As an actor, Tanis Rideout was used to rejection. It came with the professional territory, and to some degree, it was expected and accepted. But the charm of acting eventually wore off for the Canadian author, who trained, performed and even had a talent agent in Toronto at one time.
“A lot of people get one ‘no,’ get hurt, and it’s not worth it for them. In acting, it wasn’t worth it for me; in writing, it was. I could see through the ‘no,’” said Rideout, Western’s 2015-16 Writer-in-Residence.
“I didn’t want it nearly enough to put up with the stuff that comes with being an actor. The lovely thing about writing is, it’s just you. If you want to be an actor, people have to cast you in things. But writing you can do on your own, for a long time, before you have to show people,” she said.
After reading Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion for a Canadian Literature course at Queen’s University, Rideout was gripped by a desire to create something.
“I remember having this very visceral understanding, for the first time, that somebody had written this book I was reading. There was another person on the other end of it, they were Canadian, they don’t live far away, and they were alive. And I thought, ‘Maybe I’d like to try that,’” she explained.
She started writing slowly, dabbled with poetry for a bit. She applied to a writing class while still at Queen’s but was turned away. This time, the rejection wasn’t terminal. Rideout reached out to the professor, asking how she could make her writing better, and because she was willing to take criticism, she was invited into the class.
“I sent stuff out, got zillions of rejection letters – far more ‘no’ than ‘yeses.’ I slowly got better, took more classes, and a zillion years later, it feels like I finally put a novel out,” Rideout said of her 2012 novel Above All Things. The novel is a work of historical fact and imaginative fiction which blends the story of George Mallory’s ill-fated 1924 attempt to conquer Mount Everest, with that of a single day in the life of his wife as she waits for news of his return.
“I feel like I was the poster child for sticking to it and not taking ‘no’ for an answer,” Rideout said.
It’s this tenacity she hopes to impart on students and community members in London who aspire to write, she noted. In creative jobs, it’s about relentless forward progress, a process that is informed and inspired by the work of others, characters, questions and ideas that won’t leave you alone, explained Rideout.
“It’s whatever I can’t quite shake. I’m a slow writer – so it has to be something I’m obsessive about and want to spend four five years with,” she added.
“I tend to start out writing by working through questions I don’t get. At various times, I love and hate all parts of the process. Whatever part I’m in at the time, I hate. The magic happens in the editing, and starting to see how things fit together,” Rideout continued.
Rideout has also published a full-length book of poetry, Delineation, exploring the lives and loves of comic book super-heroines.
In 2005, she joined Sarah Harmer to read a commissioned poem on Harmer’s I Love the Escarpment Tour, drawing attention to damage being done to the Niagara Escarpment by ongoing quarrying. The following year, Rideout was named the poet laureate of Lake Ontario and she toured with the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie, drawing attention to environmental justice issues on the lake.
Her poetry and fiction have appeared in numerous quarterlies and magazines and received grants from local and national arts councils.
As she begins her residency this week, Rideout is excited to meet with writers in the London and Western community, and looks forward to sharing stories, ideas and feedback.
She holds office hours on campus from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays through the fall in the Arts & Humanities Building, room 2G28M. Winter hours will be announced later. To make an appointment, contact Vivian Foglton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 519-661-3403.
The Writer-in-Residence program is funded by the James A. and Marjorie Spencely Fund and is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and hosted in Western’s Department of English and Writing Studies. Additional funding from the London Public Library and from the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research will also support Rideout’s residency.
* * *
Joining Rideout this year as Western’s Student Writer-in-Residence is Helen Ngo, a fourth-year Mathematics student pursuing a certificate in Writing. The London native has always been drawn to the written word, and can’t remember when she first started jotting things down.
“I’ve always been interested in writing. I grew up writing little stories in my journal, about animals and stuff. I think I always kind of dabbled,” she said.
“I’ve kept a daily journal since I was 7 years old, and have found it to be an invaluable source for inspiration – and laughing at yourself. I would recommend it to anyone,” Ngo noted.
At one time, she imagined a career as a creative writer. Later, she wanted to be a journalist. She worked as an editor of her student paper in high school and writing just kind of stuck with her. She loved math but didn’t want to abandon writing when she started university, Ngo added.
Blending math and the written word means expressing humanity through both quantitative data and storytelling, she explained. Math and writing are both forms of art – both search for truth and beauty, taking different roads to the same destination.
Ngo’s work is inspired by the everyday, she said, and comes out of conversations, people, snippets she overhears in coffee shops. It features themes from her latest struggle with abstract algebra, urban adventuring, and too many evenings spent driving around past midnight.
“I’m very much a storyteller and I like to get inside people’s heads and think about how I could get their perspective,” she said.
Ngo received the Judge’s Choice category award for the Alfred Poynt Poetry Competition, and her prose and poetry has been published in Premier, Nom de Plume, Symposium and The Semi-Colon.
She is excited to work with the talented arts community at Western, and hopes to unite students from a wide variety of academic disciplines to express themselves and showcase their talent through creative writing opportunities around campus and the greater London community.
Ngo holds office hours from 3:30-4:30 Tuesdays in the Arts & Humanities Building, room 2G28M.
The Student Writer-in-Residence program is the first of its kind in North America. It was developed in 2013 by the University Students’ Council and the Department of English and Writing Studies. The mandate of the program is to provide support for an accomplished undergraduate writer while allowing other students to benefit from the writer’s creativity, expertise, and organizational skills.
* * *
Arts & Humanities invites you to celebrate the art of creative writing with an afternoon of literary readings from Tanis Rideout, Western’s current Writer-in-Residence; Helen Ngo, Western Student Writer-in-Residence; and others from 1:30-3:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26, in the International and Graduate Affairs Building, Atrium.