How do you make it as a writer? Do it for love, not money — and other lessons from Jen Sookfong Lee
Instead of thinking of it as a traditional 'job,' the focus should be on creative fulfillment and purpose
I Fell Out of Love is a series of frank conversations with artists, untangling the messy relationships between art, passion, work and money. Do you need to love what you create? Does seeing art as work make things easier or harder? What follows is a conversation about making art: the philosophies, the realities — and the drive to keep doing it.
During our conversation, Jen Sookfong Lee catches herself sounding "like a teacher" — which doesn't seem unusual, considering the British Columbian novelist spends part of her time teaching at the Writers' Studio at Simon Fraser University. Still, teaching the craft is just one among many jobs she has that make up her identity as a writer. Sookfong Lee wears several literary hats, with her published work spanning genres from poetry to cultural journalism. Last month, a book she co-edited with writer Stacey May Fowles called Whatever Gets You Through: Twelve Survivors on Life After Sexual Assault was released by Greystone Books.
Sookfong Lee worked as a communications manager before she began her multifaceted career in writing. After she sold her first book, she left that job and began taking on freelance work and contracts, gradually completing bigger projects, like the novels that make up what she now calls her Chinatown trilogy (The End of East, The Better Mother and The Conjoined). Today, Sookfong Lee is also a single mother, and that role is integral to how she carves out time for her writing. She's open when asked about balancing creative pursuits and parenting, as well as the financial realities of her career.
Sookfong Lee says none of her students really ask her about the monetary aspects of writing anymore because no one is under the impression they can simply write full-time to sustain themselves. Instead of thinking of it as a traditional "job," the focus is on the work itself: the creative fulfillment and, most of all, the purpose behind it. She asserts that you ultimately have to believe your work is worth it and has meaning to make things happen as a writer — even if you need to trick yourself into thinking this in the first place.
Sarah MacDonald: I understand you have a background in social services and worked in the field for about seven years. When did you decide that you wanted to pursue writing? Was it always a means of creative fulfillment?
Jen Sookfong Lee: I was a communications manager, so it was somewhat related to writing. I left that full-time work, I think, in 2006. I had, at the time, sold my first novel. I also had a bit of financial cushion because, back then, I was married, so I had another income in the house. We thought we'd take a year or two to figure out how I was going to make some money, but then I was working on edits for The End of East and never really went back to a full-time job. Gradually — as your book comes out, and other writing comes out — you get offered other gigs, and it just started to build up into what I do now.
And has it always been a creative outlet? Yes and no [laughs]. Yes, [in that] my literary work, which for me is poetry, fiction and some forms of creative nonfiction, have always been a creative thing. It's a creative compulsion for sure. But the other writing that I do — sometimes I will do journalistic stuff or I'll write children's books on contract — that, to me, is a job. And I think, at this point, two thirds is creative output; one third is stuff I'm paid to do.
SM: All creative endeavours have their difficulties, but writing, I think, can be particularly gruelling. What parts of it do you enjoy as a means of creative expression?
JSL: I think I get so much joy out of restructuring or determining a structure of a book or an article or a poem, which is the nerdiest writer thing to say [laughs]. You don't get there until you've had one or two drafts done. You don't even know what material you have — there's nothing to organize, until you're in the first or second drafts. [Writing] those early drafts...I enjoy it, but it's like power-walking. I gotta get through it so I can get to the stuff that I really love, which is like a jigsaw puzzle. I dislike research with a great, great disdain. I do like promotion, to a point.
The part that I really like, actually, that brings me a lot of joy, is when I get to meet readers. Because I don't think you really know what people think about your books or how they connect to them unless you're having a face-to-face conversation. Social media brings readers a lot closer to writers than they were ever before, but I do think in person, face-to-face [meeting] is a really special interaction that only artists really ever get. We're the only ones who make work, put it out there and then people tend to have a really emotional engagement with it. And it's a really special, magical thing. And that's really great — that part of the promotion. I could never sit on, like, a Q&A panel ever again and be OK with that, but I'd still like to meet my readers.
SM: Do you remember the first time you felt that your art became work — as in something routine and not as creatively fulfilling?
JSL: Yeah, I guess it was when I was doing magazine writing and other communications-type writing before. But after I started getting published as a novelist or whatever...You know, the first time I was contracted to write a children's book, that felt like work because they really did ask for an actual proposal [and] an actual outline, and then I had to write the chapters and send it to them. So there was a lot of back and forth that certainly felt like work. I will also say the thing that always feels like work related to the writing is doing grant applications, like the Canada Council grants — any of the arts councils. That's a job nobody likes [laughs].
SM: This next question is a two-parter: do you think passion absolutely needs to be involved in your art? And if so, how do you maintain your passion for your writing?
JSL: OK, well, that first part: do I think passion is necessary? Yes, particularly if you're writing something that's going to take you years to finish. There is no way to sustain your interest in a project unless there's some kind of passion there. I also think that if the artist isn't emotionally connected to the work they're doing, it will read as distant to the audience as well, and they're not going to want to read it, view it or whatever it is they do with it.
There's always the challenge of keeping your energy alive for something — your enthusiasm alive for something. I think, for me, it's about being able to take breaks; that's really key. Because I also teach, there are always breaks in my schedule. I don't know who these artists are who can spend a year doing one thing — that's not a luxury I have. But it's good, though, because there are built-in breaks in my schedule all the time. Another one of the things that really fuels my passion is being able to talk to other writers. That certainly makes a big difference — having a community of people to sort of make you accountable. Once you start vocalizing what your project is about to other people, you see their enthusiasm for it and that helps you build it up.
I'll also say one key thing is research, even though I don't like it. It's one of those things that fires you up again. If you spend half a day researching something that's really, really interesting, and you think, "I really want to write this thing into my project," that helps, too.
The whole idea of committing another five years of my life to one book really scared me. But I do love writing, and I need to write. If I don't write, then I don't really know who I am.- Jen Sookfong Lee
SM: You write in a number of different formats, publishing journalistic pieces, cultural criticism and poetry in addition to your novels. You also recently worked on an anthology with Stacey May Fowles, which I'm really looking forward to reading. How does jumping between these diverse projects affect your work?
JSL: I wrote three novels in a relatively short period of time. They are kind of related — they're what I call my Chinatown trilogy. During those years, I didn't write anything else really... I wrote a few articles and stuff, but I didn't write or sustain any other genre for any amount of time. After I was done those three novels, I realized that novels are a lot of work [laughs]. But I really didn't want to write another novel. The whole idea of committing another five years of my life to one book really scared me. But I do love writing, and I need to write. If I don't write, then I don't really know who I am. So I went and started writing poetry for the first time in many years.
I think my primary genre will always be novels. I don't think that's going to change. But if I did take a 10-year break — which I hope I won't, but I might — between novels to do other things, it would [likely] help me figure out different things about fiction, also. One of my colleagues at the Writers' Studio said something so, so smart to me: "There's a difference between images and details." And this is just an example [of something] I learned from writing poetry...a detail is just a detail. It lands in your palm and doesn't really mean much. But an image is something that has been supported by the narrative — the lines leading up to it are leading the reader there. Therefore that image has more emotional impact.
That was so smart to me, and I realized that that was something you could totally apply to your fiction, to your novels. Anything that you include in your novel, whatever it is, has to be supported by the narrative — or else what is it? It's just a piece of dialogue or a secondary character or, you know, a setting that doesn't mean anything. And that's a waste of space.
SM: As a non-fiction writer, I can't imagine what it's like to create something out of thin air. I know it's not really out of thin air, because you're putting so much effort into it, but it seems like such a magical process to me.
JSL: The world-building thing is funny because I do write non-fiction, too...I think, you know, if you were writing a long-form feature on, I don't know, let's pick Gwyneth Paltrow, and she invited you to her home for an interview, you would spend a good couple paragraphs describing her home, right? The setting. So when you're writing fiction, it's not that different, because most writers only write settings they're familiar with, whether they've lived there or travelled there or whatever. Even if it's spec fiction, there are always elements of that brand new world that are grounded in what people know and what people have experienced. And I do think that the non-fiction setting and the fictional settings are not that different because you're always reading it through your eyes as the writer. The way you experience Gwyneth Paltrow's home is not going to be the way Gwyneth Paltrow experiences it, if that makes any sense.
SM: It does, and I think it's an important distinction to grasp.
JSL: I sounded like a teacher there, I'm sorry [laughs].
SM: No, that's really helpful! I do have some questions about your teaching, but I want to get to this first: In an interview you did around Gentleman of the Shade, you said that "centring your voice and believing its value is the trick we play on our brains to make creativity possible." And I'm wondering how you think this applies to writing as a career and a job.
JSL: I think you have to believe that what you say and how you say it is different and new — and that people want to or need to read it, or consume it in whatever way. And it is a trick because, for the most part, so much of what we do as individuals, in the grand scheme of things, is not really that important. But really believing in the significance of your voice and your project is something you have to do, whether it's true or not. Maybe it isn't. Maybe none of this even matters. Like, we can get really philosophical about it. Maybe it doesn't matter! But you have to believe it or else that project will never get done. And I think it's the same thing when you're trying to organize your work life to support the writing. Everything I do for money is to support the writing, and if I didn't believe the writing was necessary, then my life wouldn't be like this at all. So you really have to believe it — and it's a real exercise in self-worth with more than a couple shades of narcissism, I would say.
So much of what we do as individuals, in the grand scheme of things, is not really that important. But really believing in the significance of your voice and your project is something you have to do, whether it's true or not.- Jen Sookfong Lee
SM: Going back to you meeting your readers: if you have someone in mind who you are writing for specifically, does that give more power to the "why" behind what you're doing?
JSL: Yeah, and I think it's one of the many gifts of being a writer...When I was touring The Conjoined, which was my third novel, it was the first time that I had people come to my event. Prior to that, people would come to my events, but they didn't really know who I was, and I was still pretty young. But when I was touring The Conjoined, I had these young women, usually in their 20s, who would come to my events and tell me they read The End of East when they were in high school...One of them burst into tears when she met me, and I was like, "Why are you crying!? Do I have an Ativan in my purse? Please don't cry!"
She was a young Asian woman. In all of these cases they are women of colour, so when they tell me they read [my books] really young and have followed me all of my career...that feels really nice. Because I do think that whether my books touch on certain topics or not, race or gender or whatever marginalization — which they do, but even if they didn't — I think that my presence in the world in a writerly sense helps those young women see that they have a place, too. That a space can be made for them.
SM: Just that the representation is there.
JSL: That's a real brain trick, too — to even imagine that the possibility is there that you could do it. I think for people who come from marginalized communities, it can seem kind of impossible to do those things. If you have immigrant parents or parents that live in poverty, if no one in your family has ever gone to post-secondary school — all of those things can seem like impossible barriers to being a writer. So I think, yes, imagining those readers helps me believe that the writing is significant. Whether it is or isn't, I don't know.
SM: I wanted to touch on the fact that you also teach and take on other freelance jobs to support your more creative writing. I think that's a financial choice that people — when they aspire to some sort of creative job — don't really think about. Do you ever talk about this with your students? Are they inquisitive about these sorts of things?
JSL: It's not something people ask me about anymore, in the sense that I don't think any of my students expect to be full-time writers — to just write. I think all of them know that this negotiation is going to happen regardless. Like, it's been years since anyone has asked me about how to be a full-time writer. Nobody expects it, genuinely — especially now, you know? Advanced payments have gone down so much in the last 10, 15 years. I can't imagine who can write full time, unless you win a big book prize, like David Chariandy just won.
SM: Yeah, that was great.
JSL: It was, but it's not something you can plan for. It falls out of the sky.
SM: I'm thinking about people who plan for creativity in their lives — those who know they might not get financial fulfillment from writing, but who get creative fulfillment from it. And maybe they are practicing, going to these classes with you and writing what they want to write because they're doing it for themselves.
JSL: Oh, yes...Whether you have children or you don't, there are so many things that make you renegotiate that space on an ongoing basis. For example, one of my students is very close to her due date, and she's taking my course. She was like, "I think we need to have a meeting so you can give me some tips on how to finish this course with a newborn." There's always that sort of struggle. It causes a lot of anxiety if you don't get that creative space, but life happens...You may go very long periods without being able to have the time and space to write or to create. And that's OK, too, right? The longest period I've ever gone without writing was probably two years, or a year and a half, maybe, when my son was a baby. And I felt so guilty about it. But for heaven's sake, I wasn't sleeping. There wasn't much I could do.
I think that my presence in the world in a writerly sense helps those young women see that they have a place, too. That a space can be made for them.- Jen Sookfong Lee
SM: A few of the artists I interviewed for this I Fell Out of Love series happen to be parents as well. It seems to be a big part of the conversation in terms of where you put your time. It's a job, too. And for moms, in particular, there's still that idea of it not being a job when it is. One of my very good friends has a one-year-old, and she's currently trying to carve out creative space — you know, one day a week to write poetry while her child is at daycare. How are you balancing all of the different aspects of parenting and being an artist? It seems like juggling five very heavy balls.
JSL: Yep, and the idea of dropping one makes people panic, especially with children. You know, the great thing is that poetry is one of the few things you can write with a baby, because you can work on a poem and then stop and start again. With a novel, it's virtually impossible and you need a lot of support. There are so many writers who don't have children, and it's not a surprise to me, because both writing and children suck up time in a way you don't expect. So you might allocate three hours of your day to write, but all of those other hours with your child can encroach on your time in ways you'll never anticipate. Like if your child gets the flu or you have an emergency meeting at the school — there could be so many things that could eat up that time. I think, for parents who are writers, this is a huge challenge.
Like I said, life gets in the way sometimes, and there's not much you can do about it. It can almost be impossible to schedule consistent time, if you're a parent, to write, so you have to take the time when it happens. You almost have to be ready every minute of the day to be like, "Oh, my god, I have 35 minutes. Somebody came to pick up my kid for a playdate, and I have 35 minutes to write something." But that, in and of itself, is exhausting.
SM: Have you ever fallen out of love what you do? And if you have, how did you find your way back to it?
JSL: Oh, yeah. I mean, after The Better Mother came out, I didn't want to write anymore. I had a crisis. It was a sophomore novel. Sophomores are really tough on people — sophomore books in general. My son was little...he was a baby. I toured that book when he was like, just over one, maybe? And I had just finished revisions when he was a newborn, and that was a terrible hellscape. I didn't want to write anymore after that, and that was when I had a year and a half of not writing. The Better Mother didn't sell very well and I didn't...I had really hoped for a lot for that novel. Of all of my books, it's the most classically structured novel. It has all of those elements people say they want. When it didn't do well, it felt like all of this learning, all of this work I did — what was it for? So it was a crisis of identity and vocation. And I didn't want to write, so I didn't. I didn't know if I'd write again.
But then as my son got a bit older and his naps were more regular, I found myself writing again. And I was like, "Oh, there it is." I was writing The Conjoined. I remember thinking, "This novel might not go anywhere, and maybe it won't sell, but this is the novel I want to write. I'm not following any of your dumb rules." And it was actually letting go of all of that stuff that I thought I needed to do that really freed me up. The End of East — bless its heart, I love that book — doesn't have a plot. That was one thing people were really upset about, or somewhat upset about. And then with The Better Mother, I went plot first, did all the things you were supposed to do with character and dialogue, and it didn't sell well.
So when I wrote The Conjoined, I didn't listen to those rules anymore. I was going to write what I wanted to write. And that really, really helped — letting go and forgetting that anyone was going to read it. Who cares? I mean, I say that now...but when you get to a certain point in revisions or draft three, then you have to start thinking about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.