Author: Karen Stiller (page 1 of 7)

There’s no point being shy

Last night I mustered all my courage and stood in a line of other people who had mustered all their courage, at a wine and cheese at HarperCollins in downtown Toronto. We were lining up to speak to one of several very kind editors giving two hours of their time to students in the University of King’s College Master of Fine Arts program.

It would have been a lot easier and less frightening for me, in every imaginable way, to just eat yet more cheese in the corner of the crowded boardroom, and have fun with my friends. But I knew this was a great opportunity to get face-to-face with an editor at one of the English speaking world’s largest publishers. He was very kind and gracious. The editors had clearly and generously prepped for our gathering by scanning our bios and a bit of our work. He recognized my name as “the minister’s wife,” and even remembered a line from my Walrus article, “the life of the funeral and the death of the party.” Very cool. Then, he whipped out a book contract from his back pocket. HA HA HA HA! That did not happen. But I left cheered, like I think just about everyone from our class did, bellies full of Gruyère and heads full of dreams.

The writing life is full of highs and lows and sighing. But the big lesson I keep learning is to walk through the doors or climb through the windows (potentially very undignified, but it might move you forward), that are open in front of you. Risk taking is part of the package.

Later in our MFA schedule we had a session on how to write good grant proposals. One line really jumped out at me from the presenter: “There’s no point in being shy.” Indeed.

The beauty of collaboration

The other night I witnessed a lovely collaboration play out at a church in downtown Ottawa. Steve Bell, Canadian Christian music icon, sat on stage with his good friend Malcolm Guite, a poet, priest and singer-songwriter from Cambridge. It was Steve who introduced me first to the work of Guite, and I’m very thankful. I knew he was hanging out with a poet, and that this poetry was impacting his own work as a songwriter. To see the collaboration play out in real time, as the two took turns reading poetry and then singing, and in some cases a song inspired by that very poem, was a rare glimpse for me into how art nurtures art. Poem begat song, song begat poem. And we all receive.

Collaboration has been a theme for me this year, in my workshops for my MFA and in my mentor feedback. Having other writers dig into my own work and tell me what they see, and what they don’t see, has been so helpful. In the very last chapter I wrote, my mentor Harry suggested I ditch a few wisecracks. What?? I pride myself on my wisecracks. He told me, it’s okay to just be serious. When I tackled my rewrite I was convinced I would leave one line in particular in, despite what he had advised, because it was so funny!!! Of course, I took it out. He was right. Thank goodness for honest collaborators.
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Full voice

Because sometimes one does things backward and higgledy piggledy, I wrote chapter one of my Master of Fine Arts writing project sixth in line. This made sense to me because I wasn’t sure how to launch this baby properly, and I may not have actually figured that out yet. But I did have a sense at times when I was writing it that I was in “the groove” and writing in the right direction. I’ve had this rare and  beautiful feeling a few times in my writing life, and it is a welcome respite from agony.

I received the chapter back from my writing mentor, and in one little corner of it, at one passage in particular, he wrote:  “I think this is a wonderful passage, you are in full voice here.” This gave me such joy. And at the risk of sounding not humble, I think he might have been right.  I could see that the passage he was commenting on really did sound like me, and not like me pretending to be someone else. And that means knowing what I’m knowing, and being honest and saying what I think to be true in the way that I want to say it and that I think it needs to be said. It’s not yelling, but I guess  full voice could be loud.

The next day, I sat around a dining room table in Toronto at a friend’s 60th birthday party. She is in full bloom (I think she is, but maybe not, maybe I don’t know what full bloom looks like. Maybe we just keep blooming and blooming). My friend is a priest and a professor, a writer and a mother and wife. She is fully engaged in her work. My dad has a funny little saying, about bosses or systems that were good to work in for him, he will say: “They used me well.” I think my friend is being used well right now, appreciated and maybe even applauded for all she has become.

I think she is in full voice. I shared with the table, that included her two daughters and ranged upward in age and stage from there, this idea of full voice. And of course because women don’t always speak in their full voice, (because they don’t want to be too loud, or  hurt feelings, or be pushy, or they preface their fabulous idea with self-deprecation) they understood the concept immediately. We all agreed we know when we are not speaking in full voice.

So, I’m going to be thinking about this more these days. What is my full voice? And if I’m not using it, why not?




I just finished — for now — a  chapter for my MFA, this one on forgiveness. I usually begin a chapter throwing a whole bunch of stuff into a fresh, clean word document. All my stories that I think will fit, my research, great quotes from experts that I think will spruce things up at the right moments.

As I write, I usually have a teetering pile of books by my side, my authority figures who remind me that I don’t need to have it all figured out myself. My corner of the dining room table will be a creative mess for days as I inch my way through my chapter.

I’m so glad we bought a long table years ago. Back then we were mostly picturing big dinner parties with loud conversations. We do that. But it’s a also a lovely writing home for me, when my basement office is more stifling than life-giving. There’s room for me to stay set up in one corner, and we can all eat at the other end.

As I  narrowed in on the ending for this piece, I remembered my mentor’s advice this summer: when it’s done, it’s done. Let the piece end itself, he said, instead of legalistically trying to wring 5000 words out of every topic. As it turns out, all I know about forgiveness fits into 3600 words, so I wrapped it up.

Then, I gathered up all the material I did not use from the document, and brought them over to my Leftovers File, in a big cut and paste sweep. It’s my guess they will remain there forever. But knowing they are in what is more of a compost bin than a garbage can makes them easier to let go of in the first place, and you never know, they may show up somewhere else someday.

The story behind The Walrus story

I was in New York City in January, for my week long residency of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction that I’m completing through the University of King’s College in Halifax. So was an editor from The Walrus. There were five blank spots on a sign-up page to meet with her one-on-one to pitch stories in the hallway outside our classroom.

I’m normally not aggressive about these things, being schooled in the art of letting other people go first to pick out all the black jujubes for themselves. But this time I shot out of the room and scribbled my name in one of those coveted spots. Then I spent a few hours trying to come up with One Great Idea, which later that afternoon made her eyes glaze over in boredom. I hadn’t actually seen that happen before, but I can assure you now that it really is a thing. I stammered to a close. We stared at each other for a moment, blinking.

Then she said, “Tell me about your MFA project.” So, I did. And she was pleasantly interested in my current work of digging around in my life as a minister’s wife. We chatted about what a Walrus piece could look like and exchanged emails.

Thus began the writer’s delicate journey of not bothering the editor too much, but just enough to stay on her radar. You want to lightly knock on the door and catch the editor at the precise right moment (and be a pleasant interlude in her busy day) not jump around waving your arms, yelling, every time she is headed out for a coffee (and be a crazy stalker). Anyway, she was lovely and we went through a few drafts with her deft edits and good questions to draw out the right things.

Then, came the fact-checking stage which involved me explaining to the new neighbours who invited us for dinner that this was SO newsworthy an event that I had written about it in an essay and now they needed to confirm it with a nice fellow from The Walrus. One funny friend told me that my neighbours might have the priest over for dinner again, but maybe not the writer. It took me over a week to work up the nerve to connect neighbours with fact checker, but in the circle of pleasantness that was this entire experience, this was just another roadstop. Everybody talked to everybody who needed to talk to anybody, and the piece was done.

And I realized as I read it in print, that I was finally, at this stage in my writing life, actually doing that thing they encourage you to do all along: write what you know. A few priests and pastors and people married to them have said to me, “Yeah, that’s it.” Because when we write what we know, we’re almost always telling the truth about what other people know too. That’s pretty cool.

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