Pull back the curtain and see how a suspense writer puts the thrills and chills together.


Day Four: Walk in the Woods and Writer’s Studio

Good morning dear readers,

So sorry about last night. My intention was to update the blog after the Writer’s Studio (Susie’s interview of Vern), which was supposed to end at 10 pm, but things got heated. The conversation was still going at 1 am when I finally packed it in.

Chapter One: The Hike

“We’re going hiking, for Christ’s sake! What do you think this is, a f*cking seniors’ tour?” – renowned playwright Vern Thiessen

The weather has still not returned to the glorious summer days enjoyed at the beginning of the retreat, but it was nice enough for us to venture on our planned hike in the Minisink area, which was revolutionary war territory at one time.

Josh runs in fear from the ‘cougar’

Some of the writers were desperate for exercise at this point, so the hike was faster than I would have liked, as far as photo-taking and exploring were concerned. We did see tiny frogs, a monarch butterfly, an old bridge, and even a cougar!

No one got lost, so it was a fairly uneventful excursion for this group.

Susie and I tried to have our meeting during the hike, but it wasn’t to be, so we had it afterwards in my room. She finally had some criticism for me, which was great. I learned that there’s another kind of passive voice to watch out for. I always thought “passive voice” was writing stuff like “the rug was purchased by Ted” instead of “Ted purchased the rug”. But Susie told me to think of passive language as anything that slows the momentum of the story. For instance, if you have a character who’s upset, and she yells “Okay, enough of that!”, you take out the word “okay” because it slows down the momentum. Very good to know.

Chapter Two: The Writer’s Studio

Vern in the hot seat

Things got emotional during Vern’s turn in the hot seat. There were tears when he turned the tables on us and asked who our heroes were, and a fiery debate over whether or not a white man could play Martin Luther King Jr.

Some wisdom from Vern, who has written over thirty plays that have been produced all over the world. He has won many significant awards, including the Governor General’s.

  • “You’ve got to invite criticism and learn not to take it personally.”
  • “I surround myself with people who are more talented than I am, smarter than I am, and more beautiful than I am, and I learn from that. You always want to play with someone who’s better than you.”
  • “I’ve found that the best artists are the ones who listen to everyone’s (feedback) and make decisions calculated on what they hear.”
Vern and Susie

Asked to describe his ideal life, Vern answered, “My ideal is that my parents will live forever.”

Vern has strong opinions on…well, pretty much everything. He has one theory that sends Susie into a furor. Vern believes that men do their best work before the age of fifty, and that women do their best work after fifty (mostly because the demands of child-rearing are over). Do you agree or disagree with him?

Personally, I think an artist should always be striving to produce his or her best work, no matter their age. It stands to reason that the more one practices, the better one would get, up to a point.

I would rather have people tell me that each book is my best, than experience what Stephen King has, where people keep telling him he wrote his very best twenty years ago. That has to get disheartening after awhile.

Here’s some more food for thought from Vern:

  • If you had to choose, would you rather keep your arms or your legs? Why?
  • Would you rather keep your sight or your hearing? Why?
  • Who are your heroes? Mine are Stephen King, Martin Luther King Jr., and Muhammad Ali. Obviously I admire King’s writing and the fact that he lets nothing stand in the way of that; MLK Jr’s civil rights work; and Ali’s boxing, but above all, I love that all three men stand up for the truth and what they believe in. They show this in very different ways, but all have paid the price for speaking up and living their own truth. I admire that.
Thanks for reading!
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  1. Madeline Mora-Summonte

    I never thought about that second theory of passive voice but it makes so much sense. Thanks for sharing!

    I have to admit, my favorite SK book is THE STAND, one of his oldest. But, I’m a big fan of his stories/novellas, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for those.

  2. Story Teller

    Hi Madeline,

    Good to see you again! You’re very welcome for the tip. I’m glad to share whatever I learn here.

    Yep, “The Stand” is the book King is always told is his best. You can see why that gets frustrating for him, since I think he wrote it in the ’70s. Personally, I love “Bag of Bones”, although some of the idealization of Maddie is over the top, and “Thinner”. I completely agree with you about his shorter pieces. “Different Seasons” is a work of art from spring to fall.

    Thanks for your comment. Have a great weekend!

  3. Laura Best

    I’m just catching up on your blog posts. I’ve enjoyed reading all about your adventures. It sounds so beautiful there. You will take back so many memories with you. 🙂

  4. Story Teller

    Thank you, Laura. It has been an extraordinary experience. Hard to believe it’s almost over.

  5. Kim

    “To be” verbs… another way to be passive in the other sense. I have a tendency to start dialoge with the word “Well” (probably because I do in real life too).

    It looks really exciting and I would love to do this one day. Time to get back to writing for me. I’m getting closer all the time.

  6. Ev Bishop

    Your retreat sounds like it was just fantastic (well, aside from the unhappy detour/getting lost bit–sorry you had to go through that!); I hope the end and return home has you feeling so inspired and refreshed.

    🙂 Ev

  7. Story Teller

    Hi Kim and Ev,

    Thanks for your comments! I’m still pretty tired and dopey, but after the weekend and a lot of sleep, I’m sure inspiration will hit.


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