Halifax’s Word on the Street did something a little bit different this year: they offered a couple of free workshops for the public. The writing workshop I attended focused on memory and memoir and was facilitated by three great local authors: Don Aker, a young adult author; Lorri Neilsen Glenn, a poet, an academic, and a memoir writer; and Julie Vandervoort, a creative non-fiction writer.
Each author provided three writing prompts to the workshop that I found very inspiring. The workshop was only about an hour long so each participant had to choose one writing prompt (and therefore one author) to workshop with and glean advice from. This, for me, was a very tough choice.
Don Aker has written 18 YA books and has won numerous awards for his work. I’ll admit I haven’t yet read any of his work, but YA literature as a genre is something I’ve only recently started to become interested in; however, Don’s writing prompt intrigued me:
Think of a mistake you made in the past that continues to resonate with you now. Why does it still resonate? Allow your mind to return to the moment when you made this mistake, and list the details you remember about it. Don’t worry about their order — simply jot down as many details as you can recall about the time, place, people, situation, etc.
Who among us has not made mistakes? Sometimes mistakes can be haunting and they are a great topic on which to write. I almost joined Don at his writing station but felt, however, like I was being pulled by a string towards a different author. Nevertheless, Don’s writing prompt is something I intend to come back to one day.
Lorri Neilsen Glenn
I think Lorri Neilsen Glenn is one of my favourite people. I first met her three years ago while I was working on my Master of Arts thesis at Dalhousie University. She gave a lecture on the mixture of academic and creative writing during the English Department’s “Friday Speaker Series,” and I remember asking her how she balanced her creative writing life with academia, because at that time I found that academia (especially academia at Dalhousie) left me devoid of creativity. I can’t remember the answer she gave me (all I remember are the dirty looks I received from some of the professors in the room), but she came up to me after the question period and gave me some suggestions on how to find balance between my creative and academic selves. I really appreciated the advice she gave me and I felt hopeful that academia was no longer creativity’s enemy.
I met Lorri again the following year through my writing group. She was a guest speaker to our group and I found myself so moved by her poetry and advice that I ran out the next day and bought every one of her books that I could find. More recently I read and fell in love with her creative non-fiction book Threading Light: Explorations in Loss and Poetry.
Lorri’s writing prompt was right up my ally:
Lost and Found. We lose and find something every day: Friends, keys, places, gloves, pride, rings, health, houses, and our way. Make a list of 10 things, people, places you have lost or found over the years. Think of specific images (freeze frames) that remind you of that loss or that discovery. Think of sounds and smells, objects, specific places that remind you. Go back to who and where you were then. Then choose one or two of the ten you’ve listed, brainstorm details (in no particular order).
Loss is certainly one of the most impressive concepts humans deal with, and memories of loss can be very powerful. I also love Lorri’s idea of thinking in freeze frames. However, I’ve taken workshops with Lorri before (one of which was about memory and loss), so I figured I should branch out and workshop with a different author where I might perhaps get some different ideas and writing advice.
Julie Vandervoort, the author that the invisible string was pulling me towards, is a creative non-fiction writer. I had just recently won the creative non-fiction prize for the 35th Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia Atlantic Writing Competition, but my winning story was the first creative non-fiction piece I’d ever written. I would like to write more creative non-fiction and I knew Julie would have some good advice.
Julie began her mini workshop by telling us that people often ask her, “What is creative non-fiction?” I often receive this same question when I tell people the genre of my winning AWC story. Julie explained that creative non-fiction has many definitions. It is personal journalism, memoir, essay. It is a fugue, a collage of pieces that stick together, of images and emotions.
Julie’s writing prompt was:
Think of an image, incident, memory, fragment or story that you can’t shake. Summarize it in a sentence or give it a title. What deeply held value do you associate or connect with that memory?
Julie suggested that if a piece is not working to draw a connection between it and a value that is close to your heart. “If you can’t find the value,” she said, “then that is probably why it’s not working.” This insight made me start thinking about a manuscript I’m currently stuck on. I’m certainly going to keep Julie’s advice in mind from now on when my writing stalls.
At the end of the workshop, the three authors came together to offer advice to all of the participants:
Don Aker: “Write more than one lead. You may find the second or third is better than the first.”
Lorri Neilsen Glenn: “Think in terms of scenes, small moments, freeze frames that move you in some way. Don’t worry yet about making it linear. Then, later, look at the big picture and organize it.”
Julie Vandervoort: “If you’re stuck, try writing a page or two by hand. Writing by hand activates a different part of the brain. Resist the urge to go back and edit.”
“Writing is hard,” they all agreed, and to quote writer Buffy Cram, “the only thing worse than writing is not writing.”