& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Allyson Latta

This month I’ll be attending four sessions of memoir writing conducted by Allyson Latta at the North York Central Library’s auditorium. Latta is a professional editor, writer and memoir writing coach. Among her achievements that impressed me the most is that she has edited Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes.

Her blog Days Road Writers’ Workshops has a lot of information on the craft of memoir writing.

I attended the first session last week, and was surprised to see so many people in the auditorium. As is the case with most such events in Toronto, it is free.

There were about 25 participants and all of them have a story to tell. I was feeling a bit unsure whether I would find the workshop useful and whether I would be of the right age.

There’s this general feeling one has that memoir writing is an indulgence for the white Canadians who have reached a certain age and have nothing better to do than look back at their lives.

How wrong I was. The participants comprised a healthy mix of all ages and races.

Latta has an engaging style. She conducted the first workshop without any apparent effort. I guess she has practiced this to perfection. She defines memoir as an “exploration of a memory.” Her instruction sheet explains, “Describe not only an experience but what the experience meant to you. Reflect on it. Why do you remember it? How did the experience influence who you are today?”

She gave her class an interesting assignment. We were asked to randomly pick a coloured piece of paper from a box without looking. Then we had to write about the colour for the next 10 minutes. It turned out to be a difficult exercise, because after a while I didn’t have anything to write.

Here’s what I wrote (reproduced as I wrote it, without revision or editing):

Colour Purple:

I have not seen the film Colour Purple. I have not even heard the song Purple Rain. Purple is not one of my favourite colours. The only thing that purple reminds me of is egg plant. We in India call it brinjals. That is purple coloured.

The slip of paper I have is not the same colour as the brinjals. It is a lighter shade of purple. It’s like the Toronto sky when it’s about to rain. A mixture of light blue and dark blue and a tinge of sadness thrown in to make the concoction light purple. That is the mood of the struggling immigrant waiting for his life to acquire the hues of vibrant bright colours that would then begin to change his mood.

But alas. The colour remains purple, for long. Not just for the ten minutes for which I am supposed to write for. The instructor just said we had completed 5 minutes and I sneezed in excitement. The colour will change. My life will change. It’s just a question of five more minutes and the instructor is walking up and down the corridor singing, “Don’t put the pens down. I don’t want to see anybody putting their pens down.”

How the hell can I continue writing about the colour purple when I find it so completely indistinct and indifferent. It has no character. It has no spine. It’s an amalgamation of different colours. It’s not a stand alone being. It’s derivative. It’s a failure. It’s almost me. But, hey wait a minute. Should it be time now or am I writing too fast. The woman next to me as not even completed one paragraph and I’m writing at such a furious pace. I don’t want to write such nonsense. Ah! The timer is off.

Then Latta asked us to make two lists: Things that give you joy and things that give you grief. We had to do that in five minutes. Here are my lists:

Things that give me joy

Things that give me grief

Reading a book

Trying to get a job

These days, writing my novel

Keeping up appearances

Listening to music from the 1970s

A few individuals

Watching movies

A world where injustice is rampant

Arguing with my son

When your own people betray you

Eating a pizza

Not being able to meet my own expectations

Anything sweet to taste

Life in general

Streetcars of Toronto

My bad breath

Tea with mint


My son’s ability to play all by himself without getting bored

My aging. I look older every morning in the mirror.

When I read out the lists, Latta laughed and said, “You have a sense of humour.”

I have always had a sense of humour. It doesn't seems like that nowadays. That is because too many people have made it their life’s work to ensure I lose it.

The workshops will be fun.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, Mayank,

    I'm very glad to hear that you're enjoying my North York Central Library workshop series and that my exercises are inspiring you. I'm flattered to be included on your blog. And congratulations on your big news -- being accepted for the Diaspora Dialogues mentorship program for emerging writers. I know of the program and I'm sure it will be a valuable experience for you. See you next week.