(Excerpt from an email by Karen Wehrstein to a prospective participant, February 2012)
The Novel Marathon is the best kick in the butt to get a person started, or re-started, ever. (Either with writing in a new genre or writing period—yes, we’ve had some people with no writing experience at all jump in two-feet-first this way.)
First of all, you have a weather-proof excuse to put aside all other life-obligations for three days solid to do nothing but write. Because it’s for charity, after all!
Not only that, but you are writing in company with 39 other people doing the same thing, all of whom have been psyching themselves up for months. The creative energy in the room is amazing—that’s what pulled me in. I visited a marathon and decided “I’ve just got to be part of this!” around 2005. And there is this beautiful camaraderie, too… writers help each other out with questions, go off for breaks and have long talks, watch sunrises together… etc. etc. etc. Plus we give you free coffee or tea, we feed you and we let you sleep right on the premises. What more could you ask?
Well, you could ask for manuscript feedback—and you get that too, if you submit your work for the competition. Our judges not only pick the winners, but also provide comments and suggestions to every submitting author for improving their manuscript. We train them in being thorough and constructive. If you win, you get feedback from a professional editor or agent—basically it’s a submission that skips the slushpile—and that much more of a shot at a book contract.
One summer weekend, I’m writing for those who can’t
by Karen Wehrstein, June 2006
[Note: this piece was written when the Muskoka Literacy Council was the Marathon’s chosen charity. The name is changed—it’s now the literacy program within YMCA Employment and Literacy—but the purpose, process, beneficiaries, spirit and even some of the personnel remain the same. Participating writers and anyone else wanting to fundraise for literacy may feel free to use this piece—that’s what it was created for!]
I am a writer, having published three novels, several short stories and many news and feature articles.
On July 16, at 8 p.m. EDT, I and 29 other writers, on the signal of a bell, will begin pounding out as many words as we can manage, making them as trenchant and beautiful, or at least as coherent, as possible, before the bell rings again 72 hours later. Caffeinated beverages will be crucial, sleeping and eating optional. Prizes will be awarded for best novel in three categories, greatest number of words written, most funds raised and other contributions of note. It’s the Tenth Annual Muskoka Novel Marathon, in Huntsville, Ontario, Canada.
But it’s not just about the competition. Why else are we so harnessing our literary skills?
To help the person who can’t even read this message learn how.
I came from a middle-class home, was a straight-A student, and have a degree in journalism. I like to curl up with a good novel, and feel sorry for people who don’t have that option… but I never realized how much my easy literacy is something I take for granted, until I read some promotional material from the Novel Marathon’s beneficiary: the Muskoka Literacy Council (MLC).
In these times, the written word is ubiquitous, in every aspect of life.
As a news junkie, I take it totally for granted that, any time I like, I can find out what’s happening, from every angle, all over the world. A person who can’t read is limited to what people tell him, or the relatively shallow and parochial views of TV and radio.
I need work: I whip through the want ads, looking in particular for wordy-type jobs. He must rely on someone else to read the ads to him — and he knows not to bother with jobs that are anything but menial labour.
I tailor my resume on my computer to suit whatever I’m applying for. He can’t write up one resume. If he did, he’d have to reveal that he left school after eighth grade because he couldn’t cope (he can learn, but not with the teaching methods used in public schools) …or his situation at home was too unstable to enable him to handle the pressure …or else he is from another country and struggling to learn English.
More than three items on my shopping list, and it goes on paper. He just has to remember everything.
I want to cook some dish I’ve never cooked before, and I can find a score of recipes for it by Googling. He’s stuck with the few he knows.
My date book is loaded with appointments, consults, dates, special notes. He schedules his life by memory.
Filling out forms—income tax, mortgage applications, emergency info for school, intake for medical services—I consider an unpleasant necessity of life. He’d love to be able to.
I want to call a plumber or a lawyer or a dentist or an acquaintance whose number I don’t know: I get out the phonebook. He has to be satisfied with the numbers he’s memorized or can ask someone for. When he gets a bill, he has to have someone read it to him.
I have to write an important note to my child’s teacher or doctor. He has to get someone else to write it (possibly the kid, when old enough) and he can only sign it with an “X.”
I sign a contract: if I don’t read the fine print, it’s my own stupid fault. It isn’t his. Being unable to read caveats, he is easy for the unscrupulous to rip off.
I want to know what’s going to be on TV tonight; I read the listings. He’s limited to pre-announcements on other programs.
I want to know what ingredients are in a packaged food I’m buying, or a bottle of pills: I read the label. He has to live without that knowledge or—with the indignity it entails—rely on someone else.
My young child gets a gift that says “Some assembly required.” I carefully follow the enclosed instructions. All he has is a bag of parts, the picture on the box, and an eager, impatient kid.
I curse that I don’t score perfect on the written part of the driver’s test. He is hesitant even to try it. He won’t be able to read street signs, or the vehicle owner’s manual, or license forms, or insurance documents.
I make friends and contacts all over the world, on the Internet. All such opportunities are closed to him.
I journal; I track my life, my observations, my changes. Sometimes when I read it back, I realize that my memories of the past are distorted. He has to live without such a personal record and what it could teach him.
I draw inspiration, comfort and enlightenment from scripture or other spiritual writings. He can only do so if someone else is willing to take the time to read them to him.
Helping my kids with homework, I can share with them all sorts of little tips and tricks that helped me become a straight-A student. His kids are on their own.
Over and over I hear that the best way to give youngsters a head start in reading is to read them a story every night. So I do, and when they start to read along, I correct and teach. He can’t, and so he worries that if his kids grow up to live the same nightmare he is living… it will be his own fault.
I want to get involved in politics, I study the issues, learn about the parties and candidates, hand out brochures, participate in online forums, write letters to the editor. Politically, he is invisible, because politics runs on the written word.
All around me is information. Meaning leaps out at me from every piece of paper, book spine, package, window on my computer screen. There’s a world of it available with a click of a mouse; I can research any topic under the sun. He is a stranger in a strange land of incomprehensible symbols. The doors easily and unthinkingly opened by others around him are locked and barred to him. Knowledge is power, and without the primary way of receiving it, he is relatively powerless, and feels it keenly. Competing in a verbal world, he knows he is at a huge disadvantage.
To manage in the information age, he has to work twice as hard. Knowing the stigma attached to illiteracy, he uses many strategies to conceal his inability — though he knows people will see through it anyway. That takes even more work, as well as the shame inherent in the ruse. Keeping himself convinced he isn’t stupid is a constant effort.
The true incidence of literacy problems among adults is unknown to most — and higher than you’d think.
A study done in 1994-1998 (Albert Tuijnman: Benchmarking Adult Literacy in North America: An International Comparative Study) found that 27 per cent of Canadians aged 45-65 have zero to rudimentary literacy skills. For people aged 16-45, it’s 13 per cent. For immigrants to whom English is a second language, the percentage is much higher: 50 per cent.
In Muskoka, about a third of the population is affected.
It’s a Catch-22. He’d love to be able to train for well-paying work — but without well-paying work, how can he afford reading lessons?
This is where the Muskoka Literacy Council comes in. Using funds raised through the Novel Marathon and other channels, and hours contributed by trained volunteers (many of them retired teachers), MLC offers free instruction in literacy, numeracy, computer and basic life skills to out-of-school teens and adults. “Our students,” says past president Susan Lowe, “have degrees of difficulty with reading and writing or numeracy which greatly impacts their lives and their ability to contribute meaningfully to society.”
MLC has produced some amazing success stories, including centenarian Clarence Brazier, who learned to read in his 90s. Some grads, Lowe says, “have since opened businesses of their own; others can now read and write well enough to help their children with their homework.
“All have seen their self confidence grow in leaps and bounds as a result of the success they have had.”
They are overcoming all the above challenges. The squiggles that are everywhere in life are becoming meaningful to them, opening up the whole world. They are going on to seize control of life, to participate, to contribute, to enjoy, and to make their mark in the world. They are enriched, and so is the economy and society itself. We ALL benefit from this work.
This is why the 30 of us will all be writing our brains out the weekend of July 16 to 19… and why I invite you to sponsor me.