Greetings and a warm welcome to my very first newsletter. Occasionally - typically around the holiday season - the idea of crafting one crosses my mind, but I never seem to get round to it as the festivities come and go. So now, here I am, on uncharted territory.
Celebrating true stories well told
"Celebrating 'True Stories Well Told" - the theme of this newsletter, refers to my preference in novels, films, podcasts etc. based on memoirs, biographies, historical events, or personal life experiences. The expression was coined by author Lee Gutkind, a creative nonfiction pioneer, who defines it as using literary techniques to vividly portray true events.
In this newsletter:
Commentary on THE MOTH radio hour
The films, OPPENHEIMER and ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT
Tribulations of a self-published author
and (in the trivia department) - summer news and how to repel annoying wasps at a picnic!
A storyteller steps up to the mike, the audience leans in and a hush descends before the first words break the silence.
Welcome to The Moth
During road trips, we often listen to "The Moth" podcasts, a collection of unscripted, first-person true stories. Some are humorous, others deeply moving, each embodying essential storytelling elements: characters, a story arc, a hero's journey. Here, the spotlight isn't reserved for stand-up comedians or seasoned professionals; it's a stage for those who want to share how impactful moments have touched their lives.
"The Moth” storytelling platform has spread across America, but it started small - the brainchild of novelist George Dawes Green back in 1997 as he sought to recreate the feeling of sultry nights where moths dance in porchlight and friends sit around telling stories. Its name captures the essence of storytelling that draws us in like moths to a flame, inviting us to be both storytellers and avid listeners, and where a story we hear might trigger a memory and inspire us to tell story that happened to us.
The themes for each event are simple and universal: rainy day rendezvous, summer chronicles, family relations, cherished first pets, holidays, coming of age, serendipitous encounters that color life and so much more. It's where the narratives of ordinary people, young and old – veterans, school teachers, immigrants, parents, and some famous people too – come alive.
The two rules are that: i) the story must be true; and ii) it must have happened to the story-teller. One episode on the Moth sparked a thought-provoking debate about the delicate dance between truth and embellishment in storytelling. Media critic Jack Shafer had criticized best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell for having presented a fictionalized story about his early days in journalism. This had ignited a discussion about the boundaries of “true” storytelling. Gladwell's defense – that "The Moth Hour" welcomes both true tales and the occasional tall story – raises a tantalizing question: How far can we stretch the truth in the pursuit of a more gripping narrative?
It's a debate that tugs at the essence of storytelling itself – one that writers and readers grapple with. Is a true story's impact measured solely by its adherence to facts, or is there room for a touch of artistic flair? "The Moth" storytelling reveals that narrative potency transcends factual accuracy with the capacity to evoke emotions, forge connections, and unveil universal truths.
Like most Hollywood biopics, some parts of "Oppenheimer" were exaggerated for cinematic effect. Still, the movie truly highlighted how science, progress, and destruction are intertwined, often pushed by the needs of war.
One example of creative license was the episode with the poisoned apple which might have killed Bohr, and which is deemed by Oppenheimer's grandson to be excessive historical revisionism. The fact that the alleged attempted murder was never proven is acknowledged in "American Prometheus," the novel upon which the movie is based. As for the fear that the bomb could start a never-ending nuclear explosion and destroy the world, this was mathematically proven to be unfounded before they tested the bomb.
The movie also shows Strauss as the bad guy—the jealous scientist—but it doesn't explain well why he was worried about sharing nuclear secrets with Russia.
Despite the slight factual distortions, the film has contemporary significance, highlighting the intricate dance between science, progress, and destruction, which is so often driven by the demands of war and domination and which clearly resonates with today's race in the realms of artificial intelligence and biological engineering.
"All Quiet on the Western Front" held a different theme — how people are often swept into the theater of war with only a poor understanding of the intricate political and power-hungry forces orchestrating events.
Having seen both the 1979 version and the more polished 2022 version of "All Quiet on the Western Front," I found both to be commendable. However, I leaned toward the earlier version for a more authentic depiction. For example, in the later version, one gets the impression that the men spent weeks or months on end in the trenches with rarely a break, whereas in fact, they did frequent rotations behind the reserve line to catch some sleep, hot food, and tend to their feet. Also, many of the commanders on the front line were decent men trying their best to uphold morale and ensure their survival as well as those under their command. I have found no evidence, for example, of commanders ordering soldiers to remove their helmets to bail out the trenches. The early version does not shy away from the horror and the emotional and physical intensity of the conflict yet manages to sidestep the need for gratuitous shock which was more prevalent in the modern version.
Oppenheimer and All Quiet on the Western Front
The symbiosis of science and war - the emotional grappling to put one's life on the line even while questioning the motives driving the conflict - the unpredictable blossoming and withering of relationships in warfare, and the resilience of ordinary people living in turmoil were universal themes that stood out for me.
The decision to self-publish led me down a rabbit hole of challenges and discoveries that I had never anticipated when I began writing novels. Had I known what I know now, I sometimes wonder whether it would have dissuaded me from taking the leap.
Self-publishing was a choice born largely out of necessity because nabbing a literary agent as a debut novelist felt like chasing a unicorn, especially in Canada, where literary agents are as rare as Plus, my historical creative non-fiction novels are like a quirky blend of old-school storytelling with a dash of vintage visuals and vignettes, which makes production a lot more complicated than just plain text. Since wrangling this unique concoction into page layouts took a lot of creative tinkering, the cost of having a professional do it would have been prohibitive so I figured that I had better learn to do it myself.
Traditional publishing benefits from a web of support – editors, designers, marketers – offering a safety net that ensures polished perfection. Self-publishing means wearing countless hats and embarking on many learning curves for book production and marketing. Thankfully, it’s not as lonely as one might think thanks to a large community of experienced self-published authors who generously share their knowledge and guide us newcomers through the maze while also instilling a sense of camaraderie within this solo expedition.
True, there are moments of exasperation – software that frustrates, unexpected costs and detours. Some lessons are more formidable than others, yet as I continue to navigate the self-publishing odyssey, I tell myself that each challenge that I encounter is also a chance to enrich my understanding of the literary landscape and a reminder that the moments of satisfaction stemming from continuous learning are worth every demanding step of the journey.
More notes from the author's desk
An expert in the industry told me that my covers sucked and look unprofessional. (She was right - I did them.)
Thus admonished, I'm having them redone professionally by Tania Craan, a dear friend and one of the best in the industry - a former designer for Penguin and art director at McClelland Stewart before opening her own shop.
The concept drawings so far look amazing. I can't wait to display them in the next newsletter.
Summer is flying by - a mix of beauty and disquiet in our localized corner of the world. Weeds thrive in our small garden patch.
So far, Toronto has been spared a direct hit of fire, flood or severe storm, yet the smokey days were a reminder of the planet's climate melt-down we all face. At the same time, our provincial leader's attempt to remove protective status from Toronto's green belt to make way for development added to our unease. People signed petitions and joined protests. There was an enquiry, a scapegoat was found and dismissed, but nothing was gained. On the contrary, the plans to undo the green belt are back on the front burner. Another case of economic interests clashing with ecological sensibilities.
Want a simple wasp-repelling trick?
We discovered that burning ground coffee is surprisingly effective. Just place a few coffee grounds on a piece of paper like a coffee filter. Ignite the paper to set the coffee smouldering. The resulting smoke acts as a safe repellant. It really works!
In closing - and why so many wasps?
As we savor the final weeks of summer with picnics and outdoor gatherings, we are often joined by large numbers of wasps. It seems that this surge in population is the natural progression of a wasp colony. Throughout the summer, the colony focuses on nurturing its young, gradually amassing a larger workforce of workers that mature into adults as the season unfolds. By summer's end, the colony has grown substantially, resulting in a greater presence of wasps than in early summer.