When you go on a road trip, it’s inevitable you will come home with stories. At least, that’s the hope. What’s the point of adventure if nothing happens worth talking about? Like Dory says in Finding Nemo, “Not much fun for little Harpo.”
When I set out with my two friends, Gayle and Kelly, to the annual Ontario Writers Conference, I hoped to accumulate some stories. Stories from the trip, and inspiration for fiction stories, both from the fabulous workshops and readings, and by osmosis from spending so many hours surrounded by the creative energy of passionate writers.
Let me start by saying that, if you’re a writer, whether you publish traditionally or self-publish — regardless of whether you write literary fiction or fantasy, science fiction, mystery, or anything in between — you will almost certainly benefit from attending a conference. The networking opportunities alone are priceless. You might even make a friend or two along the way.
Also, it’s essential for writers to get off their plush office chairs and head out, blinking against the brightness, into the wide world. Stories come from our overactive (sometimes scary) imagination, but they also come from our experiences. Little quirks about the people we meet find their way into characters and flesh them out, making them feel more real. If you’ve never been anywhere, it’s arguably more difficult to describe with authority and authenticity the sounds of a jungle, the stink of a fish market or the feel of ocean spray on your cheeks when a wave breaks on the rocks below your feet.
So here I present my little stories, such as they are.
Story 1: Wayson Choy
In case you’re not familiar with this guru of a man, he’s a national treasure. A writer of the highest calibre whose novels and memoirs capture the essence of the Chinese-Canadian experience. In person, he is humble, gentle and philosophical. At the conference, he was described as a Yoda, which he is, only taller and less green.
On Friday night, the conference held an event called the Festival of Authors. It’s an evening of author readings and networking, and I spent the time greeting old friends and meeting new ones. When the evening was winding down, my friend, Kevin, who’s one of the conference organizers, asked me if I could drive Wayson Choy back to the hotel where we were both staying. We’d already arranged for me to take Wayson to the venue in the morning, so it was a good plan for me to meet with him and arrange our morning drive. Besides, spending more time in his company is as welcome as spring sunshine. Many who know him call spending time with him: “Worshipping at the Church of Wayson.” This is apt.
I had a lovely private chat with the great man during our nighttime drive back to the hotel. When we arrived in the lobby we realized we were both going to the same floor. We went up in the elevator together and strolled down toward our respective rooms, which were across the hall from each other. We agreed to meet in the lobby the following morning at 8:10 am to head off to the conference venue. And then we said our good nights.
My friend, Gayle, who hadn’t attended the Festival of Authors, was already lying in bed. I whispered a hello, grabbed my pyjamas and ducked into the bathroom. I changed and brushed my teeth. While I was about to climb into bed, I heard a soft knock on the door. Without thinking, I went to it and opened it wide to find Wayson standing in the hallway. He asked about checking out and bringing his suitcase to my car in the morning. I answered his questions, all the while keenly aware I was talking to the incomparable Wayson Choy while wearing my jammies. To his credit, the gentleman did not bat an eye at my state of undress.
“Goodnight, Mr. Choy!”
Story 2: The Conference
For an eventful day, it was relatively uneventful. And, with me, that’s generally a good thing. I didn’t crash my car (which is, apparently, my “thing”) on the way to the venue. I didn’t accidentally show up in my pyjamas (although that might have helped Wayson Choy remember who I am). I didn’t break anything or throw up or trip and fall. I didn’t say anything ridiculously stupid (that I’m aware of).
What I did do was talk to brilliant writers about writing, drink lots of coffee, eat some great food and attend some kick-ass workshops. I learned about voice and character, and some specifics about the journey from book to film (which would be cool, so if you’re a film producer, call me!). I bought a book and got it signed. And I forgot to take pictures. Any photos were provided by friends.
Note to self: Next year, take pictures, dumbass!
Story 3: It Won’t Let Go
All conferences must end. It was time to go. I needed gas. My husband had just got a gas card for me so I was looking for a station that matched my card, for the points, you know. Thankfully, this particular company is popular and there seemed to be one on every corner. I pulled up to the pump and Gayle ran off to get money from a bank machine while Kelly hung out in the back seat updating her social media with news of our wonderful weekend.
I inserted and removed my points card. No problem. Still jazzed and keyed up from a busy weekend, I then shoved my credit card into the gas pump. It resisted a little so I shoved harder. And, then, it was stuck. My card was STUCK in the gas pump. Okay, maybe I inserted it upside down, but the thing’s rectangular; it should not get stuck. I grasped the thumb-nail-sized piece of plastic that I could still get hold of and pulled, wiggled, jiggled and jostled. It didn’t budge. At all. Kelly got out of the car. I explained the situation and she proceeded to reef on my poor lodged credit card. Nothing.
While Kelly ran inside to tell the attendant about our predicament, I asked a likely-looking young man, with his pregnant wife in the passenger seat, if he had any tools about him that might help me out. A pair of pliers, perhaps. He shrugged an affable “no” and proceeded to fill his car with gas without getting his credit card embedded inside the gas pump.
Kelly came back out. Well? Apparently, the lone woman operating the cash register couldn’t leave it to come out and give us a hand. We took turns jiggling the completely unyielding card and then Gayle came charging up and asked what was happening. We told her and she marched with steely determination inside, saying something about insisting the woman call the manager. Kelly and I took more turns yanking on the card. Kelly broke a nail. I began to entertain thoughts of cancelling my poor credit card and abandoning it forever to the heinous machine that stole it from me.
The young man at the other pump finished gassing up and asked us what was actually wrong that we might need tools. We told him and he walked over to take a look. He grasped the card with his strong man fingers and pop. Out it came. He handed it to me and walked off while I shouted my thanks. I believe I called him an angel.
I am thankful there are good and kind people out there who will help others who encounter a problem on their weekend road trip. I am also thankful gas stations have more than one pump, because I’d be damned if I was going to try sticking my card in that one a second time.
Story 4: To the Zoo
On Sunday, we took a detour and went to the Metro Toronto Zoo. If you haven’t been and you like zoos, go to this zoo. It’s absolutely fantastic. And I had the bonus of going with a friend who has a degree in zoo keeping. When I told my son about Kelly’s degree, he laughed. Me: What? Him: Zoo keeping. Me: What? Him: It sounds dumb. They should call it something else. Did I mention my son is fifteen?
When you go to the zoo with someone who has worked in zoos, you get the dirt. The behind-the-scenes insight about the time she and a friend were almost disemboweled by an irate ostrich. About how the male fruit bat’s penis extends as far as his chin (lucky little lady fruit bats!). About how she once had to help catch a dangerous big cat (I forget now which species) that had escaped.
Plus: Animals! We were lucky that it was a beautiful spring day that felt like midsummer. The zoo wasn’t busy and we didn’t have to jostle for position to see the elephant’s arse. By the time I got home, my sinuses full of zoo pollen, my eyes had puffed up such that I could barely see. This is not a good look for me.
Overall, the Ontario Writers Conference 2013 was another great success full of inspiration and stories. The organizers, who I now consider friends, did a fantastic job and everything ran smoother than ever. If you’re interested in reading about OWC 2012, check out my blog post from last year.