In the Spotlight: Mary Nicholson

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Mary Nicholson is one of my beloved Story Intensive TAs, and I'm delighted to put her in the Spotlight this month! I’ve admired Mary for several years now: I’m inspired by her generosity and resolve when it comes to her writing. Her relationship to writing feels like it is full of kindness and respect. I aspire to her level of compassionate presence.

What strikes me about her writing is its overall warmth and honesty, even when the content isn’t "warm" at all. In this excerpt — an “I remember” writing exercise that’s turned into a scene — you can feel the way she cares for her images and characters. This makes you care for them, too.


Meet Mary

Mary A Prince Edward Island native, Mary Nicholson received her English degree at St. Francis Xavier University. She writes from her living room and various coffee shops in Toronto, where she also works as a registered social worker with youth living in the shelter system. She feels like a very lucky gal to be a part of a writing group comprised of four Story Is a State of Mind students, and also had the good fortune of being a Story Intensive TA in 2013 and 2014.  


Handwriting or computer?

Handwritten works best for me, although sometimes the draft changes as I transcribe it to the computer.

 

Page count or time count?

Time count.


First drafts or revision?

First drafts.


Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?

Writing solo on first drafts, but I share my work with my writing group.


Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?

I am always better with a little background noise. At home I play music by Carla Bruni, because she sings in French and doesn’t distract me. In a coffee shop the busyness of conversation is the perfect music for me.


Why do I write?

I write because I have to. It’s how I express myself, and one of the best ways to communicate the ideas and emotions I know to be authentic and true. I always keep a little notepad tucked into the back of my purse just in case an idea presents itself when I am least expecting it to. Even if I don’t write, the notepad is there as my touchstone.


What's the best advice you would give a new writer?

Know that writing is a craft: stay true to your craft. You may not always understand it, but remaining open and receptive to your own writer’s voice will help you give writing your very best. Be brave and trust the process: don’t get caught up in being your own worst critic.


Tell us your experience of Story Is a State of Mind.

Story Is a State of Mind has been my faithful writing companion for the past couple of years. Using this program has immersed me in the writing process in a wonderful way, and has helped me to stay disciplined. I have used it alone, and with groups, and was thrilled to use it as a teaching tool when Sarah asked me to be her TA in the Fall Intensive. I used to overthink the writing process. Now that I have worked with Story Is a State of Mind, I am seeing writing more as a craft, and know that all I have to do is show up to do the work.


Tell us about the excerpt you're sharing today

The piece I am working on came out of doing character work in Lesson Three of Story Is a State of Mind. It was a bit of a departure from how I usually work. Normally I have an idea of the setting and characters and work from there. This piece emerged out of an observation exercise, and came to me quite organically as I worked through the lesson. It’s not really related to anything I know, but at the same time it comes out of a multitude of life experiences. I really enjoyed writing it, and meeting the character as I wrote.


Excerpt from Untitled, by Mary Nicholson

I remember staring at his dark blue trench coat, Burberry I think.

I remember thinking it looked so cliché.

 I remember pressing the button underneath the cash, and then feeling the duct tape across it that we had put there after too many accidental presses.

I remember trying to remember the details in his face, knowing Sheila's father couldn't afford cameras for the store, just the fake ones. 

I remember it was rush hour, and I was alone, and no one knew. The store was half dark, over in the corner by the door. The front window still let in a bit of daylight.



"That is a nice blouse," he said when he first entered the store. "I saw the same one in a storefront down the street." 



He was right. I bought it at Macy's.

I smiled.

 He spoke. "It would be a shame to get blood on it."



I pictured my internal organs losing their form and dissolving into loosely formed jello shapes.



I don't remember when he left, it didn't take too long. I remember looking at the clock like he told me to.

"Just stand right there," he said. "When the clock says 5:05, you may turn around."



I remember looking at the clock, the only bright light in the place. 

Below it were the shelves of leather purses Sheila and I had spent Wednesday afternoon displaying. The cherry red ones first, and then the violet. The sunshine yellow ones at the customer eye level. They were the same colour as my mother's faux leather jacket that she fought another shopper for, and that she wore to Paris and got all the compliments on. Then the blue ones, and then the black silk ones, and below them, on the bottom shelf, the shiny black sparkly ones. I especially liked the sparkly ones.



I remember 5:04. I remember because I had to leave by 5:15 to get the L train to Williamsburg for the party at Matt's parents house. 

I remember turning slowly, my gaze at the patterned marble floor moving slowly upward, one vertebrae at a time, like in yoga class. Except that my hands were raised in the air like he had asked, instead of by my side. My head felt heavy. 

He was gone.

The cash register was still open, empty. He had even taken the register slip. I remember the darkened store, and picking up my scarf from the floor near the clock. I remember picking up one of the sparkly purses, and running. I stopped before reaching the subway. I called Sheila, and then while she was calling her father, I called the police. 



I crumbled up the tag on the purse and threw it into the garbage as I descended the stairs to the subway entrance. Later I could tell them I had paid for the purse before the robbery. I was going to a party. I needed it for the party.


Note: These monthly spotlights showcase Mysterious Middle Drafts (MMDs). That means they are somewhere between first drafts and final drafts. This is a challenging stage! Emerging writers bravely share their work-in-progress here for discussion, but this is not a book review or critique: this is a venue for the appreciation of Mysterious Middle Drafts. Thank you for making this writing space safe and supportive.  

Discussion:

  • What remains with you after reading Mary's work?

  • Can you articulate what’s working in this excerpt — and more importantly, why it’s working?

  • How is your own writing practice like Mary's? How is it different?

Please leave a comment below. And thank you, Mary!


What to read for fun (Part 2 of 2): The Book Matrix
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10 comments

Donna Sullivan

Great piece! Her words captured that emotion of adrenaline when things seem to slow down and small details can become large.
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Mary - I loved how the "I remember" prompted worked with what the character was experiencing. You've balanced incredibly well this tension between the stress of being in the situation and the more distanced - or 'out-of-the-experience' - part of her brain which can kick in during times of stress. I loved the descriptions of the purses, the description of looking at the floor with her hands raised - and that exchange about the blouse. The smiling and then his line “It would be a shame to get blood on it" - the perfect way and point for the story to turn. And that word "crumpled" in the last paragraph. Eery time I read it, that seems the perfect word to choose to describe that action.
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Steph VanderMeulen

This is one of the first pieces of Mary's that I read when we first started our writing group, and reading it now, I still love it! I love the details (the surprising Burberry coat, the jacket her mother fought for, the colours, the blouse, her organs), the methodical remembering, kind of like she's recounting what happened for the police...until she takes the purse. What an unexpected, delicious twist! I actually wonder if I'd have thought to do that myself. And I like how she foreshadows it by saying she likes the sparkly purses best. I also really like the last line: a bit of repetition that's perfect because it's like she's justifying what she's done. It's a great piece of writing and I want more of the story! Awesome job, Mary!
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Kristin Offiler

Mary, there's so much in this piece that stays with me after I read it. You have a talent for writing the particular, the specific, in such a way that it really creates an impression on your reader. The end is probably my favorite -- we learn so much about our narrator in the moment she decides to conceal stealing the purse with the robbery. So brazen! Keep writing, Mary. You have talent.
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Thanks Donna!
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Thanks Heather! And I never quite saw crumbled that way- love it!
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Thanks Steph!
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Thanks Kristin!
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Mary, thanks for sharing this Mysterious Middle Draft! And thanks, Sarah, for hosting Mary here. Having owned a boutique myself at one point in my life, I could relate to the details about displaying the purses, being alone in a store as the street falls dark, and feeling the cash in the till. The 'suspended in honey' feeling of the recounting of every detail the narrator notices during the robbery -- after the scene broke, I felt butterflies in my stomach. The fear was visceral for me. And finally, I ADORE that she steals the sparkly black purse on her way out the door. Now this is an interesting, complex character I want to know more about.
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Abby, thank you so much! I love that the story resonated with you.
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