Inspired by Dr. Ross Pennie

This past Saturday, I attended the “Writing Your Life & Other Personal Stories” workshop facilitated by Brian Henry in Guelph. A book editor and professor, Brian teaches creative writing at Ryerson University in Toronto and has led workshops everywhere from Boston to Buffalo and from Sarnia to Saint John. You can find out more about Brian here.

In the morning session, Brian shared tips and techniques for writing creative non-fiction. In the afternoon, one of his star students—Dr. Ross Pennie—shared his fascinating writing journey.

A bit of history…

In 1977, at the age of twenty-five, Dr. Pennie set off for a two-year posting at a Catholic Mission on a remote island in the South Pacific. He spent his days dealing with tuberculosis, malaria and other infectious diseases. Evenings, he would read, write letters and update his diary.

At the end of his posting, he returned to Canada and spent the next twenty years working as an infectious-disease specialist and daydreaming about writing his memoirs.

Finally, he took action and signed up for creative writing courses and workshops. He also analyzed other memoirs, read books on writers’ craft, and joined a writing group. It took him two and a half years to complete The Unforgiving Tides, which was released in 2004.

The logline is a tantalizing one: A young doctor encounters mud, medicine, and magic on a remote South Pacific Island.

He then tried his hand at fiction and wrote the well-received Dr. Zol Szabo medical mysteries. The first of these, Tainted, came out in 2010 and won the Arts Hamilton Literary Award for Fiction. He followed up with three more medical mysteries: Tampered, Up in Smoke, and Beneath the Wake.

After 39 years of working as an intensive-care pediatrician and infectious-diseases specialist at McMaster and Brantford General Hospital, Ross retired.

But he is not retired from writing.

In a 2017 interview with Hamilton News, he shared his love of the creative process: “I love spending time with the characters. They seem very real … it’s almost as though they live with us. I also find writing meditative. I enjoy being on my own, so there is a meditative and reflective aspect to it.”

At Saturday’s workshop, Ross shared practical advice about the memoir process.

Here are ten nuggets that resonated with me:

• Dribble the dry facts gradually into your story so that any one page is not filled with a laundry list of details. Do not confuse the reader with too many characters and too much technical jargon.

• Keep the narrator humble, vulnerable, embarrassed, noble, quirky, smart, but never arrogant.

• Leave yourself open to memories that bubble up unexpectedly.

• Exaggerate your deficiencies. (You will probably be telling it like it is!)

• Imagine that your mother and Grade 8 teacher are never going to read your memoir. This leaves you free to add healthy naughtiness. Some examples of healthy naughtiness include embarrassing situations, swear words, family secrets, petty criminal acts, and sexual encounters.

• Break grammar rules with pizzaz. But first, learn the grammar rules.

• Show the action and dialogue up close. Don’t just talk about it from a distance.

• Punctuate your stories with newsworthy events. Make a dated list of earth-shattering events that occurred during the period of the memoir such as wars, elections, assassinations, and natural disasters. Include some of these events in the memoir.

• Write frankly without bitterness.

• And most important of all … Persistence Writes the Memoir.

Find more about Dr. Ross Pennie here.


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