A Mentee’s Perspective

Sandra: This is the fifth year that Joggins Fossil Cliffs has featured an ArtScape Artist In Residence program (AAR). It’s a three year rotation related to performing arts, visual arts and literary arts, in that order. This year, 2021,  is the year of the writer. The program normally runs for six weeks; this year, due to COVID, it was reduced to four weeks, and I requested to split the time between summer and fall.

Darryl and Sandra in from tof the Joggins Fossil Institute

I applied for this position a year ago and was notified that I was selected before Christmas last year. Calls for submission are posted each July on their website. AAR participants are provided with accommodation, a travel and living allowance, a space in which to work, as well as a salary for the time they are there. It is assumed that the artist will be creating new work inspired by the culture and history of the region along with the fossils and geological formations. It is also expected that artists will offer either a workshop or presentation while they are on site, and have a day or two where the public can come in and spend time with the artist.

This fit in perfectly with my personal writing goals. Although I am seventy-six, I still work full time. But approaching my 75th birthday last year, I decided to make some major shifts in the kind of writing I do. Now, my focus is CNF in general and personal essays in particular. I still do a few magazine features and travel writing but that is taking a back seat to CNF essays.

Serendipity stepped in last year when I heard that Darryl Whetter was back from Singapore after three or four years setting up a Creative Writing master’s program there for Lasalle College of the Arts, and would be teaching again at Nova Scotia’s Université Saint Anne. I had taken a poetry course via Saint Anne’s from Darryl five years ago (not my strong suit!) but I was so impressed with his knowledge, teaching style, and the amount of time he invested in his students, that when I heard he was going to give a course on the personal essay last fall, I didn’t think twice about signing up.

After completing that course three things happened: I was fortunate to get a small grant from The Writer’s Union of Canada to hire a mentor (Darryl agreed); he invited me to sign up for an advanced Creative Non Fiction course through Lasalle College in Singapore this past spring (I did); and, not only was he excited that I was going to be the Writer In Residence at Joggins, but he and his wife own a summer home in Advocate Harbour which is fairly close to Joggins, so it was relatively easy to meet with him in person on two occasions. Bonus for me: Darryl wrote a book of poetry titled Origins whereby he created a “multi-faceted portrait of evolution, extinction and climate change” based on his knowledge/experience with Joggins and the fossils there. (He also was instrumental in finalizing the application for Joggins to receive its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation a few years ago.) As you can see, I believe the gods and goddesses gave their collective winks and nods. Everything fell into place for me.

Part of the new work I’ll be creating is based on exploring “the myriad relationships between the human experience and the natural world … and [to] engage with, complement, examine, and reflect the natural environment and surroundings of the Joggins Fossil Cliffs and Centre” as requested by the outline of the program. I hope to end up with a long form narrative piece (5-7,000 words a year from now) and a few shorter prose pieces in the more immediate future, along with a photo essay. Although I felt overwhelmed at the outset, I feel optimistic that the stories will unfold. It’s an organic process, as is my mentoring time with Darryl.


Already I see improvements in my writing. I spent so many years trying to be true to the journalistic style I had embraced (keeping myself out of other people’s stories) that it’s taking me time to find my voice and to provide the emotional depth/honesty required in CNF. But it’s happening, and I am finding great joy in this new venture.

Darryl and Sandra looking at a fossil in the museum


Sandra Phinney

Sandra is an award-winning writer and photographer whose by-line and photos have appeared in numerous publications. She has penned four nonfiction books: Risk Takers and Innovators, Pierre Elliott Trudeau: The Prankster Who Never FlinchedMaud Lewis and the “Maudified” House Story ~ The Story Starts Here, and Waking Up In My Own Backyard: Explorations in Southwest Nova Scotia. Sandra returns to Joggins this September to complete her residency there. She has just pitched a photo essay about Joggins Fossil Cliffs to Saltscapes Magazine, and is in the process of revising essays on other topics that she’s written under Darryl’s supervision. Her next step this fall will be to submit to literary journals–along with writing more essays!


Darryl and Sandra in the museum looking at a tree trunk

A Mentor’s Perspective

Darryl: Reconnecting with Sandra in writing classes and now again across kitchen tables shingled with manuscripts was a great return for me after my recent years directing the first master’s writing program in Singapore and one of the first in Southeast Asia. I’m delighted to help mentor Sandra’s transition from professional journalism to more personal CNF, in part because I too have been blessed with some positive serendipity around CNF mentors.

Darryl and Sandra at the beach

The Asian master’s program I directed was actually conferred by Goldsmiths, University of London. Through a faculty-exchange program, I had the great privilege of teaching for a week at Goldsmiths, where I met one of my memoir heroes, Blake Morrison. Professor Morrison subsequently agreed to do some Skype then Zoom chats with my CNF students in Singapore. To Goldsmiths’ credit, they also require double-marking of all their major writing assignments. Professor Robin Hemley, former Director of the Nonfiction program at the University of Iowa and founder of the conference Nonfiction NOW, had also been teaching in Singapore, across town at the well-heeled Yale-National University of Singapore. He was teaching undergrads, and I correctly gambled that he missed teaching grad students.

In the second year of my program, I hired Robin to teach our CNF module. We did a little team-teaching, and then we co-marked the same assignments. Seeing how Robin Hemley evaluates CNF and dialoguing regularly with Blake Morrison gave me a crash-course in CNF mentorship, all while my own first memoir was bubbling up with the upheavals of an international move. When various factors, including family illness and the need for a big floofy dog, pulled my wife and me back to Nova Scotia, suddenly I had all this new CNF material to offer a curious, meaning-making writer like Sandra Phinney. Sandra and I reconnected as she was finding that CNF sweet spot where her personal essays balanced the private and the universal.

Like Sandra, I’ve also found and made that self-generating moment in a project where, as with poetry, one piece keeps (a) prompting the next but also (b) inviting some change or evolution over what you’ve just done. I’m finally now shopping around the memoir I wrote over my four years in Singapore. The social and familial complexities of our pandemic return and our getting to spend more time at a summer house near Joggins have also found me now writing a series of personal essays, each around 5,000 words. I’m starting to hope that one will keep prompting the next until I have a memoir-in-essays for a sequel. Sandra really enjoyed working on formally innovative essays in my classes (e.g., “hermit crab essays”), as have I with my new memoir essays. Here with CNFC, I’ll help prompt writers to experiment with form in our first autumn webinar “From Hermit Crabs to Talking Skeletons: Playing with Form in CNF” (Saturday 2 October, 1:30 Eastern Time).

Darryl Whetter

Professor Darryl Whetter is the author of four books of fiction and two poetry collections. His most recent books are the climate-crisis novel Our Sands, from Penguin Random House, and Teaching Creative Writing in Asia, with Routledge. A Canadian, he was the inaugural director of the first Creative Writing master’s degree in Singapore. His essays have been published by Oxford University Press, Routledge, Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, The Brooklyn Rail, The Walrus, etc. www.darrylwhetter.ca

Join Darryl at “From Hermit Crabs to Talking Skeletons: Playing with Form in CNF” on Saturday 2 October, 1:30 Eastern Time.

Where formal innovation in contemporary English-language fiction is rare, CNF offers a vibrant subset of formal innovations in which, for example, your creative prose can engage in a dialogue with found or curated text, from family letters to legislation to medical documentation to how-to writing and more. Novelist, poet, journalist and memoirist Professor Darryl Whetter will present a workshop which introduces numerous examples and opportunities for you to splice other texts into your own while discovering new modes of creativity and new opportunities for making nonfiction creative. Register here.