Written by Holly Sawchuk; copy edited by Janet Millar
Have you ever thought about what you would write in a memoir? Not your full life story, like an autobiography, but an exploration of a particular situation in your life, its emotional arc, and what it ultimately meant.
At the recent Victoria Festival of Authors, I had the pleasure of listening to a panel discussion with diverse writers who have written memoirs in different forms—poetry, short story, and full-length book.
The October 1 discussion, “Great Minds Don’t Think Alike,” featured five writers:
- John Barton, Lost Family
- Lorna Crozier, Through the Garden
- Kyeren Regehr, Cult Life
- Madeline Sonik, Fontainebleau
- Darrel J. McLeod (moderator), Mamaskatch
After beautiful readings from the four panelists, Darrel led a Q & A that quickly turned into a heartfelt conversation about writing, life, and love.
John is Victoria’s current poet laureate, as well as an editor and writing mentor. His new book, Lost Family, is a memoir written in sonnets. For those of us who may have forgotten what we learned in English class, a sonnet is a 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter. Kudos to creators like John and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda for bringing wider attention to this beautiful form. Both John and Lin-Manuel have used sonnets to capture moments in time and push the boundaries of what we expect from storytelling.
John chose sonnets somewhat by accident. He described how the form helped constrain him and kept him from rambling as he explored very personal topics like a Toronto serial killer who preyed on the gay community and the death of his sister. He read five sonnets, all set in different cities and at different times of his life. Imagine taking a whole phase of your life and focusing in so closely that you can express its essence in just 14 lines!
When asked how much he thinks about his audience when writing, John explained that he thinks a lot about how to be vulnerable without feeling embarrassed. I love his idea that readers should be willing to meet him halfway. If a reader is uncomfortable with what he’s written, instead of blaming him and shutting the book, what if they asked themselves why they’re uncomfortable and tried to break that barrier? This idea is particularly relevant today when so many of us are reading to challenge our thinking and expand our understanding of diversity and inclusion.
John’s words apply to editors too. We probably don’t blame the writer or shut the book, but I will admit to feeling squeamish about a paragraph a client wrote and wondering what to do. Her words were personal and quite dark, and I had that impulse to turn away and not think about it. I took a break, and when I read the paragraph again later, I realized she was just matter-of-factly telling the truth. It was a well-written, powerful sentence, and she didn’t need to change it to protect my feelings. Her readers would likely have emotional reactions too, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I suspected she didn’t even feel vulnerable saying it.
At the festival, Lorna also spoke about the vulnerability of sharing. Her new memoir, Through the Garden, details the ups and downs of 40 years of life with her late husband, fellow poet Patrick Lane. She wrote this deeply personal love story, a mix of prose and poetry, while Patrick was seriously ill. She wrote to understand and find meaning in what was happening to them.
We can find meaning in unexpected places. Lorna and Patrick spent their lives caring for the earth—creating beautiful gardens and tending groves of trees in a park near their home. She told the touching story of praying to the energy of the trees they loved, asking them to bring Patrick safely home from the hospital:
“May he, like you, reach tall and strong, his beautiful day-dreamy head touching the sky. May he grow older than old beside you.”
When asked what she’s thinking about when she writes, Lorna shared an aspirational message:
I don’t write for therapy. I write for the aesthetic thrill of finding in art a way to be in this world and a way to speak in this world. So, in a way, I’m writing for the better part of me, the funnier, smarter, more daring part of me that exists beyond my computer screen.
What an amazing lesson for all artists. Writing does make us better, and it helps us find our way, especially in hard times.
Ideas and connection
“Great Minds Don’t Think Alike” was an inspiring evening of ideas and connection. These diverse memoirs opened my eyes to the power and flexibility of this style of writing.
For more about memoir writing, check out Nancy Tinari’s review of “Lives Off-Road,” the Vancouver Writers Fest 2018 event that featured passionate author-adventurers Kate Harris, Jan Redford, and Joanna Streetly.
Thanks to the Victoria Festival of Authors for bringing together 28 Canadian prose and poetry writers for five days of events. This year’s free livestream format ensured that readers and writers from BC and beyond had the opportunity to participate.
Even though the festival has ended, three podcasts are available online, including the unique Forest Poet-Tree Walk.
Holly Sawchuk is a freelance editor in Vancouver and a graduate of SFU’s Editing Certificate program. She loves coffee, connecting with creative people, and getting lost in all the ideas in the Opinion section of the Saturday paper. Holly spends her free time reading about writing and writing about reading.
Janet Millar was born on the Sunshine Coast and has lived in Vancouver, Montreal, and in a remote community off the north coast of British Columbia. She currently lives in Victoria, where she works at a community college supporting multilingual students with their English. She is a student of the SFU Editing Certificate program.
Image by Victoria Festival of Authors