From a very young age, I was enamoured with the written word.
I read every book I could get my hands on, and scribbled my own stories on loose leaf and scrap paper.
Though my mom thought I was too young when I discovered them, I loved the cheap thrills I found in R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. Not long after that, the irreverent silliness of Gordon Korman and Louis Sachar helped shape my sense of humour.
And it was the latter who gave me my first brush with depression, when his novel Holes became so bleak at one point my tiny little brain could hardly comprehend it.
What is this strange, melancholic sensation? I’m sad, but it’s not because of something that happened to me. It’s because of some made up words I’m reading in a book, and the utterly hopeless situation now facing two characters to which I’ve grown so attached.
Looking back on it, that was likely the first time an author made me truly feel something. And here I am, three decades later, still thinking about it—a testament to the raw, persuasive power the simple act of storytelling can have on us.
It’s the kind of impact every writer strives to make on their readers. We all take a different approach, plot our own routes to the final page—but no matter the scribe, it has to come from the soul.
This week, we celebrate another instalment of the Whistler Writers Festival by turning Pique’s pages over to some of the amazing writers at the heart of this year’s event, who help unpack a very loaded question for most writers: why do I write?
Find the full schedule for this year’s fest at whistlerwritersfest.com.
How did my book get to be your book? And why I am thrilled that it did
By Rabbi Paul Plotkin, author of Wisdom Grows in my Garden
I was a successful pulpit Rabbi for 40 years, two years in Vancouver and 38 years in Florida. During that time, I wrote and delivered more than 2,000 sermons and hundreds of articles. With all lack of modesty, I was very good at it, mostly because I learned early on that successfully communicating required three components. I needed to believe in what I was saying; I needed to keep my listeners awake; and I needed to leave them with a message that they would remember.
The first part was easy. I am passionate about my beliefs, and I despise phoniness and hypocrisy. Keeping people awake meant I needed to use humour, because a good laugh launched a positive engagement with my audience. Finally, a good story that carried my message would last in people’s memories better than the most articulately argued position on the subject.
I remember returning to my first congregation in Vancouver some 25 years after I left to speak about my first book. Many congregants came over to me and kindly shared their remembrances of my two years there, but one person came over and shocked me by referring to a specific sermon that touched and sustained him because it was based on a story that delivered the message. I can’t remember what I talked about last week, let alone 25 years ago, but he did, because he remembered the story.
I have extensive files of all my stories and jokes, and I date when and where I used them, because if I reuse them within 10 years of their debut, someone will come up to me and say, “You used that before, didn’t you?”
Those that remember after 15 years get a gold star.
Not surprisingly, my new book, Wisdom Grows in My Garden, contains a lot of humour and a lot of stories, but it also contains 25 important life lessons that I learned from my garden. I wanted to share those lessons with the public, because I was sure they would improve people’s lives, but I also want to share how they came to me.
Years ago, I was dreaming in a deep sleep, and woke up in the midst of it feeling that this dream was special. I knew that if I regained full consciousness, I would forget the contents by morning. This dream was too important to forget, so I forced myself to remain in an intermediate stage between sleeping and being awake. I stealthily made my way to my study and started writing parts of the dream on a small pad of paper. Each sheet was one thought, one lesson, and I kept writing until the flow of ideas ended. I then returned to bed and to a deep sleep.
When I woke in the morning, I remembered having a weird-but-vivid dream, and though I was sure it was a dream, it seemed so real. I decided to check it out just in case.
I entered my study and there on my desk were many pieces of paper with writing on them. It wasn’t a dream, but surely it would be a bunch of somnolent gibberish—except it wasn’t. Each sheet had a lesson and was attached to some part of the gardening process. I knew it would be a book, but I was in the midst of my career with no time for extra projects, so I put the pieces in a file folder with a clear idea of what I would do in retirement. That is the genesis of my book.
Before actual publication and armed with a PDF advanced review copy, I solicited reviewers from my orbit to write a review. My son in his mid-40s asked many of his friends to read and review as well. I was amazed at their positive reaction to the book. I always assumed I was writing for my generation, with no idea that my book would resonate with my son’s.
In the spring when I was visiting him, I met two of his readers and I had my next surprise. I asked them what they thought of the book. The first, a self-described urban gardener, and father of three teenagers, loved it, and then described his full reaction. “For me,” he said, “it was a fantastic book on child-raising,” and he was using it already with his kids.
I immediately thought to myself, “What book is he talking about? Surely not mine.”
The other reader was a lawyer who was reading the book on the subway during his daily commute to work. He loved it, he said, because it taught him that if he does not succeed at first, he could stick with it, because there was always a chance that he would succeed in the future. My response was immediate, if silent: “What book was he reading?”
And that is when I learned a life lesson for all writers and artists. You own your work until you share it with the public. From that moment, it belongs to the reader or viewer, and I am OK with that.
Paul Plotkin was born in Toronto and was a pulpit Rabbi for 40 years beginning in Vancouver. After a divorce, he wrote a book on the healing power of Psalms entitled, The Lord Is My Shepherd, Why Do I Still Want? His newest book, Wisdom Grows in My Garden, is a compilation of 25 life lessons learned from his garden. He blogs on Medium. He reads at the Literary Cabaret Oct. 13 and A Walk to Lost Lake Park and Back on Oct. 15.
By Bronwyn Preece, author of knee deep in high water: riding the Muskwa-Kechika
i write. somehow it feels out of necessity … i can’t imagine not writing, not scribing my reflections, my appreciations, my discernments and distillations, my values, my curiosities … but i do wonder about this necessity or necessaryness … who is it for? what need does it satiate?
my writing is so intimately private—a space for brutal honesty, where my transparency is made even more transparent—but then, alarmingly, almost daringly, awkwardly, shyly, humbly—i turn and share this intimate encounter, invite “others” in—make “it” public, make “me” public … i publish, i “get” published …
words written: a sensuous act.
an act of union, writing into wholeness, that bond, inking my inextricability … or my attempts to feel, to enliven, to exist within, or from, a (dis)connected, immersive space … to dwell in this place, to inhabit this (un)known, in (un)certain times.
writing: an act of community.
i am a site-sensitive poet, place-based children’s author, a “creative geographer” through words, through art. i am also an avid multi-day backpacker who chronicles as she hikes, writes as she walks: translating traversed landscapes into language, trail experiences into engaged narratives, synthesizing into words my ever-deepening understandings of self, Peoples and place, as a person of predominantly settler-descent living on, and visiting, unceded Ancestral Lands. i document these unfurling relationships, overlaps, challenges, hopes and their inextricable reveals in situ. my writing aims to capture snippets, soundbites, moments, geology, geography, ornithological-envy, botanical reverie, history and gaps. my writing travels through many territories and ethical terrains, remaining at once personal and poignantly political …
i connect through story. storying towards deeper understandings, towards small acts of reconciliatory repair: active pursuits which defy the fixity of text. writing is a process of living, verbing my unfolding and developing awarenesses …
i gravitate towards unlined pages, which let my words wind, warp and wrap around page. a process which ignores margins, but manages to always wander into, and dwell within them; ignores lines, but always manages to write between them; a process and practice which disregards the linearity of script: circling into the realms of lexicons which may or may not exist. in my attempts to seek some form of wholeness, i am, ironically (?), full of line breaks, syntaxical splits and grammatical ruptures. i am always asking questions. of myself/of the world. i word my wild as a lover of words—yet find the confines, rules and use of the English language often objectifying and othering—however, i play within—and expose—these “limits.” language becomes an invitation. a lure. alluring. irresistibly so. i necessarily embrace neologisms.
i, however, still have not fully come to understand the connection, the line i walk—the lines i write—between the personal-through-public sphere … a continuum that presents itself with ends that always seem to meet together in a centre; a centre, whose “i” of the storm is not always calm. i write through resilience, vulnerability, sensitivities and strength.
writing: an act of (inward/outward) connection.
i language (verb) as a process of engaging in relationship, scripting possibilities … writing my constant companion amongst the ebb and flow of experience, of observation, marvel, overwhelm, beauty, dreads, trysts, twists … and thresholds. my writing is never fantasy. it’s my reality, different from anyone else’s. singularly unique, informed by the plurality of life. hopeful, honest. privately wanting, and waiting, to be shared … naked, baring all … to be held in the arms of an understanding companion: the reader. together, an open book.
writing, or reading, are never singular acts.
my writing is indivisible from the way i try to lead my life—largely in lowercase—infused with an ethic that brings with it many levels of responsibility, engaged curiosity and a commitment, and eager willingness, to learn more—to seek out the stories of both the place i call home and the places i visit. stories exist on many levels, in many forms. stories comprise our varied histories and “our” sense of History (capital, Western H), some stories hidden from view. stories are not always written or spoken. i aim to live, write and read between them, these “lines.” stories live in our waterways, in the formation of cumulus clouds, in the budding of spring, in the waitlists for social housing, the shifting landscape, the price of gas, the coffeeshop closures, the posters on bulletin boards, wildfires and highway detours, in the “land-based” salmon labels, in the accessibility to contraceptives, in the sunrise and the alpenglow, in the dew drop caught in variegated leaf, in the graffiti, in the avalanche’s path, in the public art installation, in the peregrine’s skyscraper perch, in the smell of the skunk cabbage, in the morning full of mist, in the weather forecast, in the call of the raven …
writing for me invites a tuning into an animate world, alive with knowledges.
Sea to Sky Alphabet (Simply Read Books, 2023) alliteratively travels from ocean’s edge up into the snowy slopes of the alpine. it courses down river rapids, traipses along trails, gazes upon glinting glaciers, climbs cliffs, revels in the sights that surround and glimpses the richness of this place’s history and myriad landscapes. it is a project i worked on with both the Lil’wat and Squamish First Nations, incorporating words from both the Ucwalmícwts and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Sníchim languages. it is a book i wrote in honour of a place i feel so privileged to call home and with this privilege comes an obligation—one i rise up and meet eagerly and with openness—to always look deeper, to immerse myself in, to become even further aware of the diversity of this place always storying itself. the book is an homage to a place i am always learning anew.
knee deep in high water : riding the Muskwa-Kechika, expedition poems (Caitlin Press, 2023) chronicles a journey, an experience, a story. penned in, and amongst, a mixture of saddles, stirrups, tents and tarps, melting mountains and rising rivers, thwarted plans, awe, overwhelm, and breathtake in the backcountry of northern british columbia. it is my chronicling of a remote, two-week horse expedition, embarked upon while recovering from a leg-shattering injury, that left me with an acutely crooked knee. in many ways it is a love story. it houses struggles and celebration. it becomes, and bears, witness…
i write as witness, as observer, as learner. what a humble honour and a privilege.
Bronwyn Preece holds a PhD in Performance, and an MA and BFA in Applied Theatre. Her 2023 publications are knee deep in high water: riding the Muskwa-Kechika (Caitlin Press, 2023), a collection of expedition poems, and the children’s book, Sea to Sky Alphabet, in which she worked with the Lil’wat and Squamish Nations to incorporate words from both respective languages. All her artistic and educational work aims towards cultivating place-based awareness and small acts of reconciliatory repair.
She reads at the Whistler Writers Festival’s Literary Cabaret Oct. 13.
Connecting with the World
By Todd Lawson, author of Inside the Belly of an Elephant
I remember walking down the street in Rossland, B.C. with a handful of newfound friends—well, more like family, really—as the snow, lit up by the beautiful orange glow of a streetlight, fell from the black sky like chicken feathers. It was February 2000, and the crisp freshness of winter made everything particularly dark and cold. Suddenly, someone asked me a question that hit the middle of my heart like a boxer’s punch.
“Did Sean know that he was in trouble?”
Never once in my life had I witnessed fear in Sean’s eyes before, I answered. “But when I saw him leaning against that bed in the ICU, I knew he was scared. Neither of us wanted to admit it, though, and I’ll never forgive myself for that. Had I acted sooner, he’d probably be walking with us right now.”
I felt that Sean’s friends needed, and wanted, to hear more, so I rambled on for a while as we strolled down the street, eventually burying the harrowing hospital room drama under more adventurous anecdotes of our time together in southern Africa.
“Wow, Todd, you really should write a book about this,” said a friend as we approached the house I was living in at the time.
I quickly brushed it off. I didn’t know anything about writing and the idea certainly felt way beyond my capabilities. But, whether I liked it or not, the seed had been planted. Soon thereafter, I picked away at the framework of my “book” in bits and pieces and enrolled in journalism and photography school a year later, where I dove head-first into learning how to piece my thoughts and memories together on paper, lighting a creative fire that was buried somewhere inside my soul. Little did I know then that there was so much of this story still to come.
My book would have never seen the light of day had it not been for the volumes of travel journals, stacks of postcards and mountains of letters my brother Sean wrote throughout the course of his short-but-out-of-the-ordinary life. Sean’s journal entries within my book are taken verbatim from the pages of his journals, intentional spelling mistakes and all. I wanted to tell part of this story in his own words. In these writings Sean revealed his aspirations, his eccentric character and his longing for worldwide adventure. Wading through all of this material gave me a profound respect for him as a citizen of the world, and has continued to help in my healing process.
The parts of this book where I was not physically present were without doubt the most challenging to write. In these sections I leaned into Sean’s journals; letters from his friends from around the world; interviews with many people who had spent time with Sean, both in Rossland and abroad; and recollections of the many stories he told me of his outrageous exploits and mishaps over the years. I also wanted to lay down some family roots on paper, going way back into my family history from Poland in the 1920s, right up to 2008 in Uganda, Africa. Weaving a story from 80-plus years of family history was a tall order, but one that felt necessary to show to readers exactly where my family had come from. And where we’re going next in this crazy, beautiful world.
Travel has provided me with an unmatched education in humanity, and the people of the world have taught me that kindness is the only way forward. And now I am given the honour of passing that along to our daughter, Seanna. What a special gift fatherhood is. At times it seemed unfathomable how the hands of fate had delivered me to the mountains of Whistler, and there were zero complaints as we settled into family life in this little pocket of the world. I was living my life surrounded by new friends that I’d likely never have met had it not been for Sean. Six degrees of separation were unfolding all around me every day, and I tried hard not to take that for granted. Often taken out of my comfort zone by my new tribe, my world and my mind began to expand; as a father, an entrepreneur, a friend and a life-loving individual lucky enough to be able to walk upon this fascinating home we call Earth. Grateful I will be until the end of my days.
It all brings me to my one true reason for writing a book—my North Star as I struggled night after night emotionally and intellectually. And that is to inspire as many people as possible to travel as often as their means and desires allow, so that we’re all more connected, more understood, and more in love with humanity as time marches on.
Todd Lawson believes in passion, diversity, and the search for freedom outside. He’s an avid world traveller, writer, photographer, creator, storyteller, mountain athlete, humanitarian, adventure-seeker, and lover of life and all its wonderful ways. “Stay in your lane” is not in Todd’s vocabulary. He is the publisher, producer, and photo editor at Mountain Life Media, CEO/Founder of RISE Outdoor Innovation Inc., and Co-Founder of the Rise and Sean Foundation. Inside the Belly of an Elephant is his first book. Todd lives in Whistler, British Columbia.
Lawson is part of the Writers of Non-Fiction Panel on Oct. 14. He also leads the Show Me, Don’t Tell Me non-fiction workshop on Oct. 14.
Uniting through story
By Mike Janyk, author of Go to the Start
During my ski-racing career, I routinely sought out books, conversations and interviews from others in different walks of life for insights and inspiration. As I moved further away from my last World Cup race, a strengthening sense of gratitude developed for how much others had given to help achieve my results. In light of this, I wanted to give back in the way many had done before me, to give back through story.
It was hard to open up at first and talk about the mental pressures of performance and struggles that I went through. It was easy to write about the successes, but I knew these were only placeholders for the real story to be told. If I wanted to make a connection with people, I had to share my vulnerable moments and not just the lows, but the intimate steps taken of re-discovery along the way. This was not easy, of course. When you spend a lifetime trying to prop yourself up like a superhero and then try to remove the armour, it can hurt a bit.
I had kept a journal over the last years of my career where I wrote my raw thoughts and emotions of the day. If I was feeling angry, elated, jealous, arrogant, or sincere gratitude, I wrote it down. When I sat down to write this book, I knew I had to share parts of these journal entries… but which ones?
After reading through many, which were a bit embarrassing to read back, one stood out. It was my very first entry, a letter to my sport psychologist at the time, stating that I was retiring from ski racing (which ended up being four years before my actual retirement date).
I was angry, scared, tired, and needed to vent when I wrote it, but most importantly, I was honest and open. In my first draft of the manuscript, this entry was used as my starting chapter and served as a reminder to stay true to the story that wanted to be shared. I also knew my closing chapter would be of my last World Cup race, so now I just had to fill in the gaps. Over the next eight months and with the help of my book coach, I wrote a chapter a week and slowly saw the story emerging.
When the manuscript was done, it was time to submit to the editor and get my first real feedback.
“Mike, you’ve written a really wonderful manuscript but I’m wondering if you should start the book with a more gentle topic. The journal entry is powerful but you can leave it for later in the book. When it would appear in its chronological order,” she graciously offered.
“No, it has to stay at the beginning! I need to highlight that there were struggles along the way and show the pain. I need to be as open and honest with the readers as possible.” I defended my position, feeling my jaw clench and body tense up with each word spoken.
Luckily my editor was not fazed by this response, and continued with her kindness and suggestion.
“I agree that this is important, but let the readers get to know you first. Start with something that brings them along the journey with you. Let them be a part of it and then they’ll be more likely to go to the darker places with you.”
I sat in reflection for a while and after the emotion to defend subsided, I could sense that my editor was right. My first approach was like hitting the reader over the head with a message rather than letting them come to it on their own accord. So I changed the opening of the book to a joyful moment when I first became aware of the real reason why I ski raced. Which, spoiler alert, ended up being the same joy I experienced in my last World Cup race ever. I then went through the process of editing my manuscript with the intention of letting people come along this journey with me. When I was done, it read more gently, and as the reader, I felt more willing to hear the message that at the beginning, I so desperately wanted to share.
This is the power of storytelling. It allows us to hear difficult messages that change how we think, act and show up in this world. As I start to share mine, I hope my story is able to do this, giving back to the ski racing world that I love so much, the Sea to Sky community, and to my teammates and coaches who pushed me to achieve greater heights than I knew was possible. Maybe most importantly though, I’ve been able to give back something special to my younger self with this book by giving this kid a road map for how to come out of his darkest hole, back to the light and home to his true sense of self.
Michael Janyk grew up in Whistler and was raised in a family of ski racers, where at an early age, he was inspired to compete for Canada on the World stage. He raced on the Canadian Alpine National Team for fourteen years, is a three time Olympian and World Championship Bronze medalist in Slalom. Go To The Start is his first book that shares his journey and the transformations that came from it. He lives in Whistler with his wife and daughter.
He reads at the Whistler Writers Festival’s Literary Cabaret Oct. 13.