Brockton Writers Series 11.01.23: Kathy Friedman

Kathy Friedman is the author of the short-story collection All the Shining People (Anansi, 2022). She was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, and her writing has appeared in Grain, Geist, PRISM international, Canadian Notes & Queries, and the New Quarterly, as well as other publications. She is also the co-founder and artistic director of InkWell Workshops. She lives in Tkaronto.

Writing Towards Joy

I’m thrilled to be returning to the Brockton Writers Series. I came by last September as a guest speaker to share strategies and resources I use to maintain my writing practice while living with mental illness, (you can check out the recap here). I’m so excited to come back to read from my debut collection of short stories, All the Shining People. In this post, I wanted to connect the dots between my two appearances, since mental health has been a huge part of my life and my writing journey. It’s also one of the themes in my collection, which explores identity, connection, healing, and belonging among Toronto’s Jewish South African community.

In 2014, I was one of seven nervous women seated around a table at CAMH, pens in hand. This was day four of an intensive group therapy program, which had a creative writing component, and every time I took a smoke break on College Street I was terrified someone I knew might spot me.

At the time, I believed that writing, and the pressures of building a writing career, only worsened my chronic depression and anxiety, which had peaked while I was finishing my MFA and threw me into a full-blown mental health crisis. A couple of years later, still working on the same collection of short stories and trying to piece my life back together, I was sure I wouldn’t find writing for five minutes among strangers the least bit helpful.

For the first prompt—what did we like best about this time of year?—I wrote about walking to a bar through the long July twilight, bare-legged in a powder-blue summer dress. When our time was up, I was eager to read my paragraph aloud to the other women, and proud to hear them sigh when I finished, as though after a good meal. Not for the first time, writing and sharing what I’d written brought me real joy.

This incident led me to co-create InkWell Workshops, which runs free creative-writing workshops for people with mental health and addiction issues, led by professional writers with lived experience. In 2016, after partnering with a local drop-in centre, I taught my first workshop. It was a disaster: one participant loudly objected to the material I’d brought, and many of those who’d gathered out of curiosity slowly drifted away. But I persisted, and gradually, the project began to gel. Every Wednesday afternoon, the drop-in would overflow with writers from across the city, ranging in age from their early twenties to their eighties. As InkWell’s lead artist, I published their work in anthologies (see here and here), organized launches and public showcases, provided one-to-one mentorship, and arranged tours of local cultural institutions. Two weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, we shifted our programming online and continued to gather.

Some of our writers have called the workshops “lifesaving,” saying the group has given them a sense of belonging and purpose. They’ve found their confidence growing and their identities shifting. “I now feel like I’m a writer,” one told me recently.

The uncertainty of both the writing life and the publishing industry makes such assurances key: as the years passed, and my MFA peers were publishing their first and second books, I still couldn’t land an agent. “The writing is amazing,” one said via email about my manuscript. “But a story collection rather than a novel is going to prove difficult in the marketplace.” In response to the rejections, I kept revising. Meanwhile, through InkWell, I was building recognition and valuable connections in the literary community. I was also learning to stop hiding my mental health challenges, and to use my voice to advocate for the value of Mad people’s stories. Eventually, I grew confident enough to send my short story collection to publishers directly. To my terror and delight, All the Shining People quickly found a home with my dream press, House of Anansi.

Published last spring, my debut seems to have resonated with readers, a gratifying experience. But regardless of the response, my recovery journey has taught me that sustaining a literary life involves always returning to the simple pleasure of crafting and sharing stories. This task is made far more joyful when we pursue it with others. I may always have struggles, but these two goals—finding joy and community—have kept me writing, no matter what.


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Brockton Writers Series 11.01.23: Suzan Palumbo

Suzan Palumbo is a queer Trinidadian dark fantasy/horror writer, Nebula Award finalist and co-founder of the Ignyte Awards. Her debut short story collection Skin Thief: Stories will be published by Neon Hemlock in October 2023. Her novella, Countess, will be published by ECW Press in Spring 2024.

A Gothic Writer’s Tribute to Fog

I’ve loved the Gothic in all it’s literary and artistic forms my entire life. Give me damp castles, crumbling abbeys, ruined estates, dead space ships, becalmed boats, dilapidated strip malls, and abandoned apartment complexes housing dark secrets, in any region or even in outer space. I will be rapt. 

Unlike the tragic heroines fleeing dark mansions on the classic gothic Romance pulp covers we are familiar with, I run towards the Gothic. I seek out its aesthetics daily and use them as inspiration for my writing and art. A difficulty I’ve encountered in accessing the palpable, brooding mood I adore is that I live in a cookie cutter suburb. The Gothic, if it exists here, is fittingly hidden by sunshine, or perhaps more sinisterly, behind the closed doors of my neighbours’ homes. That is, unless a thick fog creeps into the community. Then, the Gothic arrives at my doorstep and seeps into my creative brain.

The fog was generous with me this past November. It enveloped our streets for several days, muffling sound and filtering light. Each morning while it remained, I ran out into its shroud to welcome it with my smartphone camera. Each day, the street where I live became otherworldly in a different way. Here are some of the transformations I captured:

(Suzan Palumbo, 2022)

The first day, the trees at the intersection were black silhouettes, backlit by a sickly sun. I half expected to encounter a horseman riding through the mist towards me, headless and determined. The light was so beautifully eerie, like the world was part of an old black and white movie. It was cool, noir-tinged, and glorious.  

(Suzan Palumbo, 2022)

The next day, the gazebo near the play structure had transformed into a spectral meeting place. The light was warmer. I sensed that if I walked the path of fallen leaves between the trees to the benches, I would encounter the ghost of a child waiting to whisper a secret to me. If you stare hard enough, you can almost picture someone sitting on the bench, waving at you, hoping you’ll come sit with them. 

(Suzan Palumbo, 2022)

On the third day, I ventured to the nearby catchment pond. There was no wind and the heavy fog had turned the water into a silver mirror which blurred the boundaries between the water and sky. I found myself staring at the monochromatic reflection of a dead tree near the edge of the pond. Angled the way it was, it was as if the tree was watching its doppelgänger reach its branches deep underwater, where they didn’t belong. 

(Suzan Palumbo, 2022)

The fog did not return on the fourth day. The weather pattern changed and there was sunshine and blue skies for a week. It reappeared however, at the end November, with ice and snow. I went out to the catchment pond again. The mood there had shifted. Ice added sparkle where before the grays and whites produced by the filtered light were flatter. This was glorious Gothic glamour. I imagined a fog queen wrapped in a charcoal cloak, walking along the icy edge of the pond, her face forever hidden by mist. 

The fog hasn’t returned since November. I look out for it every morning. It’s beautiful and fleeting. I never take its presence for granted. Its transformative qualities are an endless source of inspiration for me as writer. 

If you’re ever craving something Gothic, I encourage you, if it’s safe, to go out into the fog when it descends. Perhaps you will see the fog queen or envision a child whispering, or maybe you’ll be haunted by a vision that is uniquely your own.

If you’re interested in seeing how my love of gothic has worked its way into my published short stories, my short fiction collection Skin Thief, published by Neon Hemlock, will be out in fall 2023. I’ll have updates on my website, Suzan Palumbo: Horror, Dark Fantasy, Weird Writer (

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Brockton Writers Series 11.01.23: Fran Skene

Fran Skene is a retired librarian who has written in a variety of forms. Two one-act plays were produced in the 1990s and later she published a poetry chapbook. She is a co-author of the SF novel Windship: The Crazy Plague, available from Amazon. Most recently, some poems and stories were accepted by the online magazines Polar Starlight and Polar Borealis.

Journaling is one way I cope with all that’s going on in my life and the world. Here are two of many pieces that were written during a Callanish Society writing workshop. Callanish, a nonprofit society in B.C., supports people whose lives have been affected by cancer.

Late Dusk to Dawn

May 2020

It was late dusk, my one full day in hospital. I’d been sleeping. I heard a voice reminiscent of my daughter’s and opened my eyes. There she was, standing at the foot of the bed.

“Sweetie pie, how nice to see you!” I exclaimed.

Then I blinked; no one was there.

Of course not, since no visitors were allowed. After a moment of shock and a feeling of loss, I realized I’d dreamt her, between sleep and waking. “Oops,” I said, again out loud.

A nurse came into sight from behind a curtain. “Are you all right?” she asked. I explained what happened and she laughed and said something intended to assure me I’d not gone crazy. What I didn’t say to her was that I was all too ready to imagine someone I loved, there in person.

It was easy to feel okay in that hospital while medical staff came and went, some of them students in the nursing program at the nearby junior college. But early evening was slow. Hour after hour of light fading and no one there except for two roommates sleeping behind curtains. I could text people on my phone, or read more Covid news.

I’d not brought my laptop, so I begged paper for writing on, but I was so involved in a project that I couldn’t get into a new story or poem. The feeling of isolation increased. And I wondered why no one had come to clean the bathroom, or why staff were not in PPE, or why I’d been asked only the most cursory of questions during admission to this non-Covid wing the day before, which meant that’s all they’d asked my roommates as well.

But the vision of my daughter, and the assurances of the nurse, her friendliness, did help. The rest of the night was okay, and I made it through until morning.


Finding Hope 

It was early 1980. I was flying across the country, the last leg of a trip home from a visit to a friend in New York state. I was still mourning the end of a relationship.

I wrote a poem about that flight. Look down, it starts. Look down as you follow the afternoon sun to the west. Look at the amazing geography of the country you live in. And that did help. For a short while, I could look into the future without despair.

Looking at and smelling and hearing the world around me has always brought hope with it. I remember as a child seeing the Milky Way across the night sky in our small town, or more recently when the planet Mars was at its closest, so close that it reflected off the Fraser River near my home. A reflection of Mars! Not just the moon, or lights from airplanes coming to or from YVR.

I remember the sound of chopping wood in a section of forest by the river path. I got to the source, and saw a pair of pileated woodpeckers the size of ravens. And I remember an actual raven in a highway rest stop, a bird far bigger than I expected. Yes, it was scavenging, but to my eyes it was magnificent. My brother and I were returning from a trip to bury our mother’s ashes in Revelstoke Cemetery.

Poetry itself, the writing and reading of it, also gives me hope. Also journaling, or writing plays or fiction or creative nonfiction, or drawing and painting, or printmaking. And I love learning about the lives of famous artists, women especially. I envision myself in a studio doing what they do, perhaps getting inspiration from the forest or desert outside.

At the same time, sitting here at my desk, typing this, lifts my spirits.

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Brockton Writers Series 11.01.23: Liz Howard

Liz Howard is the author of Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, which won the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize, and Letters in a Bruised Cosmos, which was shortlisted for the 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize and the Trillium Poetry Prize. Born and raised on Treaty 9 territory in Northern Ontario, she currently lives in Toronto.

To learn more about Liz before her upcoming reading with BWS, please look at the Griffin Poetry Prize‘s page about her work.

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Wednesday, January 11th, 2023—6:30 p.m.

Brockton Writers Series presents readings by:

Suzan Palumbo

Kathy Friedman

Liz Howard

Fran Skene

Special note: As we adapt with current social distancing regulations, we’re happy to announce our event will be hosted in-person at the Glad Day Bookshop, located at 499 Church St., Toronto. We will also live stream the event on the Brockton Writers Series YouTube channel! The event starts at 6:30 p.m.

The reading is PWYC (suggested $3-$5) and features a Q&A with the writers afterward. Books are available for sale.

 If you’d like to donate, please do so here.

Many thanks to the Ontario Arts Council for their support.




“I Have A Voice Here: Writing as a Doorway to Community, Belonging, and Agency” by Chris Kay Fraser

Chris Kay Fraser is a writing coach and founder of Firefly Creative Writing, a small business in Toronto that helps people reconnect to the joy and power of writing. She has devoted her life to walking with others to strange, raw and delightful places words can reach.


Suzan Palumbo is a queer Trinidadian dark fantasy/horror writer, Nebula Award finalist and co-founder of the Ignyte Awards. Her debut short story collection Skin Thief: Stories will be published by Neon Hemlock in October 2023. Her novella, Countess, will be published by ECW Press in Spring 2024.

Kathy Friedman is the author of the short-story collection All the Shining People (Anansi, 2022). She was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, and her writing has appeared in GrainGeistPRISM internationalCanadian Notes & Queries, and the New Quarterly, as well as other publications. She is also the co-founder and artistic director of InkWell Workshops. She lives in Tkaronto.

Liz Howard is the author of Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, which won the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize, and Letters in a Bruised Cosmos, which was shortlisted for the 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize and the Trillium Poetry Prize. Born and raised on Treaty 9 territory in Northern Ontario, she currently lives in Toronto.

Fran Skene is a retired librarian who has written in a variety of forms. Two one-act plays were produced in the 1990s and later she published a poetry chapbook. She is a co-author of the SF novel Windship: The Crazy Plague, available from Amazon. Most recently, some poems and stories were accepted by the online magazines Polar Starlight and Polar Borealis.

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BWS 11.07.22 report: Revision and the Four Seasons of Story

Jessica Outram is Cobourg’s 4th Poet Laureate. She is a Métis writer and educator with roots in the Georgian Bay Métis Community. She works by day as Principal of Indigenous Education, supporting all schools, for the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board. Jessica is co-host of The Hummingbird Podcast, a weekly podcast about identity, healing and wellness, the spirit of place, and the pull of mystery. She recently published her first collection of poetry with Piquant Press, The Thing with Feathers. In Spring 2023, her first children’s novel will be released by Second Story Press, Bernice and the Georgian Bay Gold.

What Do the Four Seasons Teach Us About Revision?

By Jessica Outram

Nature has many lessons to offer writers. Lately I’ve been thinking about the four seasons and the lessons from them that connect to the writing process. Like this process, the seasons follow a cycle. Each season directs our behaviours and interactions.

Imagine you’ve been writing a while now, exploring forms and following stories. One day you decide this story will become something more. You enter into a revision process, an opportunity to see again. You return to the early writing of this story and re-engage using the seasons as a guide. Give each season enough time to fully realize its potential. Pay close attention to the transitions from one season to the next and how you will shift and adapt.

In the spring, consider why this story and why this form? Why did this story first find you? What about this story was important to you? This is a time to ask and answer all the ‘why’ questions. Free-write using questions to open the portal. Step into springtime. Revisit the story with curiosity, an open heart and open eyes. Be open to surprise. Watch for new ideas to bud. Connect to your inspiration. Define your form (will it be a play or a poem or a novel?). This is where you fully commit to the project. Your relationship with the project changes and as you work through the ‘why questions’ you can’t imagine your life without this story.

The transition to summer is easy. The days get warmer. Your relationship with the story is like a hot summer romance. You spend every day together now, lingering in playing with scenes or phrases. You may even feel like you’ve arrived as a writer. You are in love with this project. Your creativity blooms like a field of wildflowers. The story moves like a river. The project is fully alive. This is a lovely time for a writer. When I think of writing and everything I love about writing, it’s always the summer of writing that I’m thinking about. Sometimes we may choose to linger in summer for years.

Fall is about letting go. We often resist this transition. This is when we begin to prepare to share the story with others. It won’t be yours for much longer. Consider the audience and shape the story to meet their needs, too. What is your dream for this story? Who will enjoy it? Who needs it? What changes does this story need so it can impact readers? We pay attention to style and polish. We tend to the technical elements of craft. We check the facts and the plausibility of each scene. We share finished drafts with our writing group for feedback. And when we are done, our project glows with the radiance of October leaves. We know that soon it will be time to give the story to others.

By winter, we’ve often forgotten the warmth and joy of summer. It’s time to send the story out into the world. We don’t feel as close to it as we did in the other seasons. Sometimes we forget a scene or a character’s name or we read a whole page and wonder how/when we wrote it. We have spent so much time with the story, the writing has frozen. It’s time to share the story, to publish. Some days feel like a blizzard with gusting winds of uncertainty and blinding views of possibilities. To thrive in winter we seek out the company of friends. We collaborate with people we know (and people we don’t know) to publish. We learn about marketing and bookselling. What actions do you need to take to share this story with others? Who will help you along the way? And then, one day we notice the way the sun lights up the snow and find joy in the frost on the branches. Winter is a time of darkness and it is a time of light. When the story finds its way to the readers who need it most, we are already lost in springtime working on another project.

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BWS 09.11.22: In Case You Missed It!

Click here to see the recorded live stream of our November 9th event featuring Marlo K. Shaw, Edwige Jean-Pierre, Ayaz Pirani, and Emily Urquhart, and guest speaker Jessica Outram, who spoke to us about approaching writing in the metaphor of the four seasons, titled “Revision and the Four Seasons of Story.”

This was our second in-person BWS event since the beginning of the pandemic, and we’re so excited to be back! We even experimented with a hybrid presentation. Please stay tuned for more updates about our next events.

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Brockton Writers Series 09.11.22: Edwige Jean-Pierre

Born and raised in Ottawa, Edwige Jean-Pierre is a bilingual actor and playwright of Haitian and Congolese descent. She first came on to the scene with her solo show Even Darkness is Made of Light (dramaturgy and direction by Patrick Conner) at Buddies. Other plays she has written include Saint Bitch or also known as Our Lady of Spills, SOS/MS/ASAP, GOIN4BROKE, The Big Mess and Espoir/Espwa (co-written with Les Héritières de Toto B).

Her plays have been presented at many festivals including Rhubarb Festival and Edgy Women Festival, Hysteria Festival, and she was the recipient of the 2010 Summerworks’ Spotlight Award for her performance in Even Darkness is Made of Light. She is ecstatic to be working with Theatre Passe Muraille on the development of her latest play, La déception m’a ouvert les yeux.

Edwige’s work focuses on political and social issues.

Excerpt from Saint Bitch/Our Lady of Spills by Edwige Jean-Pierre

This piece was inspired by my mother’s experience with anti-Black racism while working in a nursing home in the 80s and 90s.

SANDRINE: (To CHLOÉ, Sandrine’s 8-year-old daughter) So you have 1 hour’s detention tomorrow. You’re lucky it’s just one.  She wanted to give you a week’s detention. Yes, I know Jessica called you the N-word and hit you in the face during recess. Yes, she will have detention too.  You are going to meet people in life that are not always going to be nice to you. You have to really try hard to be nice to everyone, because it’s the right thing to do. Really? You felt good kicking and pulling Jessica’s hair? Do you feel good now? Chloé Vincent, God did not tell you to kick her back or pull her hair.  God would never say that.  If someone hurts you or teases you, you go and tell a teacher, the principal, the babysitter, or me.  Yes, or the police… or the fireman … yes or even Wonder Woman.  You can ask God for help too, you know. That’s what St. Brendan would do. You know I get called the N-word almost every day at work and teased for my accent? Yes, by that mean old lady.  Why do I not fight back? It’s complicated, Chloé…

(Light change. SANDRINE and LILLIAN stare at each other, like two boxers in the ring.)

LILLIAN: She has no idea what I’ve gone through. No idea.

SANDRINE: She can’t possibly understand what it means to struggle all your life.  It’s impossible for her to understand.

LILLIAN: That’s the problem with people like her.

SANDRINE: That is the problem with people like her.

LILLIAN: Too damn spoiled is what.

SANDRINE: They have no heart.

LILLIAN: No idea.

SANDRINE: Impossible.

LILLIAN: I’m tired

SANDRINE: I have no patience left.

LILLIAN: I’ve no patience left.

SANDRINE: I am tired.

LILLIAN: You think you’re better than me?

SANDRINE: You think you are better than me?

LILLIAN: No idea.

SANDRINE: Impossible.

LILLIAN: It wasn’t always easy-

SANDRINE: (At her ESL class)

The verb “to show” in the past progressive

I had shown

You had shown

He had shown

She had shown

We had shown

You had shown

They had shown

(The next day… in LILLIAN’s room talking to SANDRINE)

LILLIAN: You show some respect and stop being sassy.

Ever since Gladys moved out… Just because she isn’t here…

You’re back to your old tricks… You don’t fool me. You want

to play games? I know a lot of games, missy.  I regret

donating money to the Sisters of Charity.  Bringing over

negroes that are lazy and can’t do their jobs properly… They

sing and dance and breed like rabbits.  Then they come here.

Don’t work… or go on welfare… or worse they don’t take their jobs

seriously –

SANDRINE:  (She takes a deep breath).  Just ignore it and let it go.

LILLIAN: You know Missy. 

SANDRINE: Just ignore it.  Let it go.

LILLIAN: You’re looking at someone who once donated a $20

cheque to help your kind.  I may have even helped you.

But we’ll never know.  You think about that. 

SANDRINE: Thank you so much, Saint Bitch. (She turns

around and is about to leave)

LILLIAN: Wait.  Oh God I… I…

SANDRINE: Quoi? What? What do you want now?

LILLIAN: Can you help me? I seem to have … made an accident. I need some

help to change. 

SANDRINE: Someone made a mess.  No Canadian nurses at

the moment. I will go find you one.  Let me just check to see if

there are any Canadian nurses available to assist you.  I wish

I could help you myself, but I can only sing and dance and

breed like a rabbit and I don’t know how to do my job properly


LILLIAN: Please-

SANDRINE: Please blackie? Please witchdoctor?  Please

what? Strange, still no Canadian nurse.

LILLIAN: Help me.  Please

SANDRINE: C’est pas vrai.  Are you serious? Fine… I will

help you. (SANDRINE putting on her plastic gloves and starts

cleaning and scrubbing)

Ma chère Lillian, c’est drôle comment vous pouvez être bête

puis ensuite avoir le culot de demander mon aide. Je dois

nettoyer votre dégât avec un beau sourire.  Et je vous gage

que vous n’allez même pas l’apprécier.  C’est drôle, vous ne

trouvez pas ça drôle? Alors moi je trouve ça drôle.  Le jour

viendra où vous réaliserez à quel point vous avez eu tord de

traiter les gens, comme moi,  ainsi et il sera trop tard. “Aimez-vous les uns

les autres…” C’est tellement difficile, pas vrai Madame Holt?

Bon, vous êtes propre maintenant – comment on dit-ont? Ah oui!  Spic’n Span! (Pause)

C’était un immense plaisir de vous nettoyer chère Madame

Holt (She curtseys). Vous devrez m’excuser j’ai d’autres

patients à soigner. DE RIEN!!!

(LILLIAN remains seated, frozen.  SANDRINE exits LILLIAN’s room. Exhausted, she replays the exchange between her and LILLIAN)

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Brockton Writers Series 09.11.22: Ayaz Pirani

Ayaz Pirani‘s books include Happy You Are Here and Kabir’s Jacket Has a Thousand Pockets. His work recently appeared in ARC Poetry MagazineThe Antigonish ReviewGuest 16, and The Malahat Review. Ayaz’s new book is How Beautiful People Are, available from Gordon Hill Press.

African Masks

As a kid I’d hate to lose my way

to the drawers of Ornithology or African masks.

I didn’t fancy the Mesa blankets

and said no to all the Walks of Tears, of Fears, of Hunger.

Best was to find myself in the Ice Cream Shop

or Gift Shop,

the white people’s diorama

in which they do not disappear from the Earth.

I still don’t like pinned butterflies

and pieces of petrified forest you take home in your pockets.

I don’t need to see the sunken treasure

brought to dry land.

If there’s a gem

on the Queen of England’s crown

that I know belongs to my bride,

you won’t see me just reach out and take it.

—from Kabir’s Jacket Has a Thousand Pockets


At the party I’d like to be a person of interest

but will end up a person of color.

Instead of agency I’ll get stuck with adjacency.

I worship in gutters, dust ignores me.

Imagine the roar of a lion’s mouth

or a perch on the rim of Ngorongoro.

I’m not coming to greet your waves.

I won’t dance broom to broom.

Don’t ask me to breathe fire or starve a child.

I’m not shaking hands with wilted roses

or standing two-headed like scissors.

I’d rather retreat at the first balloon’s pop.

—from How Beautiful People Are

Dog’s Sleep

I didn’t measure up

to his over-joy.

Rarely did I meet him halfway

in the hallway.

I wasn’t that faithful.

My dog

spoke only one syllable

but I ignored

the very itch

he was interested in.

With Freud’s head-tilt

my dog

kept his thoughts and bones


His grudge

was with the doorbell.

— manuscript in progress

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Brockton Writers Series 09.11.22: Emily Urquhart

Emily Urquhart is a journalist with a doctorate in folklore from Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her award-winning long-form nonfiction has appeared in Guernica, Longreads and The Walrus among other publications. Her memoir The Age of Creativity: Art, Memory, my Father and Me, was listed as a top book of 2020 by CBCNOW Magazine and Quill & Quire. She is a nonfiction editor for The New Quarterly and lives in Kitchener, Ontario. Her essay collection, Ordinary Wonder Tales, will be published in fall 2022.

What We See In Our Heads When We Read. And, When We Write.

By Emily Urquhart

The titular home in Carmen Maria Machado’s evocative memoir, In The Dream House, appeared in my mind as the red brick townhouse where I lived during my last year at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Later, when I read the essay ‘The First Thanksgiving’ in Ann Patchett’s These Precious Days, it turned out that Patchett also lived in that red brick townhouse, at least, in my imagination. In fact, she slept in my old room! The setting for the first essay in Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am, is a small, unnamed mountain town, but I saw it as Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, the village where I lived while working at a youth hostel for a few months in my early twenties. However, the hike that O’Farrell describes is a mash-up of two trails in Alberta—Tunnel Mountain near Banff and Fairview Lookout at Lake Louise, both paths I’d hiked during a writing residency five years ago. I’ve never been to Seoul, so the protagonist of Cho Nam-Joo’s Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 lived in my old apartment in Vancouver, and, at least one scene took place outside a café in English Bay, except instead of the ocean as a backdrop I saw Regent’s Park in London.

These images weren’t exact or even detailed. They were shades of places I’d known, a collage morphed by memory and added to by imagination. I say ‘added to’ as though it was done with purpose or intent or that I constructed these images as I read, but this is not the case. They appear of their own accord. I have no control over what I see in my head when I read. I don’t know why I switched out the cabin in Machado’s memoir for a red brick townhouse, for example. Or why the same house became the setting for Ann Patchett’s student dorm room. I’d overlaid these spaces with the architecture of my memory; maybe it was something in the shape of the rooms, the way they were lit, the feeling of these places during the time I spent there.

It was while writing my third book, Ordinary Wonder Tales, that I began to consider the theatre of the mind’s eye, and, also, to include it in the stories I wrote. As I re-wrote a classic fairy tale I envisioned the first scene taking place outside a mill that my great uncle once owned in Castleton, Ontario. I included this information in the story. Why not? It was what I was seeing in my head. I was writing non-fiction, and yet, I wondered – is what I envision when I write imaginary? At the same time, couldn’t it also be considered fact? I worked for many years as a fact-checker and I have often had my journalism work fact-checked. Still, I cannot imagine how to enter an author’s mind—or daydream?—and check on the veracity of the images that exist there.

I sent a text to two writer friends and asked what they saw in their heads when writing fiction. I wondered if their imagined worlds were based on real or invented landscapes. Tasneem Jamal, author of Where the Air is Sweet, says, “I absolutely see places when I write fiction. I suppose it’s like a movie in my head, or a memory.” Carrie Snyder, author of Francie’s Got a Gun, says she sees real places, or, at least they seem real to her. And yet, some are necessarily imagined: “All the ship scenes I’ve written must not be real because I’ve never been on a big ship.” She writes that the experience of place is immersive and real when writing: “It’s like I’m actually there… somewhere else.” Tasneem agreed, adding that it can be “jarring to be snapped out of it.”  

How closely do these scenes align with what people see in their minds when reading Carrie or Tasneem’s work? I wonder, if I were to give Ann Patchett or Carmen Maria Machado a tour of my former student home in Kingston, Ontario, would these authors understand why I imagined their spaces to look like mine? Or would they be bewildered? If I showed Cho Nam-Joo the Vancouver apartment that was the stand-in for her character’s Korean apartment, would there be any hints of sameness? My hunch is that there would be an essence of familiarity because the author has suggested the visual components and offered descriptions that have gently guided my subconscious. In other words, I’ve received directions.

In her translator’s note at the beginning of Brenda Lozano’s Witches, Heather Cleary writes that she has intentionally kept some words in the original Spanish because translating them into English would misshape some aspects of the narrative—conjure a midwestern corn field instead of the intended milpa, derived from the Nahuatl, which is an agrarian parcel of land where several crops are grown symbiotically, but also an important cultural philosophy. What did I conjure? Not exactly the corn fields of my youth in Southwestern Ontario; something more akin to the steppe farms of the Mediterranean. Is this a good approximation? I’m not sure. I’ve never been to Mexico.

And, yet, in my mind’s eye, I have.

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