On a brisk evening last October, fifteen strangers sat in the windowless meeting room of the Orangeville library, pens in hand. Among them were a lawyer, an HR manager, a computer programmer, an actress, a former insurance executive, a young mother, a chef, and a dressage judge. They had only one thing in common. They wanted to learn how to write.
Can writing be taught? Aren’t stories born from inspiration? That’s how the myth goes: touched by a magical muse, the writer taps into a wellspring of creativity and the words effortlessly flow. Nonsense. As author Wayson Choy says, “The only secret to writing is A/C: ass in chair.” You sit down and write, then rewrite, then rewrite. There’s no other way to master the craft.
I believe the fundamentals of writing can be taught. So when the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies asked me to conduct a four-week “Creative Writing: Getting Started” course in Orangeville, I knew what I’d focus on. I always encourage writers to break down story structure into five essentials: Inciting Incident, Conflict, Reversals, Climax, and Resolution. Create a compelling protagonist, then develop those basics, and you’ll get a story. Each two-hour class would consist of a lecture followed by writing exercises, then critiques.
Nevertheless, the first time anyone sits down to write seriously can feel daunting. The knots of worry tighten. The demons of self-doubt pester. Have I got what it takes? Starting to write is an act of courage.
Here’s how it happened for a few hopeful writers in the hills.
First exercise: Write a few paragraphs about a character coming into a barn to do a task. In this barn, some time ago, the character’s son hanged himself. Show the barn and the character’s actions without mentioning the suicide.
I watched fifteen heads lower and fifteen pens jerk across notebooks as the class bent to the exercise.
Shirley Bray had signed up because she knew she needed help. For years she’d been working on a fantasy novel called Druids Lost, and she felt she’d gotten lost herself. She didn’t lack ideas; she’d filled notebooks in her Caledon Village home and generated reams of manuscript material. What she needed was guidance in organizing the jumble of storylines. Desperation had begun to gnaw, when she saw a notice for the course. She felt then, “It was a blessing that I came across that notice when I did.”
Trained in computer programming at Humber College, and self-trained in graphic design, Shirley brings a no-nonsense approach to her work. Arriving for the first class, she was struck by the variety of her fellow students: men and women, aged thirty to seventy, with a surprising mix of backgrounds and careers. “And yet,” thought Shirley, fascinated, “suddenly we’re all here.”
I allotted the class twenty minutes for the barn/suicide exercise. As their pens stilled, I saw gleaming eyes, flushed cheeks. Writing is such a high. Several people read out what they’d written, and Shirley listened, her flush of excitement turning to alarm. “I was flabbergasted,” she says. “I thought, ‘I can’t write that well.’ I admit, I was intimidated.”
It lasted for just a split-second. She told herself, “No, we’re sticking this out,” and threw herself into the remainder of the class.
It would be difficult to intimidate Jim Noonan. He came to the course with an uncommon wealth of expertise. Listed in The Leading 500 Lawyers in Canada, he is an authority in labour law. Though retired as a partner from his Toronto firm, McCarthy Tétrault, the Mono resident still acts as counsel in business development. Yet, as he arrived for the first class, Jim battled his own demons of doubt. Six years ago he took a sabbatical to write short stories. “I’ve been able to achieve most of the things I’ve wanted,” he says ruefully, but producing publishable fiction eluded him. Of the writing sabbatical, he says, “I took a hard run at it and ran into a brick wall.” Nevertheless, reading remained a passion. “I love fiction. I’m well-read. I always have a collection of short stories to read.”
Now, six years later, his wife had told him about the creative writing course, and Jim decided to try again. But at the first session, that “false start” brick wall still loomed.
For Barbara McKenzie, walking into the first class brought on anxiety “big time.” She thought: “I’m middle-aged, I can’t start writing now.” Creating fictional worlds was a world away from her job at PMC Film, a packaging manufacturer on the outskirts of Tottenham where Barbara’s office looks out over farmers’ fields. She is manager of Human Resources and Payroll, “and anything that needs doing,” she adds, her chuckle making it clear that she meets all challenges with an easygoing humour.
And grit. While working full-time at PMC, Barbara took night courses for over four years at York University, driving to Toronto twice a week from her home between Bolton and Palgrave, and earning her BA in Business Administration.
Now, she was taking on a new challenge: her dream of writing a book-length collection of facts and lore about tea houses. She has visited hundreds. Her fascination with tea and its ceremonies goes back to her grandmother who used to prepare tea for her and her two sisters. Fine china cups and saucers, the ritual of warming the teapot, “and the conversation,” Barbara says wistfully, “the telling of stories over tea.” Since then, she has searched out tea houses far and wide. She yearns to translate her voluminous travel notes into a narrative non-fiction book but, she said, “the thought of having to participate in a class scared me,” and she wondered: “Can I really write?”
At the first exercise, her fear vanished as thoughts spilled out onto paper. During the critiques, she says, “I was getting great energy from everyone in the class.” She thought right then and there: “I know I can do it now.” She adds with a laugh, “I could use a whole lot more exercises!”
The barn/suicide exercise got Ramona D’Agostino so involved, she hated to stop writing after the twenty minutes. Ramona had been working on a screenplay for over a year and had signed up “to get a better handle” on the craft – all the while juggling the schedules of two small sons at her home in Bolton, her acting career in Toronto, and part-time drama teaching. Ramona has a delightfully infectious confidence, and she rushed off after that first class eager to carry on with the barn tale she’d begun – but came home to her two-year-old throwing a tantrum. No writing that evening. Life always wins, I tell her. But life is the stuff we write about, and the wise writer embraces such experiences, saving them like a magpie.
Sue Silva did keep writing that evening. Deeply affected by the barn piece she’d started, she was “abuzz with ideas” and could hardly wait to get home to continue. For several years Sue had been working on short stories at her home in Alton, but knew she still had lots to learn. Three weeks after a magazine rejected a story idea of hers, she saw a notice about the U of T course, and it seemed like a sign. Sue’s sunny attitude imbues everything she does. Maybe it’s her Portuguese heritage. She was born in the Azores and came to Canada at age seven. She came to the course with “no trepidation. Just an eagerness to get started. I love it, and wanted to know everything.” Right away she enjoyed the camaraderie, too. “It’s great to be with other people who love to write.” After that first class, Sue worked on her barn/suicide piece late into the night.
So the lectures continued – Story Structure, Characterization, Building Scenes – and the exercises and critiques went on, the new writers enjoying the process. By the second week Daureen Murphy said she felt “inspired.” For years she’d been working on an epic poem about a fantasy horse world. Her great love, after her family, is horses; she has five on her Mono township farm. As a Dressage Canada recorded judge, Daureen spends every summer weekend judging competitions. But, coming to the first writing class, she had wondered, “Am I out of my league?” Excited now by what she was learning, she “suddenly had all these ideas flipping around.” The lessons on structure made her think: “Can I apply that to my poem? And I saw that, Yes, I could.”
Darlene Kolodziechuk wanted to apply what she’d learned about structure to storytelling for children. After working in libraries for twenty years, Darlene had dabbled in writing – “When something moves me, I write about it,” she says – and now she wanted to create a children’s book about her experiences saving orphan baby raccoons and releasing them into the wild. A big thrill had been seeing some of her charges scamper free in Algonquin Park, released on Mother’s Day. A book was a big undertaking, though. “I had a lot of ideas but they weren’t focused.” After three weeks of the course she felt, “I can do this.”
Last exercise. For the final assignment I handed out the openings of two short stories, telling the class to choose one and compose a scene to follow, to be written at home. I didn’t tell them the stories were by Earnest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker. Who needs that kind of pressure?
They worked hard on the scenes, and at our final session a few read out their work, which the class then critiqued. One reader was Michael Cooper, who, though he’d spent a self-assured lifetime in the corporate world, admitted to feeling trepidation about his first attempt at fiction. The class was impressed by Michael’s vivid development of Hemingway’s opening. As Daureen said: “He delved so deeply. Even picked up Hemingway’s style. Amazing.”
Ramona broke us up. “I wrote for hours, wrote five pages, obsessed. But the next day I read it,” she wailed in mock horror, “and I thought, ‘This is five pages of crap!’”
We all laughed, but I assured her she’d made a fantastic intellectual breakthrough: the ability to identify what doesn’t work. The wise writer studies it to see why it doesn’t work. You do another draft, throwing out what’s weak and reworking what’s strong. It’s one of the most important lessons a writer can learn: give yourself permission to write “crap,” knowing it can be fixed.
This concept was “a revelation” for Jennifer Hogan. Before, when she saw weakness in her writing she’d “treat it as a wall.” Now, she saw that she could treat it as an exercise – could “change it, and take out the bad.” Jennifer had come to the course to “re-start” her writing. A dedicated writer in school, she had put writing aside since then. First work, then children, filled all her time. But after four years at home with two kids under the age of five she decided she “needed to write. I wanted the course to force me to do it.” Still, she wondered, “Was my writing any good?” Very good, as Jennifer, to her quiet delight, found when the class critiqued her scene. She found the exercises incredibly helpful. “I used to wait for ideas,” she says. “But the exercises gave me strict parameters, making me feel I can just sit down and write.”
I tell the class that this paradox about restrictions always delights me. Limits liberate you; freedom constrains.
An hour after the final session, five excited writers sat around a cozy table at the Winchester Arms, agreeing the course had been far too short. As the October wind scoured Broadway outside the pub, someone suggested, “Why not keep going?” And so, clinking glasses of wine and beer, they agreed to form a writers group. Once a month, Shirley, Daureen, Sue, Barbara, and Darlene meet at the Coffee House beside BookLore to read out their writing and get feedback. Shirley finds the group’s constructive criticism invaluable. “I relish every morsel they can give me.”
Barbara’s husband gave her a computer for Christmas to write her tea house book. Ramona has given the second draft of her screenplay to a few people in the TV industry. Watch for the TV series. Jennifer is at work on a mystery and a short story. Jim plans to submit an entry to the Commonwealth Short Story Competition. Darlene is researching children’s book publishers. Sue has expanded her barn/suicide exercise piece into a story called “Abby.”
They’ve all started; they’re on their way.