Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Memories, Memoirists and a Memorable Evening

Catherine Gildiner, Alison Pick, and Donna Thomson, are remarkable memoirists. They wowed the crowd last night with their unique insights into the craft of memoir writing and mesmerised us with their enchanting prose. They exchanged with the audience their vast knowledge on evoking memories from our past that would making meaningful contributions to the stories of each of our lives, and we heard some excerpts from a few of their newest books.


Gildiner’s latest book, Coming Ashore, is the final of a trilogy that taps into the vast experiences of her life. She shares anecdotes with the crowd of her life with Roy, her adventures as a young woman who found herself without anywhere to go early in the morning and her belongings on the street, and her experiences a student. Her book takes place in three different places. Just a glimpse of this memoir makes the avid reader anxious to delve into the beguiling prose. A highly educated woman, Gildiner studied at Oxford and is a former practising clinical psychologist. She also has been published in, The Globe and Mail.


Host with the most, Phil Jenkins, was a real crowd pleaser, and tapped into the authors’ minds with insightful, thought provoking questions. When introducing Alison Pick, Jenkins’ says, “I was fascinated as I moved through this book of the honesty and level of self-assessment that was there, but (Pick), also maintained her poetic sense.”


Between Gods, tells the story of coming back to my family’s Judaism,” says Pick, who adds that it also talks about depression. “It’s hard to write a book that is so honest and vulnerable,” Pick says. But she has done it, and I applaud her for that accomplishment. Pick read from her memoir, Between Gods. Her prose is compelling, incredibly detailed and it is entrancing. As her lips move and the words come out, you can picture the scene in your mind until she speaks the very last word of the segment.


Pick discloses to the avid memoirist, as well as to the novice, that you can use character names for the people in your life when writing a memoir, that not everyone is going to agree with you no matter what you do. “It speaks to the fact that you can never make everyone happy,” she says. In the process of completing her memoir, Pick showed it to the people she had included in her prose before it went to publication. She says it was really surprising to her that the things she thought they would be bothered by were non-issues, and that a lot of smaller details were very easy to edit.


Donna Thomson, author of, The Four Walls of My Freedom, says she never intended to write a memoir. Through a conversation with someone, a question was posed that she later reflected on and asked of herself, “How can we have a life we value? How can community and our country help us to do that?” She shared from her memoir an excerpt in learning to be alone as a caregiver.


Thomson says she is interested in ideas on the concept of care, and says she wants people to reflect on their own experiences of giving and receiving care. Her hope is that in reading the book people will ask of themselves what this concept means to them. If you’re wondering if your story is worth telling, Thomson says, “I think what people like are the things that remind them of themselves. They want to say that they remember similarities to the author’s content.”