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.
Alright.
Sing.
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.”

Winter, writer

It’s easy to begin the new year with a blog about new prospects, resolutions, new hopes and aspirations, especially as we all look forward to this new decade. But I want to begin this year’s blog, this new decade with the idea of winter. Real winter — the kind that brings double-digit, sub-zero temperatures. The kind that makes you look out your kitchen window and think: I have to shovel again?! That kind of winter.

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Why would I want to think about that kind of winter, you may ask? Why start the new year and the new decade writing and thinking about the depths of snow and cold?

It’s because winter is a fallow period, a time when the earth and all the plants and animals are meant to rest, and I want to consider that especially as it applies to writing.

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If in nature winter is a time for shutting down, for saving energy, can it also be a time for us? for building up our reserves? As a writer, this may feel like a frightening prospect — aren’t I supposed to be writing every day? Aren’t I supposed to be producing those 500 words, or that finely edged and nuanced poem?

Maybe.

Or maybe winter is the time to watch the snow, to sit and think. To be.

So this winter, I’m looking at the next three-month writing period as a time for quiet reflection. I envision it as a time to pick up left-behind loose ends, to examine them in an afternoon light that reflects the blueness of an icy snowdrift, and as an opportunity to see new crystals sparkling there. My winter writing this year will intentionally be a period that allows the snow to gather, that allows me a kind of breathing room. A time to rest.

Before we know it, the snow will melt. (It will. I promise!) Before we know it, the muddiness of spring will awaken our hopes for something cleaner, fresher, alive. Before we know it, the projects and deadlines and to-do lists will sharpen our focus, sharpen our discipline as we sit at the computer or pad of paper, scribbling.

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But before any of that happens, I hope you will consider joining me this winter, this new year, in what is for me, a new idea: winter as a meditation, a pause, a stillness. Winter as a time to collect, to germinate new hopes, new dreams. Winter, writer: a toast to the quiet energy within.

Walking and writing

I think that human tenacity inspires me. Our bounce back-ability, you know? That we can recover from so many things. And I think something else that inspires me is that we really have everything in us that we already need. Who we are is already inside of us, is already there, and it’s just a question of unearthing it. So, when I write stories, novels, I think they are about people unearthing themselves.

A little while ago, I thought it might be interesting to do an occasional series on womxn creatives. The focus is to interrogate womxn’s writing processes and to generate a space for all writers to investigate and reflect on their writing practices.

I’m beginning my series with the talented and amazing Gwen Tuinman (https://gwentuinman.com/). Gwen Tuinman is a novelist, short story writer and poet. Fascinated by yesteryear and the landscape of human tenacity, she fashions troubled characters shaped by nature, nurture and circumstance. Gwen is also creator of The Wild Nellies (https://thewildnellies.com/), womxn’s creativity collective and co-creator of Poetry and Spoken Word Quarterly Readings and Performances. Born and raised in rural southern Ontario, she currently resides in Whitby, Ontario.

My interview with Gwen was conducted in Whitby on May 24, 2019. It has been edited for length.

RS: You are a writer, community organizer, event planner. You run the Poetry and Spoken Word Collective, the Wild Nellies – how do you juggle all of it?

GT: I’ve gone through waves… I try to meditate in the morning just to still my mind, and to state an intention and the intention that I state pretty much every day is that I will focus on the task I’m doing to the best of my ability. My friend, Ellen Wong is a Happiness Expert, and she recently printed something on her blog that mindfulness is focusing awareness on what you’re doing at the time. I try to be more purposeful about that, so that when something from another project is creeping into my mind, I’ll say: “not now” or I’ll just jot it down, put it on a sticky note, tack it up somewhere, and I’ll get back to it later. I’ve also found that it’s easy for the business side of things to creep into my art, but my art is at the core of everything, so I need to really protect that.

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Sometimes I do feel a little bit swamped, but then I find also that the things I will naturally eliminate from my schedule, like taking time to go for a walk, or going to the gym are very easily swept aside. When that happens, I feel everything crowding in on me. But when I make time for those things, it does something to me mentally and physically, and I find I’m more able to continue on with the task at hand.

RS: How important do you think it is to contribute to the community? How does it affect your own work as a writer?

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GT: I think it is important because the statements and observations that people in the arts make through their work need to be shared with the community. I think people can sometimes see themselves reflected back in what they hear in a poem, or see in a piece of art, or in a piece of music or what have you, and then we see that commonness of the human experience. It’s so easy now to be isolated with our technology and our busyness, and our long commutes, so to be able to share that, to be in a community, and to be able to share those connections through art I think is necessary.

Through the work that I’m doing, I’m meeting so many extraordinary people. They encourage and inspire me to think bigger, on a bigger scale in terms of projects, and I find that really exciting. I’m also really inspired by other creative people’s process, and usually when people talk about that, there comes with it a story, and so, hearing those stories opens my heart, and it shows me different ways that I can conjure a world in my writing, whether I see it done through poetry, or through a sculpture or through painting.

RS: You do a lot of work for womxn – the Wild Nellies for instance is all about encouraging and supporting and engaging with womxn creatives. How important is it for you to engage with other womxn creatives? Why do you think it’s necessary for womxn to have these kinds of spaces?

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GT: When I first had the idea for the Wild Nellies, I just thought it would be really neat for womxn to get together and then I had conversations with a couple of other womxn creatives who are close to me, and tossed some ideas around. We started developing this idea of having groups of womxn who would perform together, and then the idea that came to me was that we should diversify, not only in terms of the types of art that the womxn create, but also to diversify in terms of culture, age, and so on.

I remember reading Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, and the thing that I most strongly remember about that book is that I was so smitten with the notion that the womxn gathered, and they entertained and told stories to each other, and they cooked for each other and it was a time just for them. And they cared for each other, and I think that truth be told, the idea for the Wild Nellies is kind of like my “red tent”. I shouldn’t say “my”, because I’m not possessive of the space. It’s a metaphoric red tent open to any womxn (and nonbinary) creatives.

I think when it’s a group of womxn, we communicate, and we share our stories more freely, and it feels like a safer space in some way. There’s no deferring to men, and we’re like a big circle, you know? I really like that and the feedback from other womxn is that they enjoy that aspect too.

I also think that as artists, our work reflects humanity, so we need to be among people, many people from different walks of life. If we don’t connect with our community, interact socially and creatively among people, our view of the world is much restricted. We need to escape the garret and live.

RS: I want to ask about your writing process. What do you find works for you?

GT: I’ve been thinking a lot of the “why” of my writing, you know, trying to figure that out, and when I simmer down everything that I write, I think, whether it’s poetry, short stories, or the novel work, I’m writing about characters, particularly womxn, who are navigating the social restrictions of their era.

The first novel I wrote, I was very proud of saying it was “organic”, which I think is just a “hip” way of saying I was pantsing it! (laughter) I knew my characters like the back of my hand, I knew what was going to happen, I knew how it was going to end, but I didn’t have a really tight plan. I just wrote as I went along. On the second novel, I did in fact draft a written plan, so I knew, not necessarily chapter to chapter, but I knew the plot more precisely, and I had drafted out the events that would unfold, and I’ve been sticking to that. The characters do throw surprising zingers sometimes, so overall, I really have to remain flexible.

I do write the novel for the first half of every day. I find it really hard to take a break from writing. As a matter of fact, I feel really agitated if I take a day or two off from writing. I feel really antsy. It’s kind of like that feeling that you have when you’ve made a list, and you know that there’s one thing from a list that you forgot, and it eats at you. That’s kind of how I feel.

I also walk around my neighbourhood with a tape recorder at the end of the day, and I record my thoughts as I go. I’ll say, “Oh, I think my character would do something like this, but wait a minute, what if…” You know, that kind of thing. So I talk it out. I rarely go back and listen to that tape recorder, but I’ve said it, and it’s on there. I find it helps me a lot to talk that through.

RS: What inspires you?

GT: I think that human tenacity inspires me. Our bounce back-ability, you know? That we can recover from so many things. And I think something else that inspires me is that we really have everything in us that we already need. Who we are is already inside of us, is already there, and it’s just a question of unearthing it. So, when I write stories, novels, I think they are about people unearthing themselves.

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I’m writing pieces about empowerment for womxn, but really about a woman empowering herself, and believing in herself. Coming back to that place where she believed in herself, before all this “stuff” happened, just having that attitude, really having that belief that the universe is going to deliver, you know? Just keep doing your thing. It’s like the thing that you need, or the person or people you need, they’re coming towards you. You can’t see them right now, but they’re coming, and you’re drawing them towards you, so just keep on keeping on. I find that notion inspires me.

RS: Whose work (which writer) inspires you the most?

GT: Richard Wagamese, particularly Medicine Walk, and I really appreciate Joseph Boyden. I’ve really enjoyed some Louise Erdrich and Margaret Atwood as well.

Where’s your voice?

When I was young, I used to take singing lessons. I had a romantic dream of singing in musicals, especially ones like West Side Story. In my fantasies, I would, of course, play the role of Maria, the star-crossed teenager, styled after Shakespeare’s Juliet. If I couldn’t be Maria in West Side Story, I would have accepted my close second fantasy, and play the role of Maria in The Sound of Music. (Yes, perhaps it was only a fascination with characters named Maria.) Although my voice lessons progressed well and I participated in many local Kiwanis musical competitions, and sang in choirs well into my university years, I wasn’t gifted with an exceptional voice that would lead to a career as a vocal star. Continue reading “Where’s your voice?”