Send My Love to Anyone | Issue 1
with Farzana Doctor and Jessica Johnson
Welcome to the first issue of Send My Love to Anyone, a monthly newsletter on all things writing.
Each issue will contain a reflection on writing or the writing process with me, a guest post or micro interview, responses to questions from readers, event listings, and recommendations.
This month award-winning author Farzana Doctor discusses writing in the pandemic, I ruminate on a so-called “failed” screenwriting project, and writer and Editor-in-Chief of the Walrus, Jessica Johnson, tells us how to meet a writing deadline.
I’d love to hear from you. Send me your writing process questions to email@example.com and they may appear in a future issue.
Writing in the Pandemic
Kathryn Mockler: How has your writing been impacted by the pandemic?
Farzana Doctor: When I was writing my first novel, Stealing Nasreen, I had a full-time job that sucked the life out of me. To finish writing the book, I wrote for forty-five minutes, three times a week, religiously. Because this writing time was so precious to me, I was motivated and productive during those three writing spurts.
Over the years, I’ve been lucky to be able to carve out entire mornings for writing, and I do my other paid work in the afternoons and evenings. Even with the greater abundance of time, I continued to be disciplined in my writing practice, probably because I’d trained myself in the context of scarcity.
Then the pandemic hit. Like many writers (and readers) I know, the anxiety of the moment made it harder to sit still. I couldn’t focus but I needed to; I had a deadline with my agent for edits on my draft YA novel manuscript. Plus, I had many tedious self-promotion tasks to complete for Seven’s upcoming release. But my mind turned instead to Netflix (I zipped through fifteen seasons of Grey’s Anatomy in two months), the contents of my fridge, and social media doomscrolling.
I know I wasn’t alone; countless tweeps and Facebook friends were reporting the same issue. I decided to do what I’ve always done when facing a collective problem: I turned to community.
I started the #WritingSprint Facebook group. Writing sprints are exactly what they sound like. A member can call one, invite others to join, and everyone agrees to write for the specified time. After, members are encouraged to report back on progress, and cheer one another on. It’s like a writing peer support group or pep squad. The group’s virtual presence was a huge help to me over the spring and summer.
When Seven launched in September, I took a break from the group because I didn’t have room for writing (the learning curve for releasing and promoting a book virtually was steep and time-consuming, but that’s another conversation, which I’ll be talking about at this Diaspora Dialogues event in February). Since the beginning of January, I’ve returned to the #WritingSprint group twice, on days when I struggled to keep my butt in my chair. Just knowing that the group was there made me push through my distraction, worries and lack of motivation.
I’ve met some of the 178 members and a few are friends. The rest are strangers whose names I now recognise, people who are working on articles, poems, books and stories. I’m so grateful to know them.
By the way, anyone can join the group and lead a writing sprint. Join us!
Farzana Doctor is the Tkaronto-based author of four novels: Stealing Nasreen, Six Metres of Pavement, All Inclusive, and Seven. Seven has been chosen for 2020 Best Book lists including: Indigo/Chapters, Apple Books, Amnesty International, CBC Books and more. Farzana is also the Maasi behind Dear Maasi, a new sex and relationships column for FGM/C survivors. She is also an activist, part-time psychotherapist and amateur tarot card reader. Website: http://www.farzanadoctor.com
On a Failed Project
We always hear never-give-up stories after a writer or creator has achieved some commercial success like the recent revelations that it took Allan Scott 30 years to get The Queen’s Gambit made. While I admire Scott’s perseverance, he was in a position to achieve some amount of success as a Hollywood insider with a commercial track record.
We rarely hear stories about people who never give up when there isn’t a reward beyond the writing itself.
What I find demotivating about never-give-up stories is that they always focus on someone who has achieved external success — an award, critical acclaim, or popularity, which somehow affirms that their devotion, sacrifice, dedication to something they believed in was not in vain.
What does that make the rest of us? Suckers? Time wasters? Sticking with a project because one day your faith will be rewarded feels more like delusions of grandeur than inspiration. Might as well buy a lottery ticket.
What about not giving up when there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow — when in all likelihood your passion project will never find its desired audience or outcome?
I have a project that I’ve spend most of my adult writing life on that has given me equal measures of fulfillment and heartache. This project is not destined for any kind of greatness in the material sense. Does that mean I should give up on it and, for that matter, what does giving up on it actually mean — to stop working on it or to stop seeking external validation?
The project is a feature-length screenplay called Piss Tank, a coming-of-age autofictional story set in the 1980s about a young girl growing up with an alcoholic parent. Piss Tank was my thesis project at the University of British Columbia. The script won a fellowship which led to it being optioned by a Toronto production company. At the age of 27, I thought I had made it, which now makes me laugh given that I was just at the beginning of a long and very painful journey.
The production company secured some development money, and I would begin what would become a four-year development process and a 19-year revision process. I rewrote that script more times than I can count. During the four years that the script was optioned, I got feedback from producers, story editors, directors, and funding bodies. The goal was to fix the premise, fix the characters, fix the structure. What started out as a deeply personal script about growing up in an alcoholic home ended up becoming a generic story cobbled together from a mishmash of well-intentioned but often gendered and, ultimately, unhelpful notes. It was this version that went up for production financing and didn’t get it. Although I was gravely disappointed, I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t like the script either.
So much writing advice focuses on writers learning how to “take” criticism, but it is equally important for writers to know when to ignore feedback and listen to their own voice, which is not the same thing as being defensive. Having worked with thousands of writers over the years as an editor, publisher, and professor, I have learned that the precious first instinct of a writer is often the best and should be handled with care when one is offering advice or feedback. One of the most helpful things a mentor or editor can do for a writer is help them gain the confidence to trust in their own work, to say no, that’s not the story I want to tell, that’s not my voice. This can begin with a simple question: what is the story you want to tell.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that a good deal of the feedback I received on Piss Tank was gendered. The protagonist’s mother wasn’t a “likeable” enough character. The story, which had a ten-year-old female protagonist, wasn’t “big” enough to warrant a feature film. The story is too “dark” and depressing. Some readers wanted the protagonist to be “saved” and have happy ending where her mother stopped drinking and the enablers around her did the right thing. But that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to show the lived reality of this experience, my experience. Society often fails children of alcoholics, they don’t get saved, and they have to find ways to survive in these toxic and often dangerous environments.
But the notes weren’t the problem. Everyone gets unhelpful notes. It’s the risk you take when you put your work out there. My response to the notes was the problem and my reason for writing was the problem. I was writing to please what others thought of me and what they thought my story should be instead of writing to make my story better for myself.
One of the lasting impacts for children of alcoholics is that they are often “wired to seek approval from others”.* It is certainly not lost on me that the trauma I was writing about — growing up in an alcoholic home — was the very thing that prevented me from writing about it well. I’ll never forget the time I submitted a terrible revision that attempted to appease all the notes I had been given and the first director attached to the project turned to me and said: “Kathryn, you have to stand up for your work”.
After the production company returned the option to me, I moved on to other film and poetry projects, but I never let Piss Tank completely go. It always haunted me as an unfinished and failed story. I’ve had many other abandoned scripts and manuscripts, but none that possessed me in this way, none of them filled me with this terrible sense of shame and disappointment. The failure wasn’t that it didn’t get made, but that I failed to tell my story the way I wanted it to be told. On and off every year for almost two decades, I went back to that script. I wrote some really awful drafts that still embarrass me to think about. Then one day, I was curious about the very first draft I wrote at UBC, the one that won the fellowship and got the production company interested in the first place. I no longer had a copy, so I requested it from the university.
Reading the script as a more experienced writer, I was pleasantly surprised. I saw what was good about it. It wasn’t a perfect script, and it still needed work, but it had my voice in there — the very thing that I had stamped out in the endless revisions and people pleasing.
I took that draft and decided to rewrite the script according to the story I wanted to tell — the story of a child living with an alcoholic who has to go on living with an alcoholic. So many readers had been focused on the alcoholic mother. Just like in life everything revolved around the alcoholic, but I wanted to write a story about the child who is impacted and what life is like for her.
I started the first draft in 1997 and finished the final draft in 2020. Nothing I’ve worked on has been as hard or as meaningful. Piss Tank is no longer a failed project that fills me with shame, regret, and doubt. I finally told the story I wanted to tell to the best of my ability, and for me there is nothing more satisfying than that. And now I can finally put this project to rest.
*American Addition Centers. Children of Alcoholics. Updated: July 2, 2020
Jessica Johnson offers excellent tips for those struggling to meet a writing deadline.
How to Meet A Writing Deadline
Start by writing whatever you know. Sometimes this is just the title of an assignment or the bullet points you were handed by the editor. (I learned to do this when newspaper editors would unexpectedly move up my deadline from 5 pm to 2 pm. Terrifying!)
Give yourself time to write the assignment. 90% of the time, writing will not go smoothly — you’ll realize what you thought was your story is actually something different. You might need more research. The night before deadline is too late for new interviews.
Make up mini-deadlines:
rough draft finished
Stagger these according to the time you have, whether it's a day or a month. If you blow them — we all do — rework them in the time you have. This also works to defeat the fear of failure.
I can hear you saying, “But I’m a last-minute person!" It’s true that you *can write that way. I never saw a draft that was finished at midnight that wouldn’t have been better if it had been finished a day earlier, with another polish and proofread.
Normally, I give myself 2-3 days to write even a short article, because I know I’ll get bored or frustrated or distracted by “emergencies” — that’s when you watch a movie or go for a walk. Ideas will come to you in the shower, when eating, when talking to someone randomly.
Ask your editor for help. Too many writers are worried that editors will think they're stupid or that you’ll be fired. But most editors would far rather hear about issues you’re facing early on than wait while you drag your heels and miss your deadline.
Even the most accomplished and experienced writers feel like frauds a lot. Everyone. The best writers are the people who don’t run from that — they lean into it as part of writing. You know what? You're not supposed to know how to do the thing till you've done it.
Everyone says this but it’s always good to hear it: The first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. Just meet your deadline, within ball park, make your word count, within ball park, write something a reasonable person would understand. Chances are, it’ll do.
The struggle we all feel — figuring out what something’s supposed to be without a map — is the genius and gift of writing. You’ll feel so good when you’re done. But don’t fight the process, because that is writing — figuring out how to express what only you have found.
When in doubt about how to write, think about other people. Obliterate your existence and LinkedIn profile. How will they know what you have to share if you don’t tell them? How can you say it as clearly as possible — for their sake?
If you are struggling to find the perfect word/line/title of your first draft, chances are you’re thinking about it too much. Just hand it in. When in doubt, hand it in.
I wrote this because I was procrastinating on a deadline.
If you liked these tips, check out Jessica’s Twitter thread on How to Pitch a Magazine.
Word on the Street Toronto: The City Imagines with Watch Your Head
Join us for a conversation with editor Kathryn Mockler and anthology contributors Carleigh Baker, Simone Dalton, Christine Leclerc, and Carrianne Leung on their calls to action for the climate crisis facing us all. The City Imagines series is presented by The Word On The Street, a national celebration of storytelling, ideas, and imagination. Register here.
Q& A with Jennifer Whalen
Join the Pacific Screenwriting Program as they chat with Co-Creator, Showrunner and Executive Producer Jennifer Whalen from Baroness von Sketch. Register here.
A Winter Writing Workshop with poet Hoa Nguyen
Support knife | fork | book and join poet Hoa Nguyen in a two-hour workshop to read and write with Fred Wah’s Music at the Heart of Thinking (Talonbooks, 2020). Register here.
7 Things I Learned While Promoting During A Pandemic with Farzana Doctor
Join four-time author Farzana Doctor for a FREE workshop on using social media, finding influencers, creating and attracting people to your events, asking for help, working with a publicist and more. This workshop will be helpful to any writer working to increase their profile and especially for those with a book contract and who are thinking about how to promote a future book. Register here.
Send My Love to Anyone Recommends
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa - I adored Ogawa’s short story collection Revenge, and The Memory Police does not disappoint.
Cinematic Riots: Feminism And Surrealism In Germaine Dulac’s ‘La Coquille Et Le Clergyman’ by Chelsea Phillips-Carr: “Germaine Dulac’s La Coquille et le Clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman) was arguably the first surrealist film ever made. Admired today for its innovative camerawork and engagement with gender politics, it focuses on a priest who covets another man’s wife. But it is the story surrounding the film that, as much as its plot, allows it to take its place in the realm of the surreal. At its first screening, in 1928, before an audience of surrealist artists and bohemians at the legendary Studio des Ursulines, Dulac’s film caused a literal riot.”
Here’s a list of some of my favourite newsletters.
Anti-Racism Daily: Daily actions to dismantle white supremacy by Nicole Cardoza - This is an essential newsletter on anti-racism and actions you can take every day from changing your spelling to talking to your relatives about white supremacy. An excellent resource for educators and students and anyone interested in a better world. Subscribe and support this vital project! Each issue includes “an urgent and tactical action you can take to practice anti-racism each day, insights on the systemic and interpersonal practices that uphold white supremacy and systems of oppression, clear and tangible resources to support your education.”
Experimental Cinema - Excellent website and newsletter for event listing and calls for submisisons for experimental filmmakers and artists.
Go Into the Story by Scott Myers - Scott Myers offers screenwriting advice for new or experienced screenwriters. “Official Screenwriting blog of the BlackList.”
RAVEN - I have started donating monthly to this excellent organization. Consider joining me! “RAVEN raises legal defence funds to assist Indigenous Peoples who enforce their rights and title to protect their traditional territories. Through our public education programs, RAVEN collaborates with Indigenous Peoples to eliminate environmental racism and foster a greater understanding of indigenous rights and governance.”
Write to Send My Love to Anyone
I’d love to hear from you.
Do you have a project that you are not yet willing to give up on? Send up to 500 words about your never-give-up project. What is it and why do you believe in it?
Or send me your writing process questions.
Selected stories and questions may be considered for publication in a future newsletter.
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About Kathryn Mockler
Kathryn Mockler is the author of five books of poetry and several short films and experimental videos. She’s the publisher of Watch Your Head, an online journal devoted to climate justice and the climate crisis. She is the editor of the print anthology Watch Your Head: Writers & Artists Respond to the Climate Crisis (Coach House Books, 2020) and her debut story collection is forthcoming with Book*hug in 2023.
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