Read, Read, Read!

I have not been writing much during the past two or three weeks so I decided to read instead of sitting idly in front of my screen. I’m surrounded by stacks of books crying to be read.

I first picked up one I had started: Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell. This heartbreaker of a first novel by a Canadian film maker is based on stories she heard about her Ukrainian paternal ancestors pioneering in Alberta in the 1930s, interwoven with stories gleaned and imagined from archival photographs and written records. Using multiple points of view, she weaves the story cinematically; a technique that is sometimes confusing, but in the end packs a wallop that lasts long after the final page is turned. I sometimes loved it and sometimes hated it, and I couldn't put it down. I'm left with such a deep feeling of the tragedy of human lives, caught in a web of circumstances they can barely fathom. All they know is to keep going, whatever the direction. This book is a gift in particular, to readers of Ukrainian heritage. So many stories yet untold. Highly recommended.

The next book I read was: The Lost A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn. The author is a well-known writer and teacher, a classicist at Bard College, and the family historian. He began his quest as a child, fascinated by his grandfather’s stories and the flimsy details of his great-uncle’s family’s disappearance during World War II. His search for survivors from the small village in present day Ukraine takes him to 12 countries and 4 continents. Interwoven with his personal quest are stories from Genesis in the Hebrew Bible with timeless themes of wanderings, searching, betrayal, and violence. Sometimes repeating himself, Mendelsohn tells the tale his way, the old way his grandfather told a story and in fact, the way the Greeks told their stories. He meanders in and out of the narrative, between past and present, Biblical texts and survivor’s dialogue. After over 500 pages, the reader is left with the feeling of having read an epic. Indeed, it is an epic. Highly recommended.

Doubts Creep In

My memoir writing has stalled this week in spite of my January 1st resolutions. When I look back at myself in high school, I see one turning point that I can perhaps finesse into a story. Other events occurred outside of school and are not in the yearbooks; jobs I held, family events, social interactions all influenced me. School life dominated during those years and I only have one story. Maybe this exercise was a waste of time? I seem to have doubts now in spite of my determination to continue writing.

Last Saturday I attended a master class workshop at the Richmond Hill library with Barry Dempster. That’s when the questioning crept in. We were asked to bring 1 page from our current project. I brought my opening page (rough 1st draft) from my memoir to a group of strangers. We broke into small groups, read and gave feedback to each other. Parts that I thought were clear were questioned. Parts that had even been published were questioned. Gone was the gentle nurturing of my Writers Group, with negatives cradled in positives. This was the reaction of the anonymous ‘reader’ who just picks up your book and flips through, reading the first page in order to decide whether to buy it. I’m still feeling wounded from that experience. I knew what I meant. It just didn’t come across clearly to them. I thought I was ‘showing’, they thought I was ‘telling’. I know in my head that good writing is 90% rewriting, but negative feedback hurts, the way criticism of our children hurts. We take it personally.

I know what I have to do. Take their comments into account. Revise. But only after I finish my first draft. So, butt back in the chair. Return to my agenda for my book. Put the comments into perspective. There were some positives though I forget what they were right now. Just get on with it, Ruth!

High School Yearbooks Part 2: 1957 - 1960 Northview Collegiate

I joined the Drama Club in Grade 11 when I was 16. I was starting to take charge of my life and my personal development. I wasn’t a joiner of clubs but this one seemed right for me. The drama coach, an experienced director and the diverse group all shared a love of theatre. I felt at home. Casting calls brought out my shyness again and when I had to read onstage I found that my voice didn’t carry. I couldn’t project to the back rows. (When I said I had lost my voice in an earlier blog, I wasn’t kidding!) Though disappointed, I was content playing bit parts with a group speaking lines. Part of the thrill was being in the group and working with the director to produce a successful play. We took “The Devil and Daniel Webster” all the way to the finals in the Simpson’s Collegiate Drama Festival in Toronto in 1958. I loved dressing up and the thrill of performing. I tried to project as best I could and was never criticized in my bit roles, which later included “Julius Caesar”. I helped out backstage for other plays. Acting onstage gave me more confidence in my everyday life where I wasn’t good at small talk.

At this time I had more friends and enjoyed a more balanced social and academic life. I still wasn’t dating anyone and didn’t have a regular boyfriend. I didn’t see the need for one. My Latin and Ancient History teacher was my home room teacher and I enjoyed his dry wit and intelligence. I gave up the team sports activities and concentrated on my studies and the drama club. In Grade 12, I won Second prize for “This He Believed”, an essay I wrote about loss, hope and new beginnings.

I did attend the final graduation prom at Casa Loma in June 1960 wearing a pink strapless chiffon dress and white elbow length gloves. Was I really as happy and confident as I looked?

After I graduated from Grade 13 in 1960, I thought I was going to study modern languages at University of Toronto. Instead I went into an Honours Arts course and majored in Anthropology. Another chapter began.

High School Yearbooks Part 1: 1955 - 1957 Downsview Collegiate

I spent this morning skimming through old high school yearbooks looking for clues to myself, an emerging self, during my middle teen-age years. I’m searching for triggers for stories or turning points that illustrate the emotional development of my protagonist, i.e., me.

My high school life clearly reflected 1950s growth in North York, a suburb of  Toronto. My friend Sandy, one year ahead of me, went to Bathurst Heights where they had a split-shift system to accommodate everyone while another high school was being built. When I was ready for Grade 9, Downsview Collegiate opened, though construction was still going on for the gymnasium and pool. After Grade 10 we moved to another new school, Northview Heights, where I completed high school.

My Grade 9 profile in the first yearbook almost escaped my glance. I appear in a photo of the Grade 9 Volleyball Champion team, curly-haired, smiling and tallest, in my blue romper-style gym-suit, cutoff sleeves the only hint of rebellion. I see the red-haired object of my silent crush in a photo of the Midget Basketball team. I seem to recall being in the Junior Choir but don't recognize myself in the photo until after I find my name listed in an old programme for Variety Night, held April 27-28, 1956.

My Grade 10 profile didn’t change much. Junior Basketball Champions photo very similar to grade 9’s. Still smiling nervously. Though I remember going, no mention of my name on the Junior Volleyball Jamboree team that went to George Harvey and lost. I see pictures of boys that liked me but I had no interest in. I do remember going to school dances but never had a boyfriend and never went to the proms. Not many Grade 9 and 10ers did.

By Grade 11, at a new school with an upbeat atmosphere, I believe I made a conscious resolve to be less shy and more involved in school life. I joined the Drama Club!

Back at My Desk

The holidays are over and I'm back at my desk trying to figure out the next step in my memoir writing. I have decided to focus on 2 things in January:
  • to finish my first draft. I have the last 1/4 to write.
  • to follow in January, Martha Alderson's 2nd Annual International Plot Writing Month tips she wrote in the month of December on her blog:
I started in a low key sketching out my Character Emotional Development Profile. I have done this before for other characters. I thought it was easy, even fun to do. This time I found it challenging to stand back and analyze myself as a character. What are my fears, my flaws, my strengths? What do I love? hate? Even worse, what are my secrets? I did the exercise but I will need to go back and add more details. Maybe if I imagine I am watching my life on a stage from the balcony, I will be able to be more objective.

The next thing I did was to print out all I have written of my book. Not read it, just print it! Sounds simple. To my surprise, even when I eliminated the double-spacing, I have about 100 pages. The sheer bulk of it had an emotional impact on me. I feel that I am going to succeed now in finishing this book. Some of it is garbage: notes to myself and a lot of question marks. But some of it is well-written and interesting. Though I still have a long way to go, I can't wait to see the final product.