Friday, June 12, 2009

Shout Out to the Students at CCVS

This week, students from Cornwall Collegiate and Vocational School in Cornwall, ON, contacted me to ask some questions about the business of writing (a special shout out to Elizabeth, Kayla, and Kasey). Here's what they asked:

1) What was the level of education you needed in order to pursue your writing career?

You don't *need* any higher education to be a writer, but it helps. I have a BA in English & Creative Writing and an MFA in Creative Writing. I went to a community college (Douglas College) for the first two years of my BA and transferred to the University of British Columbia for the rest of my education. I worked part time in a coffee shop while I was in school and went to school part time. It was kind of hard at the time, but it was worth it.

 2) What job opportunities did you have for options, and how did you apply?

After I finished my MFA, I was a writer in residence in my hometown, Maple Ridge, BC, for two years. That gave me time to finish my first two books and find publishers. Then I moved to Vancouver and got a job in a bookstore. But I always made sure to have some sort of teaching work while I was doing these jobs, so I was always building up my teaching experience and my resume. I taught creative writing at the Arts Centre in Maple Ridge while I was Writer in Residence and then later at Vancouver Film School and Douglas College. I teach almost full time at Douglas College now and will teach a workshop at the Sage Hill Writing Experience next summer as well. I teach classes as they arise. I also edit for Event magazine and do a bit of freelance writing for magazines and websites. And I perform all over the place, which also pays a bit and lets me travel, which I love to do.

So, are there opportunities? Yes. But I wouldn't have heard about them if I didn't go to school and then keep my eyes and ears open. When you are (or want to be) a professional creative person it is important to be involved in your community. That's how readers (and employers) find you. Taking part in literary activities in your town or province or country can be really important. Volunteer at your local or provincial arts festival. Do internships. Take classes at colleges and universities. Go to the Banff Centre for the Arts or Film School or wherever. But most of all just keep reading and writing. *Everything* starts with your writing.

3) How does one end up getting published?

You start by writing and reading. Get good at that, and then start thinking about publishing. Enjoy the time you have as a young writer where your work is really yours. Read, write, share what you've written with writer friends you trust. Don't have any of those? Find them. Take writing classes. Read at open mics. Make chapbooks. Get obsessed. Eventually, you'll have an overwhelming need to share your work with a larger audience and, by then, because you've worked so hard, you might have written something that's actually worth printing! 

After that, here’s the formula: most, if not all, writers get their start in literary magazines. So start there. Submit to literary magazines and start building a portfolio. Collect your rejection slips like badges of honour. Eventually you'll have a big stack of rejections, a little list of publications, and something that's starting to resemble a manuscript. Put together the manuscript and send it out to publishers. Celebrate more rejection. Keep writing. Keep reading. Then just wait.  In the waiting time, write another book...and then another. Publishing is a *lot* about waiting and being patient. It's real crazy-making stuff.

 4) Are there any challenges you came across throughout your career?

Too many to mention all of them. But probably my biggest challenge is time management. It's hard for me to decide what's important and what's not sometimes. I get totally smashed by emails, for example, and can't imagine how to answer everything and everyone. It's overwhelming. 

 5) What is one of your biggest satisfactions through writing?

I love it when someone from really far away finds my work and then takes the time to write me and tell me what they thought of it. That's amazing. I also love to travel. This summer I'm going travel to, and write about, the Muskwa Kechika, one of the last untouched boreal forests in North America. It's way up north and we get to fly in by floatplane, ride packhorses into the bush, and camp out for a week or so. The deal is I get to write and raise awareness about wild places. How amazing is that? And later this summer, I'll read at the Queensland Poetry Festival in Australia. Australia! I've never been there and I can't wait to go and meet Australian poets. It's going to rock. That's the other thing, when you are a writer; you get to meet other writers. You realise pretty quick that you are part of a rather big community of like-minded people. Of course everyone has different opinions and thoughts and experiences, but you are all connected through this thing you feel impelled to do: writing. It's humbling and enlightening and you get to learn a lot about people. I love what I do.

Take care and keep writing,