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UR's Guide to (the writing) Life

Roaming the halls of Queen’s is one of the best resources for new writers on campus.

Carolyn Smart teaches creative writing here and is a writer who has dedicated herself to supporting the efforts of new, emerging writers throughout the country. Beyond her teaching, Smart has founded the RBC Bronwyn Wallace literary award and judges for other awards like the emerging writers’ awards offered by the Malahat Review based in Victoria, BC.

In a continuation of these efforts, Smart spoke with the Undergraduate Review over the phone, offering advice and tips for writers on campus who want to make a career of their craft.

The first step to writing, in her mind, is that you ask yourself why you’re doing it. “Always write for yourself,” she said. There is no glamour to the writing life, there are fun opportunities but they do not appear out of thin air.

“Be prepared for the fact that a writing career or just attempts at writing throughout your life is a long-term proposition.”

It is, like all things, a matter of practice. Smart advised putting yourself in a chair every day so that you are always producing and always working towards your goals. For a writer, she said, the “hard work and difficulty is really the sense of revision.”

To break that down, it means taking whatever you’ve written and editing it. You are trying to look at it critically, to see the holes in what you’ve written and it’s more than merely checking for grammar and spelling mistakes. Did you forget to introduce a character? Is there a plot hole, or some gap of information?

Obviously, as a writer you might decide to play a trick on your reader. But ask yourself, am I trying to leave them guessing or have I just been lazy. Editors, like us at the UR, ask these sorts of questions and you should too if you have hopes of publishing your work. As Smart mentioned, the path taken by writers is a lifelong one because, for one thing, you are not going to be that good at the start, and you will not have the confidence you need from the get-go either.

Smart recommends finding a group of readers who you know will give you honest feedback on your work. “On the whole, it’s not going to get honest feedback from your closest friends or roommates.”

A good reader, she said, will say, “there’s some stuff in here that could go, there’s some stuff in here than could be better.” You could also join a writing group, she said, because they will provide you with like-minded writers looking to progress and improve but also, they give you a sense of community. It will show you that others are facing the same sort of issues you are.

All this is so that you will become published in a literary review or magazine.

“I really do recommend that people submit to the campus magazines…I think there’s five at Queen’s,” said Smart. “It’s a great beginning, that’s how I began to publish.”

These publications offer a low stakes introduction to the submission process. “Whether it’s rejection or acceptance…you can move forward with a level of confidence you might have lacked before” she said.

This path, these efforts, are really meant to establish yourself as a writer. To disseminate your work so that you can make a name for yourself because this will offer you the freedom to choose how the world views you as an artist.

The early smaller works, the stories and essays, lead to books, commissions, to screenplays, to marketing campaigns, to however it is that you might want to exercise your writing muscle, as Smart put it.

Once you have been published in a campus magazine and have removed some of the awe that comes with your first publication, you ought to set your sights on the magazines and awards around the country.

Smart suggested young writers look at Prism International, Poetry Is Dead, Event Magazine, The Fiddlehead, Grain Magazine, and Filling Station. These are a few of the magazines in Canada but she said in particular support the work of young or emerging writers, as they are sometimes called.

In terms of awards, research is best because many are interested in showcasing work with particular themes or by specific groups. Some, like the RBC Bronwyn Wallace which was started in 1994 by Smart and a few others, reward writers under 35 who was published in a journal, like the UR, but have not released a book.

There are many, many awards like these and their benefit is twofold: you get money for your work which is always nice, and you get your name out there.

Smart did caution “to be wary of contests that require money to enter, oftentimes that’s just a cash grab – except for maybe the CBC contest, which every person on earth submits to.”

While there is no right way necessarily to become a professional writer, and get yourself in the public eye, this path is tried and true and will give you some measure of success. Obviously if you want to be a writer, the quality of your work is important; this comes from refining your writing, from constantly working at it and from always believing in yourself.

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