My name is Winona…

My name is Winona and I’m a writer.

Queue the assembled, in unison: “Hi, Winona!”

If it sounds like an Alcoholics Anonymous intro, there’s a reason. Writing is an addiction. If I don’t write, I get miserable. I get depressed. I start to imagine conspiracies. I feel sorry for myself, and then I get frustrated.

Enough of that. My name is Winona, and I’m a writer, and I’ve been writing since I was about five.

I didn’t have a written language when I was five, though, so I opted for the caveman process, and drew pictures on walls. Mostly of little boy fairies. I’m not sure why my idea of fairies was male, as opposed to the more commonly held childhood belief that they were beautiful females with gossamer wings and floaty frocks… but male they were, and usually naked. Which was interesting, because I’d never actually seen a naked boy, and all I knew was that there was “something” different Down There. I had no idea what it looked like. Possibly a sausage.

So our basement wall (behind the portable blackboard that my mother had set up) was covered with cavorting naked boy fairies, with sausages in front, and wings to the rear. I can’t really remember what adventures they got up to. Perhaps they existed only to frighten my mother, who read a lot of books about child-rearing, and who no doubt thought that her first-born daughter had some sort of repressed phallic-envy disorder.

Sometime before I actually started going to school full-time (as opposed to Kindergarten, in the mornings), I graduated to paper and crayon, and I began to develop a real story sense.  I drew a series of individual panels, each telling the fascinating tale of princesses (or other noble characters) who lived in idle luxury, surrounded by jewels and velvet, the riches of the land, smiling faces, perfect hair… only to be cast out, fortunes ruined, hair matted, clothing ragged, smiles reduced to scowls, the jewels and the velvet snatched away, luxury lost.

My school was probably the worst in the city, a Roman Catholic institution in a low-income neighbourhood filled with immigrants (as we were). The nuns were well-intentioned but suffered from their own inadequacies and fears. Creative thinking was not encouraged. I wanted to colour poppies blue and pink on Remembrance Day, but they were to be Red, and I didn’t get any gold stars for arguing with them about it. I wanted to use my thumb and first finger in the scissors as they taught us to cut things out, but that was Wrong.

We didn’t get much story-telling practice in those straight rows of desks. We did prescribed schoolwork, and we did it in silence. We were told that daydreaming was sinful, that non-Catholics were doomed, and that our lives should be dedicated to having pure minds and even purer souls, lest we miss out on the Day of Judgement when God would selectively cull everyone who had displeased him, and carry on into Eternity surrounded by a kind of mindless clique of Yes Men and Yes Women who were fond of kissing his feet, splashing themselves with Holy Water, and endlessly confessing their sins, perceived and real, then performing a prescribed penance, usually on their knees in front of a benevolent-looking statue.

I suppose I’ve included all of these details in order to explain why I continued to be a writer. I think I was probably born that way, though I can’t find anyone else in my family – on either side – who has written fiction or screenplays. I’ve got a first cousin who was a film director in England until she went back to university to get her Masters Degree, focusing on human rights. I’ve got some other first cousins who have written nonfiction articles, and their mother, my aunt, wrote nonfiction books. I’ve got a great uncle who was a West End actor in London in the 1940s  (his stage name was Felix Knupfer, though his real name was Felix Knopfmacher). Creative people all… but not writers of fiction.

I continued to be a writer, because I had no choice.

And so, in Grade 8, I wrote my first novel. It was about a young man named Lawrence Jenkins-Hennesey who was kidnapped and transported in the hold of a cargo ship to England, where he became involved in subterfuge and adventure. I had taught myself to type by that point, and I would take my chapters to school and hand them out to everyone at recess. I had five or six chapters on the go at once, with kids lining up for the next installment. It was an eye-opening experience, because these same kids had, several years earlier, bullied me to the point where I would make up an illness, rather than have to face going to school to deal with them.

I learned what it was like to have fans. I learned what it was like to feel important. I learned about acknowledgement. And it was lovely.

I wrote five or six more novels before I finally got one published. One was autobiographical, based on my years at that hateful school, including the bullies who were the descendants of the city’s founding fathers, the important families in the church; the nuns who had a somewhat unhealthy obsession with the suffering of Jesus Christ before he was crucified (one of them was very fond of detailing in excrutiating detail what would be involved in a scourging); the principal with the stomach ulcer who administered The Strap to me – not because I hadn’t done my math homework, but because I’d lied about it when asked in the first instance whether it was completed or not; my fantasies about burning down the Cathedral next door to the school; my adventures in the Convent next door to the Cathedral, where I went for piano lessons and where it was rumoured the nuns kept young women captive, their heads shaved, their clothing removed, in attic cells….

My third novel was called My Teacher The Swinger and it was written about my Grade 10 history teacher, who I fell in love with at the age of 14. He wasn’t, alas, impressed.

My fourth novel was called Underground, and it was a masterpiece. My high school (unlike my elementary school) was progressive and non-denominational (I refused to go to the Convent school to complete my education). Our Grade 12 teacher told us to do whatever we wanted for our Lit class final project, so I wrote Underground, about two teenaged boys and a teenaged girl who decide to walk from Morden to Golders Green, along London’s Northern Line tunnel (17 miles), overnight when the electricity was switched off.

Roundabout Tooting Broadway, one of the boys (named Lucifer in the first instance but later re-named Christopher in rewrites) decides to kill the other boy – something about jealousy over the girl – and you know what happens in the end, because the only thing that can happen in a story about the London Underground is that someone is trapped when the electricity is switched back on and invariably gets run over by a train.

I enjoyed writing that. And I got a 100% grade for it.  Acknowledgement.

In the years following high school I got a few more works of fiction out. One concerned a young man with Multiple Personality Disorder – goes to England as the pianist accompanying a high school choir, wakes up a year later with no memory of what’s gone on, discovers he’s been travelling the world as someone else and getting into Rather a Lot of Trouble…

At university, working on my BA in Lit., I worked for a Canadian writer named Ken Mitchell. Ken taught me a number of things, not the least of which was humility, which is an admirable trait, but it’s a bugger if you’re trying to pitch your works in an environment which requires supreme confidence!

Ken also taught me about dialogue, and about active verbs – never use a passive verb when an active one is begging to be used instead – and about structure… characters… storylines… I actually owe Ken a lot.

After university, I had to find a job, and I decided very early on that it would not be a job that involved writing. I believed then – as I still believe now – that if you earn a living writing for other people, you exponentially reduce the creative brain time left for yourself,  with the result that you will either spend your entire working life promising to write That First Novel… or you will become frustrated beyond measure, because you have ideas, and no outlet, because you owe your soul to The Company.

So I worked… and I continued to write… though not at the same rate, because the better part of my day was taken up planning peoples’ holidays. Which is, in fact, a very creative activity.

But that’s another blog 🙂

Five or six years after becoming a travel agent, I went back to university, this time to get my Masters in Creative Writing. It was the most glorious time of my life – I was with fellow writers, I was doing it full-time, I was wallowing in creativity… and I was getting that all important Acknowledgement again.

My thesis was a historical novel, set in 1882 Saskatchewan, the first year in the life of the little town of Pile of Bones, which would eventually become the city where I grew up, Regina. It was an epic – two women meet on a train going west. One is a well-bred Londoner who has married the rogue son of a rich man. Rogue son has been sent to Saskatchewan to cool his heels. Wife is now joining him, with no idea about the fate awaiting her – a sod hut on the bald prairie, husband a cruel philanderer, an unwanted pregnancy, a near-death experience in a blizzard…. the other woman is the wife of a shopkeeper from Winnipeg, joining her husband and sons in Pile of Bones – husband has set up shop in a tent, sons are on the verge of puberty… one runs away with a young girl and ends up in a house of ill-repute…

I re-read parts of this charming story recently and was astounded at just how dreadful my writing was. The storylines were fabulous. The execution of said storylines… not so wonderful.

I was disappointed when this novel didn’t get published – but a couple of years later, my next effort, Skywatcher, did break through for me… and after that, The Cilla Rose Affair. Both are about the same characters – spies. Skywatcher takes place in Vancouver… Cilla Rose takes place back in London…and has a lot to do with the Underground…

A few years ago I went back to school again, in order to learn how to write screenplays. I’ve now written or co-written six or seven… three optioned… two others on the permanent verge of being produced – the saga of trying to interest actors, agents and producers in my scripts is worth at least another three blogs 🙂

But now, I’ve decided to go back to my novelists’ roots… and my next effort will be long fiction, written in tandem with a new screenplay.

“Cold Fingers”.

Two musicians. Four hands. Fifteen fingers.

I’ll leave the rest to you to imagine, until it’s finished.

My name is Winona, and I’m a writer.

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