I’m on a DIY writing retreat this week, holed away in a cabin in Norris Point, Newfoundland which is a tiny community nestled in Gros Morne National Park. I’m here because Tom has a math conference which coincides with Writers at Woody Point. This part of the island is about an 8 hour drive from St. John’s and we broke the trip up by spending the weekend in Eastport at the Winterset in Summer Writers Festival.
I didn’t do a lot of writing on the weekend because I was face first into Michael Christie’s new novel Greenwood. (Sidebar: pre-order it. You won’t be sorry!) The story is enthralling but I was also paying attention to how he expertly navigates a massive cast of characters, giving us their backstories and personalities without weighing down the narrative, and thinking about how I might do the same with my own quickly expanding (read: out of control) cast.
Reading is a non-negotiable part of the work of writing. And festivals can be nourishing too. If you’re an emerging author and have a festival in your neck of the words, try to go. Sometimes, okay, yes, the panels are insipid (it’s true; don’t @ the messenger) but just as often someone on stage says something illuminating. Just one sentence that strikes a match and sets your imagination on fire.
At Winterset, I was in the audience of the new voices panel listening to my friends Susan Sinnott, Susie Taylor, and Terry Doyle talk about their debut books. And in the Q&A Terry told a story about how he took a class with playwright Robert Chafe. In this class they talked about formative experiences, the turning points in our lives, and how if you can figure out what this turning point was (often it happened early in childhood), if you can distil it down to just a single sentence (ie. I was orphaned by neglect. No one believed me. I took a big risk) you can lean into it in times when you aren’t sure what to do with your story. Later, Robert described it as a transformation. Theatre is about transformation, he said. And I thought, yes, in fiction too. By the end of the story, something has transformed. Either the character has transformed or the reader’s understanding has transformed. Or both. Ideally both, right? And if you are stuck on what the transformation is, you can look back on that single sentence that summarizes your life’s turning point and lean into that. I’m paraphrasing and probably not well. But anyway, when you’re stuck (as I am at the moment) it helps to have a question to meditate on. So I was thinking about transformation and risk in particular.
And then, I was chatting with Melissa Barbeau who is one of my favourite people to talk shop with. The week before, we had both had epiphanies about the themes of our novels. This happens sometimes. You think you are writing about love and then you realize no, the story is about death. Or vice versa. So we were talking about our books and these realizations and she asked me a series of incise and brilliant questions that kept the wheels turning. The next day Tom and I packed up and drove to Norris Point and along the way, I was still meditating on everything Terry and Robert and Melissa had said, figuring out how to apply it to my novel. Being part of an ecosystem is key for me. I could never do this work alone.
At the same time, solitude is necessary. For the past couple of days, I’ve been spending a lot of time alone, scribbling away. It’s just bits and pieces, false starts, double backs, but yesterday I scratched a bit of a fight and today I think I wrote the bones of what might be the very last scene (mind you, there’s a gaping hole in the middle of the book). It helps to be far away from home. It helps to be alone for a huge chunk of the day, in a silent cabin, on the edge of the ocean. I’ve got another day and a half of this and then I’ll start taking the ferry over to Woody Point to rejoin the ecosystem. But also I’ll be finding time to hole away in cafes or on harbourside benches, because for me it’s all about the balance.