A Part of Something: Feeling Less Alone in the Company of Writers

semi-prose podcast co-hosts Max Arambulo and Kristina Chin interviewing author Cherie Dimaline

TIFA’s Delegate Programme is an opportunity for local authors and journalists to enrich the level of discussion throughout the Festival. Delegate Melanie Mah shares her experience at #FestofAuthors19 below.

By Melanie Mah 

Early in October, I was feeling pretty down. It was a down most writers are familiar with – the I can’t get anything done and haven’t gotten anything done for a while and will I ever get anything done in the future and what have I ever done as an artist anyway? kind of down. If you’re lucky, it’s the kind of thing your friends and partner try to talk you out of. And I am sometimes lucky, I guess.

You’re really good at what you do, my partner Terry might say, sometimes tacking on a list of my accomplishments: publications, grants, an award and a shortlist nod, a bit of notice in the press, my agent. I may reply that I’ve just been lucky, had an awards jury amenable to my work, know people who work at literary journals. He will persist, and in the best case scenario, his words help for a little while, for five or ten minutes or, with any luck, for the rest of the day. In the spring and summer, all I need is to get to the end of the day, and to fall into the renewing embrace of sleep, after which the next day is usually better. This isn’t true for everybody. See how lucky I am?

Or am I? The problem with relying on luck is that it’s sometimes fleeting. Owing to my chronic illnesses, falls and winters are hard for me. As days shorten and symptoms intensify, I feel more pain, my mind fogs up, and I start sleeping worse, feel more self-doubt, sometimes begin to think Everything I have is an accident. Most writers belong to a club I don’t belong to.

What a time to assume an official capacity at one of my favourite book events all year, the Toronto International Festival of Authors. I’d been going almost every year since moving to Toronto in 2004. But things had changed in the last few years. My first book was released in 2016 and some people in the writing community knew me, so I wouldn’t be able to just blend in, to go to events by myself and feel alright in the dark, basking in the brilliance of other writers. Not only that, but my role as Festival Delegate meant that it would be my job to ask questions at events, to post on social media about the Festival, and that I would have access to the Festival’s hospitality lounge where other writers and bookish types would be – quite an opportunity if I could only find a way to take part.

Cut to the first day of my Festival involvement, when in the fancy penthouse suite of The Westin Harbour Castle Hotel, the hospitality lounge, I saw Thomas King and said out loud to no one in particular, “My goodness! There’s Thomas King!” Smooth. (Spoiler alert: he did not talk to me.)

That moment was strange, embarrassing, but over time, a stronger memory from the day began persisting in my mind, that of sitting in an audience hours earlier at the launch of the Best Canadian Poetry 2019 anthology, while poet Katie McGarry stood at the front of the room, inviting us to participate in the reading of her flowchart poem, “r u ok.” The poem is a choose your own adventure tale about a breakup. Every second or third bubble is a question, while the other bubbles say either yes or no. McGarry asked the audience to call out our answers. I don’t remember the exact paths her readings took us on, but it could have happened like this:

“did u like her fb post, then unlike it, then like it again” Yes. Next bubble.

“do u dream about them” Yes. Next bubble.

“is he all yr passwords” Yes. Next bubble.

“r u ok” Yes.

“r u ok” Yes.

“r u ok” Yes.

Pure commiserative sunshine and inventiveness. How can you feel alone, uninspired, after something like that?

And on the Festival went. The week and change consisted of a few more lows – moments of seeing more famous writers I’ve met in the halls of Harbourfront Centre without a look of recognition in their eyes or feeling too shy myself to go up to writers I know, being so engrossed by an event’s discussion that I forgot to come up with a question – but, at a time when it was hard to produce work of my own, events were inspirational, the closest I could come to writing without actually writing. Going to events, I was reminded that people do this job every day and many do it with thoughtfulness and panache. And of course, other writers falter. Imagine my surprise after being told by a writer much more accomplished than I that he, too, has doubts. (So strange how my own doubts sometimes feel like fatal flaws, while those of other writers illustrate the duality so common and necessary, even, to those with our profession: the doubt that says, “Is my thought, as is, worth the space inside someone else’s consciousness? Should I communicate it better, or communicate a different thought, full stop?” and the confidence that says, “Yes, this thing inside me is worth sharing.”) And imagine my surprise when Cherie Dimaline, one of the most acclaimed and accomplished writers in my circle, greeted me with a giant hug after her event, the last one of the Festival. Bestselling, much-lauded author Cherie Dimaline asked me what I was working on and when would it be done and was there any way she could help me? I was floored. I am floored. She and others over the course of the week provoked many thoughts about form and themes and the writing life, showed me that I am part of this community after all, showed me that there is someone out there, maybe one or two people, maybe more, looking forward to my next book, and to me, that’s pretty crazy.

So thanks, TIFA. Thanks, Cherie. Thanks, Katie. And thank you to everyone I spoke to at the Festival. You made me feel seen and a part of something, and this was such a gift, one I’ll take into these dark next few months for times when it seems my luck is running out.

Stay tuned for more Delegate-penned pieces about #FestofAuthors19!