Yesterday I attended the Ontario Writers’ Conference in Ajax Ontario. It was a heart-breakingly beautiful sunny day, and I wondered aloud if I really needed another writers’ conference. I’d already pitched to two of the agents at another conference, and the third wasn’t in the market for my sort of writing. I should probably just be writing, I thought. Or painting my house. Or finally doing my taxes. Or enjoying a long cold drink on my deck while watching the ducks and the otters and the minks frolic on the far shore. But I’d paid, and the workshops I’d signed up for just might give me something yummy on which to chew. So I wheeled my clean but rapidly deteriorating jalopy into the swank grounds of Deer Creek Golf and Country Club and strolled to the entrance, lifting my face to the sun to drink in some rare rays of sun.
The conference was great. The energy was high. Many WCSC members were there, as well as past participants of both the Sebright and Costa Rica Radicial Restoration writing and yoga retreats. The pastries were divine, the coffee hot, the books abounding (sorry); in short, I’m glad I attended.
Gwynn Sheltema’s presentation on when and how to use multiple points of view was very stimulating and thought provoking. In the end, it brought to mind what James Dewar said in the 2010 A Novel Approach course in response to several questions about what a writer can and can’t do in the course of writing their novel. He said, “You can do anything you want as long as it works.” It sounds simplistic, but it’s true. You can use multiple POV’s when it feels right, when it fits, and when it’s needed, and you need to create distinct voices. As I listened, I mentally scanned my work, and it occurred to me that much of these choices for me, at least, are intuitive, so it’s reassuring to sit in a class like that. Like the difference between “pantsers” and “plotters” we may come to the same sorts of results by different means. If it works, in the end, it really doesn’t matter how we got there. The highlight of the day for me was Sherry Coman’s workshop on “Building a project from its emotional centre, outward into narrative.” Her approach dovetails seamlessly with those of Barbara Turner-Vesselago, Pat Schneider, and Susan Reynolds, in that story can begin from an emotional core, an image, or even a sense, and that story can unfurl from those seeds. In our hectic world action and story have become all-important, but for some of us being moved is more important than being entertained.
Sherry had us watch a couple of clips from the exquisitely shot film, Cairo Time, where nothing much was “happening”, the story as such was not being “moved along”. However, aside from creating a rich atmospheric tapestry, these shots succeeded in creating sympathy, or even empathy… we were able to get into the character’s skin.
To illustrate possible ways to allow story to evolve from a mood or a feeling, Sherry suggested to begin with an object or a moment and explore it without attempting to squeeze story or backstory into it. Yes, yes, I thought. Let’s do it. How freeing to shake off the constraint of having to know even before you begin.
Sherry, apologizing that her time had run out, left us with an exercise to do on our own. Since I had an hour to wait for my son to finish his lifeguard training, I went for some sushi and wrote. Our prompts were: person, park, piece of paper. First I sketched the details, and then sort of followed her example from the Cairo Time script: