Editorial Assistant Karyn Wisselink recently spoke with WordsThaw 2014 participant Madeline Sonik on panel events, creative nonfiction, and why students shouldn't hesitate to submit their work.
You were a panelist at WordsThaw 2013 for the In Our Names: Writers on Poverty panel. What are some things you learned from being on the panel?
I think one of the things that I learned was how prevalent the theme of poverty is in my memoir collection, Afflictions & Departures. I’d never consciously thought about how it applied to the realities of my young life because the term “poverty” is an abstraction, and as a writer, I’ve trained myself to think mostly in concrete terms. However, what I discovered was that “poverty,” as a label, is really useful in collating patterns. It helps you see the forest for the trees and the constellations for the stars. It helped me identify the persistence of a recurring note in my life’s narrative that I hadn’t even realized existed.
In our panel discussion, what began to emerge was the way all of us panelists had used writing and imagining as ways to sustain ourselves during times of material hardship. In the end, I think we were all pretty much in agreement, that the greatest impoverishment one can know is the inability to imagine.
This year you participated in the WordsThaw prequel event, CNF Night in Canada, at Russell Books. How do you prepare for an event like this?
What I generally do for such events is pick the excerpt and practice reading it out loud many, many times. I try to work with the piece and my presentation so that it’s engaging for an audience. I usually meditate for an hour or so before the event, when possible, in order to call up my public persona so that I’m not too nervous.
What do you find appealing about creative nonfiction?
I like reading all kinds of nonfiction, because I like learning. I like writing nonfiction for the same reason. I can get lost in researching a story. Right now, for example, I’m working on a sequel to Afflictions & Departures. This new work deals with events that occurred during my early teens, when I was living in England and working as a chambermaid. Britain was crumbling and Margaret Thatcher, the first female British Prime Minister, came to power.
I’ve been immersing myself in Thatcher’s memoir and a variety of biographies. I was completely ignorant of the political and economic complexities of the day, and it’s fascinating to be able to consider one’s lived experience in this larger collective context.
I’m also reading about the Sex Pistols, who were another revolutionary force in this turbulent time of old world decay. Thatcher and Johnny Rotten had an amazing amount in common. Who would have thought? Anyhow, it’s these kinds of things I like to learn and bring to my writing.
I also very much like revisiting my past. As I get older, it becomes ever more enjoyable. I go back to older hazardous times when thoughts of my own mortality never touched me, and I sweat a little. Then I feel incredibly grateful that I’m still alive. I’m aware that I don’t need any more adventures in my life. I have so much grist in my mill that if I don’t get it down on paper soon, my mill is in serious peril of exploding.
What do you find are the greatest benefits of interacting with other writers at events like WordsThaw?
I love to hear the stories writers tell. At the WordsThaw panel discussion I was involved in last year, for example, Patrick Lane told a story about once stealing three tomatoes from a neighbour’s garden so he could feed his young family something more than just plain macaroni. It was such a simple wonderful story that you could feel it resonate in the hearts of everyone. I think whenever a writer tells a story that resonates like that, whether it’s spoken or written, it has an inspirational echo effect. It calls forth other truths about the human condition and, in so doing, makes us all a little bit more human.
Last year you hosted a publishing talk for students and the general public at the University of Victoria, and you recently hosted another one this year. Tell me a bit about this.
Over the years that I’ve been teaching at UVic, I’ve seen some really fantastic student writing—writing that should and would be published, if only the student felt confident enough to submit it somewhere. For many, the thing that shakes their confidence is uncertainty about the business side of writing: which publication or publisher to approach, what to say in a covering letter—things like that. Many new writers are completely crushed by a rejection slip, not realizing that most writers have had one hundred before they ever see their first acceptance.
Generally, the business side of writing isn’t dealt with much in the classroom, but for students who want to become professional writers, having some knowledge about it is essential. Also, because there are so many writing programs these days and so many good writers emerging from them, the profession has become extremely competitive. Those who know how to market their work are definitely going to have an edge.
It feels good that I’m able to pass on the knowledge I’ve gleaned over the course of thirty plus years to writers who are just starting out. I like to hope that the talk helps them see they’re not alone with their insecurities and uncertainties, and motivates them to make regular manuscript submissions a part of their writing life.
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