Sage sisters, memories (of Sage Hill Writing Experience)

Before they’re gone forever, and though I’m barely scratching the surface, here are a few other robust memories from my ten-day tenure at Sage Hill Writing Experience.

July 19, 2010

I can’t believe I’m here! I couldn’t sleep the last few nights, in anticipation but I made it after an uneventful flight, the best kind. I’ve been exploring, getting my bearings, settling in.

“Be fearless, be in the moment, remember why you’re there, be open to the path ahead. Open yourself up like the big Saskatchewan sky then strike like lightning.” My pal Sean Cranbury of Books On The Radio‘s words on getting the most out of this retreat, good advice I shall endeavor to use.

July 21, 2010

I met my instructor, award winning author Terry Jordan. Nice guy, adorable 9-year old daughter C in tow. What is she going to do? I’d be bored here if I was a kid. Terry’s a musician. Damn! I would have brought my bundle of busking songs with me if I’d known. I should always assume there will be hootenannies and opportunities to sing at these things. I’ve been reading Terry’s novel, Beneath That Starry Place, mightily impressed with his well-drawn characters and landscapes. He possesses a powerful ability to create ambiance, often sinister. I will have to get him to sign it for me. Terry’s a playwright too. I would like to talk to him about that. I’m seriously considering writing and producing a play for the Fringe, as un-theatre as I am, which is not the same as anti-theatre. Community theatre is vital in the small towns I grew up in. And though I’m a musician, I can’t abide most musical theatre. West Side Story and Cabaret, my only exceptions and don’t ask why. I always maintain that Cabaret isn’t entirely absurd because, well, it’s set in a cabaret so when Sally Bowles breaks into song, it makes sense. She’s on a stage. But West Side Story blows my whole theory, cover. They’re on balconies and shit when the entire orchestra busts out. I don’t know, it must be the growing-up-with-TV and movies part of me that doesn’t quite get theatre. The moving image is just more authentic or primary with me, some how. Some way. I still remember my first movie experience. My mother said I sat through the entire hour and a half of Jungle Book with my mouth gaping. I still get excited going to the movies, but back to Sage Hill.

Wow. What a luxury, having one’s meals prepared! It’s heavy, prairie comfort food, lots of carb-laden casseroles and desserts. Keeping off the 25 pounds I lost last year will be no easy feat. However, I am relieved and grateful for the opportunity to devote the bulk of my time to writing rather than domestic duties. I’ll have to get to town to buy some supplies. I want some yogurt. No dearth of culture here though, not surrounded by all these fabulous writers. Students and teachers alike are quickly forming an alliance and Executive Director and playwright Philip Adams just introduced himself. What a charming, amiable and capable man. And I had the privilege of breakfast this morning with one of my most esteemed novelists Catherine Bush. Oh, and the poet Daphne Marlatt, whose work I admire greatly, both lovely people as well.

The toilet runs but hey, I’m not complaining. I’m so glad to be here and being away is helping me to quit obsessing about various pressures and anxieties. Now, to work! I must read and critique my fellow workshop participants’ manuscripts.

Michelle Greysen and I figured out pretty quickly we were in the same group. Sharing red hair and sensibilities, we got along well immediately. Smart and droll, Michelle’s a fellow bad girl, which Elizabeth Bachinsky teased me about, being Catholic. “Catholic girls are the baddest girls,” she said. “I thought I hid it better than that.” I’ve long admired her work and met Liz in February when, as a most gracious host, she introduced me at the Real Vancouver Writers Series as part of the Vancouver Cultural Olympiad. I’m grateful for the opportunity to get to know her better.

So freelancer and blogger Michelle is working on a novel set in a turn-of-the-century Hutterite community. Children’s writer Gwen Smid is developing the outline for an intriguing story aimed at a slightly older, teen audience. Sharron Arksey’s subject matter concerns family and farming life and Julianna Dunn, is working on a story inspired by her childhood growing up on a reservation.

I will pull out the red pen, brush up on my proofreaders’ marks and get to work but not before our first faculty reading this evening with Liz, Catherine and Ted Barris. It was a pleasure to hear Liz’s luminous verse again, Ted’s enthusiasm for his subject matter (Canadian military history) is infectious and I swear Catherine is from another planet, her ruthless but nuanced insights into the human psyche dazzling. She is intimidating and inspiring at the same time. I’m looking forward to reading her new book, Thief.

July 22, 2010

I met two lawyer-poets over breakfast! I’m spending the rest of the morning proofing Sharron and Julianna’s work. We work-shopped at 1 o’ clock. What can I say? It’s hard. Good hard work though, and why I’m here. I walked into town after, thought I would walk back but then realized it was far—especially under a hot sun—and I was getting tired. My solution was to go to the pub and ask for the taxi number, cab it back. I called Lumsden Taxi after shopping at the local grocery store and the guy was in Regina. He said he had to get a real job, that people in Lumsden were too cheap to call a taxi. “Why does your card say 24-hours then?”  I could hear him shrug over the phone. “Thanks for nothing.” Fortunately, I ran into the affable and erudite  Gerry (Hill) and several other Sage Hill participants. First we had a drink at the bar, a typical small town prairie bar, replete with VLTs and a pool table. I talked with Brenda (Shmidt) and Pearl (Pirie) and one of the afore-mentioned lawyer-poets Natalie (Simpson), all of whom are studying with Daphne. I’m rather envious, hope I can return for a poetry workshop. Let’s see, we talked about being Canadian, pondered how this country, relatively small in population produces so many great writers. I went on about how I thought the word “patriotic” had been co-opted by Americans, that despite a bout of recent Olympic pride, we are naturally reserved and cited my inability to wear a Canadian flag pin when I traveled to Europe. Gerry related how he left a Canada flag pin for a chambermaid in Portugal and when he signed the note with his initials, a fight ensued among the maids because his initials resembled a 10 euros sign. I said she probably would have preferred cash, told a favourite joke. What’s the difference between a Canadian and a canoe? Canoes tip. In the car, people commented on my big hat. WTF? It’s summer, I’m a redhead. I’m receiving comments about the size of my manuscript too. That’s okay, that’s why I’m here, to cut it down, get the monster under control.

I’m eating as many fruits and veggies as possible. I purchased some roasted peas, nuts, chocolate, wine, crackers. Tomorrow, I’ll find the trails and walk after supper which will serve to rouse me. I slept fairly well though. I was surprised. Ah, it’s so nice to be away though I do miss my boys and dogs. My cell consists of a small bed and desk, a chair and a rack with five hangers and oh, most importantly, a bathroom. The window is a bonus. It makes me realize how little I need to be happy: a few flattering outfits, books, laptop, pens, paper. I really needed this though! What a gift, a privilege to be here, living like a monk, albeit a challenged monk. And, oh man, the Franciscan friars are so kind to we writers, artists! No way it’s going to bring me back into the fold but I certainly appreciate their hospitality, the fact that they are pretty darn close to the mission of Christ, sharing their resources with the likes of us; writers, maniacs, degenerates. Here, we are, telling our tales of fornicating cattle farmers and punk rock mountain-top blow jobs, surrounded by serene religious iconography that is both familiar and foreign, I’ve been lapsed so long.

July 23, 2010

“Screaming coyotes, scurrying gophers, swooping barn swallows, thunder and lightening my prairie muses,” my Facebook update today. That was all I wrote. There is no connectivity in our cells, only out front in the great room which has made me realize how much time I spend-waste-on the Internet. More perspective and for that reason alone, I’m glad I came.

It is currently pouring rain, a real hard driving rain, which probably explains why the hills are so green. One of the writers compared them to Ireland. Discovered the thrift store downstairs. I bought some candles, a book and a Virgin Mary statue, a real score as I’ve been missing my lost, glow-in-the-dark dashboard Mary for over a year now. I took Terry’s daughter, bought some jigsaw puzzles and then she picked out a book and a candle. Sweet kid.

I just passed out my novel excerpt so the others in the group can read it and discuss it with me tomorrow. I have not found my writing groove. Well, my manuscript needs major revisions and editing, so there’s not much composing to be done, which is why I was burning out on it and came here, for direction. I decided that this year I was either going to come up with a real final draft for the book or toss it into the ocean, give up on writing fiction. I have been writing quite a lot of poetry this year, to scratch that composing itch. It is so inspiring to be surrounded by all these inspiring writers. Liz for example is passionate about her work and Catherine astounds me with her talent. I see her working conscientiously, right across the hall. It’s rubbing off. So why am I resisting? I know, I’ll just get into the groove and it will be time to leave.

I met with Terry; the most important feedback was “You can write fiction.” I have been suffering from an inferiority complex. His reassurance helps.

In the afternoon I went to town with Michelle in her adorable, little yellow Beetle Goldie named after Goldie Hawn whom she met in Hawaii once. My Volvo doesn’t inspire me to christen it though after all the beaters I’ve owned,  I refer to it as my trusty steed. I bought some chocolate covered cherries and we had a drink. At dinner, Michelle made a slip of the tongue and called me Fiona, my protagonist’s name. Is that bad or good? After I walked around the stone labyrinth, not in it and returned with three mosquito bites and a tick. I was able to flick it off my sock drown it in the sink. The subject of ticks and Lyme disease has been coming up nearly every time Philip makes announcements. He’s set up an easel and paper so everyone can write down the inevitable puns. The list is getting long.

We enjoyed readings by our fellow students, quiet, unassuming Anna Mancini from Cape Breton blew me away. I really liked Leesa Dean’s fiction. She is funny. I always have such lovely conversations with the people here, Bernadette Wagner for instance is one of my favourite participants with her irrepressible energy and charm. I hung out my fellow group member Gwen for a while. We ventured outside to watch the stars, pick out constellations despite a nearly full moon. Val Kilmer came up, I can’t recall in what context, so naturally I had to recite Three Blocks West of Wonderland for her, which I believe she was quite delighted with.

July 24, 2010

I moved! Down the hall. Yay. Harold Macy, a guy from Ted’s group writing about Four Storey Logging left and I took his room which seems more spacious and is definitely laid out better. He prefaced his reading last night with “Living on Vancouver Island, it’s nice to come over to Canada sometimes.” Maybe the new digs will dislodge my block. I’m just overwhelmed I suppose. Now is the time to cut the novel and I have to figure out where exactly, stop wasting time editing sections I may not use.

I’m meeting some remarkable people! I admire all the people in my group, including Terry and Michelle, who makes me laugh. Julianna is a big-hearted kook, writing about her aboriginal roots, Gwen is a teacher from Ottawa, overtly sweet, quietly strong and Sharron, from Langruth, Manitoba and with a degree in journalism seems shy but is very generous with her astute insights and comments. With their encouragement, I am beginning to realize that I am the writer that I am, doing the writing I’m meant to write. That is probably the most important aspect of being here. It’s so edifying to be recognized for one’s ability, have it reinforced. I am determined to take this determination home but I will need to continue working hard, remain mindful of sustaining this precious sustenance.

Terry said I could borrow his car! Maybe I’ll take him up on that. This is so much fun. It’s like being at school, or camp or something, not that any of those experiences were exactly wonderful for me.

I just attended Ted Barris’s talk, based on his book, Breaking The Silence, about veterans from all the wars. I should tell him about my grandfather, Reginald Haley, not that the Royal Rifles veterans got any respect. Might be interesting to get his take on it. It was funny, as he was talking about pilots, a low flying plane kept buzzing by. Terry asked him how much he paid the pilot to do that. Wow, and he talked about the Halifax riots. I had never heard about them. The sailors outnumbered the city’s population in 1945 and apparently went nuts when the war ended, looting, rampaging and generally terrorizing the city. I’m glad Ted didn’t leave out the nasty bits as we polite citizenry are wont to do. Also, Philip and Sage Hill are doing some important work and talking about PEN Canada and exiled writers and journalists at each of the readings. It makes one feel fortunate for the freedoms we tend to take for granted.

July 25, 2010

I managed to get breakfast on my new white top. The first time I wore it I spilled wine on it, red wine. Now strawberries. Argh!

Speaking of wine, I might have had a tad much last night, carousing with Gwen, Anna, Bernadette, Susan (Stenson) , Ted and Gerry, at least until Gerry got surrounded, couldn’t take anymore of our discussion of all things female and excused himself. Men are so squeamish, which is why we have the babies.  I guess it did get to be a real estrogen bomb though and if you can’t stand the heat in the kitchen, the best thing to do is get out. I felt restless, stayed up until 2:30, long after everyone which provided a lovely spot of solitude. It’s intense, being sociable every time you exit your room. I find I’ve been hanging out at the smoke pit. Though I don’t partake anymore that’s where a lot of the, shall we say, interesting people are.

Anyway, later I was able to work on my book and more than that, re-commit myself to The Town Slut’s Daughter. I skimmed through the manuscript, got reacquainted because I have been so discouraged, I shoved the thing away for over a year. I have discovered there is no way I am going to be able to cut it in half or anything so radical and still retain the narrative. I will just have to forge ahead, do the work, edit, revise, rework, and cut as much as possible, but surely I must stop agonizing over the enormity of the task. Publish the damn thing myself if I have to. At least, not worry about that during the process. Let it be what it is. The people here who have read a bit of it go on about its high quality. Doesn’t it follow that the rest of the book is just as good? Why do I have to butcher it? I am trying to reign in my tendency toward anxiety, panic, take the next step. Can I trust my instincts? That rather than pander to the market, I must remain true to my vision. So my question for Terry and the group, is am I deluding myself? Being self-indulgent?

July 26, 2010

What a tonic this Sage Hill is!  It’s really put many things into perspective. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in my room, alone, writing, emerging for meals, which always provided a good opportunity for socializing, naturally. Brenda said, “Oh, you’re working so hard,” but I don’t think so when I see the instructors working so diligently with their students. Oh, and there is no cliquishness. A few people prefer to eat at the same spot each day but most of us filled our plates and sit wherever. It doesn’t matter and I feel comfortable with everyone. It really is remarkable, the feeling of conviviality around here, everyone so kind, friendly. It is such a refuge, and therapeutic.

Out for dinner in a local restaurant this evening we had a hilarious discussion, a kind of follow up from the previous night’s shenanigans. Gerry pulled out a pen and paper and started compiling lists of Things That Men and Women Talk About. We had to come up with categories and though, really, you had to be there, this is what Gerry recorded:


-Roughriders (think baseball, think baseball, think baseball)
-initiation (you’re not the boss of me either)
-what we look like
-getting shot down the other day
-red lips that work with the blue eyes
-blah blah blah (you want me to what?)

-the uterus
-awkwardness (shy and awkward, very shy and awkward)
-punk rock (or I’m in the wrong place)
-who are those women at the next table. Who do they think they are, let’s follow them to the bathroom
-How cute is when when men give their penises a nickname: (We polled as many people as we could.) Pedro, Wee Willie Wonka, Whippit Good, Otis (because of the elevator), The Chocolate Factory, Schooner, Freckle Merchant, Tiger Boy of Azerbhajain, Jimmy, Sputnik, The Hummingbird Caretaker, Russian Rocket, The Crow Tamer
-tips: don’t go to (dinner or) bed with these guys
-vive le differance
-should we name the vulva / The Promised Land
-orgasm: it can, sometimes does
-particular about my meat

Then there was the start of “Things Michelle Says”:
-yanking things out of people’s pockets
-The Gremlins Rule: (Like men) never feed them after midnight, no bright lights, never get ’em wet.

Michelle is hilarious, deserves her own list. The food, service wasn’t stellar but the conversation was. We had a great time.

July 28, 2010

Melancholy already as I prepare to leave Sage Hill Writing Experience-St. Michael’s Retreat-Monastery-the Qu’Appelle valley, Lumsden-Saskatchewan where I have been afforded a rare opportunity to hone my voice. I will miss the meals! Back to the grind. Our last supper! A lot of the food I couldn’t eat, fried chicken, brownies with whipped cream, etc. Oh my God, I fear I’ve put on some weight, will have to work to get it off when I return to my routine, but I’ve exercised no small amount of willpower. It’s helped that Julianna and I are on similar programs. She’s on Weight Watchers, also lost 25 pounds last year.

July 29, 2010

I sadly bid farewell to everyone, who congratulated me on my light packing ability. Yep, it’s all carry-on. Two bags, that’s it. I packed 5 outfits, for 10 days. I hate going to the baggage carousel. I think it was Gwen that said, “And you always look so fabulous.”  Philip drove Susan and me to the airport as I took in the potash plant, the barns, flax and canola fields for the last time, vainly attempting to assimilate the past ten days, all that’s happened. Of course there was the requisite fantastic prairie thunderstorm, sheets of lightening flashing on a horizon purple with clouds. I’m going to have to read some Cormac McCarthy, recommended by Terry. I’ve been marveling how easy it was to bond with the women in my group, Terry’s scary harem, we joked, though we have dubbed ourselves the Sage Sisters and vowed to continue work-shopping our fiction via the Internet. Julianna surprised each of us with a lovingly selected scarf and we wore them at our group reading on the last night.

So I’m not sure if I struck like lightening; feels more like I’ve been struck, but it certainly has been an incredible adventure!

One thought on “Sage sisters, memories (of Sage Hill Writing Experience)

  1. Heather,

    It was so good to ramble through your entries – lots of great memories. I will say that your recitation of poetry under the stars is one of my Sage Hill highlights. Thanks for sharing that moment with me.

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