Review of I Wasn’t Always Like This
“Shelley A. Leedahl’s I Wasn’t Always Like This shares snapshots of the writer’s life through seemingly disconnected and non-sequential journeys and choices while drawing attention to the absurdity of the statement in the title.
It is Leedahl’s perceptive and self-effacing sense of humour that resounds through I Wasn’t Always Like This, a foray into the genre of life writing after what she describes in a blog as a “quiet but prolific career.” Her experience of the Canadian writer’s life reaches out to a larger literary community—“We try and we try. It’s exhausting,” she states. The book is itself a stitching of journeys across Canada and internationally and family relationships as they unravel and resolve in new patterns; the places—whether coastal (East or West) or prairie, small town, rural, or urban—establish a fascinating backdrop for her recollections, admissions, confessions, and yearnings. In one section focusing on her dabbling in online dating, she provides a quirky and endearing list of her self-identified characteristics. In another, she reflects on an exchange in Mexico, and here—as in most sections—her contemplations on personality, place, and experience are candid and engaging. The arrangement of sections sometimes seems arbitrary, so that this book, like Coulter’s, can be picked up and set down without a loss of continuity; the teasing out of the expression “I wasn’t always like this” brings the concepts of time and stability into question. More disjointed to the reader are the selections of fictional writing that mark various sections of the book. Sections such as “Plenty of Fish” and “San Francisco: Photos Not Taken”—ingenious experimentations with narrative and intertextuality—show Leedahl at her best.”
More Reviews of this title
“RESPONSES FROM READERS:
Just wanted to say I'm really enjoying your book. So far every story is my favourite ... I really love your writing. I've been warring with wanting to savour the stories and read them slowly or devour them as fast as possible." — Aspen Gainer
"I've read your book and loved it ... engaging, polished, and thought-provoking. You have certainly been through a lot ... " — Catherine Greenwood
"Shelley, I have just finished your book and I loved it ... it's like poetry in every paragraph. Love the way you describe everything. It felt like I was on vacation with you." — Terry McQuillan
"I loved your stories on Hawaii!" — Jennifer Eberts
"I really enjoyed your descriptions of Saskatchewan ... I related to your harvesting experience ...your wanderings triggered a long distant memory." — Emily Thomas
"I had an overwhelming urge to give you a hug when I finished, and to tell you that you've written something brave and beautiful." — Rachel Dunstan Muller”
“With Family Literacy Day celebrated nationwide last week, Northern Pride took some time to chat with former Meadow Lake resident and Canadian author Shelley Leedahl. Speaking from her home in Ladysmith, B.C., Shelley shared her thoughts on writing, her love for Greig Lake and the importance of pursuing your dreams.
Q: When did your love for writing begin?
A: I can remember being a toddler of about two or three years old. We were living in Kyle, SK at the time and I recall sitting at our kitchen table with a big red pencil in my hand and scribbling onto a piece of paper before asking my mother, “Does this make a word?” I’ve always loved writing and feel fortunate to have always known I wanted to become a writer. I never questioned what I was going to be when I grew up – it was never an issue for me. I also started to read voraciously when I was a teen. I enjoyed books by Stephen King, as well as others in the horror genre. My mom also had a subscription to a Canadian literary magazine, Grain. That’s when I realized how powerful stories written by Canadians could be.
Q: Did anyone in particular serve as an inspiration in the early part of your career?
A: When I was in Grade 12 at Carpenter High School in Meadow Lake, I had an English teacher named Pat James who gave us an assignment that involved writing a story about anything we wanted. I decided to write a story about hunting because that was something I did with my boyfriend. When she gave us the stories back, I saw she’d given me a very high mark. That was very encouraging to me because it was the first time I thought perhaps I did have some talent for this.
Q: That does sound like a definite turning point for you.
A: Actually, a few years later, when I began submitting stories and poems to journals and newspapers, I sent that story to The Western Producer and they published it. It was the first story I had published and it was one I had written in high school. I received $50 for it and thought it was just the best thing in the world. It was probably beginner’s luck more than anything, but what a boost.
Q: You’ve obviously gone on to have a lot more of your work published since then. How many books have you written in total?
A: I have 11 published and my 12th will be released in 2016. Titled The Moon Watched It All, it will be my second illustrated children’s book. My first one was titled The Bone Talker and, although I never expected to write for children, that one has been my best seller. In addition to English, it’s also been published in simplified Chinese, Korean and braille.
Q: I take it you’re a multi-genre writer?
A: I sure am. Ever since I began, I was always writing multiple genres. At first it was poetry and then I moved on to short stories and essays. Sometimes I have several projects on the go at one time, which keeps things interesting for me. I’ve always been more comfortable switching things up.
Q: Is there a particular genre you prefer writing?
A: Not really, as they all hold special meaning for me in different ways. Right now, I feel most comfortable writing essays because I love how easy it is to create a story and I get so passionate when I write essays. However, writing, to me, is really about communication regardless of the genre, and all my work is about one thing – the human heart.
Q: On the topic of communication, tell me more about the literary salon sessions you hold.
A: It’s quite a struggle for Canadian writers to attract readers, so we have to find new ways to market ourselves. It’s much easier to participate in a discussion than to sit in an auditorium and listen. I also like to hear other people’s stories and literary salons provide a cosy setting for just that. People will invite 10 or 12 of their friends over to their home, I’ll go in and talk a little, share an essay and provide prepared questions for everyone to ask designed to get conversation going – questions about life and about people’s experiences. I find these things go over extremely well. In fact, the first one felt so transcendent. People weren’t just sharing stories, they were feeling them. Some of the participants even started to cry because it was so emotional. I also think people these days miss conversation. Even when friends come over, you often spend your time in front of a TV. There’s not much conversation there, but I remember back in the day when my parents would hold card parties – there was always a lot of talking. It was a very social time. The salons are a way of getting some of that back.
Q: Does your career ever allow you time to return to Meadow Lake?
A: I don’t have any salons booked for Meadow Lake, but I will be at the local library March 28 to present my latest book, a collection of essays titled I Wasn’t Always Like This. A writing workshop will also be held that day. I’ll also be coming back to Meadow Lake in September and, throughout the summer, I’m usually at Greig Lake. We’ve had a family cabin there for years and that’s where I feel my real home is. Summer isn’t summer unless I spend time at Greig Lake.
Q: When did you reside in Meadow Lake?
A: My family moved there in 1973, when I was in Grade 5. I attended Jubilee School and, after graduating from Carpenter High, I worked for a summer in the grocery department at the Meadow Lake Co-op. After that, I went off to journalism school but, after a year, realized I did not want to be a journalist. I wanted to write stories and poetry about the things I really cared about. I’m glad I had the experience, though, because it certainly helped me with my later work as a freelancer.
Q: When did you leave the community?
A: I left in 1981 to attend the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary. Later on, after I already had a young family, was operating a home day care and had written my first book, I enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan where I earned my English degree. I’ve never done anything in my life in the traditional order.
Q: When was your first book published?
A: It was in 1990. I had been taking some creative writing classes, had a few pieces published and had won a few writing competitions, so my work and my name were getting out there. I had the great fortune of having a publisher approach me about a book, which turned out to be a collection of poetry titled A Few Words For January. I was so excited and the book ended up selling out within a month. It’s since been reprinted twice.
Q: What did it feel like to become a published author?
A: At my book launch in Saskatoon, I felt like Cinderella at the ball. My goal in life was to have a book published by the time I was 30 years old and I believe I was 27 when it came out. I felt that was it – I couldn’t believe it had happened. Now, every time a new book comes out, I feel the same. It’s a great feeling and nice to get wonderful reviews, but what makes it the most rewarding is hearing from readers who truly are able to relate to what I have written. I love that connection.
Q: It must be equally rewarding to know you’ve been able to turn your writing into a full-time career.
A: I have made a career out of it for a few decades, but when times get thin I do take on other work. I’ve driven combines for farmers, have been a live-in caregiver, have worked in retail and I do a whole lot of freelancing for newspapers and magazines. When living in Saskatchewan, I made money doing presentations at various schools, libraries and universities. The irony was, I was getting paid more to talk about what I did than actually doing it.
Q: Where do you live now?
A: I live on Vancouver Island in a gorgeous little community called Ladysmith. I had been out this way enough times to know this is where I wanted to live one day, so I sold my home in Middle Lake. The prices were high there, but low here, so I was able to buy a house that backs onto a network of hiking trails and which is only 10 minutes from the ocean.
Q: Tell me about your family.
A: I’m still very connected to Meadow Lake. I have two sisters – Heather Rutz and Crystal Herrod – who still live there. My father, Jim Herr, came to the community as the general manager of the Co-op. My family and I, including my children (son Logan and daughter Taylor) – still gather at Greig Lake. My kids have really embraced Greig Lake, which is a nice feeling, while Taylor is also a professional writer. Her first book – a book of poetry – was published in 2008.
Q: How does it feel to see her follow in your footsteps?
A: It’s fantastic. When I’m at writing events around the country now, more and more people tell me they’re more familiar with Taylor’s work than they are with mine. She lives in Toronto now, but she began a popular poetry reading series in Saskatoon. She’s become a great ambassador for Canadian literature.
Q: As someone who’s accomplished her lifelong dream, what advice would you give to someone looking to achieve theirs?
A: If I can realize my dream, having come from a small town in Saskatchewan knowing nothing other than my desire, they can do it too. It happened for me and it can happen for you regardless of what your dream is.”
“‘I write as if I'm sitting across the table from someone, having coffee with them.’
Writer Shelley A. Leedahl of Ladysmith is candid and open when she writes about her experiences, and that's certainly the case with her latest book, a collection of non-fiction essays called I Wasn't Always Like This. This is Leedahl's 11th book, and it features essays written over the past 16 years, including one written since she moved to Ladysmith last April.
‘All of my work, no matter what the subject matter, is really about the same thing, that most tender and resilient creature, the human heart,’ she said. ‘Although I do write and publish in many genres, I'm really finding that creative nonfiction has become my favourite. First of all, you can incorporate poetry and a degree of fiction. I just find it so easy to establish a voice.’
Leedahl decided with essays to include in this collection through discussions with her publisher at Signature Editions. She says they looked for themes, and in this book, readers will find essays about travel, relationships, a long marriage, major life changes, physical changes, mental health, gardening, and the writing life.
Why did Leedahl decide to publish this collection now?
‘I've lived over half my life, and I have been fortunate to enjoy a number of diverse experiences and travels,’ she said. ‘At this point in my life, I live alone; it feels somewhat like a time of reflection.’
Many of these pieces have been previously published in anthologies, magazines or newspapers. Some have been broadcast on CBC Radio Saskatchewan and some have won writing awards in Saskatchewan.
‘It just felt like, OK, it's time to gather these things and share them with a wider audience,’ said Leedahl.
Leedahl feels her essays are kind of a mirror.
‘Realism is important to me,’ she said. ‘I'm trying to capture the place and time in which I live. It's just like watching a realistic film I guess. I don't call this a memoir because it's not my life story. These essays focus on particular moments I've experienced in my life. It's certainly not a retrospective.’
Leedahl is promoting her latest book in both traditional ways such as bookstore, library and school readings, and non-traditional ways such as home salons. Home salons involve Leedahl coming into somebody's home, reading one of her essays and then passing around a bowl of questions both loosely and specifically related to the reading, prompting participants to share their stories.
‘I really like the idea of having interactive events,’ she said. ‘I'm really interested in people's stories. I think everyone has an interesting story, and we've become a society where we interact much more with our cellphones than we do with the people around us. So, this is just trying to revitalize the good old-fashioned art of conversation. I think the salons have been successful because people are in a comfortable setting, and they're given permission not only to share their stories but also to feel.’
Leedahl held her first home salon in January in Roberts Creek and felt it was very transcendent evening that was beyond her expectations.
‘It was a really enriching event, and it went a good hour and a half longer than we'd anticipated because people just wanted to talk,’ she said. ‘They wanted to share and laugh. And the dynamic will be different each time, and I'll use different essays as prompts. Because I'm really open — it's an intimate and frank collection of essays — I think when I begin by reading one, it almost makes them feel much more comfortable about sharing personal matters as well.’
Leedahl writes in many genres, and her work has appeared in numerous anthologies.
Born and raised in Saskatchewan, Leedahl has also live in Calgary, Medicine Hat, Sechelt, and Edmonton. She now makes her home in Ladysmith.
In addition to literary writing, she works as a freelance writer, editor and writing instructor.
‘I try to live my life with a sense of awe, and I hope that comes across in my work as well,’ she said. ‘When one moves as frequently as I have, back and forth between Saskatchewan, B.C. and Alberta for the last few years and now settling her permanently, it's easy to experience awe because even though these are all neighbouring provinces, the landscapes are so different.’
Leedahl is finding that she's filled with awe all the time in Ladysmith, especially when she finds herself on the trails or near the water.
‘I'm just enjoying so much creating my own new community here,’ she said. ‘This is a fantastic place to live for anyone seeking inspiration. I'm rather fond too of going down to the great coffee shops with my pen and paper and books.’”
“This is a brave and honest book of very well-written essays from a writer born in Saskatchewan, home of the first province-wide (or state-wide) arts council in all of North America. Yes, it could be the visionaries who determined that art was the distaff maiden to cereal grains more than forty years ago but whatever is in the alkaline water there, that flat landscape is remarkable for great writers, musicians, visual artists, scientists and Tommy Douglas, among others, you name it...this sparsely-populated province produces a disproportionate number of doers and dreamers. The hard-won wisdom contained in this book is proof of that.
Essays allow the reader to dip in and browse, waiting for something, a turn of phrase, a topic, a place name maybe, to catch and hold the eye. I took my time, savouring each one in the order it was presented (and knowing that author and editor would have spent a good while placing each essay just so, a logic which reveals itself to the careful reader). Essays can leapfrog entire decades, whole years, the pivotal labours to produce a child, then another, a book and then four others and then still more. (Leedahl is the author of many genres of published and broadcast work: poetry, young adult novellas, adult novels, collections of short stories, essays, radio ad jingles, magazine and newspaper articles, to name just a few.) The wild and fertile terrain of childhood is given short shrift and I am curious about this. I want to know why the child took the short-cut across the territory patrolled by the big boys, time after time. There is an undercurrent of menace and something else too, the something else that drew this particular child to take the short-cut again and again and not to avoid whatever happened to her there or whatever she initiated there. There is nothing to be gained or learned by taking the long and safe way to and from the school perhaps, a metaphor to set us up for the life she lived as an adult, an exciting life in many ways but also a life fraught with more than a few dodgy choices, fuelled by a predilection for romance or at least dressed-up lust, the compulsion to run many miles a day with surgically-reduced breasts to enhance her mileage and comfort versus static routine and family stability on a borderline budget.
Other essays are very forthcoming about the need for a writer to escape the hub-bub and relentless responsibilities of family life to the sanctity of a quiet room -or a small prairie house- wherein to sit and think and maybe get a page of writing accomplished every single day. Or craving the lively and stimulating community to be found with other writers and artists, in particular the exchanges between Saskatchewan and Mexico, where she obviously thrives and blossoms. But here is the rub, the hard and brave necessity of writing the truth, which gives us the kind of writing that other readers and especially other writers begin reading and then flinch, shrinking away, thinking, 'Oh, don't go there, don't, don't, oh, boy, now you've gone and done it.'
It is rare for writers (especially those with living relatives, old and young) to admit to feeling confined and constrained and Leedahl does it. She cops to the things about living one life and yearning for another that the rest of us can't or won't for fear of hurting feelings and blowing up fragile detentes and alliances with those who share our DNA or our bed. She puts herself out there, showing us her crappy taste in lovers who all seem to end up treating her rather poorly, and all the while her modest financial wherewithal is eroding as she chases the dream of writing, and making a living at it, which is increasingly difficult to do, especially in the Canadian market.
Which is why I was so heartened to see the tremendous exposure her title essay received in Medium, the online forum based in the US, spotted and gleaned from the newsletter produced quarterly by the Writers Union of Canada, earlier this year and where my heartfelt response (full disclosure) earned me a free copy of the book (I didn't remember until after it arrived in the mail unexpectedly that I must have checked a box saying 'Yes, I'd love a copy!', so unused am I to actually winning anything. This title essay is worth the reasonable price of the nicely-produced book on its own as the author fesses up to her Damn the Torpedoes, Life is Short approach to living and loving and creating art en route. Yes, sometimes it meant she was "selfish" and left her teenagers to forage in the fridge and her husband to maintain the home-front as well as his own work and hobbies (he's a fitness buff too).
Question: would we think, or even blink an eyelash, if we read about a male author with nine or ten books to his credit that he was self-absorbed and a 'bad father' if he spent two or four weeks in a village or a monastery working on a new book? No, I'll supply the answer, but even those of us who have made those choices to get a book finished have to still our small-town tongues from going, "Tut, tut, tut, those poor children/teenagers, that poor helpless fellow, all alone in a warm and dry house for fourteen days or even fifteen..." Same thing for affairs which end badly. Transpose the situation to a tragic male writer and see what happens to your head-set. Uh-huh. Highly recommended reading for those pursuing or helplessly ensnared in the writing life. I just hope this book or the next provides the author with more than a modicum of financial recompense for her hard-won wisdom and that she won't be foraging for blackberries in order to save lunch and breakfast money in earnest going forward. Foraging for the sheer pleasure of sun-ripened blackberries, sure, we all love that, but the hungry stomach roils with acids and undigested seeds after too many meals of them. This writer deserves a break and success for her unsparing, unflinching look at herself. Brava!”
“Leedahl always knew she wanted to be an author from a very young age.
“One of my earliest memories is of picking up a pencil and taking a paper and trying to make letters, but I was too young to do it so they were backwards and upside down … but I showed my mom and said ‘Does this make a word? Does this make a word?” For me, it’s been a long time love affair with poetry and fiction,” Leedahl said.
Unlike a lot of authors, Leedahl has dabbled in pretty much every genre out there.
“It’s easier to tell you which ones I haven’t written in. I haven’t written a play or a screenplay,” Leedahl said. Though she would love to write a play, she doesn’t have any plans to currently. However, she says that every time she sees an empty table and chairs, “I think about the dinner party conversation that could be going on and think how that could be the beginning of a play.”
Though she writes in many different genres, there are some common threads in her work.
“I’m very much interested in the sometimes bizarre things that can happen to ordinary people … (as well as) exploring relationships,” she said.
When Leedahl graduated high school, she knew she wanted to be a creative writer but had no role models and didn’t know how to go about making her dream a reality. She thought that she had to be a reporter first, and when she had a few years’ worth of experience there, she could write books. She went to journalism school, but after a year she realized she didn’t want to be a reporter. But she says life doesn’t always go how you planned, so she became a young mother and eventually started running a daycare out of her home.
“My life got extremely busy, and I heard this voice in my head that said, ‘Girl, if you are ever going to become a writer, you have got to start now’,” she said.
So she buckled down and started seriously trying to kick start her writing career. She joined the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild, she started attending workshops and sending work out. She got a few things published and won some competitions. Her first book was published in 1990, and she’s been writing ever since.
“I like the freedom of being a full time writer,” she said. “I can write wherever I am; I don’t have to get up and comb my hair and go to a job.”
Her newest book, I Wasn’t Always Like This, is her first foray into writing essays. Since they’re very personal, she was a bit afraid of the reactions she would get from people she knew. To circumvent this, she made up new names or identifies people only by their first initial.
“With this being creative nonfiction, I can weave a lot of poetry into the stories. You can even bend the truth a little sometimes,” she said.
Despite that nervousness, she said that essay writing may be her new favourite genre.
“I like how immediate the voice is with essays,” she said. “It’s easier. It feels more natural to me than writing fiction … I have experiences now and I don’t think ‘Hmm, this would make a good poem or short story’ I think ‘This would be a good essay. It’s top of mind for me now.”
Since she bounced around Saskatchewan prior to moving to B.C., the geography still affects her writing in some ways.
“Place is extremely important to me. Often, ideas come from where I’m at and then I diverge into different storylines. Place never fails to inspire me,” she said.
She’s been writing for a long time, so naturally there’s been some evolution in her writing. Though she said she doesn’t regret any of her earlier books, that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t change anything.
“My novel Tell Me Everything that came out in 2000 and is out of print, I’ve often thought I should revise that and send it out to a publisher,” she said. “I thought the writing was a bit overwritten, a bit too pedantic at some points. I think you learn how to pull back. Readers should be able to experience emotion without being told how they should feel.”
Coming up for Leedahl is more stops on her tour (where she will hit Watrous, Moose Jaw, then go to Alberta) and a children’s book which is set to come out next year.
“The best part about writing is when the story takes off on its own,” she said. “You’re very aware at the beginning that you’re the writer sitting there … facing a blank screen or blank page. But at some point, something magical happens. I don’t know what it is or how it happens and I never want to know, but the story takes off on its own. The characters lead you.””
“Shelly A. Leedahl Talks About the New Marketing Realities
Something had to be done, and I knew the responsibility was going to be my own. My latest book, the essay collection I Wasn't Always Like This, was released in December 2014. It’s somewhat provocative; my publisher warned I might piss some people off with it. That may or may not prove true, but the first challenge is to get people to actually read it. In my experience, writing a book is one animal; selling it to the reading public is an entirely different beast. I needed a strategy, and considered what I’ve learned about people in my half century in this world. Bottomline: we all have stories and a need to share them. Realization: perhaps this isn’t all about you, Shelley A. Leedahl. Strategy: if readers aren’t able to come to where you are, then you must go directly to them. Like to their homes. Sit on their very couches and dining room chairs.
Here’s how it works: hosts invite me to present in their living rooms, kitchens or gardens for small groups (12 or more participants), and after I read an intimate piece from the book, I pass around a bowl of questions — based both loosely and specifically on the text — then the audience takes it away. As quickly as one can say your turn, it becomes all about them. I try to make it as easy for the host as possible, ie: suggesting that she or he advertise the salon as a bring-your-own-bottle and appetizer event.
There’s a major geographical twist to my own story that makes “go[ing] directly to them” (the people and communities who have traditionally been receptive to my work) a fair bit harder. I left Edmonton in April 2014 for infinitely greener Vancouver Island. I understood that the implication of making yet another provincial move would be infinitely less green re: my literary career. I knew few people here, and although I’ve been writing and publishing since the 1980s and have one book published by a BC press, I’m unknown on the west coast. I could not expect reading, workshop and editing opportunities to fall into my lap, as they did in my home province of Saskatchewan, and were beginning to in my close cousin, Alberta. But that was okay, because even though I’ve only ever earned a pittance from my literary career, I had a radio advertising copywriting job to fall back on; something I could do from my home office.
I’d been working for two rock and roll stations in Edmonton, and the job had been travelling with me for the last four years. When I was oh-so-suddenly laid off, I had to do two things immediately: scramble for non-writing-related work, and work much harder as a writer — and promoter — of my own work.
On the nine-to-five front, I did eventually stumble into some disparate, short-term positions — I was a live-in caregiver for a senior with early-stage dementia; an ESL teacher at an international private school; and for 8 miserable days I dressed in orange and worked as a Home Depot merchandiser — but on the eve of having my essay collection released, I also came to the hardcore realization that to earn even a modicum of income from this latest book, I was going to have to promote the hell out of it, and in these increasingly challenging times the old marketing methods were just not going to cut it.
It’s a given that small literary publishers don’t possess the humanpower or the funding to full-on tackle the marketing book publication requires. True, I was not prepared to start pitching this book door-to-door, as I did, literally, with my first book, A Few Words For January, in Saskatoon, but I definitely needed a fresh strategy. My own life has been an open book — well, an open 11 books, actually — and at this stage in my life I’m more than happy to share the proverbial podium. I’ll still promote this new book in traditional ways (library, bookstore and school readings), but I now desire a more inclusive audience. Interaction, baby. That’s what I’m about.
I’ve completed two salons thus far, and this premise of begetting has worked like a key in a lock. There were goodly amounts of laughter and tears at both events. At the last, one woman said it was the most fun she’d had in over three years.
My theory is that everyone has a compelling story (and, thank you Jesus, Krishna, Mohammed, Creator, rabbits’ feet and lucky stars, we’re not all writers). I genuinely believe this. Who has not experienced drama, oddities, hilarity, and heart-flattening grief? We connect deeply with others when we openly and honestly share our experiences. Yes, I could just read from my work and hope to engage my audience, but I feel it’s actually much more fun (for both me and the audience) when everyone participates. Some of these folks had never had an opportunity to share their deepest secrets and desires; a home salon gave them the platform and permission. The common sentiment was that the salons were liberating.
Of course I’m also wearing the marketing hat: I’m new out here, and trying to develop community. I want to be known as someone who listens, and gives a genuine damn. There’s something else, and it’s critical: I’ve observed that we’ve become a society engaged more with cell-phones and computer screens than we are with each other. Recent experience at Home Depot: the majority of my co-workers didn’t sit in the staffroom at coffee and lunch breaks; they retreated to their cars to be alone. Those who did stay in the staffroom interacted only with their cell-phones. O 21st Century: what has become of us? The good, old-fashioned art of conversation is on the endangered list, and the home salons are a personal mission and a small start toward resurrecting it.
Do I get paid for these salons? Only in book sales, red wine, and appetizers. I’m not paying my Hydro and insurance bills off the proceeds, but it’s still worth it. You can’t put a price on human connection. Perhaps my values, like the times, are a-changing.
My inaugural salon was held in Roberts Creek, BC on a Saturday night in January, and I could not have anticipated the ... well, the transcendence that occurred there. It was an unlikely setting. The host had just experienced a $70,000 flood. Large sheets of plastic hung from ceilings. A fire roared in the hearth and set my own hot flashes off. The kids playing in the next room were, at times, exuberant. After a brief introduction, I read a piece titled "Plenty of Fish" (about online dating, something I wish I did not have quite so much experience in), then passed the bowl of previously-prepared questions around. The questions necessitated a "story" response from participants. I was after their unique, lived-experiences, straight up.
Examples from the bowl:
- Have you ever fantasized about leaving your life? If so, where would you go, and how would you envision your new life?
- If there is one major thing you could change in your life, what would it be?
- Were your parents happy together, and do you think their marital relationship has in any way influenced your own?
- Would you marry a man / woman without first knowing if you are sexually compatible?
- Is there a book or movie that has influenced your “view” on relationships, either negatively or positively?
- If you could re-live your life as you’ve experienced it, would you?
- And a question that perhaps we should all ask ourselves often: What makes you truly happy?
Truth be told, I had a lot of nerve asking a room full of strangers such personal questions, but I was astounded by how each individual shared so deeply and eagerly, and how enriched I was from the experience. Those conversations are still reverberating (ie: the 65-year-old woman who shared that although life has dealt her several hard blows, including homelessness, physical abuse and brain surgery, she remains grateful for each day she is here). I needed to hear that.
And I needed to hear from the grieving widow, and the woman who has ill children, and the Vancouverite who was celebrating a new romance, and from the four gals who wept.
The thing became an animal that took off on its own swift legs. Who knew?
My publisher, Karen Haughian, believes in this salon idea. She is promoting it via Signature Editions’ website, and hopes it will catch on like wildfire with book clubs. Ideally I will team salon presentations with paid reading gigs (in the aforementioned traditional settings), or strategically book salon dates so that they connect geographical dots. At this early March writing I have five more salons booked, all in SK and AB.
“Did you sell any books?” Karen asked after my first event. “Six,” I said. Not bad, but more would have been better. I had to take four ferries and pay $30 for parking, just to get there and back. Certainly I lost money, but it’s a beginning. And that other payback, human response and the connections that were made, is worth a hell of a lot to me: “You are an incredible joiner and connector! You walked into a new group and had people sharing very, very intimate parts of their lives. That is a real gift!,” said Jennifer, a host. After the group sharing, a surprise: women approached to consult me privately about intimate matters, as one might a therapist — a role I’m inherently unqualified for, but was flattered to be considered worthy of. This mattered, because I felt it demonstrated that I got through. Perhaps all writers sometimes question the relevance of their art. Now that I am past mid-career status — and have not a single breakthrough book to show for it — I ask myself if I really need to keep adding my voice to the surfeit of material out there. When the genre in question is creative nonfiction — and of the genus memoir — self-doubt comes especially easy.
This whole salon deal is trial-and-error, learn-as-you-go, take-matters-into-your-own-hands stuff. The events require a heap of my energy. As with musical home salons I’ve attended, it might be wise to charge a modest admission (say $10), and if guests buy the book, have this fee applied toward its purchase. Or not. I’ve discussed this with my publisher. It’s difficult enough to get people to readings; slapping an admission fee onto mine would likely derail the whole shebang.
I have been writing and publishing almost all of my adult life. Maybe I was never hungry enough before, but now, alone in the Canadian paradise that is Vancouver Island and with no sweet radio job to fall back on (I miss Alberta wages!), the proverbial wolf is at the door. This is Living Dangerously. This is No More Excuses. Personal finances aside, I feel like my art and industry are in critical condition. Again, it’s bull-by-the-horns time: as newspapers have less interest in printing book reviews — for a small press writer to get even one published review is a kind of coup these days — I am now posting reader responses on Facebook and my other social media sites. Sisters (and brothers) are doing it for themselves.
I did not begin writing because of any notion of fame, and I certainly know that publishing fortune is for precious few. I write because I have a thing or two to say, and the written word is my chosen form of communication. (Hell, I can scarcely even think without pen-in-hand.) This is who I am, it’s what I do. I may not be soaring at this (though those books do keep appearing, thank you aforementioned deities, and small press Canadian publishers), but I’d definitely fail at other occupations (Home Depot, RIP). Even in these precarious, contemporary, keep-to-yourself-at-coffee times, there is still a place for poetry and a need to tell, hear, and read stories. That my story — shared in a rural home draped in plastic sheets — begat other stories, well that’s not such a bad thing. It got people talking — not into a phone, but to each other. And glory be to that.”
“Saskatchewan native Shelley A. Leedahl lives in Ladysmith, B.C., and has a publishing résumé packed with poetry, short fiction, novels, kid lit and non-fiction. She described her latest book I Wasn't Always Like This (Signature Editions) to me as "a potluck of experiences — none particularly dramatic, just writerly life-being-lived stuff." This was beyond modest, as the sum of this book is far greater than the whole of its parts, and the essays — which read like finely crafted short stories — contain many astute observations, stitched into a tight and meaningful bundle at the end by one simple razor insight.”