Thanks to the Writer’s Trust of Canada and the Canada Council for the Arts, this year’s Dawson Daily News Print & Publishing Festival had a bolstered literary emphasis to its program. This included readings by noted writers Leanne Simpson and Heather O’Neill, who offered diverse voices, but equally stimulating and profound subject matter for the Festival-goers.
Local and visiting writers also got an added learning bonus, as both authors led individual writers’ workshop during the weekend. On Saturday, Leanne, who has published extensive fiction and poetry in both book and magazine form, led a workshop focusing on Indigenous writing and artistic practices. She shared her own creative process around storytelling, poetry, and music. (Also a noted musician, as well as a visual artist, Leanne gave a musical performance on the festival’s opening night as well. Kudos to the organizers for arranging such a multi-talented participant.)
During her writers’ workshop Leanne discussed the barriers and opportunities for Indigenous writers and ways of building and connecting to Indigenous audiences. Although the workshop was designed to cater to Indigenous writers, it was attended by, and applied to, a diverse group of writers. Those in attendance appreciated hearing about the traditions and mindset of First Nations storytellers, and felt this understanding had universal value that benefited their own work as well.
Originally intended as a round table discussion about the seismic shifts taking place in traditional publishing practices, Dawson writer-at-large Dan Dowhal‘s Saturday afternoon workshop turned into a how-to for emerging writers. Dan has just completed his latest novel, Bury Your Horses, and has received a Yukon Arts grant to start Sled Doug, the story of a feral boy who thinks he’s a sled dog. Dan talked about the way he structures his regular writing sessions, and fielded questions about some of the roadblocks that are common to those aspiring to put their stories and thoughts to paper but holding off on taking the plunge. His message was that it’s important to establish a writing regimen and overcome fear of failure.
Sunday’s late-morning workshop with noted Montreal writer Heather O’Neill was the most well-attended of the weekend. A novelist, poet, short-story writer, screenwriter and essayist., Heather’s debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals won Canada Reads and was shortlisted for both the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Orange Prize for Fiction. She went on to publish another novel and a short story, both of which were shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. This year she has just released The Lonely Hearts Hotel, her latest novel. During her workshop she outlined some of her own personal writing philosophies, and then led the participants in a writing exercise that involved evoking truly memorable experiences in the students’ own lives. Judging from the discussion evoked by the chosen vignettes, and the quality of some of the pieces, the exercise clearly found its mark.
Writing of a different sort was the topic when singer-songwriter Simone Schmidt held the final workshop of the weekend on Sunday afternoon. Simone, whose latest solo endeavour is called Fiver, is a well-regarded veteran of the indy music scene, with five LPs to her writing credit, and has often been touted as one of Canada’s best songwriters, bringing life to folk, country and rock songs. Her session was an informal talk about Fiver’s Audible Songs From Rockwood project. It’s a series of eleven fictional field recordings, gathered from case files of patients at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Kingston, Ontario between 1854-1881. Over the course of 2 years, Schmidt pored over the asylum’s primary documents, spinning her findings into historical fiction and, from there, into song.