What’s Your Story? February 10, 2018

This week’s news: a commission to write a short story set in east-end Toronto. Imagine being asked to write a short story instead of flinging one out into the void. Delightful.

The story was commissioned by What’s Your Story?, an initiative run by the Ontario Book Publisher’s Organization. Once a year for three years now, the OBPO has brought out stories and poems from four writers in each of four Toronto neighbourhoods: the east end, Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York. One or two established writers are joined by a couple of emerging authors in crafting stories set in each area.

In 2016 and 2017, stories and poems came out from established Toronto-based writers including my sister ECW Press authors Terri Favro and Cordelia Strube. Joining them have been Elyse Friedman, Farzana Doctor and Cheri Dimaline, among others. This year, I was very happy to find one of the emerging authors includes my former student Nikki Saltz. Her story will be among those set in the east end.

One tiny drawback, at least for me. Writers are asked to bring in their stories at under 1,500 words. That’s a very short short story. Usually, I’ve barely cleared my throat by the time I reach 1,000 words, and my happy zone is three times that length. Even when I’ve been given a word limit, I tend to write long and then cut, which is a time-consuming process. As they say in newspapers, excusing a long think-piece, I didn’t have time to write short.

But I only put my name forward once I had an idea, which involves a character I’ve been obsessed with lately, name of Lucy Verrall. Lucy was born during a writers’ retreat run a couple of years ago by screenwriter/director/producer Ingrid Veninger at her family cottage outside Toronto.

Porcupine Lake by Ingrid Veninger

(Check out Ingrid’s latest feature, the lovely Porcupine Lake, which is now rolling out in selected cities across the country.)

Ingrid brought together half a dozen women working in the arts for a day-long self-directed workshop, including a dancer, a visual artist and several writers. The idea was to challenge each other with exercises—in case of dancer and director Nika Belianina, physical exercises—to broaden our repertoire of ideas.

Often, I write about characters coping with problems not of their making. Life descends on them. But I asked myself at Ingrid’s cottage to think about a character who ran after trouble, and out came Lucy—a nationally-ranked diver who can’t resist trying to up her game with anabolic steroids, and at nineteen ends up with a blown-out shoulder, a drug problem and a son. Even more complications ensue.

Since hearing from the OPBO, I’ve written a first-draft Lucy story, and now have less than a month to cut it down to size.

Afterwards, all the What’s Your Story? pieces will go live. Writers will give five-minute tastes of their work at public readings later this year, while the full-length poems and stories will be published on the Open Book website as well as in an anthology.

More details to come later, as I hear them myself.