Writers for a cause

By Karen Wehrstein

It’s three in the morning in the lower-level room at the Huntsville Civic Centre. Not long from now, the first light of day will show through the windows and the birds will begin to sing. All is quiet, with no town politicians or staff working upstairs, no theatre-goers next door, and barely a car passing by on Main St.— except for the furious tapping of fingers on computer keys, the intermittent quaffing of coffee, and the occasional quiet request from one writer to another for a useful snippet of information.

It’s the Friday night of the Muskoka Novel Marathon, and several participants have decided to get off to a flying start by pulling an all-nighter. Along with their fellow marathoners who consider tonight’s sleep as necessary to their performance, they will toil over their keyboards as many hours as they possibly can, producing as many words as they possibly can, as well-written as they possibly can, in the three days between 8 p.m. July 13 and 8 p.m. July 16.

What would possess rational human beings to do such a thing?

First, a novel marathon is an opportunity to indulge in one solid block of unadulterated, all-out creativity. Under pressure, the literary mind can unleash results that are surprising even to the mind’s owner. It’s a chance to push the limits of creativity and imagination, energy and wakefulness, skill and discipline. It’s a chance to complete a project uninterrupted by other obligations of life — day jobs, children’s needs, phone calls, Emails, errands — such as a budding writer rarely gets. It is a vehicle for defeating writer’s block to the max.

Second, it’s a chance to do so in the company of 30-odd fellow travellers. “The camaraderie is important,” says Paula Boon, a Huntsville writer and editor who co-convenes the Novel Marathon with me, leading a small but dedicated committee.  “Writers don’t often get to be with other writers. The 2 a.m. conversations can get very interesting. Or two of us will sit together to watch the sunrise. The energy in the room is amazing.”

Third, it’s a shot at getting published. Writers may submit their manuscripts for judging, and the best in each category are shown to an acquisitions editor at a publishing house, skipping the slush-pile. In the Novel Marathon’s 11-year history, several writers have gone on to publish works first pounded out there, including Mel Malton and Christina Kilbourne (co-founders of the marathon, along with Martin Avery and Anne Vaughn-Evans) as well as Cheryl Cooper.

“Productivity, inspiration, and camaraderie — it doesn’t get any better than this,” writes frequent participant Erin Thomas. “The Muskoka Novel Marathon is one of my favourite parts of the writing year.”

“The Muskoka Novel Marathon experience unleashed a passionate craziness I had forgotten I possessed,” recalls 2008 participant Connie Knighton.

Co-founder Martin Avery enthuses: “Writers have told me the Muskoka Novel Marathon is one of the best writing experiences in their lives and one of the best life experiences, too.”

As a participant since 2006, I concur with all of them. I signed up after visiting the marathon the year before and so loving the energy that I had to take part.

But finally — and perhaps most importantly — it’s a chance to help adults who can’t read learn how.

“Since the start, the marathon has raised money for adult literacy in Muskoka,” says Boon.  “We’ve raised almost $50,000 over the years, at first to the Muskoka Literacy Council, and now to YMCA of Simcoe Muskoka since they’re now running the program.”

Each writer gathers donations either based on word count or flat rate, and we also now take advantage of our downtown, next-to-the-theatre location by putting out donation jars. Last year the first night of the Novel Marathon coincided with Huntsville’s Midnight Madness, so I and several other writers set up our workspaces at a table in the middle of Main St. We garnered about $80 in donations. Anyone is welcome to come into the room to visit while the marathon is on.

Susan Lowe, past president of the Muskoka Literacy Council, headed the marathon before Paula and I came on board.

“The students have degrees of difficulty with reading and writing or numeracy which greatly impacts their lives and their ability to contribute meaningfully to society,” she says. “But some 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.”

The writers are very aware of the importance, not to mention joy, of the written word, so they’ll happily support this. In fact one regular participant, multiple award-winner Pat Flewwelling, has offered to mentor any one graduate of the literacy program who wants to write in the 2012 Novel Marathon, supporting and giving tips on writing throughout.

Last year, Paula and I decided to kick the fundraising aspect up a notch by setting a goal of $10,000. The final total was $8,600, but this year we hope to attain the goal in part by opening up participation to writers who are not onsite via the Internet, an approach that other novel marathons have had success with. We’ll see how it works.

For more information on the Muskoka Novel Marathon, both verbal and multi-media, visit our website at muskokanovelmarathon.com.


2 responses to “Writers for a cause

  1. sharonledwith

    Great article, Karen! This is why I love being part of this fundraiser! Let’s stomp out illiteracy one word at a time! Kudos to Pat Flewwelling on her offer to mentor. I’ve been a mentor and it was a humbling and gratifying experience.

  2. karenwehrstein

    Thank you very much Sharon. This one was a pleasure to write due to what it is about, of course!

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