‘Guest Posts’ Archives

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

Ann Y.K. Choi

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

 

 

Website: https://annykchoi.com

Twitter: @annykchoi

Facebook: annykchoi

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

Wednesday, November 1st, 2017

12 Book Event Marketing Tips from Novelist Elinor Florence

 

Elinor Florence speaks with a reader at Peachland Gallery, Peachland, B.C.

Elinor Florence speaks with a reader at Peachland Gallery, Peachland, B.C.

Canadian journalist ELINOR FLORENCE, who lives in the Canadian mountain resort town of Invermere, British Columbia, has written for daily newspapers and magazines including Reader’s Digest. Her first historical novel, Bird’s Eye View, was published by Dundurn Press of Toronto (October 2014).

Back in April 2015, Elinor wrote a blog post HERE explaining what she learned in the first six months after her book was released, about the business of selling books. The following year, in June 2016, Bird’s Eye View achieved Canadian fiction bestseller status in both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail newspapers. Her second novel, Wildwood, will be released in February 2018.

Elinor attributes much of her success to book events. She has visited dozens and dozens of book clubs, public libraries, bookstores, and other venues to make that all-important face-to-face connection with readers. Now she’s back with twelve more tips picked up while on tour.

Elinor wearing a vintage wartime outfit at a book signing in West Vancouver, with Air Force veteran Ruth Nesbitt.

Elinor wearing a vintage wartime outfit at a book signing in West Vancouver, with Air Force veteran Ruth Nesbitt.

1. FOLLOW THE FOOT TRAFFIC.

I love independent bookstores and will continue to support them, but it is Chapters where I’ve made the most sales. I’ve noticed a ratio of about 20 people walking past my book table per book sale, so in order to sell 30 books, I need at least 600 potential customers. I’ve also done well at Christmas craft fairs and farmers’ markets, where there are crowds looking for gifts or one-of-a-kind items, such as a personalized book.

2. IDENTIFY YOURSELF AS THE AUTHOR.

This may seem obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times after chatting with people for a few minutes, they’ll say in surprise: “Are you the author?” Now I also have a sandwich chalkboard that says Author Signing Today, plus a nametag that reads Elinor Florence, Author. It’s heartwarming to see how many people will buy your book just because they like the idea of supporting a real live Canadian author.

3. PURCHASE A SQUARE.

If you’re selling your own books, it’s important to be able to accept credit cards. I lost many sales in the first couple of years, before I finally got smart and purchased a Square. Don’t worry — this little gadget that plugs into your Smartphone is simple to use, and many customers are already familiar with it. Please note that a Square will only accept credit cards, not debit cards. I also take personal cheques, and have never had one bounce yet.

4. ASK PEOPLE FOR THEIR EMAIL ADDRESSES.

When doing book signings, I urge people to visit my website and sign up for my blog. But few people will actually go to the trouble, so I’ve become more proactive. I have a signup sheet on my table and ask everyone who comes by if they would like ME to sign them up for my blog. About one-third of people who stop to chat give me their names and email addresses, and I subscribe them to my blog later. I don’t ask for any other personal information.

5. ASK BUYERS TO EMAIL AND TELL YOU IF THEY LIKED THE BOOK.

Whenever anyone buys a book, I make sure to point out my email address on the bookmark and ask the reader to contact me. People are flattered to have their opinion sought, and they often do email me (especially if they enjoyed the book!). I’m thrilled to hear from readers, I always answer immediately, and some of those people have become friends and supporters.

6. ASK PEOPLE TO POST REVIEWS.

I ask every acquaintance, book club participant, and audience member to post a review on Amazon or Goodreads, but very few follow through. Some people don’t have an Amazon account; others don’t want an online presence; for others, it’s a tedious chore that reminds them of writing book reviews in school. When making my request, I always tell them that one sentence, or even a star rating, is welcome. If I have their email addresses, I send a simple list of instructions for those who don’t know how.

7. REMEMBER, RETURNS ARE SUBTRACTED FROM SALES.

If you have a traditional publisher, it’s fairly typical that your returns are subtracted from sales. I wasn’t clear how this worked until I received my first royalty statement. If a bookstore orders 40 books for a book signing, and you sell 20 of them, the other 20 are returned to the publisher and subtracted from gross sales. Your royalties: zero. Even though you sold 20 books! So when bookstores ask how many books to order, be conservative.

8. EAT BEFOREHAND.

If you’re doing a book event lasting four or five hours, make sure you have lunch beforehand. You may think you’ll have time to eat, but chances are you either can’t leave your table unattended, or you just won’t want to miss out on any potential sales. Also, your energy level will flag without sustenance — talking to people for five hours is hard work! Keep a water bottle on hand. (My coffee often gets cold long before I finish it.)

9. ENLIST A HELPER.

I’ve done events with and without someone to help, and I can assure you that it’s far easier when my long-suffering husband comes along to carry the books, mind the table when I’m taking a bathroom break, count the cash, and even help me sell the book by chatting to people waiting in line. I’ve schlepped boxes of books across slushy parking lots more times than I like to count. Also, while you are finishing up with the last chatty customer, your helper can be packing up and loading the car. If you don’t have a helper, start lifting weights — books are heavy!

10. CREATE A POWERPOINT PRESENTATION.

When I was first published and started visiting book clubs and service clubs to chat about my research, I soon realized how much easier it would be to show photographs of the people and places who inspired my novel. Fortunately I had a lot of interesting old photos from my Wartime Wednesdays blog, so with the help of a friend who showed me how to create a PowerPoint slide show (I promise it is simple: just drag and drop the photos into a template), I created a visual backdrop for my talk. I bring my laptop with me, along with a cable that will connect into anybody’s projector or smart TV. People love looking at photos, and visuals make the occasion  more memorable.

Elinor with Lancaster bomber in Nanton, Alberta.

Elinor with Lancaster bomber in Nanton, Alberta.

11. PIGGYBACK ON OTHER EVENTS.

When I heard that the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alberta, was hosting a special event to highlight their Lancaster bomber, I asked if I could do a book presentation. They were happy to have me, and at the event I had access to hundreds of people who love vintage aircraft — a perfect fit for Bird’s Eye View. I’ll be seeking those kinds of special annual events at pioneer museums when promoting my forthcoming novel, Wildwood.

12. DRESS IN KEEPING WITH YOUR BOOK’S THEME.

Obviously this won’t work for every book, but I always wear my wartime vintage outfit when signing copies of Bird’s Eye View. People LOVE my seamed stockings, and it’s a great conversation starter ( in case you’re wondering, I found them at Nordstrom’s). My second novel has a pioneer theme, so right now I’m planning my next outfit. It may include a sunbonnet!

 

Wildwood, a contemporary novel with a historical background, will be published by Dundurn Press in February 2018. It’s now available for pre-order from Amazon HERE.

Broke and desperate, Molly Bannister accepts the ironclad condition laid down in her great-aunt’s will: to receive her inheritance, Molly must spend one year in an abandoned off-the-grid farmhouse buried in the remote backwoods of northern Alberta. If she does, Molly can sell the farm and fund her four-year-old daughter’s badly needed medical treatments.

With grim determination, Molly teaches herself basic pioneer skills. But her greatest perils are presented by the brutal wilderness itself, from blizzards to grizzly bears. Only the journal written in 1924 by her courageous great-aunt, the land’s original homesteader, inspires Molly to persevere against all the odds.

To read more about Elinor and her books, visit: www.elinorflorence.com

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

Literary Nude, an essay by Carin Makuz

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once again the nude came to mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

 

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

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

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