I consider myself a creative writer who supports the arts and others like me who are just trying to get their names out there. Considering my interest, I am a little ashamed of the fact that I had no idea about Life Rattle’s Totally Unknown Writing Festival—especially since it’s been around for 21 years.

I walked into Rivoli, located in downtown Toronto, at 6:50 p.m. on November 11. The place was already packed; friends and family gathered around tables in a stuffy, dimly lit room awaiting the writers. I met some great people while we waited for the show to begin, and was even reunited with some of UTM’s own: Robert Price and Laurel Waterman.

At 7:15 p.m., the event began and Guy Allen took the stage. He reminisced about the time a Globe and Mail reporter once showed up at the festival and how excited everyone got thinking the event was getting coverage, but it was later reported that a murder had taken place in the neighbourhood. The audience got a big laugh.

He then went on to discuss our respect for the soldiers who lost their lives in the war and how on Remembrance Day he thinks about his decision not to do so. Allen shared that he came to Canada in 1971 from Arkansas and how alienated he felt, being a Southerner in our city. “Toronto was cold. Rigid. White. Toronto gave me despair and it was a place that didn’t seem to hold much promise,” he told the audience. He let us know how different Toronto was and how the Southern accent provided to uneducated characters in movies had an impact on his initial move to the city.

Though, after being here for decades, Allen told audiences that Toronto has really changed for the better. “I celebrate Canada and Toronto from where they’ve come in the 40 years that I’ve been here,” he said. This introduction segued into the first writer of the evening.

Marie Margis read “Remembrance Day” from her collection, A Rich Poor Life. The story recounts her father’s celebration of Remembrance Day with his older children. Being a veteran from both wars, he would share his experiences and dreams with his kids as they all paid their respects to the fallen soldiers. Her story was incredible and was a great way to kick off the night.

Up next from the list of student writers was Kimmy Vu, who read “Our First Time”. The story retold a memory from her childhood where her mother was arrested for forging prices on items in Winners. It was humorous in the beginning but quickly turned suspenseful and tense and I appreciated the contrast.

Saeed Rahman followed with a similar story, “Behind Closed Doors”. His story follows the lives of him and his coworkers as they gossip about who will be fired and for what reason. Rahman wrote that he feared it was him because of something that he did a year ago. Listening to the tension between him and all of his coworkers was really entertaining.

Up next came one of my favourite stories of the night, “Cow Plops” from Evangeline Torres Sled. It was an adorable and funny little story about how Torres, being teased by her sister for bearing too close a resemblance to their father, believes that her father bore her over her mother. When he goes to the bathroom she can’t bear to stay away from him for too much longer so she begins knocking on the door and asking when he will be done. Listeners were told of their conversation and we even got to hear her pantomime the plops before he came out and spent some time with her. It was a beautiful little tale.

The event then paused to introduce Shane Driver, inaugural recipient of the Arnie Achtman Award. Achtman co-founded Life Rattle and the award was created through donations from the public. The recipient of this award is honoured to the student whose work proved so substantial that they deserved publication.

Driver went up to the mic and read an excerpt from his story “Scarface”, which is in his collection Broken. The story retells the night when Driver went to a party and encountered a jacked giant with a scar over his left eye. The two eventually get into a scrap where Driver shares the difficulties of trying to fight such a monster. Driver’s story led into the 15-minute intermission where the room erupted with conversation.

Coming back from intermission, the audience was introduced to David Kee. His story, “Ice Cream”, was another standout of the evening. He and his girlfriend get into a ridiculous and hilarious argument over the proper spoon to use when eating ice cream. He did a great job of reading it and it was one of my favourites.

Amna Bhutta was next with her story, “Fakeer”. This was one of the more insightful pieces of the evening. It tells the story of how Bhutta developed a small familiarity with a beggar and used to hand him rupees every time she could. While passing him with her cousins, they began insulting him and Bhutta never saw him again. It was a heartbreaking story that made me think about my choices in life and to be mindful of what I say.

Next up was a story that convinced me I should go vegetarian. Nicholas Tsangarides read “Italian Leathers”, a story about his trip to the butcher shop in hopes of scoring a job there. Listeners were exposed to the absolute horrors of the slaughterhouse and basically, I’ll never look at a hamburger the same way again.

The second last story was “Ron’s Smile” by Jason Swetnam. One of the more ambiguous stories of the night, it tells the story of a student who worked in a group home and experienced some disturbing behaviour from one of his patients.

The very last story of the night was one of the best. Claire Holland read “Women’s Rites”, a story that recalls an evening Holland experienced in a nightclub. After going home with a stranger, a horrible secret is exposed and she leaves in shame. It was a wonderful story that was very well read.

Guy Allen then delivered closing statements and the room slowly began to clear out.

I was given the opportunity to speak to Driver after the event; he shared a little more about his success and stories with me. “Writing was something I kind of stumbled onto. I have a business background and was originally enrolled in the business program at U of T. After taking a couple of courses, I realized that I didn’t want to continue down that path,” he said. “When I was younger, I chased a career in sales because that’s what my father did and I didn’t know what else to do.

“To be honest, I never did any writing on the side. People are always surprised when I tell them that but writing is something I just recently took up. When I decided I no longer wanted to take business, I just decided to give writing a shot. I got lucky and found out that I love to write.”

Driver admitted that he had no intention on publishing a novel and thought that the PWC program would take him down the communications path. “Once I took a couple of writing courses, however, and teachers started telling me that I could maybe do something with my writing, that’s when I started to think of maybe publishing some of my writing,” he said.

“As far as publishing personal material, I still wonder sometimes whether I expose too much of my own life and whether or not it could hurt me down the line,” he continued. “There is definitely some stuff in my book that I would never want a potential employer seeing. I thought about using a pseudonym but decided against it. These are my stories and I wanted to stand by them.

“I write about, well, I have a lot of stories that I knew would be interesting if I wrote them down. And although I wish I didn’t have many of the stories that I have to write about, when it came down to deciding what to write about, the ideas were obvious choices,” he says of his material. “In my opinion, readers want to read about other people’s struggles. They want to see how they were handled and overcome.” Driver also gave shout-outs to Robert Price, John Currie, and Laurel Waterman, who helped motivate him to write about some of the struggles that he’d gone through. “I was embarrassed about many of my stories, but the teachers taught me that it’s the struggles that would make for some great writing,” he said. “It was really nice to win the award. I’ve been dealing with some medical issues, so it was nice to deal with something positive for a change.

“I definitely didn’t expect any praise for my writing,” he went on. “I think I’m like most artists, I think my work is crappy until someone, like a teacher, tells me my work is good. Dealing with Life Rattle has been a great experience for me. It allowed me to learn the process involved in writing and publishing a book. Overall, it was a great learning experience.

“It felt good to read my story to an audience but I have to say, I was nervous and happy when it was over. But I was thrilled with the reception my piece got at the festival,” he continued. “Due to the medical reasons I mentioned earlier, I haven’t been writing for quite some time. The stories in the book are a couple of years old. But since I have been published, I can now apply for a government writing grant. I do have an idea for a book. My plan is to write a full-length manuscript about some of the struggles I overcame as a teenager.”

Readers at Rivoli, including the Arnie Achtman Award-winning Shane Driver.
Readers at Rivoli, including the Arnie Achtman Award-winning Shane Driver.