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Learning How to SpeakBack in the fall I had a short creative non-fiction piece published by Fierce Ink Press. I’ve been a little quiet about it, mainly out of fear of having people read it: strangers, friends, family. I worry too much about what other people think. And I worry about possibly hurting those I care about, especially my family. But a little over a month ago I decided it was time to start talking. I participated in a panel of Fierce Ink Press authors at Mount Saint Vincent University to discuss my Fierce Short, entitled “Learning How to Speak“, which recounts some of my experiences dealing with anxiety and depression as a teenager.

I was quite nervous to get up and speak about my struggles with anxiety and depression in front of some of my former professors and a bunch of strangers, but I was also honoured and excited to be part of a panel of some great writers: Chris Benjamin, Ben Boudreau, Gerard Collins, Alison Delory, and Gail Lethbridge. I loved hearing the other Fierce Short authors speak about their work and writing process, but I was afraid I wouldn’t have much to say or contribute. I think I did okay when it was my turn to speak and answer questions but, partly due to nerves and partly due to baby brain (I had Baby L strapped to me — plus, you know, there’s that whole lack of sleep thing), I forgot to say everything I had wanted to mention. When the event was finished I wished I could go back up to the podium and talk about it some more, which made me realize that I did have something valuable to contribute after all. And, perhaps, publishing something so personal wasn’t such a bad thing.

I read somewhere, or maybe I was told, that if you can’t take criticism then you shouldn’t publish. Although I may not have been emotionally ready to publish something so personal given my initial hesitation to promote and share it with the world, I disagree with that statement. If the only stories published were by writers hardened to what others thought, then so many important things would never have been said or discussed. Although I certainly don’t consider myself a great writer, regardless of what people think of me or my writing, I now believe that publishing “Learning How to Speak” was important for both myself and for others who may be able to relate to or learn from my experiences. Although “Learning How to Speak” is directed towards a young adult readership, many people, young and old, struggle with anxiety and depression (as well as other mental health issues), and yet there is still a stigma that surrounds and permeates any discourse on mental health. Unfortunately, common negative views of those who live with mental health disorders won’t change unless people start speaking out and sharing their stories.

I had trouble coming up with a good title for my Fierce Short but finally settled on “Learning How to Speak,” because in my story I learn to cope with my anxiety and depression through writing and finding my voice. But “Learning How to Speak” is appropriate to more than just my story. What I learned from publishing my Fierce Short and my hesitation to share it with others is that I’m still learning how to speak. Every day. And I hope that I never stop.

For more information about “Learning How to Speak” please visit my author page at Fierce Ink Press. Digital copies are available for purchase from Storenvy, Kobo, iTunes and Kindle, and twenty percent of proceeds go to the HeartWood Centre for Community Youth Development. I also encourage you to check out some of the other Fierce Shorts listed here. They are truly great stories, and twenty percent of each sale goes towards a youth charity of the author’s choice.

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On blogging

Over the last year or so this blog has been fairly inactive with posts few and far between. There are a few reasons for this:

1) I got a new full-time job with more responsibilities, leaving me with less free time.

2) In addition to my full-time job I worked as a teaching assistant on the side and also took on the occasional editing job, leaving me with even less free time.

3) I moved… twice.

4) I was pregnant (and therefore always tired) and had a baby (and so am still always tired).

5) I became a single mother.

On writing

Despite being swamped with work, moving, life in general, and all things baby, I managed to write a short creative non-fiction piece and get published with Fierce Ink Press! Woohoo! It’s called “Learning How To Speak” and discusses being a teenager with anxiety and depression. More on this in my next blog post.

As for writing in general, I’ll be honest and say I haven’t done much and this really bothers me. I am, however, starting to get the itch to write again, which is great. I have some ideas I want to work on, but my stumbling block at the moment is trying to figure out a new life/writing balance as a single mother with an infant. I know I’ll get there, but it may take time. And more sleep. I welcome suggestions from other moms who like to write.

On letterpress printing

I managed to get some printing done while pregnant, but haven’t printed anything since my son was born. Again, this goes back to figuring out a new life balance. However, I still have cards and prints for sale at Inkwell Boutique and Duly Noted in Halifax, and in my Etsy shop.

I would like to start becoming active in the Halifax Letterpress Gang again (I took a hiatus while pregnant for health reasons), but at this time in my life it’s all about baby steps.

On motherhood

I never planned to have children. My son (hereafter referred to as Baby L) was a surprise, but motherhood, although incredibly challenging, is the most amazing and rewarding thing that has ever happened to me. Baby L is now two months old and I’ve never been so in love.

Crystal and Baby L

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In the seventh and penultimate class of Carol Bruneau‘s WFNS creative writing workshop, Bruneau focused on ways in which to re-envision and revise your story as well as how to find a satisfying ending.

Creative Writing with Carol Bruneau: Week Seven

When it comes to finishing your story, Carol Bruneau says that “everything in a [story] is geared towards the ending: that is the impression that you want the reader to take away and remember.” Bruneau points out how there are various ways one can approach an ending. For example, sometimes a writer knows the ending first and writes the story as a way to work towards it, whereas other times a writer may not know the ending until he or she has written several drafts. However, Bruneau states that the “best endings are recognized, not invented,” which is often the same way the story structure emerges. (To see what else Bruneau has to say about dramatic structure please visit my previous blog post, “Creative writing tips: The architecture of fiction“).

After you’ve written the ending and have a complete draft, next comes the revision stage. Bruneau says it’s helpful to go back through your story and look for places where you can either foreshadow the ending “by planting seeds along the way, [like] images” or cut writing that foreshadows the ending too much — you don’t want the ending to be predictable or obvious: “Foreshadowing must be subtle enough to set up the ending so it seems inevitable but is still surprising.” She also explains that during the revising process it’s often useful to rewrite your beginning and/or ending. Some writers even choose to wait and write the beginning of a story last in order to make sure the beginning fits with or reflects the ending.

Bruneau also explains that part of the revising process is to re-envision the story. Not only should a writer think about whether or not the story has enough (or too much) detail, and fill in plot holes, etc., but a writer should also put him or herself in the readers’ shoes. What kinds of questions might a reader have about your story and how can you answer or explore these questions in your story? Are these the kinds of questions you want your readers to ask when they finish reading, or have you left out important information? To re-envision your story, Bruneau suggests interviewing your protagonist (and maybe other major and/or minor characters) to see if there is anything of importance that you may have left out. To practice this technique she gave us the following exercise:

Interview your character from the point of view of the narrator, another character, and/or a prospective reader/editor. Did you learn anything new that might be important to the story? How has your character surprised you or changed during the course of the story? Is there anything you need to add or change to your draft? Are there places you can insert new information or tweak your draft to accommodate a new “truth”?

Consider how your character might respond to the following questions:

– What are some mistaken impressions people have about you? What are some correct impressions?
– What secret about yourself do you most want to keep?
– What secret about someone else is the most distressing for you to keep?
– Can you describe a time when you did something you now wish you could have done differently?
– Do you have a secret you’ve never revealed to anyone?
– What frightens you most?
– etc.

Lastly, during your revisions Bruneau suggests analyzing your story by looking at it critically. Identify the climax and ask yourself if the ending is plausible. And don’t forget to look at the beginning of your story. Will it hook the reader’s interest? Can you identify the protagonist’s main problem? Moreover, are there any plot holes that need to be filled, or sections that might not fit or need to be moved?

My own advice for writers during the revision stage is to have someone else (a friend or relative you know won’t sugarcoat his or her critique) read your draft. The writer of a story is inherently too close to his or her own work to often notice plot holes and whether or not something fits or is plausible, but an outside eye will often see what a writer may not notice right away. Putting yourself in the reader’s shoes is helpful when you start to revise, but actually having someone else in those shoes can be invaluable (especially before you send your work out for submission).

Please leave comments with your own helpful tips on wrapping up and revising a story. I would love to hear from you.

My next blog post will go over Bruneau’s eighth and final WFNS creative writing class where she discussed publishing and submitting your work.

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To continue on with my posts about Carol Bruneau‘s WFNS writing workshop (which I took last year and am, sadly, long overdue writing about), Bruneau discussed how to create a dramatic structure in class six.

Creative Writing with Carol Bruneau: Week Six

Carol Bruneau calls dramatic structure the “architecture of fiction” because a story is like a house — it is created through structure. The architecture of fiction includes a collection of scenes, narratives, and exposition, and each of these dramatic elements are doorways into the story. Bruneau says, “It doesn’t matter which door you enter as long as you visit all the rooms — but the door you enter colours your impression of the house.” For example, she explains that scenes slow things down whereas narrative moves things along. Expositional writing (writing that explains or informs) should be placed in between scene and narrative to connect the dots. Moreover, she explains that, not only should a novel (for example) have an arc and a climax, but that each chapter should also have its own arc and climax to keep readers interested. She also suggests starting a story or chapter with a dramatic beginning rather than information or backstory. Backstory, although important, should be interwoven into the story with little clues in order to keep the story as present as possible.

In addition to the structural elements of a story that hold the story together, Bruneau urges writers to also think about what isn’t there. She explains, “The things people don’t say are just as important as the things they do say, especially in dialogue and poetry.” Just as a good painting or picture requires a certain amount of negative space, so too does a story. Negative space also allows room for other people (readers) to enter the story and become engaged.

Lastly, although good stories follow a dramatic structure, Bruneau says it’s best to forget about structure in the early stages of writing because it can paralyze the story (and, of course, the writer). She suggests to write the story as it presents itself to you, and then to worry about structure later. For me, this was probably one of the best pieces of advice Bruneau could give me. Rather than just write, I’ve often gotten stuck on thinking about structure and how all of the pieces are supposed to fit together. Starting off a story that way can be overwhelming (at least it is for me). The main focus of writing a story should be on, well, writing — each piece of writing can be placed and arranged into a cohesive structure much later on.

My next blog post will discuss week seven of Bruneau’s class: Re-envisioning a story and revising. For advice on developing plot (which, of course, is an important part of dramatic structure) please visit my blog post on Bruneau’s fifth class: “Creative writing tips: Developing a storyline – Plot.”

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So after a long hiatus for various reasons (including some life-altering events — but more on that another time), I’d like to get back into this blogging thing.

Back at the end of April I left off my discussion of Carol Bruneau’s WFNS writing class by talking about dynamic settings and atmosphere (see “Creative writing tips: Creating dynamic settings and atmosphere“). In the following class (the fifth class out of eight) Bruneau discussed plot development.

Creative Writing with Carol Bruneau: Week Five

I think plot is where I have a lot of issues when it comes to writing fiction. I get an idea for a story in my head, but I never quite know how to dissect it into enough scenes so it will amount to something. This is why Bruneau says that “characters have to have some kind of a problem or else you don’t have a story.” She elaborates by explaining that you have to put characters in situations. How do you come up with those situations? Well, I guess that’s where imagination and brainstorming come in. She suggests writing a synopsis of the main story and then drawing a tree around it to outline what comes next. What’s interesting or puzzling about it, who are the main and secondary characters, etc.? Bruneau calls plot a “narrative of causality” because one thing should cause the next; however, it’s not just about “and then,” but also about “why?” The “why” is important because it demands intelligence and memory, and it’s what keeps the plot moving forward.

In order to develop our “plotting” skills, Bruneau got us to try the following exercise:

Choose a newspaper article and rewrite the story from the perspective of another character involved. For example, write from the perspective of the police officer who made the arrest, or the doctor who commented on the perpetrator’s or victim’s health, etc. However, don’t just rewrite the article from that person’s (rather than the journalist’s) perspective, but put him or her in the situation. Write the before, during, and after of the article. What lead to the event and why?

During class Bruneau gave us a newspaper article to work from. It told the story of a fourteen-year-old girl who was caught trying to poison her father with a pancake. I chose to write from the perspective of the girl’s psychiatrist in the form of journal entries. I found it a fun exercise to immerse myself in as I tried to imagine what may have led the girl to poison her father; however, the story that began to emerge from this exercise wasn’t so much about the girl, but about the psychiatrist. Sometimes writing has a mind of its own like that; you never know where plot may take you.

Unfortunately, plot is still a struggle for me. Do you have any tips, tricks, or exercises on how to develop plot?

Following plot, Bruneau’s sixth class focused on story structure and climax, which I’ll discuss in my next blog post. I promise not to wait another four months until I post again!

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I love stories with great settings, which is why Emily Brontë‘s Wuthering Heights is one of my favourite novels. The setting and atmosphere of Wuthering Heights is so reflective of the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw that Brontë’s story couldn’t work any other way. Setting and atmosphere was the main topic of Carol Bruneau‘s fourth class of her WFNS creative writing workshop.

Creative Writing with Carol Bruneau: Week Four

Carol Bruneau explains that setting becomes a kind of character. I can certainly think of a number of books where this is the case, but to go back to my Wuthering Heights example, Brontë’s setting not only reflects the physical and emotional struggles of the characters, but Heathcliff’s wild home of Wuthering Heights and Linton’s more sophisticated home of Thrushcross Grange — both of which reside on the violent and unpredictable Yorkshire moors — are also practically characters in themselves because Brontë’s descriptions of them as well as the movement of the weather on the moors propel the storyline forward. This leads me to Bruneau’s next point about setting: setting and atmosphere can reflect the sensibilities of a character and influence the logistics of the plot, because if the setting is consistent then it lays a foundation for the action. She also explains that setting also helps to ground the reader and orient the story.

In order to practice setting the scene for the reader, Bruneau gave us the following writing exercise:

Write a piece of backstory for your character (backstory is something that happened before the action of the story begins). Place your character in his or her favourite childhood memory. Write it in first person and use the character’s senses. Be specific. What does s/he see, smell, taste, hear, feel, etc.

When writing your story, Bruneau suggests paying attention to whether or not the setting influences the story or the characters’ behaviour in some way. If so, that probably means you’re on the right track.

Can you think of any stories other than Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights where setting and atmosphere are so crucial to the storyline that it becomes a kind of character?

Speaking of characters, Bruneau talked about creating characters in class two and developing dialogue in class three. In my next blog post I’ll discuss Bruneau’s fifth creative writing class where she gave us advice on developing plot.

Happy writing!

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Writing dialogue has always been a mystery to me, and oddly terrifying. I’m introverted and, well, a bit of an awkward person, so conversing with people I don’t know well and making small talk has always been a challenge for me. If I sometimes have trouble holding a conversation with another human being, how am I supposed to make up a realistic conversation between fictional characters? I am grateful that the third class in Carol Bruneau‘s WFNS Creative Writing workshop was about developing dialogue because I certainly needed the practice, but it was my least favourite and most challenging class during her eight week long course.

Creative Writing with Carol Bruneau: Week Three

During week three of the workshop, Carol Bruneau explained that dialogue is the way characters speak to each other or don’t speak to each other and that narrative voice is the narrator’s position or point of view in relation to these characters. Although narrative exposition in a story is important, dialogue without much narrative pushes the story forward and increases the tension between characters. This also relates back to my previous post about creating characters because characters begin to take shape and become more real through what they say and the way they speak.

Like all writing, developing dialogue and narrative voice takes practice and work. Bruneau gave us the following three-stage exercise to show us the differences that playing with dialogue and narrative voice can make:

  1. Create an argument between your main character and a secondary character about something that is bugging the main character. Don’t worry about writing what the characters are doing as they speak, just write bare bones dialogue (he said, she said). Notice how quickly the scene progresses. Notice the level of tension between the characters.
  2. Rewrite the argument, but this time add narration to the scene. For example, describe the characters’ actions and facial expressions, or the setting, etc., in amongst the characters’ speech. Compare the tension of this scene to the first one you wrote. How does narration change the scene or the tone of the argument?
  3. If your scene is written in first person, rewrite it in third person. If your scene is written in third person, rewrite it in first person from the point of view of the main character. What would change if the point of view was from the secondary character? How does each narrative point of view differ?

None of these methods is right or wrong or better than the other, but these exercises show a writer how to play with dialogue and narrative voice in order to manipulate the story to answer some of the following questions: What point do I want to get across? What is the purpose of this dialogue, this scene? Is my story better suited to first person or third person narration? Who does the narrator sympathize with? Who do I want readers to sympathize with? etc.

Bruneau also gave the following advice on how to become better at writing dialogue:

  • Eavesdrop. Collect bits of conversations and quirks of speech and then strip them down to the basics.
  • When writing dialects, a little goes a long way.
  • Practice.

Good dialogue can be difficult to write (and I’m certainly no expert) so that last point is very important. To ensure that my dialogue doesn’t sound stilted I’ve started reading it out loud. It might also help if you have a friend who is willing to read it with you or act it out. When you hear your dialogue out loud the ear picks out the awkward and unnatural parts that the eye doesn’t always see.

My next blog post will discuss Bruneau’s fourth class in which she talked about setting and atmosphere. In the meantime, happy writing!

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I’ve never really thought much about writing characters despite often becoming so immersed in a character’s life when I read that when I finish a book I feel like I’ve lost a good friend. Although I know characterization is important to a story because it’s the characters that readers identify with, I always figured that my characters would just develop along with the storyline. I guess I assumed that characterization would just happen, magically, without much thought. And perhaps, in some rare instances, it does; however, Carol Bruneau‘s WFNS Creative Writing Workshop made me realize that rare is the key word in that last sentence There is no writing fairy that will magically build characters for you as you work on story or plot.

Creative writing with Carol Bruneau: Week Two

I realized during the second class of Bruneau’s workshop, which focused on creating and developing characters, that one of the reasons I’ve stalled with my current writing project is that I barely know anything about my characters: what they like, what they dislike, what they want, what their motivation is, what their hobbies are, what their flaws are, whether or not they have a speech impediment, a limp, dry skin, thinning hair, and so forth. The list of details that can create a character are endless. How can a writer, therefore, create a character and put that character into various scenes or situations that are meant to elicit a reaction from the character without first knowing anything about him or her, without first having intimate knowledge about his or her thoughts, fears, hopes, pet peeves, insecurities, physicality, humiliations, motivations, upbringing, family life, work life, failures, and successes, etc.?

Bruneau’s workshop taught me to think about characters as though they are real people. She even suggested that a good starting point is to create composites: Take characteristics from various people you know or have known in the past and blend them together to create a foundation for your character. Then build upward, inventing, to create a character that fits into your story. Of course, depending on how alive your character — this person you’ve created — becomes to you, your story may change or go in a different direction in order to accommodate your character rather than having your character accommodate your story. Bruneau says, “When my characters become real to me, my story becomes real, and by that I mean it takes on the dimensions and complexity and quirkiness of real life.”

During the class, Bruneau gave us the following writing exercise:

Take a person you remember vaguely from your early childhood and describe him or her. Sketch details you recall, then keep going, inventing where “facts” peter out. Tips: Imagine this person in private, something he or she wants, his or her hobbies, home, family, pet peeve or neurosis, and/or something that this person would not want on his or her resumé. If you imagine this person in a negative way, try to come up with something good, something positive, or endearing about him or her. On the other hand, if this person is good, come up with some kind of flaw (nobody is perfect).

I found this exercise both fun and helpful. Building a character from scratch can be challenging, but creating composites is a good starting point to launch from. When doing this exercise I also found it helpful to imagine that I was a journalist asking my character questions as though I was interviewing her, getting ready to write a biography of her life. And, like a biographer, I’d go back again and again asking the same or similar questions to confirm or enrich details, and asking different questions to get a broader picture of the overall person.

When writing characters, Bruneau stresses that if you don’t like a character you’ve created or you don’t find him or her engaging, then it will be difficult to stick with writing this character. It will also likely be difficult for your readers to engage and sympathize with the character. This is the difference between a round and flat character. E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel states, “The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat.” To make a character and a story real you have to convince yourself before you can convince your readers. After learning about characters in Bruneau’s workshop and working on her writing exercises, I feel that my characters have become alive and, hopefully, much more convincing.

In my next blog post I’ll discuss the third class of Carol Bruneau‘s creative writing workshop where she discussed developing dialogue and narrative voice.

Click here to read what I learned about writing in Bruneau’s first class.

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Super Swe-e-e-e-t Award ImageEarlier this month I received a Super Swe-e-e-e-t Blogging Award from Alison Delory (http://alisondelory.com/blog/). Alison and I met when we both joined the same writing group. Her success as a freelance writer and editor, and the recent publication of her children’s book, Lunar Lifter, fills me with inspiration. She’s a wonderful person and a great writer.

Although I don’t have a blogroll on my website, I do follow some great blogs and I find I’m discovering more all of the time. Blogs are truly one of the best things about the advent of the internet. That anyone can share her or his writing, thoughts, and experiences with a wide audience is truly amazing and gives one a great sense of community.

Although I may not always have time to read every post by my favourite bloggers, I’ve learned a lot about so many different things from reading blogs. And I’ve even learned a little bit more about myself. I am therefore super happy to give the following bloggers a “shout out” with this Super Swe-e-e-et Blogging Award.


The Super Swe-e-e-et Award Guidelines:

If you’re a blogger and would like to mention your favourite blogs by giving them a Super Swe-e-e-e-t Award, please follow the guidelines below:

1: Thank the person who awarded you.

Thanks Alison!

2. Answer the super sw-e-e-e-t questions. (below)

3. Nominate a baker’s dozen (13), or as close to this number as possible. (below)


Super Swe-e-e-et Questions:

1. Cookies or Cake?

– Cookies, especially chocolate chip cookies or ginger snaps. I can never resist a cookie, especially when it’s soft and chewy.

2. Chocolate or Vanilla?

– Chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate. Can you tell I love chocolate? I’m especially a fan of dark chocolate. The darker, the better.

3. What is your favourite sweet treat?

– My Nanie’s brown sugar fudge. She makes it for me every time I go visit her in Ottawa. I have the recipe and will sometimes make it for holidays or parties, but it’s just not the same because my Nanie includes a special ingredient: love.

4. When do you crave sweet things the most?

– After dinner. Having something sweet after dinner is a habit I picked up as a child when my parents always had cookies in the house. I no longer always give in to my sweet after-dinner cravings, but I’m still always tempted.

5. If you had a sweet nickname, what would it be?

– A sweet and simple “sweetie” sounds good to me.


My Baker’s Dozen of blogs (in no particular order):

Sarah Phelps Creative (Sarah Phelps): http://sarahphelpscreative.com/

The Cheeky Goat (Joy Farrell-Grove): http://thecheekygoat.wordpress.com/

More Than Just A Listener (Erin Tomlinson): http://erintomlinsontunedin.wordpress.com/

Lavender Lines (Colleen McKie): http://lavenderlines.wordpress.com/

East Coast by Choice (Kimberly Walsh): http://eastcoastbychoice.ca/ http://eastcoastbychoice.wordpress.com/about/

Tanya Davis: http://tanyadavis.ca/fr_blog.cfm?feature=1831197&postid=2685376

Gaspereau Press (Andrew Steeves and Gary Dunfield): http://gaspereaupress.blogspot.ca

Curtains Are Open (Colleen O’Dea Anthony): http://curtainsareopen.blogspot.ca/

Hook and Eye (Heather Zwicker, Aimée Morrison, and Erin Wunker, et. al): http://www.hookandeye.ca/

Sheree Fitch: http://www.shereefitch.com/

Aliventures (Ali Luke): http://www.aliventures.com/

Anagram for Ink (Niko Sylvester): http://nikosilvester.blogspot.ca/

Christina Vasilevski: http://christinavasilevski.com/blog/

All of your blogs are super swe-e-e-e-t. Thank you for enriching my every day life with your words, your wisdom, and your observations of the world around you.

If any of my readers have suggestions on some other great blogs I should check out, please post them in the comments.

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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

Don AkerDon 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

Lorri Neilsen GlennI 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

Julie VandervoortJulie 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.”

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