Michael Winter: Keeping track of things in the world

Michael Winter was inspired to write by watching his sister do it. Perhaps he will inspire some students during the Young Authors’ Conference at F.H. Collins Library on May 3 and 4. PHOTO: courtesy of Michael Winter

Newfoundland and Labrador writer Michael Winter will be a mentor at the 2018 Yukon Young Authors’ Conference at F.H. Collins Secondary School May 3, 4

Michael Winter, one of the four mentor writers at this year’s edition of the Young Authors’ Conference, said he was first inspired to become a writer by watching his sister Kathleen (who just happens to have been one of last year’s mentor writers here, and who spoke highly of his work in her talks).

“I remember seeing my older sister, Kathleen, type a story one summer on the backyard picnic table. I was about 16. She got a piece of mail – a rejection from a literary contest. In the letter the judges said ‘interesting story if a little cryptic’. I asked her what ‘cryptic’ meant. She said it’s when you say something obliquely, or infer something from evidence deduced in a roundabout manner. Well, that struck me as fascinating!”

Winter is fascinated by other people’s stories, and has said in a number of interviews that he doesn’t really make up a lot of his own tales. For that reason, his family and friends, he said, sometimes feel a bit uneasy around him.

Asked when he knew for sure he was a writer, he responded with a story about observing the symbolism in a tale his father told him.

“My father told me a story of almost drowning after the open boat he was in capsized. He was drowning because the anchor rope was twisted around his body. His buddy dove under and unwound the rope.

“When he told me this, the image of an anchor – this object that is supposed to offer safety and purchase – causing his near-death, I realized that I knew that it was a powerful image. And making a note of it made me think I was good at keeping track of things in the world that are dramatic and poignant, which is one small element into being a writer.”

To that end, he mines the personal experiences of himself, people around him, and people about whom he has read. He says he’s looking for contrast and honesty.

Winter won the Writers’ Trust Notable Author Award in 2008, but he was nominated or short-listed for numerous other awards between 2000 and 2016, including the Canada Reads contest. A 46-minute interview about his work, and the novel nominated for that contest, Minister Without Portfolio, is well worth a listen. You can find it on the www.CBC.ca website and then using the search function for “Michael Winter”.

In that “Labrador Morning” show interview he talks about his adventures rebuilding an old house in his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador (“There’s not one right angle in the house,”), as well as the time he fell into an incinerator at the local dump. Both events became parts of that novel, and the latter was also an essay at one time.

“It’s hard,” he said, “for anyone to trust that small, true things written well can have power. Workshops are good for that realization.”

He advises young people to observe and write things down.

“Keep a notebook. Write down a physical occurrence or gesture that, for some unknown reason, your eye is interested in. Write it down as it happened, not with hindsight.”

His writing practice seems to derive somewhat from the nervousness he said he feels.

“I write in the mornings. I have a 10-year-old son, so I get him to school and then write. In the winter, it’s cold in the room where my novel is. So I zip up this small down vest. It’s a little snug, but I like it that way. It’s the vest’s way of giving me a little hug, of saying to me, as I zip it up, ‘everything is going to be ok.’”

A Mentor for Yukon Young Writers

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