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COVID–19 Teacher Diary: Writing in the Time of Corona, with Vicki Grant & Kevin Sylvester

Welcome to the 49th Teachers COVID–19 Teacher Diary, a blog series that takes a look at how teachers are coping with the pandemic.

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Thank you for reading. If you’re an Ontario educator and would like to contribute to this series, please send us an email.

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This is the first pair in a series of eight interviews with a host of Forest of Reading authors interviewed by Erika MacNeil, Teacher-Librarian at Rogers PS in Newmarket, ON (York Region District School board).

I love running the Forest of Reading Program with my students, not only because it celebrates Canadian authors, but also because those same Canadian authors are so accessible and approachable. They truly love and appreciate their readers and are happy to share their creative process as much as we love reading their books.

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I met Vicki Grant when she came to my school for an author visit to help promote the Secrets series in 2015. We became friends across the distance when she returned home to Nova Scotia. She has been nominated for both Silver Birch and Red Maple awards, which she won in 2011 with Not Suitable for Family Viewing.

I met Kevin Sylvester at Harbourfront during the Festival of Trees one year while he was in between shows, talking, drawing and signing autographs all at once. Kevin is best known for his Neil Flambé series and more recently for the Almost Epic Squad. Watch Kevin's wordless picture book, Oak and Maple.

1. How does your writing process contribute to your mental well-being?

VG: I think because writing is what I do, it’s what makes my being well. As Freud said, love and work are the cornerstones of humanness. I am a maker, not a doer. I create in order to be me. I am happiest when I’m talking with other writers about writing. It’s not just about the actual writing, the mechanics of it, but the practice of thinking about your process, that mecca of creativity and flow.

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KS: I think writing is a part of how we ‘cope’ with a world that is filled with madness, injustice, sadness... but also happiness, joy, pleasure. Artists are people who think about the world, and then examine or even understand it, through the process of making art.

As a reader, I fall in love with authors who can help me articulate what I'm feeling or thinking about the world and my place in it. Their voice helps me find a voice for my own experience. As a writer, I try to do the same thing, for myself and for readers. Since I'm always thinking, I'm always driven to write about them as well. I want the reader to feel the injustice of the racist system in MINRS. Of course, I also want them to enjoy the thrill ride of the action, and maybe fall in love with the characters. Ditto for Neil Flambé. Come for the cooking, stay for the hidden history lessons and ethical dilemmas about what we consume.

My actual process is fairly disciplined, which also helps me stay grounded and busy. I worked for years as a CBC producer and announcer, so I'm now hard-wired to hit deadlines, and to write and draw all the time. I try to write as often as I can. I have notebooks all over the place, and often wake up at 1:00am with an idea. I have a hidden advantage which is that I also illustrate and I switch back and forth between them all the time. So if my writing has hit a block, I go draw for a while. And vice versa. Have I written a lot since the pandemic? Not really, but if I had some concrete deadlines you'd be darned sure I'd be writing furiously.

2. How has our current state of affairs impacted your writing?

VG: I’m in a bubble right now because when I’m meeting a deadline, I’m already self-isolating! We are so very fortunate: historically, worldwide pandemics have taken place under far worse circumstances. We must acknowledge that social distancing is not asking so much of us that we cannot survive. We have so much more at our disposal than those who have survived crises in the past. I’m humbled by how small my sacrifice has been during this pandemic. As a YA author, I must say I have become more aware of how the voices of our stories need to avoid the victim stance. We need to empower our young people by creating characters who make a difference in the world, no matter how small an impact they may have.

KS: I don't think it's affected the content of my ideas...yet. I'm always trying to write a fun story first, then I sneak in thoughts about issues. I'm surprised when I go back and look at my manuscripts because at first I think I'm writing, let's say, a picture book about a baby Kaiju monster and their mom... but I've inevitably told a story about the parental battle to find a balance between security and freedom, juxtaposed with a child's innate search for pushing boundaries and causing destruction. I can't help but write the second, but I've really only tried to write the first. That's how brains work. I may not see the effects of what we're going through now show up in my writing for a while, but I'm sure thoughts on isolation, sickness, danger and anxiety will find their way into future books.

I do find myself fighting the feeling that anything I write will not be ‘important’ enough in such a weird, new world. But the world is always weird and worrying for some reason or another. And one of the reasons I try to write the sort of books I do is to give some joy in a world of confusion. Don't we all strive to do that?

3. What advice would you give young readers who aspire to become writers, in terms of making use of the time we’ve now been given?

VG: The best way to come up with a good idea is to come up with a lot of ideas. Play, read...there is no magic, just do it, do it a lot, and often, and have fun! Use this gift of time we’ve been given and enjoy it.

KS: Read. If you are not a great reader you can't be a great writer. So, above all else, steal as much time as you can right now to immerse yourself in books. Then, write. And don't set a goal for what to write. Don't start with an idea that you will finish a novel, or a journal or anything concrete. Just keep a notebook with you at all times and jot down impressions or observations or words that you encounter that you fall in love with. What happens when you fall in love with one of those ideas is that you will be driven to write more, to explore the idea more... and the idea will decide if it's a short story or a novel.. or maybe just a noble start that fizzles. All stabs at making art move you forward, even if you don't realize it at the time.

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Erika MacNeil is a dancer by training and a teacher by trade. Mother of two teens and owner of two mutts, she is also the Librarian at Rogers PS in Newmarket, where she lives with her husband and children. She writes primarily flash fiction and poetry and has been published in a variety of media. She offers editing and content services, and is very happy to have been given the opportunity to contribute to 49th Teachers with a collection of interviews with some of her favourite Forest of Reading authors.

>> See all COVID–19 Crisis Teacher Diary posts

May 6, 2020
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