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NOW Atlantic: Smart thinking for a changing world
Author Marjorie Simmins believes that writing is open to everyone. And that writing, as a means of recording, creating art and making sense of a world in the grips of a coronavirus pandemic, can be empowering.
“We don’t have power right now,” said Simmins in a phone interview from her home in D’Escousse, a community on the northeastern side of Isle Madame. “With our writing, we are very much so in control.”
Tragedy, by its nature, brings great suffering, and destruction, but it has also produced some of the most enduring books. John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939 following the Great Depression. The Second World War brought Night, Elie Wiesel’s candid account of his survival in the Nazi death camps; and Albert Camus’s novel The Plague is believed to be based on the cholera epidemic. It is too early to tell what novels and non-fiction books the COVID-19 crisis will bring, but Simmins believes now is the time to start writing.
“Writing memoirs is empowering: it’s your story, told your way. Remember: your job is to create a beautiful, moving story. With memoir, your life is art,” she said.
Simmins hopes her new book, Memoir Conversations and Craft (Pottersfield Press), which is a mix of memoir history, inspiration, and helpful how-to tips, will help both emerging and experienced writers interested in writing personal narratives.
“It’s incredibly fortunate that my memoir guide has been published right now, because people have things to write about, and the time to do that,” she said. “This terrible virus is classic memoir material, because it is an event that affects everyone in the world. So, like the world wars, the virus is an event about which people are already writing and are creating memoirs.
And no one story will be the same.”
Simmins has been reading memoirs since she was a teenager. Back then, she was engrossed in the lives of movie stars, now she is more likely to pick up a book like Heart Berries: A Memoir written by Terese Marie Mailhot from the Seabird Island Band in British Columbia. A desire to keep learning and to be inspired by stories of overcoming adversity continue to draw Simmins to memoirs.
“The doors open to places you and I are not usually allowed to go,” she said. “I love to learn about other people’s lives.”
In 2014, Simmins published her first book Coastal Lives, a memoir about living on Canada’s East and West Coasts. Two years later she published Year of the Horse, which tells the story of her life with horses in British Columbia and Nova Scotia.
“Like a novel, it [a memoir] has to have all the elements a novel has,” she said. “Story, story, story is all we want in a memoir.”
Having taught memoir writing across Canada, Simmins distills the craft for readers. She begins by giving a helpful definition explaining that memoir is a chapter in a person’s life. Unlike autobiography, it doesn’t cover an entire life, she said. The writer’s job is first and foremost to be truthful to the story, but that doesn’t mean describing every detail. You can’t tell six stories at once, she said. Omission is OK so long as the writer remains truthful to the story and its characters.
“The most resonant memoirs require the writer to be honest and genuine,” Simmins writes in her book. “…Telling the truth can be hard, but the effort is worth it. The good news is you will find the level of honesty you are comfortable with fairly quickly, and can push up and down from that position, according to what is needed in the story.”
The perception that memoir is something done by old people is wrong. Anyone can write one, she said. While they are usually written in midlife, after a person has had some life experience, Simmins gives the example of I Am Malala written by Malala Yousafzai. At age fifteen, Yousafzai was attacked by the Taliban in Pakistan for speaking out.
Along with writing prompts and tips, Simmins includes several lengthy interviews with Canadian authors such as, Lawrence Hill, Linden MacIntyre and Donna Morrissey, whose memoir, Different Dirt, comes out in 2021 (according to Simmins’s book).
“With memoir, I don’t have perfect endings, I have the rawness of what really happened,” Morrissey told Simmins. “Memoir is so personal. There’s no buffer of a character carrying it for you. I have become the character,” she adds.
For shy, emerging writers who might think they have nothing interesting to write because they have only ever known their small town, Simmins has kind and encouraging words.
“Sometimes the quiet lives can be the most staggeringly beautiful lives.”
Simmins hopes to give online memoir workshops later in the spring and currently has a workshop scheduled for Sept. 26 in Port Hawkesbury. For more information on upcoming workshops contact Simmins at: email@example.com.
Memoir Conversations and Craft is available online through Nimbus Publishing or by emailing Simmins. She will gladly sign and inscribe copies of her book.
Other books on the shelf
The Book of WHY (and HOW): Discover the Timeless Secrets to Meaning, Success and Abundance (Morgan James Publishing) by author and TEDx speaker Corey Poirier may be helpful to readers in these uncertain times.
The book is based on thousands of interviews Poirier has done with successful people from across North America over the past 15 years. Among the influential Maritimers Poirier interviewed are Olympian Heather Moyse and musician Christine Campbell.
Dividing his book into three sections, Poirier, who grew up on P.E.I. but called Halifax home for many years, gives what he believes are the four “whys” that can change a person’s life, they include: why not you? The book also outlines what he believes is the clearest path to thriving in a challenging world: practising the law of action, which calls for breaking goals into pieces; and the key to becoming enlightened in the process: uncovering your passion.
“Finding our true purpose is the wall-breaking key to finding our personal, creative happiness. And when we sense that what we want to do is helping the world in some way, we have the elation of identifying a need that is just waiting to be fulfilled. We catch the boost of energy that takes us beyond our perceived limits. And we begin to say, this is the task that needs doing! And, if not me, who else?” writes James Redfield, author of the Celestine Prophecy in the forward of Poirier’s book.
“Helping the world for the better also sets us up for something more, something mystical, an unexplainable shift in luck or karma. Somehow as a result of our commitment to helping, suddenly we find that more people are entering our own lives to help us – often at just the right moment to reveal another step forward in our journey.”
With more time at home, podcasts are one way to stay engaged with the world and find solace in difficult times. Author and poet Sheree Fitch is now podcasting from her home in River John. She is hopeful Mabel Murple’s Popping Purple Wordspinning World will be useful for parents and children cooped up at home.
Readers can also tune into the podcast Book Me! to the hear host Costas Halavrezos interview authors, illustrators and photographers from Atlantic Canada about their passion for creating books.