One of my few fond memories from high school is the Yukon Young Authors’ Conference. For two days you could con your way out of classes by submitting a short story and sit in for workshops with Canadian authors who’d come up for the Live Words Yukon Writers’ Festival. Other schools across North America have had similar programs, but thanks to our remote location, rugged beauty, and relative ease in funnelling arts funding from the government, Live Words has attracted more respectable writers than most. Previous years saw Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje make their way to the great white north, and the folks at FH Collins High School were able to convince a few of them to spend some time with teenage writers to help along with their craft—which must have taken a great deal of persuasion and a substantial honorarium, because this really doesn’t sound like a fun time for the writer.
I went every year in high school, and even in those four years, we had Julie Czerneda and Yann Martel presiding over workshops, though both times I was assigned to different groups. Because it worked this way: you and a group of other students were put under one of the authors and given a portfolio with everyone else’s story in your group, and after a day of general exercises you read the stories as homework and talked about them the next day. I actually feel sorry for the authors who had to read my stories, or most of the stories, ‘cause there was some terrible stuff.
I’m not going to tell you about all the good times I had with pleasant authors because, while reminisces are pleasurable and all, I didn’t learn much from the Yukon Young Authors’ Conference except from the last one I attended in 2006. That time, I got a valuable, and substantial, lesson about writing that has stuck with me ever since, and I have Lawrence Hill to thank for it.
Hill is most famous for The Book of Negroes, but that didn’t come out until after I’d met him; he had two novels, a memoir and a book of essays under his belt when he came up North, but my knowledge of Canadian literature was even paltrier then than it is now, so I hadn’t heard of him. I came to the conference with a short story called “White Raven” that I’d written for my creative writing class the previous semester and which I thought was pretty good—let’s face it, as a teenage writer, you think everything you do is pure genius. The thing is, in previous conferences the authors never straight up told you that, because arguing with teens over their precious work is the last thing anyone wants to do. It was, in retrospect, no worse than any story I’d done in previous years for the Conference; it was probably better…but better doesn’t mean good.
So day two rolls around. We go around the table and review each story in turn. Hill is generally pleasant about the others; then my turn comes up.
And he absolutely tears “White Raven” apart.
It was a strange feeling, because while I’d received criticism from teachers and other students before—especially when I took that Grade 12 creative writing class—but never of this intensity. I could always rationalize away another student’s opinion by simply saying “well, her stuff isn’t all that good, what could she tell me,” and even the long-suffering teacher wasn’t a published author. But Lawrence Hill was.
I was upset. I stuck around after the other students had cleared out for lunch and tried to get at what was so wrong with the story that I got this treatment when no one else did. Then the time for closing readings came up and after that, the awards; I was convinced that, based on Hill’s assessment, I wouldn’t win anything, just like I hadn’t won anything in previous years. So I was shocked when the last award came up—the award for best overall student writing, and my name was called. The judges had deemed “White Raven” the best story from the admittedly small pool of Yukon students who’d come to this conference. Of course I felt a certain smugness getting it, like any 17-year-old would: “see, the story was good!”
That feeling didn’t last very long. I reflected on the story on the bus home, re-read it, and realized everything that Lawrence Hill had said about it was right. It was long-winded, purple-prosed, lacking in tension. The truth was, the judges were wrong. “White Raven” wasn’t very good. That’s the moment that stuck with me; not the tearing-down during the Conference, or the elation of winning the award afterwards, but sitting at home at the end of the day and thinking, you know, I’m just not that good. But I can be.
Maybe I’m attaching more weight to what happened there than Hill ever intended (if he intended anything at all), but twisting things to the positive isn’t a bad thing in the often soul-crushing, isolated world of writing fiction. Now, I frame the incident this way:
I think Lawrence Hill was the first person to treat me seriously as a writer. He judged me according to the standards of a writer, not another teen who’d wanted to get out of class for two days. And he had known, from conversations the day before, that I had so much more in me than that story. That I could do better and it was worth telling me that I could.
After the conference was over he told me he’d like to stay in touch but I never did, because I didn’t think he’d meant it. I don’t think I left him with a very good impression; I doubt he even remembers me. But there still is a part of me that wants him to see my work now to show how much impact that moment had on me as a writer (even as a person), and maybe this post will be enough.