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The mystery of the muse: Exploring the origins of inspiration at the Mission Readers’ and Writers’ Festival

Heavy clouds mustered overhead, promising snow. A huddle of students squinting against the wind made for the front door of UFV’s Mission campus, clutching notebooks and pens. From the outside, the school appeared fittingly vacant for a Saturday morning. Inside, students and community members alike gathered in a bright and warm room to participate in the seventh annual Mission Readers’ and Writers’ Festival.

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By Katie Stobbart (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: March 5, 2014

Writer-in-residence Daniela Elza reads beneath a cluster of recycled-plastic snowflakes. (Image:  Ashley Mussbacher)

Writer-in-residence Daniela Elza reads beneath a cluster of recycled-plastic snowflakes. (Image: Ashley Mussbacher)

Heavy clouds mustered overhead, promising snow. A huddle of students squinting against the wind made for the front door of UFV’s Mission campus, clutching notebooks and pens. From the outside, the school appeared fittingly vacant for a Saturday morning. Inside, students and community members alike gathered in a bright and warm room to participate in the seventh annual Mission Readers’ and Writers’ Festival.

The festival began at 10 a.m. and ended early at about 3:15 p.m. There were three workshops to choose from in the morning (on creative process, memoir, and song-writing) and three in the afternoon (generating writing through prompts, slam poetry, and chapbook-making). Daniela Elza, UFV’s writer in residence, was featured as keynote speaker, and shared some of her poems as well as her thoughts on inspiration and writing.

“What is the muse?” she pondered aloud, noting that inspiration does not always come easily. “It is a lot of work to write.”

The intimate audience of about 60 listened attentively as Elza, almost ethereal swathed in a lilac scarf, drew them in with the cadence of her words. Even her speaking voice sounded like poetry.

“Writing,” Elza said, “can be like looking for a needle in a haystack without knowing what a needle looks like.”

Above her head, snowflakes made of recycled six-pack yokes swayed gently, foreshadowing the flurries ready to tumble from the sky. Considering the festival’s unofficial theme seemed to be “inspiration,” it seemed fitting that a white storm swelled outside, ready to burst.

While Margaret Evans gave her workshop on memoir and local musician Cathy Hardy spoke of finding voice through poetry and song, I attended UFV English professor John Carroll’s workshop, “The Big Bang Theory of Creative Writing.”

In the workshop, Carroll shared his own struggles with “the muse” from his early experiences as a writer to the present day. Then he facilitated conversation among workshop attendees on the subjects of inspiration, writing process, and balancing writing projects in a busy lifestyle.

“I don’t know if I have within myself the key to unlock these secrets,” Carroll said. “What I think of this to be is an opportunity for us to talk and to inspire each other.”

UFV president Mark Evered and writer in residence Daniela Elza both attended the festival. (Image:  Ashley Mussbacher)

UFV president Mark Evered and writer in residence Daniela Elza both attended the festival. (Image: Ashley Mussbacher)

Some of the advice that emerged in the workshop was to play with language, to find the joyful element of writing, and to write every day — even if the writing isn’t always brilliant.

“I can think of myself as a writer, but I’m not a writer if I’m not writing,” Carroll said, explaining that he resolved at one point to write one poem per day for one year. He had kids at the time, he was busy, and sometimes he would fall asleep with the pen sliding out of his hand, but he wrote every day. One year turned into eight. He held up some of his notebooks for us to see, paged through them to show sheets filled with poems and prose tightly packed into the space. Much of it is raw and unpolished, Carroll said, but it gave him material to work with.

Lunch was provided as part of the entry fee ($40, or $20 for students), and after everyone had lined up for subway sandwiches, fresh fruit, and beverages, the midday presentations began.

Hardy shared her own brand of Canadian folk music, first gently strumming a ukulele, then allowing her voice to ebb and flow a capella.

The slam poetry workshop saw the return of Zaccheus Jackson, a spoken-word poet from Vancouver, from last year’s festival. Though I enjoyed his workshop last year and would recommend it again, I decided to attend Elza’s workshop, “Wading into the Swamp: Getting Messy with Writing.”

Elza began by exploring attendees’ reasons for writing. One woman described her motivation as “to find out who I am and to leave something of myself behind.”

“I write so the thoughts and images in my head don’t drive me crazy. It’s a small head, there’s not enough room,” another attendee laughed.

Helene Littman, who is a member of the festival committee, said she initially began writing to gain a voice, but now she feels compelled to disrupt things.

“It has to feel a little bit risky,” she said.

Elza then dove into the swamp metaphor, eliciting feedback on a place that is messy, vivid, and full of secret life beneath the surface — just like writing. The workshop also centred on two exercises. The first was to write your life story in three sentences. The second was a free-write, after which everyone divided into pairs to share the results of the prompt “getting lost.” The listening partner was to write down what most stood out in the other person’s stream of consciousness. It was often a powerful image or human element that captured the listener’s interest. UFV student Kodie Kaban shared his free-write with everyone; he had played with the links between “lost” and “loss.”

When the afternoon sessions wrapped up, everyone gathered again for the drawing of door prizes, which included everything from coffee to framed artwork to a free haircut.

Just as the festival came to a close, someone pointed out the windows on the far side of the room. The first fresh specks of snow were drifting down. It could have brought everyone back to the pressures of their busy lives, and the anxiety of having to start the week yet again plagued with poor driving conditions and all the frustrations that accompany snowfall.

Instead, the weather seemed to parallel the fresh, unique flakes of inspiration drifting into the minds of all those who had come to get in touch with the wonder of their own creativity.

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