The Kids Are All Right

It has been a good couple of days.

Erin, my mother and I were featured in this Saturday’s edition of the local newspaper, The Record. You can see the online version of it here. They did this because Erin, my mother and I worked hard to judge their short story contest, and we greatly appreciate the publicity. The author, Barb Aggerholm, did a great job covering us, and it was a thrill to see our pictures in the paper. Thanks to Barb and Susan and to the photographer as well.

Unfortunately, we were unable to clear permissions concerns in time to run an excerpt for The Unwritten Girl. Those of you clicking over from the Record’s website, interested in reading an excerpt, can read this one from The Unwritten Girl’s website.

And I would also like to thank the organizers of the Friday seminars at the Eden Mills Writers Festival for inviting me to participate. I had a great time, and it was an inspiring experience to see all of those grade ten students interested in delving deeper with their writing talent.

I’m told that, for the second year in a row, Eden Mills has organized a series of workshops pairing young writers with authors. These students have to apply for the program, and it is part of a wider nature program that includes canoe trips, orienteering and environmental awareness programs. Either way, the students wanted to be here, which is always a plus. On the minus side, these students were selected because of their exceptional abilities, which is a little intimidating.

It was also held entirely outdoors, beneath the roof of an open-air chapel in Camp Edgewood. As I explained to the students, who kindly gave me a laugh, when I was their age, I was the boy the bees chased. And bees were something of a problem for myself and some of these students. Fortunately, nobody got stung.

I attended with Natale Ghent, John Vaillant, and Adwoa Badoe. Natale is a journalist and novelist who has won many awards. She and Erin know each other, and she said very nice things about Erin’s poetry. She also wrote The Book of Living and Dying, which I’d heard her read before, about a girl who is haunted by the ghost of his dead brother. The scene of the girl’s entry into Salem, MA is a highlight. John Vaillant is the Governor General Award-winning author of The Golden Spruce, a rugged young man who, among other things, worked the commercial fishery in Alaska and spent time on an oil rig. He has written for The New Yorker, National Geographic, The Atlantic and others. Adwoa Badoe is a storyteller and an immigrant from Ghana, a doctor by training who brought a unique perspective on Canada and Canadians thanks to her journey here. And then there was me. The new guy.

The day’s topic was supposedly about “Canadian literary landscapes”. We each got about fifteen minutes to speak to the students about either this subject, or how we got from high school to where we are now. I talked about the latter. The other authors said I did well, but I fear I rambled and lost track of my train of thought near the end, so I wrapped things up before I lost the audience. However, after lunch, the students were supposed to split up and go out with the authors somewhere on Camp Edgewood to do a workshop and I was pleasantly surprised that a bunch of girls picked me. There were boys in attendance at the camp, but they all seemed to gravitate towards the guy who worked on an oil rig and did commercial fishing in a remote part of Alaska. That’s the way it goes, I guess.

So I walked my students through a quick warm-up exercise: five minutes of unconscious writing based on the line “there’s a story inside me”, the first exercise I learned from Kathy Stinson after I went to her to learn about how to become an author. The students seemed to enjoy that, and reading their efforts to the rest of the group seemed to build their confidence.

Then we broke apart for a half hour of writing about a person, place or thing that they thought of when they thought about Canada. After that, we read our efforts to each other, and returned to the chapel with the other groups so that selected members could read to the whole class. We finished with each of the authors reading for five minutes from their work, and my snippit of The Unwritten Girl seemed to go over quite well.

I had a fun time, and what was most thrilling was seeing these young, budding writers explore their craft and start to push their boundaries. There is talent here, lots of it, and I hope I’ve done my part, however small, in bringing it into the light. Whatever concerns we might have for the next generation, I’ve at least found proof that the kids, as they say, are all right. The students were most kind and a delight to teach, and I’d happily come back to this again next year.

I wrote the same assignments I gave to the kids. And just as the kids shared their pieces, so did I. Here are my results.

First assignment: write down this partial sentence: “There’s a story inside me…” and keep on writing for five minutes.

There’s a story inside me, bubbling, gurgling, like the witches’ cauldron. I stir, stir. Not thinking about what is gone into it. Eye of newt, toe of frog, tooth of bat. I just stir. Until the witches say I’m done. Then they present me with a ladle and I taste.

Second assignment: write a paragraph about Canada or something that makes you think of Canada. Don’t edit it.

Pushing through Union Station, I join the crowds streaming through the doors. I am briefly outside, amongst traffic noise and chill, before diving into the subway. The footfalls re-echo, a pedestrian beat, temporarily blotted out by the squeal of subway brakes downstairs. The crowd pushes me on with a rhythmic clop, clop, clop, through the yellow hurly-burly of the subway station, into the muted marbles of the underground city. I smell soap, coffee, fragrant perfume, sweat, money. There’s cinnamon cooking in the food court downstairs. The speakers are playing Joy to the World in tinny tones and without lyrics. Sneakers squeak.

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