Author Ryan Shaw says MFA mentors program’s ‘greatest asset’
Ryan Shaw had just been accepted into the University of King’s College MFA in Creative Nonfiction program’s Class of 2017. He knew he wanted to write a book about surfing in Nova Scotia, but he wasn’t sure how to approach it.
Then one afternoon “I remember looking out the window in my home in Cow Bay, Nova Scotia, thinking ‘travel narrative…’ ‘Bill Bryson…’”
“‘Hey, why not go that way?’” he told himself. “‘Explore Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore as far as the swell-exposed coastline will take me.’ Then I went into the garage with a giant black sharpie and wrote “LOUISBOURG OR BUST” on my old yellow surfboard and the die was cast.”
It was. Louisbourg or Bust: A Surfer’s Wild Ride Down Nova Scotia’s Drowned Coast was published this fall by Nova Scotia’s Pottersfield Press.
During his research/adventure/immersion trip, Shaw says “I took copious narrative-style notes and interviewed lots of interesting people. When I got back, [mentor] Ken McGoogan and I hashed out a structure and then I was off to the writing dungeon.”
Shaw, whose day job is as a teacher at Halifax’s Armbrae Academy, worked with three of the program’s mentors — “the MFA’s greatest asset” — as he honed his manuscript. “Lori A. May got me writing in a sensory way. I came to Ken McGoogan, the master of structure when I needed to find one for my book. He also showed me how to hustle and keep the momentum flowing. Finally, I spent the last semester under the tutelage of Lorri Neilsen Glenn. She told me to embrace my descriptive side and have more fun with the language. I look back at the chapters I wrote for Lorri and they are some of my favourites.”
Working fulltime and going to school fulltime was challenging, he admits. “I taught full time through the whole MFA and my daughters were three and four when I started. I also wanted to surf as much as possible (good for the book, right?). So I just pared everything down — no TV, no Netflix, no Leafs games, early to bed, very early to rise. I ran a strict one-hour-a-day writing schedule and chipped away. I still managed to be around a lot for the girls, which I’m most happy about. Credit to Genny, my beautiful and supportive spouse.”
The most satisfying moment, he says now, was “finishing that last sentence. I literally punched it out and almost fell back off my chair when I hit the period. After that, I went surfing and almost lost my front tooth to an errant board!”
His next project: “a children’s book co-authored with my daughters. They’re only young once, so I thought it might be fun to give it a shot. We’ve got lots of ideas already…”