Silver Linings

I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish He didn’t trust me so much.” Anonymous   

Have you had days where everything seems to go wrong? How about a whole week of one calamity after another?

I won’t bore you with the details because we all go through times like this. You have to take the good, the bad and the sometimes ugly. Yes, our basement had a minor flood this week. The culprit, a corroded pipe stuck deep in a wall. Yikes! The ongoing mess has been incredibly difficult on an obsessive compulsive like me.

Such a thing and others like it (lost wallets, missed appointments, I could go on and on) add one more layer of madness to an already crazy life.

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Oh, those Ah Ha Moments

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” Mahatma Gandhi  

As some of you know I’ve been mentoring students in the creative writing program at Simon Fraser University. I have loved everything about this experience. The students are talented, keen and all have great writing futures ahead of them. I’m honoured to be a small part of their development.

During our last meeting this week, we discussed two books we’ve talked about in other sessions. The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is a guide to several different emotions a character in a story or book might have. The jacket description notes: One of the biggest problem areas for writers is conveying emotion to the reader in a unique, compelling way. When showing our characters’ feelings, we often grab onto the first idea that comes to mind, and our characters end up smiling, shrugging, and frowning too much.

The book defines several emotions from amazement to worry and everything in between, and then lists the physical signals, the internal sensations, mental responses and the cues that a character might exhibit.

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Still Trying

If a story is in you, it has got to come out.” William Faulkner  

The key word in this quote is: if.

How do you know a story really is inside you? I don’t.

I think about a story I’m working on whether I’m out for a hike, working in the garden or sitting still. Okay, that last bit doesn’t happen very often.

I get what I think are brilliant ideas, even write these down, only to have them disappear when I finally get in front of my lap top and face the actual blank page. Glaring at that page, I eventually start to put down whatever comes into my head.

My hope is that I will work my way into my story, uncover the keepers and get rid of everything else. Most of the time this process works. Yes, I’m a big believer in what April Young Fritz said about writing: the worst thing you write is better than the best thing you don't write.

At the moment, in my new manuscript I’m stuck, so I’m trying a different approach. I’ve printed off the pages I have and I’m reading them as a reader, not a writer. This means without a pen in hand. When I’ve finished reading, I will begin again, this time with pen and red ink. It’s a painful process. It takes time and patience. And you know as well as I do, I’m not good with either.the worst thing you write is better than the best thing you didn’t write.

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The Twilight of Memory

If in the twilight of memory, we should meet once more, we shall speak again together and you shall sing for me a deeper song.” Khalil Gibran  

Am I going home today? He’s asked this question nearly every single day since he’s arrived. In those first few mornings, when I’d gone to wake him up, he’d also asked, what is this place? Where am I? How far away am I from home?

And yet, and yet, as we walk through the village, he points to a new restaurant and asks, what happened to the Greek restaurant that used to be there?

That place hasn’t been here in years. I wonder how he remembers that old hole-in-the-wall, but not his daughter’s house, a home he has visited many, many times.

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Kindness Shared

No act of kindness, no matter how small is wasted.” Aesop  

Last week my father ran out of one of his medications. These things keep him alive. I understand this to my core. My dad on the other hand, takes it all in stride. What’s a few days without it? It won’t kill me. Yikes!

The homecare worker gave me no prior warning, my father no longer drives and my siblings were both travelling away for work. I wasn’t sure at this point what to do, but a problem shared is a problem solved so I called the pharmacy.

I spoke to Fawn, who knew my father by his first name. As I started to spell his last name, she said, oh you mean George. How is he doing? We haven’t seen him in awhile.

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Meditation

I am a traveller on a sacred journey through this one shining day.” Richard Wagamese  

Over the last few weeks I have been trying different meditation tools to assess them and try to find one that might be best for me. Why meditation? I ask myself that question too. I like the idea of it, but I’ve never been able to stick with meditation. It’s likely my personality, my need to move, do, and make stuff happen. On the other hand, it could simply be my unruly mind. Whether you’ve known me casually or forever, you’ve likely deduced that I tend towards being a bit manic. Stop laughing.

Of late, I have felt even more out of control. I can blame a busy schedule, a ton of things going on, and too many worries, but this is true for everyone. Life is hectic. I am not unique. Typically when I’m stressed, I keep going, blindly hoping everything will sort itself out. I add more things onto my plate, perhaps thinking that these new tasks will take my mind off the other ones I’ve been obsessing about.  I know I’m not making much sense (do I ever), but here I go again, adding meditation to the schedule. I’ve convinced myself that this is something completely different.

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Under Threat

Writing means sharing. It’s part of the human condition to want to share things—thoughts, ideas, opinions.” Paulo Coelho  

Years ago, my husband took a certain photograph of my father and me that reflected what I had been taught to do my whole life: never shy away from a good discussion.

In the picture we stood facing each other as swordfighters from another time, our concentration intense and focused. I saw the vein in my neck, our mouths open and of course, we were both pointing a finger at each other. These, along with our words, were our swords.  

I was reminded of that picture this week after receiving this letter of apology from the Executive Director of the Writers Union of Canada. The letter apologized for an opinion piece by the magazine’s editor, Hal Niedzviecki. I wish I could find Mr. Niedzviecki’s editorial on line so I could include it in this blog, but it has been removed from the Writers Union magazine. I have my own paper copy and several articles written by a number of newspapers and magazines that quote his article entitled, Winning the Appropriation Prize.

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Defining Moment

Thinking: the talking of the soul with itself.” Plato

Last month my book club read Catfish and Mandala by author Andrew Pham. The memoir chronicles Andrew’s bicycle trip through Vietnam in search of answers to the death of his transgender sister. Throughout his journey, which is less a log of his travels and more about finding a place where he belongs, Andrew laces his family’s past (their flight from war-torn Vietnam, their time as refugees and their eventual settlement in the United States) with his present-day life and frustrations.

Pat, a long-time member of our book club chose this memoir and led our conversation. She asked a number of great questions to facilitate our discussion of the book, but the one that stuck with me had to do with individual defining moments. She asked us if we could identify the one thing that we believed made us who we are today.

We went around the table. One person said that being uprooted often as a child impacted her adult decisions. Another spoke about the death of her mother. A few others mentioned how difficult it was to leave Quebec for Toronto or Vancouver.

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Open Lives

When it comes to memoir, we want to catch the author in a lie. When we read fiction, we want to catch the author telling the truth.” Tayari Jones

I’m back at it, and by that I mean the O word. We’ve been very fortunate to build support for the Whistler Writers Festival over the past 16 years. Sixteen years! Yikes! Who knew? It’s never routine in this business, but for the most part, we have developed some consistent processes to help us do what we do. Thankfully.

So there’s no better time to shake things up. Right? What was I thinking? It’s O’s fault. For some reason, I like to organize things. Or as my husband puts it, “order people and things around.” O gets me into a lot of trouble. Mostly it’s good trouble.

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Happy Writing

If you want to be a writer, write.” Epictetus

Look at me. In the last two blogs I’ve quoted Greek philosophers. This must be a direct result of the time I’ve spent with my dad over the past few weeks.

I’ve enjoyed this period immensely. I’ve loved our discussions, our walks, and listening to Greek music together. I hated (well maybe that’s too strong a word) that music when I was a kid particularly because my dad used to put it on early Sunday morning and all I wanted to do then was sleep in. I don’t know what sleeping in is any more, but that’s another story.

I will have to get back to my real life next week and hopefully return to writing.

In the meantime, I saw an interesting piece in the Guardian all writers should read. This was the author's response to an article written by a supposedly failed novelist who is considering quitting her craft. Both articles are good, but given the quote I’ve used this week, you’ll figure out which view I share. Happy reading. More importantly, for you writers out there, happy writing.

© All Rights Reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Stella L Harvey

Teaching Understanding

Much learning doesn’t teach understanding.” Heraclitus

It’s been a crazy week. The top headline, for a change was not about something ridiculous the leader in the country next door to ours did or said or lied about. Instead, press secretary Sean Spicer, United Airlines and judges getting mandatory education on sexual assault laws took over the media.

The stories and opinions provided in each case have been extensive so I won’t take up space this week adding my rants. I’m sure you know how I feel (understand history, Sean, before you open your trap, investigate a situation thoroughly, Oscar, before you make ill-advised public statements, and you judges out there, if you don’t understand sexual assault laws, you have no business being in your position. No amount of training is going to teach you sensitivity.)

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Hanging On

The best thing to hold onto in life is each other.” Audrey Hepburn

I speak to him at least five times a day on the phone. His voice might quiver and his memory may be shaky, but overall he’s jovial and I’m usually reassured that all is well. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. I convince myself with one excuse after another. I live too far away. I can’t just pop by. I’m too busy. I’ve got this or that to do. I will see him next week or in two weeks. But two turns into three, and then four.

I haven’t seen him since Christmas. It’s only been three months. But that can be an eternity when your dad is 88.

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Games

Good habits formed at youth make all the difference.” Aristotle

At 16 I bussed tables after school, and on Saturdays, at the Sears cafeteria. Then I was promoted or perhaps I’d just broken too many dishes in my clumsiness on the floor and my boss thought I’d be less dangerous in another area. I was assigned to the steam table serving alongside a woman who was likely older than my mother. Eager, friendly and generous with advice and support, Helen reminded me of my mom and my long-dead grandmother. I would have done anything for her.

One Saturday, I forgot to order the mixed vegetables from the kitchen and we ran out on our steam table. The line up grew. I had never seen Helen get angry before. She reduced me to tears and the kind of shame only someone who truly cares about you can instil. I’m still embarrassed thinking about that day.

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More Advice from the Trenches

Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” E.L. Doctorow

It’s been another busy week of meetings, planning, organizing and chasing corporate sponsors for the festival. In addition, we’ve had guests. I think in the end I may have had two short days of writing (a few hours each day really) and this is only because I wake up long before the birds and definitely before any sane human being.

You can tell I’m building up to tell you that my blog is going to be incredibly short this week. I read an article passed on to me a few weeks ago by poet and author, Fiona Lam. The article by author, George Saunders appeared in the Guardian and provides some insight into the writing process or as much as is possible given how difficult it is to actually define it. Writers come to story in different ways. And from idea to completion, revision is key. I personally love revising. This is how I explore what I’m trying to say. The blank page is harder for me.

And on that note, I have one other piece of advice I’d like to share with you. The incredibly wonderful and generous author, Richard Wagamese who passed away last week, told me once, one word leads to another, then another, then another. I remember Richard’s words whenever I face the blank page or get stuck.

I know this will help when I return to my project on Monday. Hope it helps you too.

© All Rights Reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Stella L Harvey

A Legacy

A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” Eleanor Roosevelt

My maternal grandfather died shortly after my mother turned two. Her mother raised her single-handedly, scrimping and saving to give my mother an education. My mother became a teacher and helped support my grandmother. When she married, my mother was no longer allowed to work. In those days married women were expected to have children and stay home to take care of them.

And she did so with the help of my grandmother who lived with us. But my grandmother died when she was in her late 50s, leaving my mom alone with three children and a husband who wanted to see the world.

He came home one day after work and asked her what she thought about moving to Canada. She was thirty-two years old, did not speak a word of English and had three children under the age of six. And still she went, despite my paternal grandfather’s protests and his urging to remain behind. “He will come back,” my pappou had told her. “If you stay here with the children.”

“Wherever my husband goes, we will go,” she told my pappou. “We are a family.”

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More Lessons From the Trenches

No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness.” Aristotle

I should have called these last few blogs lessons from the trenches. Not sure where these writing tips have come from. I’m doing more writing and reviewing. I’m perhaps a bit more aware of what I’m doing and not doing. Hopefully these realizations help me with my new project. And if you’re a writer reading this blog, I hope it helps you too. But in the end, you’re the writer and you will find your way with or without any advice.

As you create characters, think about their backgrounds, their experiences, and what shaped them. Listen to their voice, how they express themselves, what they think about when they are alone, or in a crowd, or with their mother, partner, friend. What are their weaknesses and strengths? What do they need and what are they afraid of or hiding? Answering these questions brings a character to life. It helps you identify their madness. We all have a little.

Sure humans—real and imagined—are a twist of contradictions. As I write this, I think about some of the guys I used to work with in my prison days. I so rarely write about that time. Too real I suppose. Perhaps I think the reality of it is too difficult to capture in fiction. I don’t know.

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Situate Us

Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.” Abraham Lincoln

“Tell us where we are.” This is the feedback I hear over and over again from my critique group when it’s my turn to discuss my work. “Situate Us.” And finally this week the advice sunk in. Or at least it moved me to take a closer look.

I went back and reviewed what I’d written so far for my new novel. Specifically, I looked at the first paragraph of each chapter. I always seem to create many characters. Don’t ask me why. They appear, and then they become so integral to the story I can’t get rid of them. Or more correctly, they won’t leave me alone.

So first off, I checked to see if I’d named the character in the first paragraph of each new chapter. This is especially important when you have different characters. As a reader starts into a new chapter, he or she needs to know right away whose perspective and version of events they are reading.

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It’s All About Story

All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

In other words, to write well, you have to immerse yourself wholly and hope the story reveals itself before you drown. Yes, the fear of sinking keeps me moving.

When it’s going well, I am completely in the story I’m trying to tell. I see clearly what my characters are doing and why they are doing it. I find a balance between showing what they’ve experienced in the past so the reader understands why they are doing what they are doing in the present. Dialogue flows because I hear, see and more importantly understand why my characters say what they say.

None of this happens unless I’ve surrendered my brain to the story. In other words, I’m no longer thinking. I’m simply observing and writing it all down.

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Uncle

I can resist anything except temptation.” Oscar Wilde

My uncle came to live with us when I was nine or ten years old and he lived with us on and off for the rest of his life. I only ever referred to him as Uncle. There was no Uncle John or John. It was always just Uncle.

As I’ve written many times, I’ve missed my extended family my entire life, so when Uncle arrived, I was excited. Here was part of my larger family, right there, in front of me. I listened to my uncle and father converse in Greek around our kitchen table. I loved trying to figure out what they were saying. I heard stories of their school-day scamps, their parents (my grandparents), and their sisters. These tales made me laugh and I felt as though I was part of the culture I longed for. We went to the lake on weekends or Banff for a picnic. A bottle of beer always in my uncle’s hand.

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Shifting Tides

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

A few years ago, on a return trip from Costa Rica, we stopped in Boston to visit my cousins. We first entered the United States through New York. At passport control I dutifully provided my Canadian passport. The officer looked at it, then at me, eyed the passport again, and then gazed at me in condescension. He was obviously troubled by something. I couldn’t venture to guess what it could be. I’m a staunch rule follower, but this man made me feel guilty. That glare was meant to intimidate. He was telling me he was the one in control.

After several seconds and more stares at my passport, the officer asked me when I had left Egypt. I was born in Egypt. My Canadian passport proudly states this fact. What does that have to do with anything, I wondered, but with the American rendition flights (another sad chapter in American history) hot in the news at the time, I was thankfully prudent rather than questioning.  And besides I was in a foreign country. I have always seen the United States this way, which overall has saved me a lot of hassles in the end.

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Onward I Go

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” Albert Einstein

Last week I lamented the fact that I hadn’t done much writing since about the end of November. Yes, there have been a few bursts of creativity, then long periods of nothing. So to push myself forward, I decided to set aside three hours every day just to write. Typically, for me, the best time to write is first thing in the morning, before the world wakes up. I think I’ve written about this before, but I love the quiet of an early morning. The stillness gives me permission to be still too, something I don’t do particularly well and something I absolutely have to do in order to enter the fictional world.  

It hasn’t been easy, but as many of you know, I can be a bit stubborn when I set my sights on something. Okay, stop laughing. When I use the words, “a bit” as in I’m a bit stubborn or I’m a bit of an obsessive compulsive or I’m a bit focused, perfect strangers who have met me for the first time, laugh. And that sort of amusement is multiplied ten-fold when I use these words to describe myself in front of friends or colleagues. I’m not sure what I’m doing or saying, but just about everyone seems to understand me better than I understand myself.

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Resolutions

Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it.” Winston Churchill

I’m constantly revising my resolutions. Tinkering is good. That’s how I’ll get to the essence of what I want to change or improve. This is the lie I tell myself to ignore the fact that I have failed miserably. And only three weeks into the New Year. Yikes!

It all starts off so well. A new year brings with it the opportunity of renewal. In fact, when I’m busy and running around with all sorts of things I feel compelled to do, I reassure myself that all will be well once January comes. This craziness will pass and I will start anew. It’s a break. That’s all.

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A Call to Action – Update #6

“I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that, then I realized I’m that somebody.” Lily Tomlin

There are many of you somebodies out there who have helped us this year with our go fund me campaign. Thanks again for all you’ve done on behalf of the Whistler Writers Festival. It lives on because of you. You made the difference. And I am grateful beyond measure.

As promised, this will be my last update about our campaign, but our efforts to secure funds for the festival won’t stop just because you don’t hear from me. In fact, if you want to know how it’s going, send me an email. I love hearing from friends, colleagues and strangers alike. Your notes of support have been uplifting and soul enhancing. They are astonishing really and have brought me to tears (in a good way) more than once. Thank you.

We have now received some $13,000 in donations on our way to our goal of $30,000. I think by the end of this particular campaign we will likely reach the $15,000 mark, which is amazing. I didn’t know what to expect when I started down this road, but each turn in the bend, each note or letter has only served to motivate me further. The last note from my friend, Marilyn, in Edmonton, who has yet to visit the festival said, I believe in you. Or the note I received from fellow author, Fiona Lam, who wrote, we are all grateful for what you do. So I keep going.

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A Call to Action – Update #5

“Never settle for a ripple, when you can make a wave.” Janet Louise Stephenson

The Christmas break is over. It was a hectic time with travel and socializing and far too much food and sweets. I’m trying to cut down on the latter, but chocolate and fruitcake are still in the cupboard, and on top of everything else, Santa Claus filled my jellybean dispenser. It sits on the credenza beside my desk like a tease. Mind you I still have to plug it with coins to get at the jellybeans. Unfortunately, this deterrent is a weak one at best, given that my desk drawer is filled with coins. I’m nothing if not a planner with back up plans on top of back up plans.

I hope you all had a nice Christmas break. I wish you the very best in 2017.

Many more donations came in on our fundraising campaign for the Whistler Writers Festival. We have now received some $12,000 in donations on our way to our goal of $30,000. Thank you so much for your generosity and support.

Along with donations, some folks made other fundraising suggestions, or offered prizes for silent auctions and contests or asked questions. I love questions.

By far, the single most asked question was: why do you do it? And by this, I think they were asking why I put on the festival in the first place.

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A Call to Action – Update #4

“There is no longer any such thing as fiction or non-fiction: there’s only narrative.” E.L. Doctorow

Mr. Doctorow could be right. I’m not sure, but as promised I will outline my recommendations for the non-fiction reads I’ve enjoyed in the latter part of 2016. Before I do that I’d like to give you an update about our fundraising campaign. This will be the last update and push before the New Year. Christmas is a good time to take a break, don’t you think? I will be back at the beginning of 2017 with a final drive toward our fundraising goal of $30,000 for the Whistler Writers Festival.

Thanks again to those of you who have already donated to our cause. We have now received some $8,000 in donations.

Any amount helps. And donations of $25 and over will receive an electronic tax receipt in the name of the donor. You can donate on our gofundmesite. And if you’d like to watch a very quick video of the 2016 festival, check out this video. Or watch videos of our other programs here.

So now onto my recommendations for non-fiction reads.

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A Call to Action – Update #3

“First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.” Ray Bradbury

Easier said than done, Mr. Bradbury, but some authors did just that, very successfully, this year. Here is my list of the novels I enjoyed in the last half of 2016. Next week, I will provide my recommended books of non-fiction. Hope this helps you with your Christmas shopping list. And speaking of Christmas giving, please don’t forget the Whistler Writers Festival on your list (I’m relentless. I know). Our fundraising campaign continues.

Any amount helps. And donations over $25 will receive an electronic tax receipt in the name of the donor. You can donate on our gofundmesite. If you’d like to watch a very quick video of the 2016 festival, check out this video. Or watch videos of our other programs here.

Thanks again to those of you who have already donated to our cause. We have now received some $7,000 in donations. Incredible! Our goal is $30,000.

Okay, on with my fiction recommendations.

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A Call to Action – Update #2

“Life is like a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” Albert Einstein

I have been mentoring students in the Creative Writing Program at Simon Fraser University since the fall. We meet every couple of weeks to review their work and discuss writing.

This past week we talked about the struggle of starting a new project. In these early stages of creation you don’t know what your story is about, who your characters are or what their goals, desires and motivations are. You’ve got a blank page you know you want to fill, but have no idea how. In short, it’s a painful slog.

And this happens to all writers, from the emerging to the experienced. I tell my students this, to reassure them.

It also helps me to hear these words of encouragement.

I urge them to write every day. Even 15 minutes a day will help, I say. It keeps you in the story and close to your characters.

I try to follow my own advice. At the beginning of a project, I simply type words. My only motivation is to keep my fingers moving on the keyboard. Yes, it feels very mechanical until something changes and it (the story) begins to feel natural, real. That something is hard to define. All I know is that the doing and the practice eventually brings me to the story I want to tell.

I don’t really know how this revelation relates to my other passion, the festival and the current fundraising campaign we’ve initiated, but I find myself here nonetheless. It’s sort of like writing, you never know where you’re going to end up, but you know you have to keep moving in order to get there.

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A Thankful Heart

“The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.” William Blake

It’s been one of those weeks where I have lots to be thankful for, so this week instead of one blog, you’re getting two. I couldn’t help myself.

In addition to all the donations and kind comments I received for the Whistler Writers Festival campaign at the gofundmesite (yes, still flogging), I also got a note from my friend, author Genni Gunn about my novel, The Brink of Freedom.

Thanks Genni and thanks to all of you who have read my novel and sent me your feedback. It’s very gratifying for a writer to hear from readers, to know her story, her words, touched the reader in some way. Thank you.

I asked Genni if it was okay to share her review and she said it was, so here it is.

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A Call to Action – Update #1

“The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.” Helen Keller

Last week I asked for your help. And in the first three days of our new fundraising campaign in support of the Whistler Writers Festival and its other literary programming, we raised $3,200. Thank you so much for your support.

I appreciate the fact that you’ve shared our cause with your friends too. As a result, more have joined us. That couldn’t have happened without your support.

I’ve also appreciated all the kind words that have come along with your donations.

We love this festival. We love you. Happy to support the festival that could. A festival with heart, thank you. A terrific festival. This is great and necessary work. So appreciate all the work you do for Sea to Sky students each year.

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A Call to Action

“Action is the foundational key to success.” Pablo Picasso

I need your help. But before I get into that let me start at the beginning.  

In 2002 there were only 20 of us. We chatted, talked, learned. For many of us this was the start of a writing life. Since those humble beginnings we have grown steadily, but most impressively in the last six years−from 395 participants in 2011 to 1810 in 2016. We’ve been lucky enough to host multi-award winning authors (Jane Urquhart, Joseph Boyden, Lawrence Hill, Madeline Thien, Will Ferguson, Emma Donoghue, Lisa Moore, Peter Robinson to name a few) on the same stage as emerging authors (Gillian Wigmore, Jennifer Manuel, Meagan Williams, Steven Price). And now, the Whistler Writers Festival is only one component of the literary programming we organize every year.

We have steadily expanded to provide concentrated support to emerging writers through our Writer In Residence Program (since 2007) and have established an Author in the Schools Program (since 2011), which sees us provide students in the Sea to Sky corridor with class sets of a visiting author’s books. The students read the books, and in some cases, study them as part of their curriculum. The author then meets the students to discuss the book and answer questions.

In the first year of this program, we had 86 students, a handful of teachers and one very nervous organizer. Me.

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