We’ve had judges, civil servants, social workers, kindergarten teachers, nurses, doctors, IT specialists, entrepreneurs, medical herbalists - you name the sector and we’re sure we’ve had people from it at our retreats over the last seven years - something we’re extremely proud of.
So with Covid restrictions lifting and our inaugural Spring retreat approaching in late March in the beautiful countryside of southern France - we wanted to give you a slice of information about the kind of people who will be with us in Languedoc.
People like trade union leader-cum-photographer-cum-poet-cum-prose-writer, Halldór K. Valdimarsson, all the way from his northern homeland of Iceland.
When we asked Halldór for an insight into his life, this is what we received. Editing it would have been a severe injustice to the colourful character he is.
“Tumbleweeding through a decade plus of journalism, after flunking tech-school, I decided to shift from writing to photojournalism. The one decision I have ever made on my own, really. Went to California for it, too. But, then, went tumbleweeding again. Photojournalism transformed into a bachelors in industrial and eventually medical and forensic and I drifted through a masters in biomedical communications. Then, hospital photography and a few stretches in a very immature gig economy in Iceland, eventually waking up managing director of a service bureau running five trade unions. Don‘t ask – I don‘t know. Now, at seventy plus, semi retired and half time financial officer, I‘m again drifting towards writing. Well, some kind of writing and photography mishmash. How and why I have absolutely no idea. What I do know, however, is that the secret to aging nicely is to take special care never to mature.”
We also asked Elizabeth Margaret Moncrieff Agnew, better known simply as Margie Mitchell as she explained, whom we’ll meet in person among the lavender fields of beautiful Languedoc.
Once again, her charming honesty won us over. We hope it does you too.
“Now I’ve got the name issue done and dusted, I will try and encapsulate my life in 100-150 words. I was a late starter, always fighting with letters which breathed on the page and had a habit of turning somersaults and insisting that WAS-was-not-WAS-but-SAW. I had my ‘Arabic days’ when script went from right to left.
I qualified as a teacher in my mid-twenties and have had a rewarding career working with vulnerable children experiencing learning difficulties. I am retired now but continue to feast off the memories of the amazing young people that came in and out of my life.
Currently, I’m studying for a masters in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London. I learn something new every day. The topic for my dissertation concerns my journey investigating the death of my sister which happened over fifty years ago.”
Looking forward to meeting you too in Languedoc this March for our Spring Writing Retreat.
And continuing our tributes to finalists in our regular Wild Atlantic Writing Awards (WAWA), here are two finalists in our flash fiction and creative nonfiction categories.
From life in the fast-lane working in the multi-national pharmaceutical field and living in various European cities, 67-year-old Kevin Cheeseman now finds himself leading a quiet (or at least, ‘quieter’) life in a Buckinghamshire village in south-east England.
Retired after a successful career in drug development “for a large pharma company that nobody had heard of when I worked for them, but everybody has heard of since COVID came to call (AstraZeneca),” Kevin now has more time for his love of creative writing
And being a finalist in the flash fiction category of ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’ with his story, ‘The Biology Lesson,’ has meant a lot to him.
“I had been having a bit of a dry spell as regards writing success so was delighted to hear that I had been selected as a finalist in the competition,” he said. “I recognise that there are a lot of good writers out there and it feels very good to have been chosen from hundreds of entries. The affirmation of becoming a finalist is very welcome, but first and foremost it’s great to have one’s writing published and read.”
Kevin said he was already familiar with WAWA, having had some success in a previous competition – 3rd place in July 2020. Determined to do even better in the future, he added, “I’ll probably keep trying my hand with WAWA until I earn that coveted first prize.”
Kevin cannot recall precisely how his story first emerged as he had written it several months before entering it in WAWA and - as he put it - “it had been sitting there waiting to find a home.”
He added, “Usually, my stories are written in response to a theme suggested by a competition or by my local writers’ group, but I don’t think this one came about that way. Sometimes, an idea just floats into my mind with no conscious prompting, and this seems to have been one of those.”
Kevin spends a lot of time revising his stories. “The bulk of that would not be over too long a period – a few days maybe. In my experience, if it’s taking months and still not coming out right, it’s probably just no good.”
“That said,” he added, “the old advice of setting pieces of writing aside for a while and then coming back to them with fresh eyes, often works. To do that, you just have to have patience and discipline (you can check with my wife as to whether those are my strong points).”
Before sitting down at the computer, Kevin tries to have an overall idea clear in his mind - “where the story starts and ends, the setting and the general tone, and usually the opening line,” adding, “that’s often when it all falls apart, but this one came out reasonably easily. However, I still went over it multiple times, tweaking things, changing words, changing them back again.”
For Kevin, the first main challenge in writing ‘The Biology Lesson’ was “creating a flawed character who holds some rather suspect views without making him a complete monster. Second, I had to prepare the way for the final ‘reveal’ that was plausible but not entirely predictable. And all within 500 words.”
Regarding the all-important title, Kevin said he “toyed with a number of different titles as I was drafting this story. They were mostly variations on ‘A Real Man’ or ‘Man to Man’ or suchlike. The decision to call it ‘The Biology Lesson’ came very late. I’m still not 100% sure that it’s the best title, but I think it plays with one of the characters being a teacher, and with the protagonist getting a bit of a lesson.”
The Biology Lesson
by Kevin Cheeseman
'Have you had a good weekend, then? The football was great, wasn’t it?’
‘Yeah,’ said Josh. ‘Thanks for taking me.’
Steve glanced across, trying to make eye contact, but Josh kept staring straight ahead as the windscreen wipers beat a monotonous rhythm.
‘Spit it out, then. You’ve been brooding about something all weekend. We’ll be at your mum’s in five minutes, so if you’ve got something to say, now’s the time.’
‘Mum’s found someone else.’
‘I wasn’t supposed to say anything. I think she wants to tell you herself.’
Steve paused to digest what Josh had told him. He felt a pang of something but wasn’t sure what it was. Jealousy? Hardly. He’d moved on; he didn’t have feelings for Gill anymore.
‘Who is it then?’
‘One of my teachers from school.’
‘Really? Blimey. What do your mates say about that?’
‘They don’t know, thank God.’
They halted at a set of traffic lights and sat in silence. The wipers dragged intermittently across the greasy windscreen with anguished squeals. Eventually, Steve spoke.
‘I can’t say I’m surprised, to be honest. All that bravado about being happier on her own - she can’t cope on her own. She’s a bit weak, your mum. Always has been.’
He was making the boy feel uncomfortable, he knew, but if a father didn’t tell his son the hard truth, who would?
‘Sorry, matey. I don’t mean to put your mum down, but I just have to say it the way I see it, right?’
Josh mumbled a reply, his head turned towards the side window.
‘What did you say?’
‘I said, she’s not weak.’
He should leave it there, really. But couldn’t.
‘I’ve known her a lot longer than you have, Josh, and the fact is, your mum needs someone strong alongside her. A real man. The sort of man who can make decisions for her, tell her what to do. Like I used to. Before it all went pear-shaped.’
He glanced across, but Josh still had his face turned away. Best leave it now. He’d made his point.
‘So, yeah, I knew she’d have to find a new fella sometime. I didn’t expect it to be one of your teachers, though. That is a surprise.’
At last, the lights changed, and they pulled away.
‘Can you drop me at the end of the road?’
‘Don’t be daft, lad; you’ll get soaked.’
Steve brought the car to a halt outside his old house and sounded the horn. The front door opened, and Gill stood on the threshold, out of the rain. She gave Josh a friendly wave and nodded at Steve.
As they waited for Josh to sort his backpack out, a woman emerged from the gloom of the hall to stand at Gill’s shoulder. She was a few years younger than Gill and strikingly attractive.
‘Blimey, she’s a bit of all right. Who’s that then?’
‘That’s Emma. Ms Varley. She’s my biology teacher.’
A warning label comes with this!
Reading ‘Life with Jack,’ a finalist in a WAWA creative nonfiction category, may make you cry. Even if it doesn’t, your eyes may be sore from the strain.
But first the writer.
Lawyer by day, writer by night, with two dogs and a cat for company, Toronto-based Celia Chandler, 55, said she has, “always been keen on words and read voraciously in my early years.”
Then, “Adult life took hold and my relationship to reading and writing was entirely through my work.”
Then, more than 12 years ago, she met Jack, the love of her life.
And thus began her story. A bittersweet one.
“Six years after I met Jack, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and three years after that he died with medical assistance,” she said.
As Celia explained, “Caregiving was not an easy role for me and I always thought I had a story worth telling about that. I started writing though first about medical assistance (MAID) to help Canadians understand the law and the process, marrying my analytical lawyer brain with my own experience.”
Buoyed by early success with a three-part series published on rabble.ca, an online progressive magazine and with the quiet time COVID afforded, Celia said she started to write “the bigger story - the love story and my caregiving account.”
What she terms her “raw writing” led to her taking some courses and through one of these, Memoir Writing Ink, she first wrote the piece that became ‘Life with Jack.’
“It was an exercise where we had to take any ten years of our lives, reduce them to two pages, and every sentence had to be three words long,” she said. “I wrote the story of Jack and me and posted it on the private Facebook course page where it received positive response. That affirmed the story was a good one and that the three-word format works for me.”
Celia learned about WAWA on her writing course’s course alumni Facebook. “When I saw the ‘three word title’ condition, I thought, ‘Hell, I can give you an entire piece in three word sentences.’ I do confess I tweaked it a little, though the only rewrite really required was the title which was originally ‘My Life with Jack In Three Word Sentences,’ too long to meet WAWA’s requirements."
Celia’s reaction to being a competition finalist with here innovative story containing only three-word phrases - “Truly thrilled to be selected,” she said. “Being a finalist among so many entries makes me think I can get a book done and hopefully published. In the meantime, I blog weekly on my own website celiachandler.com Thank you again for giving me such a boost."
Life with Jack
It was 2009. My fridge broke. Called a guy. He fixed it. That was Jack. He was magnetic. A fridge magnet. A crazy Pole. Two times married. Four grown kids. Smoked too much. I was 43. He was 58. Two strong Libras.
We loved language. We loved food. We loved drink. We loved hosting. We loved music. We loved beauty. We loved travel.
I loved Jack. Jack loved me.
We moved in. It was hard. We lived differently. I am organized. Jack was disorganized. Jack hoarded things. I live spar(ish). I plan things. Jack was spontaneous. Jack loved change. I hate it. I am early. Jack was late. Jack was insolvent. I am not. Jack dreamed big. I don’t dream. (Set a goal. Make it happen. That is me.) I control things. I manage people. Jack was uncontrollable. Jack was unmanageable.
Jack softened me. I loved dogs. I began gardening. I relinquished control. I lived differently.
So did Jack. He observed time. He tried structure.
We both compromised. We found contentment.
We saw Europe. We raised dogs. We hosted parties. We played cards. We watched Netflix. We ate well. We drank wine. We laughed hard. We made home. We loved life.
Some things stayed. Too many cigarettes.
It was 2016. Jack got cancer. Lung is bad. I was scared. I began grieving. Treatment came fast. We needed distraction. Fun during chemo. We got married. We celebrated marriage. With good friends. With good food. With good wine. With good music. All things good.
We resumed life. We took trips. We made plans. Jack felt well. We were confident.
He kept smoking. I was angry. Why still smoke? Quitting might work. He might live.
Quitting was’t possible. He couldn’t try. We fought regularly. I nearly bailed.
But I stayed. I loved him. He loved me. Life is short.
2018 brought metastasis. First the brain. Then spinal fluid. Three months left. I was shattered. I left work. Stepdaughter got married. 65 guests invited. I hosted it. Jack was present. All for him.
Then he slipped. No more treatment. He was dying. He wanted MAID. (Medically assisted death.) He signed paperwork. Then he waited. Not quite ready. His brain fading. Ineligible for MAID? I was worried. Riding out clock.
“I am ready.” He said it.
I organized MAID. Sons from Poland. Kids from Brampton. Uncle from Barrie. Sister here too. Dr. Weiss came. Jack died peacefully. He showed resolve. I was proud. He controlled death.
Three days later. We celebrated Jack! Many people came. There was music. There was food. We drank vodka. There were speeches. He was feted. But not there.
I was solo. I slowly recovered. Very cautiously re-emerged. One year passed. I craved change. I was ready. Then came COVID. Too much change. I was struggling. I started writing. Wrote about Jack. I found voice. I found solace. Happy with memories.