On one especially sunny day when I was a young girl sitting at my kitchen table scribbling stories on the backs of old receipts my mother left on the table, I closed my eyes, looked into the future, and imagined all the writers whose works would inspire me. Although I didn’t know them, I could see their faces, brown like mine. Their hands wrapped firmly around a perfectly sharpened HB pencil, crisp white paper at the ready, and a wire waste basket filled with crumpled up sheets of failure—balled and discarded. I pictured their faces turned into the wind as they took meaningful walks between drafts.
The world uses pop culture (especially movies) to present us with a very specific, yet limited view of the average writer, and society eats it up. In movies, writers are so far away from real people. They live in a different world with different trees, different food, different tools and resources. Or at least that’s what I thought. This cookie cutter image whispered to me: reading their books would be the only access or connection you would ever have with them. But still I imagined these writers sitting in wing-back chairs in isolated log cabins in the middle of nowhere, rarely leaving the confines of their warm writing den. Back then I didn’t think of this as a clichéd image. When I was sitting at my mother’s kitchen table surrounded by books and scraps of paper, I never thought that I could or would build actual relationships with these writers, even though deep down it was something I desired. Was it possible that these writers could take time away from their ideal surroundings to mentor and connect to young writers like myself? And if so, how would I find them? How would they find me?
I was deeply affected by the stories I read. I devoured female protagonists overcoming all kinds of adversity. I loved reading anything with lush language. I found myself huddled over my dictionary eagerly looking up words I didn’t know. At the time I wasn’t aware that the stories I created could make someone feel a particular way, until I felt a particular way myself. This led me to think about how I wanted to insert myself into the publishing narrative. I wanted to have an equal exchange with the writers I admired. I needed to learn from them, and I wanted to see the human behind the book. Did they also have other jobs? Families? Did they focus on anything other than writing? I was invested in discovering what could happen if creators reached out to emerging writers as equals while still offering tangible advice for creation.
When I first started writing, I had a few fabulous writers go above and beyond to help me, Black writers especially, and in looking back, this was indeed the best gift. They took the time to ask the right questions about my work, they created space for me to participate in events, and in some instances shared their work with me and asked me for feedback. These were often one-off connections that spiraled into concrete relationships. Paying it forward and offering new writers spots in events, or a chance to speak in classrooms— just a spot at the table to discuss and imagine—can be life changing. I don’t think I will ever forget these gracious offerings. It doesn’t take much to offer to help, share knowledge and experiences or just be an ear to listen. We cannot discount the listening. So why is this not the image of the writer we all know instead of the log cabin perfectionist? Why don’t we talk about all of the variables that get us from point A to point Z? Writers always do more than they get credit for.
How do we show up for each other? How do we make room? How do we plant the seeds that will flower into unexpected opportunities and passion? I no longer apologize for asking so many questions all the time. I am curious, and I often find myself seeking change through this sort of holistic exploration. Maybe we have to show each other the true and nuanced life of being a writer. We need to see the failures too. We need to see writers huddled at their kitchen tables with scraps of paper and stories written on the backs of receipts. Maybe we need to see them on the bus jotting down story ideas between red lights and stop signs. Maybe we see them juggling other jobs. Maybe we even see them at the brink of giving up. What would the image look like then?
The first poem I ever read out loud caused volcanic eruptions deep inside my gut. I was terrified. And I don’t mean your typical stage fright, nerve-wracking butterflies type of fear, but I mean the type of fear that is strong enough to make you walk out in front of everyone at the exact second your bio is read aloud to the room. I recall mustering every ounce of courage I had in me to get up in front of that small room of writers. I held the paper in front of my face, feeling it shake violently between my fingers. On the bus ride home, feeling like a complete failure even though I made it through, I looked down at my phone and saw an email from one of my mentors. He said “You read with authenticity and rhythm. I look forward to your next reading”. I was on top of the world. A small gift. A cheerleader in my corner. I know I didn’t do the best job. I was a nervous introverted new writer, but those words blossomed into ambition, passion, and drive. Almost 10 years later I still sit at the kitchen table scribbling, but now I do it with intention. I plan for small failures by opening up about what makes me nervous and I cite all the writers who showed me that being a writer is more than publishing books, making lists, and winning awards. Writers like Wayde Compton, Juliane Okot Bitek, Chantal Gibson, and David Chariandy just to name a few. To all the glorious Black writers who didn’t let me fall, thank you.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Chelene Knight is the author of the poetry collection Braided Skin and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award. Her essays have appeared in multiple Canadian and American literary journals, plus the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. Her work is anthologized in Making Room, Love Me True, Sustenance, The Summer Book, and Black Writers Matter.
The Toronto Star called Knight, “one of the storytellers we need most right now.” In addition to her work as a writer, Knight is managing editor at Room, programming director for the Growing Room Festival, and CEO of #LearnWritingEssentials. She often gives talks about home, belonging and belief, inclusivity, and community building through authentic storytelling.
Knight is currently working on Junie, a novel set in Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley, forthcoming in 2020.