by Vera Constantineau
I’m entering a creative phase. I can feel it in the way I want to scribble down my observations. Everything inspires me to pick up a pen: the way someone steps off the sidewalk, the look in a person’s eyes when a car gets too close in the crosswalk, a woman’s hair shaved so close on the sides and flipped in front the way a man in the fifties who used Brylcreem would have done. Every visual is a potential writing gift.
I know I can write about these things and you will understand, because we’re writers. We all have flashes of inspiration, bursts of internal dialogue, the dream that delivers the exact word or phrase or clue we needed to finish a story that’s been nagging at us.
I stopped writing in June, just stopped.
At first I thought there was no reason. I thought that I was tired, mentally snuffed. In hindsight I think the stoppage was a little more specific than that.
I got an e-mail containing a link to a writing call. I often get such e-mails, no surprise there. This time though, when I read the fine print, the gatherers specified that in writing this submission, we, as contributors, should be gut-wrenchingly honest.
The phrase gut wrenchingly honest ran me off the writing track, slammed me hard against the imaginary bales of hay I have placed at my imaginary limits, a writers crash and burn.
I tried to settle on a topic for this essay call, tried to come up with an idea that was fresh and interesting, nothing. Or at least nothing I wanted to write about in detail. Nothing that required producing a dose of gut wrenching that would be considered effective on both the sending end and the receiving end. I stalled for weeks. During the stall I found it increasingly hard to observe in my usual way, even worse, I recognized the lack.
In 2013 I signed up for an online course in Nonfiction Creative Writing offered through the community college online network. I’ve taken more than a dozen courses over the past five years and I have been to many workshops. I am accustomed to tapping into my deep dark places, so imagine my surprise when I tried to complete my first assignment in this course and discovered I had developed a severe aversion to telling, what amounted to me, to be my secrets.
In hindsight I can see that this was gut wrenching honesty, round one.
The course came perilously close to memoir and I have always stepped gingerly around that topic.
This call for (gut wrenching honesty in our) submissions was for personal essays. I guessed I was not ready to spill blood onto a page for the benefit of a phantom reader.
Correction, I wouldn’t spill blood in large quantities. In Haiku and Senryu I have dropped my share of blood-load. Through Haiku I’ve dealt (honestly) with my mother’s death, the curse of my illegitimacy, cancer, and other topics, all of which definitely qualify as gut wrenching. I just couldn’t see myself drawing on the kind of details that would get me published in this particular magazine.
Until last week I remained snuffed big time—a snuffing of monumental proportion.
Then … I received a copy of Wah.
Wah is a Haiku journal from India with the sole purpose of developing a cultural exchange between Indian Haiku poets and poets in the rest of the world. The first of four poems they accepted was there, printed in English on page 41 and facing it on page 42, in Punjabi.
Getting this journal in the mail was exactly what I needed. I read through the list of contributors and found fellow Guild member, Irene Golas, as well as others I admire locally and in the broader world and I stopped feeling tired. I stopped feeling mentally snuffed. And Halleluiah, I returned to my favourite pastime, the observation of my fellow humans.
The writing process is not something everyone understands. I think only those of us who look past the surface and see past the green hair will truly relate to the crushing pain a good snuffing delivers.
If I am ever again called upon to deliver gut wrenching honesty I know exactly what I will say: Writing is hard.
by Renny deGroot
Left-Right-Left! Maybe it’s because, decades after leaving the military, those words and the accompanying thump of boot heels hitting the parade square in precision, can still make my heart beat faster. Maybe it’s because both my parents had also been in the military and organized our family with crisp routines. Whatever the reason, discipline comes naturally to me which is a good thing because that’s what it took for me to get all the way through the drafting, writing, re-writing and editing process of successfully producing the 240,000 word novel Family Business. Discipline and having a compass.
Early on in the process I decided that I would work on the book three days a week. It was a realistic target given my other commitments. I also had a goal for each session – usually a page count and I stuck with it until I got there. I had a separate writing space in the house where I would go which immediately got me into the right ‘head space’ for writing. In the summer months I treated myself. I set up my computer outside in my screened in deck with the sound of the waterfall in the background, but it was still a mental ‘going to work’ kind of experience. So – applying myself in a disciplined approach was one element to successfully getting the novel done.
“Where’s the story?!” was a favourite cry by my first creative writing instructor, James Purdie. It was a bit like when one of my English Lit professors used to tell us to apply the ‘So what?’ rule to everything we wrote. Every sentence, every word needed to have a point. Purdie used an example that still stays with me twenty-five years later: “The King died, and then the Queen died” (not a story) “of a broken heart.” (A story!).
What I took from this was that the theme, in my case, the concept of freedom both at a macro level and at an individual level, needs to be clear and everything must be grounded around the theme. I wrote an outline to have the main milestones and timeline determined, but after that I trustedto my theme to continue to move me forward. Whether it was about the oppressive mother attempting to control her sons, or the occupying forces restricting the Dutch population, the theme of freedom was my compass that kept me moving forward. I have heard of people who prefer to have only the vaguest notion of what they will write about when they begin and that may work for them. I tried that as well once and I never got further than ten pages of aimless clutter. For me, having a framework of main milestones and a thematic compass, worked well. It still left me plenty of scope for creative discovery. How wonderful it was to realize that Tiineke was such a strong young woman and well able to deal with her mother-in-law. The characters seemed to reveal themselves as I wrote, without conscious effort on my part.
In mid May, as we honoured our Canadian military effort in Afghanistan, I reflected on my ten years with the Canadian Forces. Honing my discipline, teaching me to keep commitments, learning to set a course and stay with it – all of these skills have helped me to become a writer.
Although, to tell the truth, using an actual compass was right up there with using a slide rule; I never did quite perfect it.
What motivates us to write about ourselves? Perhaps it is a desire to tell our personal stories for therapeutic reasons or to find a way to heal ourselves. Maybe it is to share our experiences and educate others on the lessons we have learned, or to hold others accountable for their role in our misfortunes or trauma. Possibly it is to leave behind our stories for future generations. Whatever the reason, the memoir is a powerful way of coping with the past, making sense of the present and creating connections with the future.
Over the past two years, I have been researching, interviewing and writing a story more personal than I could ever have imagined, a tale in which I am deeply immersed, and one that is a powerful part of my personal history. In many ways, I feel like I am writing a memoir. But the stories are not mine. They belong to my father.
For many months I interviewed my father, sitting in the worn blue armchair in my parents’ 1950s brick bungalow, my fingers tapping on my laptop keyboard as I frantically tried to keep up with his narration about his experiences as a concentration camp prisoner in Poland during World War II. I became absorbed in the time period, his life as a young boy in Oulu, Finland, the bombings of his hometown by the Russians during the Winter War, his exploits as a merchant marine sailor at the tender age of fourteen. His storytelling led me from his ship in the port of Danzig to the cattle car that transported the crew to KL Stutthof. His voice brought me to the Death Gate, where I waited alongside the Finnish sailors with fear and anxiety. Before long, I felt as though I became part of his experiences, first empathizing with the prisoners who endured forced labour, malnourishment and beatings, then envisioning the Death March, the naval evacuation and the traumatic day of his liberation.
While memoir relies on the first person narrator, the family memoir is usually written in third person, details a particular time in a family member’s life, uses supplemental research and relies on the literary techniques usually found in novels. After careful study of the time period, specific dates and events to ensure I was as accurate as possible, I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied with a retelling that read like a history text. Instead, I wanted his memories to come alive for the reader. For that reason, among other literary techniques, I incorporated dialogue and details about setting to recreate scenes, relying on my imagination to describe what it might have been like for him. These literary techniques, so often used in family memoirs, allowed me to write about the events in a more vivid manner. Fortunately, I also have my father as a first reader to confirm all of the details.
In the end, the family memoir is the perfect vehicle for telling my father’s story. More importantly, I hope that by recounting the events he has been able to heal some of the deep wounds he has carried with him for the past seventy years. His story teaches invaluable lessons about hope and resiliency and bears witness to the crimes committed on millions of victims. As a writer, I am able to share my father’s story with my children and my children’s children, thereby creating an indelible connection to his past, our present and their future.