Reading Not Writing

In September 2008 I was thrilled to have a short story published by Hidden Brook Press in a small anthology about Grandmothers, called Wisdom of Old Souls.

The first launch was September 29, 2008 in Chapters in Kingston and about 15 authors were present along with some family members and partners. One even came from Chicago. Some authors attended but did not read. Evidently they only write.

I was asked to read last – alphabetical and also because my old photograph was on the cover and I got to mention that in my preamble. The story was very short only 300 words so, when I was asked to read, I was able to read the entire story with time to spare in the 5 minute slot. Nervously, I waited, listening to all the others read their stories. By the time my turn came, I felt quite composed and easily told a bit of the background and read my story. In the audience were mainly writers, the publisher and friends but a few Chapters’ customers wandered by and listened. I received a lot of feedback from other writers about the photo in particular and how much they enjoyed my story.

This book launch was followed by another one a few weeks later at the Stellar Literary Festival in Oshawa. Held under a tent in a park on a drizzly Saturday, this reading attracted only a handful of diehards, friends and writers. Still, it was a good experience to stand up in front of an audience again and tell my story.

A few weeks later WCDR along with the publisher of Hidden Brook Press held another launch at the Whitby Library. The room was packed with about 100 people: writers, family, friends, WCDR members and library patrons but only 8 – 10 readers. Again I was excited but not nervous as I read my story again unaware that my writing teacher Allyson and friend Cheryl had crept into the back row. The audience was particularly warm and receptive. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop as we read. Several aspiring writers came up to me and asked me how I had achieved publication of a story! I replied: “I just sent it in.” There is an apparent gap between those that write and those that get published. I believe the difference is only in having enough confidence to send it in.

Poetry as Memoir

A few months ago I received an invitation from Patricia Elford to submit a piece to an anthology called Grandmothers’ Necklace. As it was to be published as a fundraiser for the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Project of the Stephen Lewis’ Foundation, I was highly motivated to send something. My problem was: what to send? I could write about my experiences as a new grandmother but those feelings seemed too recent to write about. I had already written and published a short story in Wisdom of Old Souls about a woman who was like a grandmother to me. I never knew my paternal grandmother as she never emigrated from Ukraine and died when I was 6. My maternal grandmother or Baba had immigrated to Manitoba from Ukraine in 1911. We visited her once when I was about 18 months but I have no memory of her, and she died a few months later when I was two. How could I write about them?

I had interviewed my mother extensively trying to piece together my family history, so I had stories she had told me about her childhood and her parents. I decided to write a short poem based on a story she had told me about doing laundry on the farm under primitive conditions. The story tied into many feelings both she and her mother had about their lives. I called it Wash Day. After finishing one poem and feeling successful, I thought about my paternal grandmother and remembered an audiotape my sister had done with my father talking about his life. I listened to it again, especially the part where he talks about his mother then wrote a second poem about her called Knowing You. It too felt right so I sent both poems to Patricia, along with photos of my grandmothers and crossed my fingers.

On the 7th of July, almost 2 months later I was delighted to receive an email that both poems had been accepted.

What I learned from this experience was that memories, the basis of memoirs, can be expressed in many forms. Poetry is a great vehicle for short focused thoughts about a person, place or thing you remember from your past or, as in this case, a memory of someone based on stories you’ve heard. It’s all part of your past and all fuel for your memoir. Michael Ondaatje also knew this when he wrote his family memoir Running in the Family.

About My Writers Group: Life Writers Ink by Cheryl Andrews with help from the Others

Our group of five women first came together as participants in Allyson Latta’s online memoir writing courses. (see: Compelled by the support, encouragement and professional critiquing we learned through those courses, we didn’t want to let go. The Memoir Writer’s Social Allyson organized in September 2008 gave us the opportunity to meet face-to-face for the first time.

When Allyson posted an article on, “Start Your Own Writers Group”, I was inspired and forwarded it on to Anahita Printer Nepton, Gail Rudyk, Mary McIntyre and Ruth Zaryski Jackson.

“I know that workshops … can provide inspiration while they’re going on, but that that inspiration can disappear in a poof once they walk out the door (real or virtual). A writers group is the logical next step ...” (Allyson Latta 9/30/2008)

It certainly was the logical next step for us, and the article became the basis for our group Guidelines. We took them to a fairly comprehensive, yet informal and relaxed level and haven’t referred to them since. The extensive discussion process we undertook about the structure of our writing group was the critical element.

We came up with a name, “Life Writers Ink”. Mary (lovingly) refers to us as the Lifers.

We held our inaugural meeting January 25th, 2009. We prefer Sunday afternoons, once a month and take turns hosting. As Allyson Alumni we have slipped into the writing group format with very few wrinkles!
“Every meeting reinforces my respect for our writing differences and how we learn from each other… I gain so much from your ideas. You energize me again to do more heavy lifting with my pen.” (Mary McIntyre)

During our meetings we read our pieces to each other, critiquing upon request, socialize, discuss and swap books we’ve read recently, share news about upcoming literary events and contests, cheer and applaud successes and pry open the door when one of us hits the creative wall.

“I personally enjoy the side discussions that come up about the latest books we have read and information about any calls for submissions. (Gail Rudyk)

Life Writers Ink is about discovering the courage to explore the furthest reaches of our creative sides and providing encouragement as we move toward publishing. Writing memoir brought us together, and the support we get from the group has provided the incentive to investigate other genres. I’m playing with fiction, Ruth has ventured into the realm of poetry and Gail, humorous vignettes about life and living. Anahita is sharing poignant passages from the journal she kept while watching over her dying father. Mary has found the energy to take on a major memoir project about where she really grew up … the family cottage.

“ … (our) varied styles … keep our creative energies up, fueling new ideas/stories … suggestions are fodder that provides … options and directions that we may not have thought about, whether we use them or not. The variety of styles … helps to keep the blinders off so we are free to grow, develop and express ourselves beyond our abilities.”
(Anahita Printer Nepton)

Email helps us extend the encouraging borders of Life Writers ink. Between meetings fresh pieces get circulated and critiqued, ideas tossed out for input, and progress, roadblocks and angst shared. No one is allowed to go silent for too long.

There’s something extraordinary about the camaraderie of our group. The comfort level with being honest and open as well as supportive and critical is way beyond where a newly formed group might be.

“I … feel supported by the group to move forward and overcome my lethargy… our writing differences stir our creativity and make us better writers. Thanks for your encouragement with the submissions.” (Ruth Zaryski Jackson)

We take courses and participate in workshops. We created this writing group and read voraciously, but ultimately we each have to spend the time writing, the best we can, alone in a room, or “… ass in chair” as Margaret Atwood says.

We laugh a lot. We work hard. We are having great fun, and we are all writing!