A Little Festival Grows

Authors write in isolation and we read in isolation and yet books can bring us all together. Literary Festivals shatter the wall between writers and readers as they meet to explain, question, and enjoy the power of words and ideas. The Lakefield Literary Festival is widely respected for bringing writers and readers together for over twenty-five years.

It began small. Its founding spark was the acknowledgement that the Lakefield area has a thriving arts community and was once home to pioneer authors Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie and, from 1974 to her death in 1987, renowned Canadian writer Margaret Laurence.

In early 1995, Ron and Joan Ward purchased the modest Lakefield house in which Laurence had lived with the notion of creating a writers’ retreat. While that idea failed to materialize, the conversations about honouring Laurence morphed into a two-day event that July that involved a walking tour and performances, readings, and musical selections at a banquet in the dining hall of Lakefield College School. CBC Radio host Shelagh Rogers was the banquet’s master of ceremonies.

The event’s success led to the formation of a group of volunteers who created what became the Lakefield Literary Festival. The enthusiastic group was led by Shelley Ambrose and Brenda Neill. At that time, Ambrose was the personal assistant to CBC Radio personality Peter Gzowski and summered at a nearby cottage. Neill was a retired teacher and long-time Lakefield resident. They were the perfect team as Ambrose’s connections to Canada’s cultural community brought attention and noted authors to the festival and Neill’s local ties inspired a group of eager volunteers. An early sponsor was Quaker Oats, located in nearby Peterborough, with generous donations from many local businesses and individuals.

Growth

From those humble beginnings the festival grew. Its mandate became: To commemorate Catharine Parr Traill, Susanna Moodie, Margaret Laurence, and our community’s ongoing literary heritage; to showcase Canadian authors; and to promote the joy of reading among children and adults. A Board was formed and the festival was incorporated as a non-profit organization. The festival has no staff. While authors and those attending the festival come from across Canada, it remains a grassroots organization, run by dedicated volunteers.

The festival came to involve free readings for children in the downtown Cenotaph Park in what became known as the Children’s Tent. There were readings in a local church on Sunday morning, a Village walking tour, a reception, and a Young Writer’s Contest involving students from the area’s secondary schools.  

A range of noted authors entertained and challenged audiences including Margaret Atwood, Richard Wagamese, Andy Barrie, June Callwood, Michael Crummey, Michael Enright, Terry Fallis, Douglas Gibson, Graeme Gibson, Charlotte Gray, Lawrence Hill, Wayne Johnston, Thomas King, Roy MacGregor, Linden MacIntyre, Alistair MacLeod, Rohinton Mistry, Lisa Moore, Michael Ondaatje, Adam Shoaltz, Paul Quarrington, Nino Ricci, Bill Richardson, Noah Richler, Drew Hayden Taylor, Jane Urquhart, and many, many more.

Future

In 2019, the Lakefield Literary Festival celebrated its 25th Anniversary. The next year, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world. The Young Writers Contest continued but the festival was suspended.

The festival will return on July 14 and 15, 2023. It will celebrate its core elements with author events on Friday night, Saturday afternoon, and Saturday evening, the Children’s Tent on Saturday morning, and the Young Writers Contest. The adult author readings will take place at the United Church on Regent Street, each followed by authors signing books and a reception in the church auditorium.

In 2023, the festival will continue its dedication to commemorating the area’s literary heritage, celebrating authors, and promoting the joy of reading. The Lakefield Literary Festival’s history is still being made by those who write, those who read, and by the power of the connections between them.

Why Do We Work For Nothing?

I received a call inviting me to join the board of directors of Lakefield’s Morton Community Healthcare Centre. It’s the sole medical centre that serves our small Village and the surrounding rural area. My first question to the caller was why do you want me but the first question to myself was why would I want to do this? Indeed, why do any of us work at certain tasks for nothing?

People working for nothing are the smiling folks in bright T-Shirts at the various fairs and festivals we enjoy so much. Without them, those events simply could not happen. More often, though, we don’t see those working for nothing at all. They serve on all the boards that oversee those events and all the other organizations that make our communities what they are.

I, for instance, am the Chair of the Lakefield Literary Festival. It is a terrific little 24-year-old annual festival that brings authors from across Canada to read from and discuss their books one evening every April and for a weekend in July. Dozens of volunteers make the events happen and eight of us work all year to pull it together. None of us makes a dime doing it.

Boards like that exist in every community. Think of Hospice, Children’s Aid, hospitals, race relations, United Way, agricultural fairs, libraries, social planning councils, Lions, Kinsmen, Probus, YMCA and YWCA, and on and on and on. Think not just of all the coaches in the rinks and on the sidelines keeping kids active and out of trouble but all the folks who run the leagues. Unlike corporate boards that pay members handsomely, the people serving on these boards, and the many more like them, all volunteer their time and talents. They work hard and they work for nothing.

I believe that we should pay for that from which we draw benefit. I would never enjoy a restaurant meal and then leave without paying. That would be theft. Similarly, I would never consider enjoying life in a society where people are educated by schools, protected by police, and helped by hospitals without paying for it. That is why I don’t grumble about paying taxes for those things despite the fact that I am not in school, and have not called a cop in years or been admitted to hospital since I had my tonsils out at age four. To enjoy the benefits of a society where those and things like them exist without paying would be theft as much as a dine and dash.

In this vein, picture a community without all those organizations made possible by the work of volunteers. Our community would be poorer if they were gone. We would be poorer. So we pay for the benefit of living in a civilized society by contributing to those organizations we can with our time –  we work for nothing.

Why Do We Work For Nothing?

So yes, I said, I would be happy to serve on the Morton Community Healthcare Centre Board. I will need to learn a lot. I will be out a couple of evenings a month and be doing other work to prepare for those meetings and to address actionable decisions but that’s OK. I look forward to the experience. I look forward to working with others who also see the value in such work. I look forward to knowing that in doing what little I can to help, I will be adding just a tiny bit to my community. I look forward to working for nothing. I urge you to do the same.

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A Nation of Festivals Making Us Better

We are a nation of festivals. There are film festivals, poetry festivals, rib festivals, art festivals, and every conceivable genre of music festivals. They are fascinating in like a conch blowing silently but convincingly through the ether they gather those of similar interests to form a temporary community. Festivals offer revelry in the acknowledgement that our particular passion is shared. My favourite are literary festivals. They intrigue me because they shouldn’t work.

Canadians read. Canadians read more books per capita than nearly anyone. A lot of folks enjoy books on tablets but most are sticking with the physical kind, the kind you can hold, smell, feel the joy of cracking for the first time, hold in bed without hurting your eyes, drop without breaking, and then shelve as a friend to share your home. Ok, I’m biased.

Canadians write. A generalization that is generally true is that all novels ask the question, “Who am I?” and all non-fiction asks “Who are we?” That Canada is blessed with so many talented writers asking both questions and so many readers reading all that stuff it is little wonder that we always seem to be in a state of existential angst and renewal. That’s a good thing. A reactive society is one of division and anger but a reflective society enjoys more consideration and compassion. Is this Trump versus Trudeau? Maybe that we read so much leads to our fighting so little.

The thing is, though, and the source of my fascination with writing festivals is that both writing and reading are solitary pursuits. Margaret Atwood once observed that you know you are a writer when you are typing away in your office in July about a winter scene and look up and out the window and wonder where the snow went. As an author, I know that feeling. Writing my history books often transports me back to the era that I am investigating and I quite honestly sometimes have trouble getting all the way back. I’m alone in my research. I’m alone in my writing.

But then, whatever I have written is released to the world. It is like I watch a young bird leave the nest. I wish it well. I always know some will like it. I always know some will attack it. I always hope the world will not just ignore it. It is up to the readers. Readers, of course, then buy what writers have spent so many hours silent and alone creating and devote more hours silent and alone to absorbing. Watch someone reading. They are not really there. They’ve been transported. Books are conduits of ideas from one solitary person to another.

The notion of two solitary experiences coming together for a community group hug is the source of my fascination with writing festivals. Writers blinkingly emerge from their writing dens with their pallid skin and reeking of coffee and wine and are suddenly before large groups and asked to talk about what they wrote, how they wrote it, and why they wrote it. For many, it’s like asking a fish to describe water. Readers emerge from their solitary reading spots to quiz the authors and each other about books and ideas. The isolation ends.

A Nation of Festivals

(Photo: Lakefield Literary Festival)

Festivals, like book clubs, lay out ideas to be examined as a community exercise. They remind us that books are like paintings and songs and any other art. Their meaning is only partially controlled by the artist. The rest is up to the experience and mood of the beholder. At festivals, the readers and writers both learn more about the books and ideas in question and about themselves. I am always intrigued when asked questions about my book that I never considered.

I have attended many but my favourite is the Lakefield Literary Festival. I am biased, of course, because I live in the Village of Lakefield. It is the Ontario community in what city people call “cottage country” consisting of only 2,400 people. Lakefield was once home to sisters Catherine Parr Trail and Susanna Moodie who were among Canada’s first writers and much later to Margaret Laurence who was among Canada’s best.

The Lakefield Literary Festival began in 1995 as a one-off banquet to celebrate Margaret Laurence but it became an annual event. It is now among Canada’s premier literary festivals, this year to take place over the weekend of July 15. It draws writers and readers from across the country to enjoy the campus of Lakefield College School and ideas and books and each other.

I will be at the Lakefield Literary Festival in a couple of weeks both speaking and teaching a writing class. I’ll be at Saskatoon’s Word on the Street Festival in September. I know I will enjoy both. I know I will enjoy meeting people who share a passion for writing, reading, books, and ideas. All those writers and readers at these and all the other literary festivals will emerge from their isolation. They’ll contribute to our national conversation by reflecting upon who we are as people and as a broader community. Perhaps all that isolated writing and reading and then all those festival conversations will play a role in making Canada a better place for us all.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it along to others. I hope to meet you in Lakefield in July or Saskatoon in September.