Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Here Be Writers: Charting One Writer’s Journey in Literary Durham Region

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Ingrid Ruthig (photo credit: Greg Tjepkema)

By Ingrid Ruthig

HC SVNT DRACONES. “Here be dragons”, which came to signify mysterious unexplored territories, first appeared on the 16-century Hunt-Lenox Globe. Uncharted turf sometimes isn’t at the map’s edge, but right next door. During my years living in Toronto, what lay beyond the city’s eastern boundary remained largely a mystery. Then in 1988 I moved east, to a town named after a World War II battleship, one in a string of small towns that pearl this part of Lake Ontario’s shoreline. The lake marks the southernmost edge of the Regional Municipality of Durham, a 2,500-square-kilometre area that stretches north to Lake Simcoe. Yet my knowledge of my new home remained minimal, because I continued to visit friends and work in Toronto. That changed when I began to write.

Any journey, literal or figurative, takes time. When family life shifted my notion of time and community, a new sense of direction also began to build. I tackled my absence from work and staying home with two youngsters by challenging myself to write. Not one to do things by half measures, I searched out resources and found a newspaper announcement for a workshop sponsored by an organization called the Writers’ Circle of Durham Region (WCDR). I signed up. Then I joined the WCDR. Well, one workshop led to another, which led to more writing, to researching and submitting work to literary journals, to noticing that someone local was publishing one, which led me to approach Ruth Walker, co-editor of the fledgling Lichen Literary Journal. I mentioned I’d seen a copy, admired the initiative, and if extra hands were ever needed, mine were willing.

Though she politely refrained from saying so at the time, Ruth wondered if I’d lost a marble or two. Yet, in January 2000, I joined founding editors Ruth, writer Gwynn Scheltema, novelist Rabindranath Maharaj and poet Lucy Brennan. Lichen’s mandate was to feature literary voices from its own backyard, and with the support of many — including Timothy Findley and Bill Whitehead, who then lived in Cannington — the editorial board did just that, despite a steep learning curve and a tonne of work. The board connected with the larger CanLit community, and was the first publisher of several writers who’ve gone on to acclaim, awards and wide recognition. For nine years Lichen thrived as a respected international publication and was a familiar face at literary events in Toronto and beyond, as well as at home in Durham.

Durham Region, a sprawling monster of urban, suburban, small town and rural, is in flux. In the 25 years I’ve lived here, it’s changed significantly, and the urban continues to displace the rural. But there’s still room to share stories. The abundance of storytelling energy isn’t surprising — this area is steeped in history. A neighbour, whose family’s been here since the 1800s, showed me Napoleon III and George III coins he’d found as a boy, relaying tales of 18th-century ships that sailed up the lake, dropped anchor along this stretch of shore, then hauled local timber back to England for shipbuilding. Other locals know that Whitby writer Leslie McFarlane ghostwrote the early Hardy Boys books, and that Lucy Maud Montgomery lived and wrote in Leaskdale from 1911 to 1926. This was the site of World War II’s then-clandestine, now-famous Camp X, which, it’s believed, became the basis for Ian Fleming’s Bond series, and continues to be the focus of writer Lynn Philip Hodgson’s work. The Town of Ajax sprang up out of Defence Industries Limited, a strategic wartime munitions plant recently portrayed in the television series “Bomb Girls.”

As I grew to know and claim partial ownership of these literary landmarks, I also came to understand there was, in fact, a tradition to uphold, and I settled into the role of writer, editor and publisher with a sense of legacy.

Literary energy bubbles to the surface here, and local libraries play an integral role in tapping it. Ajax Public Library implemented and maintains the Durham Authors Database, where readers find Montgomery and McFarlane listed alongside acclaimed journalists and authors such as D’Arcy Jenish and Ted Barris, or Griffin Poetry Prize-finalist Jeramy Dodds, and many others. Whitby Public Library hosts author launches and reading events, and is a generous supporter of local writers, including Red Maple Award-winner Bill Swan and New York Times bestselling author Susanna Kearsley. I attend and host WPL events, and I’ve also worked with staff on other projects. Ruth Walker and I were volunteers for Words in Whitby, a popular author reading series from 2000 – 2005, and a joint effort of Whitby Public Library and the WCDR. The three-day event featured internationally renowned authors, including Pierre Berton, Andrew Pyper, Charlotte Gray, David Adams Richards and Kelley Armstrong, and it was an intimate, fun venue for writers and readers to connect.

While working on these projects, my own writing was finding publishers. We’ve all gone on to publish novels, essays, interviews and poetry collections; write screen and stage plays; become finalists for, and sometimes recipients of, the Toronto Book Award, Trillium Book Award, Gerald Lampert Award for poetry and other prizes. We’ve been writers-in-residence, mentors, writing retreat and workshop facilitators, book reviewers, even books editor for a national newspaper.

Much has changed in the literary world since I entered it. Still, we move forward. The WCDR, now known as the Writer’s Community of Durham Region, has swelled from a few friends to an energetic umbrella organization with more than 300 members of all levels of experience, genre and ambition. Attendance at the monthly breakfast roundtables often soars to over a hundred people. They network, learn, share and also visit with guest speakers drawn from all facets of the writing and publishing world. The organization’s outreach includes workshops, editing sessions, promotion, professional development and competitions, as well as scholarships and a wealth of resources for new and established writers. Two satellite organizations based on the WCDR model recently formed — the WCSC (Simcoe County) and WCYR (York Region). Members benefit from the collective enthusiasm, knowledge and range of experience, then return the generosity. WCDR folks organize the annual Ontario Writers’ Conference, and each spring its programme of readings, workshops and other events draw a large and enthusiastic audience.

It’s tempting to enumerate all of Durham’s literary features, such as the many critiquing groups, or Uxbridge’s independent Blue Heron Books, which travels to events with books in tow. I could discuss how writers support visual artists, as happened in Lichen and the arts publication Surfacing, and how galleries in turn host readings, launches, even written works. But the list would become too long. Suffice it to say the writing community is as integral to the region’s character as its city-town-country layers. The process of blending may not be unusual, but the results are unique to this place.

Durham Region is where I became a writer, where I am supported by writers and, in turn, support them. As I finish writing this, I’m on retreat on the snowy shore of Lake Simcoe, surrounded by colleagues, friends from the region, as well as new acquaintances from beyond its borders. I feel at home, productive. We’re all scribbling like mad, and loving it.

Forget dragons. Here be writers.

Ingrid Ruthig is a writer, editor and artist. Her work has been widely published, appearing in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012, Malahat Review, National Post, Quill & Quire, and CNQ, among others. Her books include Slipstream (ARKITEXWERKS) and Richard Outram: Essays on His Works (as editor, Guernica Editions), and her textworks have been shown in galleries and other venues. She lives with her family in Durham Region. Visit for more information.

Don't miss Ingrid's Five Things Literary: Ajax & Whitby.

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