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A snapshot of writers’ creative spaces

Is this a typical writer's work space? Photo: Guadalupe Muro.

Is this a typical writer’s work space? Photo: Guadalupe Muro.

Imagine: A long wooden desk. A king size bed with sheets washed daily. Built in bookshelves above the table, over the bed. A refrigerator and a coffee maker.

Welcome to your room at the Banff Centre. Should you choose to, you can stay in it all day and all night writing, working, thinking. Open your balcony door or window and smell the forest, look out to the mountains.

This spring, 24 writers inhabited a cluster of the Banff Centre’s hotel rooms, for the Writing Studio program. By the time I got a look inside them, each writer had transformed the work space to accommodate their own creative habits. One of the Writing Studio’s writers, novelist Guadalupe Muro, had the idea to document these habitats.

We made it into a sound piece, and this video, which we call The Writer’s Desk:

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This week on our podcast: The writer’s desk, composing an Iranian legend, the line between truth and art, more…

This week on the podcast:

Ten writers from The Banff Centre’s 2013 Writing Studio describe how they set up their “desks” for maximum creativity.

We’ll hear a musical account of an Iranian mountain legend, composed by Audio Work Study Pouya Hamidi, for the largest Persian festival outside of Iran.

And, we’ll get to the bottom of where the line between fiction and truth lies in journalism, inspired by CBC radio producer Jonathan Goldstein.

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Before coming to Banff…

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A group of participants from the Writers’ Studio hiking to Sundance Canyon.

Before coming to Banff…I could not have known how the view of Mount Rundle shrouded in mist would welcome me home after a night of jazz, gin, and words. How through that same window, morning sunlight would make sleeping in impossible, urging me to greet the page. How I would come to look forward to the faces smiling over breakfast china, talking of homes, novels, and plans for the day.

I could not have known how by gazing at the panorama of peaks, images would surface. How I would suddenly see my protagonist’s last glimpse before plummeting to his death—snowcaps, rocky outcrops, a timberline of fir trees. His airplane’s wreckage at the foot of the Alps. I knew, but I didn’t know.

I could not have known all that would happen at my plain, cluttered desk. That there I would sit typing, as rejection upon rejection arrived from the far-off skyscrapers of New York. That I would read each one hastily and cast it aside, eager to return to the new scenes spilling forth. That on another day, a different editor’s email would distract me, this one containing electronic proofs. Nor could I know the magical moment when its title page flashed across my Kindle’s screen—my first book, a story collection set to be published next year. I could not know how I would pace, unable to sit down. Unable to stop smiling.

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Celebrating Edna Alford’s storied career

Celebrating Edna Alford's contribution to Literary Arts at The Banff Centre. Photo: 2007

Celebrating Edna Alford’s contribution to Literary Arts at The Banff Centre. Photo: 2007

Writer and former Literary Arts faculty member Edna Alford worked at The Banff Centre for over 15 years, and was associate director of the Writing Studio program for over a decade. Last week, I spoke to Alford, who is coming back to The Banff Centre on Tuesday, May 14 for an event that will acknowledge her influence on the literary community here at the Centre and beyond. She told me about some memorable experiences throughout her career.

“We had so many writers in the (Writing Studio) program over the years,” Alford said. “Many of the young writers I met there…went on to become very well established and accomplished people.” Watching her former students succeed is “a thrill”, she added. They include Gloria Sawai, whose novel A Song for Nettie Johnson won the Governor General’s Award for fiction in 2002, and Lisa Moore, whose book February won CBC’s annual book debate Canada Reads this year. Both writers have come back to The Banff Centre as faculty.

“That’s the other thing that’s really gratifying—to see quite a number of them come back as faculty… They in turn make their contribution as editors and mentors,” Alford said. Another former faculty member whose work Alford has edited is Yann Martel, author of the novel Life of Pi, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2002 and is an international best-seller. “Many of the people, whether or not they’ve become well known…it was just a privilege to work with them,” Alford said. The Writing Studio was a sanctuary for them to finish their work. They were almost always working on a major work of some kind, she added.

Alford also spoke about the networking that happens among Studio writers. “I’ve watched some wonderful relationships develop there,” she said. “Some of the work at the Studio was often very intense…and the writers have invested years in it before they even get to the Studio. It’s complex and challenging, and they’re very closely connected with it personally.” But one of the most important skills writers pick up in the Studio is the ability to assess their own work, Alford said. “The more the writer understands his or her work, the more they’re able to control what’s happening within the work.”

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A week of thoughts from Cardinal studio

Greg Hollingshead shares a few thoughts from a week in the Cardinal studio in the Leighton Artists' Colony.

Greg Hollingshead shares a few thoughts from a week spent in a writing residency in the Cardinal Studio in the Leighton Artists’ Colony. Photo: Donald Lee, The Banff Centre

Alberta writer Greg Hollingshead, who is director of the Writing Studio program at The Banff Centre and Professor Emeritus at The University of Alberta, just wrapped up a residency in the Leighton Artists’ Colony. Working in the Cardinal studio, the Governor General Award-winning author penned, for our blog, a handful of aphorisms to brighten, or at least enlighten, your week.

A Week of Thoughts for the Day from the Cardinal 

Sunday:  Most of us are as attracted to politics as we are unwilling to change ourselves.

Monday:  We’re making the life we see, so we’d better keep our eyes open.

Tuesday:  Some have the right to be offended, no one has the right not to be.

Wednesday: A dog is caught up in saving its skin, a man is caught up in saving his image of himself.

Thursday:  Ghosts are traces of old emotion, not spirits but time scars.

Friday:  The world is not partitioned, it’s in fragments, like something broken.

Saturday:  Social morality is behaviour prescribed to defend the status quo.

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The beauty of bird-watching … and a grizzly bear… and three cubs

Mexican filmmaker Alberto Becerril filming at Vermilion Lakes. Photo: Gayelene Carbis.

What does it mean to really experience Banff? Everyone has a different story or feeling about how the beauty of this location affects their work and spirit. Part of being an artist here at the Centre is having the opportunity to get out and really be in nature. The Banff Centre’s Community Services office organizes excursions for artists to do just that: from bus trips, to canoeing, to bird-watching. Australian writer Gayelene Carbis shares a moment from her outdoor experience.

If you look closely (really closely), you can see a red-winged blackbird and up in the middle tree a kestrel. Photo: Gayelene Carbis.

The bird-watching trip to Vermilion Lakes was one of the highlights of “The Banff Experience” for me. Before I get to the bear (yes, there was a BEAR!), the day was simply a wonderful, relaxing, lovely sunny day with stunningly beautiful views (my very best/favourite photos!). And then there were the birds. I’ve never been a big animal-lover, but Mojo’s (our leader’s) enthusiasm and passion for sighting the birds was contagious and soon I was excited at sighting and really seeing these beautiful creatures. We heard a sora (which is RARE), saw a Canada goose on its nest, red-winged blackbirds, warblers down by a beaver pond, the yellow-throat warbler, mallards, the red-breasted nuthatch, a female bufflehead, and a shoveller (duck!). And then, as we drove towards town, one of us yelled out: “A bear!!! There’s a bear!” We all looked over to the forest and the river desperately trying to see the bear, but the bear was nowhere to be seen. The park ranger wouldn’t let us stop and park (and rightly so!) and was moving us on. Mojo turned the car around and we drove slowly past. Nothing.

And then suddenly, I saw it. A grizzly bear there amongst the trees where the forest began. It was beautiful. It was this wild, huge, beautiful creature in its natural habitat about 20 metres away from us – in other words, CLOSE! I wasn’t prepared for what it would feel like to see that bear. It was incredibly moving. My eyes filled with tears. I couldn’t believe I’d seen a bear! “You are so lucky,” said Mojo to all of us. We all sat there stunned, knowing how lucky we were to see the bear. It was a grizzly with her three cubs, but I saw only the bear. Later a woman told me she’s lived here 25 years and had never seen one.

I found myself wanting to go back there, looking for a sight of the bear and her three cubs, which I didn’t see. Wanting a photo or not even that, just to SEE the bear again. I didn’t go back though.

I felt I’d been given a gift and you don’t go looking for another one when you’ve been given the perfect gift, do you? Besides, I felt I should leave the bear, and her three cubs, alone. They were perfectly happy out there.

The birds were beautiful, the day was wonderful, the views were spectacular and it was wonderful to go with a group of artists from all over the world (a Canadian poet, a Dutch sculptor, a New York illustrator, a Mexican filmmaker, an Austrian visual artist, Mojo and me) – but it’s the sudden sight of the grizzly bear that will stay forever in my memory and for me it sums up “The Banff Experience:” AMAZING!

Thank you so much to Mojo and Community Services for organizing trips like this one. And thanks to Mojo for taking us out there and infecting us with her love and joy in birds. And bears!

Gayelene Carbis is playwright, poet, fiction, film and libretto writer and dramaturg from Melbourne, Australia. She was at The Banff Centre recently for the Writing Studio.

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