By Glenda McCarthy
Lisa Moore was still a child when she wrote her very first story. She could often be found making up magical stories and illustrating them for friends and relatives. The practice stuck with her as she grew older so it’s no surprise that Lisa took her passion and turned it into a promising career as one of this province’s most well-known authors.
“I used to write little short stories and send them to a cousin of mine who lived in Corner Brook. I would illustrate them, make books out of them, and tie them up with ribbons. I made up magical stories. When I was 13-years-old I wrote for the children I babysat, so I’ve always written. I always wrote personalized fairy tales. It was fun.”
Although she has always been interested in the arts, taking both art and acting classes as a child, she didn’t really pursue it as a career until an unfortunate experience in university steered her in a new direction.
“I had gone to Memorial University just for one class and found the campus a little bit intimidating. I was just fresh out of high school and I wandered into the wrong class. I thought I was going to a literature class, but it turned out I walked into a class in the Greek language,” she recalls. “I was completely confused and decided to quit. I left the class, walked down town, and got a job washing dishes.”
But fate intervened – putting her on the path to pursing her true passion.
“I met the artist Scott Goudie, who is a printmaker and a painter. He suggested I go out to Stephenville and go to CNA. He knew I was interested in art and had taken lessons as a child. So I applied (for Visual Arts), was accepted and hopped on a bus. I went out there and just fell in love with art making.”
She describes her time on the province’s west coast as a fantastic opportunity.
“It was a perfect environment for someone not ready for university, but really ready to learn, because the quality of instruction was amazing. We were exploring art history and there were all kinds of mediums available.”
Lisa recalls being exposed to photography, videography, sculpture, pottery, printmaking and jewelry making, painting and drawing.
“They also had a visiting artists program, so artists who were at the top of their field were coming out and working with us for a month at a time, teaching us painting and drawing. It was a foundation course in fine art and aesthetics and really learning anything you could possibly take in – (I was) just saturated in ideas about art making.”
Looking back on that time, Lisa says she was, and still is, influenced by her teachers.
“It was the excellence of the instruction that was my favourite part. The teachers we worked with were incredibly dedicated. They were at the top of their field and were very dedicated artists as well as teachers. The class size was such that we got a lot of personal attention and a lot of instruction. It was of excellent quality,” Lisa says.
“Those teachers really changed my life. I look back on their teaching now because I am a professor at Memorial University, and I try to emulate their pedagogy. They were just excellent teachers. I guess there has to be a balance between teaching students to be self-directed but open to learning and open to guidance. That was the kind of education we were receiving there.”
Another aspect that stood out during her time at CNA was the limitless artistic freedom students were afforded during the two-year Visual Arts program.
“It was the freedom to explore the thing I really wanted to explore, which was making art. We were given the materials necessary, the equipment necessary, the instruction necessary, and then we were given the freedom to really experiment and learn and push ourselves as far as we possibly could to figure all of that out.”
She also drew inspiration from the beauty of the west coast, which has a different landscape than that of St. John’s. Also, meeting people from all over the island gave her perspective on different lifestyles and also an outlook on life in smaller communities. It was her first time living anywhere outside St. John’s and she feels the experience was an important one.
“I met people from all over the province who were going to Stephenville, doing all different kinds of courses. It was exciting to meet people with very different interests, but in the same place to learn. It was a great education in terms of what is going on in the province and all kinds of different trades, academic interests. I drew inspiration from that. I think that time was very formative. I learned about all kinds of ways to live and be in the world. It was a lot of fun,” she says.
“Some people were from fishing families; some came from families who were wildlife officers, and rural living. I was living in residence, but a friend who was from Stephenville would have me over for supper frequently and they had big family of 13. Everything was homemade – the bread, jam and pickles. We had moose that had been hunted, and fish that had been caught. It was just such abundance and such generosity. It was a different kind of life that I was lucky enough to see.”
All of this intense exploration during the Visual Arts program became a part of who she is as an artist, professor, and writer.
“When I was a kid, I did acting classes and so I decided I would try to write a radio play (while at CNA), and I sold it to CBC. People at the college realized I was very serious about writing, as well as making art, so they developed a creative writing class. There was that kind of attention to individual people’s interests and needs. They looked out for what people were doing and paid attention to that, everybody was accommodated.”
She says CNA helped her find her path, cementing a career in the arts.
“I knew for sure as I spent two years thinking about art and thinking about materials and how to express ideas through visual art. I realized I wanted to be involved in that world for the rest of my life, whether it was through writing, theatre, drama, or visual art – all of that. I wanted to be working in that area.”
After graduating in 1984, Lisa, along with several of her classmates, went on to enroll at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) where she obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
“That path – being at CNA – made it easy for us to forge relationships with the university in Halifax.”
Lisa went on to have her works published in numerous journals and anthologies, including two collections produced by writing group The Burning Rock; Extremities published in 1994 and Hearts Larry Broke in 2000. Her first collection of short stories, Degrees of Nakedness, was published in 1995. She followed that with her Giller Prize-nominated work Open, which was published in 2002. It won the Canadian Authors Association Jubilee Award for Short Stories and established Lisa as a strong new voice in Canadian fiction.
She followed this with Alligator in 2005, which was also nominated for the Giller Prize. In 2006, the novel won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Caribbean and Canada region.
Lisa’s second novel, February published in 2013, was among 13 candidates nominated for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Caught, published in 2013, was also shortlisted for the Giller.
In addition to writing books, Lisa is a playwright and freelance journalist for The National Post and Globe and Mail newspapers, and Canadian Art and Arts Atlantic magazines. In the world of academia she has worked at Guelph University, the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, and The Banff Centre.
Now, as a professor in Memorial University’s Faculty of English, she teaches creative writing and literature. She feels being a mentor and being able to teach and help others is a real honour and a talent that develops over time.
“The people who take creative writing courses are definitely interested in becoming writers and, in fact, they are writers. I, along with other professors here, teach fiction and creative non-fiction,” she says.
Lisa enjoys helping students reach their potential and is a firm believer that there are just as many different things to learn, as there are different ways to learn them.
“I believe everybody loves to learn. It’s a question of making sure they are given the opportunity to learn in the way that feels most comfortable to them. In a certain way, it doesn’t matter what the subject is as long as you’re learning, because it’s the act of learning that enriches life,” she says. “If you can find a way to learn one thing, that method of learning will cross over to all different kinds of subject matter.”
She says if you can learn to cook beautifully, with a tremendous amount of attention, that same learning skill will translate to learning how to write, how to drive a car, or even how to fix a toaster.
“It’s not so much what we learn, as learning to learn, that I think people go to school for. That’s why I think people should seek out as many ways of learning in a lifetime as possible. They should go to CNA, they should go to MUN, and they should sit next to a fisherman who describes how you get a cod. There are a million different ways to learn. It’s the learning to learn that’s important.”
To learn more about Lisa’s story visit cnastories.ca/lisa.