How I Learned to Write What Scares Me

By Jen Sookfong Lee

Jen launch

Three years ago, I wrote a poem.

Back then, a few very big things happened in my life. My marriage died. I found a new publisher. And, perhaps most importantly, I started teaching.

For my entire publishing career, I’ve been known as a novelist. As a student, I wrote almost exclusively poetry, but when I graduated and I found myself at loose ends for a project, a long poem I had been writing grew into a novel, and that novel became The End of East, my first book. And then, after publication, it seemed inevitable that I would continue to write novels, one after another.

After a while, I started teaching, primarily at The Writers’ Studio at Simon Fraser University. I had taught before, mostly workshops here and there, but I hadn’t led one group of students as they worked through a book-length project, so I had no real idea of what to expect from them, or what their expectations were. But as I grew to understand their books and each emerging writer, I began to see that they came to these writing programs with a great deal of anxiety and, sometimes, fear. For many, this was the first time anyone had ever seriously read and critiqued their work. And this was often the first time they had allowed themselves to identify as writers, when being a writer had always seemed like an impossible dream, a title one could only earn after a series of bestsellers and a Giller Prize. Yet, here they were, submitting writing they were emotionally attached to, laying bare words that had only previously existed on their laptops.

And their stories. Each and every one was an exercise in bravery. Whether it was an epic novel with touches of magic realism, or a story based on personal trauma, or a historical novel that required weeks and weeks of research, their books were adventures both intimate and external. To embark on those adventures required a suspension of fear, or a deliberate refutation of that fear.

The End of East

So, as I watched my students approach writing and learning with so much bravery, when I opened my laptop and started to write myself, it seemed silly to write another novel. Don’t get me wrong, novels are hard work, but I’ve been writing them for 17 years and people expect me to produce them. I know how they work. I know how to get into a novel-writing rhythm. Instead, I asked myself, "What scares you? What do you really want to write?" And the answer was poems.

So, I wrote a poem. And another. And another. And then, I also started writing cultural criticism and children’s books. I might have had heart palpitations throughout the writing and editing process, and I might have made rookie mistakes (my non-fiction editor once asked me to provide evidence for an argument and I remember saying, “What? If I write that something is true, readers just won’t believe me?”). All of that still scares me, but I keep writing, which is the best possible way to do anything. What are you learning if you’re not scared pantsless?

Every September, my new students come to me for guidance and advice. I can teach them all sorts of things about plotting and dialogue and character development, but it’s their sense of adventure and their bravery despite their anxieties that continues to teach me to never be complacent, to never sit in a little hollow of expectations and continue to write the books that will surprise no one. Because of my students, I have learned to do just the opposite.

Writing teachers can hold a lot of power, often helping their students find publishers or other industry jobs. And workshops are an intensely emotional experience; after all, students are asked to present their innermost thoughts for critique, and it places them in a vulnerable position. But the benefits of writing programs run both ways, with students often bringing their teachers work with different perspectives, genres, and cultural markers, essentially expanding our brains with every new course intake.

My students have taught me all of that. But the most valuable lesson they continue to teach me, by example, is how to run toward my writerly fears and be comfortable in my writerly discomfort. And what a gift that is.

Jen Sookfong Lee writes, talks on the radio and loves her slow cooker.

In 2007, Knopf Canada published Jen’s first novel,The End of East, as part of its New Face of Fiction program. Hailed as “an emotional powerhouse of a novel,” The End of East shines a light on the Chinese Canadian story, the repercussions of immigration and the city of Vancouver.

Shelter, Jen’s first fiction for young adults, was published in February 2011 as part of Annick Press’ Single Voice series. It follows a young girl as she struggles to balance her first and dangerous love affair with a difficult and demanding family.

Called “straight-ahead page-turning brilliance” by The National Post and shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award, The Better Mother, Jen’s sophomore novel, was published by Knopf in May 2011. Set in Vancouver during the mid-20th century and early 1980s, The Better Mother is about the accidental friendship between Miss Val, a longtime burlesque dancer, and Danny Lim, a wedding photographer trying to reconcile his past with his present.

Jen’s third novel for adults, The Conjoined, was published by ECW Press in September 2016 and was a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and optioned for film. A literary crime novel, it follows a social worker, Jessica Campbell, as she unravels the mysterious deaths of two foster sisters who lived with her family in the 1980s.

A popular radio personality, Jen was the writing columnist for CBC Radio One’s On the Coast and All Points West for three years. She appears regularly as a columnist on The Next Chapter and Definitely Not the Opera, and is a frequent co-host of the Studio One Book Club. Jen is a member of the writing group SPiN and is represented by the Carolyn Swayze Literary Agency. She currently teaches fiction at The Writers’ Studio Online at Simon Fraser University.

Born and raised in East Vancouver, Jen now lives in North Burnaby with her son and hoodlum of a dog.