“Along with Juby and Nielsen, Julie Burtinshaw (Saying Goodbye to London, about teen pregnancy) seems to really understand kids and teens and what makes them tick—their humour, their thinking, and their language. I’ve learned a lot about writing for kids/teens from reading these three authors.”
On January 28, 2020, the British Columbia government announced the first presumptive positive case of COVID-19, when a traveller returning from Wuhan, China tested positive for a virus the world knew little about though rumours swirled of an epidemic flu type illness alarming in its ability to not just spread quickly but to kill.
Two months later, the Health authority in British Columbia, where I live, announced the first community, non-travel case of COVID-19. Three days later, the first of too many deaths occurred in a care home in North Vancouver. BC declared a state of emergency that is ongoing as I write this.
Six months into the virus, September 2020, I embarked on a ten-month writing program at Simon Fraser University. By then, I’d become accustomed to C-19 protocols, not surprised, but disappointed to find out the course would be online. I’d miss the opportunity of face-to-face learning, though I looked forward to filling the long Covid hours pursuing my writing.
On the first day of ‘class’, I felt both excited and nervous. Excited to meet the group of people I’d be sharing the next ten months with and nervous, afraid my unfamiliarity with the tools of COVID-19 might prove daunting. Slack, Zoom, BB Collaborate, online forums, online discussions, an alternative way of learning for me. What if I couldn’t figure out the audio on my computer? What if I actually looked as awful on their video feeds as I did on mine? Instructions about how to look good on zoom contradicted each other. Background is important, put a beautiful painting behind you, advised one website. Background is a distraction, sit in front of a plain wall, advised another. Correct screen height is essential to your appearance, as is lighting. Different experts recommended different techniques. Look up to the camera, look down to the camera, look straight at the camera. Use natural light, or back light, or sidelight, or dimmed light or bright light. Mute when someone else is talking, mute when you chew, mute when you cough, and mute at any hint of bodily function sounds. Triple check that your video is off. Horror stories of people unknowingly leaving their camera on while undressing during zoom calls went viral.
Already challenged by the intensity of the program, I tried not to think about all the things that might go wrong, but I needn’t have worried. Our first meeting, led by our talented scribe, Claudia Cornwall, and assisted by our wise and kind TA, Maryanna Gabriel, set a tone of encouragement and support that would last the duration of the course.
The speed at which our cohort absorbed our new reality astounded me. Humans are adaptable, whether it be normalizing runs on toilet paper or debating the merit of cloth versus disposable masks. In this viral world, new phrases and words entered our vocabulary: Social distancing, airborne spread, Covid bubbles, variants, VOCs, isolation, quarantine, N95s, Long Haulers, mRNA, lockdowns, herd immunity, vaccine passports, virtual happy hours.
In that first year of Covid, many people, cut off from family and friends, became lonely and depressed. Some faced job loss, illness, and hospitalization, as the virus claimed lives indiscriminately, targeting the most vulnerable in society.
None of those things happened to me. Instead, in the first year of COVID-19, something magical occurred. The magic of building new relationships.
With age, making friends becomes more difficult. As the bonds formed in childhood, high-school and university strengthen, forming fresh relationships becomes challenging and living in lockdown, withdrawing into our private bubbles, means the opportunities to meet and foster new friendships are scarce.
There are nine of us in Memoir Writing, bringing our total to eleven. All are women, some younger, some older, from a variety of backgrounds and countries. We meet virtually, two or three or times a week, on Zoom or BB Collaborate to workshop our stories, to provide feedback and encouragement to each other as we mine our memories to bring our past to the page.
Mental time-travel is hard. Some stories bring joy, some tears. Every time I hear someone read, I’m awed by their talent, their survival skills, their sense of humour, their courage in telling their story. Initially, we knew nothing about each other. We still know less than if we’d met in a classroom or a bar or a café. These have been slow-growing relationships, where every week, every reading, every word adds a piece to the puzzle of the whole person.
Through our stories, we’ve come to know each other, to trust each other, sharing intimate chapters of our lives, usually for the first time.
Our Tuesday morning chats, our Saturday mentor readings, and our Tuesday evening workshops have become the highlight of my week.
Writing is often described as a lonely occupation, but because of my cohort, I’ve never felt alone.
As I sit and write, these women sit with me, poised on the edge of my imagination, their fingers flying over the keys, tapping out their hearts in beautifully crafted sentences. I am thinking about them now, as the course nears its end.
There is Engeli, who brings me sunshine and warmth, both in her lyrical words and her tropical travels. There is Jenny, coyote whisperer who has taught me to understand and appreciate the dedication and passion of a field scientist. There is Ellen, whose brilliance shines a dazzling light, softened by the golden glow of her commitment to saving lives. There is multi-talented Leesa, whose extraordinary ability to capture my imagination takes me on the wings of fantasy into her world. There is Kate, the Truth-teller, who stories tug at my heart long after I’ve heard them. There is Kae, whose tales of discord and harmony accompany me on a musical journey into a world of sound. There is Karen whose courage to write and fight for the environment reminds me I can make a difference to the planet. There is Nuia whose courageous story of upheaval and beauty reminds me the importance of kindness and love.
Lately, aware that our time together is waning, we talk of the future. Words like ‘seeing’ each other creep into our vocabulary. The possibility of ideas we once took for granted resurface. “Maybe post Covid, we could all get together.”
We reminisce of the past, when humans sat together, touched, shared meals, and inhaled the same air. We imagine talking to each other, not on a screen, but in person.
That intimacy, once familiar, now seems distant. On Zoom, spontaneity is lost, while our ability to listen mindfully improves. Online we dress from the waist up, run a quick brush through our hair, and if we remember, a bit of mascara, but in real-life we’ll toss our slippers and pajama bottoms, dress again as whole people.
There will be no more props. When I picture the writers in my cohort, each one has a personalized backdrop. Leesa triumphs for pure aesthetic value. Ellen for her well-stocked library, Kate for her house-in-progress, Jenny’s blue walls, and affectionate dog, and Kae’s softly painted office, Karen on a boat or in an Airbnb, Engeli’s sun drenched abode, and Nuia wrapped in a warm housecoat, puppy at her side, Maryanna haloed by yellow light, Claudia, with large, black ears. The background’s we chose is a part of how we now visualize ourselves and each other. Imagine Mona Lisa backdropped by a kitchen, instead of a landscape or The Lady of Shallot backdropped by a high mountain, instead of a green and blue Lake, or the girl in Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere without the bar?
I long for the time when I can meet my writing cohort, my new friends in person, and I hope they will forgive me, if I forget to say “Hello,” and instead shout, You’re muted. I can’t hear you. Your screen is off.
If so, it will only happen once. After all, we are human and we adapt quickly.
“Our one-year, part-time creative writing program emphasizes learning in community.
Striking a balance between a formal, full-time MFA (Master of Fine Arts) creative writing program and individual writing courses, we offer training in the theory, craft and business of writing.”
My cohort includes writers from all over the planet, and I’m excited to work with people as passionate about turning sentences into stories as I am.
Covid 19, seems the perfect time to bury myself in words. The long winter ahead suddenly seems much more appealing. I’m not ready to talk about what I will be working on, but it’s new, and it’s challenging, and I’ve got a lot to learn.
I hesitated in applying, not wanting to be the oldest ‘kid’ in the class, but as a close friend recently pointed out to me as we played on the beach, “you are like a little kid.” This is a compliment for a writer. We need to access that childlike imagination. I’m good at that, so I think I’ll fit in with the other students, no matter their age, young or old.
Just to prove my point, when we were little kids at the beach, we’d dig in the sand for hours, because our parents said, “If you did deep enough you can get all the way to China.” I think this was a distraction method to keep us busy, but I believed them. China seemed an exotic land, and it lay just beneath my feet. We never made it to that enchanted place, but despite this, I learned an important lesson: It’s easier to dig yourself into a hole than out of one. This video, taken on the sly, proves my point! It never hurts to laugh at yourself, does it?
St. Peter’s Abbey is oldest Benedictine monastery in Canada. It was founded in 1903. In the early pictures, there is a distinct lack of trees, but over the years the Brothers have created a green oasis in the middle of the sweeping prairie. I have not done much outdoor exploring though. I enjoy the greenery mostly from my window and that’s because this whole area is tick-infested and I don’t want one of those creepy parasites digging into my flesh. When I do walk, I stick to the gravel roads, which are apparently safe from creepy crawlies. There are always surprises on residencies, but this was one I could have missed.
A great surprise was discovering that my Old friend Art Slade was here for three days giving a workshop on writing YA fiction. All of us enjoyed talking to and teasing Art. I love reconnecting with writers, especially those who write in the same genre!
Last night, Father D gave us a tour of the Abbey, including the college, and the cellars. I’ve posted a picture of him below. The Abbey is always on the lookout for fresh Monks. Male, over eighteen, Catholic, Find out information here. I can actually see a lot of advantages to being a monk, of which I won’t list at the moment. Of course, I don’t qualify on so many levels, but others will.
All of this peace has given me some much needed time to reflect on loss and love and out of that I’ve remember that the pain never outshines the love. Not in the end. Love is too strong. We won’t ever replace our Kitty Moffat, but one day we will all be strong enough to bring another four legged friend into our lives.
Just not yet. But a friend said to me, “Pets are temporary. They are given to us for a short period of time. During this time, they need a home and love, just like anyone else. That’s what we give to them and we get so much more back.” So, if you are suffering the loss of your four-legged friend, close the door for as long as you need, but keep it unlocked!
Yikes, metaphors… that’s what happens at a writing residency.
I’ve been working hard on new ideas, researching those ideas and getting about a thousand words a day down on the page. Not all good words, mind you, but I’m forcing myself to do what I always tell new writers to do. I’m showing up at the page EVERY morning. Something great will come out of all of this work, I know.
One of the poets asked me what it felt like for a West Coaster to be way out here in the prairie. I replied, “I feel safe and protected like I’m in the middle of a soft, King-sized bed and no matter how much I roll around, I can’t fall off the edge.”
Saskatchewan is like that. Our nearest village is Muenster, a five minute walk up the road. The abbey is surrounded by huge farms; fields of purple and yellow and green and gold. The nearest town, where there is liquor store (which we all care about), is Humboldt. Humboldt is a city recovering from terrible tragedy, filled with warm and friendly people.
The Brothers and Fathers here at St. Peters’s were and continue to play a large part in their acceptance of the bus crash that took so many young lives from this area.
Next time, I hope I get to tell you about the wind.
This is a very brief posting, but more to follow over the next week.
Quite a few years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Muenster, Saskatchewan at a writing colony at St. Peter’s Abbey. At that time, I made incredible progress on the book I was working on and I met a handful of Canadian writers, some of whom I am still in touch with.
Now, late into the hot, languid days of July, I’ve returned. It’s been an impossibly difficult week, since we had to euthanize our Kitty Moffat last Sunday (July 20, 2910) and the anticipation I’d been feeling for my week at St. Pete’s all but disappeared when Kitty’s eyes closed for the last time. But now that I’m here, in my monastic white room with its narrow single bed and windows looking out at grove of maple trees dancing in the warm Saskatchewan wind, I think that being here and surrounded by quiet and nature is exactly what I need.
I sent my last book out to a publisher a few months ago and I am patiently awaiting word. I’d hoped to have heard by now, so that I could work on editing, but alas, nothing. I can only hope that in the next few days, I’ll find something to write about.
Otherwise, I’ll have lots of time to reflect under the wide prairie sky. For that, I am thankful.
Hi movie lovers out there. There are still some tickets left for Demand Film tonight and I think it’s going to be a fascinating show, especially if you love the mountains. Start time is 7pm tonight at International Village, downtown Vancouver. Follow this link for more information. Demand Films This Mountain Life.
Oops, just checked again and Sold Out. There are some other great movies coming though, so still check out the website.
Residencies at Historic Joy Kogawa House
The Historic Joy Kogawa House is seeking applications for residencies in 2020. The House aims to offer a voice and space for representatives from groups that may experience barriers or feel marginalized within mainstream society; writers whose work resonates with these aims are strongly encouraged to apply. Deadline: February 28. Learn more.
This is such an amazing opportunity for a Canadian writer. The Joy Kogawa House does so much for the literary scene in Vancouver and residents will benefit from the peaceful space to create as well as the opportunity to get to know local writers. I have held book launches here, as have many of my writing colleagues and friends and I’ve attended many readings so can attest to it being a very special part of Vancouver.
A great review makes for a great day! My publisher, Second Story Press, forwarded me this strong review from Resource Links, (Connecting Classrooms, libraries and Canadian Learning Resources).
Saying Good-bye to London
Second Story Press, 2017. 262p. Gr. 8- 10. 978-1-77260-029-2. Pbk. $12.95
Saying Good-bye to London is a hard-hitting yet sensitively written novel about teen pregnancy, told primarily from the perspective of fifteen-year-old Francis, a quiet boy whose first romance leads to a baby, an adoption, and a rapid transition to the responsibilities of adult life.
The novel spans a little more than a year. Francis meets Sawyer, their relationship blooms, and within a few months they’ve bro- ken up over the news of Sawyer’s pregnancy. When Francis first learns that Sawyer is pregnant, he reacts very, very badly. It is only through the persistent direction of his friends that he starts to change his attitude. As such, readers are invited to grow with Francis – and with Sawyer. Although most of the time read- ers experience the story through Francis’s eyes, now and then the author lets readers slip into Sawyer’s point of view, as well as that of various other characters, lending a much broader view to the unfolding events. The plot never drags; the narration is direct and matter of fact, and it communicates without becoming preachy, a tone books about teen pregnancy sometimes adopt.
At its core, however, Saying Good-bye to London is a novel about fathers. Sawyer’s best friend, Jack, is homeless because his abusive father has thrown him out for being gay. At the same time, Francis’s best friend, Kevin, is living through the death of his father, who has been an important figure in Francis’s life. Francis and Sawyer both have complex relationships with their own fathers. Though boys may be reluctant to read a book apparently about pregnancy, this one offers some deep thinking about what it means to be a good man, what it means to be a father (rather than just a “sperm donor,” as Sawyer crisply comments), what it means to be a good partner.
This novel is likely to evoke strong responses. It would make an excellent selection for a teen reading group or as an independent novel study in grade nine or ten. Readers are sure to have opinions about Sawyer’s choice to have the baby, the process of private adoption, the couple selected to adopt baby London, and Francis’s treatment of Sawyer. Layers of complexity in the text will encourage conversation and reflection, and there are numerous themes readers can evaluate against their own morals and ethics. Saying Good-bye to London is a rewarding book on many levels.
Thematic Links: Pregnancy; Adoption; Families; Fathers; Vancouver
Buy it on Amazon or order from you local bookstore!
I am really pleased with this review from Booklist for my latest book Saying Goodbye to London (Second Story Press)
Shy Francis is so stunned when Sawyer asks him to dance that he can’t not accept. “I think we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other,” she predicts near the end of the evening, and, sure enough, their lives take a sudden shift. But the throes of new romance evolve when Sawyer gets pregnant. The shock of the pregnancy—and the fear, anger, and trauma it introduces into the lives of the two teens—is the gut-wrenching center of the story. How do Francis and Sawyer tell their parents, and what are their options? After an anguished phase, life begins to come together. With the help of their parents and a remarkable pair of friends who are dealing with individual struggles as well, the two put together a plan that feels right and begin to select adoptive parents for London, the baby daughter on the way. Burtinshaw’s close look at teen pregnancy and other life crises mostly avoids a moralistic slant, effectively focusing instead on pulling through tough times. — Anne O’Malley
I’m thrilled to share the first review on the Advance Copy of my new book Saying Goodbye to London. (Second Story Press) My fellow writers will know the work involved in seeing a new book coming to life! I’m beaming all over 🙂
Check it out here: CM: Canadian Review of Materials and can be found in the most recent issue, Volume XXIII, No. 17 which is located at
The Keepers on My Bookshelf, had some kind words to say about my last book, one of the 2018 BC Book Prizes Best Book for Teens saying good-bye to London. A good review is always appreciated. Thank you! “Along with … Continue reading →
It should have been a difficult year. On January 28, 2020, the British Columbia government announced the first presumptive positive case of COVID-19, when a traveller returning from Wuhan, China tested positive for a virus the world knew … Continue reading →
Learn as if you were to live forever. Mahatma Gandhi This fall, in just a few days, I’m going back to uni! I’ll be attending the SFU (Simon Fraser University) Writer’s Studio Program, working under the mentorship of talented Claudia … Continue reading →
St. Peter’s Abbey is oldest Benedictine monastery in Canada. It was founded in 1903. In the early pictures, there is a distinct lack of trees, but over the years the Brothers have created a green oasis in the middle of … Continue reading →
This is a very brief posting, but more to follow over the next week. Quite a few years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Muenster, Saskatchewan at a writing colony at St. Peter’s Abbey. At that time, I … Continue reading →
Hi movie lovers out there. There are still some tickets left for Demand Film tonight and I think it’s going to be a fascinating show, especially if you love the mountains. Start time is 7pm tonight at International Village, downtown … Continue reading →
Residencies at Historic Joy Kogawa House The Historic Joy Kogawa House is seeking applications for residencies in 2020. The House aims to offer a voice and space for representatives from groups that may experience barriers or feel marginalized within mainstream … Continue reading →
A great review makes for a great day! My publisher, Second Story Press, forwarded me this strong review from Resource Links, (Connecting Classrooms, libraries and Canadian Learning Resources). BURTINSHAW, Julie Saying Good-bye to London Second Story Press, 2017. 262p. Gr. … Continue reading →
I am really pleased with this review from Booklist for my latest book Saying Goodbye to London (Second Story Press) Shy Francis is so stunned when Sawyer asks him to dance that he can’t not accept. “I think we’re going … Continue reading →
I’m thrilled to share the first review on the Advance Copy of my new book Saying Goodbye to London. (Second Story Press) My fellow writers will know the work involved in seeing a new book coming to life! I’m beaming all over … Continue reading →