Online registration opens June 10 for the Blue Pencil Sessions with Fred Stenson. Greg Gerrard photo

Festival Tales: Does the bear write in the woods?

Fred Stenson will mentor writers at this year’s Elephant Mountain Literary Festival

Each year the Nelson Star hosts a column series for the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival, July 6 to 9 in Nelson. This column is the first in the series.

There is a fearless and relentless cinnamon bear that has Bonnington on high alert, and I am up in the wee hours waiting for that distinctive huff sound and worrying about my chickens. It has me thinking about writing, and about narrative tension.

It has me hoping there won’t be an inciting incident anytime soon. And it has me thinking about Holley Rubinsky and Fred Stenson. Read on.

This is the second year of the Holley Rubinsky Memorial Blue Pencil Sessions at the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival (EMLF), in which ten writers learn the craft through one-on-one critique sessions of their work with an established writer. For Holley, who passed away in 2015, it mattered that writers should have opportunities to become the best that they can be. Holley offered mentorship to writers for decades, and the Blue Pencil Sessions are among her legacies.

“Established” is an understatement for the EMLF’s 2017 writer-in-residence Fred Stenson, with 19 books and 150 films to his credit.

Add to that 15 years as director of the Banff Centre’s Wired Writing program and Writer-in-Residence at the University of Alberta among other teaching stints—including teaching at a prison—and you have just the sort of mentor Holley envisioned.

So why has a bear got me thinking about these two?

In 2006 McClelland and Stewart released Holley’s novel Beyond This Point, but being signed by one of Canada’s top literary publishers wasn’t enough.

Holley, fearless and relentless as any chicken-hungry cinnamon bear, reworked the manuscript and self-published her self-editing tour-de-force under the title Weight of the Bear in order to prove she could put more tooth to her words, towards a better book.

The story concerns five women who make their way to the Kaslo-like town of Ruth to contemplate their pasts and futures, while in the present a prowling bear is huffing at the perimeter like an ambulatory metaphor for threat and vulnerability—something every writer knows about.

When it comes to writing, threat and vulnerability are the nature of the beast, which is why a good mentor builds skill and confidence to stand up to all those metaphorical bears—or at least save the chickens.

Not everyone can self-edit with true fearlessness, and Holley would have been the first to say so. It helps to learn from someone who’s tamed that beast.

Fred Stenson has, or at least the critics think so. His 2014 novel Who By Fire, was long-listed for the IMPAC Award.

Other fiction titles include the historical trilogy The Great Karoo, Lightning and The Trade. The Trade won the WGA George Bugnet Novel Award, The City of Edmonton Book Prize, and the Grant MacEwan Writer’s Prize, and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize.

The Great Karoo won the Grant MacEwan Prize and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction.

Fred wrote a guide to the writing craft called Thing Feigned or Imagined. Said reviewer Curtis Gillespie: “Somebody commissioned to design the perfect writing mentor would probably come back with Fred Stenson. Stenson is wise, funny, and blessedly enthusiastic about the craft of writing.” Holley would have approved.

Of fiction, Fred himself says, wisely and succinctly, “The art of fiction is not to stand on the outside looking in; it is to get inside and look out.”

In the case of my bear story, I believe I’d rather not be on the inside.

There are a lot of great stories to get your teeth into, whether you’re writing them or reading them. I shall now turn out my light and hope I don’t become one of them.

Online registration opens June 10 for the Blue Pencil Sessions, July 6 and 7.

Stenson offers a talk on the writing craft on July 6 at 7:30 p.m., and will appear at the Saturday Night Live! event on July 8. Full information and schedule can be found at


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