Photos courtesy of Renee Leveillee Bielby
I am currently being mentored by Canadian literary author, Karen Connelly, as I work towards completion of my memoir, Smoke: The Fire Lookout Years.
Smoke is a nonfiction book about my experiences in the 1980s and 90s when I belonged to a group of friends who worked on remote fire lookouts in southern Alberta watching for smoke and wildfire. We had all cultivated the lookout lifestyle, which involved practicing or teaching transcendental meditation; reading and at parties, referencing, Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums; listening to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports; making art; and being a vegetarian. We were young, in our thirties, and although the lookout season meant romantic partners were left behind, we idealized sitting on top of a mountain in a 12 by 12 foot cabin as the perfect way to earn a living. I, myself, worked at a large natural foods store selling vitamins, and telling customers how to grow alfalfa sprouts or cook tofu. At work, I answered questions all day from men wanting to buy herbal aphrodisiacs and women wanting to lose weight. Visiting my partner, Daniel, on the fire lookout became a refuge from the monotony of my own sales job.
Years later, on a rainy winter night in Vancouver, I purged my files in honour of the New Year, and discovered a couple dozen letters from Daniel and two male friends, written during their time on lookouts. The letters disclosed the men’s inner lives and how they coped with isolation. Some of the letters were confessions, stories about peering through binoculars for hours, not to spot smoke, but to spot a woman, a lover, or a companion hiking towards them. The letters were smoky, unfiltered narratives of our lives, gendered reflections that inspired me to recapture the fire lookout years – from a woman’s perspective. I decided to use direct quotes from these letters in the story, a story that explores unusual occupations, the unravelling of close friendships, and culminates with a violent attack on one fire lookout.
Eventually I found a way out of the health food business. In 1999, I completed a master’s degree in communications studies at the University of Calgary. I have worked in qualitative health research as an analyst, editor, coordinator, and contributor to peer-reviewed articles since 2003, when I was hired by nursing scholars at the University of British Columbia. Since 2007, I have worked as a self-employed freelance writer. I have written numerous dance performance reviews for the Dance Current magazine and Dance International. In 2005, my creative nonfiction story, The Year of William Tell, was a shortlisted winner in the Event: Douglas College Review magazine contest.
I began this book project in 2013 at the Sage Hill Writers’ Retreat in Saskatchewan under the guidance of author, Denise Chong. Then, I received support from the Access Copyright Foundation to do research for the project, and travelled back to the Rocky Mountains to revisit the landscape and the fire lookout buildings. Since then I’ve written more than two hundred pages of the manuscript. A residency at Caetani Centre would provide the ideal conditions to revise and complete the draft. Parts of my story take place on Silver Star Mountain, where I lived in the 1990s. 2
My literary goals, in terms of craft, are to better capture the felt sense of a being on a mountain lookout, deepen the main characters, address issues of the narrator’s voice, and include historical information without losing the narrative thread.
Humber School for Writers (distance), January 2016 – July 2016 – Mentor Karen Connolly
Sage Hill Writers’ Retreat, Saskatchewan, Summer 2013 – Narrative Nonfiction participant with Denise Chong
Writing with Style, Banff Centre for the Arts, Fall 2012 – Narrative Nonfiction participant with David Carpenter
The Art of the Short Narrative with Stephen Osborne, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver 2005
Access Copyright Foundation Research Grant, Summer 2014
I received this grant to travel to fire lookout stations in the Rocky Mountains and complete research for my narrative nonfiction manuscript, Smoke.
Quarter-finalist in the 2013 VanderMey Nonfiction Prize, Ruminate Magazine
Finalist in the Event 2005 creative nonfiction contest
Professional Writing & Research Experience
Freelance Writer/Research Consultant – Self-employed since June 2007
copy edit, revise and co-author academic health articles for peer review
clients include faculty at the University of British Columbia and Canadian Institute for Natural and Integrative Medicine
freelance writer for the Dance Current and the Canadian Encyclopedia
Research Coordinator – Health Behaviour Research Unit, School of Nursing, University of British Columbia, 2003 – 2007
coordinated all aspects of nationally-funded health research projects
recruited participants and conducted in-depth interviews
conducted data analyses, developed findings and drafted manuscripts
Project Assistant/Editor – Chiron Consultants, Calgary, 1999 – 2002
co-author of Mind-Body Harmony with Dr. Terry Willard, published 2003
edited health and wellness articles for Chiron Consultants
Master of Arts in Communications Studies University of Calgary – 1999
Bachelor of Arts in Psychology University of Calgary – 1986
Published Clips with Online Links
The Dance Current – multiple articles
The Canadian Encyclopedia – Aerisoa Dance Society
Selected Dance Current magazine articles:
Tales of Despair and Cheer. November 2014
The Emperor’s New Clothes. March 2013
Room Service? There’s a dancer in my room! February 2012
It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane – It’s a VIDF Dancer. April 2011
Passing the Fan. Jessica Jone and Chinese Dance. February 2011
On Top of the World. The White Spider. Summer 2010
A Meditation on Gender: CoErasga. December 2009
Martha Carter: A curved career. April 2009
Crossing Boundaries: Jai Govinda. October 2006.
The Year of William Tell. Event: The Douglas College Review, 2005, 34(1).
Contemporary Dance and Evolving Femininities. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 2011, 6, (2), 50.
Seedpod in the Postmodern Wind. In Lola MacLaughlin: A Life in Dance, 2010. (Eds) Anderson, C. & Woodend, D. Vancouver, BC: Tony Giacinti.