Welcome to the third in my series of special episodes of Write, Publish, and Shine as I take you on a deep dive into the creation of Room magazine issue 46.3, where I was lead editor of the issue.
One of my jobs as editor is to commission one established writer to be featured in the magazine. To do so, I started by searching for writers working in the genre of ghosts and scary stories and was pleased to come across an anthology of Arctic horror stories, Taaqtumi and thought, oh, yes, when I read Aviaq Johnston’s piece in the anthology. I invited her to be our commissioned writer for Room 46.3 and she said yes.
Aviaq Johnston is a young Inuk author from Igloolik, Nunavut. Her debut novel Those Who Run in the Sky was released in the spring of 2017 and shortlisted for a Governor General’s award that year. In 2014, she won first place in the Aboriginal Arts and Stories competition for her short story “Tarnikuluk,” which also earned her a Governor General’s History Award.
You can pick up your copy of Room 46.3, Ghosts (digital or print) at roommagazine.com.
WRITERLY LOVE LETTERS: Sent each week to your inbox. rachelthompson.co/letters
- Taaqtumi: An Anthology of Arctic Horror Stories, which features “Iqsinaqtutalik Piqtuq: The Haunted Blizzard” by Aviaq Johnston.
- Those Who Run in the Sky, nominated for the Governor General’s Literary award for Young People’s Literature in 2017.
- Cheri Dimaline won the Governor General’s Literary award for Young People’s Literature in 2017 for The Marrow Thieves, the same year Aviaq Johnston was shortlisted for the same prize.
- Aviaq Johnston talked about brewing Red Rose tea when she’s getting down to writing.
- You can order Room 46.3 (Ghosts) and read the featured story “Earring Repair Shop” by Aviaq Johnston at https://roommagazine.com/shop/ghosts/
- Here are the prompt questions from the episode:
- What is your vision of an abundant writing life?
- What are your greatest hopes and fears about your vision?
- What are the best and worst outcomes of achieving your vision? (How do you imagine you would respond to both?)
- What practices can you bring into your life that would help you with this response?
- Sign up for my Writerly Love Letters filled with support for your writing practice and sent every week.
#82 Write, Publish, Shine Episode Transcript
- Aviaq Johnston
- Rachel Thompson
TABLE OF CONTENT
|02:35||Rachel’s interview with Aviaq Johnston|
|03:18||Aviaq talks about how she crafted such a villain in her novel.|
|05:45||Aviaq talks about the setting and the choices she made to render the setting for people less familiar with it.|
|09:31||Aviaq talks about what times she feel drawn to and what keeps her bending reality.|
|11:49||A day in life in Aviaq’s writing– her writing practice, habits and inclinations as a writer. Also, when or how she likes to write.|
|14:29||What does the Governor General’s Award for literature for young people mean to Aviaq Johnston?|
|16:20||Where does Aviaq see her writing going in the years to come?|
|21:05||Aviaq talks about how she prioritized her health during book promotion.|
|22:27||Advice from Aviaq Johnston for writers on handling feedback both good and bad about writing.|
|30:51||Aviaq talks about her first piece after COVID, since 2020.”Earring Repair Shop.”|
|29:07||Quick Lit Round by Rachel Thompson|
|31:55||Interview Outro & Rachel’s discussion on “Success”|
Rachel Thompson: 00:01
Welcome luminous writers to the Write, Publish and Shine podcast. I am your host, author and literary magazine editor Rachel Thompson. This podcast explores how to write and share your brilliant writing with the world. In each episode, we delve into specifics on how to polish and prepare your writing for publication, and the journey from emerging writer to published author.
Hello luminous writers, and welcome to the third in my series of special episodes of Write, Publish and Shine as I take you on a deep dive into the creation of Room magazine issue 46.3, where I was lead editor of the issue.
You can pick up a copy of said issue at roommagazine.com.
I encourage you to go back to the last two episodes, if you’re just tuning in, starting at episode 80, for context. You can find that at rachelthompson.co/podcast/80.
In this episode, I speak with another contributor, a very special contributor to our Ghosts issue. One of my jobs as an issue editor of Room is to commission one established writer to be featured in the magazine. So, we have one established writer who goes alongside the emerging writers generally who are submitting to the slush pile of the magazine and we are selecting from.
To do so, I started by searching for writers working in the genre of ghosts and scary stories and was pleased to come across an anthology of Arctic horror stories, Taaqtumi and thought, oh, yes! When I saw that a writer Aviaq Johnston published a brilliant and spooky story in that series. So, I invited her to be our commission writer and she said yes.
Aviaq Johnston is a young Inuk author from Igloolik, Nunavut. Her debut novel “Those Who Run in the Sky“ was released in the spring of 2017 and shortlisted for a Governor General’s award that year—this is a detail I get wrong for a moment in our interview. (It was shortlisted and didn’t win. Cheri Dimaline won that year for The Marrow Thieves. She was up against some great competition.) In 2014, she won first place in the Aboriginal Arts and Stories competition for her short story “Tarnikuluk,” which also earned her a Governor General’s History Award.
You’ll hear Aviaq Johnston speak from the heart about how such incredible early success impacted her and her writing.
Here is Aviaq Johnston. So, I am going to start by welcoming you Aviaq Johnston to the Write, Publish and Shine podcast. Thank you so much for being here.
Aviaq Johnston: 02:46
Thank you for having me.
Rachel Thompson: 02:47
I want to just jump into say, to my delight you said yes to our commission to write a story just for Room. From the moment the mysterious woman arrives in your story “Earring Repair Shop” we know something is wrong. She’s ageless. She makes Akpa, our narrator, uneasy and then makes her do something she doesn’t want to do.
I am curious about, I guess the experience of first being commissioned to write something and being like, okay, now, right. But also, how did you craft such a villain for us?
Aviaq Johnston: 03:18
Most of my stories always involve some sort of supernatural element. Most legends and folktales are very magical in the way like spirituality, like belief system with the every living thing has a spirit. There are some people in our culture who are more equipped to talk to spirits or interact with them and those are our [unclear 03:49] or shamans. In most of my previous work, I depict shamans kind of light hearted, or I don’t know if light hearted is the right term, but they are usually good people at heart, and they are working for the better of their community. But we do have shamans who were evil, and who did a lot of bad and were actually working more against the greater good.
I wanted Kunuq to be, I don’t know, like, she’s just looking out for herself. But also I wanted her to represent the people who didn’t react well to when settlers came up here and when our lives started transitioning to the more modern style where we have traders coming up or started creating settlements and communities, and I wanted her to represent that resistance to that.
Also, she’s ageless, it’s because she’s working every day with the environment. She’s working with spirits and with animals and she represents a way of life that I’ve never had the opportunity to have, and I’ve always wished I had more access to that. So, she’s just cool. I know she’s bad, but I love her.
Rachel Thompson: 05:18
She’s like a badass too. Yeah, it’s true. Setting is so vital to this story, too. And you really render that and all that comes across as well, what you’re saying about reacting to what’s happening in those setting as well, too, that changes over time settler colonialism.
Can you tell us about this setting and the choices you made to render the setting for people less familiar with it?
Aviaq Johnston: 05:45
So, the community that Akpa and her family lives in is very much based on where I grew up in Igloolik. And the community is very close knit, everyone knows everyone, you can’t really do anything without everyone else knowing about it.
The part where her shed becomes like a place where people can gossip, it’s something… I grew up around gossip my whole life, I’m still around it a lot. But the gossip hearing, it probably is very different from what it was when I was growing up in Igloolik, and it’s just because in Igloolik, I was a part of the community too, from my childhood till I left when I was 16. But here in Iqaluit, I’m still a bit of an outsider, because I’m not original a commune. So, I wanted to depict that the gossip, it’s not always a bad thing. And it shows that there are certain standards in the community for behavior and it helps people to realize, oh, well, okay, so that person is like that. So, I guess that’s not how we’re supposed to act, sort of thing. Because that’s just how we looked out for each other and make sure that our kids were safe, and all that. But also like her dad, making carvings to sell for $60 so he could buy a weed. It’s so common, and that character is not based on my dad. Because my dad, he used to run the Northern store in Igloolik. He just knew when people would come in to sell carvings to him, because the northern store in the 90s used to buy carvings, I don’t know if they still do, at least maybe not in the public, but maybe in the communities, they still do. But they just knew that that person made that carving just to be able to buy some weed. He always bought. But there’s these certain characters that are kind of in every community, and I wanted to show that.
Rachel Thompson: 07:53
Yeah, wonderful. I love what you say too about that function of gossip. It’s sort of like whatever people are telling you not good that someone else did is like instructive, okay, that’s how we’re not supposed to behave. And if I were to behave this way, people are going to talk about it.
Aviaq Johnston: 08:09
Yeah. That character are in the line where girls that try to fight anyone who looks at their boyfriend, like I had been punched in the face for being on a group project with a boy before, and there’s a lot of jealousy in our communities, too. It’s just, oh, don’t talk to her boyfriend, you might get punched. So, it’s very much rooted in reality.
Rachel Thompson: 08:37
Yeah. That sounds like very personal experience. Little did they know that you’re a writer, and that you would be writing about that.
Aviaq Johnston: 08:48
It’s good inspiration.
Rachel Thompson: 08:51
I’m actually from a smaller community in northern, almost northern Manitoba. And so I read that part I definitely recognized as being familiar with setting in terms of the jealousy and some of the more petty parts of the gossip, for sure. So, I loved how you rendered that.
So, I’m wondering as well, because you said, I found for you and I think I use this in the issue as well too that “it’s impossible for me to write reality or to have a story set in the modern day”
I’m just curious about I guess why that is, if you’ve reflected on that, and then what times do you feel drawn to and what keeps you bending reality? Like, what about that is juicy for you in terms of your writing?
Aviaq Johnston: 09:31
My favorite genre to read is fantasy and all of our stories are a legends that I grew up hearing have that element mixed in. I am not very interested in reality, usually. I love my life and I love every day, day-to-day, I know it’s how it is, but when I’m telling a story, I just want to get to push that creepy thing that happened in my peripheral vision, I want to push it out. So, the community I grew up in, is also riddled with ghost stories everywhere, like, we told them all the time. If we had a break in class, we would tell ghost stories. It’s also a very strong community in storytelling. Where I grew up in Igloolik, it’s the home of the Isuma Productions Company. I grew up watching these movies that were made for Inuit all in Inuktitut. They always had these elements of supernatural abilities. So, it’s just something that just comes naturally to me to twist the narrative into the cusp of reality, or the edge of reality.
I think now, I’ve matured a bit. I do find myself gravitating more to root stories in our communities. I have experiences every day where I’m like, that could have been really creepy if this happened instead, and I think the joy of writing is that you can explore those ideas.
Rachel Thompson: 11:19
Yeah. The story that you wrote for us is very grounded in a real place. But yeah, then sort of like, goes askew a little bit. I think the woman arrives to the shop. I love hearing that about how your mind is already always thinking about these sort of like what if’s and what might have happened. So, that’s sort of how you’re moving out in the world, it sounds like.
I am wondering, what is the day in the life of your writing and just your practice and habits and inclinations as a writer?
Aviaq Johnston: 11:49
I actually have a day job. During the work day I’m program coordinator at a nonprofit here in Iqaluit. So I run cultural and community based programming in my community. But because I was a freelance writer for a few years, and I found I hardly wrote anything. When my job is writing, I struggle, and I found when I first started my job two years ago, as a program coordinator, within the first month, I had written more than I wrote, like when I was a full-time writer. I definitely find that when I’m working as a program coordinator, I’m interacting with my community very often, and that’s where I draw most of my inspiration. I have to have like a day job in order to write better or write more. Because when I’m stuck at home, in my head, I’m just like, I don’t know what to do.
My first book, I wrote it when I was working full-time for the government of Nunavut, and I wrote it so fast, in like six months, which I can’t even imagine doing that now. But I do find my process of writing is I have to make a pot of Red Rose tea, and I can…. Suddenly the juices start flowing.
I also prefer to write on airplanes, if I’m traveling, or at a very busy coffee shop somewhere. When I’m in private, I’m like, I’m going to read, I’m going to go on Facebook, I’m going to do this. But when I go somewhere in public, it flows more easily. I don’t know why. Probably, it’s ADHD or something.
The novel that you wrote in six months was that Those Who Run in the Sky?
Yeah. I was working for the Department of Finance in the government of Nunavut, and there wasn’t a lot of work for me to do. So, in my free time I’d write and it went by very fast.
Rachel Thompson: 14:03
I mentioned the title too, because I know that book won the Governor General’s Award for literature for young people, and I’m doubly amazed now to hear that you wrote while you were also working full-time somewhere, but sounds like there’s some kind of great synergy happening between what’s happening outside and what’s happening in your writing.
What did that mean for you that win for you and your writing? How did that feel?
Aviaq Johnston: 14:25
I didn’t win, I was shortlisted.
Rachel Thompson: 14:27
Oh yeah, sorry. Shortlisted.
Aviaq Johnston: 14:29
Yeah. But it was really amazing. I mean, I was like, 22, 23, maybe. I was just out of college. So, it was really exciting, and it was my first book. I came into the writing world very blind. I taught myself. I learned to write by kind of reading people’s writing and then like mimicking their style, not plagiarizing. But just like, oh, that was a cool turn of phrase. When I’m writing, sometimes you can tell if I was reading Stephen King at the time, or whatever. So, I’m very inspired by other writers.
When I got shortlisted, with my first book, when I was very young, I very much was excited, and, okay, I’m going to dive into this. I had amazing opportunities to meet some of the other writers that were nominated that year, I became friends with Cheri Dimaline who won for The Marrow Thieves that year. It was just so amazing to come into this world of Canadian literature, kind of really feeling a bit of imposter syndrome. Then, after that, doing my second book, where I felt more grounded, and sure of my own voice. It’s kind of crazy that that happened when I was so young. I still am young, but I’m a little bit wiser now. I hope I can get on the list again, someday.
Rachel Thompson: 16:11
Having had such success, like as your career really took off early in life.
Where do you see your writing going, in the years to come?
Aviaq Johnston: 16:20
Having that experience when I was so young, was definitely eye opening. I felt like I had a lot on my shoulders. I didn’t know a lot of other Inuit writers at the time, too. So, it felt like I had so much I had to represent and carry.
Now that I’m a little older and a little wiser, I do know my relationship with writing better and my role in the community. As a representative, I ingrained my story so deeply in our culture and stuff. But I do feel a certain responsibility. At the same time, I do want to explore my own ideas and not always have to feel so constricted by, “Oh, maybe I’m not representing this situation correctly, or I don’t know enough about this situation to be able to show it.” All these things that run through your head when you’re over thinker and a writer. All that.
Rachel Thompson: 17:22
I was thinking, that girl that punched me in the face, she wasn’t that bad.
Aviaq Johnston: 17:26
Yeah. I don’t remember. Two months later, I was like, “Hi!” So, it was like- Oh, no, it happens to everyone. I guess. Everyone has that. Yeah, I think I know myself, and I know that I have to have this separation of my work life and my personal life and my writing life. I kind of compartmentalize myself into these different roles. So, my writing life, I have to kind of treat it, like, I can’t have it be my whole life. So, I love when I come back to it and I have a great time. But that’s overwhelmed me and take a chunk of myself away, mostly because I don’t really like talking about myself. It’s a part of our culture. We don’t really talk about ourselves. So, I put all this energy into like, yeah, and this is why I was inspired by that, and blah, blah. So, when I do that, I have a really great experience every time but when I’m done, and I’m back home, I’m very tired and overwhelmed. So, I would love to come back into this world, and I would love to be back on the Governor General’s list, going through all these writers’ events. But I do know my limits now, and I have these very strong boundaries with writing. I don’t know why.
Rachel Thompson: 18:53
I’m stepping away from my conversation with Aviaq Johnston, just for a teensy moment.
I’m not actually currently accepting registration for any course or program right now. My membership community is closed for new members, until the New Year. I’ve just wrapped up the Intensive course enrollment and we’ve started working together in the Write, Publish and Shine Intensive.
My Revision Love course, is the next one coming up, but it won’t be open for registration until later this month.
So, I think I will just tell you instead that the best way to find out about what is coming up, what courses I’m offering, what things are available for writers is my newsletter called Writerly Love Letters. In each letter that I send out, pretty much every week, right now anyway, I’m in the rhythm of sending it out each week, I sometimes take mental health breaks or seasonal breaks as well, probably keep sending every week until about mid-December or so. But they’re filled with support for you in your writing practice, letters of encouragement.
This week I’m working on a newsletter that will contain a lot of links to publications or news about publications from writers in my course and membership community. I hear from a lot of writers who love getting that roundup of where everyone recently published because they get to read some really cool stuff. But they also get to find some new places maybe they hadn’t heard of before, where they might send their work, especially if they resonate with the work that my members or course, community participants have published.
That sounds just really great self-knowledge, because we definitely want to read more, I think, and I’m getting that there’s the writing, and then there’s the talking about the writing and the book tour, I think is sort of what you’re alluding to, as well as like going out to market the book and how draining that can be. I think that’s relatable for a lot of writers who are introverts and want to spend time at home and maybe would rather not do all of that.
Aviaq Johnston: 21:05
Two years ago, I think my last children’s book came out and grandfather had told me a story. It came out during lockdown, I think, or I don’t remember now. But my publisher was putting it in for words, and I had to like sign agreements and stuff, and there was one where they’re like,
“If your book is selected, you have to be willing to tour and do talks and all this.”
And I’m not willing to do that. I mean, that was probably at the height of like, the worst part of lockdown. And now that I think about it harder, I’m like, oh, I should have been softer on myself at that time, because I felt so bad that I couldn’t really put a lot of promotion into that book. But at the end of the day, I was like, my mental health is very important to me. It’s probably a good thing.
Rachel Thompson: 22:00
Yeah, I think that’s great. I mean, I’m just appreciating that because most of the writers listening to this are emerging writers. So, this might be like a note for future them to think about their mental health when it comes to the promotion side of their books.
Actually, I wanted to ask you just any advice you have, for writers on handling feedback, both good and bad, I guess maybe handling success as well as the setbacks.
Aviaq Johnston: 22:27
I mean, for me, too, I did very much go into this industry. I don’t know if I’m using the term right. But like off the cuff, like, I didn’t go to school, I did try. I went to University of Ottawa for a year for English and tried to go that route and quickly realized, okay, this is not for me. So, I left University of Ottawa and went to a smaller college in North Bay, and took a different program. Again, that helped me write more because by then I was editing my first, Those Who Run in the Sky. I don’t know why. But when I have something tangible to focus on, when I do my writing stuff, it just works better.
When I jumped into the writing literature scene, it all feels like a fluke. But it was stuff I was working towards since I was like 15. So, when it all started happening, it was very exciting, but quickly, realizing, I don’t actually know a lot about what being a writer is, and I don’t know the industry very well. At that time, I wasn’t reading a lot of Canadian literature content, and I hadn’t read a lot of indigenous books. So, I did feel flung into this world, and I learned very fast like, I should probably understand where people are coming from and I should read more local talent and keep up to date. I think that led to a lot of me flip flopping like, I’m not doing enough to represent myself, but I’m not doing enough to support the community like the writer community and the indigenous literature community.
So, I felt just that impostor syndrome, just like what am I doing here? Kind of being thrust into a spotlight, which was amazing, and very cool. But it was so overwhelming that I think I did retreat into myself and into feeling bad because that’s the first step is usually you don’t really think of yourself very positive or at least I don’t, and after therapy, I had to learn that you can’t carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. You can only do work everything step by step, you can’t control what’s happening around you, you can only control how you react.
So, I’m still working on reading more Canadian literature, but I’m learning like, I need to just read in general, before I can be like, I have to read an indigenous book, and then I have to read this, and then I have to give myself the light hearted, New York Times bestseller, fantasy books.
Rachel Thompson: 25:36
The joy of reading. Yeah.
Aviaq Johnston: 25:38
Rachel Thompson: 25:39
It sounds like a lot of responsibility that you felt as an indigenous writer, and hearing that, it seems like, oh, here’s another extra layer of burden, because it’s the success also comes with, now I have to represent a whole community. Is that fair to say? Like, am I getting that?
Aviaq Johnston: 25:57
Yeah, I did feel that. Also at the time, like, right now, but in the last five to 10 years, there’s so much more just responsibility in general that everyone is taking, and we have to be conscious of our role in our communities, and the space we’re taking, you know, I’m white skinned Inuk, I’m half Inuk half white. And most of my characters are not based on me, where I’m basing them on people I know, in my community, and sometimes, I’m trying to represent people who aren’t represented. But I’m privileged. I don’t know how to say it, but like, I need to be responsible in how I write and how I represent my community, especially as a privileged person in my community. I think that’s something I didn’t quite understand until I was on panels in front of hundreds of people, and I was like, oh, I’m way out of my depth.
That’s something like that might be specific to me, because I’m from a small town, I’m from a pretty isolated part of the country, there isn’t a big literature scene where I am. I didn’t have libraries growing up. I just didn’t have much access to what the literature world can bring in the community it has. Because when I was growing up, I was a teenager at home reading in my bedroom. It wasn’t really something new, shared with your friends. It was just like a private thing. It wasn’t until I was a lot older that I finally had, like, friends who like to read too and all that.
Yeah, so when I jumped into this, going to events and stuff like that, I’ve never really had this opportunity to talk about these things before. It was just a lot overwhelming and I had to learn a self-care routine, to be able to be okay with that, I guess.
Rachel Thompson: 28:08
Thank you for sharing that experience. Because I think, even though like you said, maybe that’s specific to you, but I think I’m sure there’s lots that’s very resonant with a lot of our listeners as well. Central to that seems to me, it’s like, learning what works for you as a writer and taking care of yourself. So, that’s a beautiful thing.
Aviaq Johnston: 28:27
It’s weird, because I love writing. But I talk about it like, I don’t like it. I do love it. But I do find I have to recover from it. So, I think it’s just a different part of my brain, and it’s the part where you’re self-conscious and have low self-esteem. That’s why I have such a strong boundaries with my writing.
Rachel Thompson: 28:47
Well, and I think it shows in your craft is all encompassing, so it’s like taking a lot out of you to put it on. It’s just really appreciative. Thank you again for sharing that commission with us. I’m thrilled that our readers in Room get to read it. Now, those listening to this podcast are encouraged to go and check it out as well.
I finished my interviews with this thing I’m calling the Quick Lit round, which basically is like a complete the sentence kind of exercise, if you’d like to do it. People go long or short, it sort of doesn’t matter.
So, the first step to complete is,
Being a writer is…
Aviaq Johnston: 29:25
Being a writer is exciting.
Rachel Thompson: 29:29
But it sounds like it’s complicated for you, not to put words in your mouth, but it’s complicated a bit for you, right?
Aviaq Johnston: 29:34
Yeah, I think that’s a stew to judge. Yeah. Being a writer is complicated.
Rachel Thompson: 29:42
Literary Magazines are…
Aviaq Johnston: 29:45
Literary magazines are important.
Rachel Thompson: 29:49
Aviaq Johnston: 29:51
Editing requires divine powers. That I do not have. I appreciate all the editors in my life.
Rachel Thompson: 30:03
Rejection for a writer means…
Aviaq Johnston: 30:06
Rejection means opportunity for growth, even though it hurts.
Rachel Thompson: 30:13
And then finally,
Writing community is…
Aviaq Johnston: 30:16
Writing community is beautiful, and welcoming, I would say. I’ve felt so welcomed and privileged to have met the people I’ve met so far.
Rachel Thompson: 30:33
Wonderful! I feel privileged to have had your piece published in Room to be able to be one of those editors working with you. That was really fun for me. Thank you so much for sharing your time with us.
Is there anything else you’d want to add to people listening? Anything you…?
Aviaq Johnston: 30:51
Well, I hope that people do love the “Earring Repair Shop”. It’s my first thing I’ve written since COVID, like since the first lockdown in 2020. It was such an incredible experience to write again, and to dive back in. I really love the story. I’m glad that it’s my way back to enjoying such a big part of my life and something that I love. Even though I just spent the last hour [unclear 31:24], I haven’t stopped. But I do love the story. I hope people enjoy it as much as I do.
Rachel Thompson: 31:32
Yeah. I just love knowing the story behind the story too, what’s happening with you in your writing and the fact that we pulled you back in just some writing.
Thank you, Aviaq.
Aviaq Johnston: 31:44
Yeah, I really thank you so much. It was such a privilege to come back with this opportunity and have such a joyful experience throughout.
Rachel Thompson: 31:55
So, that was Aviaq Johnston. I was struck by so much of this conversation and grateful for the levels Aviaq took us, including talking about her relationship to writing.
I wonder if anyone else resonated as I did with the idea of having a private reading habit as a young person in a community of non-bookish folks perhaps. I really appreciated when Aviaq said,
“I know myself and I have to have that separation and compartmentalization of my writing life and my personal life and my work life.”
I appreciated when she talked about knowing her limits now and having really strong boundaries with writing after some tough experiences handling early success.
Being thrust into the spotlight, which she said, “It was amazing and very cool!” led her to retreating into herself.
I think a lot of introverts out there can relate to that. I’ve just been speaking with coaching clients this week, writers who are taking my Intensive course that I’ve talked about before. So now we’ve actually started and hearing from them about some of their fears about showing up and being seen with their writing.
As Aviaq said,
“I don’t really like talking about myself.”
It’s something she found out while she was on a book tour.
I loved that after uncomfortable experiences, she made real choices when she was promoting her next book about where to submit her writing for consideration. (She bowed out of some opportunity, she felt bad about not putting that promotion into a book that was being promoted during the height of the pandemic, but ultimately found, her mental health top priority.)
I think a lot of people can also relate to that shift that happened in the pandemic, maybe where we realized that our mental health is a priority, and there was a little bit more permission, perhaps across the culture to be able to embrace that as a priority as well.
She might feel that weight on your shoulders when it comes to the representation of your communities, too, as Aviaq described. But whether or not that’s true, you very likely have had the experience of getting caught up in the wave of what we might think success means for us in our writing and having it crashed down.
I’m not sure, Aviaq aspired to be a Governor General’s Award nominated author. But perhaps, a lot of us think of those big awards as being something to really strive for and an exciting opportunity. Maybe they’re not all they’re cracked up to be is part of what I’m hearing from talking to Aviaq.
You might have felt the things Aviaq did about her writing before; I know I hear about such experiences, the highs and lows of being a writer, from folks in my course and membership community, too.
So, using this conversation as a springboard to cap off the episode, I want to hang out in that idea for a bit. I’m going to take you through some self-reflection on success for your writing—what it means, what obstacles you might hit along the way as you hit those goals you set for yourself—often those goals by the way are set many, many years ago in childhood when you dreamed of becoming an author.
The first obstacle we might hit as writers is the dual-edged sword of fear of failure and fear of success.
Now, the latter might surprise you, but maybe less so after having heard my conversation with Aviaq Johnston just now. Fear of success can appear on the surface as very similar to lack of confidence in our writing.
We might simply avoid submitting the work to that Lit mag or that contest because we fear both the potential for rejection and the potential for all the attention and praise that could come from our success.
So we put it off. Procrastination kicks in, or my least favorite perfectionism, where our standards for our writing are so unachievable, so high, that we might even quit projects, or self-sabotage.
Do you, like me, recognize any of these reactions as a fear of success for your writing—instead of the more obvious fear of failure?
Do you not only worry about hearing no to a submission, but maybe a bit of hope of hearing yes? Maybe you anticipate how others, family, friends, other writers, will see you if you reach a milestone in your work.
I, personally, had not too dissimilar an experience when I won a contest for book publication. I’ve told this story before in my community, and maybe a little bit in my other podcast, the currently neglected “Writing Grief” podcast.
But reaching my life-long goal of becoming an author wasn’t everything I’d hoped. In part, this was because I did win a contest, as I said that a lot of my writing peers entered. It was a contest hosted in a community of writers, which I already belonged. And even some of the people reading the manuscripts were people I knew, although they were required to pass on manuscripts if they knew the author. That’s how I knew is I heard from one person he said, oh, I didn’t read your manuscript, but I knew it was yours, even though the submission wasn’t labeled. Because they had been workshopping with me. So I worried —possibly rightly in some cases—about how other writers I knew who entered the contest felt about my win.
When it came to do a mini-book tour for Galaxy, my collection of poems, unlike Aviaq Johnston, I don’t mind doing readings and sharing my work. That probably doesn’t surprise you as I’m here talk-talk-talking each week on my own podcast.
However, I definitely experienced fraudy feelings, akin to what Aviaq Johnston described, and big energy drains after attending events.
What can we do to live with this and get around our fear of success?
In my experience, and hearing from Aviaq Johnston, I think self-knowledge is vital to this. She really set firm boundaries on her writing and got really clear on what she wanted from her writing life. Which was, in her case, a lot of balance with other aspects of her life.
In your case, of course, this might be different, depending on where you come from—a tiny town of 2,000 people, a marginalized population—or maybe you’re hailing from a big city or family, lost in the crowd.
How do we figure ourselves out enough to figure out what we need? I found for me, and the writers I work with, looking at our early experiences is a good start. How did our early experiences influence how we see our successes?
To illustrate, for me I was often embarrassed when I did well and when the spotlight hit me as a child. (Clearly I’ve worked at this and found the medium, hello audio, and people, hello lovely writer-humans I work with, that lets me shine without shrinking myself.)
The epiphanies I needed to have before I could get there, though, were to see how social connections were fragile in my past; I needed to avoid people getting jealous and so would hide my own light at times, deliberately doing badly on test at school, dropping out of a recital.
I hold that dear person I was, who wanted to make others feel better by dimming herself, in my heart today. But I also honor that person by showing up and shining as much as I can and in ways that feel fulfilling and expensive for me.
Another personal example that I’m sure is quite universal. I experienced early on and in my early work life especially many times when my ideas weren’t deemed good enough. But then…surprise, the same ideas said by a cis-gender man a little later, suddenly made them look brilliant. (By the way, they were brilliant when I said it the first time.)
I want to connect this light-stealing experience to what Aviaq Johnston said about Imposter Syndrome. I have come to think of Imposter Syndrome not as a feeling we have, and certainly not a medical condition as the language around it would suggest, but a condition imposed on us because of how we were and are devalued in society and our relationships. (See the dude stealing my ideas from before.)
So, I don’t want to minimize Aviaq Johnston’s experience, her description of feeling like an imposter. But my feeling is that we are made to feel like imposters, i.e. not good enough; it’s not us who is the problem when fraudy feelings about our writing come up, because that’s a feature not a bug in the systems that we live in.
This is an external problem that we have internalized.
As I say, knowing ourselves, knowing these things about ourselves feels key to unlocking the fear of success and going for what you want.
It’s just becoming aware of it can really help shift our thoughts; put them down, I recommend on paper, so you know what you’re up against and can see them in perspective.
Often when I do this myself, I find my fears very ridiculous and can laugh at them. But even when I don’t see the humor, I simply appreciate knowing why I respond the way I have in the past to both success and failure.
To facilitate this, I have created three journal prompts for you, dear writers. I hope you might carry these into your rumination today—your mulling-things-over time. Or maybe into your journal notebook for today.
The first question is,
What is your vision of an abundant writing life?
Maybe said differently;
What is your vision of an abundant writing life?
Maybe it’s not winning that award you think you need to win to be taken seriously. Maybe it’s not publishing in that specific journal. Maybe it’s simply connecting with that one reader who really needs to hear your words.
My second question for you is,
What are your greatest hopes and fears about your vision?
Now that you’ve created that vision of an abundant writing life,
What are your greatest hopes and fears?
What are the best and worst outcomes of achieving your vision?
If you reach that success,
What’s the best thing that could happen? What’s the worst thing that could happen?
How do you imagine you would respond to either of those?
The best and worst outcomes, how would you respond to those?
Then my last question is,
What practices can you bring into your life that would help you with this response?
If I was too quick with those questions, you can catch all the prompts up in the show notes for this episode at rachelthompson.co/podcast/82.
When it comes to the practices, by the way, Aviaq Johnston spoke about how she manages with self-care practices. So when you dig into that final question, I encourage you to really think about what will take care of your mind and body as you face any fears you have of success.
That might include simply taking the time to relax, and sleep—those are my personal priorities right now along with deep breathing practices. Focusing on my mental fitness and physical well-being helps me rise to the occasion when it comes to my writing life and my life-life.
Lately, one thing I have been meaning to go back to is a digital sabbath, a term that I really like. Meaning, taking a day entirely away from my phone and technology tools. I love, love the tools I use because they connect me to a BIG community of writers—That’s you as you’re a member of that community. But all of my courses and community programming are online, after all.
So clearly, I’m really enamored with the tools and the technology. But I also love the stillness of a day spent untethered by technology. So, I hope you will wish for me this week that I can find that digital sabbath moment of stillness, and I wish for you to find the answers that will help you prepare for success on your terms.
All of the books that we mentioned in my conversation with Aviaq Johnston and anything else of importance are linked in our show notes at rachelthompson.co/podcast/82. I say this every time, sometimes we miss things, so if you find something is missing, it happens, then just email me at mailto:email@example.com to ask for the resource.
Thank you for tuning in to a third episode on Room magazine Ghosts issue 46.3. The issue, as I mentioned at the top, is still available for order at roommagazine.com in both, digital and paper versions.
In our next episode, you’ll hear from Room Publisher, Nara Monteiro, our Book Reviews Editor, Micah Killjoy coming up, and more of the folks involved in the labor of love that is producing one single issue of one single literary magazine. (Again, I ask, is your mind blown considering the sheer number of folks who make one single issue of one lit mag?)
The Write, Publish, and Shine podcast is brought to you by me, Rachel Thompson. You can learn more about the work I do to help writers, write, publish, and shine at rachelthompson.co. When you’re there, you can sign up for my Writerly Love letters, sent every week and filled with support for your writing practice.
If this episode encouraged you to work out your fear of success/failure I would love to hear all about it. You can always email me at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
I encourage you to tell other luminous writers about this episode. Please do this by sending them to the podcast at rachelthompson.co/podcast or searching for Write, Publish, and Shine wherever they get their podcasts.
Thank you for listening—I encourage you to do things on your own terms.
Aviaq Johnston spoke to me from Iqaluit, Nunavut.
You may have heard me mention in previous episodes that I currently am a guest in the South Sinai, Egypt, which has been part of many land disputes, often violent. This means I am relatively near, though not very near, the heart wrenching situation in Gaza. I feel remiss not to state my horror at the pain and loss of Israeli and Palestinian families and what they are currently experiencing. In each episode, I also name the Indigenous Bedouin community in the specific region I am on right now, which is the el Muzzina Bedouin.