There are three anecdotes I retell often.
In my last year of undergrad, I attended one of my first writer panels as a student of a summer creative writing program. Four authors took the stage and spoke to an auditorium of emerging writers about what went into their creative processes. The first three authors either waxed poetic about the muse or detailed rigorous writing regimens that ensured productivity. The last one bluntly said, “I actually hate writing.” I was shocked. I didn’t know you could say that out loud. Immediately, the auditorium erupted into applause. The writer then clarified by stating that 99 per cent of the time, writing was a grueling and horrible process for her but she simply didn’t know how to stop doing it. Cheers then mingled in with the applause.
Not too long after when I was in my first year of grad school as a Master of Fine Arts student, a guest author was also asked to divulge his writing process to us. He explained that while he knew authors who were very organized and made sure to write at least one page a day, he didn’t think writing was always necessary to the writing process. If he didn’t feel like writing or plotting out arcs, he would simply do research for his novel or read a book that would inspire him.
I had the pleasure of introducing Antiguan-American author Jamaica Kincaid for a lecture series in my last year of grad school. During the Q&A portion of the evening, an attendee asked her to speak specifically to her use of certain words, if there was some kind of process behind her choices, to which she replied, “I just liked the way it sounded so I used it.”
I thought of these three moments when I decided to accept Western’s invitation to be the 2021-22 writer-in-residence (WiR), as they were distinct in my mind as moments where I felt less alone in my journey as a ‘serious’ writer. It wouldn’t be exactly right to say I felt validation but I felt understood and then relieved that these professional authors approached their writing the way that I did. At the time, my experience had been that those kinds of answers weren’t conventional or commonly heard ones, and so, speaking with or listening to established and emerging writers alike exacerbated my already deeply-felt imposter syndrome.
As the WiR, I want to do what I can to support writers in feeling confident in themselves as writers. I have found that so much of writing can be doubt and insecurity, and it’s my goal to be honest about that but to also push past it to have frank conversations about what’s on the page — such as speaking to specific questions a writer may have about their particular piece. And sometimes talking about what’s off the page, such as discussions of writer’s block or how to get motivated or experiences in publishing. Essentially, I want to support writers in feeling good and informed about writing and in taking themselves seriously as creatives.
Working on my novel in this capacity is an exciting prospect because learning from discussions and other people’s perspectives and being a part of a community will only bolster my imagination and inspiration.
It has certainly been a journey from being a student of creative writing to a writer-in-residence of such a longstanding program, and I intend to make the most of it.
Zalika Reid-Benta is a Toronto-based writer whose debut story collection, Frying Plantain, won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for Literary Fiction. She received an MFA in fiction from Columbia University, was a John Gardner Fiction Fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and is an alumnus of the Banff Centre Writing Studio.
Beginning Sept. 9, Reid-Benta will hold weekly office hours on Thursdays, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., to offer consultation and feedback to both experienced and novice creative writers from Western and the London community.
The writer-in-residence program is co-sponsored by the James A. and Marjorie Spenceley Fund, the department of English and writing studies, the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Indigenous Reads Initiative at Western and Huron University College.