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Bruce Wishart

Rejection Slips

Most writers I meet these days haven’t even seen a real rejection slip. That always strikes me as odd, because rejection slips are how I learned to write.

I was surprised to find this little collection of 1970s rejection slips. I didn’t know I still had these last few. They must have been misfiled someplace, and showed up only after the conservators were finished salvaging my files from a study flood. This odd little group might have been a handful of rejections for a single story all misfiled at the same time. Fantasy / science fiction wasn’t a common angle.

There was quite a process to endure before you earned a rejection slip. Writing the query letter seemed to take almost as long as the story. It was honed to perfection, with a carbon copy of it clipped to an active query board.

The story itself was perfectly formatted, likely typed at least a couple of times to produce a clean copy without a typo or a smudge.

There was an SASE enclosed—a self-addressed, stamped envelope—in case the piece wasn’t suitable for the magazine.

At the other end an editor scooped it out of the slush pile, glanced at the query and perhaps flipped to the lede of the story, grabbed a form rejection, stuffed the whole pile into your SASE, and within a minute returned it to you with the postage you paid for. If you were lucky, and something had caught the editor’s eye, he jotted a little note on the rejection slip. Each one of those little notes was worth more than an entire creative writing course.

Twenty years later, in the 1990s, I had stopped creative writing after a bad experience with a publishing house. To force myself back to work I plastered the walls of a room with old rejection slips. I had a lot of them. When I started I had out maybe 25 queries at any given time, and, especially in the beginning, most of those proposals ended in rejection.

In the middle of that room I placed a desk salvaged from a hotel room used by the entertainment at a local hotel and pub. I sat at the desk, listening to the stories of its cigarette burns and drink stains and carved graffiti from musicians and exotic dancers. Every slip of paper on the wall was a reminder of a lesson learned. Their purpose served, when I left that apartment I stripped down all of the rejection slips and threw them away.

Through persistence one eventually graduated. The first sign came in receiving personalized rejection letters instead of generic slips. That happened when an editor liked the voice, just not the story. The only remaining step was publication and pay.

That was the rejection slip challenge. The secret was, to quote a very detailed one from Isaac Asimov, that one’s story had “failed to rise far enough above the other 849 seen that month.” That provided the incentive. The challenge was simply to leave those 849 wannabes behind. To learn how to write your way to the top, you simply had to learn how not to write.

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Isaac Asimov

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F&SF

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Playboy

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Twilight Zone

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A gift from W.O. Mitchell

Contemplating the great writer’s death the previous week, Iain Lawrence and I both wrote about W.O. Mitchell in the March 1, 1998, edition of This Week. Iain and I were surprised to learn it, but school visits by Bill Mitchell had been pivotal moments in the writing life for us both. To this day, when I visit schools or talk to young people about writing, I do so at least partly from the desire to repay an old debt.

The old man who took time to talk

First published in This Week, March 8, 1998.

I attended that W.O. Mitchell lecture, the one that Iain wrote about in his column this week. Actually, I attended it twice. The first time was in the afternoon, when Mitchell came to our big new school. The second was that evening, when he spoke at the official opening of Minnedosa’s new public library.

Poor Mr. Mitchell didn’t have much of a break between the two lectures. Some annoying kid hijacked him, assailed him with platoons of stupid questions. I wish I’d had the chance to thank him for that. In two hours, Bill Mitchell made it possible for me to write for a living and a lifestyle.

He gave his talk at the school, the one about the outhouse exploding, as part of a tour promoting How I Spent My Summer Holidays. As he left the school gymnasium I chased him down. Caught him dead in his tracks. I think I said something like, “Mr.-Mitchell-I-really-like-Jake-and-the-Kid.” Only I think I said it faster.

I talked to him for almost two hours. I remember that it was two hours, because I caught hell for it from my mother. See, in order to explain why I was so late coming home from school, I had to tell her about him. I showed her where he signed my schoolbook, so it wouldn’t seem to be some trumped-up excuse.

Then the fact that I had waylaid (“pestered”) a famous writer at all—let alone for two long, miserable hours—became a crime second only to murder. I protested that every time I said that I should stop bothering him and go home, he said that I was not bothering him; but I had no physical proof that this was not one of the above trumped-up excuses.

I asked Mitchell all of the usual questions. The same ones that people who “always thought they could be” writers ask. “Where do you get your ideas?” “How do you build characters that people will believe?” The kind of questions that make writers (like me) sometime want to avoid being seen in public.

But Mitchell either had the patience of Job, or I must have asked something that sparked his interest. Because the old fellow (yes, in Iain’s words, “disappointingly old”) took time to answer every question. No matter how silly, he took the time.

And then he explained the simple line that all writers, myself included, use to silence the questions: “If you want to be a writer, then write.” He explained that the difference between writers and those who wanted to be writers was that the one had the desire strongly enough that they would do it for hours every day, and that the other, seemingly, could talk about it for hours every day. He explained that learning to write took long, hard, dedicated years; and he somehow made me believe that and want that at the same time.

I tape recorded Mitchell’s talk that night, and listened to the tape until it wore out. His voice, on the tape, reminded me of his words. And that inspired me to write, which is a self-sustaining thing. There is truth in what was my mother’s favourite quotation: that an artist does not work because he is inspired, but becomes inspired by working.

I love his books. But I will remember W.O. Mitchell because in the beginning, before I even knew how to string together a sentence, he spared a couple of hours to really talk to some kid who accosted him out of the sky-blue pink.

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A Personal Anniversary

This month marks eight years since I left the media and joined Tourism Prince Rupert, and 35 years since I published my first US magazine story.

I barely remember the beginning – especially since I started out writing under pseudonyms, and didn’t keep copies of anything until the late 1980s. I can remember only that the first sale was to a magazine based in Texas. From that first cheque I bought a shiny new 1976 quarter. I drilled a hole and wore it under my shirt until I finally saw the last of the rejection slips in the early 1980s.

Meantime I went into the media and worked literally from coast to coast – in broadcast and print, rising eventually through to promotions manager and station manager in radio, and to editor, publisher and even owner at newspapers and magazines.

In the ‘90s I was drafted by Hollinger to “save” Prince Rupert This Week. Over time Hollinger wanted me elsewhere, and I had to quit my job a couple of times to make them let me stay, but in the end I closed our weekly here in 1999. I was shifted over to Thomson Newspapers to create a new weekly newspaper for delivery to all rural homes in the three prairie provinces.

Instead I dropped out of the game to stay in Prince Rupert, but finally bowed to economic pressure in 2002 and left to run a communications company in Calgary. Swinging through Rupert in 2003, en route to join the Nanaimo Daily News, I was asked to take on Tourism Prince Rupert to make some changes under a short-term contract. It was a good fit on both sides, so I stayed.

Writing, photography and publishing are vital skills in tourism marketing. Media and political work, and understanding individual business needs in order to provide effective marketing, were the most basic tools in the publisher’s toolkit. Heck, even just having been a radio promotions manager, simultaneously planning and managing huge events in multiple communities, was a good apprenticeship for TPR.

After all those years as a corporate manager it was strange to come into a non-profit society, but not as strange as it might have been. I was a founding member of a provincial archaeological society the same year I first published, 1976, and was then a founding member of a large airplane museum by the time I left high school. (Yeah, I was a weird kid.) Since then I’ve volunteered for god knows how many non-profit boards, so at least I started with an idea of what was needed.

My belief in Prince Rupert’s potential is stronger than ever. Writing in This Week beginning in 1996 I argued for stronger investment in tourism – having seen the rough, unplanned transition from resource to tourism economies at my most recent gig with CFCY Charlottetown. That might have been avoided in Prince Rupert, our transition could have been smoother, but I still believe, more than ever, in that promising future.

Each of the past eight years has brought both success and challenge. This year we had a great year in Prince Rupert, with a strong increase in the number of visitors. About half of the increased hotel revenue was likely due to growing success in attracting conferences, and the other half to a greatly increased number of independent visitors traveling the northern corridor. Still, certain sectors were weak – such as European visitation, due to the strong Canadian dollar – and the halibut closure slaughtered the tail end of an otherwise strong sport fishing season. Our tour operators are facing a 2012 season without a weekly cruise ship. Yet despite these factors tourism remains one of the most vital sectors of the Prince Rupert economy, and the successes of the past eight years have greatly outweighed the missed opportunities.

(First published in The Northern View, September 28, 2011.)

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Hearing the Owl

So begins one of my favourite stories…

The doctor said to the Bishop, “So you see, my lord, your young ordinand can live no more than three years and doesn’t know it. Will you tell him, and what will you do with him?”

The Bishop said to the doctor, “Yes, I’ll tell him, but not yet. If I tell him now, he’ll try too hard. How much time has he for an active life?”

“A little less than two years if he’s lucky.”

“So short a time to learn so much? It leaves me no choice. I shall send him to my hardest parish. I shall send him to Kingcome on patrol of the Indian villages.”

“Then I hope you’ll pray for him, my lord.”

But the Bishop only answered gently that it was where he would wish to go if he were young again, and in the ordinand’s place.

Margaret Craven, I heard the owl call my name (Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1967).

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True Stories and Tall Tales

The Alpaca 1 at Prince Rupert in 1997. The vessel was launched as the Alpaca in Nova Scotia in 1927, but spent most of her years on the west coast as the Cooperator 1. (Lonnie Wishart Photo)

For a place with so many stories, the Northwest Coast has surprisingly few good old-fashioned tall tales. In my newspaper days I always had to dig pretty deep to find a ghost story for the Hallowe’en edition. Our version of the tall tale is instead usually an undercurrent of myth, urban legend blended with fact, in retelling our actual history.

I was reminded of an example of this by a widely reported story about a brass propeller being stolen in Vancouver last Friday. The fellow who owned it said he’d salvaged it from the wreck of the packer Texada, a boat reportedly once owned by Al Capone.

Just about every waterfront in North America must have at least one boat with purported links to Capone. I’m reminded of the Alpaca, last seen in these parts about a decade ago. The Alpaca’s Capone story was a hoary old waterfront tale by the time I arrived here.

The real history of the Alpaca is well known. She was launched in 1927 at Shelburne, Nova Scotia, for rumrunner George Morel of Sandy Cove. She changed ownership a few times when Prohibition ended, and in 1936 the Kyuoquot Trollers’ Association brought her through the Panama Canal to serve on the west coast as Cooperator 1.

It’s hardly uncommon on the waterfront to stretch a story into a more interesting shape. Alpaca had seen use as a rum-runner, and Capone was a memorable Prohibition character. It was believable to link the two; the Fitz Hugh, with actual connections to Capone, survived as the Vancouver yacht Virginia Hope. The tale grew that Alpaca’s name came from AL PAcino CApone, and that detail allowed the tale to become sworn fact.

The history of the vessel wasn’t allowed to interfere with the story. In 1998 Iain Lawrence dug into every aspect of the tale, even talking to mafia historian William Balsamo. Just for starters, Alphonse Capone didn’t even have a middle name. No part of the Alpaca legend has ever stood up to the slightest scrutiny.

Yet this wasn’t a deliberate white-wash – not like the post-Titanic reinvention of Charles Hays as a visionary, instead of an American robber baron leading the charge on what John Houston famously described in 1909 as “the story of a thousand blunders.” The Alpaca is just one of a hundred little tall tales that have found stubborn life in Prince Rupert.

But in the end the tall tales just detract from the true stories. Good writers want their stories rich with authentic detail. Last week a writer researching a story asked us how many buildings survived at North Pacific Cannery (29), and what sort of trees grew across the Slough on Smith Island (spruce, hemlock and cedar). That attention to detail is a far cry from taking the old stories at face value and running with them.

The thing is that the true stories of this place are incredibly rich and diverse. From the big stories, such as the founding of Metlakatla or the building of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, to the little stories, such as the Battle of Kelly’s Cut or the recovery of the Kazu Maru, there’s no need to make anything up. I’m not above the occasional tall tale, but in the case of Prince Rupert the truth is far more interesting every single time.

(First published in The Northern View, August 17, 2011.)

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Alpaca

The Alpaca 1 at Prince Rupert in 1997. The vessel was launched as the Alpaca from Shelburne Shipyard in 1927, but spent most of her years on the west coast as the Cooperator 1. (Lonnie Wishart Photo)

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Edac

Noel Woodworth running the Edac in Prince Rupert harbour in 1999 (Lonnie Wishart Photo).

I still remember the first time I saw Edac, down at the Prince Rupert Rowing & Yacht Club in about 1995. At that time Rob Morris was editor of Westcoast Mariner, and he and I used to talk about her quite often. We both have a real soft spot for classic pleasure boats, and, having been launched here by noted Japanese boatbuilders the Suga Brothers in 1914, the Edac certainly fit that bill.

I came to know Edac’s owners, Noel and Alberta Woodworth, quite well as regulars at the chowder sessions we used to hold at Sabre Marine. In fact, we ended up displaying the Edac and Charlie Currie’s 1929 tug CRC together down at the lightering dock for Heritage Week in February 1999. Noel said he was writing a book, and since he’d published more than one story I always thought that there was good chance of him finishing it. As his health failed I assumed that was the end of that. I was wrong.

Alberta finished the book after Noel died in 2006, and it was released this year as Edac: 80 Years Cruising the North Coast of British Columbia. And it’s a real treat. Part travelogue and part biography of a place and a classic boat, it follows the tradition of The Curve of Time, Upcoast Summers, Three’s a Crew, or Seven-Knot Summers. Yet, like Iain Lawrence in Sea Stories of the Inside Passage, Noel has provided a special treat by focusing on northern BC waters.

Edac was launched for Drs. Kergin and McRae as Kermac, and renamed when she was sold to Dr. Cade in 1919. The vessel passed through a few other hands before Noel and Alberta bought her for a thousand dollars on Valentine’s Day 1966.

The book is a series of vignettes, really, a collection of treasured memories. Some are gathered by topic, such as fishing, wildlife sightings, beachcombing, or favourite cruising grounds. Adventures and mishaps are recounted through fine writing and delightful, self-depreciating humour.

Noel wrote his story in the mid-1990s, while Edac was still tied up at the Yacht Club and Charlie Currie still brought a big pot of clam chowder down to Sabre Marine each week, so in the book we avoid the sad ending – the passing of Noel, and longtime friends Bill and Paddy Elkins who shared so many of Edac’s adventures, and the dismantling of the ruined old Edac herself at the Cowichan Bay Wooden Boat Society nearly a decade ago. Instead the story is one of continuing adventure, somehow frozen in a world of endless summers.

Noel did not intentionally write about himself. Yet his character, and Noel and Alberta’s deep love of Edac and the times they had with her, come through with crystal clarity.

“We loved this cruising as nothing before in our lives,” he wrote. “We enjoyed beachcombing on beautiful beaches where few human footsteps are seen each year, walking the low rocky tidal areas where nature’s undersea beauty is exposed, seeing the endless wild flowers of the seaside and the tortured trees that grow according to the winter winds. It was always thrilling to see the ever-changing seas of waves and swells and currents, of calm and of anger, but always of beauty. It also brought us many friends and introduced us to a way of life we would sorely miss if we had to leave it. Thirty years later we are still enjoying it.”

I hope that Edac: 80 Years Cruising the North Coast of British Columbia joins its storied predecessors, The Curve of Time and the others, as a classic tale of cruising the BC coast. It has certainly earned that place on my shelf.

(First published in The Northern View, July 27, 2011.)

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Metlakahtla

The British warship H.M.S. Virago was steaming northward through the Pacific Ocean near the southern boundary of Alaska. The steady throb of the ship’s engines was the only sound that broke the stillness of the beautiful mountainous islands among which the vessel was wending its way.

It was the year 1853, and several days had passed since the ship had left Victoria, five hundred miles southward. The warship had kept close to the Canadian coast throughout the journey and was now nearing Queen Charlotte Islands, where an American schooner had recently been plundered and destroyed by the savage Indian inhabitants. The warship had come to punish the offenders.

George T.B. Davis, Metlakahtla: A True Narrative of the Red Man. (The Ram’s Horn Company, 1904).

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Metlakahtla

The British warship H.M.S. Virago was steaming northward through the Pacific Ocean near the southern boundary of Alaska. The steady throb of the ship’s engines was the only sound that broke the stillness of the beautiful mountainous islands among which the vessel was wending its way.

It was the year 1853, and several days had passed since the ship had left Victoria, five hundred miles southward. The warship had kept close to the Canadian coast throughout the journey and was now nearing Queen Charlotte Islands, where an American schooner had recently been plundered and destroyed by the savage Indian inhabitants. The warship had come to punish the offenders.

George T.B. Davis, Metlakahtla: A True Narrative of the Red Man. (The Ram’s Horn Company, 1904).

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Edac

Noel Woodworth running the Edac in Prince Rupert harbour in 1999.

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Edac

Noel Woodworth running the Edac in Prince Rupert harbour in 1999 (Lonnie Wishart Photo).

I still remember the first time I saw Edac, down at the Prince Rupert Rowing & Yacht Club in about 1995. At that time Rob Morris was editor of Westcoast Mariner, and he and I used to talk about her quite often. We both have a real soft spot for classic pleasure boats, and, having been launched here by noted Japanese boatbuilders the Suga Brothers in 1914, the Edac certainly fit that bill.

I came to know Edac’s owners, Noel and Alberta Woodworth, quite well as regulars at the chowder sessions we used to hold at Sabre Marine. In fact, we ended up displaying the Edac and Charlie Currie’s 1929 tug CRC together down at the lightering dock for Heritage Week in February 1999. Noel said he was writing a book, and since he’d published more than one story I always thought that there was good chance of him finishing it. As his health failed I assumed that was the end of that. I was wrong.

Alberta finished the book after Noel died in 2006, and it was released this year as Edac: 80 Years Cruising the North Coast of British Columbia. And it’s a real treat. Part travelogue and part biography of a place and a classic boat, it follows the tradition of The Curve of Time, Upcoast Summers, Three’s a Crew, or Seven-Knot Summers. Yet, like Iain Lawrence in Sea Stories of the Inside Passage, Noel has provided a special treat by focusing on northern BC waters.

Edac was launched for Drs. Kergin and McRae as Kermac, and renamed when she was sold to Dr. Cade in 1919. The vessel passed through a few other hands before Noel and Alberta bought her for a thousand dollars on Valentine’s Day 1966.

The book is a series of vignettes, really, a collection of treasured memories. Some are gathered by topic, such as fishing, wildlife sightings, beachcombing, or favourite cruising grounds. Adventures and mishaps are recounted through fine writing and delightful, self-depreciating humour.

Noel wrote his story in the mid-1990s, while Edac was still tied up at the Yacht Club and Charlie Currie still brought a big pot of clam chowder down to Sabre Marine each week, so in the book we avoid the sad ending – the passing of Noel, and longtime friends Bill and Paddy Elkins who shared so many of Edac’s adventures, and the dismantling of the ruined old Edac herself at the Cowichan Bay Wooden Boat Society nearly a decade ago. Instead the story is one of continuing adventure, somehow frozen in a world of endless summers.

Noel did not intentionally write about himself. Yet his character, and Noel and Alberta’s deep love of Edac and the times they had with her, come through with crystal clarity.

“We loved this cruising as nothing before in our lives,” he wrote. “We enjoyed beachcombing on beautiful beaches where few human footsteps are seen each year, walking the low rocky tidal areas where nature’s undersea beauty is exposed, seeing the endless wild flowers of the seaside and the tortured trees that grow according to the winter winds. It was always thrilling to see the ever-changing seas of waves and swells and currents, of calm and of anger, but always of beauty. It also brought us many friends and introduced us to a way of life we would sorely miss if we had to leave it. Thirty years later we are still enjoying it.”

I hope that Edac: 80 Years Cruising the North Coast of British Columbia joins its storied predecessors, The Curve of Time and the others, as a classic tale of cruising the BC coast. It has certainly earned that place on my shelf.

(First published in The Northern View, July 27, 2011.)

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Bruce Wishart
Whimsies. Sometimes about writing.
Sometimes about folklore. Sometimes
about the sea, or life on the coast.
And sometimes not.