‘Writer Success Stories’ Archives

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

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

Disquiet and Experimentation: Interview with writer Chloë Catán, first-prize winner in the 2015 Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest

 

Chloë Catán

 

 

Chloë Catán’s poem “Uprush” (read it here) received first prize in the 2015 Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest. She received private online mentoring sessions with contest judge Stuart Ross, who had this to say about her submission:

“It was wonderful to award the first prize in a contest for unpublished poets to a poem that begins with an epigraph by Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese writer who published very little during his lifetime. With few words that stretch beyond a syllable or two, ‘Uprush,’ a beautifully paced, economically crafted poem, is rich in sound, language, and image. Like a dream, this poem tumbles disorientingly down the page, both celebrating itself and at war with itself: it exalts; it contradicts. There is tension between the stuff of nature and the stuff with which we have burdened nature. Each reading of ‘Uprush’ reveals new nuances, new phrasings, new possibilities.”

 

Read the rest of this entry »

Thursday, February 25th, 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

Traces of What Was: a memoir by Steve Rotschild

Inspired by a line from novelist Lydia Millet — “We live in what we leave behind” — Steve Rotschild began writing his memoir, Traces of What Was, at the age of 70.

It was 2003, and he had realized he was the only one who knew the full story of what had happened to their family, “who were among the 70,000 Jews of Vilna during the dark days” of the Second World War.

“I had carried the story with me for a long time,” he tells me in a recent telephone interview. “I wanted to get it off my chest and to tell my children and grandchildren, so the stories wouldn’t get lost.”

“Young people,” he adds, “can’t imagine these things.”

Rotschild, who now lives in Toronto, was born in 1933 in Vilna, Lithuania. He immigrated to Israel with his mother and stepfather in 1949, and from there to Canada. In 1956, in Montreal, he married Lillian Blumenfeld; they later moved to Toronto, where they raised their two daughters.

But this brief biography doesn’t reveal what his memoir does.

In Traces of What Was, “Ten-year-old Steve Rotschild learns to hide, to be silent, to be still — and to wait. He knows the sound of the Nazis’ army boots and knows to hold his breath until their footsteps recede. Rotschild takes us on a captivating journey through his wartime childhood in Vilna, eloquently juxtaposing his past, furtive walks outside the ghetto with his long, liberating walks through Toronto fifty years after the war. Vividly evoking his experiences, this story of survival and a mother’s tenacious love leaves the reader indelibly marked by Traces of What Was,” writes his publisher.

Launched in a ceremony at the Markham Flato Theatre, Traces of What Was is published by the Azrieli Foundation, a Canadian philanthropic organization that supports a range of initiatives, including Holocaust commemoration and education. The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program “is guided by the conviction that each survivor of the Holocaust has a remarkable story to tell, and that such stories play an important role in education about tolerance and diversity.”

The program’s fascinating website offers a multimedia look at the memoirs in the series and their authors, featuring excerpts, maps, photos, video interviews, and historical context. There are also educational resources for teachers.

Before he began writing, Rotschild read many stories of the war that were tragic, but he was determined his memoir would be different. His favourite writers include Canadians Gregory Clarke and Rohinton Mistry, whose works he read for inspiration. He eventually decided on a structure for his book that juxtaposes thoughtful and evocatively described strolls in various seasons through his Toronto neighbourhood, representing for him moments of freedom and relative happiness, with reflections on wartime. His teenage granddaughter Michal helped with the wordprocessing and editing to pull the manuscript together.

“I needed to tell the story,” says Rotschild, who has since suffered a stroke resulting in some paralysis.

One of the most difficult scenes to set down on paper, he says, happened when he was young, during the war and on the morning after an explosion. He saw feet wearing little white shoes sticking out of the rubble of a building and thought they were those of a doll — until the body of a girl was pulled from the wreckage.

Following that passage, in a rare aside to the reader, he writes: “I hesitated a long time before writing this down. It is something I haven’t described to anyone for sixty years, the most upsetting image from among the other horrible images I carry with me from the war years.”

“I’m not very sentimental — I’ve seen a lot of death,” he says. “But some of the scenes [I remember] were terrible, especially scenes of children.”

Yet Rotschild’s writing is also filled with humour, keen observation, rich description, and an appreciation of life’s beautiful moments. “The war was raging somewhere,” he writes of his last visit to his grandparents’ home, thirty-two kilometres from Vilna,

“but in the small village of Popishok, life went on as before. The girl and her two brothers came again, and we played hide-and-seek. They counted to one hundred, and I ran through the orchard, along a grey wooden fence and into the large barn belonging to the children’s family. It was a huge, dim place with several stalls but no animals, some farm implements and wooden barrels. Against the far wall a ladder leaned up to a loft where a few bales of hay lay. The rungs were too far apart for my short legs, but I managed to scramble up and hide behind a bale, sitting against the wall clutching my knees. Soon I heard them come in. They searched the stalls and inside the barrels and then left. It was very quiet; I heard the buzzing of bees outside, then another sound, of someone climbing the ladder. I didn’t move. Then she was beside me on her knees, her hands on the floor boards, a wide grin on her face, laughter in her dark eyes. She leaned closer and kissed me on the cheek, her black hair brushing my face, and then she was gone – the sound of her bare feet on the wooden floor of the barn and out the door, the pleasant sensation of her soft lips on my cheek and the strange cucumber smell of her hair all a precious gift….

“The next day it was back to the city and the war. I never saw my grandparents and aunt Faigeh again, nor the children I played with for those few memorable days.”

Steve Rotschild (right) with his grandson Cory Austin at the launch of Traces of What Was (Photo: Eric Benchimol)

Ultimately, the miles and memories — some heartbreaking, others uplifting — that Rotschild travels in his contemplative walks bring writer and reader to a place of peace and hope.

He urges other survivors to write their own stories. “If we leave behind written accounts of ourselves,” he says, “[the dead] can still talk to the living on down through  the years.”

Traces of What Was can be purchased at Second Story Press.

Memoirs in the Holocaust Survivor Memoir Program series are published in English and French and distributed free of charge to educational institutions across Canada. They are available in bookstores or online. E-book versions will be available in the near future.

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

Off the Shelf: Greg Walker on recognizing “the sacred meeting place of memory and reality”

 

West Coast Trail (Photo credit: Parks Canada)

 

My fingers dug into the smooth trunk of the beast as I searched in vain for a handgrip. I pointed my feet and dug my knees in hard, but there was no movement forward. My bare thighs quivered and locked up, victims of fear and cold. The spray from crashing waves sent icy fingers over my legs, pulling me toward the boiling stew of kelp below. Over the ocean’s roar, I heard a hiker’s desperate yell: “Keep moving! Keep MO-VING!” [read the full Facts & Arguments essay here]

Those are the dramatic opening lines from Greg Walker’s personal essay on taking risks and finding balance in life, recently published in the Globe and Mail Facts & Arguments section. A past student in both my Memories into Story courses through University of Toronto, he’s now at work on a series of essays that will form his Final Project for the Creative Writing Certificate.

I asked Greg to talk about how this essay came to be and about his writing journey so far. I hope you’ll find his words as inspiring as I do.

Off the Shelf

I’m flipping through the memories that sit in rows on the dusty shelves of my mind. They’re arranged in different boxes, like Dad’s old vinyl records in my garage. And like the albums, I never get tired of replaying the well-worn favorites. But it’s the rare surprise of rediscovering a near-forgotten one that I savour the most.

They start with the first day of school. Then waking up in the hospital after getting my tonsils out. There’s learning to ride a bike. Coke from a little glass bottle on a hot summer day. The AM radio in Mom’s kitchen pumping out 70s songs before they were classics. Terry Fox hopping down the main street of my hometown on his artificial leg.

When I was nine or ten, I got a little diary for Christmas. It was bound with green faux leather, the word “Diary” etched in golden script on the spine. A tiny built-in lock kept the precious contents from prying eyes. As I made my dutiful entries, I fantasized about it being found one day and becoming a bestselling book. Like many childhood dreams, the weight of the required discipline eventually sank it out of my thoughts.

                                              §

One middle-aged day, I signed up for an introductory writing course at a local university. My employer was paying because it was “job enhancing.”

One and done, I thought. “Mid-life crisis,” others whispered.

But the literary water found the dormant seed that had drifted to the bottom of my consciousness. I signed up for more courses. Then a memoir course. And another.

My first published story started as one of those dusty recollections in my mind’s eye. I traced the string of memory back to an event that had triggered a dramatic change in my life: crossing an ocean surge channel while hiking the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island.

The first step in writing the story was the “downdraft.” Documenting the raw details. “Telling the story to yourself” is how Stephen King puts it in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. That first draft was a rambling, disjointed tale.

The next step used the practical lessons from the writing courses. Open with a strong hook. Use believable dialogue. Watch for continuity and avoid bad flashbacks. Use action. Move the characters around. Make it relevant to others. Mix in something historical.

Next came the grinding torture of self-editing.

Word search for ly to find all the adverbs. Rewrite.

Read the story out loud. Rewrite.

Read it like a writer. Rewrite.

Enter punctuation purgatory. Rewrite.

The story was still rough after a few days and more than a dozen versions. But the course deadline loomed.

I uploaded the story for the dreaded peer review. When three or more students suggested a change, I swallowed my pride and took it. If only one or two picked at something, I filed it under consideration.

After adding the final edits from my instructor, I submitted the story to a national contest. It was the worst thing I could have done. Not because it didn’t make the short list, but because the contest rules held the story captive for six months after the submission date. I couldn’t send it anywhere else.

My other mistake was to show it to my father. Never one to shower praise, he didn’t deviate this time.

“Hmm, pretty good little story,” he said, speed reading through before going back to Google Maps.

The story took its place on the shelf with my other dusty memories.

After finishing the second memoir course, I took time off from writing. But I continued to follow this website and blog. It’s my own personal Narnia, the secret place where memories grow wings and fly.

Clicking through the posts one day, I saw a section on the recent publishing successes of other past students. Their stories were exceptional, and they sparked something within me.

It was time.

I dug out my “West Coast story,” already a bony skeleton at 1,250 words. To submit it to the national paper, it had to be 900 words or less. So I cut and hacked until I despaired there was nothing left that made it mine.

But it worked.

I heard back the next day and accepted the contractual requirements. They commissioned an illustration and told me the date it would run. A few days later, the editor suggested some changes for a final polish.

Did the ruthless editing make it more palatable? I’m not sure.

But somewhere among the hundreds of posts and readings of my courses I made a discovery. Memoir done well is like a perfect photo of a mountain reflected in a shimmering lake. You’re never sure if you’ve got the photo upside down or not, but it doesn’t matter. It’s the sacred meeting place of memory and reality, where the past sparks inspiration for the future. I’m thankful that the spark was entrusted to me.

The next chapter’s up to you.

♦     ♦     ♦

Greg Walker with niece Avery

GREG WALKER was born and raised in Thornhill, Ontario, and aspired to a career in fine art and photography. After briefly attending OCAD University in Toronto, he took a year off to work and reflect before settling at the University of Guelph. While there, he completed a bachelor’s degree with a dual focus on Biochemistry and Art History. A career with a major international food company has allowed him to travel widely while remaining rooted in the Toronto area.

After reflecting on a season of life’s suffering, during which his wife lost two of her three sisters to cancer, he felt compelled to reawaken his earlier dream of creative writing. While pursuing the University of Toronto Certificate in Creative Writing, he landed in the Memories into Story I and II courses, which he credits with releasing his true writer’s voice. He is now completing the requirements for the final course towards the Certificate.

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015