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On becoming a writer

Sometimes in the course of getting to teach and mentor amazing emerging writers, I get asked how I knew I wanted to be a writer. Writing has always been such a huge part of who I am that it's strange sometimes for me to think that there was a time when I wasn't sure, when some aspect of it, writing, rewriting, outlining, editing, researching, reading, thinking about craft, talking about books, etc didn't consume every aspect of my life.

I wrote my first short story when I was in grade three. I had an amazing teacher, Mrs Aviva Notelowitz, who coaxed my stories and ideas out of me, and gave me the confidence to write them down, and then to work on them. I didn't know that they were short stories then, but as an animal lover, I knew I wanted to write stories from the points of view of different animals, and I knew I wanted to write about unexpected ones. I can only remember one story in detail now. It was called Shy The Fly (I'm laughing as I share this) and it was about a fly named Shai who is nicknamed Shy because of her cripplingly shyness. When the other flies swarm around a sticky pile of juice, and start talking to her she flies into a wall and hurts her wing (Eventually she makes a friend named Di, who likes the same things she does, and she feels less alone and more confident) I was pretty shy as a kid and writing that story was the first time that I realized I could take real things I felt and thought, and fictionalize them. I actually got to read it to my class in my school library, which was very special, and I guess, my first ever reading.

I loved to read, and reread. My favourite outings were to the library or the bookstore. I read everything I could get my hands on.

I had my first publication at sixteen, which feels like a lifetime ago now. It was music journalism. I had to review three CDs (see how old I am?) and then in time, I got to interview and write features about Canadian bands for a free, but nationally distributed music magazine. In time, I did more freelance journalism. I wrote human interest and general interest articles for a commuter newspaper 24 hours (where I wrote about everything from allergy season to organizations that helped the homeless in Toronto) I was also in bands, and sang and wrote lyrics. It was all amazing and enjoyable but somehow none of it felt right.

The decision not to become a journalist was made for me when I didn't get into journalism school. In retrospect, it's hilarious- despite a good portfolio, and reasonable (if not the greatest of all time) grades, when I went to my interview at Ryerson, and the very respectable guy interviewing me asked what else I wanted to do, I said Creative Writing.

Probably the exact thing you shouldn't say if that's what you want to do with your life. (Too bad I didn't know it at the time, although maybe it actually isn't)

I went to school, and studied Visual Arts (I love to paint, but not as much as I love to write) and English, and found out that I could apply in my second year to be a Creative Writing major. I wrote my first ever short story, called Another Other, on the 196 Bus going from York University to the subway. (Later, that story would be published in my third book, For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I've Known, which was so exciting and special)

It was amazing to be in writing workshops, talking so seriously about writing and books, but sometimes my writerly sense of imposter syndrome was hard to ignore. One summer, I applied and got accepted to the Humber School for Writers. It was a life changing experience. I learned so much about craft, and writing, and the industry, which at the time I knew very little about. I got to be mentored by Nino Ricci, was the biggest gift, and during our live readings, I was approached by another amazing writer, Richard Scrimger. Richard heard me read (I was reading Paradox, which would become the first short story in my first book, Got No Secrets) and he told me that he loved my reading, and he wanted to help me. He said that Wayson Choy (who is also amazing, if you don't know his work, look it up, and boy are you in for a treat) helped him, despite not being his mentor and every year, he tried to pay if forward. He made me promise that I would too, and every since then, I've tried to. I still can't believe that I get to teach and mentor in a program that gave me so much. That I get to contribute and encourage and support the next generation of writers is such an incredible feeling. I'm so grateful.

Since then, I've completed an MFA in Creative Writing at Guelph University, which was an exceptional experience. The sense of community in these programs, getting to work with such talented peers, and such incredible instructors was a dream.

My new novel, A Place for People Like Us, was actually written in the program. (The first draft, which makes me cringe just thinking about it, was actually my thesis. God bless my professors for somehow being so supportive. Catherine Bush, especially is the most incisive, thoughtful note giver of all time.)

Some of my short stories from my new collection, Things that Cause Inappropriate Happiness were written then too. Short fiction remains my favorite form, my first love, and what I go to whenever I'm procrastinating. Somehow, even if things don't go as planned, I always find writing short fiction so exciting and enjoyable.

I feel incredibly fortunate that I get to invent characters and make up stories, and spend hours and days figuring out the best way to tell them. I also feel so fortunate that I get to work with such talented writers and I try to give them everything that was so generously given to me by my mentors.

I wish I had known when I was younger how important it is to love and be passionate about what you do, and that if you're lucky, and you work hard at it, you might get to spend a lot of your time one day doing it. (I think young me would have been over the moon to learn that)


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