Why I Write
I write because I’m too quiet when I talk. I write because someone once told me I could, and while I can’t sing, or paint, or make music, I can write. I write because I have a vision – sage purple mountains dim in the twilight – I write because Jack Kerouac wrote, “the fields were the color of love and Spanish mysteries.” I write because I love blank pages, hardcover books and new pens. I write to escape the everyday, acknowledge the beauty, the pain, the solitude of knowing myself. I write to escape the noise. I write because the curry is too hot to eat right now, and I write because I dream. I write because every book is a treasure chest waiting to be opened. I write because words make my soul sing. I write to hide. I can escape into my writing and somehow, the act of writing makes the sameness and the strangeness a little closer together. I write as a reflection of myself, to prove my existence to myself. I write because I live, and the act of writing is as natural and essential to my existence as food or water. I write to release the rage and the pain, and to capture the laughter and the joy. I write because I live.
Writing Wild Retreat
As soon as the Writing Wild Retreat at the Chute Lake Lodge was announced, I knew I wanted in. Who wouldn’t want to spend an autumn weekend tucked into a cozy cabin in the woods? The organizers had arranged for a couple of workshops to take place over the course of the weekend, but each participant was free to attend, or not, depending on what they hoped to accomplish. There was time for socializing, or solitude, or a perfect combination of both.
I was assigned to the Glen Fir Cabin. It was one of the first structures built on the property, going up in 1894. The original building was a two room cabin, but a tiny washroom was added on at some point. The cabin was warm and inviting, the beds luxurious and soft. I thought I would be uncomfortable sharing a cabin with five other women, but it didn’t feel crowded at all.
The property is charming, the scenery spectacular. The fall colours and wisps of wood smoke rising add to the enchantment.
The weekend had its hiccups, but for the most part, it was a smashing success.
There are a lot of things I could talk about here, but there’s one in particular that’s been on my mind.
It seemed odd to have a workshop by a Life Coach, rather than something more writer specific, and I actually debated whether or not I wanted to attend. But the workshop was part of the package, and I didn’t want to miss out on any experiences, so I went. I gave my verbal agreement not to discuss how things were done within the workshop, so I won’t, but I would like to talk about one of the exercises.
Each of us was given an envelope filled with blank index cards. One by one, we stood, while the remainder of the group jotted down a word or two describing the characteristics they surmised we possessed. Those cards were gathered up and put back into our envelopes to be opened later on.
It was an interesting exercise. I found myself examining each person, imagining who that person might be, what characteristics seemed to shine forth. I tried to jot down at least two things for each person. All comments were anonymous.
This is what I noticed.
I tried to make my comments both truthful and uplifting. I wanted people to open their envelopes and smile when they read what was written there. It felt a little odd to be passing judgement on people that I didn’t know. What if I called someone “strong-willed” and they took it as an insult? We all have our triggers, and certain words can be misinterpreted, especially when we’re already plagued by insecurities.
I also kind of wanted people to know which comments were mine. I wanted them to know what a good person I was. I wanted to know if my impressions of them were correct.
Conversely, I wondered if I would be able to trust the things that were said about me, or if my inner critic would say, “Well, they only said that because they had to say something positive.” It’s difficult to accept praise when there’s even a sliver of doubt.
The one thing that wasn’t touched on in our discussion regarding the exercise, was the eagerness with which we opened our envelopes when it was decreed we could do so.
It strikes me as strange that while we are bombarded with messages preaching self-love and believing in ourselves, we still place so much importance on what others think of us, even when the others are virtual strangers. Someone else’s opinion of who I am should be low on my list of what’s important, but apparently it’s not. I was a little disappointed to learn that about myself.
I wanted to know how other people saw me. Would they see the person that I’m trying to be, or would they see beneath that, to all my quirks and foibles? Would there be a common theme in the words used? Would I be happy with what I read or disappointed, and how would that effect how I saw myself in the future?
The envelope was opened. Now, the naked truth…
The majority of people said I was kind. Kind? Are you kidding me? Never mind that just a few minutes ago I wanted people to think I was a good person. Never mind that I don’t see myself as kind at all. If anything, I’m a little selfish. Kind is so… generic. It’s almost insulting. Where are all those words that describe the person I’m trying to be?
Then I had to laugh. I am kind, dammit. I just finished saying how much I wanted people to smile when they read the words in their envelope. That’s kind. Some of those other words were there – the words describing the person I’m trying to be. The words describing my weaknesses and faults. (Not all the comments were positive) Someone even said I’m intuitive. (Did they already know I’d nailed my assessment of them?) Then there were some words that were just completely out-of-the-blue.
Of course there were going to be all of those things. Opinions are entirely subjective. Regardless of how hard we try to separate them, our own life experiences are always going to colour how we see others.
And that’s exactly why we need to let go of that thing inside that cares what other people think. It doesn’t matter. As long as you like you.
Lit Fest New West
After the fast-paced, high energy whirlwind that was the Creative Ink Writer’s Festival, I was really looking forward to something a little more relaxed. I’d discovered the existence of Lit Fest New West by accident, after entering a contest earlier in the year. The organizers sent me an invitation to Lit Fest where the winners of the competition would be announced live. When I researched the event, I discovered that Lit Fest was a little more poet-friendly than Creative Ink, which, honestly, had no events for poets at all.
I registered for as many of the events as I could fit in, all of which were free.
I drove to New West on Friday, arriving early in the afternoon. The Airbnb I chose was a gorgeous heritage home in the oldest part of the city. My room, on the third floor, was spectacular with hardwood floors, oil paintings, a desk, comfortable bed, and a private balcony overlooking the street below where cherry blossoms rained pink.
My lovely room
Friday night was a poetry reading, featuring three local well-known poets. The venue was a building that housed a number of artist studios. The room was lit with fairy lights and the atmosphere was magical. I was moved to tears by the beauty of the work presented.
Saturday morning I attended a flash-fiction workshop. Although I had never tried my hand at flash-fiction, I was intrigued, and I feel like I learned some valuable skills. The flash-fiction workshop was followed by the event I was most looking forward to – a sensory writing workshop featuring the poet Cynthia Sharp, whose book “Rainforest in Russet” was among my new favorites. The workshop was wonderful, and Cynthia turned out to be a beautiful soul. I felt I connected with her from the very start.
In the late afternoon, Alan Hill, New West’s Poet Laureate, was giving a reading.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I may have drifted off a little during his reading. My body hadn’t adjusted to the change in schedule. I only hope I wasn’t snoring.
I tried to make up for it by being first in line to purchase copies of two of his books, which he graciously signed for me. It was during this time that Mr. Hill discussed his legacy project – an anthology titled “A Journey Across New Westminster by Word: A Poetry of Place”. This was to be a collection of poetry based on people’s experiences at various places in New West. I hadn’t really had the chance to explore much of New West, but maybe I’d get to see some of it before I went home.
This building reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”
Saturday night was the live contest winner reveal event. There was musical entertainment, and an engaging host for the show. I, unfortunately, did not win. Of course, it was unlikely I was going to, as I misread the guidelines and entered a Creative Non-fiction piece to a Fiction competition. (I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed.)
After the winners were announced and the readings were done, I decided to head back to my room. I was exhausted to the point of being light-headed. I stopped to use the washroom and ran into Cynthia Sharp. We walked together and talked, exchanging email addresses before parting ways. It was the perfect end to the weekend.
Once I got back to my room, I wasn’t tired anymore. I got into bed with one of Alan Hill’s books and began to read. He had written poems about many of the places in New West, and one of them in particular interested me – the Woodlands Memorial Garden. I decided to stop there in the morning on my way out of town.
I’m not going to go into the details of what I learned about the Woodlands Memorial Garden, but suffice to say, I’d found my poem.
I submitted it the next day.
The Creative Ink Experience
It was my first writer’s conference and I must have printed the program grid at least three times, attacking it fervently with my yellow highlighter. There were so many lectures, workshops and panels and no matter how I looked at it, no way to fit them all in.
In addition to the full three-day schedule of learning opportunities, the Creative Ink Festival offered extra sessions that you could sign up for, and I did sign up, not wanting to miss a single experience. Because my focus is poetry, not all the panels and workshops were relevant for me, but in almost every time slot, I found something I thought I could use. When it didn’t seem like there was anything appropriate, I chose something anyway, reasoning that there can be no bad learning. In some cases, those random workshops turned out to be the ones that were the most fun.
But the most important thing I learned this weekend didn’t come from any of the workshops or panels. It did, however, stem from one of the extra sessions – the one in which I had the opportunity to pitch my work to an agent. I had 15 minutes to convince an agent to sign me. I didn’t know what I was going to say, but I was reasonably confident in my work. One of the children’s stories I was about to present had recently taken second place in a National competition.
I walked into the boardroom where my designated agent waited. We smiled and introduced ourselves. I handed her my flagship story. She read the first stanza.
“I can’t do anything with this. No one buys picture books that rhyme.”
The reason, she went on to explain, was that rhyming picture books couldn’t be translated, so immediately, that eliminates the potential to reach an international market.
Her eyes skimmed over the rest of my piece.
“It’s a nice enough story.” She shrugged. “You might be able to rewrite it without the rhyme. But really, does anyone even use Vapo-Rub anymore?”
I stumbled. I didn’t know what to say. I had brought six or seven of these stories with me – all useless. I had nothing else to offer. My 15 minutes was over in three. I was humiliated. I did my best to excuse myself from the room without bursting into tears, but I wasn’t successful there, either.
I escaped to the cool, quiet of my hotel room. I put on some music and lay down on the bed, trying to come to grips with what had just happened. I’d have to go home now. I’d have to quit my writer’s group. I certainly wouldn’t be able to show my face again.
This was not the agent’s fault. If anything, she was kinder than she should have been.
I was the one who came unprepared, who hadn’t done the homework. In my… enthusiasm… to sample everything, I forgot some basic rules. Or maybe, in my own twisted way, I didn’t think they applied to me. Either way, I only had myself to blame.
I wallowed in self-pity for a while, but as I’m not a teenager anymore, that got dull in a hurry. I started formulating a new plan. A short time later, satisfied that I had regained control of myself and wouldn’t have to go home or quit my group, I rejoined the conference.
And yet… when my son and I were having dinner later, and he asked me about my day, I changed the subject. I wasn’t ready to share my story. It was still too raw.
Sunday came, and one of the hours I had been looking forward to all weekend – the Live Action Slush. For those of you who already know what a Live Action Slush is, feel free to skip the next paragraph. Otherwise, read on.
A slush pile is the name given to the stack of unsolicited manuscripts that builds up on an editor’s desk. An editor, or more likely an intern, will go through the slush pile, reading just a few lines or paragraphs in order to determine whether a manuscript has any potential. If so, the manuscript moves on to the next stage. If not, the manuscript is discarded. In the Live Action Slush, conference goers were invited to submit the first page of their manuscript, to be read aloud, anonymously, in front of a panel of experts. During the reading, the panelists raise their hands at the moment they would personally stop reading. As soon as two of the three panelists raise their hands, the reading is stopped, and the panelists explain their decision.
Of course, I brought a piece. I was trying for the full experience, after all. But a feeling of apprehension settled like a shawl across my shoulders. I sat down with a friend and her fiancé. She excused herself to use the restroom, and I was left alone with the fiancé.
“I was going to submit something for this, but I’m having second thoughts. I had kind of a rough day yesterday and I don’t know if I can do it.”
“Then you probably shouldn’t.”
“On the other hand, I’m curious to know what they would say about my work. They are professionals.”
“Yes, they are. They probably aren’t going to be mean.”
“It’s just that I’m still sore from yesterday. If I did put it out and got negative feedback, I might be tempted to throw away my pen forever.”
“You definitely don’t want that.”
“You know what? Screw it. I’m going to do it.”
“Go for it.”
It’s clear this man has been down this road before.
A fist bump later and I was on my way to the front of the room to deposit a piece of paper onto the ever-growing pile.
In the end, I never did get to hear what the panel would have said. Time ran out. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I did it. I took my lumps and I put myself back out there. Instead of retreating into my introverted, writerly self, I took a chance. And because I found the guts to take that first step, the next one will be easier, and the one after that, and the next one…