Randy has trouble looking me in the eye. He asks if I’m okay, if I want him to pray.
Father, father, father.
I can’t really listen, but I say amen.
I have waited a long time to share this book. Its lifespan is 7 years from conception to completion, and one thing is certain: this book changed my life.
Most of the time when someone says this, they mean that they have discovered a book, read it and it has transformed the way they look at the world or themselves or both. When I say that this book changed my life, I mean that I wrote this book and the process it took me on afterwards created a turning point—a fork in the road. A before and an after.
During the summer of the year I turned 20, I hadn’t written anything. But one day in the middle of August, I woke up and it was there—a new story.
I recently heard a musician describe his process of song-writing. He said it was like a door opens in his mind and then the words and rhythms spill out. He said you can sit down and write a song, or you can wait until the door opens and write a song.
This is how it feels with me.
“If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all”, John Keats wrote in a letter once. However, I always keep in mind that before that sentence appears, this one comes: “it is easier to think what poetry should be than to write it”.
That summer, I wrote a lot of words. A lot , a lot. But, none of it was really that good; I was never going to show it to anyone.
I finished it and shelved it and carried on through other doors whenever they opened. Probably a year later, the old book started to call to me; knocking and knocking. Eventually, I opened it and went through it again. I thought, well this isn’t that bad but it isn’t that great.
The story was set in Alaska and starred a young woman whose parents had been killed in bush plane accident. Firstly, I decided that I had to bring it closer to home if I was going to give this story its legs. I’m from Canada, so my first instinct was to bring the location down to British Columbia. Check. Then, while I was talking to my mother at the kitchen counter, I said, “I can’t kill her parents.”
Because, A. I don’t know what that’s like, and B. everyone always kills the parents; it’s too easy.
“I could injury the parents—paralyze! I could make the dad paralyzed…But I don’t know anything about that either.”
My mum simply stared at me.
It was a light bulb moment.
In 2003, when I was 11 years old, my father suffered a spinal-cord stroke and was permanently paralyzed.
Some people probably assume that children who experience trauma use self-expression as a way to escape their hard reality. I don’t think that’s what I did. I began writing for fun before Dad’s stroke. Writing has always been very emotionally challenging to me. I did not begin to write or continue to write to escape; I write because I have to. Those doors, remember, they are not easily closed.
With renewed motive, I went back into my story and fleshed it out until it was a hefty 150,000 words. I mapped out a sequel and wrote 10,000 words of it (again, this isn’t normal; it was the first time I wrote like that and it hasn’t happened to me since). Then I was left with one question that always beckons at the end of every story: is it any good?
In December 2013, I was reading our local newspaper—something I do not do—and saw an article about our public library hosting a writer-in-residence. She was going to be leading workshops for 6 months starting in January. She was also receiving manuscript submissions—full, partial, anything a local writer needed feedback on. I gathered courage and sent an email with the first chapter of my book. A few weeks later, I received a reply saying she wanted to meet me.
January 25th 2014 was going to be the day and I was terrified. I do not remember being so nervous for anything. I didn’t know what to expect. No one had read my stories beside my family. This woman was a writing professor; an award-winning published author. But I had to know–was I good enough? I decided that this meeting was going to determine my next step: keep going or change paths. But on the Friday night before our scheduled appointment, my dad had to be rushed to the hospital at one AM.
We didn’t know what was wrong when we called 911. He looked as if he was having a another stroke. But the doctors discovered it was a pulmonary embolism; a blood clot in his lungs, and I remember thinking I thought he was going to die.
But he didn’t.
My mum told me the paramedics resuscitated him twice in the ambulance, while my brother and I prayed so fiercely and so confidently in our living room—this was not the end. At four o’clock in the morning in the empty waiting room outside the Intensive Care Unit, I emailed the writer-in-residence from my phone to say I couldn’t make it to our meeting. She replied late in the morning and said we could reschedule.
My family spent the next four days in the ICU family lounge, while Dad was intubated and doctors did more tests. My new meeting was schedule for February 1st and I couldn’t get myself to feel nervous if I tried. Life and death situations violently shove things into perspective. I laughed about it as my brother drove me downtown; Dad had survived. My family rallied. Faith remained.
I arrived 15 minutes early to my 11 AM Saturday morning meeting at the downtown branch of our local library. I told the librarian why I had come and she told me where to go. I climbed the stairs she directed me to and sat down on a small couch in a very bare hallway near an open office door.
Then I heard, “Emily?”
The woman was tall and had a nice voice. I rose from the couch and stood in the office doorway while she shook my hand and asked about my father. I told her the shortest version of the emergency and ended with the good news, “He’s going to be alright.”
With a genuine look of relief, she told me to have a seat.
She resumed her seat behind a large writing desk and, while slipping off her glasses, she said, “Well. I hope someone’s told you you’re a writer.”
Smiling was natural and very hard to stop.
I said, “No, they haven’t, but thank you.”
The rest of our hour and a half meeting was an out-of-body experience. She used words like “once in a blue moon” and “never have I ever”. I couldn’t believe what was happening. She confirmed it for me. I hadn’t dreamed all my dreams for nothing.
Yet, even after she read through the entire novel, I put it away again. I wrote new books and new stories, fueled by remembering that I knew how to write a book. Because there are moments when your fingers are flying on the keyboard and those blank white, intimidating pages are surrendering to sentence after sentence, and you think: what in the world am I doing? Where are these stories coming from? And you battle with depressing thoughts of comparison and failure. What I have realized is that never trying to slay those empty pages would be the only failure.
In 2016, I went back through that old, familiar door that would become KITTWORTH, and carved out this book from what seemed like ancient marble, so dense and so rough. It’s just under 55, 000 words now. I published Meet Me Back Here, Alright in 2017 and then Reeds and Wicks in 2018, just babies compared to Kittworth.