When I think about teachers as gatekeepers, I think deeply about privilege and what our access to information and knowledge looks like. I recall a lot of the opportunities that have been offered to me came from a teacher just paying attention. And so when I think of gatekeeping, um, at that smaller scale, it’s also the teacher needing to pay attention to that and to open the door and say, Hey, you, you can come into the space. It’s totally fine.
You’re listening to Parallel Careers, where writers who also teach, share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
My name is Chelene Knight, and I’m a writer, editor, entrepreneur, creative writing teacher, and a new literary agent. So I’m a creative writing teacher at the University of Toronto and I teach two poetry courses. I also have my own writer’s studio, Learn Writing Essentials, where I build self-paced courses. And I usually try to reach a variety of writers, but usually folks who are super new to writing.
I would say I started teaching out of a desire to create new ways to learn. So new ways to absorb information. I found that when I was in school, especially university-type courses, I wasn’t really holding a lot of the information. Like I was so worried about grades. So focused on putting out information that I thought the teachers wanted. That was a big barrier for me. So for me, creating my own course content meant that I could ask the students what they needed in order to not only thrive in a course, but I could ask them what they needed to begin to enjoy that idea of creation, to be able to, you know, find a different container for your learning.
So Learn Writing Essentials started from one course and it slowly started to grow, and bulge and balloon. I think the first thing folks will realize is that we build a lot of the material based on personal experience, which I think is one thing that really sets the courses apart is we–we cite our sources–but we say, here’s how I came across this really fantastic revision exercise. And here’s how it’s helped me. Now, I’m going to put this in the course plan and the student will be able to see how this particular resource came to be, but also how we apply it to our own writing. So there are, I believe in the Write Polish Publish course, there are actual examples of my ugly rough drafts.
If you can see a writer, who’s put out a couple of books and you’re welcomed into their world to see how those books came to be. That’s huge for a writer to see the mess and to say, this is some dirty laundry, but I can see how it came out of the dryer so crisp and clean and you hung it up, right? Like you want to see the mess. And so we focus a lot on the messiness of writing and why it’s okay and why it should be messy to begin with. So I think that’s one of the benefits of working with us at Learn Writing Essentials is your, your mess is welcomed in with open arms.
Excerpt from Dear Current Occupant
Dear current occupant—Neighbor, this is for your daughter,
When all else fails, build a fort. Take all the blankets, sheets, pillowcases, scarves, and curtains and drape them over kitchen chairs, desks, and tables. Take books—the heavy ones—and place them on the corners of the sheets. You need to be strategic about the placement. Always strategic. Consider the centre—you don’t want the middle caving down. You want to be able to stand up if you need to. You want to be able to hide if you need to. You want to be able to block out the light and the sound of your breathing if you need to. This isn’t the first time I’ve built my own place. When all else fails, build a fort.
So when I think about my writing and what it’s all about, I would say I’m very comfortable writing in hybrid forms. So anything that I write tends to take a unique structure, or it tends to scream for a particular container. One that I have to build myself.
Originally with Dear Current Occupant, it was entirely written in poetry. So all of it. There were no essays, no prose, no photos, no nothing. And you know, it was what it was. I wasn’t really happy with it. Um, but my editor, Renée Saklikar—I always talk about this. She said, “Why don’t you go to the place that scares you the most?” And for me at that point, it wasn’t about the content. It was about the shape. It was about me saying, okay, I’m going to add a little bit more than I had initially set out to do.
The photos being in the center of the book was really important.
I wanted that to be a kind of like a crack in the sidewalk, something that is there and you have to really pay attention to and look down and look through to see what you’re supposed to see there. When I also realized that I didn’t have to follow a traditional template, that was another eye opening occurrence for me because I struggled a lot with traditional essays. I struggled with, you know, traditional shapes. I thought, but my story needs to bend over here. Or my story needs to be blurry in this one section. Or I only want to give someone, you know, that pullback when you pull the curtains back and you can only see the leg of one table and somebody walking by. I only want to give the reader that piece. How do I do that? If I’m told I have to have this particular opening and this middle, that flows here, and then a conclusion like I can’t ever see my story fitting that way. When I zoom the lens out and think about storytelling in general, we’re all writing the same stories. We’re writing our childhoods. We’re writing family relationships. We’re writing female relationships. We’re doing all the same things, but what’s different is we’re thinking about the way a story unfolds. So knowing that revision was a possibility and was encouraged and that container and shape building was something that I could do, that’s when I decided, okay, I can write books. I can do that.
Excerpt from Dear Current Occupant
Dear Current Occupant—One-room apartment above the grocery store,
I wondered if the fruit felt too. Everyone picking and choosing and touching and smelling and pressing—looking for the best. Living here, I discovered the truth about how to eat a papaya.
Look for skin turning from green to yellow.
Parts may look bruised. Press your thumb into the flesh.
One to three days on your counter will do.
Scoop out and discard the black seeds from the centre.
Run your knife downward along the skin. Slowly.
The flesh will be soft.
You may not eat the skin.
I guess I’ll start with what or why I wanted to be a literary agent. And for me, one thing that I began to realize in the publishing industry is that it is very white and there are lots of articles that speak to this. And especially it being white in terms of a position of power. So someone who is in a decision-making seat, I was very interested in being in one of these seats or being a fly on the wall and just hearing the conversations.
So, you know, when a book is sold to an editor, that editor has to take that project and they have to sell it to a room full of people. So that room might include a CEO. It might include the publisher, a sales and marketing team, accountants, all kinds of people. This editor has to sell it to these people. Uh, so I was always curious, who’s in that room, what does it look like?
And how does someone like me get closer to that room? Maybe not in the room, but I want to have my hand on the doorknob at the very least. So for me being an agent is the hand on the door knob. So I get to put this manuscript, in this editor’s hand and say, listen, this is something you have to pay attention to, but also I have to help that person along and say, you know, when you’re in that room, you’re in that room, having that conversation, I’m trying to predict what will be said about this book. And because I’m not in that room, here’s a piece of advice or here’s, you know, a pocket or a community that I think, and the author thinks, this book might reach. And here’s how we can get there. So you take this information and you feed it to the room who might say no, we don’t see a spot for this book.
The business model for agenting, uh, is commission only. So you’re doing a ton of work, a ton of reading, nonstop meetings, uh, relationship building, networking. You put in a ton of work before you see any money at all. So the question you have to ask yourself is why the heck do you want to do this? And how do you then make it fit into your lifestyle? Uh, most agents have another job. And for some reason, nobody wants to talk about that. Nobody wants to admit that they have work that they do on the side to bring in a stream of income while they’re, of course, working with their authors. But I think that’s the dedication that the job requires and why it’s not for everybody. So when people are down on literary agents, “We don’t need them. What are they doing?”
I’m saying, please, we’re doing so much. Please just trust in the process.
One struggle that I had in terms of being an author, being an agent, and then a freelance editor is how do I create ethical boundaries around all of these different roles? So when I do freelance editing, a writer is paying me. They are giving me money to look at their manuscript. So I’m very, very careful about the boundary. And I say, if, if I work on your manuscript as an editor, the relationship has to end there. So you’ll have to make a decision. If you want me to edit your manuscript, I can never look at it as an agent. If you want me to read your manuscript as an agent, I can never look at it as an editor. So I make that very, very clear for folks so that they can pick a route. Like how, how would you best work with me as an agent or as an editor? You pick, and then we go from there.
But once you pick that’s it. And again, I’ve thought deeply about that and going into this, I don’t want to leave my hats behind.
One exercise that I offer petty much every student that I have is called Be the Observer. And it’s really simple, but what it does is it forces you to pay attention. It forces you to zero in on a particular moment. So what I’ll do is I’ll invite students to go to either a public place, whether that’s a park, a cafe, a diner, and you can go sit on a park bench somewhere or whatever it is, and just observe people and document everything you see. So you’re not worried about shape or structure. You don’t think about an essay or a poem. You’re just getting these observations down on the page. And what’s really interesting is that I think as writers, we are meant to see things that other people do not see.
We are meant to see the way someone moves their hands. We’re meant to see where someone’s eyes go when they’re speaking to a new person, but we never really slow down enough to document it. So when you have an exercise that focuses on just that, uh, it’s usually quite interesting to go back to and revisit that writing and look at it. Usually most of it is trash, but that was okay. There will be one phrase or one line that you end up taking out and either expanding or inserting into an existing project. And it’s a, it’s a, it’s an exercise that I use whenever I’m trying to slow a scene down and I want to document what’s happening in a space. I’ll do this exercise, but I’ll also do it if I have nothing to write about, or if I tell myself I have nothing to write about. That’s an excuse. Then I’ll just take my, be the observer or, you know, be the spy, whatever you want to call it and go out there into the world and just start documenting things.
So Junie is about a young, female Black artist living in Vancouver, uh, in Hogan’s Alley, which was, you know, an immigrant community, but highly populated with Black folks. She’s living in the 1930s, 1940s, you know, so there’s all kinds of world and political things happening around her. The whole book essentially is about Junie trying to find a spot to belong next to her mother. So it is a mother daughter relationship story, but it’s also, you know, a historical reclaiming where I want to give voice back to this particular neighborhood that existed and was home for so many people, but also a place that not a lot of people know about. One thing I’ve struggled with researching Hogan’s Alley is that there’s not a lot of information online, even in the Vancouver archives. I’m like digging and digging and unsure of if I’m finding the right stuff.
So a lot of this is just conversation. What we can find in the headlines is that this place was a slum. It was kind of like, you know, an eyesore. “We want to get rid of this neighborhood.” But in having conversations with folks and finding that this was like a place of love, like a place where there were so many Black-owned businesses, where folks knew each other, they helped each other.
Uh, one really cool, and the most amazing thing that I figured out was that my old high school vice principal, Randy Clark, his grandmother owned Vi’s chicken and steaks, which is the, was like the icon place to go eat in Hogan’s Alley. Uh, so he was entrenched in that community at this time that I’m writing about.
My novel is spliced with these mini prose poems. So essentially what I was trying to do with those mini sections was give a voice to the city.
So the place that I’m writing about Hogan’s alley in Vancouver no longer exists. So if I want to bring that voice back, I wanted to bring it back in the present tense. I used these really dense vignettes to do that work. So it kind of breaks up the narrative. And then I thought more about structure. And I thought about the idea of community, which is a really important theme in the book. So the end of the book, the last, you know, maybe 70 or 80 pages take the form or the shape of these little droplets. So just little droplets of information or scenes that on their own are powerful. But as a whole, when I think about the water that is pooling at the bottom of this, it then becomes this really interesting collaboration.
It’s been quite a process. I’ve not written a novel before.
So as I stumble and as I make mistakes, I document. So that’s been a really fun part of the writing process is document all of my stumbles so that I can then later talk to students about it and say, Hey, here’s what happened to me. Let’s together build a resource or a tip sheet.
So I like being a writer, being a teacher, but having a group of writers where I can say, Hey, I’m back in your shoes again, because I think that amplifies the fact that even though you’re a writer, you might be working on book 30, you’re still always going to be at the very beginning of that project when it starts. So you’re always going to be a new writer again. And that idea of relearning is what compels us, I think, to continue writing, because if you think you know everything, then why are you writing books? Like, I love that idea of almost having to go back to the starting line and say, okay, time to do that race again. Like that’s what makes this, uh, such a fun, a fun profession.
You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com
Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Chelene’s work, including her award-winning book Dear Current Occupant. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.
In this episode, Chelene Knight discusses creating new containers for learning and how she’s shaping CanLit as a writer, editor and agent:
0:41 | Her focus on creative sustainability through industry transparency, wellness and care, and process-building at The Forever Writers Club through Breathing Space Creative.
4:33 | Writing in hybrid forms and the development of Dear Current Occupant
8:00 | Becoming a literary agent and creating ethical boundaries
11:35 | Her exercise “Be the Observer” and how it can help overcome writer’s block
13:22 | Bringing the community of Hogan’s Alley to life on the page in her forthcoming novel Junie
CHELENE KNIGHT is the author of Braided Skin and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award, and long-listed for the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature. Her essays have appeared in multiple Canadian and American literary journals, plus the Globe and Mail, the Walrus, and the Toronto Star. Her work is anthologized in Making Room, Love Me True, Sustenance, The Summer Book, and Black Writers Matter, winner of the 2020 Saskatchewan Book Award.
Knight was the previous managing editor at Room magazine, and the previous festival director for the Growing Room Festival in Vancouver. She is now CEO of her own literary studio, Breathing Space Creative and she works as an associate literary agent with Transatlantic Agency. Chelene often gives talks about home, belonging and belief, inclusivity, and community building through authentic storytelling. Chelene teaches part time at the University of Toronto.