Posts Tagged ‘writing inspiration’

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).

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Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

Seven Treasures, part 15: guest post by Catherine Graham

CATHERINE GRAHAM is the author of four critically acclaimed poetry collections: The Watch, and the poetry trilogy Pupa, The Red Element, and Winterkill. Her work has appeared in The Malahat Review, Descant Magazine, Poetry Ireland Review, The New Quarterly, Joyland, Literary Review of Canada, and The Fiddlehead. She holds a master’s degree in creative writing from Lancaster University (U.K.) and in addition to mentoring privately she teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies and the Haliburton School of the Arts. Catherine was judge for the 2012 Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest and will mentor the winners. Her next collection will appear in fall 2013 with Wolsak & Wynn. Visit

Seven Treasures from my life:

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Thursday, October 4th, 2012

“Experiments with voice and fidelity to lyricism”: interview with poet Shannon Bramer

Credit: Jennifer Hendry

SHANNON BRAMER is a poet and playwright. Her poetry collection The Refrigerator Memory was published in 2005 by Coach House Books. Two previous poetry collections, suitcases and other poems and Scarf, were published by Exile Books. Shannon’s first play, MonaRita, was produced in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in February 2010 and has since appeared in festivals across the country. Sometimes you can find Shannon in the playground, recruiting little poets:





Shannon, when did you know that you wanted to be a poet?

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Thursday, June 7th, 2012

Seven Treasures, Part 3: guest post by Jeff Kamchor

Read the series Introduction.

JEFF KAMCHOR is a father of  two (master of none), a singer in need of a metronome, the uxorious husband of his first true love, and a bullshit artist of some renown. He has type A+ blood, wears size 10 shoes, and is classified as Myers-Briggs Type ENTP. He currently traffics in privacy as a gilded prisoner of the Canadian reality-TV racket.


Here are my seven treasures (warning: some coarse language):

1. Bose QuietComfort 3 Acoustic Noise-Cancelling Headphones

Music speaks to me. It’s still my #1 mood-enhancing drug. I have a pair of excellent, ridiculously overpriced headphones that I wear when I’m out walking around the city. The feeling of being completely surrounded, enraptured, and transported by a great song is indescribable.

When we were kids our home was full of music, the basement cluttered with guitars, a bass, a full drum kit, a homemade organ built by a family friend, and all sorts of other noise makers. At the time, none of us had any particular skill on those instruments, but that never stopped us from making sounds … sometimes even musical ones.

There were 10 of us kids separated in age by almost 25 years. That meant the music at home ranged from reggae, folk, jazz, blues, R&B and show tunes from the older group to hip hop, punk, new wave, house, ambient and whatever from the younger. It was all good, and we soaked it in.

At the parties my parents threw there was always tons of food and, after the plates were cleared, someone would play the piano, everyone would sing, and music would fill the house. And somehow, our shortage of cash, the petty disputes, and the bullshit of the outside world would be forgotten.


I know it’s a cliché for a Canadian male to write a paean to a hockey stick, but here is mine.

My stick is a graphite weapon with a black blade and fire-engine red shaft decorated with bold black graphics and the words “CRxSSFIRE” (whatever that means). Of course most of the graphics are buried under an elaborate tape job. White tape spirals down the shaft, and sticky black tape covers the blade.

The stick is a thing of beauty … light, balanced, and with just the right combination of stiffness and flex. I hold it with a passion and an intensity that one would normally reserve for a lover, or an enemy, or a branch overhanging a deep chasm. That’s because it is all these things, a Freudian object if there ever was one.

Every Monday night, like religion, I take it to a gymnasium in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood to play ball hockey. My teammates are on average 20 years younger than me, and to keep up with them at my age takes a combination of tenacity, canniness, desperation—and, of course, the right stick.

But lately now this combination betrays me with increasing frequency by not always being where it needs to be when those fleet young bastards are running me ragged.

I fire the ball laughably wide, and miss easy goal-mouth passes. But then, oh Lord, there are those special moments when the heel of the blade makes contact with the ball and sends it with a caress toward the tip. The base layer of tape increases the contact time by several precious milliseconds, the vertical stripes help to impart spin, and the ball, an orange blur, curves into the top corner of the net. Then I understand why I must play this game. This stick is a tool, a treasure, and a talisman against the dogs of age snarling at my heels: Run, old man, your time here will soon be done.

3. A Box Called Jeff

Up on a shelf, in a cupboard, in a bedroom, in the place where I live, is a box called Jeff. My name is written in black marker on a white label stuck to the outside. Inside the box is a collection of gushy love notes from my wife, many of which I discovered tucked into the brown bag lunches she used to prepare for me. There are also greeting cards, an expired passport, and some ancient newspaper clippings from the time our family emigrated from India.

This box also contains a set of notebooks written by my mother when she was dying.

She had cancer, starting in her breast and eventually metastasizing into the bones of her spine. The disease was relentless, devastating, and cruel, to her body for sure but also to her spirit. Her notebooks are the record of that time. I am terrified to read them. I’ve had them for almost 30 years and every few years I pick them up intending to, but I can never do it.

In my memory, my mother exists in a kind of foggy idealized world of happy family and lazy weekends drinking tea and talking nonsense. I know the reality was very different, especially as the cancer progressed and the powerful drugs set her sharp, beautiful mind adrift into the darkness. She always had an unshakable faith in God. Would that give her comfort in the fear and confusion of death? Was she angry? Did she regret sacrificing her opportunities by having so many children (remember, there were 10 of us)? And what about all those nasty fights with my father? Did she find peace in the end, or was her mind dragged still screaming and defiant under the suffocating waves of morphine that waited for her broken body to give in?

4. Sooji

The recipe is simple. Take one part cream of wheat, sauté in a bit of oil till golden brown, add two parts water, some sugar, and a bit of salt. That’s it. It’s called sooji, and to me it’s a small slice of heaven I embrace when everything else feels like hell.

I can imagine it right now … creamy, slightly sweet … a lovely toasted scent. It’s associated with one of my best childhood memories. I’m a small boy. Aged 6. Bombay. It’s evening. The next day there’s a school trip and my mother says she’s going to make something extra special for my lunch. Years later I don’t remember actually eating that sooji, but I recall walking to school carrying it in my lunchbox and thinking about how good it was going to taste. And what I remember most of all is that my mom made it especially for me. To this day it still carries her memory, me curled up in her lap, the scent of her skin, her tender embrace, big enough to make the whole big, scary world … go away.

5. The In-Progress List

In ancient days a paper notebook was an essential accessory for anxious teens, sensitive poets, and (ahem) self-important middle-aged scribblers of limited talent. These days, many of us have made the transition to electronic note-keeping. My file, which lives on my iPhone, is called “In Progress.” These notes may lack the sensual fibre and the lovely inky scent of paper, but this .doc, this cold arrangement of bits embedded in a heartless silicon matrix, is nonetheless a treasure to me.

Opening the file we find:

  • Quotes, both collected and invented:

What’s fashion except beauty sucking the cock of commerce.

In the murmur of the raindrops every story’s told.

In the future we will all be the lapdogs of benevolent machines.

  • Concepts for stories and inventions that will never be created:

Matches — as in things that go together as in relationships as in matches to burn things down and destroy the past and make new matches.

  • Cheesy song titles:

Cold Beer, Hot Women, Country Music

Ghosts of November

  •  Various bits of doggerel:

I wanna lie down and go to sleep. I’ve done too much; I’m in too deep. The road’s too long; the hill too steep. I gotta lie down and go to sleep.

It’s a big fat file, this In-Progress document, and it reminds me that despite how I currently make my living, I’m not just a creator of spreadsheets, a negotiator of contracts, a financier of field trips, and the fearless father obliged to investigate things that go bang in the night. These are all good things, wonderful things, and it’s my privilege to do them. But it reminds me that once there was another good thing. It reminds me that I dreamed, once upon a time, of being a writer, and that someday… just maybe … the seeds in this file will grow into something more.

6. “Perfect Circle”

I know that every memoir is a precious family document. Some of you reading this are working on memoirs of your own. You have my admiration and my respect: for your courage in mining your own darkness; and for your discipline in getting your ass into a chair and writing everything down. Courage and discipline may be faithful friends to you, but to me they are merely passing acquaintances.

I may never write a memoir, but I have composed a family history of sorts and it is a treasure to me. It’s a song called “Perfect Circle,” a simple little thing, just five chords written in 3/4 time. Here’s the first line:

Turning and turning the music was turning us older.

Old faces fade and then reappear in the new light.

It starts off about my wife and her grandmother, Emmi, who was forced to get married in a black dress because she was already pregnant.

Your grandmother wore black for things that we now take for granted.

And we cry not for things chosen, just those thrown away.

Shortly after I finished the song my father died suddenly of a heart attack, and as a form of therapy, I added several more verses.

I knew when I wrote this song, it would be for my father.

I never expected it to be his requiem.

My mother she loved him but sometimes he loved her badly.

She said, love those you love completely,

for loving’s never wrong.

She left the dance to her children, and then she was gone.

That’s when it occurred to me that the song was a sort of family history. I’ve taught the song to my children and to my brother Alan. He added a few words, had the lyrics framed, and gave them to me as a gift. That gift hangs on the wall in our home for everyone to see. I hope that the verses still to come will be written by my siblings and my children … and theirs. And that the song continues with the last verse forever unwritten.

Just like your mother before you and just like my father.

Let the band play, let the time carry us away.

7. Pulmicort

Imagine a world without all the delightful smells that help make life worth living … no fragrant flowers, no fresh baked bread, no subtle perfume at the nape of a lover’s neck, no heady scent of pussy.

Such loss.

The medical term is anosmia, and I’ve battled it for the better part of 10 years. It’s hard to describe the emptiness of a world without smells. Maybe try this.

Picture a silky floral scarf, or a gasoline rainbow streaked on the asphalt, or the thousand delicious shades of red lipstick, or the soft blue of the summer sky, or the red of an apple. Now imagine all this in black and white and shades of grey. This difference, this poverty of sensation is what it’s like to have no sense of smell.

The only thing that keep’s my anosmia at bay is a steroid medication called Pulmicort. Every morning I empty an ampoule of the drug into a small syringe and spray it into my nose as high as I can get it. It performs some steroidal magic way up in my sinuses and allows me to reclaim a scentscape that I know most people take for granted. My kitchen becomes a riot of welcome scents … coffee, toast, the shampoo in my daughter’s hair, even the distant whiff of the compost under the sink. Outside I note the car exhaust and passing garbage truck with delight. I stand under the crabapple tree in full blossom and breathe deep, and give thanks for the wonders of medicine.


Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Writing on Tico Time: Memories of a Costa Rica Retreat

by Allyson Latta

Sunset at Playa Herradura

I’m sitting at Juanita’s, a rustic beach-front restaurant, sipping a foamy piña colada as the departing sun drifts shades of pink over the Pacific. We arrived early to watch the sunset and for just one drink, and it was quiet then, but with the Latin-rhythmed Costa Rican music pumping from the speakers and the aroma of garlic-sizzled sea bass wafting out to the street, other patrons have been enticed and the place is filling up. Several tables draped in bold orange clothes are pushed together for our group, and looking down the line at the smiling faces of exuberantly chatting writers, I think, not for the first time, how remarkable it is that we’ve found our way to this place.

Many of us met only a week ago. And when these women and men first stepped down from the airport shuttle in front of Namaste Gardens — a small yoga retreat in Playa Herradura on Costa Rica’s Central Pacific coast — they were all slightly rumpled and sheened, visibly tired from travel, unsure of what to expect, and a tad shy with me and one another. One whispered to me as I showed her to her room, “I don’t want to be here,” which startled me, until I realized what she meant. She was worried about fitting in, about whether she belonged here with “real” writers.

But as a writing instructor of mine once said, and I took this to heart, “If you are writing, you’re a writer.” And everyone who’d come to Namaste Gardens Writing & Yoga Retreat was here to write. They were also here to experience a bit of Costa Rica: the rich sunsets, lively music, beaches and cuisine.

Oh yes, and “Tico time,” an extremely relaxed view of clocks and schedules subscribed to by Ticos (informal for Costa Ricans) that, depending on the circumstances, can delight travellers or drive them crazy. Trust me: delighting in it is the best way to go.

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Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

10 Things Writers Can Bring Home from the Oscar-Kissed Film “The Artist”

I’m going out on a limb here — but a sturdy one — to say it’s almost impossible not to love The Artist, the French homage to silent pictures that snapped up five well-deserved Oscars on Sunday: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, as well as awards for costume design and original score. Having previously received many other honours, it’s now officially the most awarded French film in history. (See also the New York Times review by A.O. Scott.)

Written and directed by filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist is the tale of star-crossed actors in the dying days of silent film. Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a cinema idol with an irresistible grin but a fading career and a rocky marriage. His sidekick, onscreen and off, is a clever Jack Russell terrier named Uggie. Bérénice Bejo plays the aptly named Peppy Miller, a young chorus girl and aspiring actress who kick-starts her career by giving George a casual kiss on the cheek that makes the pages of Variety.

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Wednesday, February 29th, 2012