Where I Write

Where does Sharon Bala write? 'A place that cannot be photographed'

Canada Reads finalist Sharon Bala reveals where she writes — but it might not be what you're picturing.

Canada Reads finalist Sharon Bala reveals where she writes — but it might not be what you're picturing

Author Sharon Bala. (Courtesy of Sharon Bala)

Leading up to Canada Reads, CBC Arts is bringing you daily essays about where this year's authors write, starting with The Boat People author Sharon Bala.

There is a room in my house with blonde hardwood floors and a wide picture window.

Every night, the sun puts on a spectacular light show as it sets. One wall is lined with bookcases. Another is hung with crowded corkboards. I have a big desk and a chair on wheels, and sometimes when the wind is in a temper, thrashing the siding, the walls shudder and it feels like being on the prow of a storm-buffeted ship.

All the tools of my trade are here: highlighters, cue cards, hardcover spiral-bound notebooks, a good internet connection. A room of my own. But this is not where I write. Not really. Not only.

The truth is authors are always writing. Pen and paper are optional. On a hike along the East Coast Trail, I zone out to wrestle with my new novel, try to force two disparate storylines to fit together.

Where all authors write: inside our own heads, in the solitude of our imaginations, waking or sleeping, with pencil or the white glow of the computer. The where and the when and the tools are incidental.- Sharon Bala, author

At the mall, a child throws a tantrum and I watch surreptitiously, mentally revising a scene I had thought was perfect. And then I'm anxious.

What else have I gotten wrong? One morning, I wake up with an epiphany. The novel isn't gelling because I'm focused on the wrong character. Months of work out the window. Back to the drawing board.

The liminal space between dreams and consciousness is crucial. This is where much of the creative work is done.

It's 2 a.m. and I'm tossing and turning, overheated, tangled up and suffocating in the sheets. Wide awake, I mull over my new protagonist.

What this actually looks like: I'm in a room with wood panelling. It smells like turpentine and dust, stale body odour. There is my character, a small child in a dirty smock. I circle her, round and round, reviewing what little I know.

Her name is Livia or Helen and she is four and she's yet to say a word. Her mother fears she's a halfwit. The girl opens her mouth and her voice is high and small. (This is new! I step away, let the actors get on with their improv.) The girl says something. A couple of sentences in a jumble of Flemish, French, and Italian.

Her father is delighted. He picks her up, twirls her over his head. She glimpses the room in snatches: the blur of two boys out the window, her mother's scowl, the chequerboard pattern of the tiles on the floor. Her father's joy is infectious and the girl feels it in her gut, rising up. It spews in an explosion of vomit, breakfast spraying around the room.

Back in my bed, I thrum with adrenaline and relief. Here then is a new start.

Sharon Bala's novel The Boat People will be defended by Mozhdah Jamalzadah. (CBC)

I can show you my office or my favourite cafe (they have empanadas!) or the glassed-in room at the museum where I sometimes scribble, pausing to watch the ships in the harbour while grinding my teeth over the perennial, dreaded, question: what happens next?

But this is not a true picture of the place where I write. Where all authors write: inside our own heads, in the solitude of our imaginations, waking or sleeping, with pencil or the white glow of the computer. The where and the when and the tools are incidental.

We write in a place that cannot be photographed, where no one else can go.

About the Author

Sharon Bala

Sharon Bala’s best-selling debut novel, The Boat People, is a 2018 Canada Reads finalist. She won the 2017 Journey Prize and had a second story on the long-list. Sharon is a member of The Port Authority, a St. John’s writing group. Her short fiction has appeared in several Canadian publications including: Hazlitt, Grain, PRISM international, The Dalhousie Review, The New Quarterly, Room, Riddle Fence, and in a collection called Racket.

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