One CNFC member’s very unusual publishing journey

“You have stolen my image,” read the subject line. I waited until I had a few minutes of spare time to read the rest of the email. It was Friday. Deadline day at the Haliburton Echo, a weekly community newspaper where I’d been interning for two months. I had until noon to file all my stories and photos for the week.

When I finally read the email, sent by an Indian photographer by the name of Udayan Sankar Pal, I thought it was a joke. Udayan wanted to sue me for copyright violation.

“I can contact the Embassy of Canada in India, or any other organization who supports you like The Canada Council of the Arts, Writer’s Union of Canada and the Creative Nonfiction Collective, for the justice,” he wrote.

What image was he talking about? The one on the cover of my book, he continued, listed for sale on numerous websites, including Chapters, Amazon, 49th Shelf. Book? I did a quick search and lo’ and behold there was Where Are You From?, the manuscript that had been languishing on the shelf of a small Saskatchewan publishing house for five years. Six months earlier, in January, the publisher had promised to give me a definite answer by April.

For years I had lived in hope of the answer every fledgling writer wants to hear—yes we will publish this 200-page piece of your heart. In 2011, I’d sent the manuscript to the Saskatchewan publisher from Hokkaido, Japan, where I was employed as an English teacher. I’d sealed the manila envelope with oxblood red wax, and kissed it for good luck. When I returned to Canada and the publisher suggested a rewrite, a digging deeper kind of rewrite, I spent three months holed up in my parents’ renovated tool shed to comply.

And then I waited. I managed a bed and breakfast on Haida Gwaii; I started a Master’s of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto. Every now and then, the publisher would write and apologize for the delay. And then came the email from India.

After consulting with the Writers’ Union of Canada, I learned that if no contract had been signed for Where Are You From, no one could sue me. Udayan and I became friends. He contacted the Canada Council for the Arts and reported the publisher’s unethical behaviour. Two months and five hundred dollars (the amount Udayan insisted upon for his photo) later, the publisher apologized. They asked if I would still consider having my manuscript published. I said no. The words I’d always wanted to hear had lost their magic power.

Fast forward seventeen months. An email from a new literary press in Saskatchewan: “In our scan of recent documents of that company we came across reference to your work, Where Are You From?” The new press had bought out the old, and acquired all their assets. Would I like to publish with them? They promised to be “writer friendly.” To be honest, it had been so long since I first sent out the manuscript, I didn’t care anymore. Yes, I wrote back halfheartedly. I went through the motions. The edits. The cover choices.

But now, as I hold this book that has been on such a long journey, and has even been given a new name, I do care. When I picked up the 50-kilogram box full of books in Toronto’s Pape Village two weeks ago, I drove all the way down to Lake Ontario before I dared open it. And then I walked half an hour before I sat down on a bench, stroking the cover, smelling the pages, reading every word like it was for the first time. I took the book out for lunch, laying it beside my Thai green curry and Singha beer. I wrote this, I thought as I took another bite, another sip, wondering who I could tell. The waitress? The handsome man at the table by the window? I kept glancing at it, smiling at my little secret.

 

How to Host a Literary Cabaret in Six Easy Steps

(photo credit: Elsie Neufeld)
(photo credit: Elsie Neufeld)

Do you miss seeing and talking to your fellow creative nonfiction writers in the long months between conferences? Do you want to develop more awareness of great nonfiction in your own town? The CNFC can help you create your own literary cabaret evening right where you are. We have a modest fund to help with promotion, including the design and distribution of digital flyers or posters, and can contribute toward venue rental, if need be.

Over the past few years, CNFC members have held successful cabarets in Montreal and Calgary and offer the following tips on how it’s done. Thanks to Julija Sukys who wrote the original instructions after hosting the fabulously successful Montreal cabaret, Stranger Than Fiction, in 2013.

Essentials

    1. Find a venue with a sound system, food and drink, and sufficient space for people to sit, mingle, buy books. Encourage everyone to eat and drink to support your venue host.
    2. Send out a call for CNF readers. You may want to invite one or two well-known writers. Decide in advance what your optimum number of readers is — six to eight is a neat number that doesn’t overwhelm the audience. Let them know what the time limit is and that you’ll need to keep them to it. Ask them to send their bios well in advance of reading.
    3. Ask a local bookstore to come and sell the authors’ books. If that’s not an option, ask a friend to help you with the sales and ask the authors to bring their books to the event.
    4. Work with the CNFC to create promotional material. CNFC has a small budget for this.
    5. Send the poster out far and wide, including to your local library. Send a brief notice of the event to your local media as a PSA. Address it to the local “event listings” in your local paper or community notices at radio stations.
    6. Take lots of pictures and write a blog about it for our website.

Additional suggestions:

    • Have a break in the middle so people can buy more drinks and food.
    • Emcee the event yourself. Introduce each reader and hold up your hand (or have some other gentle signal) to let them know when their time is up.
    • Plan something fun — like door prizes. You can ask readers to donate a few books and then think of some fun quiz questions.
    • Optional: Charge a small cover fee at the door then distribute it to the writers at the end of the evening.

Uncovering life’s silences and hidden assumptions

CNFC member Sue Harper interviews Michael V. Smith – poet, novelist, writing prof, and recent author of his first memoir, My Body Is Yours:

Michael V. Smith

Books help us contain a kind of emotion that might be unpleasant, so we might get a better perspective on it and have a more sophisticated reaction to it in our own lives.

Following two novels, Cumberland and Progress (Cormorant Books) and two books of poetry What You Can’t Have (Signature Editions) and Body of Text (Book Thug), Michael V. Smith has written his first memoir, My Body Is Yours (Arsenal Pulp Press). Currently, Smith is a professor of creative writing in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan.

I was curious about Smith’s transition from fiction to nonfiction and about how he handled topics like gender non-conformity and sexual addiction, during the writing process and after the book was published.

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How to build story and adventure with Instagram

by Jennifer Kingsley, @meetthenorth

Instagram is big, its growing, and its an opportunity for us nonfiction types. Yes, theres a bad reality show component, but dont be fooled. There is fine documentary there too, and we can be a part of it.

Instagram made me nervous at first. I saw it, like other social media, as a proliferation of social obligations—without the benefit of leaving the house.

A friend convinced me to give it a try; she said it would be perfect for our new idea, Meet the North, which, in half a year, grew from a spark to a full-time commitment—a bonfire that took over my yard.

I’ve been traveling to meet the people of the Arctic starting in Svalbard, Greenland, Iceland, and Nunavut, and I set my itinerary by the recommendations of the people that I meet. Their introductions, from one person to the next, lead me along the true threads of life up north, and I’m sharing the journey on Instagram.

My goal is to help the world see life in the Arctic from a new vantage point, and by partnering with Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, the sponsors for this project, we are making that real, one introduction at a time.

Instagram is a big part of the story-telling. Here’s what I’ve learned about using it:

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Writing by your own rules

Write As a child I wrote stories in booklets made of scrap paper haphazardly stapled together, a combination of words with crayon illustrations that made for a colourful—if not entirely comprehensible—storyline. By the time I was ten I fancied myself a journalist, pounding out short news articles on my dad’s old typewriter, covering the big events of my childhood: the crash of the space shuttle Challenger, or the malfunction of West Edmonton Mall’s Mindbender roller coaster.

Writing came easily, and it was fun. But all that changed as I grew up. I began to wonder if there was some formula that I could follow to make me a real writer. Some never-shared secret, locked away in the private notebooks of the successful writers I read so avidly.

To my surprise, I discovered that writers tend to share advice freely, and that the secret to joining their ranks isn’t that secret after all. The rules are there, clearly and consistently laid out in memoirs, books on the writing craft, and blogs. The only thing that’s required is that we follow them.

Some writers—like Jane Kenyon—focus on tending the muse by protecting your time and your inner life, replacing noise with the sound of “good sentences in your ears,” and walking—preferably by yourself. Others—like Amitava Kumar—include additional advice on how to structure your writing practice: write every day at the same time, and have a goal for each day; say no to external projects; finish one thing before starting another.

What all these methods have in common is that they treat writing as work: write every day, preferably at the same time, and have a writing goal. Avoid distractions. Dissect the books of authors whom you admire, to better understand how you can re-create their voice and eventually develop your own.

But when I interviewed freelance water policy researcher Korice Moir for a series on women nature writers talking about community, home, and the writing life, she said this: “I recommend [writing] books, but I don’t always follow their advice. Why don’t we feel more comfortable with our own writing voices—and what will we do about this?”

The trouble is that life isn’t a neat, orderly box—and writing advice isn’t a one-size-fits-all prospect.

Not everyone can be a full-time writer: I don’t have a spouse covering the bills, and when my freelance work takes over I have little control over the more creative aspects of my writing. I used to be an academic scientist, and had no time to write regularly, let alone at the same time each day. Now I have a chronic illness that limits my productive time, and its unpredictability means I can’t count on being able enough to write daily. Other people do shift work, have multiple jobs, or are caught up in the necessary tasks of caregiving. All of these things can affect a writer’s ability to adhere to fixed writing rules.

Then there’s the fear. What might I put on the page if given the opportunity? Do I really have anything to say that hasn’t already been said? And even if I do get something out, who will read it, anyway? Maybe writing is just a frivolous, selfish hobby that keeps us from our everyday duties. I have more pressing things to do: training the dogs, cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming the house, raking up leaves. Others depend on me and their needs come first.

Worse than the fear is the shame. Like making New Years’ resolutions, defining writing rules sets the trap of almost certain failure. I’m ashamed because I haven’t written every day, or because I’ve allowed myself to be distracted by Twitter, friends, TV… I begin to suspect that perhaps I’m not meant to be a writer if I can’t even complete a supposedly simple task of daily writing practice.

Annie Dillard’s famous quote rings in many writers’ ears: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Amitava Kumar admits he was terrified that if he didn’t spend his days writing, then his life was wasted. But as Diana Saverin writes, “I could much sooner tell you the way I’d like to spend a life than the way I’d like to spend an hour.”

I’m learning to take a step back from the exhortation to write every day and look at the bigger picture: how I want—and am able—to spend my life. By accepting my limitations, I can apply that plentiful writing advice in the context of my own messy life. I remind myself that only I know how best to fit writing into my days; the maxims of others may not apply.

What I wholeheartedly agree with is the advice of most writers on the importance of making time to be present. Writing requires that we put ourselves on the page in the here and now – if we’re not present, if we’re checking Facebook or worrying about our next pay cheque, we won’t get anywhere on the page. While being present doesn’t happen instantly or all the time, one thing that’s struck a chord with me is Daniel José Older’s suggestion to let go of “should have” or “if only.” Then you can use that freed up mental space to settle down, settle in, and find your own writing process.

Ultimately, the best writing advice I’ve ever received came down to a single word, simply framed as a Christmas present from my nephew last year: “Write.”

Exactly how you go about it is up to you.



Thanks to Kimberly Moynahan for commenting on an early draft of this post.

Sarah Boon has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past fifteen years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about nature and nature writing, science communication, and women in science. She is a member of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the Editors’ Association of Canada, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013. Sarah is also the Editorial Manager at Science Borealis. Find Sarah on Twitter: @SnowHydro.