Posts Tagged ‘Memories into Story’

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

Women’s Voices Are Crucial: Thoughts from Plum Johnson, author of the award-winning memoir They Left Us Everything


Plum Johnson with fellow UofT SCS student Jayne Townsend

Plum Johnson with fellow Memories into Story II student Jayne Townsend at a post-course gathering.


In March of this year, Plum Johnson won the coveted RBC Taylor Prize for literary nonfiction for her bestselling memoir, They Left Us Everything.

Plum was a participant in my advanced memoir course Memories into Story II (UofT SCS; online) at the time Penguin Canada published her book in 2014.  Of course her instructor (that’s me) and classmates were extremely proud of her then, and prouder still when she took home the RBC Taylor Prize. It’s been fun to follow her success. Plum quickly gained  popularity as a speaker at literary events and a guest of book clubs across the country (she often visits via Skype).

Read the rest of this entry »

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

“I just have a quirky way of looking at the world”: Interview with three-time memoirist Catherine Gildiner

Catherine Gildiner

Catherine Gildiner

CATHERINE GILDINER is the author of three memoirs and a novel. Too Close to the Falls (1999) was a New York Times and Globe and Mail bestseller. This was followed by two sequels, also bestsellers, After the Falls (2009) and Coming Ashore (2014). Catherine lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Visit her at, or at her blog,

Catherine was a much-anticipated guest for a session of Memories into Story I, the introductory online course on memoir writing I teach through University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. The following is an edited version of my students’ collaborative interview with Catherine about her memoirs and her writing life.


 “I learned as a psychologist that almost everyone feels the same things and that people spend the majority of their lives dealing with their own vulnerability and defending against it. In my writing, it was easier to reveal things in my own unconscious knowing that almost everyone is dealing with the same conflicts.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Join Me for Memories into Story II (online), Starting January 12

Allyson Latta

Allyson Latta (Photo: Keane Shore)

Happy new year, writers!

There are still a couple of spots open in my online critique course Memories into Story II: Life Writing, offered through University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. The fun begins Monday, January 12, and runs for two 4-week periods — 12 Jan to 9 Feb and 23 Feb to 21 Mar.

This time around, there’s a two-week break from 9 to 22 Feb, as I’ll be in San Miguel de Allende leading a workshop and taking part in a panel on memoir writing at the San Miguel International Writers’ Conference.

18616970My guest for Memories into Story II, which focuses on memoir and personal essay, is Richard Gilbert, author of Shepherd (read this wonderful review by Thomas Larson in River Teeth) and one of my favourite essayists on the craft of memoir writing. During the course, students will read several short works by Richard and have the opportunity to take part in a virtual interview.

To register, students must have completed my introductory course, Memories into Story I, or equivalent memoir writing instruction. In the case of the latter, prior to registering please submit two samples of your best writing (maximum 1,500 words) for my approval to

Students must have one of their two short works (maximum 15 pages, double spaced) ready to share with the group by the start of class. The second work can be completed during the course.

Former student Alexandra Risen, who completed Memories into Story I (intro class) and whom I mentored through her Final Project for the UofT SCS Creative Writing Certificate, recently landed a book deal for her memoir. Plum Johnson, author of the memoir They Left Us Everything, was a student in my previous session of Memories into Story II. Among my students, many emerging writers have gone on to see their short memoirs published in journals including Hippocampus Magazine, carte blanche, and The Sun Magazine, newspapers, and anthologies, or to self-publish their life stories.

How far could a course like this take you and your writing? Join us and see!

For additional details or to register, visit Memories into Story II.


Costa Rica Retreat news:

I’ve opened up one more spot in my Mystica Writing & Yoga Retreat, April 6 to 13, 2015. Our small group will stay in picturesque Mystica Lodge, and hold some events at the nearby home of Costa Rica author Sandra Shaw Homer; both venues have stunning views of Arenal Volcano and the lake of the same name. If you’re interested in a travel and writing experience with structured workshops, a private consult with me, and time to focus on your own writing — sightseeing, too, of course — contact me at lattamemoirs [at] and request the Retreat Guide. Participation in yoga is optional.

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

Eric Gainer’s Memories of His Artisan Father Published in Globe and Mail Facts & Arguments

Eric Gainer, a former student in my online writing course Memories into Story I, recently published a moving memoir about his relationship with his father in the Globe and Mail’s Facts & Arguments section: “Despite His Ailing Health, My Father Is Still a Meticulous Artisan.”

Looking down at my once-beautiful, Art Nouveau-style Tiffany floor lamp, I still held out hope that Dad could repair it. Seeing it nestled inside a cardboard box, I couldn’t tell the enormity or complexity of the task I was about to set in motion – nor how it would affect my father.

Several of the hexagonal panels would need replacing. Copper foil and lead solder had given way. Unsheathed, the cracked glass barely held its shape. My most cherished piece of art lay in shambles….” Read the full story here.


Says Eric: “My parents both passed away within six months of each other, almost four years ago. Now am I able to write about it — partial therapy, partial values I picked up along the way that I dare say are worth sharing. If they were here, they’d probably say, ‘We always knew you could tell a story.’

“I actually enjoy the editing process. I’m developing editing skills along the way. I love the storytelling aspects of memoir, the layering of details, looking back from an outsider’s standpoint, learning when enough is enough (or too little) to connect the dots. Finding just the right word is fun. The Globe and Mail editor made some tiny revisions for flow and changed the headline of the article. She asked a few questions, which I reworked into the story to meet the next day’s deadline. I could tell she too is a writer.

“I hope this inspires more newbie writers to put fingers to keyboard more often!”


ERIC GAINER lived and worked in Toronto for 15 years as a self-employed graphic designer. He now lives in Belleville, Ontario, where he works as a social media manager and freelance graphic designer, while honing his creative writing skills upon completion of Memories into Story: Life Writing I, through University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies.





The next session of Memories into Story: Life Writing II, my advanced online memoir workshop, begins January 12, 2015. It runs for 4 weeks followed by a 2-week break, and then runs a second 4 weeks. Space is very limited, so if you’re interested, please register soon at University of Toronto, SCS.

Participants are required to have successfully completed Memories into Story: Life Writing I, or to obtain instructor approval based on a similar course or writing experience. They must have a draft of a 15-page (maximum) short memoir or chapter of a longer memoir ready as of the first week.

My guest for this session is Richard Gilbert, author of the memoir Shepherd and one of my favourite writers on the craft of memoir. Visit him at Draft No. 4.

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

“An Artful Arrangement of Truth”: Interview with author Lee Martin (Part 2)

Read Part 1 here.

“When we announce [our experiences] through the art of writing, we have to do something with them. It helps us move on.”

~ Lee Martin


leemartinYou used alphabetically ordered subtitles in the short memoir “Heart Sounds.” Why did you decide on that structure?

The stroke was an overwhelming experience for me, and it caused me to have to gather a large amount of information so I could better understand what had happened, why, and what to do next. I’m the sort of guy who doesn’t want to think about what goes on inside the human body, but the stroke required me to be informed. I needed the control that the form gave me in order to be able to rationally address the issues before me. I wanted to keep a narrative arc moving through the sections, but I wanted those sections as a way of sorting through all the facts. The added bonus for me was that the form also provided a nice entryway into the past. At the time I was working on this piece, I was also teaching the Dinty Moore essay “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: A Meditation on Missing Fathers.” Dinty’s essay is in the abecedarian form, a form I’d never tried, so I thought I’d give it a shot to see if it might be a good fit for this material.

It was sometimes a challenge to come up with a word for each letter. I tried not to force anything. I wanted words that would move the essay along and would invite me to peel back another layer and see more completely.


Did you keep a journal after you recovered from your stroke and then flesh the story out from there? How much time should one let pass before writing about something so life changing?

For a couple of weeks after my stroke, I didn’t write anything. Then I began to write about it on my blog. From there, I started the essay “Heart Sounds.” I kept no journal. The time between a life-changing event and the writing about it varies for each person and each experience.


We have talked in Allyson’s class a bit about writing to heal. Did writing help you better cope with the experience of your stroke?

After my stroke my biggest challenge was emotional and psychological. Writing about the stroke became essential to my returning to a place of well-being. When we write about our experiences, we can’t ignore them. When we announce them through the art of writing, we have to do something with them. It helps us move on.


You state in “Heart Sounds,” “I know that what we say is who we are, even those unspoken words that echo just beneath the sounds of the ones that we allow ourselves.” If you could remove the anger anaesthetizing your father and your mother’s practicality and preparedness, what words do you think they would use to explain who they are?

My father might say he was “wounded.” He might say he was “lonely.” He might say he was “sorry.” My mother might say she was “grateful.” She might say she was “lucky.” She might say she was “scared.”


What have you done throughout your career to improve your writing? And what has been most effective for you: classes, reading, writing groups?

I’ve always found that teaching is great for my writing because when I teach a particular piece, I have to figure out what the writer did to make it work, and I have to be able to articulate that to my students. I also have to be able to think about what might change in piece to make it even more successful. In other words, I have to do what writers do all the time as they develop their craft; I have to know how something works and how it doesn’t. I look at writing as a life-long apprenticeship, one in which we’re constantly taking apart what we read so we can see what we can steal for our own work. I advise students to read a good deal, not just primary texts, but also what writers are saying about the craft. Never read Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners? You must. And that’s only one of a number of books that writers should read. But we can’t forget to live, too. Sometimes we need to get out of our comfort zone to expand our understanding of human behaviour. Travel is great for this, as is getting involved with activities that might seem foreign to us. The world is marvellously varied. The more corners of it we visit, the more we have to draw on in our writing. We should also immerse ourselves in the writing community through whatever means is available to us: writing groups, readings series, writing conferences, online manuscript exchanges — whatever we can do to keep ourselves involved in the “family” that writing creates.


You co-edited Passing the Word: Writers on Their Mentors. Do you still have a mentor, and how has that process changed as you’ve grown as a writer?

My mentors are still the teachers I had even though most of them are gone now. I still hear their voices, their pieces of advice. I know what they wouldn’t let me get away from. They’re never far from me when I’m writing. My mentors are also all the writers I’ve read, for the very same reasons.


What do you believe are the most important characteristics of a compelling memoir?

You have to have a narrative that will hold your reader’s attention, but also a reflective voice that can make meaning from the storyline.


And what are three of your favourite memoirs?

I hate to have to choose just three, but, if I must . . . (ask me tomorrow, and I’ll probably have three other ones!).

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff

The Tender Land by Kathleen Finneran

Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington


Based on your experience in publishing, do you feel it’s difficult for an unpublished writer to interest a publisher in a book of essays?

In general, essay collections are hard sells. In fact, you may have noted that Such a Life was published as part of the American Lives series at the University of Nebraska Press — in other words, published as a memoir, even though it is, as you’ve seen, a collection of discrete essays. Many publishers don’t like the word essay because they think it’s off-putting to readers, calling up bad memories of the essays that one had to write and read in English classes.

None of this means, by the way, that someone shouldn’t write essays or try to publish a collection of them. Good work always finds a home. We should do the work we’re called to do and then let other people figure out what to name it.


For more about Lee Martin and his work, visit his website.


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Sunday, October 26th, 2014