*This article was published by Open Book during my writer-in-residence appointment.
It’s late October and I’m writing this on a cold, rainy day after learning my friend, the writer Sylvia Fraser, has passed away.
Such profoundly sad news.
Author Sylvia Fraser.
Sylvia was three decades older than me and more alive than almost anyone I knew. She backpacked alone around India for three months in her sixties. She took ayahuasca (a plant-based psychedelic) in the Amazonian jungle. She demonstrated on the front lines for animal rights.
She lived fiercely, with immense determination, curiosity and style.
In addition to being an accomplished and award-winning journalist of countless magazine articles, Sylvia was the author of eleven books – novels and non-fiction – including the well-known My Father’s House: A Memoir of Incest and of Healing (the first Canadian writer to break the taboo of writing on that topic). She was also a very active ghost-writer.
In short, Sylvia was a working writer. She perfected her craft; worked diligently and published consistently, was an active member of the writing community including founding member of The Writers Union of Canada and board member of the Writers Trust.
When my first novel came out last fall, Sylvia was generous with support and advice. But it wasn’t until I’d finished a draft of my second one and was working on additional writing projects, that she considered me a writer, versus someone who had written a book.
‘A writer is someone who writes’ is a phrase one trips over almost daily on social media. It’s not a sentiment I disagree with, but like most truisms, it’s shallow in meaning. Because to have a writing lifeisn’t about shots of your laptop in exotic locations (though I do that, too, see below!), it’s about committing yourself substantially to both the creative act and to the business of publishing.
Molyvos, on the Greek island of Lesvos.
If there were ever a time period when writers wrote and their agents/publishers/publicists took care of everything else, that time is long gone. Publishers will tell you even the most artiste of authors obsess about their sales numbers. They check Book Manager to view the sales demand in indie bookstores; compare their Amazon ranking almost daily; scan the bestseller charts, or best-of lists, to see if they’ve made the cut.
Having a writing life is not a function of publishing credits, although I’d argue the goal of publishing (whether traditional, self or hybrid) is an important element. Writing to be read, versus seeking self-expression through narrative, seem to me to be two very different things.