Writer in Residence

Once I was a Maenad

By Nancy Jo Cullen

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When I was twenty-six a motley group of women and I took my first play to the Edmonton Fringe Festival. We called ourselves Maenad Theatre and we took two plays from Calgary to Edmonton, Tango Noir, a play by Rose Scollard, and The Waitresses, a musical I co-wrote with the fabulous songwriter, Anne Loree. We were all in various stages of being young and we had great enthusiasm for our projects. I don’t suppose we had any idea what we were really getting ourselves into producing two new plays with absolutely no money, and travelling with them to a festival. It was optimism and a little bit of ignorance that got us going.

The review of The Waitresses in the Edmonton Sun took up half a page and included a photograph of the cast. The headline read:  “Waitresses Serves Up Empty Menu.” (LOL headline writer!) The reviews of my plays never got much better during my tenure with Maenad. Looking back, and knowing what I now do, there’s no question that each play I produced should have had (at least) one more re-write but I think, also, that there was some unconscious bias in late 1980s Calgary toward our feminist, woman-centred theatre.

Maenad carried on with a small, loyal group of theatregoers. As a close group of producers we learned so much, and we had a blast. But producing theatre with little or no budget was exhausting and eventually it was time for me to move on. My logic was, if I wasn’t going to make any money writing at least I’d not make any money by myself instead of bringing a bunch of people into the mix. But what an education those five years working with Maenad was.

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When Anne and I were writing The Waitresses, killing ourselves with laughter and drinking copious amounts of wine, I had no idea the rest of the world wouldn’t think we were as funny as we thought we were. I had some kind of fantasy that people would applaud us for our efforts. I was naïve and I suffered terribly from every bad review, which was, more or less, every one of my reviews. But I also learned that reviews don’t tell the whole story, and that audience members can well enjoy a show that a reviewer didn’t.

Now I try not to put too much stock in reviews. I mean, I love getting good reviews, but I don’t want to feel flattened by bad reviews. I have to reconcile my desire for approval with the reality that my work is not always going to be met with approval, or that it could fall into a void of being largely overlooked. I have to think about these things and I have to prepare myself for all outcomes because I want to enjoy the public part of having written a book as much as I enjoyed the private part of creating it.

The publishing/producing side of a writing life can be gruelling. Hopes may be dashed, reviews may cut, and before you even get to the publishing part, all the “no thank yous, it’s not for us” that must be borne. And still we keep at it, presumably because not keeping at it would feel worse. And, there is the joy of resolving a problem in the text; the pleasure of discovering a surprising turn in our writing. It continues to bring me back to the chair and the page.

I look back on my days in theatre with such affection; it was an enlivening and exhausting time. I learned to stick with my ideas, to tell the stories I wanted to even if they weren’t going to win me any approval or accolades. I learned that reviews, even the ones that pierced me, could still bring people to the show and so I learned what a privilege it is for any writer to be taken seriously enough to have their work reviewed.

Each time I embark on a project I want to make it the very best piece of writing it can be. I want to spend my time thinking about language, and how to find the right words to express my ideas. And I want to take the time I need to do that. I don’t want to get caught up in the feelings of scarcity that arise when grant notifications are sent out, or during awards season, or any time a friend or colleague may post about their own successes. I want to celebrate it all. These days I want spend my energy exploring what I’d like to try as writer and not fixating on what I hope to get.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.


Nancy Jo Cullen is the fourth recipient of the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and her short story collection, Canary, was the winner of the 2012 Metcalf-Rooke Award. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award, the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson Award and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize. She lived in Calgary for over two decades and still returns regularly to connect with family and friends. She now lives in Kingston, Canada.

Nancy's latest novel, The Western Alienation Merit Badge, was published in Spring 2019 by Wolsak & Wynn, to wide critical acclaim.