The Writing Life


And now for something completely different….
Four weeks ago, I started a class at NSCAD on creative non-fiction called “The Writing Life” taught by a writer named James Leck, author of a series of Young Adult novels called “The Adventures of Jack Lime”. Four weeks in, and I’m shocked at just how much I’ve learned from this guy in such a short time, and just how much better my writing can (and will!) be. The following is an example of homework I might submit to the class – a class I so actively participate in I even annoy myself – but instead of reading it aloud to ten other students, I’m putting it out there for all the world to see. Not my usual humorous fare to be certain, but I hope you’ll enjoy it nonetheless…
Cheers,
Colin

The coffee shop in downtown Halifax serves as my office space, its patrons my characters in waiting. I listen as the pretty blonde girl at the next table over tells her gay best friend she’s decided to leave her boyfriend of two years. He had hyped a present all day yesterday – she wondered if it was a ring, or at least a piece of jewellery, but instead it was a cheese grater. “A freakin’ cheese grater” she says, “can you imagine? And he thought I’d be excited and GRATEFUL?” Her BFF’s just moved back from Ottawa. He has blonde streaks in his hair and wears a charcoal grey sweater two sizes too small. I listen as they giggle over all the partying they’ll do once cheese grater boy’s gone. Its sounds like some bad murder mystery plot as they gleefully plan his unsuspected demise. I wonder if she’s been unhappy for some time, and her friend’s timely arrival back in the city created an opportunity to escape she simply couldn’t refuse.

I watch another young couple, clearly on a first date. I first assume it’s a blind date, someone’s set them up, with some thought they’d simply be perfect for one another. He’s nervous, and I can smell the cinnamon and nutmeg he heaps in grand amounts, with shaky hands, in his latte from across the room. ( I think I would’ve ordered coffee. Certainly nothing with the words “tall” or “skinny” or “half caff” in them, and definitely not strung together.). Alas, it is an online meet up, as I hear the guy say he’s never been comfortable trying out Plenty of Fish, but all his best girl friends had met their significant others that way. He winks at her and says, even still, he’d suggest they not tell his mother this is how they met. He smiles broadly at this joke, giving her a hopeful look. I think bringing up other women on a first date is just bad form, especially your mama. She’s here for a drink and a chat, not a life long commitment. Soon it becomes quickly apparent he’s lost her. Her face is more guarded now, she’s not laughing quite so hard at his jokes, and then I see her texting madly, under the table, imagining she’s talking to her best girl friend and saying get me the hell out of here!

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Storytellers

S T O R Y T E L L E R S

Storytelling is defined by Wikipedia (that oft-times questionable but yet still vastly knowledgeable source of all things definitive like) as the conveying of events in words, images and sounds, often by improvisation or embellishment….Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation and…to instill moral values.”

I like to think of myself as a storyteller, back from the very moment I could grasp a pencil in hand, and perhaps even before then. ( I mean….I can’t really say where an idea for a story comes from, but it has to come from somewhere, before it’s pulled, all raw material just waiting to be molded, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the “real world”). And in this act of storytelling, like all good storytellers I suppose, I hope to entertain, engage, perhaps titillate, and, in this case, through this medium, provide what I’d like to think is an informed opinion or two on those matters, things and events important and of interest to me, and I hope, in return, to you.

During the recent Word On The Street festival in Halifax, a national book and magazine festival celebrating reading and advocating literacy, my partner Shawn and I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Alexander MacLeod, Giller Prize Winning Author of “Light Lifting”. Now truth be told I’d only come across MacLeod fairly recently, when the Giller Prize nominees were first announced…and “Light Lifting” seemed only the latest rave amongst ever-expanding East Coast book offerings that continue to gain a wide audience and a well deserved national spotlight. And if MacLeod’s leading a charge, he has an entire army behind him…a new generation of writers who are paving the way through this Atlantic Canadian Literary landscape, with stories filled with humor and drama and emotion and pathos and beauty that could only come from our rugged country and coastline. This impressive list of new literary heroes (and heroines) includes great new talent like Chad Pelley (Away From Everywhere), Michael Winter (The Death of Donna Whalen), Kathleen Winter (Anabel), Christy Lee Conlin (Heave), Ami MacKay (The Birth House), Sheree Fitch (Kiss The Joy As It Flies), Lisa Moore (Alligator), Jessica Grant (O Come Thou Tortoise) and Chris Benjamin (Drive By Saviours – and I mean, seriously,aren’t those last two just totally awesome titles or what? ). And happily, that list could go on and on. All unique new voices, all exciting and masterful in their command of time and place, mood and language, atmosphere and tone…and, in my own writing, I can only someday hope to equal their talent, enthusiasm, and expertise.

But Alexander, a distinctly talented author in his own right, comes by an auspicious pedigree of his very own, one not shared by the others….He is the son of the legendary Alistair MacLeod, THE literary giant from the hills of Cape Breton, who’s short story collections “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” and “As Birds Bring Forth The Sun and Other Stories” I – along with thousands and thousands of other students – had dissected in loving detail throughout junior high and high school english classes, and then later went on to study in more detail in Contemporary Twentieth Century fiction during my English majoring days at Dalhousie University. So meeting the son of this literary idol of mine was a bit of a surreal moment, and one I was more than a bit star struck by. (But then again, it’s not everyday you get to hang out in front of a wooden boat by the Maritime Museum chatting to one Alexander MacLeod of THE MacLeods, now is it?) But before that moment when I struggled to put two words together (and can we just say THAT never happens?), I had the opportunity to listen to Alexander talk about growing up in this famous family. And as I listened to this bright, funny, insightful, and handsome man tell a tale or two of his upbringing, I was struck by how much this life he described sounded so typical of any Cape Breton family. (I actually told him I thought meeting him would be like talking to royalty, but hey, what do you know? It seems he’s like everybody else.) And when later I was….you know…hanging by a wooden boat, talking to the son of Alistair MacLeod… Shawn asked if he knew who his father was growing up, if he lived some sort of life one might expect of a son of a writer type. And to this he replied….no, not at all. That, in fact, no one who entered his family home would ever have guessed his dad was a writer. That there were rarely books about, that his parents rarely even read to their children, and that he and his siblings shared a love of sports, food , music, laughter and good times with both friends and family, all those good things that most good families share, Cape Breton or otherwise. But how could this be? His dad’s a world renowned master of his craft, who wrote stories that shaped and defined in many ways the hearts and minds of students in classrooms all across our country. But then again, what did I expect? A reading jacket and smoking pipe in some old world library,with rows upon rows of shiny books, all with that new book smell, and perhaps a sign saying “Shhhhh! Genius at work!”… You can see how my imagination might run wild with it.

However, just because it wasn’t a houseful of academics and scribes didn’t mean the ancient traditions of storytelling weren’t alive and well within his family. In fact, Alexander went on to describe how everyone back in his childhood community was a true storyteller within his or her right. You see, growing up in rural Cape Breton, the act of visiting your neighbors was an active and expected and oft encouraged past time. But if you went all the way to visit someone, often miles and miles of road in not so pleasant weather, and they went all the way to prepare a huge meal and pour a drink to welcome you, well, as a trade-off, you had better have a story. And that story had better be a good story, told with punctuations of wild laughter and broad humour or high drama and dark intrigue. And so these tales were woven, tales from the past of fishermen and hunters and farmers, or of things just glimpsed and imagined, of what wonders might lay just around the corner. Gossips of budding romances or dying love affairs. Of children born out-of-wedlock or loved ones taken too soon. Of far exotic places, the bustle of some big city life, or the quiet solitude of small town living. Regardless, these stories were told, and passed on, around campfires and kitchen tables, backyards to playing fields, entire generations of storytellers, weaving all the magic and wonders of everyday life that they so artfully described.

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NaNoWriMo!

NaNoWriMo!!!

That’s “National Novel Writing Month” to the uninitiated. (But, just try saying it out loud….NaNoWriMo sounds much more cool!). To those in the know, National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, is an international, internet based, creative writing contest that takes place annually every November. NaNo challenges writers (professional, amateur, wanna bes, and everyone in the middle) to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. As it’s website states, the contest is designed to “value enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft”. Meaning, in simpler terms,  what you write doesn’t have to be good, there just needs to be a lot of it.  The rules are very simple: starting at midnight, November 1st, you have until 11:59:59 on November 30th to complete your  novel or your 50,000 word draft novel in progress. You can plan and outline as much as you like prior to the starting date, but what you write must be original to that time frame, i.e., no previous written work should be included.  No prizes are awarded for quality, speed, or proficiency.  In fact, the only way to win this thing is to finish it.  And when you cross that finish line, simply upload said masterpiece to the NaNoWriMo website, where whole teams of eagerly awaiting Nano-ites will verify the word count and declare you a WINNER.  Hell, you even get a certificate saying so.
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