishing but also see it as a challenge. I can do it! Sales hook, book description, selling points, target audience, biography, key words for Amazon searches, and endorsements. To my surprise I find learning these new tasks enjoyable, as is working on the book cover with the SWP designer. What a sense of satisfaction when we get the cover just right.

Do I need a publicist? Posts on the Fall 2018 She Writes Press Authors Facebook page convince me that I do. The cost of hiring a publicist makes me reluctant, but living overseas I recognize that I will need help if I want to reach a wider public through book talks, news articles, and podcasts. I find Isabella, a local publicist in the San Francisco Bay Area where I plan to spend a month at the time of my book’s publication. Isabella is guiding me through this daunting marketing process. Enthusiastic, she reassures me when I express worry about public presentations. People will want to get to know you, the person behind the words, she says. She has excellent contacts at libraries, clubs, and bookstores. I am even scheduled for a book talk and signing at my favorite independent bookstore, Book Passage, where I’ve attended author talks over the years. A dream come true.

Isabella is planning more activities as we get closer to my November 6 publication date. I must also advertise on Facebook and send out emails to friends and acquaintances. Advance Reading Copies (ARCs), which will look just like the published book, will be sent to me and my publicist within two months, and Isabella will distribute copies to reviewers.

I’ve spent years bending over a computer, dog-earring my thesaurus, jotting down ideas before I forget, and editing, editing, editing. And now, the publication wheels are in motion. This waiting time brings a mix of excitement and nervousness. And my mind spins with questions: Will I get decent turnouts at my book talks? Can I deliver a compelling talk? (This is something I’m reading up on now.) What will the reviews say?

Whatever the next few months bring, I’m ready. I have to be. And most amazing of all, I’ll soon hold my second book in my hands.

 

§     §     §

SUZANNE ADAM grew up northern California. After graduating from UC Berkeley, she served in the Peace Corps in Colombia before moving to Santiago, Chile in 1972 to marry Santiago. She explores how this experience shaped her life in her 2015 memoir Marrying Santiago, published under the imprint of Peace Corps Writers. Her new book, Notes from the Bottom of the World: A Life in Chile, will be available on November 6, 2018.

She admits to being a tree-hugger, avid reader, nature writer, friend to stray dogs and cats, gardener, CNN news junkie, bird watcher, lover of storms and laughter, and doting granny. Before turning to writing, she worked as a teacher of learning disabled children. A member of Santiago Writers, she has published essays in The Christian Science Monitor, California Magazine, Marin Independent Journal, Nature Writing, and Persimmon Tree. She blogs at Tarweed Spirit.

Both Notes from the Bottom of the World, A Life in Chile and Marrying Santiago can be purchased from Amazon.com.

 

 

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018

The Soap Box, a Toronto-Based Small Press, Co-Hosts Publishing Fair, November 17, 2018

Guest post by Tali Voron

 

From Pen to Published will take place November 17, 2018, in downtown Toronto. Registration is free till October 17, 2018, $10 at the door, $5 for students with valid ID.

 

Every step of The Soap Box journey has been exciting, but so far 2018 has been a whirlwind. And best of all, it will culminate in a special event, From Pen to Published, taking place in downtown Toronto on November 17, from 12 to 7 p.m. This publishing fair represents a unique collaboration between the press and a dynamic Toronto-based writing group, The 11th Floor Writers.

It all started when I met bestselling novelist Ann Y.K. Choi (Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety) at a series of mentorship events for students in the English Literature program at the University of Toronto. She was a wonderful role model, and our relationship quickly turned into a mentorship, and finally, into the working partnership it is today.

During several meetings over coffee, Ann told me about her writing group, The 11th Floor Writers, which has been together for eleven years and wanted to mark their progress by publishing an anthology. The group comprises twelve writers unified by their enrollment in various courses in the Creative Writing Program at University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. The members write poetry and prose in a range of genres, including sci-fi, historical fiction, autobiography, and memoir.

Since The Soap Box’s mission is to showcase emerging writers, I suggested that we be their publisher, and within a matter of weeks, our two teams were working together to create a collection we believe in, Voices From the 11th Floor.

A typical book launch invites the writer’s family, friends, and colleagues, but as our ideas for the group’s launch took shape, it morphed into something bigger. The resulting event, From Pen to Published, will feature industry speakers and craft workshops, and incorporate the kick-off for Voices From the 11th Floor. Registration is open to the public, but in particular we encourage attendance by emerging writers, individuals interested in careers in the publishing industry, and post-secondary students studying writing, editing, or publishing.

Our featured speakers will be Alana Wilcox, editorial director of Coach House Books; author Joe Kertes, founder of Humber School for Writers; and author Ann Y.K. Choi, who has recently been named one of the jurors for the coveted Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. As well, workshop facilitators will offer six workshops focusing on various aspects of writing and publishing.

Tali giving a reading

The idea for The Soap Box came to me in April 2016, a few weeks after my twentieth birthday and at the end of my second year at University of Toronto. A newspaper ad on the dining room table caught my eye: it promoted an opportunity to start a summer business with the support of a grant and a mentor. My partner and I started brainstorming to help his 16-year-old brother get involved in the program. We envisioned a range of possibilities: a sustainable coffee shop, inventive iPhone applications, handmade products. And that got me thinking about my own passion—

Books.

Years ago, in order to mark my high school graduation, my dad had helped me self-publish a collection of short stories. I had always dreamed of writing and publishing a book, although I never imagined it would happen so early in my life. Suddenly, my dream was a reality. To be able to hold my creative work in my hands, and to share it with loved ones was life-changing. Could I help other emerging writers get published as well? I understood first-hand the barriers that existed for new writers trying to break into the industry. I wondered if I could find a way to create a space for new and diverse voices.

I knew that starting an independent press wasn’t within the scope of a summer student program; nor would it be a lucrative endeavour. I contributed the initial funds to get the paper work in order, set up a website, and covered the costs of our first anthology, The Soap Box: Volume I: Change. I decided that the press would run on a self-funding model: we would publish books, and the profits from book sales and launches would be used to fund upcoming publications.

It was a lot to take on, and there were logistics to figure out. For once, though, uncertainty didn’t scare me. My academic background in English literature, combined with years spent writing and editing in various capacities gave me the skills and confidence to assume the role of editor-in-chief. All I needed was a team that shared my vision.

This felt right. I could wait for the “perfect time” to follow my dreams and spend every waking moment until then pursuing a path that wasn’t meant for me. Or I could start now.

Today, The Soap Box comprises a core team of ten driven and passionate individuals. It’s been almost two and a half years, and I’m proud to say that the press is thriving. To date we have published three creative writing anthologies and three poetry chapbooks, and have hosted three launches. In November 2018 we’ll release Voices From the 11th Floor, our most ambitious anthology to date, and in December, we’ll publish our third poetry chapbook of the year. (Submissions for the fourth anthology will be accepted in Winter 2019; watch our website for an announcement.)

As the press grows, we will selectively accept prose and poetry manuscripts for publication. Writers are welcome to contact us at www.thesoapboxwrites.com to discuss their projects and publishing goals. We publish works based on artistic merit. To ensure that external biases do not influence our editorial board, we remove from the submission any information identifying the author.

One of our aims is to eliminate as many financial barriers as possible to getting published. For the annual Soap Box anthology, there is no submission fee. For poetry chapbooks — collections of 48 pages of poetry or less — we request a small submission fee to help offset production costs.

At The Soap Box, we pride ourselves on our collaborative creative process. Writers are intimately involved from start to finish: from in-depth feedback and conversations with editors about how their work can be improved, to participating in the selection of a cover, to receiving promotion and marketing, and finally to seeing how a digital text transforms into a bound book.

I’m fortunate to be pursuing my passion and am endlessly grateful to my team, friends, and family who have chosen to embark on this journey with me. Every day, we make it our mission to ensure that we share the stories of as many voices as we can, while also maintaining the high calibre of work we can take pride in. With every publication, we grow stronger as a press, and as a community. We may be small, but we are mighty, and we will continue to make publishing more accessible, diverse, and inclusive, one word at a time.

Our hope is that for many emerging writers, From Pen to Published will be just the beginning.

 

The 11th Floor Writers

 

Visit The Soap Box (www.thesoapboxwrites.com), to check out the books we’ve published, or just to get in touch!

 For details about, and to register for From Pen to Published, click here.

Voices From the 11th Floor will be on sale at the fair (taxes exempted for cash purchases).

§     §     §

TALI VORON is driven by her passion for creative writing, love of people, and the desire to make the publishing industry more accessible. She completed her Bachelor of Arts, Honours at the University of Toronto in English Literature, Education, and Psychology. In September 2018 she will begin her MA in the Literatures of Modernity program at Ryerson University. In her spare time, Tali pens prose on her blog, drinks copious amounts of coffee, spends time with her favourite people, and enjoys making terrible puns.

Tuesday, September 4th, 2018

The Things We Keep, a guest post by Lesley Butler

 

 

What things do we keep?

When you move, what do you choose to take with you? What do you want close at hand?

And what have you left behind in the various places you’ve called home? Are these physical things, or are they memories, feelings, ideas?

These were the questions at the heart of our event The Things We Keep, hosted by The Blue Castle: Conversations on Women, Culture, and the Spaces of the Imagination and the Saltwater Stories research group. Inspired by themes of migration, memory, and identity, and with a particular interest in the multifaceted manifestations of our journeys, we invited anyone interested to bring the things they keep, and the stories that made them meaningful. A show-and-tell for adults, if you will.

While the premise of our event was quite simple (we wanted to hear your stories!), the conversation generated was anything but. It was insightful, moving, engaging, often humorous, and wonderfully complex.

On March 8, 2018, we eagerly gathered at the MMaP Gallery, Arts and Culture in St. John’s, Newfoundland, stories ready to share. After taking our seats in a cozy, circular seating arrangement — all the better for seeing and hearing each other — we introduced ourselves and embarked on our storytelling journey. Our guests ranged from individuals who had spent the majority of their lives in St. John’s, to people who had made a “home” in many places around the world. The generational diversity of our group, too, led to some lively repartee about our respective stories.

While there was a wide array of things, including journals, seashells, cooking materials, books, poems, christening outfits, and even a 1946 car manual, notable threads connected each and every one.

 

Stories of place

The connection between things and place was central to many of our guests’ stories. One guest, for example, shared a poignant story of her time in New Orleans. With brightly coloured Mardi Gras beads jangling and sparkling around her neck, she recalled the undeniable sense of place cultivated through food, conversation, and comradery with her neighbours. While the beads were things she had kept, it was the stories of generosity and the memories of place that she would always carry.

 

Stories of the past

The significance of the past was an underlying theme to each story. The things we keep necessarily have a history — of our own personal journeys, or our family histories, or collective histories of culture, religion, and literature. For example, one guest brought a small Catholic cross given to her by her mother — an heirloom to keep her late grandfather’s spirit close during times of conflict and uncertainty. Despite being somewhat skeptical of religion, she developed a curious attachment to this cross. By keeping it close through her journeys around the world, she came to realize that its significance was not so much in the thing itself as in the histories, feelings, and memories that it embodied.

Unwrapping objects in a box from green tissue paper, another guest revealed two small artifacts — a fractured piece of a pipe, and a clear, slightly cracked inkpot. On the paper was a hand-drawn map, showing where she had dug these mysterious, delicate objects from the ground many moons ago (which interestingly, was only about a 10-minute walk from where our event was held). She speculated where they might have come from, who might have owned them, why they had ended up buried in the earth. In fact, it is through speculation that these things came to have a story, and an imagined history. She also pondered what we would find if we kept digging, what other things could we unearth, what other (hi)stories could we conjure? Surely, she suggested, you could write a book about it all.

 

Stories of our selves

Another major theme was the stories of our selves, past and present. One guest brought a journal from her teenage years that brought back humorous memories of romantic optimism, but also made her (and via discussion, the whole room) wonder about the nature of our selves over time. Do we recognize the self that exists within a journal’s bounds? When we move/change/grow, do we ever remain the same? What of our public and private selves? For whom do we write and represent the self? Is it for ourselves or others? For whom do we change? What happens when our journeys create multiple, fragmented selves? And what would it take to piece them back together?

Another guest recalled her days as a youth in a military family, where multiple moves across borders meant things in the physical sense were not easily transported. Aside from her mother’s all-important dishes, there were few belongings they kept on their journeys. And yet, years later, looking at the designs on these dishes, she realized that one of the things she “kept” was colour. Some of her favourite colours — bright lime greens, purples, oranges — reminded her of the mod styles with which she grew up, and which painted the borders of her mother’s prized dishes. Some things we keep might not be tangible in the traditional sense but can nevertheless seep into our sensorial experiences; they create a residual, bodily affect upon our moving, changing, multifaceted selves.

 

Each of the stories shared that evening illuminated the role of things within our journeys through place, through time, and through selves. These keepsakes act as reminders of the past, of family, of home, of feelings, of who we have been and who we could be. As we move across borders, between houses, beneath land, over waters, perhaps what we keep represents a glimmer of continuity in the sometimes-unpredictable journeys of our ever-changing, ever-complex lives.

If you kept digging, what could you find? What would you discover?

If you kept digging, you could write a book with the countless stories of the things you keep.

♦     ♦     ♦

Lesley Butler

LESLEY BUTLER is a Master of Gender Studies candidate at Memorial University. She has research interests in life writing, memory, postcolonial theory, feminist geography, and women in film. Her current research examines the films of Julie Dash through an auto/biographical lens, focusing particularly on how the self is (re)written alongside representations of race, identity, place, and history.

Wednesday, March 28th, 2018

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.

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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.

5.

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

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