At 4,537 feet, Banff is one of the highest communities in Canada. The Banff Centre is even higher. It took me a few days to get used to the elevation. You might feel out of breath, they warned us. You might feel tired. One glass of wine will make you feel like you’ve had two, and two, like you’ve had four. That was all true. But it was also true that you can still write when you’re tired; you can still hold meaningful conversations with other writers when you’re puffing up a mountain; you can still enjoy the clarity of insight when you’ve had too much wine.I was at the Banff Centre for the Wired Writing Studio, a program that begins with a two-week residency in Banff then continues online for twenty weeks. I was paired up with Lynn Coady, who, in addition to being a brilliant writer, is a precise and inspiring mentor. With her help, I reworked the beginning scenes of my novel three or four times. With her help, I scrapped them all.
When I was not throwing out large chunks of my novel, I was writing new scenes in the quiet of my white room, knowing that in similar rooms lining the hallway, other writers were doing the same. We wrote until it was time to eat, then we congregated in Vistas, a dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows with a perfect view of the surrounding mountains. About the food–let’s just say we were all tugging at the waistline of our pants by the time we left.
Over the course of two evenings, each of us read from our manuscripts. The fear of reading your own work was tempered by the admiration you felt hearing others perform theirs. The work ranged in subject matter–from Everest to an irritable cured-meat dispenser, from clear-cuts to illicit love affairs–but the quality was consistently high.
Our last few days in Banff coincided with Wordfest, a writer’s festival that takes place in Banff and Calgary. There, we heard established writers talk about writing in ways that rang entirely true. Pay attention to the “D” words, Susan Swan told us: discipline, determination (don’t internalize the knocks!), and delirious devotion. The world is open to you, she said. Imagine that. Joe Meno assured us that entering into your imagination is not an escape; rather, it is an act of courage, and it is where you will find all the important answers. This courage was exemplified the following day by Vaddey Ratner, whose new novel In the Shadow of the Banyan is based on her experience of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. By calling on her powerful imagination, she managed to transform personal pain into art. She told us that one of a writer’s most important tools, and responsibilities, is empathy. To be able to write successful characters, you must be able to truly understand them. Ratner had to enter the minds of all her characters, including those who had been her tormentors; she had to use her empathy to access their humanity.
The ideas articulated at Wordfest added to the more informal conversations we had been having about writing–how hard it is to do, but also how hard it is not to do. I was reminded again and again by writers far more experienced than myself: writing matters; your imagination matters; creativity matters. It is important to take care with what you do. Take time, take space, take pride. Take your craft, but not yourself, seriously. Then have the courage to give back your interpretation of the world.
Now, back in Wakefield, I’ve traded in the mountains for the hills, but, fortunately, the values I found so thrilling at Banff have not disappeared like the mountains did–shrinking in the airplane window. In Wakefield, and in the McKenzie Marcotte pottery studio, there is a similar environment of creativity, a similar championing of the imagination, and a stubborn conviction that the creative life is one worth living. I’ve lost the physical elevation, but by no means have I lost the creative high.
I will be working with Lynn Coady until April. I have decided to reduce the number of blog posts to one every two weeks so that I can devote more time to my novel while I have the attention of such expert eyes.
Also, apologies for the late post. I came back full of inspiration–but also full of germs.