Collaboration Inc.

“we felt that if we worked on something together, we would help to push each other through”

As those who know me will tell you, I’m really big on collaboration. Sure, I have many of my own projects on the go, but I’m a firm believer in the importance of community and working with others. This month’s blog returns us to collaboration as the next instalment in my occasional series about womxn writers. I had the fantastic opportunity to interview author, Shirley Merith, a Hospitality and Tourism college professor with a Masters Degree in Education. She is a freelance travel writer, and a co-author of Walking Through and Other Stories, which was featured on the CBC Radio’s Here and Now Book Club. The interview was conducted over the phone on March 24th and has been edited for length.

RS: I’m interested in writers and their engagement with the community. Your book, Walking Through and Other Stories was a communal project, because you collaborated with four other women to create this book. I’m wondering if you can speak to how the book came about, and how important it was for you to produce a collaborative book? In other words, how does community and collaboration affect your work as a writer?

SM: There was a large group of us (about twenty of us at the start) who met through the Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR), and we were interested in working on a project together. We realized after awhile it would be beneficial if we formed a smaller group, so we did that. And then after some time, we realized that we were women that all lived in the Pickering/Ajax community, and felt that it would be good if we could create something that we could share with that community. So, yes, community was part of the process. The next question was: what would we create? The idea of a book of short stories came up, so we started to work on that, and went forward.

RS: So it was important for you to work as a group? Because it’s different if you write a book by yourself as opposed to with a group, that’s what I’m getting at.

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SM: Yes, it’s definitely different. The reason that we did this together is because all of us, individually, were at some stage of writing their own novel, or poetry book. So we were all doing our own things, which we all are still currently doing now. But we also found that we were getting into writer’s block, or getting stuck. So, what happened was that we felt that if we worked on something together, we would help to push each other through, as opposed to what we were doing on our own. That was the whole purpose behind it. We were constantly in contact with each other, and asking “How are you doing? How is the process?” Then we realized that if we were going to do something together we needed to come up with a theme, and an idea and what exactly we were trying to do. Everyone contributed different ideas, and we finally decided upon a theme related to human connection. So all of the stories have to do with human connection, even though one might be more historical, and one might be more romance, it still had something to do with human connection.

RS: Sounds like you were really supporting each other,  and that there was a real sense of community and supporting each other’s work.

SM: Every single week we communicated, and twice a month we met. Every week, back and forth, and every two weeks we met at a coffee shop, and we literally spent time working together on the process. And the process took some time. Not only were we working on our own material, but we had to work on the whole process. It really wasn’t simple, because we had five women, with five different mindsets, ideas, concepts, and you had to work together, and that was a challenge on a good day!

RS: Because you and your co-authors self-published, and because there were so many in your group, did you find you had to learn to work together as far as the self-publishing, promotion, and so on, went?

SM: Everyone was assigned a role. Two people were the bankers and took care of the finances and ordering of books; one person was the marketer, and she looked after getting us into the bookstores and the libraries, radio and so forth; one person was the social media person, and she created the websites and the Twitter and that sort of thing; and one person was somewhat of an meeting organizer, arranging meetings with the editor, for instance. I mean, we were all editors, but she was really the main editor, and then we hired an outside editor as well, so everybody had a certain role in the group.

RS: And what made you self-publish? Did you try to go to the traditional route? What were the rationales for self-publishing?

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SM: That’s a good question. First of all, we thought about the traditional route, so it wasn’t that we hadn’t thought about traditional publishing. We did get in contact with a few publishers. Not big publishers like Doubleday or anything, they were smaller publishing houses, and they were prepared to take us on, but the problem was when you did a smaller publishing house, you had to buy a certain amount of books from them at a time. So we had to put up the capital in advance for let’s say 500 or 1000 books, not knowing in advance whether we were going to sell them or not. So that was a concern. When we decided to look into self-publishing, we found that we could more or less pay as you go. And that for us seemed to be a more viable option. And so, yes, over the past two years or so, we’ve had over 1000 sales.

RS: Wow!

SM: I can’t give you an exact number, but it’s around 1000. And some months were better than others, of course. We had it on the e-books and that, but you know, as the years go by, the sales go by as new books get published, you’re no longer at the front of things, you’re at the back, at the back end. So right now, I don’t know if we’ve sold much, I don’t think we have, but I’m sure if we ramped up our marketing again, which I’m sure, at some stage we will, we could move up again. As you know, we were doing a lot of the bookstores, doing a lot of promotion, doing local events, like the Pickering Indie festival author day, with the library, and we still do that to this day with the library. But what eventually happened was that it was a year and a half to two years of always out doing promotions and things, and one or two of the women said, you know what? We’re tired of it now. It’s great, we’ve sold some books, but some of the women started to feel that they wanted to work on other projects, so we’re not as invested in the promotion as we were in the past.

RS: What is your perspective on supporting and encouraging womxn writers?

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SM: Supporting women writers, of course that’s important. All of us, we’ve all had stuff we’ve thought about for years about writing, we’ve either read books from an author we’ve loved and we’ve said to ourselves, you know, I would really love to do something like this, and we put it away, and we never really pick it up and that’s because life gets in the way, and we all know this. So that’s why there are a lot of women’s writing groups, or women’s reading groups so they can help and support each other to move forward, and that’s what we wanted to do. To take that stuff out of the cupboard, take it out of the drawer and dust it off, and that’s challenging as you know as a writer, because you’re giving your stuff out there to people, not knowing the feedback, and you have to accept the feedback as you get it. And sometimes that’s not fun, because you wrote it with one thing in mind, and you wrote it as a great piece of writing, and you have other people saying well, that really doesn’t work for me. And that was challenging for us as women supporting each other, because we had to support each other in the good and the bad of our writing. Sometimes, some of the writers would come back and really crucify what I wrote. And it stung a bit, but you know, I got it. I understood the message. So yes, supporting is understanding that you might not agree or like everything that you do or you hear, but you have to be open. And also for future writers, because, of course when we were out doing promotions, people would ask us how we got into it, how they could get into it, and we would recommend that they start somewhere. There are writers’ groups and groups online. Two of the authors in our group were also taking creative writing at the University of Toronto, and they would share some of their exercises or feedback, so we always have to be in support of women, in general, whether you’re in an immediate connection with them or not, but not only just women, young girls, young people who want to write. We really helped each other because we had deadlines, and we had to meet those deadlines, so we kept each other on track. Women really help each other along.

RS: Your group is also a group of women of colour. Is that something that your group was conscious about when forming together as a group?

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SM: No, good question. It wasn’t conscious. What happened was again, we were all in a writing group, and we put it out there for people to join up, and we were the main ones that came back with it, who stuck with the project. We also recognized that wow, yes, we are all women of colour. That was also something that we thought about afterwards, and even in our writing, we thought about it carefully, and how we wanted to approach our heritage and identities in our stories. Two of the stories do connect with the writers’ heritages, one story has to do with India, and one of the other stories has to do with the author’s heritage in Barbados. We didn’t want to make our various heritages the main part of the book, but it’s certainly something we recognized and took stock of in producing the book, and its definitely how we got into some of the events and things we did, because we are women of colour.

RS: What you’re saying then is that race is something that your group was definitely conscious of, and how significant and important it is.

SM: Yes, it’s important. It’s something that, like I said, we weren’t sure, as first-time writers, how it would play out in terms of the book. And even when I was writing my character, I left it so that you don’t know how she is. I leave it to the reader to imagine how she is.

RS: What about in your mind? How do you see your main character? What does she look like?

SM: Well, in my mind, she was somewhat of mixed heritage, but I did not dwell on that. I left it open, but it’s all in the perspective of who reads it, and what they want to get out of it.

RS: Final question, and this is something I ask everyone: whose work inspires you the most? Or more generally, what inspires you?

SM: It’s really interesting because my story is a light romance, and I do not have a favourite light romance author. I like Elin Hilderbrand, I like her writing, but she’s not my favourite, I just like her light writing. And I chose the light romance, because we all know that romance is a big seller. I felt that I wanted to try something a little bit different in that regard, for me, different for me, because that’s not where I was starting out. Because I am a mystery writer. That’s what I really like to do, and that’s what I’m doing right now. I love mystery and suspense. So my favourite writers that way would be James Patterson, Lynwood Barclay, David Baldacci, I love the way write, whatever they do. It’s crime-thrillers. I like that stuff. But I sensed it was a little bit different than what I was working on, and then this project came along. I was also working on another type of romance, I was thinking along the lines of Hallmark, you know, although I haven’t quite gotten there yet. Then there was the decision to shorten it, because we were thinking of short stories. How many words in a short story? I had way more story, and I had to cut it right down because we’d decided on a length, and I had to work within certain parameters to keep it short. I’m really more of a crime fiction person, but I’ve always, like a lot of people, wanted to write. And it was exciting to write, and seeing the finished product at the end was quite pleasing.

Thoughts on a pandemic

” how to write about something so massive, so pervasive, so threatening?”

Like so many of us who have been engaging online during this period of social distancing and self-isolation, I too have been reflecting on COVID-19 and what its spread has meant for all of us.

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But how to write about something so massive, so pervasive, so threatening? How to address the daily news stories with their tallies of deaths from the virus, and the mounting numbers of confirmed cases?

I don’t know.

In emails and messages with fellow poets and writers, I’ve observed some common threads, statements like: how do we even begin to write about this? Or, I want to write about this, but… And then there’s the really big one: are you managing to write at all?

I’ve tried to stay true and disciplined to my own writing practice. I’ve committed to keep working on my ongoing projects. But then I think about:

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healthcare workers, transit workers, cleaners tasked with sanitizing public spaces

grocery store employees, restaurants serving take-out

the elderly, the isolated, the vulnerable

How does a writer keep writing in light of the fact that so many others are risking their health and potentially their lives to keep the rest of us safe?

I’m not sure I have an answer.

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I know folks are quoting and checking out Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe is probably better known to us as the author of Robinson Crusoe, and in many ways, we are all finding ourselves isolated in our own, private islands (and yes, stay home!). It is comforting to know that we humans have been through pandemics before, and that somehow, we will get through.

But for Defoe, the Journal ends with the belief in divine intervention, that somehow the plague stopped because it was God’s will. I’m not much into divine intervention (and no slight intended to those who are), but the interesting thing is that Defoe charges: “let the philosophers search for reasons in nature to account for it by”. He meant that philosophers could try as hard as they want to try and explain the end of the plague, but Defoe was sticking to his divine intervention theory.

I want to think about Defoe’s statement differently. As writers, we are the philosophers who will reflect on recent events, not necessarily as scientists or doctors, but as thinkers, as meaning-makers.

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As wordsmiths, we will search for language to make meaning of the generosity of spirit we’ve seen in so many communities, the care for the vulnerable, and the recognition that we truly are all part of one global community.

So as I sit pensively thinking about COVID-19, I recognize that as writers, we might be experiencing writers’ block, at a loss for words to describe the immensity of our global situation. But as writers, I know too that eventually, the words will flow.

What meanings will we create from our experiences of this social isolation, of having lived through the pandemic caused by this coronavirus?

As writers, what stories will we tell?

Playing in the toolbox

But do we really play? Just have fun with the sport, the musical instrument, the piece of writing we’re working on? Do we improvise for the sake of improvising?

When I was in kindergarten, my classroom, like many of its generation, had a sandbox and a wooden jungle gym. Children were encouraged to play in the sandbox, and to climb the jungle gym. It’s hard to imagine having a jungle gym inside a classroom nowadays, but it says something about how adults viewed childhood when I was a kid. Back then, children were meant to play.

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As adults, many of us seem to forget how to play. And when I say play, I mean it as an activity in and of itself. Maybe we play tennis, or golf. Maybe we play guitar in some corner of our basements. But do we really play? Just have fun with the sport, the musical instrument, the piece of writing we’re working on? Do we improvise for the sake of improvising? Are we comfortable colouring outside the lines, and discovering where those colours will take us?

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I’ve been re-reading Julia Cameron’s work recently, and she’s big on play. In her book, Walking in This World, Cameron writes that “We’re so respectful of ‘great’ art that we always, chronically, sell ourselves short. We’re so worried about whether we can play in the ‘big leagues’ that we refuse to let ourselves play at all.”

Right now, I’m working on a new novel, and worrying if it makes any sense. That’s because the novel is experimental and has characters who don’t make much sense to the everyday world. But they’re funny, and working on this book makes me laugh. As I sit down to work on my novel each day, I feel always like I’m just playing with my literary toolbox.

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And so, Cameron’s point speaks straight to my art. What if I became so worried about the quality of my novel, that I just gave up in despair of writing something “worthy”? I know this happens to folks sometimes, but fortunately I have Julia Cameron and others to back me up. What if we just all played?

Thinking in this way reminds me of one of the most interesting poets I encountered back in graduate school. Reading Gertrude Stein’s “Lifting Belly” for the first time was like an exercise in frustration:

Dear me. Lifting belly.
Dear me. Lifting belly.
Oh yes.
Do you hear.
Yes I hear.
Lifting belly is amiss.
This is not the way.
I see.
Lifting belly is alright.
Is it a name.
Yes it's a name.
We were right.

--"Lifting Belly" by Gertrude Stein, from The Yale Gertrude Stein, Selections, with an Introduction by Richard Kostelanetz, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.

“Lifting Belly” was frustrating until I realized how it plays with language, with rhythms, with ideas about poetry. Stein’s poem challenged me to challenge my own thinking, and forced me to re-evaluate the nature of play.

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So I’m heading back to a kind of intellectual kindergarten classroom. I’m heading back to that literary toolbox, and performing mental gymnastics all over my literary jungle gym. I’m heading back to play. Because, as Julia Cameron asserts, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

Loving what’s local

A behind the scenes look at running a poetry collective

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my work running a local poetry group.

It’s not my actual work — my full-time job is elsewhere and requires other skills. No, running a poetry group is volunteer work that I somehow found myself mysteriously stumbling into a few years back. I was hesitant at first, as I’d never done anything like it before, and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to take on more projects. That actual job of mine keeps me quite occupied.

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But I stepped in and filled some empty shoes.

And when I did, some amazing things started to happen. First, I began dreaming. I dreamed of a website, which, with some support from members of the group, I was able to get up and running. Next, we moved on to publishing a poetry anthology.

BPS anthology cover for website

Third, we started running a poetry contest. And lately, we’ve been expanding our online presence through social media

Before I knew it, I was the point person for this little poetry community of ours. I found myself organizing poetry workshops and library bookcase displays, and speaking at other, local events as the rep for our poetry group.

And along the way, I realized:  I love it.

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Running a poetry collective is creative because it brings people together — people who might not otherwise have met. Like a good online dating site, we bring people together to do something they love: in our case, discuss poetry! In an era where we are all hyper-connected to our cellphones and devices, I somehow find myself behind the scenes of this great bunch of folks who willingly come together to sip a coffee or tea, all the while discussing some great poem they’ve read or even better, they’ve written.

And the amazing thing about it? It’s inspiring. Discussing and sharing ideas with like-minded folks can move us to write new pieces or see things in new ways. At least, that’s my experience with the poetry collective I run.

And lately, these folks in our little poetry group have been sharing the love.

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I’ll chalk it up to February, the month for Valentine’s. Because for the past several weeks, these poets from our collective keep thanking me for all the work I do. Sure, I do a few things like send out reminders and ask for monthly blog posts from members for our website. And yes, I ensure that the coffee shop where we meet is ready to receive us, as well as a few other administrative details.

But being the “boss” of the group? Well, it’s a bit of a labour of love.

So, for this month of February, I wanted to share the love by giving this behind-the-scenes look at running a poetry collective. Spread the love by checking out some great poetry from my lovable, local, poetry family at:

Happy February!