Reflections on being a writer in residence

A shorter version of this article was published in Metro Edmonton on Dec. 20, 2013.

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An Instagram from my first day on the job – January 2, 2013.

I can’t believe the year is over. It feels like just yesterday I arrived in my Edmonton Public Library office, said something scandalous about books and clutter, and then had to recover from that gaffe on my first day.

It’s been an incredible year as one of two Metro Federation of Library writers in residence. When I became the Edmonton Public Library’s 2013 writer-in-residence in January, a little girl asked, “Does that mean you live in the library?”

Not quite, I told her. Though there were some long stretches of writing in my office when I wished I could just roll out a sleeping bag and dream my story’s problems away.

What the library writers-in-residence do is help nurture other storytellers with mentorship, feedback and public programming, while nurturing their own stories with the time and space the library provides. I will miss that.

In twelve months I probably saw 100 writers of shorts, novels, plays, journalism, whatever.  I said yes as much as possible and relished the variety of manuscripts cascaded across my desk. The range of interest was broad, the range of talent was expansive, but the passion for storytelling was always consistent. Meanwhile, I worked on improving my own writing, specifically my first-person journalism.

It allowed me to tell stories about rogue restaurants, elusive billionaires and ambivalent millennials. The one I’m most proud of, and which I worked on longest, is a story in Eighteen Bridges about Eddy Haymour, a controversial modern folk hero. Without the residency, I would not have had the space and time to complete the copious research and travel to tell this story right. So needless to say, I’m eternally grateful to the writer in residence program.

I want to extend my thanks to Natasha Deen, the keenest writer I’ve ever met, who would need a rocket launcher to keep up with, and the Metro Federation of Libraries committee: Librarians Michelle Papineau-Couture, Stacey Wenger, Lori Purvis, Sally Neal, Anna-Marie Klassen. I especially want to thank Mona Bacon, a member of that committee and whom I worked closely with at the EPL. (She’s burgeoning author herself – check her out in Prairie Fire.) Above all, I offer my gratitude to the staff and especially librarians at EPL.

The Edmonton area is lucky to have two new writers in residence bringing different skills and passions to their respective offices, Margaret MacPherson, who’ll be stationed in the bedroom communities, and Jason Lee Norman, who takes over my office at the EPL. I’ve already told Jason where the best bathrooms are in the building, so he’s halfway settled.

Friday, Dec. 20th, as I packed up my Canadian Oxford Dictionary and made room for him, I looked back at my year and thought about what I’d miss the most. The office was a luxury and the writers were inspirational, but it’s watching the modern library in action that I’ll miss the most.

That libraries aren’t just about books and reading anymore has become a tired truism.

I never saw a librarian shush a talky patron. That too is an old cliché. But I have watched a librarian help a grandmother contact her grandkids on Facebook; organize a community group meeting; and borrow change from the staff coffee jar so that a down-on-his-luck man would have bus fare for a job interview.

One librarian I met at the Lois Hole branch even helped a Nigerian immigrant bring his daughter to Canada because he struggled to understand the paperwork. She thought it was her duty to succeed where customs had failed him.

“There has always been an element of social work to my job,” she told me.

Seeing librarians at work, and this institutional evolution, has been fascinating and humbling, especially at the Stanley Milner branch.

It’s no secret that from the minute the downtown library opens to the second it closes, it’s a home to the homeless. But this, too, is only a small picture. Truly, the central branch is the city’s most egalitarian space, a place that nobody is too rich, or too poor, or too uneducated or too privileged to need.

One-hundred years ago, the Edmonton Public Library was born with a simple goal to make knowledge democratic. In its centennial year, it continued to reinterpret what that means by adding a makerspace, a video game lounge and an outreach worker for youth.

Some might say that this is the library trying to stay relevant in a digital age, but in fact libraries have never been more popular and never been more relevant.

In our hyper-consumerist society, we’re running out of free public spaces. Edmonton’s public parks are only hospitable for half the year and at our many malls there’s pressure to spend. But without asking you to open your wallet—not even to retrieve a membership card—the library allows you to access all its resources, whether it’s a computer, book or resident writer.

To have spent a year playing a small piece in the library’s mandate, to share, is a privilege. But the best thing it shares is its space.

Live from the Edmonton Young Offenders Centre: “When I’m Out”

Laura Young is a Castle Downs librarian who runs an incredible book club inside the Edmonton Young Offenders Centre. Last spring she asked me if I could pay them a visit and maybe run a writing workshop. I said, “Of course, but…”

The “but” was this: Would they maybe be more interested in a rap workshop?

The answer was a resounding yes. They gobbled up my lecture on the art of writing raps and got to work on their own verses. Most of them needed little prompting or guidance because they were skilled MCs already. The next week I returned with a PA system and we had a rap battle that was somewhat unsettling for the program facilitator, Jill, until it was explained to her the battle rap tradition of verbal aggression and lyrically attacking your opponent.

I was invited back in November but I wanted to do something else. I wanted to make a single song with them — a cohesive track around one theme — and I wanted to record it for them to take with them when they get out of prison.

“When I’m Out” was recorded literally feet from their jail cells. In less than five hours, 10 boys and young men serving time wrote and recorded their verses to Kendrick Lamar’s “HiiiPOWER,” which I took back to the office and mixed.

Some of them stuck to the theme, and others didn’t. Some saw their futures as hopeful, others couldn’t or wouldn’t pretend to. We did not try to censor them, or nudge them in a positive direction, so some of the content might offend you. The point was simply to give them something to look forward to for the future and to have them express themselves artistically.

Due to privacy issues, I can’t share the song with you. But it’s probably the most important song I’ve ever been a part of. Props to Laura, Nicole, Jill and Caitlin for being a part of it too.

Call for Submissions – Short Prose Competition

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS

21st Annual Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers

$2,500 PRIZE

The Writers’ Union of Canada is pleased to announce that submissions are being accepted until March 1, 2014 for the 21st Annual Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers. The winning entry will be the best Canadian work of up to 2,500 words in the English language, fiction or non-fiction, written by an unpublished author.

PRIZE 

$2,500 for the winning entry, and the entries of the winner and finalists will be submitted to three Canadian magazines.

JURY 

Writers Mark AbleyRanj Dhaliwal, and Erin Dunham will serve as the jury.

ELIGIBILITY 

This competition is open to all Canadian citizens and landed immigrants who have not had a book published in any genre and who do not currently have a contract with a book publisher. Original and unpublished (English language) fiction or non-fiction is eligible.

HOW TO SUBMIT ENTRIES:

  • Entries should be typed, double-spaced, in a clear twelve-point font, and the pages numbered on 8.5 x 11 paper, not stapled.
  • Submissions will be accepted in hardcopy only.
  • Include a separate cover letter with title of story, full name, address, phone number, email address, word count, and number of pages of entry.
  • Please type the name of entrant and the title of entry on each numbered page. This is not a blind competition.
  • Make cheque or money order payable to The Writers’ Union of Canada. Multiple entries can be submitted together and fees can be added and paid with one cheque or money order, $29 per entry.
  • Entries must be postmarked by March 1, 2014 to be eligible.
  • Mail entries to: SPC Competition, The Writers’ Union of Canada, 90 Richmond Street East, Suite 200, Toronto, ON M5C 1P1.

Results will be posted at www.writersunion.ca in May 2014. Manuscripts will not be returned.

Welcome to the 2014 WiRs: Margaret McPherson & Jason Lee Norman!

A GIGANTIC welcome to the 2014 Writers in Residence, Margaret McPherson & Jason Lee Norman!!

Check out the deets on your WiRs! (courtesy of the Metro Library Federation) and remember to join us on DECEMBER 10, 2013 AT THE STANLEY MILNER LIBRARY AT 7:00 PM TO WELCOME THEM IN!

Photograph by: Greg Southam , Edmonton Journal

Photograph by: Greg Southam , Edmonton Journal

Jason Lee Norman will be stationed at the Edmonton Public Library for the full year. He has an MA in English and Creative Writing from the University of Manchester, and is the driving force, as editor and publisher, behind 40 Below, an anthology of 70 pieces by 50 Edmonton and area writers, just released by Wufniks Press.

“I couldn’t be more excited to be joining the Edmonton Public Library as Writer in Residence for 2014,” said Norman. “All of my endeavours as a writer in this city have been to celebrate great writing and foster a stronger sense of community in our arts scene. I aim to continue that focus in 2014 and help people become the very best writers they can be.”

maggie2011x200As the regional Writer in Residence, Margaret Macpherson will split her time between Strathcona County, Fort Saskatchewan and St. Albert, with multiple-month stints in each community. Macpherson has an MFA from the University of British Columbia, and extensive experience as a lecturer and community facilitator. She also has a passion for libraries and is a strong advocate for lifelong learning and the arts.

“I love the idea of connecting people in the literary world with each other,” said Macpherson. “Creating writing prompts, putting people in touch with the right press, the best publisher, the most supportive group for their particular genre is all about creating community among and between fellow writers. It’s thrilling to have that opportunity.”

While in residence, each writer will devote roughly half their time to mentoring other writers and the other half to working on personal writing projects. Local writers can take advantage of numerous programs and workshops, but also the unique opportunity to work one-on-one with the writers. Over his term, Norman plans to work on a novel featuring the bridges of Edmonton, while Macpherson wants to pursue a work of creative non-fiction titled Not the Caribou Queen, based on her childhood experiences growing up in Canada’s North.

“We’re so pleased to be continuing this program with the other area libraries, working together to enhance programs and events,” said Linda Cook, EPL Chief Executive Officer. “Both authors selected are excellent choices. We have been fortunate to have many great writers take up residence at EPL, and Jason Lee Norman will certainly add to that list.”

 

The Importance of Writers in Residence

I can still remember my first visit to the WiR, how nervous I was (okay, terrified) and how they made me feel comfortable and more than that, capable to take on the task of writing and publishing.  So, to that WiR and the ones coming in 2014, I’d like to talk about the WiR program and why I think it’s an amazing service offered to writers.

First off, it’s a FREE program offered by the libraries of Edmonton, Fort Saskatchewan, St. Albert and Strathcona County.

The authors on board are professional and established, and have been in the industry for a while. They may not have all the answers you seek, but they’ll have a starting point for you and their information will be up to date.

The WiRs will offer programs that have relevance to you as a writer. They can help you avoid pitfalls and give you information you need to ignite your writing.

They will read excerpts of your work and give you suggestions and pointers to tighten your story.

As writers, we can be nervous about sharing our work or asking questions, we worry the pages aren’t good enough–that we’re not good enough–remember, though, the WiRs job is to listen and offer input…I guess what I’m saying is don’t let your nerves prevent you from using an amazing resource and doing everything you can to be the best writer you can be.

The residency will go on holiday break on December 15, 2013 then roll out again in January. Stay tuned to this blog and your community library for more information.

Past Writers in Residence include: (from www.epl.ca)

Linda Goyette – 2007 Writer in Residence

Linda Goyette is a passionate collector of Alberta’s stories. As Writer in Residence at the Edmonton Public Library, she worked on an anthology of immigrants’ writing called The Story That Brought Me Here. While editing the book, she also compiled the Other Languages collection of the EPL.

Candas Jane Dorsey – 1990 Writer in Residence

(When asked about her favourite library experience): “When I was a kid it was a privilege to go into the adult library. I remember sitting in the gallery floor of the old downtown library watching through the majestic rounded windows as a storm swept down the river valley. I remember the teen section in the Strathcona library where I checked out the novel Ride Out the Storm to get me through a year of withstanding peer bullying. I remember sitting on the big rocks outside waiting for my family to finish checking out their big stacks of books. I remember the Idylwylde library when it was brand new. I would have to get my folks to check my books out on their adult card as kids were only allowed to take out three books at a time (must have been a baby boom thing, too few books to go around). After we had our books we’d go across the street to the Dominion store and buy fresh hot bread, then go home and eat hot bread with butter melting into it and read our new books–a Saturday tradition.”

Martin Godfrey – 1989 Writer in Residence

The Library’s writer-in-residence program featuring Martyn Godfrey from June 13 to December 5 was popular. Mr. Godfrey gave 109 manuscript consultations and critiqued 63 manuscripts to help aspiring writers achieve their goals as published writers, resulting in several new writers having their manuscripts scouted for publishers. He also gave readings and writing workshops attended by 506 people.

For more about previous Writers in Residence, head here.