Posts Tagged ‘creative nonfiction’

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

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

Quotables: Andrea Jarrell on Her Memoir “I’m the One Who Got Away”

I ask what it was like for Jarrell to navigate the history of her parents before she was born — two people of a different generation, younger then than Jarrell and her own husband are now, and whose story Jarrell had to wind her way through before she was able to fully understand her own.

‘This is where starting out as a fiction writer really helped me,’ she says. ‘Because I began by exploring my parents’ story in fiction, I didn’t have to be so precious with them. In my fiction, they weren’t my parents; they were characters in a story. Both of them had told me so much about what they did and how they felt before I was born, so I had the reality but I also wasn’t trying to ‘remember’ what happened. I was allowing these people to exist separately from my experience of them. It was important to me that I wasn’t trying to own their story but to use it as a touch point to inform mine. Their relationship before I was born became a fable to me — a cautionary tale that informed my life and choices.’”

 

Read the full article HERE. (Miller, E. Ce, “Andrea Jarrell’s ‘I’m The One Who Got Away’ Is A Memoir Every Modern Love Fan Will Want To Read,” Bustle.com, Sept. 5, 2017.)

Wednesday, September 6th, 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

The Mirror That Is Memoir — a guest post by Dace Mara Zacs-Koury

Woman Looking at Reflection

 

My father’s death and burial in 1994 in Latvia, and my subsequent discovery of a dark family secret dating back to the Second World War compelled me to write. I knew little of his or Latvia’s past, and so I set about talking to relatives, revisiting overseas, learning Latvian, and digging into historical research, finally turning up Father’s war records. Little did I know when I began that I was embarking on a twenty-year writing journey.

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Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

“Warm life preserved by the pen”: Memoirist Laurie Lee and the valley he loved

 

Writer Laurie Lee

Writer Laurie Lee

 

Some places capture your heart because they are yours, and others, because they belong to someone whose words weave a spell that draws you in.

My husband and I were on an autumn vacation in the Cotwolds and on our way to Sheepscombe, a picturesque village in Gloucestershire, when I realized how close we were to Slad, the childhood home and final resting place of English writer Laurie Lee. Of course, I insisted on a little detour.

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Wednesday, December 7th, 2016