In conversation with U of T instructor and author Sharon English on her career and creative writing

Sharon English is a Toronto-based author with two short story collections published, and is currently working on her first novel. In addition to her writing career, English spends her days teaching University of Toronto students the tricks of the trade in her Innis College creative writing seminar classes. The Varsity spoke with English to discuss her writing career and advice for aspiring authors.

Beginnings

During her time as an undergraduate student, English was certain that she wanted to be an academic. However, while pursuing her PhD at the University of British Columbia (UBC), she was struck with a realization: “My passion for academic work started to sputter, and then it dissolved. I realized that I belonged somewhere else — with the writers. I left graduate school, started writing fiction, and haven’t stopped.”

English’s first collection, Uncomfortably Numb, was a journey that lead her to her current career path.

“Uncomfortably Numb began as a terrible novel.” she says, “It took me a couple of years to realize that, and more time to discern that it could work as linked short stories. I grew to greatly admire the artistry of the short story form — I like being able to try out a story idea then let it go if it doesn’t work, without too much effort lost.”

Spaces and places

Currently working on her first novel, English contrasts the experience with writing short stories as “requiring [more] stamina.”

“It’s challenging to create the imaginative and emotional space needed to ‘hold’ a novel, while also working, living a life in the city, and so on.” English continues, “What I’ve really enjoyed, though, has been having that larger canvas to work with,” English explained, adding, “I can take characters much farther than I felt I could in a story, and similarly extend and layer the themes and images with greater complexity. That part’s great.

English’s first year Innis One seminar course, creative writing and the natural city, is all about the importance of the space that surrounds us and how intersecting spaces can change the way we think about ourselves and our lives. As such, it comes as no surprise that English’s writing is greatly influenced by the places she has lived and visited throughout her life.

“I tend to sense stories in places, to understand people fundamentally in terms of how they relate to where they are,” she explains.

Conquering writers block

In addition to teaching various seminar courses, English has been at the Innis Writing Centre since 2000.
Writer’s block is something most people experience during their time at university —English recommends Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott when tackling the issue.

“Lamott gives excellent advice on letting go of perfectionism by understanding the different stages of the writing process. Block usually occurs at the beginning state, when one is too critical of the early draft, not realizing that nobody writes really well without rewriting,” she says.

English also mentions another key concern — too much pressure.

“Block also occurs when too much has come to be at stake for the project: grades, school pressure, work overload — even one’s identity,” she explains.

English suggests getting other people to look over your work to combat this sense of insecurity: “Often a person outside of your turmoil can shed light on how to approach the project.”

Advice for new writers

For aspiring writers, English has two major pieces of advice; firstly, not to rely on traditional publication.
“Be creative about it, so you don’t rely on the blessing of a publishing house. Start your own press, magazine, [or] group. There are many ways to share what you have to offer,” she explains.

Secondly, English advises writers to have a close, encouraging circle of friends to provide a strong support system.

“Have some comrades in your life who love that you write, who think it’s fascinating and soul-nourishing and wonderful, who therefore always encourage you to keep writing,” she says. “The pressure to be pragmatic and dedicate your time completely to a paycheque and other responsibilities will only grow. So have people around you who love that you write, who tell you that you must keep doing it.”

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