Author Sarah Selecky joins us on the podcast this week. Not only is Sarah a Giller nominated author, but she is also a business owner, writing coach, and mentor, and she talks to us about her writing process and how overcoming her own writer’s block inspired her to start her own writing school. She also chats to us about the craft of writing, the author community, and her writing competition, The Little Bird Contest.
- Sarah tells us about her writing process and how she uses routine to enter a creative state of mind
- She talks about her struggle with writer’s block and letting go of her inner critic, and she shares some advice for a first step author can take to tackle their own writer’s block
- Sarah discusses the craft and the art of writing, and she explains why creating art and crafting emotions through language can be so challenging
- Sarah discusses the surprises she has encountered as a mentor to other authors, and she explains why she believes writers are so willing to give back and help other authors
- Sarah tells us why she believes writers are always working on their craft, and she discusses the differences between the novice and the veteran writers who attend her writing school
- She tells us the best things she’s done for her writing school business and explains how decisions have to keep being remade as technology changes
- Sarah talks about her writing competition, The Little Bird Writing Contest, and she tells us how it came about and Kobo’s link to the contest’s origins
Sarah Selecky Writing School
The Little Bird Writing Contest
The Cake Is For The Party
Radiant Shimmering Light
Pelee Island Bird Observatory
A Conjuring of Light
A Wrinkle in Time
Chronicles of Narnia
My Brilliant Friend
Sarah Selecky is the author of the novel Radiant Shimmering Light and the short story collection This Cake Is for the Party, which was a finalist for the Giller Prize, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize, and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She earned her MFA from the University of British Columbia. In 2011 she founded the Sarah Selecky Writing School, which has become a creative community for more than 13,000 writers from around the world. She lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario.
Transcription provided by Speechpad
Tara: Hey, writers. You’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast,” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Tara, the director of Kobo Writing Life for English language.
Shayna: I’m Shayna, author relations and promotions strategist for Kobo Writing Life.
Tara: This week on the podcast, we interviewed Sarah Selecky. It was really, really great to talk to Sarah about her journey as a writer. So she is a Giller nominated author, a business owner, a writing coach, mentor. She wears many hats, but we chatted to her about how kind of writer’s block really inspired her to start this writing school to help other authors as well. And it kind of mixes craft along with wellness really in general.
So, yeah, it was kind of interesting to see a school specifically for writers in any stage of their career. And so not just first start, first time writers. So yeah, listen on. I hope you enjoy the interview.
Welcome, Sarah to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” Really excited to have you here today.
Sarah: Me too. I’m excited too.
Tara: So you are a Giller nominated author, a mentor, a business owner, a writing coach, and all the things in between. For anyone that’s not familiar with you, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sarah: Sure. Well, when you put it that way, I’m like, oh, I am all of those things, I guess. Yes, I’m a writer and a creative I would say. And as I went along in life picking up various habits and vocational directions, I realized that I really am interested in living a creative life and paying attention. And for me doing so through writing and storytelling is one really good way to do that. So I’m a writer primarily, and I would also say a creative and a teacher, and a business owner. And it’s all kind of packed into this creative way of just being curious about life.
Shayna: It’s a really cool answer. As a writer myself, I’m always interested in this. Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?
Sarah: Yes. I’d love to. I love talking about writing process. Process is where it’s at. I like to drop in…lately, I’ve been describing it as going through a portal. Like there’s really a feeling when I touch into a scene that like my state of mind kind of changes. So anything that I can do to create more of that state of mind. So early in the morning for instance is one piece, being outside, going for walks in nature is a big part of my process. Little rituals and habits like in the winter, especially lighting a candle or having a certain kind of tea that is the same scent.
I like to locate on two different kinds of ritual aspects to help me ease into the creative state of mind. So when I’m at work, whether it’s on something nonfiction, fiction, even just journaling or correspondence to a friend, I do like to like drop in and kind of leave a lot of the conscious mind behind. And it’s such a delicate state of mind that I find that all the like little rituals and habits help me with my process to keep me there.
Tara: That’s very cool. Have you always been driven by ritual and have you always been a writer even as a child? Like, is this something that’s always been part of your life?
Sarah: It has. It always was a part of my life. I think as soon as I learned that you could be a writer…like when people ask what are you going to be when you grow up, as soon as I learned that there were actual people behind the stories that I was reading and the books that I was reading, that that was like what they did was made that happen and wrote, that’s what I wanted to do.
So I was writing almost as soon as I was reading. And I think as a child, I don’t think I needed the rituals as much. I think it’s just as a grownup, I find myself finding it harder. The resistance to going into a creative state of mind wasn’t really there as a child as much. I think it was just always a safe place to go, to write stories and to read them.
As a grownup, as a grown adult, I think that creating these habits was a way for me to remind myself or trick myself or treat myself to going back to another kind of state of mind that probably is more of like a child, more of what children are like, you know, where there’s not so much of a separation between real life and then the creative practice.
Tara: It’s interesting that you say that because it’s, you know, when you’re younger, you don’t think this is my hour where I will do something creative or…you know, it’s just so natural. And we lose that as we sort of divvy down in our day in chunks that, you know, have to accomplish certain things.
Shayna: For sure. I mean, as a parent watching my son draw, it’s just fascinating. He’s just drawing whatever. He’s just so in it and not self-conscious at all. And I think that what we all want to do when we’re writing is…
Sarah: That’s it, that’s it. It’s that self-consciousness. I think it’s like a natural part of just being socialized and growing up. It’s like, it starts to happen. How old is your son?
Shayna: He’s five.
Sarah: He’s five, right. So like from friends who are parents, I say that they’ve said it, something happens around 10 or 11. Like that’s kind of the age where you’re not at one…to be at one with your practice whether it’s drawing or dancing or walking or playing in the dirt or writing, that something happens in our socialization where culture comes in and tells us, oh, you could be doing it…like the capacity…you never even think that there’s a possibility that you could be doing it wrong. Like that doesn’t even exist. Or like, what is it for? What is the purpose? How is it marketable? Is this what your vocation…is this what you’re going to be? Is this your career? Like all of those questions come later.
And that’s like, very…it’s important. It’s important, it happens but I think that in the moment of creation, it’s that loss of self-consciousness that…I mean, that’s a big…that’s a component of the flow state.
Like, you know, science has proven that when we’re able to drop into that state of creation, that our ego’s checked at the door, we check it out the door. We kind of become the consciousness of the sentences was one way that I described it. Like you’re not I’m trying not to write about the scene. I’m trying to be the scene in the writing, in and through writing it.
Tara: I really like that, that you become the consciousness of your sentences. That one’s going to stay with me, Sarah, I think. So one thing that children don’t suffer with that adults always have issues with, or not always but sometimes is writer’s block. And I was reading about how you suffered from writer’s block as an adult. You were trying to finish your kind of first book and that’s led to what has developed into the Sarah Selecky Writing School. So can you tell us a little bit about like, how you were able to overcome that?
Sarah: Yeah, I’d love to. So I think it’s different for everyone. My particular story was about needing to be or wanting to be a successful published author in a certain frame that I understood at the time. This was going back several…lots of years now, many years now when I was writing my first book, that I had to measure up to something. There was like some kind of credibility factor, some vision that I had that was like either internally or externally or both turned into an expectation or a belief that I was not a writer until I did…until I met whatever that expectation was.
When I see it now and I think about my process now, back then I think I was trying. I was like a lot of writers, trying to measure up to a version revision of what an author is without actually seeing that, you know, it is who you are when you are writing is the author you are.
But, you know, there was a lot of learning that had to be done, and I was just really striving and really trying to be good and to be picked, you know? So it was hard. It was just so much harder to come to the page whether you are writing your very first short story or, you know, one of many books that you’ve already got on the shelf out there, it’s a lot harder to come to the page when you think that you could do it wrong, first.
And for me in particular, I was trained in critical theory and critical studies. And I know a lot of writers who go through English programs, English PhDs, who sidebar, who I work with now and teaching just kind of like to unfasten this inner critic that in writing and in literature often we really, really refine and strengthen that critic.
So if we look at other work with the critical eye first, it stands to reason that we look at our own work with a critical eye the same. It’s a mirror so we’re looking at ourselves that same way. So my…I’d say that my block, my angst, my like my stuckness in the early years of being a writer was tied up in all of that, in wanting to show up and be good and the fears around not doing it right and not measuring it up.
And also I had a really refined, critical eye. I was a great critic and I could point out what was wrong about everything easily. Like it’s just, it was very easy and that made it really hard to write anything of a first draft. It made it really hard because I gave that voice…that voice had so much power. It was just so much louder than the other voice that, you know, who we talked about earlier, the child-like, the one who loves rolling up her sleeves and getting into the play of it.
As years passed, I realized that something in the way that I was approaching my writing was lacking joy and causing a lot of like inner stuckness and pain. It doesn’t feel good. And I kind of developed another way of teaching. I opened up my living room, I put out little signs asking if there’s anybody who wanted to do writing practice together, and I kind of taught myself another way of looking at it alongside other writers who were interested in doing the same thing.
And that developed into the practice that I cultivate today and teach today, which is much more the philosophy of what we focus on grows. So what we pay attention to expands. So really articulating, using that critical eye to focus on what is working and what is sparkling, and when something feels like it’s rising off the page, how does a writer do that?
And it’s really doing the same work in teaching, it’s just focusing on what’s really good instead of focusing on what’s not good. And what happened is that it loosened…it loosened that…this practice loosened that critical voice while still looking for excellence and still looking for the magic and still looking to expand my craft and technique
Like sidebar, I don’t think writers ever get…like we don’t…we just, we never stop. We never stop growing and learning. There’s always something different to innovate and try. So learning continues to happen and that critical function still continues to happen, but what you’re articulating is all the good stuff.
So you’re teaching yourself how to do the things that you admire and how to do the things that you want to do and it just, it’s very rewarding. And then it’s a lot more joyful to come to a blank page when you don’t know what you’re going to do because the voices that are right there in your head are a little bit more positive than the negative ones.
Tara: I’ve never thought about it like that, that you’re saying because so many people that are writers, and I know like a lot of Kobo people come from a literature background and different aspects of English literature, and there’s always that old kind of advice that to be a great writer, you should read great writers.
And I never considered that this would actually…is even more of a hindrance because you have that critical eye. Like, so it’s not just that you’re comparing yourself to other great writers, that you’re able to critique literature in a way on your own work. It’s something I’ve never considered before. That’s probably why I’m not a writer.
Sarah: It’s hard. It’s hard. It’s like going into a Bramble Bush, especially when we know that one negative comment stands out so much more than like 10 positive ones.
So even when you’re in a critique, like a learning environment where you’re doing a workshop and you’re workshopping, even a standard like traditional model with some good rules around, you know, more positive comments than negative ones please, and keep things, you know, in questions rather than statements, and still given all that, if the focus is on critique, not just critique because I think that there’s positive critique, but I think that if the focus is on what isn’t working, you know, you’ll find it, you’ll find what you’re looking for. [crosstalk 00:13:35] perfect…
Tara: Yeah. You won’t even see the rest of it. You know, you’ll be blind to things that are actually working.
Sarah: And take it for granted. And that’s the good stuff. We don’t want to take that for granted. Like if there’s a scene, a dialogue that makes you just laugh out loud and feel delightful and like, you like forget where you are for a minute, because you’re reading that scene, it’s worth hanging out there a little bit longer as a writer I think. It’s worth hanging out there a little bit longer and like going back and being like, wait, that felt really good. Like, I felt really good in my body when I laughed at that scene. Like those characters feel real.
There’s a pleasure just to having a scene that you read. It’s just black and white letters on a page, and when that comes alive enough to like move you and you’re having like a psychosomatic reaction to the scene, it’s worth hanging out there to see what was so delightful about it. And then for writers, what in the craft made that happen? Like let’s not gloss over that and hang out on the things that don’t work, let’s go deeper in the things that really work and see, like, what did they do there?
Tara: Shayna, I’m curious as a writer yourself, have you kind of encountered…like, is this resonating with you, and have you encountered writer’s block before?
Shayna: Oh my God. Like, this stuff is speaking so loudly to me because there were years where I didn’t write. And it’s just because of the pressure of wanting to write well and the constant, you know, you write a paragraph and then you erase it.
I mean, like writing has been so painful for me. It is still very painful to be honest. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard to silence that critic. So like in that vein, and of course, you’ve just been talking about this, so I don’t know if this is a little repetitive, but if there was like a first piece of advice that you would give to others that are suffering from writer’s block, just like the first piece, what would it be?
Sarah: Yeah. Well, just like back to something that you just said about how hard it is, I think the first thing that I would say is just like, yes, it is really hard. Maybe not because of why you think. What I like to remind my writers or tell my writers is that writing is difficult because it’s an art form that’s using language.
And so illustrate, like if there’s a dancer, they’re using their body, they’re leaving language behind in order to express the inexpressible, they’re creating an emotion. A sculptor is working with clay or marble. They’re using some other thing that doesn’t have language, doesn’t have words attached to it.
And language is like left brain. Language is naming things to concepts. Language is like it’s waffling things into little boxes and explaining things. And that’s what it’s good at. Like that’s the English language, especially, it really thinks it knows what it’s doing. It’s pinning word to meaning.
And what a creative writer is trying to do is unfasten that bind or show that the word to meaning…there’s a poetry in that, you know, showing through detail, expressing an emotion through characterization, developing conflict by putting disparate images and scenes and people together. That’s craft. That’s the craft of our work and it is not coming from the same place as writing a report or writing an email.
It looks the same so we think that we should be writing. That we all learned how to write in grade school and we’ve all been writing. We write emails every day and we can communicate very well so why can’t we write? There’s this extra assumption that it should be easy when in fact, I think it’s extra hard.
Even a highly choreographed, really heavy, conceptual dance piece that has a lot of like explanation and planning behind it, the moment that the dancers onstage in their body, all of that goes away and they express it in another way. What we have to do as writers is while using language, we have to unfasten ourselves from language at the same time. It’s like such a trick. It’s such a trick.
Of course, it’s difficult and the ego really doesn’t like it because it’s like tied in to using language to do what language is supposed to do, which is communicate and express the feelings without having to feel the feelings. Like you don’t have to. You can say frightened and ashamed without ever having to feel the feelings in your body of fear and shame. That’s what language does. It’s like cliches and euphemisms do that for us.
So what we have to do is like, feel all the feelings that don’t have language attached to them, and then come back to language and translate it into language in a way that transmits and expresses that emotion and feeling and seeing so that someone else can catch it and feel it themselves. That is really, really hard.
So that’s like a little bit of a rant, but I don’t think that writers often give themselves enough credit to really see what they’re doing. It seems like, you know, oh, everyone’s just going to write their memoir. Oh, everyone has a book in them. Yeah. But the reason not everyone writes books is because it’s crazy to do this. This is like a real mental trick. It’s really difficult.
So my first piece of advice is just like, give yourself credit about how difficult it is, and then let yourself take the baby steps. Let it be messy and let yourself…know what you’re doing is not what everyone can do and that it takes a lot of practice. And be kind to yourself as you do that because it’s going against what we’ve been taught and socialized to do with our words. How does that land? Does that make any sense?
Tara: Yeah. Your position is coming through so strongly. I was just…you know, even how you’re expressing yourself, you have such good use of language much better than me I think. So I was just sitting here listening, Sarah. That was great.
Sarah: Okay, good. I do feel quite passionate about that because I don’t think that we talk about it a lot. And you know, I have a background in cultural studies and post-structuralist theory and, you know, looked at that stuff from a theoretic point of view back in the early days and it really stuck with me.
And although I left theory behind and never went on in literary theory or post-structuralist or any kind of cultural studies, I still have learned that lesson and really want to like show people like, look, it’s not what you think it is. Word is not attached to meaning and that space between word and meaning, that’s our lab. That’s where writers work. And a lot of magic happens in there that’s transmitted.
And I just feel so strongly…I feel I really love writers and I feel quite strongly about what writers do and what…the power that stories have and the power that words have. And so I really want writers to know how to wield their craft and how to work within this space between words and meanings so that they can do great things, you know, with it. Whatever they want to do with it, but know that it’s very powerful what they’re doing.
These tools are very powerful. It’s not just about describing someone’s clothes in the scene, it’s actually recreating a kind of reality in that story. And we’re all…we all come from that. We all come from the stories that we’ve read and lived. It’s no small thing. It’s no small thing writing.
Shayna: Yeah, for sure.
Tara: You kind of overcame writer’s block that you had to finish your first book, “This Cake Is For The Party.” And a lot of our listeners are in Canada, but some are…I mean, a lot are all over the world. So this book was Giller nominated, which is the creme de la creme of book prizes here in Canada, the Man Booker equivalent. So I just wanted to see from you what that felt like. Was that scary? Was it great? Was it other words that my language is losing from me? Sorry. Yeah. Well, how did that feel?
Sarah: It was amazing. It felt surreal because it was my first book. And you have to understand, it’s a book of short stories. I mean, I didn’t think that could…I didn’t even….that wasn’t even on my radar as something to hope for. So I was, I mean, I was still just feeling the surreal effect of having a box of books that my publisher sent to me when the book was published.
And the way I described it to a friend was like I feel like I picked up my book, which I’ve wanted to…I wanted to write books since I was a little kid so that first moment of like holding your book in your hand, for me, it felt like, oh, this is a prop that someone created for a stage. Like, I felt like it was a prop book. Like it wasn’t even real.
I was like, oh, this is what a book would look like if someone created a book. Like I just was having such a hard time expanding to appreciate that I’d done what I wanted to do and that someone had thought the stories were worth putting on paper and publishing so many of them that fit in a box in multiple. It wasn’t just a zine that I stapled together in the ’90s.
And so when the phone call came in about the nomination, it was just more of that. It felt really surprising and then really amazing and really…it was quite a fruitful, satisfying feeling of like being seen. It’s what every writer wants. They want that circle to close. They only want a reader.
And this, I did not know that my small book, first book of short stories would have so many readers. That was just like an abundance of eyes on my words. It felt really, really unbelievable and amazing. And of course it just like changed my life because then my first book became something that people had actually read and for better or for worse, then the expectation to write something else became quite pronounced internally. I was like, oh, well now you better write more or else…because now you’ve done it.
So there was a bit more pressure than I would’ve expected after my first book and it was an incredible…I mean, just nothing was the same after that, because I couldn’t just pretend that I was an emerging author anymore. I actually was a writer. I actually did it.
Shayna: I have a little story. So as a writer, I often have trouble coming up with titles, or I feel like the title is really important so I like concentrate a lot on the title. And when I’m trying to think of a title that’s really good, I’m always like, oh, that book, that cake book. And then I kind of look for it and I’m like, “This Cake Is For The Party,” oh, that title is so good. And like I always try…I use it as like my perfect title that I’m trying to copy or find something as good as.
Sarah: That makes me so happy. I love doing that. I mean, the thing about the title, I just have a thing like I just wanted titles to have nouns in them. I want the title to have…like it needs to have something that’s like, you can hang on, you know, a concrete detail. Same as a sentence, you need a concrete detail. Oh, that makes me really happy.
Shayna: I was so excited when I was like, wait a minute, Sarah Selecky, this sounds very familiar. I remember that when I realized it was you, I knew I had to tell the story. So what was the next thing I’m going to tell my story from our list of questions? So you’ve been mentoring a lot of authors with your courses that you’ve been doing. So is there anything that has really surprised you in mentoring a lot of authors, maybe just how insecure we all are?
Sarah: Well, no. I mean, I have lots. I’m just narrowing…I’m narrowing it down. Every author surprises…every writer surprises me. Something that surprised me and then I kind of built from it because once I had that insight and surprise, it was like, oh, this is a thing, which is that those voices that are telling us whatever we think that our specific special story is of why we can’t or shouldn’t write or, you know, whatever those voices are, when they do get loud, the doubts, they are so derivative of everybody else’s.
So one of the things that I started doing several years back now, and I do it with every class is I ask writers to write down all the things that the inner critic or the voice says. The ego that…like, say the shadow, you can call it different things, but write down a list of all the things that it tells you. What are you afraid of? Do an inventory.
And then to draw the character, a little creature and make little speech bubbles and write what it says all around it. So it’s like, say it’s like a cartoon character. It can look like whatever you want. Give it a name, something ridiculous. Like, it looks ridiculous. We doodle these like creatures on a page and then we have them say all the things that they say.
And when we share them it’s so surprising. It’s really, it is actually quite surprising just how similar, it’s like word for word verbatim, all of our inner voices are saying the same thing. It’s not specific. No one wants to hear that, it’s not good enough, but these things are just like they’re on refrain. And while they feel very personal at the moment and they feel very specific to whatever you and your writing is, they’re not.
And there’s something that just happens. Like a lot of their power dissolves first when you see that this like ridiculous little character just looks like a funny cartoon ogre. It’s quite disempowered when you see it on the page like that saying all those things, like it does something to you, but then it also helps dissolve any of those fears and just gives them less power when you see that they’re not…that they’re exactly the same as everybody. It’s like a tape loop that we’re all running inside. So if it’s so derivative of everyone else’s, like how real can it be? You know, it just like…it’s laughable. It becomes kind of laughable.
And I’m not surprised by it now because it happens at like clockwork. It happens every time. It’s like we have these recordings in our head, but when that was new to me, I was very surprised by it. And I guess it still surprises me every time that like, still these really talented, fresh, like alive writers who are writing something that nobody else could write. Every writer in my class is writing something that no one else could write except that person.
And I guess what also surprises me is that they don’t know it. They can’t hear it right away. Maybe they don’t see their gifts right away, which is why focus…what you focus on grows. So then we set to work of doing that, of seeing what actually makes each person sparkle. But it is surprising that really, like, and arguably talented writers who have a deep desire to write and the intellect and the mystery and the connection to their…to story don’t know that they’re as good as they are.
Shayna: Yeah, for sure.
Tara: One of the things that I like about the courses that you do in the writing school is that you never really aimed at a writer at one level in their career. So as you’re talking about here when people are sort of diving into their inner critics and confronting them, it’s not just your new time writer. In fact, I think you probably work with more people that are sort of further along in their career. So why do you think it’s so important or why do authors kind of keep striving to work on their craft so much?
Sarah: Yeah, it’s true, I do, I have some beginner writers and some very new writers, but I’d say three-quarters of the writers I work with are further along in their career and looking to find that magic again. I think that I don’t know for sure that the writers who are more established, like writers who maybe have had a book come out that did really well and then had a hard time writing their second one, that happens, or writers who loved writing and were always like really, really great at it, like got some short stories published, were going down that track and then got into academics and became, you know, PhDs or started working professionally in communications careers, or went into law, a lot of lawyers…
So I think that really the people who want to continue their craft with me in my school in particular, they want a refresher and they know that coming to a writing school and doing a writing class would like help them refresh their skills. But I think what they’re actually, I think, and correct me if I’m wrong, I don’t know, but I think that what they’re actually yearning for is that connection to their creativity and those two things aren’t separate.
I think that another component of the flow state, of that like optimal pleasure and optimal enjoyment of an activity is very much connected to the struggle of whatever the craft is. Like, whether you’re rock climbing or a violinist or writing a novel, there is an edge that you’re always going towards. And that’s part of the pleasure of your work is like that challenge. If you’re not challenged, if you’re not doing something new, you could get bored. And it’s just like…and it’s quite, ugh, boring.
So I think that they’re not separate, the craft and the connection to creative joy, but I think that it’s the…really beginner writers who come to our school are met really well. I have a lot to offer them and they’re quite happy to be learning for the first time, craft in this way. Like, that’s just joyful and I love seeing them and they’re just like, oh, this is great, I can do it, which is awesome.
And then there’s another piece, like most writers who come to the school have been like…already know how to write, have already been to a lot of writing workshops, they already know show don’t tell, they’ve gone to the workshops, they’ve done the classes, they’ve done NaNoWriMo a couple of times even, but they want to learn how to get better while not hating themselves, while not being mean to themselves in the process, while feeling like we used to feel when we were learning how to use new paint when we were in kindergarten, you know? Like there was no scolding. Hopefully, I mean, I think maybe some people had that experience, but hopefully, there wasn’t scolding as you played with your materials.
And I think that what I offer and why I love working with writers who are more seasoned is that while they grab these tools and learn how to like really refine their dialogue or really working in character at a deeper level than they have before, like there’s always more to do, they also get a taste of that genuine joy and freedom that comes from playing with their craft. So I think…if that’s answering your question. Did I answer your question?
Shayna: You’ve worked with some amazing authors, including Margaret Atwood. Oh my gosh, we have to talk about that, but why do you think writers are so willing to give back and help other authors? And why does that interest you?
Sarah: Isn’t it great that they are? I guess because… I don’t know. I don’t know what that is. Like sometimes I’m cynical about it and I feel like, well, we all just like undervalue the arts and writers feel like there’s an obligation because we’re all kind of underdogs because we’ve all been there before. That’s when I feel cynical and I feel like, oh, well, you know, that’s…I do see that happening and I have heard that conversation happening, but I don’t really believe that. It’s just like a piece of it.
I think that what I’d like to think that’ll just like float out here is that we’re all in it. We’re all doing this thing, which is as aforementioned, like just nuts. It’s just nuts. It’s bananas trying to express the inexpressible through language and story, especially now where trying to like captivate a reader so much that they turn their screen off because they want to hear what happens next. To read a book now when there’s so much distraction, I mean, what a thing we’re doing.
So to tap…what we have to tap into as writers, to do that, I don’t think that it ever gets…I don’t think it’s ever easy. I think that a writer who’s starting a new book or a new story, no matter where they are in their career are touching that same source spot. And they’re going through all the veils and curtains of doubt and concern about whether they can do it or not, or whether they can pull this trick off, you know, like from idea to book, especially novels, which are such a long game. I mean, even if you write a 90-day novel, it’s 90 days. It’s not like, you know, a jazz trio, they come and they play for like an evening. That’s like time is just so much shorter. Novels take so much time.
So that difficulty, I think it connects us. I think we just, we know that we’re all sort of like pieces of the same fractal. Like it’s not a linear, hierarchical game. It is obviously hierarchical. And like, you know, writers are at different levels of success in their career and their seniority and their publications and all of that happens, but every person, you know, stripped of whatever awards or nominations or TV shows they have made out of their books, etc., the moment that they are like sitting down at a blank page or a blank screen, they’re in the same square. That square one feels the same for all of us. It’s a circle, not a line. I think maybe that’s how I’d like to think about it.
Tara: Yeah. I think that’s really wonderful. It’s one of my favorite things about working with independent authors is really the openness and the willingness to share what works and what doesn’t work. So it’s always kind of astounding to me how generous people are with their learnings because it’s a business that’s being run at the same time so I always kind of admire that.
But I wanted to ask you, so, you know, being a writer and then obviously being a business owner of this writing school as well, what do you think…because we like to give business advice as well because independent authors are running their own careers. So what has been perhaps the best decision that you’ve made for your business? I’m just hitting you with the easy ones at the end.
Sarah: Whoa. The best decision. Okay. Yeah. Okay. I keep coming back to this. So it’s an oscillation because, you know, when you’re in business, there’s lots of stuff that you take on and the technology changes and the platforms change and, you know, you have to iterate a lot as a business owner and getting your message out there, you know, 10 years ago, getting my message out there was a lot different than now.
So in the early days, Twitter and Instagram didn’t have the robots, didn’t have the algorithms the way they do now. It wasn’t all monetized in the same way. So, you know, there are lots of decisions that need to be made and remade, I guess, is what I’m saying.
But one that I keep coming back to is that every message that I send out, so it can get quite distracting. Like once you get on the…once you get out there into the market, it’s competitive. And for some personalities, I think competition is actually a great motivator. It’s not for me. It actually puts me in a state of comparison and it’s not a place of great curiosity, let’s say, when I’m feeling like I’m comparing myself to others who are doing the same thing.
So when you’re in that place, it can be a suboptimal place to message. So if you’re feeling like you’re comparing yourself to other people and I’d better do this or else, that’s like the refrain or like, oh no, I haven’t done this, or like some kind of if you’re triggered in some way by what other people are doing, and you’re not just feeling calm and curious about it, I would pause before sending a message, even though it feels quite counter to what the energy is telling you to do.
And on the other side of that, when you can restabilize and, you know, read some books that you love, make yourself a nice bowl of soup, go for a walk, you know, restabilize yourself and get back in touch with who you are, then when you are writing messages, whether that’s a post or an email or something on social or something in a forum, anything where you promote any kind of promotion, that message, you want it to feel like a gift. You want it to feel like a letter that you’re writing to someone you really care about because you do care about your readers. You do care about these people.
So reminding yourself that there’s like a person who is receiving your words and who opens your email, like, oh, it’s a letter from this writer I love, writing to that person. I mean, that’s with email, you can kind of do that. Another way to sort of reorient yourself and your feeling around your messaging, it’s not that different from writing a novel, actually, you want to do the same thing when you’re writing a novel, think about who your reader is and write it with care for that person so that they have a good experience.
When writing content for promotional posts, social posts, social media, Instagram, it might be harder to think about one person because it’s such a broad…the medium is such a broadcaster so you really do feel like you’re like more of like a radio host kind of talking out to the masses.
So in that case, one piece of advice…I mean, this isn’t really business advice, is it? But one thing that…one decision that I’ve made that was a good one is reorienting my messaging so that it’s more of something that I’m grateful for or something that I noticed that I had a really deep insight about that I want, that you know, might be…that I’d love to share.
So knowing that who you are and what you are promoting is always…like the fractal, it’s always inside you and it’s always part of what your message is, it’s always part of what you put out there. And then dropping into a place where it’s like a sincerity or an integrity of something you actually notice, something you’re grateful for, or something that you see in your particular way and articulating that from that genuine place, I think that that creates not just a bond, but it’s just like, then you’re sending out gifts. You’re not sending out something in order to transactionally get something back or to get attention, which is what all of these…I mean, that’s what it feels like a lot of the time, but I think that it creates a stronger foundation for you, your work, and your business and it just feels so much better. And then I think that that trust radiates out. I think that people get it when you connect that way.
Tara: I think that’s good business advice. It’s not perhaps business straight away, but that’s branding. That’s your voice. And I would definitely think that, you know, envisioning your reader as a person is probably really good advice as well. Sarah, do you want to tell us a little bit about the Little Bird Contest and then we can go on, we have some rapid fire questions, so we won’t keep you much longer.
Sarah: Sure. I’d love to tell you about the Little Bird Contest. So we just ran our 10th anniversary, unbelievable, last year. This was something that started 10 years ago when I started writing prompts on Twitter, my first Twitter account. What am I going to use this Twitter account for? It’s got to be something creative. So I set myself up writing prompt a day. So it was kind of like a creative practice for me and I started sending these out and over time, over a year or so people began writing back saying like, what do we do with these stories we’ve written? I was like, well, maybe we could start a contest or something. So I did and I called it Little Bird because of that, because of the Twitter connection. Also just…
Tara: Oh, I didn’t get that.
Sarah: Ah. Yeah, little bird, tweet, tweet. Also, I was like a baby birder and I was spending a lot of time in the winter and spring, where in Prince Edward County on the shores of Lake Ontario, where there are lots of migratory birds. So it was watching while I was putting this contest together, I was actually watching the goldfinches come back and their feathers were turning gold and I was like looking out the window and just like being…like my eyes were just open.
And then, you know, later on when I started working with Margaret Atwood, she has a great connection to the Pelee Island Bird Observatory and I just started…it became also a place to raise some awareness about birds, about songbirds and helping them out as well.
So it’s also., proceeds from the Little Bird stories, from the anthologies that we publish every year going towards PIBO and the local bird observatory here, where I live in Prince Edward County.
The fun thing about it is that writers write stories based on the prompt. So it used to be you could choose any prompt from the year and now I’ve changed it so that everyone writes from the same prompt, which is it’s so much fun to see how different writers approach the same kind of words, word drops and prompts and the different stories that come.
And the other fun thing is that I get to work with celebrity judges. So I’m not the one picking the winners of the story. So every year we get a new writer in who reads all the entries. So far, it’s been a small enough…it’s been a large yet small enough contest that we can ask our writers to do that. So our judges read all the stories.
And the other nice thing about it is that I open up a Little Bird salon every year so that the writers who are thinking about entering and who are working on their stories actually have a chance to meet the judge face to face and talk to them about what they’re looking for, ask them about writing, about the process.
So there’s a little bit of learning that happens with the contest, and then they can submit their stories to this person they already have a personal connection with so it feels really special that way. Yeah. I’m proud of our little contest.
Tara: I love that, the whole thing about it. Tell us your fun fact.
Sarah: Fun fact is the very first year that we ran the Little Bird Contest, Kobo was a partner and we gave…one of the prizes was one of the early edition Kobo eReaders. And our first anthology was published on Kobo. It was like early days. We were like, let’s do an E-book. So Kobo is very much a part of the DNA of the Little Bird Contest.
Shayna: That’s awesome.
Tara: And how do…if somebody would like to learn more about this or more about you in general, where can they find out about that?
Sarah: Yeah, lots of places. You can go to littlebirdcontest.com. The Sarah Selecky Writing School is located just sarahseleckywritingschool.com. You can find that easily. And, you know, if you navigate…if you can’t…if that’s just too many marbles in the mouth, you can just go to sarahselecky.com and there’s a link there that goes straight to the creative writing school and the blog. And all paths eventually lead to the same place so if you just Google my name, there aren’t too many…I don’t think there is another Sarah Selecky out there yet so if you just Google my name, you’ll find the school that way.
Tara: Awesome. And we will share the links as well in the show notes for your site. So we have some rapid-fire questions. I’ve stolen one of these from your websites. You’ll be able to figure out which one. Shayna, do you want to fire these off?
Shayna: Yes. So what is the last book you read that you enjoyed?
Sarah: Ooh, “A Conjuring of Light.” I’m really enjoying…well, you know what? I’m halfway in it. Does that count as last book I read?
Shayna: Totally counts.
Tara: I’ve been reading the book I’m reading right now, like since last year, so I count that.
Sarah: That series is so great. And I’ve like spaced them out through the summer so that I’ve read one each summer and this one is my summer read this summer.
Shayna: Awesome. What is the book that made you want to become a writer? That’s a hard one.
Sarah: I mean, for real, real, like, like for real, I mean, I don’t remember…all the kids’ books like “A Wrinkle In Time” and “The Chronicles of Narnia,” all that, I loved all that fantasy, but like the real, like conscious decision was Francesca Lia Block, “Weetzie Bat.” I read that and thought, oh, you can do…like, you can do that and be a writer? That’s it. I’m in.
Shayna: Awesome. And what is your book crush? I’m not sure I understand this question.
Tara: That’s the one I stole. That’s the one I stole from her website.
Sarah: My book crush. Oh, it’s like the book that you wish you’d written.
Shayna: You’d written. Yeah.
Sarah: Like you look at it and you’re like, ah, that book, that book. I have so many book crushes. That’s so unfair to put it back on me. I don’t remember what I said on the website. I have so many. Is it too much to say the Elena Ferrante novels?
Tara: No, not at all.
Sarah: I read “My Brilliant Friend” and was like, really? And then I read the others and I was like, yes. And now I look at those on my shelf and I’m like, how even did she get the wherewithal to, like, think she was allowed to do that? I would like that. I would like to have that feeling of like, yeah, and I’m going to write four of them.
Tara: Excellent answer. I’m going to have to…I’m gonna steal that question for some other ones for more people’s rapid-fire.
Shayna: I have one more question that is not on the list and is a sharp left turn from what we’ve been talking about.
Sarah: I love left turns.
Shayna: So “Radiant Shimmering Light,” that’s your most recent novel. Is that correct?
Shayna: Yes. Okay. So this one, ripped from the headlines just a little, because it sounds…I feel like I know where this is going, but I’m not sure, is this related to something that’s been happening in the news? Can you say or does it ruin the plot?
Sarah: The short answer is no, it’s a coincidence, but the longer answer is of course, like, no, I was paying attention…I started writing this novel…I actually started this…writing this novel with “This Cake Is For The Party.” So it is a spinoff of a story in “This Cake Is For The Party” that’s called “Go-Manchura.”
The same characters are in it. And I had a thought experiment, like what would happen if this character, her name was Lillian, and in “This Cake Is For The Party” in “Go-Manchura,” the story, she sold nutritional products. It was like part of an MLM, a multi-level marketing plan business, MLMs. And I had a thought experiment of what would happen to her during, you know, with…now that there’s Facebook, now that she has Instagram, now that she can promote herself in these other ways because with This Cake, it came out in 2010 and it was before all of that. So that was how I started it.
And then, you know, there was early…in the early years of writing it, several things did occur in the news back then. One was, there was a yoga teacher named David Friend. And I think in 2012, there was a big piece about him in “The New Yorker,” I think, and about allegations, misuse of power. It’s an old story now. And also all the allegations around Jian Ghomeshi happened while I was writing the early drafts of this book. And so that also was in there.
And then my thought experiment sort of expanded into what would happen if a woman was in power and a woman was running like an empire from, you know, a feminist place ostensibly? What would misuse of power look like in a women’s only business because it’s not the same. And what would it even be like? And what would put…like how would a woman get into power, that kind of power, because have we even seen it? All these stories are about men who are in power, who are misusing it. And so all to say that I don’t know what news story you’re talking about.
Shayna: I was referring to…well, I can just…
Sarah: Yeah, tell me.
Shayna: I was referring to NXIVM and “The Vow,” right? “The Vow” is a documentary thing about NXIVM that just came out, and that it just…there are just certain elements but I just thought that maybe that was where that came from but obviously you were writing this before.
Sarah: I was glued to the podcast when the NXIVM podcast came out. And like, I was like, yes, this. And I was touring the book when NXIVM was coming out. So it was later. But how I would…sometimes introduce the novel was like this character, Eleven, is like, she’s kind of like…it would be like Elizabeth Gilbert crossed with NXIVM, that’s sort of like the feel.
Sarah: It’s not a malevolent…she’s not a malevolent power source. And what happens when power gets out of balance and the person in power is a compassionate feminist, what happens?
Shayna: That’s interesting. It’s next on my list.
Tara: Absolutely. And we will have the links because these books are on Kobo. Super excited to dive in.
Sarah: Thank you.
Tara: Well, thanks so much, Sarah. This has been wonderful. I was gonna ask you if you had one piece of writing advice, but I feel like this entire chat has been endless writing advice so I won’t pressure you more, but…so thank you very much for being a guest. It has been a lot of fun.
Shayna: Yes. Thank you so much. You’ve asked such great questions.
Sarah: I really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you.
Shayna: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you’re interested in picking up Sarah Selecky’s books, we will include links in our show notes. If you’re enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com. Be sure to follow us on socials. We’re @KoboWritingLife on Facebook and Twitter and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.
Tara: This episode was produced by Tara Cremin and Shayna Krishnasamy. Editing is provided by Kelly Rowbotham. Our theme music is composed by Tearjerker, and thanks to Sarah for being such a great guest. If you’re ready to start your publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.