My Week at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Part 1

As I've mentioned a few times before on this blog, last spring I won my first writing award. The prize was a full scholarship to the September Writing with Style workshop at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Those of you who know how to work a calendar may have noticed that we're already halfway through September, and, sadly, my time at the Banff Centre is already at an end.

Since I wasn't allowed to stuff all you into my suitcase and drag you onto the Greyhound to Banff with me, I will be detailing my literary-tastic week here, in painstaking detail. Starting with:


Those of you who find me fascinating enough to check up on each and every week will know that I spent most of the first Saturday sitting on a Greyhound bus. If you were to hop in a car and drive directly from my street to the front doors of the Banff Centre, it'd be almost exactly a four-hour journey, but thanks to Greyhound's unceasing dedication to late departures and random detours down rural cowpaths, the journey by bus takes a total of eight hours. Using the Edmonton Greyhound station means you even get to take a field trip into the most economically and socially bankrupt cesspit of Edmonton, where you can spend the hour before your departure trying to figure out which patrons of the station A&W are travelers, and which ones are prostitutes taking Uncle Burger breaks. (HINT: none of those people are travelers. Hope you wiped that seat off with bleach.)

Chariot of champions.

So after spending the better part of my day clutching my messenger bag to my chest and praying that whoever sat next to me would have minimal facial sores, the bus finally turned up into the mountains and dropped me off in Banff, before continuing on its way to Vancouver. This was it. I was on my own, with three pieces of luggage, half a novel manuscript, and absolutely no idea where to go.

So, do I walk up the mountain, or...?

Eventually, I figured out that taxis are, in fact, a thing in Banff, and managed to get to the centre and check into my room. Since artists are almost universally condemned to sad lives of semi-poverty in relative obscurity, I was fully prepared to be shown to an unused janitor's closet; no artist experience really seems complete unless you're curled up on a pile of damp, abandoned mops and sobbing yourself to sleep with thoughts of your wasted life. Instead, I made my way up to a room that made my university dorm room look like the bathroom of a Soviet bomb shelter.

My accommodations for the week. Not too shabby.

At home, my typical writing experience consists of sitting at the kitchen table, attempting to get a few sentences in while my brother blasts music that makes me suspect he hasn't quite come to terms with being Caucasian. Any time I do start to make progress, rest assured that our Newfoundland dog puts a stop to it, either by unplugging my laptop or attempting to eat the smaller dog in front of me. In Banff, I got a quiet room to myself, a desk that was cleaner than any desk I'll ever own, and a balcony to step out onto whenever I needed a break. Oh, did I mention the balcony?

Motherfucking balcony.

Most writers I know are hesitant to refer to themselves as 'artists', since that word tends to conjure up images of a crazy-haired person in a smock, eating paint with one hand and filling in grant applications with the other, but the centre was adamant that we think of ourselves as artists. To that end, we were issued plastic 'artist cards' that got us access to campus services and also doubled as swipe-cards for our food. In a surprisingly un-artist-like twist, the cards could not be used to pay for alcohol.

Definitive proof that I'm a real artist now.

The only event on the first night was a wine-and-chips-for-some-reason reception that doubled as an orientation, letting us all know how the week would play out. There were thirty-two writers at the retreat: eight in short fiction, eight in non-fiction, eight in poetry, and an especially fabulous eight in my group, First Chapter Novel. Our group was to be taught by the Man Booker Prize-nominated Canadian author Alison Pick, whose books you should acquire and read immediately. 

I mean it.

Every day of the workshop was to be more or less the same: every day, we would meet Alison in our classroom and spend a little over an hour getting instruction and discussing the art of writing an especially grabbing first chapter. Then there'd be a workshop. Each person had a set workshop day, on which they would sit quietly in terror while we went around the room, picking and tearing their beloved first chapter to pieces.

Then we'd go for lunch, and drink until the end of the day.

To celebrate our first night - and to get a head start on the aforementioned drinking - half of the First Chapter Novel group went out to the campus Bistro the first night, to admire the mountain view and get to know each other. For the record, this was the view:

It's no bleak Edmonton downtown, but I suppose it'll do.

We stayed out until 2 in the morning, watching the sun set behind the mountains. I was less than twelve hours into this thing, and I'd already met cool people and seen incredible scenery. I hadn't been driven from the centre by a horde of angry septuagenarians, furious at the insolent youth in their midst. Life was good.

Then, later that night, I woke up to what I thought was the blaring of an alarm clock. My phone wakes me up every morning with the sweet, sweet sounds of Canadian pop punk bands, so my half-conscious brain didn't quite understand how this was possible. I decided that the best way to remedy the situation was to start slapping at my iPhone as it lay on the nightstand, hopeful that I'd accidentally brush the 'snooze' button.

Technically, I wake up to this man every morning.

A full two minutes later, I realized I was hearing the sound of the fire alarm. After doing a quick, groggy risk analysis about my realistic odds of burning to death if I stayed in bed, I begrudgingly threw on a hoodie and tromped out into the hall... barefoot. While everyone else was fleeing toward the stairs, I had to do the walk of shame back to my house to get my shoes.

The week was off to a great start.


I awoke with a start on September 7th to find that I'd somehow missed my alarm clock and slept straight through to next February.

Holy shit.

The campus had gone from a pleasant, unseasonably warm mountain resort to the North Side of the Wall overnight. I trudged out of my room, refueled with a breakfast of french toast to which all of my future breakfasts will be unfavorably compared, and headed off to my first workshop.

The main building for the writing program, complete with futuristic antler chairs.

We started our first morning with a basic question: What makes a good first novel chapter? We came up with a list of five things. It's not a shocking list, and there's no big secrets involved, but it's a pretty solid group of things to keep in mind when you're crafting that essential first chapter:

1. Attention. You have lots of time for backstory, explanations, musings about the nature of life and a detailed overview of the workings of the cheese industry... later in the book. Seriously, you have at least 80,000 words to say all the things you want to say. Start your first chapter with something interesting and exciting, and get back to all that other important stuff later.

2. Characters. It's not really a shock that you need to have characters in your opening chapter. No one wants to read a book that starts with a 4,000-word description of a sandwich sitting on a table. You need at least one character. Generally, it's best to keep the number of characters in your first chapter to a minimum, just so we aren't overwhelmed with names and personalities to remember right off the bat. And I think it goes without saying that your characters should, on some level, be believable, if not easy to empathize with. 

3. Dialogue. You can spend your whole entire book trying to tell us what your characters are like, or you can show us with just a few lines of dialogue. Dialogue tends to be faster paced than exposition, and it can help you to quickly establish the relationship between your characters.

4. Language. No1 wants 2 reed a chptr dat's ritten lyke dis. Good grammar and correct spellings are a must - with a few stylistic exceptions - or I will personally hunt you down and throw old typewriters at you. Developing a voice that's enjoyable to read, or making good use of symbolic language is also recommended if you want a successful first chapter.

5. Show, don't tell. We've all heard this. Most of us have heard this more than once.

Taking one of these to the face would hurt. Watch those commas.

It was during this workshop that the decision was made to start a Twitter hashtag for the group, and #banffstyle was born. For those of you with Twitter accounts, or at least the basic ability to access Twitter without setting your computer on fire, I highly recommend you check it out. In it, you'll find gems like:

For entertainment that night, we headed out into Banff to find an authentically skeezy local dive bar, away from the 'tourist' parts of the town. We ended up stumbling into a piece of history:

Practically ancient.

Absolutely nothing in that bar had been washed in my lifetime, and every other patron was rocking ratty man-dreads, which obviously meant that this was one of the best bars we'd go to all week. We even managed to find a solid collection of Blink-182 and assorted 90's has-beens on the electric jukebox, which is the only metric of drinking establishment success that really matters.

All in all, the week was off to a good start.


You may not realize this, but September 8th is, by far, the most important day of any given year. Why is that, you might ask?

I'm a big kid now!

Yes, September 8th was my 22nd birthday. My mom wanted to make sure that my slow progression towards old age didn't go uncelebrated, so before I left for Banff, she tucked a clear plastic bucket of presents and confetti in my suitcase - I arranged some of the latter to take the picture above. The box mostly contained yarn for my crochet projects, because I have the hobbies of an elderly nursing home resident.

This is me.

That night at the centre was the first of the week's four readings. At each reading, eight writers were called up to read a piece of their work. It didn't have to be the piece that we were workshopping; it just had to be something you wrote, and you had to be able to read it in under seven minutes lest you face a painful death by angry program director. 

I didn't want to be the creepy person at the back of the room taking photos of complete strangers, but I did manage to get a few pictures of my First Chapter Novel friends. First up on Monday was Jen:

The ever-fabulous Jennifer Villamere, now represented by Devon LaBerge of The Rights Factory.

In an instance of crazy random happenstance, Alison Pick and I turned out to share a birthday, which is just one more reason that September 8th should be declared a national holiday. To celebrate Alison and I shuffling up to the next rung on this mortal coil, the group headed out that evening to a bar called the Saltlik. In case you hadn't guessed, the bar maintains a carefully cultivated agricultural theme, which applies to all aspects of the establishment.

Ha, that's pretty funny. I wonder what the men's room says.

Clever. You win this round, Saltlik.

Exactly 100% of the population over the age of 16 does not enjoy hearing pointless bar stories, so I will spare you the details of 20+ writers getting drunk and taking career-damaging photos in a mountainside bar. I will, however, include a photo of five of the coolest people at the workshop, so you can gaze upon it and realize how much fun we were having and exactly how sad you are that you weren't there:

Left to right, and sort of clockwise: Me, Jen Villamere, Alison Pick, Tena Laing, and Stephanie McGrath. Look for us at the Gillers in a few years. We'll probably be serving the drinks.

The other thing worth mentioning about Saltlik is that it gets its name from an uncomfortably literal old livestock salt lick that they keep under the bar. If you ask nicely, and if you buy enough tequila, they'll let you take shots out of a hollowed-out salt hole that thousands of strangers have been putting 
their mouths on since Mulroney was Prime Minister. 

So, obviously, if you're ever in Banff, you have to do it.

Get drunk and hypertension at the same time!

It was nearly two in the morning before I realized that I was expected to be alert, functioning and fully emotionally competent the next morning, since it was my turn to face the round-table workshop.

Worth it.


Tuesday began with a character exercise.

If you're still reading this post and you have a novel-in-progress stashed somewhere on your hard drive/in the desk drawer, take out a piece of paper and the writing implement of your choosing, and do the exercise. Now. Right now. I mean it.

I'm watching you.

Pick a character from your work-in-progress. Preferably a secondary character - you probably know your main character better than you know your own siblings. Now, write down five character traits for that character - things like "naive" or "brave" or "dangerously sexually attracted to alligators". Got your five traits down?

Now write a scene with your character that conveys all five traits... without actually naming any of them. 

Ideally, someone completely unfamiliar with the work should be able to read the scene and come up with a list of five character traits that closely mirrors your own. Seriously, try it. It's good practice.

Have fun!

After the exercise came the moment of truth. My workshop. 

I have never, ever walked into a writing workshop with an iota of confidence, and that was especially true of this workshop. For one thing, I was the only person there who hadn't published a book, earned a post-graduate degree, worked at a national magazine, or single-handedly saved the underprivileged women of a third-world country. And for another thing, almost every other writer at the workshop specialized in florid, beautifully-written and meaningful literary fiction; I'd shown up with a YA novel about a shitty 19-year-old kid who finds a dead body in his bathroom. I figured the only 'feedback' I'd get would be them tossing me and my childish manuscript off the side of the mountain so they could get back to grown-up literature. 

Since the rest of the week did not consist of walking back up the mountain to collect my things, that's not quite how things panned out.

Not actually how I exited the Banff Centre.

Most of the feedback was actually pretty positive - I won't type it all out for you here, because there's nothing duller than reading critiques of someone else's half-finished work, but on the whole, my fellow workshoppers liked the premise, appreciated the fast pace, and didn't think I'd done a disservice to Y-chromosomes everywhere by writing from a male character's perspective. They gave great suggestions on how to improve, and pointed out ways to close a rather gaping plot hole. I'd walked into the workshop not knowing whether or not I would continue writing that particular book, and walked out completely committed to finishing the manuscript. So that's a good sign.

After the workshop, part of the afternoon was devoted to a full tour of the campus. Since it was cold and snowing, most of the group chose to stay indoors, lest they suffer frostbite to their delicate fingers and find themselves unable to write, but a few of us braved the cold:

Might I remind you that this is early September.

Me, standing in front of the boat where Yann Martel wrote 'Life of Pi'.

One of the private studios where real, established writers write groundbreaking literature and probably check Twitter all day.

 Standing on the biggest stage at the Banff Centre.

 I find acting works better when you keep your back to the audience.

The costume design lab.

Since the Banff Centre is essentially Summer Camp for badly-behaved adults, we had more activities planned that evening: namely, the second reading. This time, it was Stephanie, Tena and Alison's turns to pretend not to notice as I snapped pictures of them.

Stephenie McGrath, future YA superstar.

 Tena Laing, award-winning novelist. Never forget the 'award-winning' part.

Alison Pick, reading from her newly-released memoir, "Between Gods".

I don't remember what happened that evening, which means we either chugged several pitchers of cheap beer, or I went upstairs and collapsed into bed. I seriously suspect it's the latter, though in the interests of pretending to be an exiting human being, I will claim the former. It was magnificent, and there were hookers and blow for everyone. 

The end. 

Until next week, that is, when I'll dredge up memories of the second half of the workshop. Stay tuned. 

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