How I Wrote It

Why writing is political for essayist Sarah de Leeuw

The winner of the 2009 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize discusses the creative process behind her new essay collection, Where It Hurts.
Sarah de Leeuw is the author of Where It Hurts, a collection of personal essays. (NeWest Press)

Sarah de Leeuw, a writer and academic researcher, melds social criticism with literary nonfiction in Where It Hurts, a collection of personal essays that reflects on landscape and our connection to it. Where It Hurts is a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction.

De Leeuw won the 2009 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize. Below, she describes how Where It Hurts came together.

Examining your ideas in the third person

"I am a fairly avowed essayist and I keep very extensive journals. I keep track of words and ideas in these sketchbooks. Often I'm captured by an event or a moment or a set of sounds. I'm quite drawn to the way things work together.

"When I look back on my sketchbooks, I am often interested — in a disembodied, disinvested way — in what the sketchbooks represent. It's as though I'm looking at somebody else's work and thinking, 'Oh that's interesting. I can see what she's done there.' It's like a third person reflection on my own work. Then I collect things that fit well together. From out of those events, moments, collection of images and very skeletal literary descriptions, I start working on essays."

Writing with purpose

"I confess that a lot of my writing is produced with a capital 'P' political intent. I hope that doesn't sublimate the creative value of it, but, very bluntly, the injustices of the world upset me. They've always upset me. It upsets me that for decades and decades Indigenous women have been murdered, stolen and gone missing on sections of Highway 16. Tackling that issue is, in my mind, a capital 'P' political issue. The essays that I write, the work that I hope they do in the world, illuminate those injustices. I hope they motivate people to think about landscapes and people and places and geographies that I think are too often overlooked."

Spinning garbage into gold

"I was talking with my hosts in Terrace, B.C., about one of the essays in the book. I told them it was garbage, literally garbage, for three years. It sat in some corner of my screen. I occasionally puddled away on it, until I found the central binding agent that made it a good essay. But I had to write it in the garbage form in order for it to sit there for me to improve upon later. As a writer, you have to just write. If we are too precious about the time and the space around which we write, I don't think we'll write.

"Sometimes I wish that there was this beautiful, luxurious embrace of space and time for writing. But there isn't. I write everywhere. I write anywhere. I write anything that demands my attention at any given time."

Sarah de Leeuw's comments have been edited and condensed.

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