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:

Who: A woman in her mid sixties.
Mood: She is sad/wistful.
What is the paper? The paper is a newspaper obituary page.
She’s picked it up from the bench where it had been left.
She stares at the paper until her eyes lose focus. Young lovers pass in front of the bench, ripe with sexual vitality. Shrieks from children playing in the fenced playground on the other side of the pathway bounce in the air.
She at first doesn’t notice the young couple, but after they pass she lifts her head as if their smell has alerted her. She looks down the path, watches their lithe young bodies tangle and separate until they vanish from the park. She stares into their wake, their absence, then slowly returns her gaze to the obituary. Closing her eyes, she takes two long slow steadying breaths. The shouts, laughter and screeches from the playground don’t appear to register. When she at last opens her eyes it is to gaze along the path from where the lovers approached. She folds the newspaper lovingly, carefully, smoothing her fingers along the creases, slips it into her breast pocket and rises to meander along the path. She passes a very old bony couple sitting on a bench gazing with rheumy eyes across the park. A walker waits to one side. They are holding hands. As she notes this, her foot hesitates as it rises to step, but she recovers, a little wobbly, and her pace slows even more. As she approaches the edge of the park with its row of garbages, she slides a hand in to her pocket, takes it out without looking again, and slides it into paper recycling.
That was fun. I could see a story emerging, although I didn’t have one to begin with. The picture that formed, along with the suggested place and object created it.
I sent it to Sherry, as she had invited, and to my delight, she responded right away:
Hello Deepam,

thank you so much for sharing this with me.
It is quite lovely. You have most definitely caught the intention of the exercise: this is filled with good emotional detail and also a nice pacing. I can feel the visceral contrast of the young and old as well. You have also hinted at story, with the paper having been there already before she picked it up, and the recycling bin choice at the end. So good that this is just gently hinted/suggested. The hesitation around the old couple is also good. I enjoy that you have also made the park vivid through its sounds – this is so good, as sound stirs and jars us, or jogs memory, as much as what we see and hold.
One never knows what gifts one will receive, but I find that when I say yes, good stuff happens.