Busy Women on Writing Books
This is the seventh instalment in a new interview series on writing, profiling women writers who’ve written and published books while also working, parenting, volunteering, caring for family, attending school, and ALL OF THE THINGS.
I'm pleased to introduce you to a talented writer I met through our work with Arc Poetry Magazine, where she's now the Poetry Editor:
Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang is a poet, children’s writer and teacher. Her books of poetry include Status Update (2013), which was nominated for the Pat Lowther Award, and Sweet Devilry (2011), which won the Gerald Lampert Award. She was shortlisted for the CBC poetry prize in 2019 and longlisted for the CBC poetry prize in 2018.
Tsiang’s poetry has won the Arc Magazine Reader’s Choice for Poem of the Year, and was shortlisted for the Forward Awards, the Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse contest, the Bliss Carmen Poetry Award, and the Re-lit Award. Her work has also been featured in Best of the Best Canadian Poetry and many other anthologies. She is the editor of the poetry collection, Desperately Seeking Susans (2013).
Sarah is also the author of 8 children’s books, including picture books such as A Flock of Shoes, the non-fiction Warriors and Wailers, and the YA novel Breathing Fire. Sarah’s work been published and translated internationally, as well as named to the OLA Best Bets for Children 2010, Best Books for Kids & Teens from 2011 to 2014, the Toronto Public Library’s First and Best Book List (2012), and the Top Ten List for the Amelia Bloomer Project. She is currently Arc Poetry Magazine’s Poetry Editor.
I know how amazing you are, but please let everyone else know a bit about yourself and the books you’ve written thus far. Own it and brag a bit for us!
I write mainly poetry and children’s books. My first book of poetry, Sweet Devilry (2011), was really the first book I wrote, though it’s technically published 2nd, after my first picture book, A Flock of Shoes (2010). My second book of poetry is Status Update (2013), and I’ve also edited an anthology of poetry called Desperately Seeking Susans (2012) which featured only living Canadian women named Susan. For my children’s work there’s The Night Children (2011), Dogs Don’t Eat Jam (2011), Warriors and Wailers (2012), The Stone Hatchlings (2012), Breathing Fire (2014), Sugar and Snails (2018), Toesy Toes (2018).
I’ve been working on my third book of poetry (so far titled “Grappling Hook”) and it’s under consideration right now.
What’s your current writing routine? Has it always been like this? What about it might be different for you now than in the past?
I wish I had a writing routine. It sounds so nice and sensible! But for me writing has always been something that I fit in at the edges. I don’t write at all unless I have a deadline and the ensuing feeling of panic. It’s because of this lack of internal motivation that I rely on outside motivation. I meet with my writing group, the Villanelles, weekly, and I always try to have a poem written for then.
I first started writing seriously for my MFA. I put my daughter into part time daycare for the first time and it was heart rending. She hated daycare and she would sob when I would drop her off. It gave me 3 hours a day to do my school work and get my writing done.
I remember thinking this time is bought with her tears which made me determined to get as much writing done as possible. There’s always something else that will seem more pressing, more important, less selfish – so when I write I try to make whatever time I have really worth the price.
I’m coming into new challenges this year. I’m expecting my third child, we’re renovating the house, I’ve started a new job, and the pandemic has thrown schooling into an unpredictable mess. I had some ambivalent feelings about a third child. When I decided to go through with the pregnancy I made my friend promise that she would keep me accountable with my writing.
With each baby I’ve had to date there’s been a few years where I felt too overwhelmed to write. I’m hoping (maybe too optimistically?) that I can continue to write and grow as an artist while the rest of my life is a mad house.
Tell us the story of when you first got published. What was special about that experience for you?
The first thing I had published was an article for the Toronto Star when I was a young teenager. I had written to some newspapers at random and pitched the idea for a youth column. The Star was the only one that responded and I ended up writing multiple articles for them. The experience was good not just for the thrill of being published but for reinforcing the idea that writing involves rejection, hustle, and editing.
My first creative publication was with The New Quarterly. I had never really thought of publishing creatively before, but my partner was enrolled in a Masters program through UNB which attracted a lot of young writers. Seeing other people launching books emboldened me to consider the idea of writing as something that was possible, something that wasn’t solely reserved for serious old white men.
When did you start “getting serious” about writing and what did that look like for you?
Getting serious came about when I committed to doing an MFA at UBC. It meant that I would be accountable to others, that I would have specific deadlines, and that I could take writing seriously.
I remember when I went to the summer residency Susan Musgrave read a poem by Marge Piercy called “For the Young Who Want to”. It was exactly what I needed to hear; that writing does not have to be a tedious delusion or a hobby and that the work is more important than being published.
For me the MFA reinforced the joy of the work. The joy of getting over the millions of things can stop you and to just sit your butt down and work. It also made me realize that for me, writing is not a solitary activity. I need a supportive community to be able to produce writing in any regular sense. When I was done my MFA I felt wholly at sea. Who would check in with me? Who would tell me if my writing was any good or just pap? Who would recommend amazing books and commiserate with the difficulty of getting published?
I decided to start a writing group by just putting up posters around my neighborhood. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I set up a few rules: you had to present a poem you admired first, and you were not allowed to denigrate your own writing (we have a dollar fee for any comments like “this isn’t any good…”). The writing group has grown and evolved over the years but it remains the lifeblood of my writing.
What have you had going on in your life over the years that wasn’t writing and may have made finding time to write challenging? What strategies did you use to overcome those obstacles and get the writing done?
Babies. Whew, I have a hard time writing with babies (see above re: my optimistic plans this time around). I’ve also always worked while writing and raising kids. The hardest time were my years when I was teaching full time at Sheridan College. I would commute from Kingston to Brampton/Oakville/Mississauga to do my teaching with two kids at home. To complicate things further my partner was also working in downtown Toronto and commuting from Kingston (we REALLY wanted to stay in Kingston). We were like ships passing in the night for years.
In those times I tried to write on the train during my commute. I wouldn’t allow myself to mark on the train until I had a poem written. Because I usually had 140 students, no TA, and taught multiple essay-based courses, this meant that as soon as I sat down on the train I was desperate to write a poem. If I took too long it meant that I would be behind on my marking. It certainly passed the test of providing enough panic for me to produce very quickly.
Did you ever think about giving up on writing? Why didn’t you? How did you move past that point and recommit?
Oh yes, giving up seems like the sensible thing to do most days. My lowest point though was when I was trying to publish my first book of poetry. I was rejected by just about every press in Canada. I remember after about my 12th rejection I was hanging up laundry and thinking “If no one wants to read this, maybe I should just give up. This makes me feel terrible, this makes me feel like I have no value as a person.” Then I thought about the rest of my life, and what else defines me as a person.
It made it more bearable when I realized that writing was a small part of me. So what if people didn’t like a small part of me? And then I realized that I still liked that small part of me – the work was important even if it would grow mould in a drawer for the rest of my life. It was a part of me I wouldn’t throw out just because it wasn’t beloved by others.
How are you feeling about your writing right now?
I feel pretty good about my writing these days. My writing group all committed to a crazy February where we each wrote a poem every single day. It was during this time that I found out I was pregnant and boy was I filled with emotions! It was an exhausting time but the writing helped to clarify how I felt about the baby and how I felt more generally.
My husband often jokes that I’m dead inside because I have a hard time feeling/identifying emotions. I realized that writing unknots and unearths the tangled emotions I always push down.
What’s been your favourite part of finishing and publishing your books?
My favourite times as an author are when I’m presenting to children. Adults (especially around poetry) are so SERIOUS. With kids they’ll just tell you if it’s boring, or they’ll laugh at your fart jokes. When I do class presentations I love reading to elementary classes. I’ve also discovered (hot tip) that if you read to a kindergarten class you need to shave your legs.
Every single time I’ve read to kinders there’s always at least one kid who presses up close, leans against me, and then rubs a hand up and down my leg. I also like it when kids will just crawl into your lap to see the story and all the details in the illustrations. They often memorize every word and read it with you. It feels like they hold their love of literature closer to their hearts.
Do you ever get “stuck” or find yourself avoiding writing? If/when that happens, how do you get yourself unstuck?
I’m in a permanent place of stuck. I think inspiration has hit me around 5 times in my entire life. The reason I need outside motivation is that I firmly believe it’s better to bring something awful to a writing group than to not bring anything at all. And most of the time the something I bring can be fixed, or polished, or is maybe not as awful as I first thought.
What’s your favourite book about writing or writing craft?
Honestly it’s always great books of poetry (not on writing) that get me inspired to write.
Who do you consider your mentor(s)?
Sheri Benning was the first one to really introduce me to poetry and to patiently give me critiques on my first, terrible work. At UBC Susan Musgrave was a fantastic mentor. I took as many courses with her as possible and she was unfailingly supportive, wise, and filled with practical knowledge of poetry and writing in general. I now also have my writing group, so poets like Sadiqa deMeijer, Nancy-Jo Cullen, Susan Olding, Ashley Elizabeth Best, Kirsteen MacLeod, and Ying Lee, teach, support, and challenge me every week.
What are you working on now? How are you feeling about it right at this moment?
I’m at that place now where I’ve sent in my manuscript and so whatever poems I’m working on right now are just floating around hoping to one day coalesce into something resembling a theme or a manuscript. I have a graphic novel that is being illustrated and I hope to start shopping it around to publishers soon. I try not to think too much about how I feel about my writing. I have to take it one poem or one story at a time. Otherwise it’s just too overwhelming. After every single book I publish I always think it’s the end of my writing career. I always feel like I won’t have anything new to write about, or that I’m totally tapped out creatively. I’m learning (slowly) to ignore those feelings, keep my head down, and just write.
What advice would you have for writers who do really want to finish a book but just haven’t been able to get there yet?
Set small goals. Don’t think about publishing or any of that stuff to come. Just think about the work. Surround yourself with writers who can give you critiques and support. Remember to be kind to yourself.
All of Sarah Tsiang's books can be purchased online, or at your nearest independent bookstore.
Inspired and wanting to find more time for your own writing? Click here to get a copy of my free PDF Guide: 30 Ways to Find More Time to Write.