Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Words that Matter Most

A travel-writing workshop with Kate Pocock and Michael O'Brien
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By Hilary Fair

A memo to itchy footed, writerly types:

  1. An eye for Norwegian sardines could land you back-of-book space.
  2. Pitches needn’t precede plane tickets.
  3. It’s actually easier to secure a press trip than a publication that will accept your story on return.
  4. Industry rules are changing: writers-cum-photographers are no longer anomalies, artistic dissidents or loathsome generalists. Dual skill sets are the norm — the new prerequisite.

These are snippets of insight, gleaned from a Travel Writing and Photography seminar co-taught by Kate Pocock and Michael O’Brien. He has visually documented his way around the globe for the last 25 years; she is an award-winning journalist who returned to school and started building a profile as go-to Family Travel writer, her own young children in tow.

Pocock’s admirable stamina remains (she now spends a cumulative total of three to four months traveling each year) and the tips she doles out are useful: who knew “Souvenir” sections both exist and pay? But more valuable than her insider savvy, and more impressive than her energy, is Pocock’s gift for seeing story. (Recall the sardines.)

Jest aside, teaching others to see compelling moments is difficult. Perhaps impossible. Some people are, however, effective at reminding us that these moments exist. Everywhere. Like in the crumbling grounds of Harbourfront’s Canada Malting Ltd factory — or the weeping grasses of its adjacent park.

Pocock is a travel writer, yes. But Sunday’s class indicated that she is also a person devoted to seeing the sensually decadent in the here and now.

That’s right: Toronto is decadent. Or it can be. There’s a body of travelers hungry for information about this place and, at present, there’s a paucity of writing to meet the demand.

By Pocock’s rule (and worldview), narrative about the Toronto ferry network can prove as engaging as reflections on a trip to Spain &mdash: draped as it was with the raw, bohemian, drug inflected culture of Barcelona and a last-minute choice to hop a 3 a.m. bus to La Tomatina, the Valencia region’s famed tomato fight.

Take the mostly-vacant Harbourfront Community Centre. On a quiet Sunday it hosted Pocock’s seminar, a drum circle and a hodgepodge of people that seemed to come together to be alone. An old man in bottle cap glasses stooped at a computer terminal, hunt-and-pecking his way through a document that resembled email. On the other side of the wall, two young athletes shared the din of the gymnasium, backs to each other. One dribbled his basketball monotonously, never taking a shot; the other skipped on one foot, solemn face to the wall and shadowed by dregs of sun that strained in. They moved in eerily perfect unison — with each other and with the drumbeats they shouldn’t have heard through the plexi-glass barrier.

Pocock reminded me that places like this can yield moments (and images) as complex and vivid as the chaos of 20,000 foreign kids descending on a Spanish village, splashing ankle deep in rivers of pulpy, stinking red.

Because stories are about people. “People are the place,” she said. And the best work comes when you can lace your own observations with the things those people say. Pocock returned to the importance of good quotations throughout the afternoon: the words of others help craft ours into something people want to read.

Her point reminded me of the Bosnian brothers I’ve carried around for years — two men who spoke so many words I’ll never forget nor ever adequately replicate because I didn’t write them down.

These guys linger in retrospect — their stories are a series of anecdotes I mentally recorded but failed to transcribe. So, while the basic content remains, style is long departed. Now I struggle to remember the voices (and faces) of the two rather bizarre, absolutely kind men that my friend and I trusted when we needed somewhere to go.

They exist as memory, dubbed “the brothers-strange” because forever void of proper names.

Sarajevo itself remains a layered mass of bullet holes and rubble, copper tea sets and Old Town bustle, fragrant spices and hookah smoke, beauty and pain — all filtered and fading through time.

These men opened their empty guesthouse. They gave us a cold bedroom and access to a shockingly small hot water tank (meant for eight, unable to accommodate two). They plugged in the fridge so our yogurt would keep; they pulled out the “good car” for our comfort. These were utter luxuries, we knew, and gestures of incredible hospitality.

The younger called his brother “Chief” and “Professor” and, when they took us for a three-hour tour of the city, he played chauffeur while the Chief played guide.

They showed us the oldest mosques and churches and synagogues, where Ferdinand was shot, and the architectural legacies of the Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians. They drove us through the university and what was once “Sniper Alley.” They pointed out Sarajevo roses, the Breadline Massacre site, and the apartment building they lived in during the war (where they took their high school courses, hidden away in the basement, while the city was shelled). They took us to the Sarajevo Tunnel and asked us to walk through the section that remains — along the path where supplies were smuggled in and people were smuggled out.

Throughout all of it, they told us stories. They gave us access to pain and personal history — and I felt like riveted student and lecherous voyeur all at once. I have memories of their words — but they’re piecemeal. I can write them (and tried to), but the stories are incomplete. True to Pocock’s point, all of the above — vignettes of Harbourfront, Bosnia, tomato fights — expose the limitations of real-life story without real-life words.

Pocock let Sunday’s students look through one of her travel diaries. It was thick with scrawled anecdotes, observations and, clearly, quotations. Her success seems just testament to her method: Pocock is a writer with a lot of work. The Harbourfront seminar was a rare opportunity: with the exception of a one-week workshop at Haliburton School of the Arts, Pocock is a writer too busy to teach. Because she’s on the road, delving into “new worlds,” recording people’s words and returning to weave (then sell) the tale.


Photos by Hilary Fair. Click on an image to start the photo gallery.

Hilary Fair is new to the city and is trying to find her footing in its literary community while curbing her nomadic tendencies. She’s a new grad from a Master of English program and thinks that she’s finally at the end of her “long road to Toronto.” The last eight years have taken her to various pockets of this province, through Europe a couple of times and to the west coast of Canada for a short stint as an islander. Hilary is pleased to be part of Open Book: Toronto and to have more opportunities to participate in the city’s literary events. She is working at various internships while she also works on getting brave and sharing her words.

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