I met Antoinette Pecaski in a creative writing class I was teaching. I immediately felt a connection with her. I could feel a unique, energetic pull floating over her lovely dark, curly locks. I was thrilled to read her writing and find a raw, comedic, honest sass in her work. It’s been years since that writing class, and we’ve remained connected through literary events and emails.
I asked Antoinette (I like to call her Toni) if she would be interested in writing a guest post on my blog specifically because I knew that her initial answer would be a resounding ‘no’. While I didn’t actually hear/read her say ‘no’ to me, I know that she flip-flopped back and forth in order to reach her final answer of ‘yes’.
I think that we can all relate to what Antoinette shares about writing in her guest post. I asked her to tell me about her writing history, her writing process, and to send me something she wrote that I could share.
Here she is in a photo her husband took:
What I love about this photo is that you can see the sparkle in her eyes…the stories that are just beneath her surface, waiting to be shared.
Antoinette’s insight and honesty about her writing and her process speaks to a reality that we can all relate to when it comes to our own creative expression.
I have never considered myself a “writer”, but I have always loved and needed creative expression. When I was twelve years old I wrote “songs”, taped them and sent them to Motown. They sent them back. But I did copyright one of them after contacting my Member of Parliament and learning about the copyright laws. He sent me a virtual tome on the subject, but I managed to sift my way through it.
As an English major and high school teacher I did a lot of academic writing. But one year during career week I wrote three radio plays that we performed during the morning announcements. The teachers laughed; the students looked puzzled. Humour, I’ve discovered, is a generational thing.
A few years ago I decided I needed a creative outlet so I turned to writing.I had tried painting, but I’ve always loved words (besides there’s a lot less clean-up). In Florida I joined the Cocoa Beach Writers’ Group and wrote personal essays. One day a lady with tears in her eyes thanked me for writing about my daughter’s wedding. Having missed her own daughter’s wedding, my writing allowed her to share in the experience. Wow. How powerful is that.
Back in Canada I joined two of Vanessa Shields’ writing groups at St. Clair College, and at one time participated in a workshop with Paul Vasey. One summer I attended the Humber College one-week writing program in Toronto. I had night sweats at the thought, and when I got there, surrounded by high profile Canadian authors, it took all my self-control not to go running and screaming back down the 401. I stayed though, and later wrote a cathartic piece about my experience called “Censored”. I have also been a part of Marty Gervais’ writing salon for several years.
I have based several of my stories on my immigrant childhood as well as on my experiences as a high school teacher and counselor. It was very exciting when three works of mine were published in Canadian anthologies.
I am a part-time writer, frankly, because it’s hard work, but also because it’s such a solitary experience. When I do latch on to a topic that is deeply meaningful to me (and this is the hard part), I am consumed and absorbed and I can’t let go. The process clearly satisfies some deep need. And I find that I am more motivated to write when I have an end goal or deadline. The student/teacher in me still works best under pressure.
When I first started to write the hardest part was to get the “teacher” out of my head. Simple, true, honest writing is not so simple. It takes time and courage to peel away the layers and to recognize and discard all the fluff.
I find that writing is cheap “psychotherapy”. You learn so much about yourself because the process forces you to shine a light in some deep places. In writing, I discovered that I was funny (other people laugh too, so I guess it’s okay to say this). I’ve laughed many times over some lines I’ve written, but I’ve also cried when I’ve uncovered some raw emotion. This is probably the greatest “gift” that writing has to offer.
The biggest influence in my childhood was our town library. As a little immigrant girl I adored the library and the escape into books. I loved all the classics and in particular the works of Lucy Maud Montgomery, and, in more recent years, her journals.
I also enjoy reading books on writing (maybe it’s because I can then put off writing). Brenda Ueland’s book If You Want to Write, published in 1938, is just as relevant today as it was back then. When I read the book I feel her presence. It’s as if she has her arm on my shoulder whispering gentle encouragements in my ear. Although long dead, she continues to inspire, a testament to the permanence of good writing.
More and more I find satisfaction in reading books of nonfiction. As a teenager I was greatly influenced by The Diary of Anne Frank. After reading it I too started a “Dear Kitty” diary. Nonfiction can be so powerful. Anne, a young helpless victim of that horrible era, continues to have a profound effect on the world long after the evil men of WWII have turned to toxic dust. More recently, I’ve been moved by reading about the abuse and subjugation of women as depicted in Half the Sky. Good writing evokes emotion and provokes thought. It can begin to change the world.
Writing for me is both pain and pleasure. But when it works, I understand myself and the world around me just a little bit better.
Here is one of Antoinette’s stories…a story that truly captures her comedic spirit and her ‘win’ in her battle against her censor.
“You’re not a real writer,” I said to myself. I was anxious as I began my one -week writers’ workshop. High profile Canadian authors and professors would be leading the seminars, and I felt like such an imposter. That morning a summer storm had careened its way across the college grounds and destroyed two large trees, and garbage that had been piled high because of a workers’ strike was now strewn across the fields. And when I learned that classes would be held in a former psychiatric institution I thought, oh, the sweet irony of it all. Surely these were signs from the universe that this middle age woman seeking creative expression should probably take up knitting needles and not the pen.
In the auditorium during orientation a curly-haired fellow sitting in front of me turned to talk.
“Hey, you look a little tense. Is this your first writers’ workshop?”
“Yeah. I don’t belong here. I don’t think I’m a real writer. D’you see those big name authors on stage? It’s a little intimidating.” I looked around at the large group of students sitting in the audience. “And they’re probably real writers.” I motioned with my head.
“Hey, the college committee read your manuscript and accepted you, so don’t sweat it. Wasn’t that a dousy of a storm this morning? Hope the power doesn’t go off. This place could be deadly in the dark.” I nodded just as the program director took the stage and introduced the keynote speaker.
The well-known author walked to the microphone and demonstrated how to plot novels, to create characters and to battle clichés.
“Good writing,” she said, “is bold and brilliant.” I scribbled in my notebook with nervous energy. I couldn’t focus. Instead I thought, what if…
The lights suddenly flicker and the auditorium plunges into darkness. A gunshot rings out and, and…the program director tries to calm the anxious buzz.
“Don’t panic ladies and gentlemen. The emergency lights will soon come on. Please stay in your seats.”
In front of me curly-hair’s voice rises from the darkness.
“Hey, you think this is one of those murder mystery shows?” He chuckles to himself. The emergency lights soon reveal a prostrate form on the stage, and, and…?
“Oh come on. That’s so dumb. How can the killer pull the trigger to perfectly coincide with the power outage? It’s a stupid idea.” That little voice inside my head was being very pragmatic and as usual negative. I blinked back to reality just as the speaker concluded her talk. Irritated with myself I tossed the crumpled ideas on the floor. The student sitting next to me shushed me with her pursed lips.
At break time curly-hair and I commiserated over coffee and brownies.
“Yeah, some of these people are real writers,” he said. “You know, they’ve been published and everything.” I swallowed hard and soothed my anxiety with another brownie.
After lunch we toured the in-house facilities and the campus grounds.
“Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the orchard where the psychiatric patients laboured a hundred years ago.” Our tour guide was narrating as we went. We were traversing the grounds leading to the classrooms; the grass was still wet. The apple trees stooped with age were overgrown with the tangled underbrush of neglected years. Soon we were in front of Building A, the façade beautifully restored and preserved.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the tour guide continued, “there are numerous subterranean passages connecting the many buildings here.” He lowered his voice. “And it’s been said that a nurse roams the dark passageways looking for her deranged killer.” We went into Building A, and I stopped to admire a historic photo on the wall…
When I glance up my group is gone. “Now where did they go?” I grumble to myself. I go down one hallway, then the next, descend a flight of stairs and become totally disoriented. “Oh, good,” I think I recognize an exit. But I’m wrong. Before long I’m in a dark corridor. “Oh, my God,” I panic. “I’m trapped in the underground. ”The entombed air is very thin, and the few small bulbs barely relieve the blackness. For a moment I can’t breathe. “Don’t be scared, don’t be scared, don’t be scared.” I find some comfort in the sound of my own voice. Suddenly the lights flicker and the place plunges into darkness. A gunshot rings out…
“What! Another gunshot, another plunging into darkness? Don’t you have any imagination? At least give Nurse Ratchet an ax, or a machete or a samurai sword. You want to impress people, don’t you? You want them to think you’re clever don’t you?”
“You know, you never like any of my ideas.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No, you don’t.” I was having a mental tussle with my resident censor.
“Hey,” I felt someone brush my arm. I jumped and screamed. It was curly-hair. “Boy, you sure are jumpy.” I found that I was still standing in front of the old photo.
“Hurry,” he said as he grabbed my arm. “We’re going to get separated from the group.” Nurse Ratchet and her subterranean hell disappeared back into my head.
For the remainder of the week I was assigned to Professor O. H.’s seminar group. His initials were the same as my favourite American writer, O. Henry. Surely this was a good sign. Every day our small group would meet to write and to critique each other’s work. I found the intimate setting less intimidating and Professor O’s style supportive and comfortable. But there was one major irritant. Miss Pretty. A young, tall and black-haired beauty, her confidence was annoying as hell.
“Well a good short story,” she told the group, “should invoke, evoke and provoke. It should invoke the reader’s experience, evoke the reader’s emotions, and provoke the reader’s mind.” Provoke. Well she had that part right.
“That was very insightful.” Professor O. was clearly impressed. And then he turned to me.
“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I didn’t quite catch the question. I apologize. Would you please repeat it?”
“Stop apologizing—you’re always apologizing.” Miss Pretty hissed out the words.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just such a habit. I think women of my…”
“There you’re doing it again,” she interrupted.
“Well, I’m sorry. I grew up in an era when…”
“Sssooo, sssoooo.” She stretched out the words in exasperation…
So, so—you bitch! I have had enough. I lunge at her across the table, grab her hair and smack her head hard on the table. Soon we are rolling around slamming into walls and knocking down the pictures in the tiny room. I think I spot a samurai sword strapped to her back and hidden under her shirt. I clamp my teeth hard on her perfectly manicured phony fingernails, and try to pry them off one by one. She gives an anguished cry, and uses her free hand to grab my other arm and twists it hard behind my back. A spray of crystal beads cascades to the floor.
“Oh, shit! Oh, shit! You broke my favourite bracelet,” I scream at her, and dive under the table scrambling to retrieve them…
I heard Professor O’s voice in the distance. He was bringing me back.
“Excuse, me. Hello. What are you doing on the floor?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. My pen rolled under the table and I’m having trouble picking it up.”
“We were talking about the need for conflict in a story,” he cued me in.
“Oh, yes, yes. Thank you.” I sat back down. “Well, there really is no story,” I told the group, “unless the protagonist wants something pretty badly and has to struggle to get it. Readers want conflict or the story’s not interesting.” I grinned at Miss Pretty sitting quite intact across the table.
“And if possible,” I added, “give them a good old-fashioned knock’em down fight – they eat that stuff up.” Everyone laughed including Miss Pretty. Later, I realized that my censor had been uncharacteristically neutral during the mental melee. Could it be, I wondered, that everybody likes a good fight?
Later in the week when I had my private conference with Professor O. he addressed the issue of trusting oneself.
“You know, if you could ignore those little negative voices in your head, you know the ones that tell you that you have to be perfect, you would be able to free up your writing. Turn them off. We all have them. The world conditions us to fear sounding stupid or uneducated, and that stifles our natural creativity. It took me twenty years to turn them off, but I did. My best advice is to get out of your own way, and your writing will be natural and honest and good.” He laughed. “When your internal censor pooh pooh’s your ideas just tell it to buzz off.” I laughed too, but I thought that’s easier said than done.
On the final day of the program I shared a last supper with my new colleagues, politely gathered email addresses that I would never use, and picked up my “Certificate of Participation.” I packed my bags, and later on the streetcar heading to Union Station and to home, I stared out the window…
The streetcar comes to a hard stop. A cow is crossing the road…
“What! In downtown Toronto! A cow for God’s sake! That’s so dumb.”
“Writing is supposed to be bold and brilliant,” I told the naysayer in my head.
“Yes, bold and brilliant perhaps, but not bold and bovine. What are people going to think?”…
The streetcar resumes its forward motion. At the next stop a small, old gypsy woman boards. Her worn crumpled shirt is tucked into a long, frayed blue skirt that grazes the floor. She takes out a knotted hanky and slowly unties it to get out her tokens. Her gnarled, arthritic fingers struggle to slip them into the machine. The driver looks out the window impatiently. She then moves slowly, cautiously down the aisle. At her waist sit two long, tired breasts, and nestled between them is the outline of a…. oh, my God, she’s packing heat…
“Well, I suppose that’s not bad, but…does it sound sophisticated enough, clever enough, literary enough? And what’s with you and guns, anyway?”
My censor had been tormenting me with self-doubt all week, and frankly I had had enough. I would be censored no more! I stared him in the eye for in my mind he had assumed bodily form and was sitting in the seat beside me.
“Hey,” I asked him. “Can you tell me why my censor is a man?”
“Well, dear girl—this is a patriarchal world—has been and always will be. All those male authority figures from your past, they’re still there inside your head.
“Well,” I glared at the empty seat beside me. “I’m damn sick and tired of your negativity. You are a pain in the ass, and this week you take the cake.” I winced at my bad cliché. “I’m not going to let you control me anymore, so you can just buzz off!”
I must have uttered those last few words out loud for I found myself staring into the startled face of a woman sitting in the seat across the aisle. I gave her a sheepish grin and busied myself collecting my stuff. Thankfully the next stop was mine.
Once off the streetcar I hustled to Union Station to get some treats for the train-ride home—a diet Coke and two O Henry chocolate bars—a sweet salute to my favourite author. With food in hand I queued up to catch my train, arriving early to get a good seat.
“Excuse me, dear. Is this the 7:00 train to Windsor?”
I turned around to see a small, old woman standing behind me.
“Yes, it is,” I smiled. “Here let me help you with that.” Her bag was threatening to topple her over. I reached out to assist her.
“Candy bar?” I offered.
“Oh, no thank you dear. I have to watch my figure you know.” She smiled. I gave her an understanding nod and cast a furtive glance at her bosom. Only two matronly breasts stared back.
Just then, a cow runs through Union Station trampling baggage and frightening the commuters.
Yeah, that’s right—a cow. This is my story, damn it, and I’m sorry if….no, no, no, I’m not sorry… I’m not going to apologize. I’m the writer. It’s my story. I’ll tell it the way I want to, and those knitting needles can just wait.
Thank you for writing and sharing, Toni! Keep on writing!!!