Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writing and Creativity at Malvern Collegiate: An Interview with Shannon Wood

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Shannon Wood

This spring, students from John Ouzas's Writer's Craft class at Malvern Collegiate Institute conducted interviews with Canadian poets as part of a class project, "The Great Canadian Writer's Craft." Throughout June, we're posting the interviews on Open Book's The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page. The students spend considerable time researching the poets' work and creating the interviews, and the effort put into the project is apparent. The interviews are smart, thoughtful and engaging.

We wanted to know more about Mr. Ouzas's remarkable class, and we were fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with Grade 12 student Shannon Wood. Shannon spoke with us about class projects, critiquing and being critiqued by fellow students, selecting the poet she wanted to interview (she interviewed angela rawlings, author of Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists) and her future plans. Thanks, Shannon!

Open Book:

What made you decide to sign up for the Writer’s Craft class?

Shannon Wood:

To properly answer this question, I will have to refer to my past a little. When I was in elementary school I was completely convinced that I wanted to become a journalist. I spent a considerable amount of my time reading about and researching my future career, and I even had the opportunity to write a film review of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which was published by The Gate magazine. I always enjoyed my English classes. I loved to read, and I found solace and strength in writing. When I began my journey through high school, I had less time to enjoy writing. English classes became focused on the technicalities of writing, critical essays and other skills we would need for a higher education. I do believe that learning to write well is a necessity, but it left few options for those with creative minds to explore and refine their talents. Since exposure was limited, I found myself less concerned with writing. I explored different subjects, mainly the sciences, and I found myself switching between career ideas every week.  One day I wanted to be a chiropractor, the next I wanted to be a makeup artist. I felt as though I had no direction. When I saw that the writer’s craft course was being offered at my school, a multitude of thoughts swirled around my head. I knew I would be able to do well in the course, but I was worried it might be too time consuming. The deciding factor in my decision was the realization that I had not written anything outside of class since I graduated middle school. I wanted a reminder of why I liked writing so much and how much I really missed it. Taking the course has been one of the best decisions of my high school career. It would have been the best if I was not taking the required English course simultaneously. The work load has been nothing short of exhausting. If nothing else, I am extremely thrilled that I have remembered that I am a strong writer. When I am having trouble with other subjects in school, attending my writer’s craft class is thoroughly enjoyable. I always leave with new thoughts and ideas.


We’d love to hear about the assignments you are given in the class. Can you give us an example or two?


For every section we completed in the course (syntax, poetry, short fiction, narrative essay, etc.) we had "work diaries" assigned. These are small assignments or reflection pieces that we completed on our own. At the end of each section, we had a large assignment which enveloped all the lessons in the section. Our class is very workshopped-based, so much of our lesson time was spent sharing our work and our ideas. Our most recent assignment was to compare the lives of two canonical poets. We had to read poetry written by both poets and biographies about them. I thought my poets Thomas Wyatt and William Blake were very different to start, but there ended up being more similarities between them than I realized. Though they lived in very different circumstances, they both were in the midst of a religious or a literary revolution. It was interesting to see how each poet handled their respective problems. We analyzed our poet’s poems, and we even created a poem for a word used in a piece of their poetry. It was a task that encompassed nearly all of the lessons we touched on in class. It was a great final project.

The topics of our work diaries can vary, but one of my favourites has been the Harper’s Index of a Character diary. We had to make our own lives, or the life of a character in our short story unit, quantifiable. I decided to make the quantities about my life somewhat humourous. Here is an excerpt:
Number of days until I can vote — 96
Number of days until I realize my vote doesn’t matter — 96
Number of days until I can drown my sorrows about my vote with alcoholic beverages — 462
Number of seconds it took me to figure out I added 96 + 365 wrong — 7

Estimated grade on my next math test — 21 percent

From there we had to explain the concept of using numbers to define or learn more about a person. It was a fascinating exercise. I’ve never really thought about how we use numbers to separate ourselves from each other. What I like about the work diaries, and this one in particular, was how we taught ourselves. I wasn’t just responding to the prompt Mr. Ouzas gave us; I was exploring my thoughts about the subject within the piece I was writing. It made me relate to different assignments, different projects and different characters. That’s what I really like about the work diaries; you are allowed to bring out more of yourself within a free (yet directed) environment.


Do the students critique each other’s work, and if so, is the experience beneficial to your writing?


I would say that critiquing my fellow students' work makes up a good 50 percent of the course! I may be exaggerating a little, but we do spend a lot of our time looking at each other's work. It is vital to learn how to give feedback and how to receive it. Having my peers offer criticism has been a huge stepping stone for me this year. I find it slightly terrifying to let others see my unfinished/incomprehensible piece. I tend to be very defensive, so I get upset when I am told something is not interesting or isn’t working well in a piece. A learning curve for me this year was realizing that I am not alone in this fear.

Though we utilize the time we have in class for lessons and workshopping, much of our feedback and critiquing is done on our class blog. I think the blog is an excellent place for feedback. I have found that I am reluctant to give feedback in class in fear of hurting someone’s feelings (and vice versa). When we post our pieces on the blog, we can read and consider feedback without the emotional element attached. The best part about it is that anyone can comment on your work. In class we usually speak with one person about our work. On the blog we can have anyone in the class commenting on our work. This gives us a more diverse opinion and a way to connect with someone you wouldn’t necessarily speak to in class.


How did you decide which poet to interview for your class assignment? How did you prepare for the interview?


Before the selection of the poets began, Mr. Ouzas and Gary Barwin picked out poets that they thought would interest us. If I recall correctly I was given Jason Christie, Angela Szczepaniak, and angela rawlings. Picking the poet was simple; I picked the book that confused me the most. I read through a ton of books in the classes we were supposed to pick a poet. I didn’t read angela’s book until the very last moment because I couldn’t find it anywhere in my classroom. Fortunately a  classmate who was looking at angela’s book came across the room, handed it to me and told me to read it. Browsing through it in the five minutes I had left in class, I realized that I didn’t want to put it down. After I left class I immediately began google searching angela and Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists. I knew that she was the poet I wanted after reading through a variety of interviews with her. I actually caught myself unconsciously planning my own interview with angela. I put angela’s name on the blog and that was it. I was completely sold from the five minutes I spent in class with her book. I knew it was going to be great. I was completely absorbed by the book, and I had only scratched the surface.

There was a lot of research involved in preparing for the interview. We had to read as much of the work published by and about the author as we could. We also had had to read previous interviews to make sure that ours did not overlap. I’m sure interviewers have to do that regularly, but it was quite the experience for us. The added pressure of the fact that the interviews were to be published made me work even harder.  I wanted to make sure that my questions were the best I could offer. After sending them in, I crossed my fingers in hope that angela would like them. It was a very riveting moment.


For you, what was the highlight of the Writer’s Craft class?


Without a doubt, this project was the highlight of my high school career. I’ve never been so proud of anything I’ve done in school. This was a real learning experience, and it took me way out of my comfort zone. The project taught us things that we cannot learn in a classroom. We learned about the realistic side of publishing; the demands of editors, the expectations of critics and those we interviewed, and the pressures we put on ourselves to succeed. We couldn’t fall back on ourselves as doing so would let down those waiting for the interview. The last thing I ever wanted to do was disappoint angela. I have spoken to writer’s craft students in other schools who were very envious of the opportunity we received. This project is very important to all of us. I got to know my classmates even better because of it. Together we shared something very special. It was a great opportunity for us all and an even greater opportunity for those continuing their writing careers.


You’re in your final year of high school. What are your plans once you graduate?


If I only knew! The only thing I know for certain is that I will be attending the University of Ottawa in the fall for a general arts degree. I’m hoping to find some inspiration for a future career along the way. If at all possible, I would like it to involve writing. After I graduate, I would love to move to New Zealand for a year or two to visit family and take some environmental courses. For now, I will continue writing on my blog and attempting to survive in the hectic workplace of my local grocery store.

Shannon Wood was raised by ninja tigers in the remote jungles of southern China. Even though they tried to teach her their ways, she is about as coordinated as a rollerblading giraffe. She comes from a long line of writers and readers, and plans on continuing the tradition. She is interested in cosmetics, voice acting, poetry, Marvel comics, YouTube, clothes, philosophy, video games and anime conventions. When she is not saving the world from evil space pirates led by her arch-nemesis Liam, you could find her in her backyard writing on her laptop or attempting to play basketball. She plans on attending the University of Ottawa in the fall where she hopes to find some sort of direction to head in. If not then she plans on living in New Zealand with a flock of blue penguins and albatrosses.

Go to the CBC website to hear Shannon Wood and angela rawlings talk about The Great Canadian Writer's Craft project to Matt Galloway on Metro Morning.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.