Wendy Phillips stops by Douglas’ Coquitlam campus
By Angela Espinoza, Arts Editor
This Friday, February 22, Governor General’s Award-winning writer Wendy Phillips will be stopping by the Coquitlam campus to talk a little about her career and a lot about what it means to be a writer. Phillips will be in room B2120, and the event will be taking place at 12:30, perfect timing if you’re in-between classes that day! In anticipation of her stopping by, Phillips spoke to us about her life thus far, giving us an insight of what to expect upon her visit.
“I am from Kamloops, BC, and grew up one of four daughters of a high school teacher and a voice teacher,” Phillips starts. “I learned to love reading early and always knew I wanted to write. I did my first degree in Journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa, and then volunteered with World University Services Canada as a teacher in Lesotho, Southern Africa, during the time of apartheid in neighbouring South Africa. I spent more than five years there, teaching, writing, and for a year working as a researcher and writer for Zimbabwe Publishing House in the heady early days of independence. I met my husband there (a fellow Canadian volunteer) and we eventually returned to Canada, settling on the West Coast.
“I took my teacher training at SFU and have taught in the Richmond school district since 1993.” Then came Fishtailing: “Fishtailing was written as a thesis for the Master of Arts in Children’s Literature at UBC. It was published by Coteau Books in 2010 and received the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children (Text) in 2010.”
Fishtailing tells the story of four teens struggling with their lives. The book changes the perspective of the character each chapter, and includes poetry to define the four characters. But before that came a number of pivotal moments in Phillips’ life that led her down the road of creative writing as a career.
“My parents always told us stories from their childhood and I always had the feeling that a place didn’t really exist unless a story was woven around it. Stories were how I made sense of the world. I was an avid reader from a young age and I used to hike into the hills behind my house in Kamloops to write stories that did whatever I wanted.
“In the early days, it was a combination of imagination and control, I suppose. Reading other people’s stories helped me understand the world—history, geography, psychology, morality, and the human condition. I would lose myself in them, and the reading experience sometimes seemed more real than the living experience.
“As I grew older and more adept at using words, I appreciated the power of language to move us, enlighten us, and transform us as human beings. It seemed to me the ultimate power, the ultimate beauty. How could I not want to write?
“I’ve been a journalist, an English teacher, a librarian, and an editor: all jobs that involve writing and reading. I find them very satisfying, but for many years they were so absorbing that I stopped serious writing on my own. It seemed a little self-indulgent when I had a career and a family and very little free time. I wrote with my students, but saw my writing as a means of personal satisfaction, not something I could do professionally.
“My class in Writing for Children at UBC changed a lot of that. It helped me complete my projects, and the class and the instructor, Alison Acheson, gave me the encouragement I needed to send my thesis out for publication (it was accepted by the second publisher I sent it to). Since then, and especially since the Governor General’s award, I’ve been taking writing more seriously. I’ve spoken at writing festivals (Shuswap Writers’ Festival, the White Pine Awards in Toronto, Kaleidoscope Children’s Literature Conference) and at high schools and universities. It feels a little strange to be on the other side of the podium, but it’s something I love doing. It makes me feel a responsibility towards my writing, too, that keeps me going.”
Phillips describes the urge, or rather the need, to write in such a way that it’s very clear writing was in her blood. But we all don’t get that urge naturally, or at least not right away. So, wrapping up the interview, Phillips leaves behind some tips for students who are thinking of following the path of creative writing.
“My first advice would be to read, read, read, especially in the genre in which you want to write. It’s the only way to distill the language into your brain and to make it yours at the subconscious level.
“Secondly, keep writing. Most of the stuff we write isn’t great, but we have to write it down to get to the good stuff. Schedule a regular time to write, and stick to it. The old adage—that success is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration—is very applicable to writing.
“Carry a notebook (or a phone or a tablet). If you are struck by an idea or an image or a character, take a moment to get it down. Writers often don’t have more ideas than people who aren’t writers; they just don’t let them slip away.
“Join a group of writers or readers who will take your work seriously and give you feedback from a new perspective. Sharing your work makes you look at it from a distance. Sometimes you get so deeply into your own story you can’t see it from the outside. If you want others to see what you see, you need to make it work for them, too.
“Lastly, I would suggest that you have confidence in yourself, and a thick skin. It’s not easy to get published and you’re going to face rejection, but the world is hungry for new voices and the next one just might be yours.”