Helena Moncrieff's The Fruitful City: The Enduring Power of the Urban Food Forest (ECW Press) delves into issues of urban food through the lens of an overlooked city food source: our fruit trees. Once a integral part of backyard kitchen gardens, most of them have become neglected and provide more food for birds and racoons than people.
By investigating our relationships with these hyper-local resources, as well as their surprisingly fascinating history, Moncrieff takes readers on a journey through urban food concerns, including food deserts, the tons of food we throw out, hunger, and the resurgence of inner city gardening. While it's an obvious must-read for locavores and conservationists, the book has a much broader appeal thanks to Moncrieff's inspiring and compelling storytelling, as she visits backyards, parks, and hidden corners of the city.
We're excited to have Helena on Open Book to launch our newest interview series, called Teach Me to Write. This series asks authors to share their writing expertise, tips, and tricks, and offers emerging and aspiring writers an insider's perspective on craft - as well as discussing the idea of just how much of writing can be taught.
She tells us about getting students to step away from the hamburger-style essay that we all remember, the importance of looking at both advice and its flip side when it comes to writing, and her colour-coded notebooks trick.
Do you think good writing can be taught?
For sure. Everyone needs a coach and when you want to excel at something you’ll ask for help. Signing up for a writing class or program is one way to force yourself to get the job done. How many people do you know who say they’d write a book if only they had the time? Enlisting a teacher, mentor or coach forces you to carve out that time. That’s the first step. Handing over a draft for someone else to read is the second. It makes you practise.
There are a lot of writers teaching outside of the purely creative field. I happen to teach writing in the public relations programs and professional writing program at Humber College. I have colleagues who’ve authored fiction, young adult fiction, how-to books, and a lot of literary essays. They spend large chunks of their days teaching students studying everything from nursing to golf management. It doesn’t matter the discipline, they all need to be able to write with clarity and purpose to communicate.
Students who go beyond, who want to write, rather than have to write, have a fantastic resource in faculty members who are eager to take them to the next level. They have a hard time stepping away from the hamburger-style essay. Once they are free of it and able to explore language in new ways they become less afraid of being wrong and more interested in evoking a feeling, image and tone. Showing students that telling a story is OK, in fact it’s required, can change a mediocre writer into a good one.
Why do you think MFAs and other writing programs inspire such debate amongst writers?
I do hold an MFA in creative non-fiction from the University of King’s College in Halifax, so I’m already on one side of that argument. I gather some of the debate comes from a feeling that you can’t teach writing, that somehow it is a magical skill that comes from within. If you’ve joined a writer’s circle, shared a draft with a friend, or worked with an editor you are engaging in the same process.
I know others feel that the academic approach stifles creativity. For sure there are academic benchmarks that have to be met; they are degree programs first. So if you want to add to your credentials and learn beyond the work of writing and get into the why, then do it. If you don’t need or want that, then carry on. Required? Absolutely not. For me, it was a fabulous experience that resulted in a book about city fruit trees, an MFA, and a new community of supportive writers and friends.
There’s no one approach that works for everyone.
What was the most important thing you've learned from a writing teacher or mentor?
I think of a journalism professor from Carleton University, Brian Nolan, who would circle the room as we were writing TV scripts. We’d be struggling with the lead and he’d look over his bifocals and ask, “What happened?” One of us would mumble out what the story entailed and he’d shrug, “So what’s the problem?” I’ve held onto that, the idea of just write what is going on and you’re on your way. The second came from the same program and a journalism philosophy professor who matched what is going on with what it means to human sub one. In other words, what’s it to me? The story has to be relatable.
The flip side of that advice is equally valuable. You can get too caught up in the purpose of what you’re writing and sit in front of a blank page. King’s mentor Jane Silcott encouraged us to just write it up, it will find a home. She’s quite right, even if the idea doesn’t gel, some of the words will be used elsewhere. Then at least you’re writing something. That always feels good.
What, in your view, are the most important qualities in a writing instructor?
I think of the teachers who have been memorable to me and why. Mostly they were human and connected with their students, so that’s number one. Get out from behind the lectern and have a conversation. Listen to what students are trying to say, rather than listening for what you want them to say. Collaborate. Writing involves a lot of solitary pounding on the keys and getting lost in your thoughts, but good writing always has an element of collaboration whether it’s with an editor, your spouse, your coffee klatch or a mentor. I think of working in newsrooms where working on an hourly deadline left no room for shyness. If you were looking for a word or phrase, you threw it to the room for discussion. They’d let you know very quickly if you were on the wrong path.
How do you balance teaching and writing (and other obligations)?
I have to stay organized. I keep notebooks for each client (because I freelance), each class, and for my own projects. Each one has its own colour to reduce the risk of pulling out class notes when I’m interviewing an executive about a speech. I’m pretty busy. It’s difficult to stop the paying work and dedicate time to a book, particularly in the early days when you don’t know whether it will fly with a publisher. Back to the MFA debate, there were deadlines attached the program so that helped push the book work up the list of priorities.
That said, they all feed each other. I’ve used my book and freelance work as examples in class, my students have been a sounding board and sometimes a resource for my book, and my freelance work introduces me to people and fields I wouldn’t have connected to otherwise.
What can you tell us about your most recent book?
Thanks for asking. The Fruitful City started with my daughter volunteering for an urban harvest organization that picks unwanted city fruit and shares it with the homeowner, the volunteer pickers, and a community agency in need. I loved the concept and, as writers do, figured it would make a good magazine article. The published story focused on the people who run the harvest outfits across the country. I wanted to know more about the trees. Who planted them, what did they use the fruit for, why aren’t the current homeowners eating the fruit and how did we get to a place where we can’t identify an edible cherry? The book digs into all of that as I explore backyards and alleyways, and talk to the people who slipped a few cuttings from the old country into their luggage to ensure they would always have a taste of home.
Helena Moncrieff is a writer, professor, former radio journalist, and lifelong city dweller. Her writing has appeared in Best Health magazine, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and many in-house publications. Her freezer is full of fruit collected from other people’s backyards. She lives in Toronto.