Self-Styled Writer’s Retreat

Douglas Stuart, Violaine Huisman, and Gabriel Krause at Vancouver Writers Fest 2022

There is no lack of books, YouTube presentations, or writing courses and retreats on offer that teach how to write, what to write, and create space for writers to write.  I have consumed many of them.  However, I have decided the only catapult for me to write must come from me.  The Writer’s Festival 2022 at Granville Island in Vancouver, B.C. just celebrated its 35th anniversary!  Over the years, I have been fortunate to attend The Writing Festival, as well as bring students, teachers, and friends to the week-long event.  Up until this year, I attended the festival predominantly as a reader.  Usually, I attend sessions with favourite authors and wait in long lines to have them sign newly purchased and well-loved copies of their books.  No one can stir up enthusiasm for a book and provide insight into the text like the author.  This year I took a different tact.  I selected sessions that I thought would push me as a writer.  The intention was to apply learning from sessions to my own writing.  

It was a different process to select sessions as a writer rather than a reader.  I looked to the titles of the sessions, more than to the authors.  Wayne Johnston made the cut to my sensibilities of myself as a reader and a writer.  Author of “fat, sad books” that my daughter noticed I gravitated to in her wisdom at the ripe old age of 6, his session only needed to be billed as “An Evening with Wayne Johnston.”  I felt fortunate to get tickets for this reputed Canadian author before it sold out. 

Due to my familiarity with the author, Wayne Johnston’s session was like going to visit an old friend.  He was reading from his book, Jennie’s Boy.  The book is based on 6 months of the life of his seven-year-old self, not certain if he is going to survive the year.   His father’s tendency to spend the rent money at the bar and his mother’s willingness to forgive, resulted in him living in 23 different houses by the time he turned seven years old.  His health problems left the doctors in a quandary in terms of a diagnosis.  The focus on 6 months was a eureka moment for me.  In my writing of childhood, I have been overwhelmed with the amount of content.  My memories of childhood are numerous.  Peaks and valleys painted with vivid colour.  Not a lot locked behind doors or inaccessibility or flat land that has been relegated to the not worth remembering category.  My memory cannot be unremembered, and details threaten to bury the stories I set out to tell.  Peeling back to one year where my decisions as an 8-year-old define who I will become, I can imagine completing the book.  I could have hugged Wayne Johnston.  Instead, I just thanked him and let him sign the book.  

The other two sessions I selected solely based on the titles.  I want to write fiction but my most powerful writing comes from my experiences or the feelings from those experiences and concepts.  Fiction from Reality and The Narrator’s Tale – Playing with Truth brought together authors that I was not familiar, and I put myself in the hands in the architects of The Writer’s Festival.  The moderators in both cases were unique in their approach but skilled in facilitating a thought-provoking conversation between the authors and navigating the concepts of owning your own story, inspiration, memoir, and fiction that conveys universal truths.  I may not have picked up these authors on my own or attended their sessions if I hadn’t rolled the dice in this particular way.  I’m grateful I did.  

Fiction from Reality featured three authors reading from their books and a mediated conversation.  Violaine Huisman was born in Paris and has been living in New York for the past 20 years.  Her reading from the recently published, The Book of Mother, takes us into her traumatic childhood of her and her sister, growing up with a dysregulated mother with multiple diagnosis, including bipolar and trauma.  The rest of the story brings in the back stories that were also determining directions.  Douglas Stuart was born and raised in Glasgow and was reading from his book Young Mungo.  He also referenced his 2020 Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain.  The final author Gabriel Krause was a Polish kid living in the slums of London, when he was drawn into the crime and drug scene as a way of defining an identity for himself.  His reading from Who They Was was longlisted Booker Prize and “gritty” doesn’t seem enough to describe this other world he brings the reader into.  Obviously, these writers were brought together for the success that they’ve had in taking very personal experiences and creating fiction that smacks of truth.  Yet, equally fascinating was the discussion between the authors.  Part of this was thanks to the skillful moderation by someone who was clearly an avid reader.  The woman ahead of me in line got the last Gabriel Krause book.  It was her first Writer’s Festival and I had told her it was worth buying the books and having them signed to get the full Writer’s Festival experience. Bittersweet advice when she got the last book.  Although in all truth, I would have given it to the guy behind me that really wanted it and was only buying one book.  The comradery of readers that emerges at Writing Events and bookstores!  

The final session I attended as called The Narrator’s Tale – Playing with Truth. Another amazing discussion with three interesting authors and skillfully moderated by David Ebner, a Globe and Mail National Correspondent. The question explored was how to maintain truth in the telling of stories when they aren’t strictly factual. The notion of playing with a sense of truth is something that fascinates me. Billy Ray Belcourt read from his auto-fiction novel, A Minor Chorus. He brings the perspective of a Cree Nation poet who identifies as queer. His life and the experiences are foreign to me, but the poetry of his language conveys universal truths that trigger recognition, heartbreak and the desire to go for coffee and talk. Iain Reid read from We Spread Foe and spoke about narrator’s that change our reality. João Reis is Portuguese translator, author of The Translator’s Bride – a personal connection because I recently visited Portugal. And yes, he was proud to tell me he was from Porto, and I did share my favourite Porto in spring memories while he was signing my book. His Kafka-esque quality to his writing very much reminded me of reading The Castle when in the Prague. The stream of consciousness of the main character allowed conveyed the truth of the characters understanding, the restraint and disconnect with the lack truth in his spoken words aloud and his ultimate spiral downward. Framing writing as a stream of consciousness like João Reis freed me from shutting down any hint of a run-on sentence. Releasing me from years of teaching writing that has resulted in stifling rather than freeing experimentation with my own writing.

I’m on my fifth of the seven books I bought to read for my self-styled writing course.   I’m still inspired.  The diverse nature of the authors and the diverse nature of their writing made my Writer’s Retreat a continuing growth experience and helped me to see other possibilities.  My self-imposed course requirements count reading as real work.  The permission to read is a gift I’ve given myself.  Of course, it also mandates writing time and application of new learning from my selected authors.   Another gift. Clearly this is a good frame for a Writing Retreat.  The $25.00 cost of tickets for most sessions, made it less costly than signing up for a writing course, even when I include the cost of the books.   Perhaps I’ll be able to charge thousands for my own brand of Writing Retreat and travel to exotic places to write.  I just need to publish something!  I am a master of beginnings.  I just need to finish one of the stories I carry in my head.  Because, as Billy-Ray Belcourt says “I write because I’ve read and been moved into a position of wonder.”1

  1. Billy-Ray Belcourt (2022).  A Minor Chorus. Hamish Hamilton Canada. p. 19.

Published by Carrie Froese

Curiosity guarantees a life of learning😀 Let me help you find the answer to your questions about educational practice, setting up a small business with a focus on education, and running a non-profit with a focus on educational events.

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