Writing is difficult. It starts with the mind and a page, both blank and empty. Hosting a new set of visitors, eager to impart their wisdom on perked student ears, the Third Annual Writer’s Panel organized by the UTM Scribes society inspired all those in attendance. The panelists did stress that the journey starts with learning the ways of the craft. It can occur individually, or through educational environments, like the professional writing and communication (PWC) program. Creativity, they urge, cannot be learned, but the tools for expressing a stroke of it must be, if successful writers are to be reared.
It’s easy to wonder what, with each blank page conquered and each thin line brought to its final resting place, comes next for the writer. Impassioned by their work but confined by an ever-compressing job market, writers, such as myself, often find themselves submitting to the regret and self-doubt that comes with their chosen path. As experience informs most writers, however, this regret stems from a self-induced illusion. Because for all those misguided starving artists, visitors to the literary community at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) have but one thing to say: Go eat.
“Talent is not enough, it’s an art and a craft,” says panelist Bänoo Zan, an Iranian immigrant and changed poet, translator, and editor. “You have to have knowledge of the genre you are working in, and you have to know the history; the classics and the contemporaries.”
Learning literary technique isn’t bound to the classroom, it is just streamlined there with lucid tools and fervent guidance. Other panelists present at the event were Carianne Leung, a self-described Chinese library geek-made-fiction writer, academic and educator, Lesley Livingston, a Canadian thespian turned novelist, and Angela Misri, an Indian raised into medicine as a manifest journalist and author. They shared their stories and perspectives on transcending the classroom to gain that much desired career recognition as writers.
“Learn to say yes and learn to say no,” said Livingston, “Learn to say yes to things that can tangentially get you into the sphere of someone you admire or who you can learn from. Go to conferences, conventions, workshops, come to things like this. Write what you want to write and just believe it will happen.”
With foundations established in the attainment of graduate level educations in topics ranging from sociology to English, all of them developed a dedication to the craft of making culture through art.
A naïve persistence and a humble acknowledgement of luck, as they explained, would eventually go hand in hand in getting their work published in houses like Harper Collins and Penguin Random House.
“There’s this idea that you need some sort of golden key,” said Livingston. “I sent out over 300 query letters for my first book [The Wondrous Strange], and got everything from yes, send us sample chapters, to, we have taken on a restraining order, stop contacting us. It’s luck meets preparation.”
A constant practice in perseverance remained true for all those seated on the panel. For each of them as they describe, getting to a place where they could sustain themselves from their work and then staying there, was and still is, a constant challenge.
“It was a fight, I felt very alone and very scared a lot of the time,” said Misri. “If I was wrong, if I wasn’t a writer, if I wasn’t an artist, then what the hell was I? You’ve gotta be willing to do whatever it takes to get this art out of you and to get it [to] give you the time, the money, and the energy to do it. The fear is a lot, but you can find your tribe.”
Although these panelists share their experiences on finding success gradually, slightly uplifted skeptics might claim it’s easy for them to spout inspiration from the spigot of success. UTM Scribes however pushes student writers to utilize the opportunities at their disposal.
“I think a lot of students don’t realize their avenues to get published,” says Sasha Nanua, a fourth-year student in PWC, self-published author and vice-president of UTM Scribes. “Having [Scribes], this diverse magazine for people to submit to for free, is opening doors for so many students. We want students to come to these panels every year to see that they can do this too.”
In addition, the annually published and student-run PWC journals, Mindwaves and Compass, welcome student submissions. The journals hire a new wave of student associate editors and editors-in-chief, then accept and consider student submitted work to release in an anthology each year. PWC courses, such as Making a Book, provide students with the opportunity to publish collections of creative non-fiction written throughout their academic careers.
As a writer, I find myself compelled to search for and capitalize on the opportunity to write wherever it emerges, even if at first glance, the floor to do so looks bare. Instead of questioning the mockery that comes from the blank page, writers should consider multiple avenues for filling them, even if they ask to be filled over and over again with no foreseeable gain. As the panelists explain, only on the other side will you find a fulfilling and fitting reward, be it a career or a sense of pride in one’s own work.