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.
I saw him from across the room. A handsome guy with an intense stare. I decided to go over and say hello. That’s when he head-butted me.
It was my introduction to Tomas, a cat at the Fort Smith Animal Shelter. He knew he was going to be mine the moment he laid eyes on me. And he wasn’t about to let me go.
I was trying to pat the other kitties in the shelter’s cat room. There were a lot of them and everyone needed at least a couple of hugs. Tommy didn’t think so. He wiggled his way into my arms and told the others to scram.
This was my first visit to the shelter since I had moved to the Northwest Territories a couple of months before. Dixie Penner, who runs the shelter, also worked with me at the paper I had come to be the editor of: the then Slave River Journal. She suggested I volunteer at the animal sanctuary and so I was there looking around.
Tom followed me around, hissed at the other kitties, and mooed at me to pay attention to him only. (Tomas doesn’t meow, he makes cow noises but since he’s from the north we say he’s making bison noises.) After that day I started coming back to visit him and play with the other cats, well, if I could get near any of them. I walked the dogs too.
A few weeks after helping out, Dixie asked me if I wanted to foster Tom, a squat boy with several shades of grey granite on his white fur body. He wasn’t getting along with the other cats and needed to be on his own. I asked my landlords if I could bring him home and they said OK so I said OK to hosting Tomas for a while.
He moved in one November afternoon. When there was snow on the subarctic ground and the sun was beginning to hide for most of the day. I thought he’d be a regular guy, hang out with me, eat some food and then go to sleep at night. But oh no, he turned into a bad guy.
Tomas would run full-tilt at me and then attack whatever part of my body he arrived at first. Usually my legs. He was vicious and for the first two weeks I walked around with giant pillows so he could assault them and not me. One night I got a nasty surprise in the dark just as I turned out the light. Tommy leapt up and grabbed my arm, scratching and tearing until I managed to pull him off.
Even my friends were afraid of him. When one buddy came over Tom would hop into his lap, waiting for pats. He wouldn’t get many as my friend was frozen solid, afraid to move a muscle in case Tom sank his fangs into his flesh.
Over a few months Tommy became a sort-of nice boy. He stopped the attacks and bit only when I left him on his own for a while. He’s a very social cat. After a year I decided to adopt him because even though his poster was all over the territory, even in Yellowknife, no one has asked about him. (I’ve never told him this though.) He’s a great guy now after mellowing for 11 years. Just don’t whistle around him. He’ll bite you.
I walked past some Calgary seniors last Thursday lamenting the loss of Target. It sounded like they were truly upset. However, one woman asked, “What was wrong with Zellers? I miss that place.” I have to agree with her. While Target and Zellers are only two of the many retailers fading away, the Mom and Pop clothing stores that used to be open on our main streets are almost all gone. But not from some of our memories. Target’s closing caused a very buried story to resurface.
Living in rural Nova Scotia meant my two younger sisters and I had to take the bus to and from school. We waited for the bus to pick us up in all types of weather: wind, rain, sleet or snow and had to be prepared to fight these elements. Therefore, from November to March, we were dressed in snow gear.
In the fall of Grade 7 my mom took us shopping in Windsor, Nova Scotia. It was in a family-run clothing store that I met and fell in love with a matching ski jacket and pants: bright yellow and puffy with a faux-leather finish. The coat had a big late 80s asymmetrical collar and a large and shiny brass belt – that buckled in the front. Fabulous! My middle sister got the same suit in blue.
These were expensive purchases at the time and my mother told me the yellow wasn’t a “practical colour.” I guess that meant it wasn’t flattering. There was nothing she could say to turn my head from the sunshine suit. It was mine.
“Looking good!” I thought to myself when I got home and tried on my new winter gear again. The trousers were slightly flared at the bottom to fit over my boots and the jacket cinched nicely at the waist so I did not appear all one shape: blobish. I wished I didn’t have to take my snow and ice clothing off – ever. I wanted everyone to admire my spiffy duds.
Soon after getting my new gear, I was outside Wolfville Junior High School waiting for the bus to take me home. There was a crowd of country kids in the parking lot and I was the only one in a gorgeous and swanky ski suit. I was standing with my friend Angela talking about, what do you think? Boys. Then the guy I had a crush on, a townie, walked by.
I certainly remember his name because Angela began yelling it at the top of her lungs.
“Steve! Steve! The girl in the yellow ski suit likes you!”
When he turned around she pointed at me. Which she didn’t have to do, as I was the only one in a bright yellow, top to bottom, snowsuit. My face was bright red.
The snowbanks around the school were piled high and I wanted to dive into one and bury myself. But shame still would have found me, as my yellow snowsuit would have been a beacon to light the way. I wanted to rip off the garish trousers and throw the stupid jacket to the wind to be carried far, far, far away from me. Oh the teenage humiliation!
Angela finally shut up and Steve kept walking away. But I was left with hatred for my previously glamourous outfit. From then on I dreaded wearing it and being identified as “The girl in the yellow ski suit with the crush on Steve.”
Of course my parents weren’t going to let me buy something else and I was too big to trade suits with my sister. I just made sure every time I came and left school Steve was nowhere in sight. Even though you could see me coming from a mile away.
Time travel boggles my mind. Yet, as a memoir writer I do it almost every day. One thing different about my continuum is physically I stay in the same place. But sometimes something happens and I’m transported, both body and mind, to a different era.
My husband gave me a book about Alex Colville for Christmas. Colville was an artist famous for his stark and muted everyday images that seem to have something hiding in them. He spent a lot of time in the Maritimes, in and around the areas I know well. He lived in Wolfville, Nova Scotia and while I was growing up near the quaint town, I used to see him and his wife, Rhoda, at church, walking down the street or in friends’ parents’ homes as supper guests. It wasn’t until I graduated high school did I understand that Colville was one of Canada’s prolific painters.
I didn’t know him but I feel like I do. My parents have a few of his prints and I have one too. When Canada Post included Colville’s Church and Horse work as part of its “Masterpieces of Canadian Art” stamp series, Colville autographed special envelopes for the Wolfville post office. I bought five of the envelopes for my family and kept one for myself. Now I have a whole book to look at, at any time.
Flipping through his photos and images many of them are scenes from places I’ve lived and even include people I know. Seeing these paintings I enter a different world. A world that existed yesterday and still exists today. There are scenes of Blomidon, a prominent landmark that sticks out like a pot handle into the Minas Basin. When you’re driving down Highway 101 into the Annapolis Valley from Halifax, you see Blomidon. Then you know you are home. Also along the same highway is Freddy Wilson: “The Waver” who stands on an overpass welcoming travellers to Kings County. Colville’s painting of Freddy is included in the book.
On the page next to Freddy is a work that many people might puzzle over. But I know it’s the Acadia University physical plant and a former professor. Once in a class that I forget now, we were told a story about that painting. But it’s an unsettling one that I won’t repeat.
Main Street Wolfville is featured by Colville. As a background to the main image of a woman and a vehicle, is the war memorial and post office and in behind these landmarks, houses where I went to parties filled with vodka and youth. Grand Pre and the dykes are caught in brush strokes too. In another painting, my friend’s sister rides a horse. And another, there’s Waterville Municipal Airport; where I got my pilot’s license. Today, the airport is in the midst of closing but Colville captured it alive and buzzing. Is one of those planes the one I flew?
Colville went to Mount Allison University and I worked there long after he left. Some of his images remain though for all to see as murals on buildings. I’m wondering if his Milk Truck piece is set in Sackville in the late 50s. I think I recognize the curve in the road.
Because of Alex Colville’s art, I have a tether to another world. I didn’t know him but I feel he knew me.
Last Christmas 2013 was amazing. Fantastic. Superuber wonderful. It should have been: my husband and I went on our honeymoon to Europe. We went to Switzerland and Norway. Today I’m listing our top five trip moments.
#1. Having our luggage arrive with us on our numerous flights across Canada and Europe
I’ve flown both Air Canada and WestJet and both carriers have managed to screw up my baggage on various North American trips. Imagine my surprise when our bags made it to our destination in Oslo, Norway despite plane delays.
Our flight originated in Zurich, Switzerland and we had to switch planes in Berlin. The Air Berlin flight was late leaving Zurich and we thought the gate for our connecting Air Berlin flight to Oslo would be nearby.
Nope. Not a chance. We had to change terminals!
We had about 15 minutes to get from Point A to Point B and a bunch of smoking and slow-walking airport people in front of us. We also had to go through security…again. With a long line ahead of us it was all we could do not to push through to the front. But we made it on the plane, keeping the reputation of polite Canadians intact but imagining the worst for our luggage.
To see it roll down the conveyor belt in the Norwegian airport was an awesome sight.
#2. The Spengler Cup
I play hockey and watch hockey: both NHL and the Spengler. In my twenties in Nova Scotia
we would tune into the European hockey tournament Boxing Day and I would think how silly the uniforms were with all the advertising on them. But it didn’t take away from the play under the magnificent cathedral ceilings of the Vaillant Arena in Davos, Switzerland.
Being in the arena was a dream come true. I got to see lots of good hockey and enjoyed seeing the Red Army take to the ice. Alex Radulov is a fantastic player even if he gets tired after 30 seconds of having the puck.
#3. The view from our friends’ house
Two generous friends allowed us to stay at their beautiful mountain home in Fanas, Switzerland while they were away for Christmas. Fanas is spectacular and photos don’t do it justice. We spent New Year’s Eve there and it was a sight to see (and hear).
Fireworks went off up and down the valley and from peak to peak for miles. The sky was illuminated from 11 p.m. until almost dawn. Church bells rang out not just at midnight but for hours and hours. The whole experience was just like out of a story book.
I worked as a sport reporter at the Vancouver 2012 Olympic/Paralympic Games in Whistler. I met and lived with people from around the world. In Switzerland and Norway I got the chance to meet up with some European friends again, a month before the 2014 winter games.
I felt at home in Norway as did my husband. The country’s capital, Oslo, is easy to get around in and there’s much to see and do. We took buses to museums and the subway to the outskirts of the city where there’s a quaint and cozy restaurant called the Frognerseteren. I had a delicious meal of fish cakes (which aren’t like Maritime fish cakes but actually pancakes with fish in them) and my husband had an elk burger. We had our lunch beside a roaring bright fire. Truly a meal (and price) to remember.
This Christmas will be decidedly duller. Calgary is home though and we have lots of friends here even though we’ll be far away from family.
Merry Christmas everyone.
Walking past a downtown Calgary restaurant the other day I smelled something good. What wafted through a restaurant door, hitting my nostrils on the cool winter day, was a mixture of inviting and warm comfort food: tomatoes, fresh bread and a hint of cinnamon. Maybe not something you might think of together but for me it combined into a memory of the Marché Mövenpick in Toronto.
The Marché was just off Yonge Street and near Front Street, close to Lake Ontario. The restaurant was where my friends and I would go on chilly December Saturdays or freezing February evenings after dancing the night away in the late nineties. We were young and going to Ryerson University, taking demanding second degrees in fields like journalism and landscape architecture. We had the world by the throat. Ready to go once the gates of academia opened, letting us out to pursue anything and everything like ravenous monsters with wide-open jaws.
We were hungry. Hungry for life and hungry for a good, hearty (and cheap) meal. That’s what we would get at the Mövenpick. It was cafeteria-type place with lots of food stations so we could each get our fix of whatever we wanted to eat. From bruschetta to steak to waffles, it was there for the feasting. The three of us – me, Mo and R – would stash our mittens and heavy winter coats at a hard-to-get table and then go our separate ways in search of what would make us smile.
I truly can’t remember what I ate. Just that it was delicious. It was the atmosphere of the place I recall best. It was always a bit dark in the restaurant, dim, and with the low lighting it was dream-like for me. We were hovering in a different world, one that helped us escape the realities of school life for an hour or two.
It was always warm and cozy in the Marché. We abandoned our scarves and extra sweaters and toques in the tropical, lively restaurant, almost floating around we were so light. Unused to being weightless without all our winter gear holding us down to earth.
Once back at our table, each with a different meal, our conversation would continue from 20 minutes before. Picking up from where we had left off before we sat down. We talked about boys, our classes, boys in our classes and eventually, our future careers. For me I would be a newspaper reporter, hopefully a foreign correspondent. Little did I know then that journalism would eventually seize up and stall. Forcing me to find another future. But at the time, the time at the Marché, everything was wide open. There were no limits. Everything was blue sky ahead.
The Mövenpick was where life was fresh and dreams were cooked along with the tomatoes and bread. When I smelled that familiar Marché smell the other day, many years and restaurants later, it sent me back to that time. I thought about how some of my dreams from then had come true, while others hadn’t. But life has turned out just the way I wanted.
Not all of us have happy memories to write about. There are those of us who have painful secrets and keep them buried deep down so the thistles and thorns won’t poke through our skin. One of my clients though, is facing her past, demons and all, in her memoir.
The client has committed to reliving a tumultuous and damaging childhood by putting words down on a page. She has had the courage to write her story and she’s come a long way since being forced to be an adult at a young age. Her next big step is to tell her family about the book, her biggest hurdle as an author.
I wrote a couple of things to my client, which she liked. She put my words on a photo and sent it to me. I’m happy to share the image below. When she is done her book, I’ll be sure to post a link to it. You’ll want to read it.
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.