Oct 082014

Thin Air

Nuggets about writing mined from a writers’ festival

Writers’ festivals offer opportunities for writers to read from and showcase their new works. They offer opportunities for readers to discover new writers and new works from favourite writers. The festivals can also be places for writers to learn from other writers and to find a connection with another writer’s perspective or process.

I recently attended several events at the 2014 Thin Air: Winnipeg International Writers Festival. I picked up a few nuggets of writing wisdom. At an afternoon book chat featuring writers Guillaume Morissette and Diane Schoemperlen, there was a discussion about fragments. Both their recent works rely on telling the story partly through fragments, which can be a powerful way to convey a sense of person and place. Guillaume’s characters are young and active on social media. We gain understanding of them through brief online messages. Even outside the short and immediate confines of social media, life and stories sometimes appear as fragments, tightly or loosely connected. I picked up fragments of information on writing over the course of the week, fragments that will somehow get woven into the fabric of my understanding of the art and craft of writing.

On Era and Research

Writers’ reasons for choosing a particular time period in which to set a story vary. A story set in a time period from the past often requires research to sound authentic. Some writers love research, others avoid it.

Alison Preston wanted an environment in which there were no hand-held devices, a time when children wandered off on their own and had lots of freedom. She said her teen years were still very vivid for her. For those reasons, she set her latest book in 1964. She could write about that time from memory without the need for research.

Similarly, Miriam Toews set A Complicated Kindness in 1984 at a time when she was 16 years old, a time she could remember, and therefore avoid research.

Audrey Thomas’s new book Local Customs is about four people who lived in the early 1800s. Research was necessary. Audrey likes doing the research, but likened it to “trying the eat just one peanut, next thing you know it’s three hours later.”

I usually enjoy doing research, but it can easily take you off on tangents that use up a lot of time. I do not have the same vivid memories of my youth as Miriam and Alison seem to have. I might need to do research for a story set during my teen or childhood years. I’m reminded of something else said in one afternoon book chat, “What we remember isn’t what really happened.”

On Being Stuck

I’ve found it encouraging over the years to hear accomplished writers also reach points where they don’t know what to do next or where the story is going. But they do find ways to continue. Hearing about what works for them gives me more options for finding something that works for me.

Alison Preston doesn’t plot out a story, but lets it flow from the first sentence. When she gets stuck, she will go back and regroup, and possibly branch off in one of the other directions the story can go.

John McFeteridge doesn’t go back. He finds it important to finish the first draft before going back. But he suggests falling back on the theme when one is unsure where to take the story next. How does the character change or what does she learn?


On Dialogue

A challenge for writers is creating dialogue in which characters have a distinct voice. John McFeteridge suggested writers shouldn’t worry about this. He’s read passages where the characters’ voices sounded the same and it didn’t matter. And sometimes, when characters’ voices are too obviously different, the effect is jarring. He suggests writers concentrate on making the character sound like himself or herself, that the voice be true to the character.

On The Creative Process and Inspiration

Audrey Thomas first heard the story of Letita Landon almost 50 years ago and it haunted her for years until she wrote Local Customs.

Miriam Toews uses her own life and emotions in her books. She talked of writing as a way to “examine our obsessions.” 

Denise Roig talked about needing to be slightly off-balance to write. Travel and new places do that for her. That comment reminded me of an observation John McFeteridge made earlier in the week when he talked about the writer’s eye in relation to location or setting. When we write about the place we live, especially if we have been born and raised there, we need to find a way to get a stranger’s perspective. We often cannot see what is unique about our home because we are too used to it.

I don’t remember who during the week said “Art comes from mysterious places, one needs to be curious”, but it struck enough of a chord with me to write it down in my notebook.

Do any of these fragments speak to you? What have you picked up at writers’ festivals?


  6 Responses to “Fragments of Writing Wisdom”

  1. Interesting post, Donna. I love writers conferences and events as we can learn so much from one another. We all have a different process for our writing. No one size fits all in this business! But we do all share similar challenges and thrills. Thx for sharing.

  2. The most important thing I’ve taken away from writing conferences (other than the much-needed sense of community because writing can often be an isolating profession in some ways) is that everybody’s process differs so much. There are so many ways to get the writing done. Deep down I know that and have taught others the various tools for getting the writing done, but it really is true that teachers can often make the worst students 😉

  3. I’ve never been to a writer’s conference. Shame on me, right? If my health was better, and I had the funds, I’d attend one, though.

    As for my writing process? I write when I feel like it. Self-indulgent? Maybe.

    Oh well.

    • There are writers’ conferences that focus on workshops etc. to help writers with their craft. And then there are writers’ festivals that are geared more towards readers. The one I write about here is that kind. But I find in the interviews with writers I can learn things that help with my own writing. I believe variations of these types of festivals occur across the country, with variations on costs to attend specific events. Thin Air’s evening main stage events have a cost, but the afternoon book chats, my personal favourite, are free.

      If you can are able to make things work by writing when you feel like it, that is great. Sometimes I have to force myself to start, but once I get going find I do feel like it.

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