Last Tuesday night began as any evening involving Lewis MacLeod does, with pizazz and humour.
The writer of the week at the English Department’s Writers Reading was Michael Winter and after a few minutes of enjoyable and funny banter, MacLeod introduced Winter to the audience.
What followed next was not what I expected. Winter did not launch right into his novel or even his writing history. Instead he told us stories about his life.
Born in the North of England, Winter’s parents wanted public and open spaces, his mother suggested New York and his father moved them to Newfoundland. Winter told us a story of a story his father told him. When Winters was 12-years-old his father reminisced about a time when he was fly fishing with Mr. Penny and a big wave came along that capsized their boat. His father tells Winter that despite swimming up and up and up he just kept going down, down, down. He realized that as the boat had overturned, the anchor got wrapped around him and was pulling him deeper and deeper until Mr. Penny dove down, untangled him and saved his life.
Winter commented on this saying that there was a beautiful irony in this situation being that the thing that is supposed to save you could be the very thing that kills you. And his talk continued on this way, showing that inspiration for stories can come from anywhere. As he continued to speak, it was clear that in everything he said at least one person in the audience was moved, and could relate to what he was saying.
He told a story that resonated with most everyone in the room, and that was the story of the notebook. Every writer experiences that moment when a family member has bought us the most gorgeous notebook that there ever was and at the time we are so grateful for such a thoughtful gift. But then the anxiety sets in and when we are sitting on the bus or in a coffee shop and we see something that seems important enough to write down, we all reach for our book and then think, in Winter’s words, “hummmm, no it’s not good enough for the book”. This was brilliant. Such a simple observation, but somehow every single person in the room knew the exact moment he was talking about.
“Anything that strikes you as interesting, write it down. After a couple of years, string them all together and you’ll have a novel,” says Winter. We all know that moment when ‘it’s not good enough’ to write in the book, and say we will write it down when we get home, and then never do. Winter’s advice is write it down, it’s all important, it’s all good enough if you just write it down. And the key is to write it down exactly as you see it. For example he says, “I saw a man with his arms folded and they started to bark. Then I saw a set of ears” is extremely different from “I saw a man with a dog in his arms and it started to bark.” The first example forces the reader to provide the dog, it allows a really nice ‘ahhh’ moment when the reader puts together the images the writer has provided, it forces us to engage with the text; the second example does not force any imagination, ergo does not encourage the reader to continue reading.
Winter is an incredible story teller, from start to end he had everyone in the room captivated and engaged even without reading from his book, and I loved how he did this.
A writer is so much more than the works they produce, and Winter took the time to talk to us and let us see a little into his life, his mind, and his process. Before we broke up to head over to Be at the Tread for some tasty snacks, Winter left us with two very important points about structure and character. Regarding structure he said, “You have to be able to trust the author,” and then he told us this story:
“Today is the day I am going to kill the gym teacher. I woke up, brushed my teeth, mom asked me to get some milk for her, I played basketball with a friend, and then we killed the gym teacher.”
And then he told us this story:
“Today is the day I am going to kill the gym teacher. I woke up and brushed my teeth. Mom asked me to run out and get some milk but I told her I didn’t have any time. She said please can you just run out to get some milk. So I went, but then I ran into a friend and started playing basketball. They said, ‘okay, lets go kill the gym teacher’. I said, ‘I’ll meet you there I just have to get some milk for my mom’. Then we didn’t kill the gym teacher.”
Winter says each reader will be thinking ‘Yes! They didn’t forget the milk, I can rely on this narrator,” even though nothing happened, they didn’t kill the gym teacher, they are reliable because they didn’t forget about the milk; it’s all in the details.
Concerning character Winter said he will never leave a character alone in a room with their thoughts. He says on the first draft sure, but as soon as their thoughts are out he will place them “in the front yard, fixing a lawnmower with a neighbour, talking to him from the other side of the fence”. The same thought can happen in both situations but the latter situation adds dynamics.
It was a great evening laughing and listening to Winter tell us all sorts of silly or serious stories, and to see each one served a purpose. Stories are everywhere, they are in the strangers talking louder than anyone in the coffee shop, and they are in the man with the dog in his arms. We just have to write them down. Winter says there is no such thing as realism, because “everything about realism is about making the false things seem real”.