I’m sitting with a group of writers crowded into a corner of the gymnasium at Providence Retreat Centre. We’re learning, or being reminded, about the kinds of narrative hooks nonfiction writers can and should employ.
Lisa Wojna, journalist, mother, chronicler, award-bestowed author of a half dozen books and counting, is our host and guide through the quag and mire that nonfiction writing can be. Then she tells a story. It’s about her mother. It astounds us. And many of us remember why we became writers—things need showing and telling.
We rehearse Lisa’s story—lay it out flat. There are clear-eyed observations by many around me, things I missed as I wondered at how the story has shaped Lisa. Too soon, the discussion of image, colour, conflict, tension, emotional core and the rest, dwindles, and an assignment looms.
For me and Damocles all assignments loom. And it starts: To a body we are battened down, hunkered for focus—against dissipation. All heads bowed (yes, I think to myself, these are Christian writers), some eyes are closed, some squint, some look right through paper and table to our own clay foundations.
There are a few, uncomfortable like me, scouring our skulls, scratching the dirt of memory for grubs of dialogue: "What was it my sister said about her first kiss—a bungle in the dark?"
The air is thick with thought, there is a mix of perfume, I think of bubbles of text over heads and look up—only weary gym walls.
Then suddenly I’m in grade five and as usual the last thing I can do is the task at hand. I’m pushed clear of it, away, everywhere except within, always at the surface of things. I’m an instant tourist, a semi-literate voyeur, and the best I can do is mutely paddle in that lake of thought.
In the background I hear someone reading a line of poetry; then I hear a deeper voice cutting through like a channel; then laughter, and straightaway I’m looking forward to the afternoon poetry stint with Nathan Harms.
I call myself back to my chair beside the young woman with impeccable posture whose words I heard the day before as she read to a rectangle of writers. I don’t recall those words except that they tasted of fresh peaches.
I concentrate on nothing. Across the room I see a woman whose pen has been travelling between her mouth and her notebook. But something has happened. The feather-light pen-taps on her lips has sparked a connection to her spleen. The pen, fed by dark-red cells, has moved back on its own and now rolls along a blue-lined paper road. She’s gliding along a shadowed memory…and I think…is it about her sister?