Thursday, April 26, 2012

I was a winner in the 2012 City of Ottawa 55 Plus short story contest

Yesterday the Heron Road Seniors' Centre held an "afternoon of storytelling" for the eight co-winners of the City of Ottawa's 55 Plus short story contest.  I was pleased to be one of eight co-winners.  The contest has been held for fifteen years now. Back when it first started, I was teaching writing courses at Heron Road and well remember a meeting where I advised the organizers how to set up a contest with blind judging, since, as a writer, I have entered so many over the years.  After I stopped teaching at Heron Road in 2000, I resolved that, when I got old enough, I would enter the contest every year.

It is always interesting to see what people are writing and what the judge, a different person each year, chooses as the eight best stories. There are two categories,  "novice" category and  "experienced", so that newcomers don't have to compete against people for whom writing is a career or vocation. The contest is open to fiction and to "true" stories (memoirs).

Although I have always entered works of fiction, I have noticed that one or two heartfelt, spontaneous-sounding memoirs always place among the eight in the "winners' circle".

I enjoyed listening to the stories, and meeting a couple of old friends/former "students" from courses past.  The entry fee has risen from the original $5 per story, but is still reasonable compared to the $25 or more that many Canadian literary magazines charge. I was disappointed only in that the "Honourable Mentions" did not get to read or receive any tangible acknowledgement.  Having judged contests, I know that the top ten stories are usually all pretty good. My husband, Roger Latta, and a friend from a former writing course were present as Honourable Mentions, and got up to take a bow and enjoy some applause, but that was all.  No money for them, not even a certificate, nor one of the mugs  donated in former years by a retirement residence!

"Oh, well," said Roger, "I got a sandwich."  The readings, in the auditorium, were followed by a lunch in the seniors' centre. Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Widow's Story

Earlier this week my book club discussed Joyce Carol Oates' memoir, A Widow's Story, which I reviewed for FYI Forever Young last year. I was impressed by the memoir, which traces the course of Oates' grief after the death of Raymond Smith, her husband of forty-seven years. They were a well-known literary and academic couple. She is a prolific novelist who teaches at Princeton University; he was a professor and publisher of the now defunct Ontario Review. He was in hospital for pneumonia and recovering well when he was swept away in February 2008 by a secondary infection.

The turbulent feelings that Oates experienced struck a chord with me, although she is in her seventies, and when my first husband died in 1976, I was thirty and Ed and I had only been married for eight years. Oates writes about the raw wild feelings characteristic of the first few months of widowhood. I could relate to her feeling that certain situations and places were "sink holes", to be avoided because they stirred up too much emotion

"The first job of a widow is to stay alive," she wrote. Oates kept a journal, and, by using her diary entries as the basis for this memoir, created a sense of immediacy.

I was somewhat surprised by my fellow book club members' reaction. Like one reviewer of Oates' book, they felt that the ending, in which Oates hints that she has found a new love, undercut and negated the entire memoir.

Perhaps they were looking for a "how to" manual on coping with bereavement. Oates remarried thirteen months after her first husband's death. To some of my book club pals, remarriage indicated that she was a dependent person who had given up trying to heal and couldn't cope on her own.

Oates responded to negative reaction in a letter to the New York Review of Books. (see She wrote, in part:

"....[S]ince nothing seems to arouse reproach in reviewers quite so much as the possiblity that the memoirist is less miserable at the time of writing and afterwards than she was at the time of the experience about which she is writing, it is only sensible to include an appendix to remedy this, which I will hope to do."

In a society where half of all marriages end in divorce, many people probably cannot relate to those who are widowed. Readers living on their own after a marriage breakdown probably think that a widowed person should take a course or read a self-help book on "surviving the loss of a love" and should "snap out of it" and learn how to cope without a partner. They assume that splitting up is the same as losing a spouse to death. I disagree.

I remember being at a workshop listening to the coordinator of women's programs at a community college tell her audience that she and her husband had broken up after a "long marriage" - of five years! At the time, Roger and I had been married for about twenty years. Nowadays, maybe the idea of a marriage which lasted happily for forty-seven years boggles the mind and sounds freakish to some people.

When I was a young widow, several people shared their opinions as to what I should do with my life, not realizing that for awhile I was too drained of energy to take action, even if their suggestions had suited me in any way. This sort of thing happened too Oates' too.

I suspect many readers are jealous of Oates for finding love again in her seventies. When I married Roger two years after my first husband's death, several people reacted in interesting ways. One said she didn't know it was possible to get a "second chance" at age 33. (Such a ripe old age - 33!)

Then there was the "friend" who might have befriended me, when I was alone and racked with grief and loneliness, by inviting me over for a coffee or even a meal with her husband and kids. She didn't. When Roger and I got married, however, I was suddenly socially acceptable again. She thought Roger and I and she and her husband were going to be good friends and visit back and forth. That didn't happen.

When I was a teenager, a sixtyish widowed acquaintance of mine was being courted by a gentleman caller. Her sister, who had never married, thought that the very idea of her seeing this man socially was ridiculous, and claimed that she was dishonouring the memory of her first husband (who had died many years earlier.) The widow confided to me that, if one had been happily married once, it was natural to believe that one could find happiness again. To her, remarriage was about happiness, not dependency. She and the man didn't get married, but she enjoyed going out with him.

I still admire A Widow's Story, no matter what the book clubbers said.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Notes on writing

Looking through some old notes, in preparation for reading/judging entries in a contest, I happened upon a list of "Fatal Errors in Mystery Writing:

1) Use of coincidence. If you must use one, put it in at the start of the story and don't make it vital to the solution.

2) You must reveal clues to the reader as the sleuth discovers them.

3) Don't make your readers ask:
Why didn't she just go to the police?
Why did he go alone into the abandoned warehouse (or whatever) to confront the villain?
Why did he stick around?

4) Have only one viewpoint per scene in a novel. Short stories often do best with just one point of view (maintained consistently throughout)

5) Information dumps.

To this list I would add "flat characters."

Another item that provided me with food for thought came from an unexpected source, O Magazine, July 2009. In it I found an article by Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours and other novels. The title: "A writer should always feel as if he's in over his head."

Cunningham asks, rhetorically, why writers are such complainers, seeing as they're not the only people who work for limited rewards and little recognition. Then he answers his question by citing a personal experience. Someone came up to him and said he had a great story and would like to work with him. The stranger offered to provide the plot while Cunningham supplied the descriptions, characters, dialogue and settings. He implied that he was asking Cunningham to do the easy stuff.

There is a widespread belief, wrote Cunningham, that anyone can write a novel. Why? Because many authors are so good at their craft that their achievements seem effortless.

As well, many people assume that the characters and events in a work of fiction are to some extent autobiographical, and that all the writer has to do is remember the past and slap the memories down on paper.

Although writers are irritated by the prevailing attitude toward their profession, they are "also happy in unmistakeable ways some of the time," concludes Cunningham

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A few (5) of my (recent) favourite things

A few (5) of my recent favourite things:

. Visiting family on the Easter weekend.

. Giving a talk at the Stittsville Public Library about my new book, The Old Love and the New Love, and participating with those who attended in some amusing writing exercises.

. The March 5, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, for a new story by Alice Munro, entitled "Haven", and for a fascinating review by Adam Gopnik on Elaine Pagels' new book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelations (Viking). Pagels puts the last book of the Bible in historical context: "Far from being meant as a hallucinatory prophecy, [Revelations] is actually a coded account of events that were happening at the time John was writing."

. The March issue of Harper's Magazine for the short story, "The Thief."

. Domino Theatre's entry into the Eastern Ontario Drama League's "Spring Play Festival, 2012" at the Ottawa Little Theatre. The play was Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and it was excellent, particularly the actors playing the four main characters.