Second last day at the Readers and Writers Festival, Denman Island.  At yesterday’s panel, “The Streets and Borders of Stolen Earth,” the three writers reminded me strongly of public and private discourses in South Africa during the transition, 1980s and 90s. Moderator Juan Barker asked them about their main concerns, and why they write.

  • Derek Lundy, Irish Canadian, on the bombs and assassinations in his native Ireland from the 60s. “I write to find out what I think.”

  • Rita Wong, Chinese-Canadian from Alberta, on how language forms identity and boundaries. How white settlers have not learned First Nations culture, but expect them to abandon theirs and learn settler culture.
  • Zaccheus Jackson, a slam poet who overcame astonishing obstacles, like his birth to a Blackfoot mother who was an IV drug user. Adopted as a baby, he later recovered from alcoholism. “Any conflict can be resolved,” he said, ”if people will talk about it.” He doesn’t publish, but he’s on Youtube. Here’s one clip.

How much of a challenge do writers expect from editors? In his Thursday workshop, Douglas Gibson skewered me gently. “What about your writing?” he says, when I’m going on at length about how I came to be an editor. Dropping his editor’s hook through the ice, about my lack of writing about South Africa. I waved my arms about, and rambled something about having to work through my basement’s many boxes of old photos, and South African memories in my head.

Afraid of the deep tug of those intense times, about hope, fear, crossing boundaries, the state of emergency, teargas and armored cars. Witnessing. Watching reactions from students, academics, and towns people as the pressures increased. My windscreen smashed by stone-throwing youths. The personal betrayals, the student spies, and the denials. The swelling voter support for the apartheid government. How courage emerged where least expected, in heroisms large and small.

Whenever I’ve stood to talk about South Africa at Denman gatherings, I’ve been choked by a huge surge of feeling, about those times of fearful hope. Deep breathing required.

Many excuses guard me. Shaun W. once asked me, “Ever written a book?” I said, “I’ve never had anything to say that looked salable.” Editors are aware of the long slog of mind and keyboard required to produce a book. Copout, eh? So my vague plan is short anecdotes at the monthly Denman Island open stage for music and the spoken word.

While I was writing yesterday’s post, an unfamiliar face stopped at my table. Behind the sunglasses, it was Jane G. from my course last November on digital storytelling, at the Comox Valley Art Gallery’s Media Lab. She’d just had her creative marbles rattled in the writing workshop with writer Richard Wagamese (Festival buzz is that he and Zaccheus Jackson have moved some audience to tears).

Proudly I showed Jane my new business card. She was relieved that I’d abandoned my first business plan, to be a digital story telling coach. Just not a viable business model, although DST is a great narrative form for the voices of ordinary people. Jane reminded me of the briefing piece I used for starting the workshop. I dug it out:

About Stories

1. Making a story is unavoidably uncomfortable. The creator must enter the fog of confusion, where no end is in sight.

2. Stories can start anywhere, end anywhere, anyhow. They do not need an obvious beginning, middle and end. Parts of a story need only to be joined implicitly, by “after this” and not by “because of this.” The question is not “how” to end the story, but “with what” to end the story.

3. The process of making a story can start anywhere. The creator can begin with the ending, the middle – wherever.

4. Stories do not have to explain everything. Loose ends do not have to be tied off. The reader / audience can join the dots.

5. Part of a story can be about making the story. Like beginning with “when I sat down to write this story…” and ending with “…. and this story is not yet finished.”

6. The process of making a story and its parts can be done in a series of carefully planned steps, or it can be made in a spontaneous (aka “confused”) way, in which the next step grows out of the current step.

That seemed so easy to write. Is it so hard to follow? Graham, what more do you need?