‘Guest Posts’ Archives

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

Suitcase of Memories: How a treasure trove of family photos led to a published novel

 

Guest Post by Susan Johnson Cameron

At a family reunion a few years ago, one of my cousins entrusted me with this suitcase, packed with old photos, postcards, and mementos, some preserved since the last century. This collection of keepsakes sprouted the seed of an idea for a story and nurtured a creative writing process that led eventually to the publication of my historical fiction novel, Home Fires.

Inside this suitcase I found a photo of a platoon of men in First World War Canadian Army uniforms. On the back my grandfather had written “No. 5 Platoon, 159th Batt. Haileybury.”

There is a pack of postcards from 1917 showing the devastation from the bombing in Arras, France. My grandfather was there with the Canadian Army, fighting in both France and Belgium. We were blessed that he returned home whole in body, unlike so many others.

As well, in this assortment of family treasures there is a picture of a handsome man dressed in a Cameron Highlander kilt and tunic. He was my grandmother’s younger brother, George. I know that, tragically, he was killed in battle at Passchendaele.

I discovered a photo of another great-uncle, Alfred. In it he is wearing a smart suit, one hand tucked behind his back. My father told me years ago that his uncle had a prosthetic hand. The family story is that after a serious work accident, Alfred received a monetary settlement for his injury. That money helped my grandparents relocate from England to Canada, where they pioneered in “New Ontario.”

Tucked in with the First World War photos and postcards is a more recent colour picture of a summer-dry ditch, filled with white wildflowers and lush green grass. On the back my uncle recorded, “where we spent hiding from the great fire of 1916 with only a tablecloth to protect us.”

All this I wove into my story. Home Fires was published by Iguana Press in November 2015.

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

This Is Marilyn, creative nonfiction by Pamela Dillon

 

 

This is Marilyn, at seventeen.

I think she’s beautiful, far more so than I remembered growing up. Why did I not see that?

I think it’s that she valued brains and ambition over beauty. Though, she once confided she spent a whole summer trying to style her hair after the 1940s movie actress Veronica Lake. She treated beauty as something transitory, a phase we might go through, a costume we might wear, never anything lasting or meaningful.

§

This is my mother, Marilyn, and her best friend, May. They stand beneath a flowering magnolia tree, tucked into each other; it’s an intimate pose, my mother’s body turned toward her friend. Yet what is most startling is her gaze: my mother stares straight into the camera, exactly the way she would face her life. There is confidence, almost defiance, in the proud tilt of her chin.

They are dressed alike in wide-leg trousers and turtleneck sweaters, even down to the exact same style of shoe. Their hairstyles, too, are alike, thick and wavy and parted on the side. Though the photo is black and white, I know my mother’s hair is the colour of mahogany and that it resists her attempts to contain the wild curls.

I marvel at the sameness of these two, and I wonder about it. They could be sisters. Looking at this photo, I imagine they’ve run away for the weekend.

On the back in her perfect handwriting, she wrote: May and I, Rochester – 1949.

This photograph was taken the year after her beloved father died and she’d had to quit school and go to work in a factory. She was lonely as a child, with no brothers or sisters. My grandmother came from a large family; a serious Victorian, Baptist raised and fearful of change, she tried to imbue her daughter with an unnatural reserve, an emotional constraint that my mother resisted her whole life.

In the photo, my mother’s expression hints at an outer toughness she’s learned to wear. She dangles a cigarette from one hand, as if she’s been smoking for ages. I can only imagine my grandmother’s livid response— a lady would never smoke. My mother would laugh; she always described herself as more of a broad than a lady. It took me half my life to appreciate what a gift that was to both of us.

§

This is my mother, Marilyn, at the beginning of her adult life, a life that would lead to two marriages, four children, a career as the first female store manager in the history of Zellers, and a terminal diagnosis of breast cancer. She was a feminist without ever uttering the word; she prided herself on her work ethic, declared she worked “as hard as any man,” and never took a dime she didn’t earn: she received no social assistance, no alimony, and no child support.

She who had been the apple of her father’s eye would spend a lifetime battling for equality. Sometimes it seemed she preferred men, understood them, and was more aligned with their ambitions and desires.

Her long days were spent rushing about on her high-heeled feet, supervising retail staff and merchandising her store. She didn’t cook, or clean, or sew; she never came to a school play or a music performance; and she fell asleep on the sofa after dinner every night, because she was too tired to walk up the short flight and undress for bed.

But my mother taught me about joy too; she danced on Sunday mornings to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” and when my brother tried to close the curtains, she would holler above the music, “I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks.” And she didn’t, most of the time.

Sometimes I try to imagine her laughter, the backdrop of my childhood, the sign that all would be well. It wasn’t always well, yet her optimism was the cushion to every disappointment, every failure. In my childhood, we were always moving, uprooted for a new job in a different city. Every move she described as an adventure, an open road of possibility that would lead to her success. This is a woman who valued work over home, skill over sentiment, perseverance over help. Her heart was more generous than that of anyone I’ve ever known: she gave away more than she ever received.

§

Here, in one of a few precious pictures of my mom, I see a young woman at the beginning of a difficult life, and I imagine the mother of my youth who would say to that young girl, “You can bear anything if you put your mind to it.” And she did: loneliness, betrayal, abuse, neglect, divorce, breast cancer, and death. She taught me life wasn’t fair and then showed me exactly how to live with that.

I feel gratitude for her strength of spirit. I always thought it was something she had acquired along the way, but when I look at this photo now, her spine straight and gaze unwavering, I see it came early. She looks out at the world, unafraid. She’s beautiful, dark-haired, a little mysterious.

This is Marilyn, at seventeen. She’ll be one hell of a broad someday.

 

Pamela DillonPAMELA DILLON is a writer and poet. A student of creative writing at University of Toronto, she is at work on a collection of short stories for her final project (Certificate in Creative Writing), a novel, and a few creative non-fiction travel pieces. Pamela’s short story “We Come and We Go” and her novel excerpt “As Good As Any Other” won placement in the top ten in the 2013 and 2015 Penguin Random House of Canada Student Award for Fiction, through UofT School of Continuing Studies. Pamela has been published on the CBC Books – Canada Writes website, in the literary journal Tin Roof Press, in the William Henry Drummond / Spring Pulse Poetry Anthology, and most recently, in the Globe and Mail‘s Facts & Arguments and Travel sections.

“This Is Marilyn” was inspired by Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Before You Were Mine” and The Guardian‘s feature “My Mother Before I Knew Her” (March 5, 2016), a theme-based collection of creative nonfiction by Julian Barnes, Jeanette Winterson, and others.

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

Culture Dock: New app encourages travellers and the culturally curious to share impressions through images

Guest post by Kendall Hunter
 

Chichén Itzá, on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula (Photo: Eric Stoen, www.travelbabbo.com)

 

Awhile back, while bouncing around in the back of a taxi in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I was listening to my teenage daughter talk as she absorbed scenery unlike anything she’d seen before.

“Mom, I love the world so much more, now that I’m taking pictures of it.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

Survival: Daughter and Father Collaborate on Story of His Time as WWII Air Gunner and Prisoner of War

 

Survival is the story of Albert Wallace’s dramatic experiences during World War II as an air gunner with the RCAF and a prisoner of war in Hitler’s Germany. This work of creative nonfiction was lovingly conceived, researched, and written in the style of a journal by Barbara Trendos, one of Albert’s daughters, in his voice, with his collaboration.

The seeds of inspiration were first sown in Barbara in the 1980s when her father casually shared the contents of an old file folder he had discovered among his mother’s belongings after she passed away. To Barbara, it was a treasure trove: fragile letters that Albert had written home while he was a prisoner of war; official Air Force telegrams and correspondence that variously reported Albert as MISSING, then as a POW, and finally LIBERATED; dog-eared black and white snapshots that begged identification of people, time, and place.

Barbara was hooked, and realizing that she knew only the highlights of Albert’s wartime story, she naively undertook to fill in the gaps — to what end even she didn’t know.

Her extensive research into World War II, 419 squadron and the RCAF, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, Stalag Luft III, prisoners of war, and the Great Escape took on a life of its own.

Barbara says she has always been a writer, even when she was something else. She remembers opening a short story in elementary school with the following sentence: “As he rounded the corner, it was his nose I saw first.” She has no idea what the story was about, who it was about, where it went from there, or why she has never forgotten that line. Perhaps, she says, memory is nature’s way of tethering us to something that matters, as we follow one of life’s many roads.

During one period of her life when Barbara was “something else,” she noticed a sign in a local gardening store about Allyson Latta’s 2010 “Garden of Memories” memoir workshop. Attending the workshop kick-started her writing of Survival, which had been simmering on a back burner for years while she worked in corporate communications. Further spurred on by Allyson’s 2011 Sabino Springs Writers’ Retreat in Tucson, Arizona, Barbara shifted her writing into a higher gear, and Survival finally crossed the finish line in November 2015.

Publishing this book has been an adventure for Barbara and her father. They have signing sessions sitting together at her dining room table — as long as she feeds him lunch, or coffee and cookies, she says. Albert sells books wherever he goes, particularly at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, where he volunteers in the veterans’ wing. They’ve promoted the book at small events, including one this week at The Canadian Forces College in Toronto. And Barbara says that in the spring, now that it looks like the weather can be counted on, they will plan an official launch.

BARBARA TRENDOS is retired and lives with her husband in Markham, Canada.

There’s more about her writing journey in these earlier essays on this website:

Writing in My Father’s Voice: Honouring His Wartime Experience, Part 1 and Part 2.

Survival can be purchased through Barbara’s website at www.barbaratrendos.com or Amazon.

 

Wednesday, March 9th, 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