Canadian Writers’ Summit 2016: Writing hard truths


Disclaimer: I’m not perfect, and neither are my notes. If you see anything that needs correction or clarification, please email me at melanie (dot) marttila (at) gmail (dot) com and I will action it post hasty.

HardTruths

Panellists: Lorri Neilsen Glenn (moderator), Kim Pittaway, Clem Martini

LNG: So many people are struggling with how to approach difficult topics and hard truths in their writing. Each presenter will have the opportunity to frame their work, each will give a reading, and then we’ll open the floor to Q&A.

CM: In 2010, I wrote Bitter Medicine, which is about my family’s struggle with mental illness. It ends on a positive note, but the story itself is difficult in that it documents our journey with my brother’s schizophrenia and my mother’s developing dementia. When I recognized the first signs of my mother’s dementia, the support structure we’d had in place for my brother collapsed. They were living together, and had been able to take care of each other, with my support, until then. I’m now working on the continuing story, the working title of which is The Book of Lies. Caregiving is a verb. Ideally, it’s perfect, like a spider web, a delicate network of mutual and community support. In reality, it’s more like a spider web that’s been woven by a spider on LSD. It’s full of flaws. My problem now, because I’m writing our story as I’m living it, is to decide what’s safe to write about. What do I include? How far do I go? Those are cogent questions for all writers facing true stories with demanding subject matter.

KP: My current manuscript is about families and unforgiveness. The concept of difficult knowledge versus lovely knowledge is used in curation. Deborah Britzman defines lovely knowledge as easily assimilatable. It confirms what we know, or think we know, about the world. Difficult knowledge does not confirm, or conform with, our reality. How do we curate suffering? Are we showing it?  Are we turning suffering into something productive? How is truth-telling gratuitous? How is it harmful? This is intriguing to me as a writer because most memoirs are full of lovely knowledge. There’s nothing wrong with sweetness and nostalgia, but we have to be aware that everything contains within it, its opposite. Do you face it head on, or obliquely? We have to question our tools, our strategies, and our craft.

LNG: I was reading Martha Nussbaum. She states that the heart cannot change without story. I found myself thinking about readers and readers’ responses. My students ask me why I don’t have any happy stories or poems. It’s a valid question, but it made me think. Writing hard truths forces us to confront our shadow selves as writers and as readers. Despite what you think you’re writing about, the tough stuff is already there. Do we really need those details, though? There is a hunger for stories that get close to the bone. Take a look at the stories that have come out as a result of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for residential school survivors. Those are terrible stories, but they’re also healing stories. Stories about difficult truths invite us to remove our masks. They can be, and often are, gendered.

Readings ensued, with the attendant and courteous trigger warnings, followed by Q&A.

Remember: I’ll be on blog-vacation, so there won’t be a post next weekend, though this week’s curation posts will be scheduled and should be posted on their regular days. No curation on the 23rd and 25th, though. I’ll be back on August 27th with my notes from Robert Sawyer’s presentation on diversifying your income and regularly scheduled blogging will proceed from there until November.

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