Monday, February 06, 2006

OFF THE PAGE and Other Writer's Events

"The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer,
and this notion rested solely on my suspicion
that I would never be fit for real work, and that
writing didn't require any." Russell Baker 1925 - "Growing Up." 1982 ch 9

Looking back, I must have started writing as soon as I could grasp a pencil and spell out the words. At the age of ten I was writing short plays for my classmates, mostly plays about the war (WW2) and fairy tale plays to be acted out for the entertainment of my neighbourhood playmates. After Dad came home from the war, when my family travelled by train across the wide expanse of the Canadian prairies and through the Rocky Mountains to the west Coast, at the age of twelve, I imagined myself a pioneer, and began to write longer stories about the early frontier settlers. By the time I was sixteen and got my first real typewriter, I had expanded my stories to short-novel length and wrote about Biblical and Roman history. I wrote all through my junior and high school years, often entertaining my classmates during Study Hall with the latest chapters of my novels.

There was little encouragement then, for aspiring young writers like me. Although some of my grad. class women still recall the stories I'd read out in class (one of them about a circus trapeze star who I saw fall from him high trapeze to the arena floor -- miraculously not killed but badly injured) most teachers didn't encourage me. My mother was often called to the school and told that if I paid more attention to Math and Science and less about day-dreaming in my imaginary worlds I would be a better student.) All I ever wanted to be was a writer. Math and Science meant nothing to me. History and Literature were my forte. And at one time I aspired to be an actor. That too was discouraged.

Nowdays kids have so many more opportunities and are encouraged to follow their aspirations. Schools are focusing more on litarary and writing programs for students. One of these programs is "Off The Page" sponsored by the Federation of B.C. Writers with the backing of a special grant. Members of the Fed. are invited to go to schools (any grade from kindergarten up) to talk to the children about writing and to share their experiences of being a writer. I've been a part of this program for three years now and find it a most rewarding experience. (You can read about it on the Fed website at
Check out "Off the Page" and look for my bio under W. Ruth Kozak).

Last week I was invited to visit a grade 6/7 class who are currently studying the novel and planning to write novellas themselves. They had already studied 'setting' and 'characterization' and were now working on 'plot'. I took along some of my early manuscripts, written when I was twelve and one from when I was sixteen to demonstrate certain points such as character description and the important first page, introducing character, setting and hinting at the conflict. I read an excerpt from the one story which was the first thing I had published, aged twelve, in a CGIT magazine. It was about a Dutch war orphan, the idea gleaned from watching news reels and listening to stories my Dad had told from when he was stationed in Holland during the war. (I talked to the children about where I find story ideas and how I eventually focused mainly on historical fiction.)

We played a plotting game where I give them a story line and 3 characters. Two children who have been brought up in luxury are suddenly orphaned and placed in the care of an avaricious, nasty old Aunt. They have to invent a fourth character and plot out the story. They were working in groups of six and were so enthusiastic the room was a buzz of young voices. Later each group presented their story, which included an introduction to the characters. They were so eager to do another exercise like this and the teacher promised that after the lunch break they could turn their stories into plays and practice some play writing.

It was an exciting and inspirational morning for both the children and myself and the teacher was so pleased with the results he asked if I could come back another time. Of course I said I'd be more than happy to return. As I told the children, they are lucky to have these opportunities to explore and develop their creative talents. I would have given anything during my school years if such a program had been offered.

That day set off a weekend of other pleasant events which included attending a Board meeting for the Pandora's Poetry Collective. I am on the Board of this very active poetry group who are doing remarkable things with young people in the community. You can read about them on their website at . If you check under "Executive Board" you'll find my name W. Ruth Kozak. (For any of you who are poets, they offer programs and contests for adults as well as children).

In addition, next week I've been invited to attend the journalism class my friend teaches at Kwantlan College to present a workshop on travel writing. I've done this for a couple of years as well and it's another inspiring experience.

So this past week, including the three night school classes I teach and the Memoir group on Thursday mornings, has been focused mostly on writing. I found myself too exhausted to do my own writing though, and have lagged behind in work on my novel. So now I must try and catch up.

At last the sun is shining after weeks and weeks of rain and terrible wind storms which made travelling to and fro from my classes by bus a real chore. With the sunshine my energy has returned and so has my inspiration. I'm looking forward to my weekly critique group, The Scribblers, tonight and we'll we welcoming a couple of new members. And the next three nights are my classes which are dyanmite groups this term. As is the Memoir group on Thursday mornings. Their stories never fail to amaze me.

So here I am, all those years later, from the first time I wrote down my little stories and plays and shared them with my classmates, really living the writer's life. It has taken a lot of perseverence, determination and the willingness to live on a shoestring, trusting that eventually some editor will publish my work, but it's all worth the effort. As I told the children, you have to hang onto your dream, be determined and focused and practice your craft daily just as a musican must practice every day, and eventually you will be successful.

"A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action,
for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who
fills our memory with rows on rows of natural objects, classified with name and form."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe "Elective Affinities" bk II ch 7. 1749-1832


Gabriele Campbell said...

Elective Affinities - so, that's the translation of Goethe's Wahlverwandtschaften.

I wish I had found more encouragement at school, too. I wasn't discouraged like you, probably because I kept coming up with A-s in Biology and Chemistry as well as German and History. :-) But my writing was always regarded as hobby, nothing to build a future on. I eventually gave it up when I attended the university, and only started again in 2001.

One of the reasons I gave up was that I kept comparing myself to the great writers and I felt I had no such books like Magic Mountain and Daniel Deronda in me. It took me a long time to realise that while I can't write those, I may be able to write some enjoyable historical fiction. The breakthough came all of sudden when I one night, instead of working on my PhD started writing about two men on opposite sides in a war, Roderic Sinclair and Kjartan Haraldsson, and their forbidden friendship. Ere I was aware, I had filled enough pages with their adventures and that of a third character, Alastair O'Duibhne, to make up a veritable book. That was when I realised that I could become a writer yet.

Sam said...

I found lots of encouragement at school - but no real professional guidance - writing was a 'hobby', and that was all. I was steered towards science and math, with the assurance that writing was just for fun.
Your travels as a child sound fascinating. It must have been very fun and interesting.

Wynn Bexton said...

I find it interesting that others have expressed that their writing was considered a 'hobby' too. Even when I got married, and the only time I'd have to write was late at night after the children were in bed, my husband used to get rather annoyed at my 'hobby' interfering with things. I'll never forget the time though, that I got a lovely letter from my Mom before she died in which she expressed a lot of encouragement for me and said "You'll make it one day, dear!" I've always kept those words in the back of my mind.
My Dad always thought I should be pursuing more serious things like working and saving for my retirement (especially when I went to live in Greece in order to pursue my writing). He gave me the acknowledgment I always wanted though, when just the day before he died, he provided money for me to buy a computer. That was just
over ten years ago, so you see how long it took to be really taken seriously by even my parents?

Gabriele Campbell said...

I think my father takes it somewhat seriously. He bought me a laptop in 2002 and he pays my internet flatrate and DSL (which is 32€ monthly, so that helps). He also pays for non fiction books I need/want sometimes. My late mother felt a bit more uneasy about it because it interferes with my PhD, but she never tried to talk me out of it.