Family Lines

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Tag: memoir workshop (page 3 of 6)

Run away runway

Me landing at the Waterville Airport, NS.

Me and my Cessna landing at the Waterville Airport, NS.

In my writing workshops, I talk about emotional writing and how to convey sentiment without using words like angry or happy. The best way to express feelings in writing is to actually describe what these emotions bring to you or your character’s face, body laanguage and voice.

Next, my participants do a writing exercise where we take an emotion word and write about the feeling without using the word. We write for 10 minutes and then share our stories. We then have to guess which emotion we each wrote about. Can you guess mine?

High up in my airplane, I can see the landing strip. But I can’t land. Every time I try to make it back to earth, the wind pushes me off course. Off to the side of the runway. I’ve tried three times to touch down.

One, two, three.

Sweat beads on my forehead. I’m getting hotter and hotter as the gusts use me as their toy. Their plaything to be thrown into the air and kept captive until they’re bored of me.

How am I going to put this plane back on the ground? Stupid wind. You’re going to be the death of me.

Dressing like a “gangsta”

pen.For the past four weeks I’ve been spending some time at the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre teaching a memoir writing workshop. Every Wednesday morning for about an hour a few people write around a table in the midst of a busy room buzzing with conversation and movement and a movie blaring on the TV in the corner. It’s not hard to block out the distractions: my participants are keen on learning how to craft their stories and ask a lot of questions.

The workshop is offered through This is My City (TMC). TMC is a non-profit society that brings art and people together no matter their income bracket or social status. As a TMC volunteer I’ve been offering my four-week memoir session to homeless and detox shelters for about two years now. Last week was my last trip to the Drop-In this fall.

We talked about using description, show: don’t tell, in our stories. For example: Janice was very angry. That’s telling. Janice was waving her fists in the air and her face was very red. That’s showing. Description paints the scene for the reader by proving details that appeal to the senses using the senses. What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear? How do you feel? These bring a world to life in your story instead of just telling a reader what he or she should be experiencing.

I asked my Drop-In participants to describe something. One man decided to illustrate himself with words. Here is his piece:

I am a large teddy bear on steroids with long curly hair, a weathered looking face with an unwanted belly that travels in front, defying my efforts at reduction. This belly laughs at me, “Hah, hah!” it says. “Try and lose me, my friend.”

“I will lose you,” I retort, “one day.”

When I am in decent shape I dress “gangsta.” I dress in Ray-Ban, True Religion, FUBU. I look good, sexy. I’ve been taught to do that. I like the look.

Uncovering treasures

Postcard from Gretna Gree.

Postcard from Gretna Green, Scotland famous for runaway weddings.

This past week I was in Burlington, Ontario for work. A client had bought my ticket so I could fly to her home and help her dig through boxes and files and root out any stories that had been hiding. We uncovered a few new adventures by looking at old photos as well as added more details to other memoirs. But I didn’t just unearth her family narratives; I also discovered a portal to someone else’s stories.

Southern Ontario was hot, hot, hot and coming from cold Calgary I was not used to the heat and humidity. While sifting through documents and pictures in the basement kept me cool, coming up to ground level took my temperature a little too high. So we decided to take a drive in the air-conditioned car.

Off we headed into the countryside driving past lush green pastures, grand estates with fountains splashing into ponds and rolling hills that make up the area around and past Milton. It was in Campbellville that we noticed a sign on the right hand side of the road advertising stained glass windows. To stretch our legs we thought we might as well stop in and take a peek.

The Stonehouse of Campbellville has over two thousand windows displayed outside on its grounds. (I was actually afraid to walk around because I was sure I would kick and break something.) Some of the windows are pieces of art with royal blues and ruby reds and sunshine yellows shaped into flowers or people or animals. Some glass is clear in its design and looks just as beautiful as a colourful church window.

Inside the small shop there are more windows for sale and a work room where artists make repairs. But there were also two long benches filled with books. Free books!

“Limit five books per person,” said the sign above the tomes of every size and genre. Perhaps I could get a good novel for the plane ride back? As someone once said, “Never judge a book by its cover,” so I looked for a catchy title that interested me. I picked up a science fiction paperback and opened it – three postcards slid out from the pages to the floor.

I picked the postcards up and took a look. They were all from a mother to her grown child, whether a daughter or son I don’t know. The postcards were addressed to Saskatoon Drive in Toronto, an address that still exists. (I googled it.) The notes on the cards were short but sweet with the most interesting one being written on a picture of Gretna Green.

Gretna Green is a town in Scotland known for runaway weddings. In England if you were getting married and under 21 in the 1700s, your parents could object to you getting hitched. Scotland’s law was more lax then so many minors took off to wed in the safety of Gretna Green. (Jane Austen wrote about some of her characters running off to Gretna Green.) The postcard I found wasn’t from the 18th century – it was sent August 14, 1958 – but there been a wedding.

Postcard.

The postcard was addressed to J.W. Singleton. I googled the name and found a J.W. Singleton Education Centre in Burlington, Ont.

Hello folks,

Just had to send this card. We made a group and had a wedding picture taken. Much love, mother

As Oliver Twist (kind of) said, “I want some more.” Some more details to fill in the story. Was the wedding at Gretna Green? Whose wedding was it? Why didn’t the receiver of the postcard attend? Too many questions and no answers. Just like life.

The postcard is a fragment of a much bigger narrative. A piece of a puzzle that I will never put together. But it’s still a delightful treasure to have found and a reminder that some stories don’t have a perfect ending. I left the postcards and the book on the bench for the next person to discover.

Much ado about nothing

Family photo.

My sisters, me, my nephew and my nana. 2004.

There are so many things to write about but I sometimes get stuck thinking about what to write about and can’t come up with anything. Probably lots of people who are looking to record their corporate or personal stories are in the same boat. They don’t know where to start but given a prompt – their memories will be set in motion.

Writing prompts help get your tale on its way. It gives you a focus such as: what do you remember your grandmother saying? This opens up myriad of possibilities for many people and one particular story for me.

One time my nana, my mama’s mama, come to visit us in Nova Scotia from northern Ontario. My family had driven to Canning, a small Annapolis Valley town, to run an errand and we were parked on the side of the street. My mom went into a store leaving me and my middle sister in the back seat with my nana sitting in the passenger chair.

My sister and I were being bad. We were arguing and fighting and kicking the back of the seats. My Scottish nana turned around and said:

“If you don’t stop that I’m gonna hit you in the lugs!”

That stopped us. Dead. Not because of nana’s stern tone but because – what are lugs? (Her accent lugs turned into loogs.)

“What are loogs nana?” one of us asked.

“Loogs, you know, loogs.”

Legs? Is that what she meant? That made us laugh.

“Haha nana. You say legs funny.”

Not the right thing to say and she was furious and sputtered something else at us.

For years my sister and I have thought lugs were legs. Until one day we were watching Coronation Street, a British soap opera, and one of the characters mentioned his lugs – his ears.

Moving on in more ways than one

Cabbagetown, Toronto.

Parliament Street in Cabbagetown, Toronto.

I’ve noticed a lot of people moving this weekend. Young people who look around the age of university students. I’ve seen them put clothing and framed posters into cars or trucks and then go back into condos or houses or apartment to get more. When I graduated from Acadia University in the 90s, I had more schooling to look forward to. I went to Ryerson University to take journalism and got another degree. The spring day I moved out of the apartment I shared with two friends in Cabbagetown was an emotional one. Not to mention expensive.

I had hired a moving company to collect my stuff, then take it and me to a storage unit where the vehicle would be unpacked before returning me to the apartment on Parliament Street. The moving company quoted me an estimate for an hour for two guys and it was reasonable. I didn’t have tons of things — just a few items to leave in Toronto for my sister who was headed to grad school in the area in the fall. Two hundred bucks to complete the job was fair.

I met the moving guys on a late morning and saw only one of them was a “guy.” The other was his six-year-old son. How are they going to move boxes and bedroom furniture from the second storey and get to the storage unit and unpack in only an hour? They would need some help.

I did what I could but it took a long time. The day was, as I remember, an OK one. It wasn’t too hot and it wasn’t too cold. Buds were forming on the trees and the sky was overcast. As was my outlook on how the day was going to go.Sign.

There were many other things I had to do to prepare for heading back to Nova Scotia. The big one being spending time with my boyfriend, who would be soon taking off for his home in British Columbia. I wanted this move to go quickly but the packers were moving so slowly, taking breaks and standing around and talking. I mean, the kid shouldn’t have even been there but he was…so get to work!

Two hours later and they were ready to hit the road. I jumped into the cab of the van with them and we drove slowly to the outskirts of TO. There was no choice but to go slow, traffic was bumper-to-bumper and we were forced to crawl down the Don Valley Parkway, an “express” way.

Arriving at the storage unit, we unloaded pretty quickly. But not quick enough to make it under three hours. I was getting anxious as I saw my day creeping by and time flying out the window. Then I saw my money drain out of my not-so-full student bank account.

“Excuse me?” I asked when the mover told me how much I owed him.

The exact amount today escapes me but it was more than what he previously quoted. A lot more. Probably like $400 more. It was not a paid by-the-hour job but somehow it added up to one. Besides, he should be paying me some of that. I did half the work!

I didn’t complain. I didn’t argue. And I don’t know why. Perhaps it was because I was young and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. I knew I was being taken advantage of and yet I paid up. Then he had the audacity to drop me and his son at a subway station to get the rest of the long way home. He had another job to do. (The son didn’t come home with me. I also think six is too young to take the subway alone.)

During this ordeal I couldn’t complain to my parents and let them take care of it. I was an adult. I was on my own. Deal with it. This was a first real-world lesson for me. Only a few days out of university and here was reality saying that not everyone is going to be honest or nice or even halfway decent. Although now I know how to stick up for myself.

History is not just in text books

sunset.

Spring sunset

It’s been almost a week since five people were killed in Calgary, each stabbed to death at a party. I have no immediate connection to the victims but I can’t help but think about how their families, and the suspect’s family, are dealing with an immense amount of tears, pain and confusion. It’s a horror I can’t even imagine can be put into words.

Some terrible things can be written down though, perhaps only because of the hindsight of history. I’ve been reading Hanns and Rudolf, The True Story of the German Jew Who Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz by Thomas Harding. It’s a look into the lives of two men – Hanns Alexander, a German-born Jew who moved to England during the rise of the Nazis, and Rudolf Höss, a German-born man who became the overseer of a horrific concentration camp. The book follows Alexander and Höss from their beginnings as children, to their entry into military service in World War II (one in the British Army, the other as a Nazi official), to Alexander hunting Rudolf, capturing him and making him face justice for what he did – the mass murder of at least 3 million victims.

Three million people died under Höss’ authority. That’s a tremendous amount of souls. The thing that stands out to me in the book is that Höss claims he was just following orders. He did have doubts about what he was doing but didn’t want to appear soft in front of his superiors or subordinates. So he never said a word to help those poor, poor people.

After the war, Höss was eventually captured by Alexander and taken to be a witness at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946. After Höss gave his testimony, he was sent to Poland to be tried for war crimes in that country. It’s here he was encouraged to write his stories. And he did.

In the pages of his memoir he related facts about his youth, his wife and family, his thoughts and deeds at Auschwitz. Throughout it all he claimed to be a normal person – not a wicked one. A man with a heart. Not a monster.

Poland sentenced Höss to death and hanged him on April 16, 1947. His legacy remains as one of death and the ripping apart of families for generations. His stories remain as a reminder to us that anyone can turn against a fellow human.

Alexander, the Nazi hunter, stayed silent about his accomplishments for many years. Until his stories surfaced at his funeral. That’s when his great-nephew decided to pick up a pen and write his uncle’s story. To finally share Alexander’s legacy as a witness to the atrocities with the rest of the world.

History is not just in text books. It’s in our memories. It’s good and it’s bad. With our World War II and Korean War veterans disappearing, there are many more stories to be told. We just need to catch them in time. To let them leave their historical legacies.

“The choices we make about the lives we live determine the kinds of legacies we leave.”
― Tavis Smiley, PBS host

Thank you for the thank yous

Cards.

My wonderful thank you cards.

In January I gave a presentation on memoir writing to some students at Chris Akkerman School. I wondered how the kids would find writing their life stories and worried if they would find it boring.

That wasn’t the case. They had lots to share and many anecdotes to tell me from their relatively short lives so far. A few weeks later I received a large manila envelope with many, many colourful thank you cards, a few questions and, of course, some memoirs.

By Randeep:

Here is my little story.

The second time I went to India with my little sister (who was only three months old then) I met my devil cousin Aman. He was the most naughty boy ever and there is one thing that he did to me, which I will never forget.

He took my aunt’s old stinky perfume and sprayed it on me and called my mom and said I peed in my pants. Now after six years he is coming from India for two to three months for a visit. I wonder what will happen.

**

By Samad:

I didn’t have the chance to share my memoir during your presentation so I’m going to share it with you right now.

When I was in preschool we were going outside to play on a water-thingy that was filled up with air. I wasn’t able to go outside because I didn’t have my towel so I was sad. Everyone was playing outside while I was playing with toys inside with a teacher.

After I looked in my backpack again and I found my towel so my teacher asked me if I wanted to go outside. But guess what I said?

I said I didn’t want to go outside because I wanted to play with toys.

**

Poem by Komal

So beautiful

The best author ever

Oh! Isn’t she wonderful?

Really cool

Really awesome too.

**

By Manveer:

I have a lot of memories. Most of them are funny. One is when it was sports day. Sports day is where you play sports. On that day I wore my pants backwards the whole time.

**

My memoir by Sikhman:

The time I will never forget. It was in the summer when the greatest thing happened to me. We went to Edmonton. It was fun when we went. On the way to Edmonton we went to Sylvan Lake. In Edmonton we went to our hotel room and it was 9 p.m. and we got pizza and went to sleep. I got to sleep on a cool chair. The next day we went to Tim Horton’s for breakfast. Then last but not least, we went to West Edmonton Mall and went to Galaxyland

**

I want to share a memoir. By Komal:

I still remember when my grandfather died. I was looking all over for him and everyone said the same thing, “He’s at work.”

I was only one.

**

My memoir by Shrill:

I have to go to a place and when I go to it we always go in the middle of the night. We’re tired little people and we want to go to sleep.

**

Good luck bad luck penny

I was walking down the street and I found a penny. I thought it was lucky and I took it.

The next thing you know I had mud all over and my back was hurting because I slipped on a banana peel. So I threw the penny away.

Will the bad luck stop?

**

Puppy by Diya:

Once upon a time there was a little puppy. That little puppy’s name was Max. Max was a brave little puppy who went on adventures.

His adventures were awesome. He had some problems solving his problems. Then he went to the shelter. A girl name Lea bought him. Both were happy together.

**

Questions from the classes:

Harleen asked me what my favourite colour is: green.

Do you have a pet? What kind and what is her/his name?

I have a pet cat and her name is Thursday.

Do you have a brother or a sister?

I have two sisters.

Uditi asked me if it’s hard writing non-fiction books.

On one hand, it’s easy to write non-fiction because you’re writing about your life and you know what happened. But on the other hand, you can’t make stuff up like a fiction writer would. So I think it’s harder to write non-fiction.

Sneha wants to know if I have any book ideas for writing.

For non-fiction you could write about what fun things you do in school. You can also interview your parents or grandparents and find out what they used to do at school. You could also ask them to what they remember about being a kid.

For fiction you could write about having a super power. What does having this super power mean? Do you have to rescue everyone?

Some students said they’re keeping diaries (or a journal as Greg from Diary of a Wimpy Kid would call it.)

Harveer:

You have inspired me to keep my own diary. In my diary I could write memoirs of special days. I will also get pages and write a story and then staple the pages together and make a book. My cousin does that. He has about 10 books already.

Tarnpreet asked me:

Did you do any other jobs before you became an author?

Yes, I was a journalist before I became a memoir writer. Being a journalist is good training to becoming an author. As a reporter you learn how to interview people and how to write.

Do you like this job or not?

I love my job as a memoir writer. People have so many cool stories to tell me and I like collecting their tales so other people can read them too.

How many books have you written about yourself?

I wrote one book about myself. It’s about when I lived in the Northwest Territories a few years ago.

How many memoirs have you written?

I’ve written at least five memoirs for other people and hope to write many, many more.

Gurpreet and Aastra asked me if I’m really afraid of squirrels and not bugs or other animals.

Yes, squirrels scare me a lot as you heard in my story. Bugs and other animals don’t really bother me. I did come face-to-snout with a bear once. That was a scary situation.

I received so many compliments and if I ever need a boost I’ll read your thank-you cards over.

 

 

A crisp spring

Calgary city view.

A spring afternoon in Calgary, March 21, 2014.

It’s supposed to be spring right now but it’s not. Definitely not. Winter is hugging us tight and is not going to let us go. Usually during chilly February evenings I like to warm up with a bowl full of apple crisp. Right out of the oven. It’s a great way to sweeten dark winter nights and with the snow still flying in March, I think it’s apple crisp time. Despite my terrible cooking and baking skills, it’s one thing I can make.

My mother made supper for the family on week nights when I was growing up in Nova Scotia. The five of us would sit at the table around 6:30 p.m. or 7, after my dad got home from work, to eat our meal. Sometimes we had baked sole, sometimes haddock, sometimes Shepard’s pie and sometimes chicken. We always got dessert.

My favourite treat wasn’t chocolate cake or ice cream or pudding – it was apple crisp. Even when it was piping hot I’d be shoveling into my mouth. Even though it scorched my tongue. Through the burning I’d taste sweet Annapolis Valley fruit, baked into a soft compote. The crisp was also a little bit crunchy – from the topping of oatmeal and butter and brown sugar. Mmmm. Delicious. There’s nothing better when the snow is falling outside and the wind is trying to get in the front door.

Supper table.

My family’s supper, lunch and breakfast table.

The recipe came from my mother’s 4H cookbook from where she grew up – Burris, Ontario. Now it’s been a family recipe for almost 40 years now. My mum taught me to make apple crisp when I was younger. No easy feat as I just don’t like being in the kitchen.

Peeling the apples was fine and my dog, Jasper, would wait for the trimmings. He would gobble them up and want more. I loved the crisp’s topping so much that I told myself when I lived on my own I would make a whole bowl of it and eat it all myself. (I’ve lived on my own for a while but haven’t indulged in a pound or two of topping in one sitting.)

I have prepared the dessert so often that I don’t even need to look at the instructions anymore. It’s often the dish I take to potlucks or serve at dinner parties and it’s surprising no one is sick of it yet. Unless they don’t have the heart to tell me.

It doesn’t matter where I’ve made the apple crisp – from The Gambia, West Africa to Sackville, New Brunswick to Fort Smith, Northwest Territories to Revelstoke, British Columbia, every time the aroma hits me I’m reminded of home, winter nights and my family.

Apple crisp (from memory)

  •  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degree C).
  • Peel and slice about 6 medium sized apples
  • Place the sliced apples in a 9×13 inch pan.
  • Spread 1 tablespoon of white sugar over the sliced apples

Topping

  • Combine 3 cups of oats, 1 cup brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of flour, pinch of salt, ¾ cup of melt butter and mix.
  • Crumble evenly over the apple mixture.

Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for about ½ hour to 45 minutes

Show, don’t tell

Me landing at the Waterville Airport, NS.

Me landing at the Waterville Airport, NS.

I’ve been teaching a memoir writing workshop and for one class we talked about emotional writing and how to convey sentiment without using words like angry or happy. These words tell – not show – how you feel. The best way to express feelings in writing is to actually describe how the emotions make you feel and what they are doing to you or your character.

Next we did a writing exercise where we took an emotion word and wrote about it without using the word. We wrote for 10 minutes, then shared our stories and guessed which emotion we wrote about. Can you guess mine?

High up in my airplane, I can see the landing strip. But I can’t land. Every time I try to make it back to earth, the wind pushes me off the soil. I’ve tried three times to touch down, one, two, three – how am I going to put this airplane back on the ground?

Stupid wind, you’re going to be the death of me.

Don’t underestimate the athlete

2010 Vancouver Paralympic Games.

Russian gold medalist in sit-ski at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Games.

The Olympics may be over but the best is yet to come – the Paralympics. The Paralympics are by far the better show of athletic skill and heart. Despite this, these games are not well attended and there are hardly any Paralympic sports broadcast on Canadian TV.

In 2010 I was posted in Whistler, B.C. as a Nordic sport writer for the Olympic News Service and Paralympic News Service. As part of the Vancouver Olympic/Paralympic Winter Games I got the chance to not only write about some of the competitions but take in the atmosphere of the global events held in our country.

During the Olympics, Whistler was filled with people. The medals plaza was stuffed to capacity with spectators every night and the streets of the mountain town were packed with revellers. The stands at cross-country skiing, ski jumping, Nordic combined and biathlon were jammed with fans no matter the weather. That all changed during the Paralympics and I wondered why.

Paralympians work just as hard as Olympians. They’re all athletes training to be number one in their sport. They’re all dealing with outside pressures such as family and finances and work. They’re all attempting to realize a dream – standing on the podium and representing their country. Usually, only Olympians get to feel the glory. We hear about their fight to be the best. We hear their stories of making it to the top. You rarely hear about a Paralympian’s quest for gold. But when you do, you’ll cheer louder than ever like I did.

One of my roles at the Paralympics was to write stories about the athletes. I interviewed them and asked them questions that would be considered rude in other circumstances.

“What is your disability category?”

Andy Soule.

Andy Soule, U.S. Paralympian. Photo: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Andy_Soule,_2010_Paralympics.jpg

In Paralympic cross-country skiing and biathlon, there are standing events, sitting events and visually impaired events. One U.S. sit-ski and biathlon competitor had his legs amputated after being hit by an explosive while serving in Afghanistan. An athlete before he lost his limbs, Andy Soule told me he wanted to stay active after his injuries and when he was introduced to cross-country skiing, he was a natural. Five years after his life-changing event, he was at the 2010 Paralympics, and making history as the first American to win a bronze medal in biathlon in either the Olympic or the Paralympic Games.

Andy’s story was just one incredible story out of many. No doubt Olympians face adversity too but when some superstars had a bad race, they stormed past reporters and wouldn’t talk. Most Paralympians opened up about their experiences and shared their thoughts about the competition, making themselves available to the media – win or lose.

Even though the stands weren’t even half-full at the cross-country and biathlon, Paralympians couldn’t get over the amount of people cheering them on. The athletes said it was fantastic and they hadn’t ever seen crowds like that. I only wish that more people would realize how great the Paralympics are and look past the disabilities.

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