Natalie Morrill is a 2013 graduate of UBC’s MFA program. Her recent work has appeared in filling Station and CAROUSEL, and is forthcoming in Room magazine. Her short story “Ossicles” was included in The Journey Prize Stories 25 (2013). Her first novel’s manuscript was recently shortlisted for the HarperCollins Canada/UB Best New Fiction award. She edits the literary journal Dappled Things, and teaches at Laurentian University and Cambrian College in Sudbury.
We are excited to work with Natalie and provide an enriching and thoroughly unique literary opportunity to the community of Greater Sudbury and across Northern Ontario. (Scroll down to read more about our new writing project). Here, Natalie shares her thoughts on this project, and answers a few of our questions for you can get to know her further.
How do you feel about this new opportunity?
I’m excited to begin working with the writers at NISA! I’m sure I’ll get to see some amazing works in progress. My hope is that this will be an opportunity for writers (including myself) to learn from one another and generate work that they’re proud of. I’m available to work with any interested NISA members (you don’t need to have a project already started), plus any additional workshop participants. As for my own writing goals, I hope to get a few new short stories done during my time at NISA, plus a lot of revisions. I’m sure that being among other writers will be a big source of encouragement in this respect!
Describe your writing style.
I love the sound and rhythm of words, and I’m fascinated by their power to create images. I think that sometimes it’s worth sacrificing grammar to create something really musical or evocative. (My apologies to the poor copy editors.) I’m attracted to strange (and sometimes impossible) situations in terms of subject matter, but above all, I’m interested in characters’ experience and motivation in the midst of these situations. Sometimes my writing is sad; sometimes it’s funny, or dark, or a big mix. Above all, I want to tell a good story.
What inspires you?
Questions to which I don’t fully know the answer are a big inspiration, since writing is a way to explore them. How do we respond to suffering? How far can forgiveness reach? How can a person be “good”? What does it mean to really love? – I love being allowed to linger in these questions. Besides that, I’m inspired by all kinds of art: other people’s creativity is a huge source of encouragement to me, whether they’re working in dance, visual arts, film, computer programming, cooking, or whatever.
What is your writing process? How do you go about the process and how does it make you feel?
I try not to censor any of my ideas, initially (and some of them can be pretty weird). I usually let them steep a while and see if any form emerges that seems promising. Then I’ll usually outline the idea, whether on my computer or a notebook or (if need be) on my phone. The first draft usually comes out pretty quickly after that. I’ll share it with a few of my trusted reader-friends, and based on their feedback I’ll rework the project. Then it’s just a matter of repeating this last step until I’m happy with it (or until a deadline rolls around).
Writing can be hard in all kinds of ways, but I love it. It’s like having an infinite library.
How has the experience of mental illness influenced your work? How do you see this project influencing other writers who have experienced mental health challenges?
During periods of depression, writing was one of the things that lent meaning to a tough time. (“I may feel terrible, but at least something creative is coming out of it.”) I realize I’m lucky in the sense that I found a positive creative outlet: not everyone has found that yet. I’d love to help others enjoy the personal benefits of writing (as I did), but perhaps even more than that, I hope to help writers find a way to share their stories, because their stories deserve to be heard. Mental illness can leave people feeling marginalized, but it doesn’t make those people’s stories or voices any less important – quite the opposite, I’d argue.
What is your mentoring philosophy?
It’s a huge privilege and honour to be allowed to help another writer with their work. Above all, I aim to understand the author’s intention for their writing, and then try to help them identify opportunities to achieve their goals. (This process will differ depending on whether a writer is, for example, writing mainly for personal therapeutic reasons, or with the intention of finding a publisher.) I believe that writers must be readers, so I’ll also try to help writers connect with useful or relevant reading material for their “apprenticeship.”
For those interested in starting to write their memoirs, where should they start?
The short answer is: anywhere! A successful approach to writing is simply one that actually results in you writing. Some writers have already had time to come to terms with their experiences, and in their case, it’s a matter of figuring out how to write about it all. Others may not have explored their past yet, and may be more anxious about revisiting difficult memories.
As a first exercise for someone who was a little anxious about beginning a memoir, I’d recommend just creating a point-form outline of important events in your life. This is a fairly non-threatening way to start (you don’t have to remember everything in detail), but if you take your time with it, you may start to “fill in the blanks” as you remember more and more important events you might want to revisit later.
For someone who felt prepared to go a bit further, I might give them the following exercise: think of a particular event or episode in your life (perhaps a “first”; perhaps something particularly important). Then try describing that event in writing, asking yourself specifically what you could see, hear, feel, smell, etc. in that moment. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling; just see what comes out. You’ll probably recall some important or unexpected details. It’s this kind of concrete imagery that will let your reader understand what that moment was like for you.
What projects are you working on presently?
I’m revising a novel, working on a bunch of short stories, and playing with a few poem ideas.
What do you like to read in your free time?
Thankfully, I get a lot of opportunity to read! I usually choose fiction and poetry, plus some religion and philosophy books. (Actually, throw some comics and children’s lit in there, too.) My favourite reads of the last year or so include There but for the by Ali Smith and The Republic of Love by Carol Shields.
You can also connect with her through Twitter @natalie_morrill
Stay tuned to NISA’s calendar of events for the upcoming Sudbury-based writing workshop intensives.
We are thrilled to be offering a new and innovative project across Northern Ontario this year! In the Writers’ Circle at NISA, there has always been an interest in writing, and over the last 17 years, we have offered writing space and resources for people with lived experience of mental illness. Many people have come to explore their selves through writing, in a therapeutic sense, but nearly as often we meet writers who want to explore the craft of writing and to publish their work. Over the past two years, the interest in writing ones’ memoir has been blooming at NISA, in fact, beyond our capabilities to continue to adequately support each writer. We have developed tools and workshops to help our writers, and have run several successful writing intensives, but we were in clear need of a qualified and experienced writer who could specifically dedicate time to assisting writers with their projects and goals.
As a result, we envisioned a Writer-in-Residence project for this year that would connect an established local writer with new and aspiring writers looking to hone the craft of storytelling through the written word, in particular memoir writing. Over the year, the Writer-in-Residence will engage and assist Northern Ontario writers with developing and broadening their writing goals/projects, particularly for those who experience mental illness and find it difficult for their perspectives and artistry to be heard. The Writer will plan and facilitate writing workshops based on our 2010 handbook, Mental Pencil: Sharpen up your story – A guidebook and workbook for telling your life story. She will also be guiding writers in honing their skills to a point where they are ready to formally submit their completed piece to the special Northern Ontario issue of Open Minds Quarterly, the Summer 2016 edition, which will feature stories, essays and poetry told through the Northern Ontario lens.
To strengthen the collective voice of Northern Ontario writers and to help provide the resources and skills from them to create and submit works to professional publications, Natalie will taking the Mental Pencil workshop on the road to other consumer/survivor organizations in Northern Ontario. Many smaller communities do not have frequent access to professional development opportunities in the literary arts, and in making this more readily available, we hope to attract new members of the public and the mental health community to the arts.
This project has been sponsored by a Northern Ontario Arts grant. Thank you greatly to the Ontario Arts Council for your support in bringing this project to fruition. We’re eager to see, read, and share the stories that are created through this project.