Ever dreamed of writing a book? Perhaps even your life story or that of someone you know? 

Beginning a new chapter – literally and figuratively – can be daunting. Writing is no different so why not meet like-minded burgeoning authors and learn from the “pros” at the same time? The annual Creative Nonfiction Collective Society’s Annual Conference, takes place May 4-6 at Victoria University in the University of Toronto.

The conference includes panels and master classes with prestigious writers such as Kamal Al-Solaylee (Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes), Carol Off (All We Leave Behind), indigenous writer/activist Lee Maracle (I am Woman), this year’s Canada Reads winner Mark Sakamoto, whose memoir Forgiveness is headed to the small screen in a CBC adaptation, and Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti, whose book of feminist essays, Shrewed, was published this spring.

“This is the kind of conference that’s valuable whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned writer, because it addresses every aspect of the creative process,” says Renzetti, also the author of the best-selling novel, Based on A True Story. “From finding your voice to refining storytelling techniques to discovering what editors and agents are really looking for.”

Renzetti is known for her trademark razor sharp wit,  which makes her an expert on using humour in nonfiction. “Humour is a powerful tool because it opens ears that might otherwise be closed,” she explains. “It’s easier to make people listen when they’re laughing.”

READ MORE: Ask the Expert: 7 Tips on How to Write Your Memoir

Panel topics include writing in the third person, agents and publishers, and the art and craft of humour as well as master classes on such subjects as finding form in creative nonfiction and writing family and ancestral stories across cultural differences. There are also workshops, interactive sessions and conversations with authors.

On the Saturday night the event hosts a Literary Cabaret, where authors of all levels share a 2-minute excerpt from recent work or work in progress with an audience of eager peers.  Sound terrifying? Not according to Catherine Gourdier, a Toronto-based philanthropist, writer and semi-retired 2nd Assistant Director, who attended her first conference in 2014, “The hugs and pats on the back I received for having the strength to share my story inspired me to keep on writing.”

Catherine Gourdier pictured above, reading her work during Cabaret Night at the CNFC Conference

Gourdier has been working with various editors on a grief memoir tentatively titled, Breathe, Cry, Breathe, for several years and is looking forward to the publishers, editor and agent panel. “I intend to send out to potential publishers after our conference in May.”

Gourdier said she didn’t know a soul when she attended her first conference but found the environment welcoming and friendly. Her advice for first-time members and conference goers? “Don’t be shy. Read your excerpt at the Cabaret night! Most of our members are over 50. It seems that is when we have more time and more stories to tell,” Gourdier explains. “This year’s conference has a session called ‘Writing the First Page’, so even if you haven’t written anything yet, this workshop will give you tips on writing an enticing page one. If you need support, come and meet other writers!”

If writing nonfiction is your dream, this is a great place to start. We spoke with the Creative Nonfiction Collective Society’s acting president, Judy McFarlane (pictured above), author of Writing with Grace: A Journey Beyond Down Syndrome, about the organization and the conference.

What is creative nonfiction?  

Judy McFarlane: While creative nonfiction is not easy to define, there are a few essentials: it is writing based on fact, it must be true, and it uses literary techniques to create a vivid, engaging story told in a personal voice. There is no form or structure that can’t be used, no subject that can’t be tackled. If it’s done well, it seamlessly combines the factual with the personal.

When did the Creative Nonfiction Collective Society start and why? 

JM: The Creative Nonfiction Collective (CNFC) began in Alberta in 2004. Betsy Warland, Myrna Kostash, and others met to discuss the social, ethical and cultural issues of what was then a largely unrecognized genre. Since that first meeting, the Society has grown to over 200 members in eight provinces, including Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.

How did you become involved? 

JM: In my late forties, I went back to university and began a program in Creative Writing at UBC. While there, I took a class with Andreas Schroeder, considered by many to be the “godfather” of creative nonfiction in Canada. I attended one of the early CNFC conferences and found a group of writers passionate about well researched, well told true stories, and generous about sharing their skills and knowledge. I was hooked.

How many previous conferences have there been? 

JM: This is the 14th annual conference. Until now, our conferences have all been in western Canada – Banff, Calgary, Victoria, Vancouver.  We decided to have our conference this year in Toronto to recognize that a number of our members live in eastern Canada, and that we have evolved into a nationally recognized organization for writers of creative nonfiction in Canada.

 What can an attendee hope to get out of our conference? 

JM: We offer master classes in writing techniques and craft, panels on challenging writing issues, conversations with established writers tackling difficult social or cultural issues, and the opportunity to meet and connect with writers from across the country.

If someone has never written before, is it possible to start writing later in life? 

JM: Yes! I am living proof. In my early fifties, I published my first book, Writing with Grace, the story of how working with a young woman with Down syndrome who wrote a book herself had a profound influence on how I see those who might be considered ‘other’. Many of our members have had interesting work and experiences in their lives and it’s only later in life that they have the time and means to write.

What is the philosophy of the conference schedule? 

JM: Our philosophy this year was to create a schedule that reflects the diversity of writers in Canada and the diversity of issues and ideas those writers are tackling. As always, we strive to create a welcoming space for writers at all levels, from beginners to national award winners.

For more information on the Creative Non-Fiction Collective Society and the Conference visit www.creativenonfictioncollective.ca