Welcome to the latest instalment of Breaking In, where I interview authors about their experiences breaking in as writers — how they did it, what it felt like to get there, and how it differed from what they were expecting.
Today I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to interview a creator whose work ranges across a breathtaking range of formats and media, Meghan Bell.
As she notes on her website, Meghan is a Vancouver-based editor, writer, graphic designer, and cartoonist, and the current publisher and graphic designer for Room Magazine, Canada’s oldest feminist literary journal. Her writing has appeared in over a dozen literary journals across Canada, including Joyland, Grain, The Puritan, Prairie Fire, and The New Quarterly. Meghan has worked in marketing, digital communications, and fundraising for multiple arts organizations in the Lower Mainland, including the Vancouver International Film Festival and Just For Laughs NorthWest. Meghan has two degrees from the University of Victoria, and is currently completing her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, where she is working on her first novel.
Meghan is widely published as an illustrator, poet and a writer of both non-fiction and prose. Her webcomic, Bell Curved, appears weekly at her website.
Her short story ‘Anhedonia’ will be published in the forthcoming anthology Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-One). So yes, this is one of my Breaking In interviews with a fellow contributor, and I’m clearly Not Entirely Unbiased.
[SGM] Welcome to the blog, Meghan! To begin, when did you feel like you’d broken in as a writer?
[MB] I don’t feel this way. When I was younger, I was convinced I’d feel like I’d broken in as a writer after a few acceptances of short work from literary magazines and/or anthologies. Then that happened, and I felt the same as I did before. I might feel like I’ve broken in once I’ve published a novel, but I doubt it. I think I’ll always feel like I’m breaking in, but I don’t know what it looks or feels like on the other side, or if there even is one. It’s an ongoing journey and the goal isn’t the destination, but to stubbornly stick to carving a path that works for me.
What was your path to breaking in? Did you have a strategy? Did it work, or did you end up getting there another way?
For publishing short work, I went a fairly ordinary route. I have a BA in Creative Writing, and am finishing an MFA now. I currently work as the publisher of a literary journal, and volunteered with the magazine for several years before it became my day job.
When I first tried sending work out to literary magazines, when I was about twenty-one, I was really insecure and discarded stories and poems after they received a single rejection. I stopped sending stuff out for a while and tried to work on my craft. I was volunteering at a literary magazine at the time and reading and editing slush-pile submissions taught me way more than any university course or program. When I started sending work out again, at twenty-six, I sent a short story to a handful of literary journals, and it was accepted without being rejected. It was silly to me then, and embarrassing now—because I know how literary magazines work and I know they reject good work all the time—but I really needed that confidence boost to keep sending work out. I didn’t receive another acceptance until nearly a year later, but at least I started steadily submitting work and believing in it after rejections.
Strategies? I supposed perseverance, simultaneous submissions so you don’t get too emotionally invested in any one, writing work that you would want to read (even if, or perhaps especially if, you can’t think of similar examples), and finding a writing schedule that works for you. I don’t write every day, and prefer to adjust my schedule so I have blocks of four or more hours to work on a project, even if that means I don’t write for three months—I have tremendous respect for people who are able to write every day, whether it’s because they have the free time and energy, or because they are superhumans who write in ten-minute bursts on their lunch breaks, in waiting rooms, or while taking public transit, but that just doesn’t work for me. I wish it did!
And following up on that, knowing what you do now, what would you do differently?
Oh, oh my god, I would have actually kept sending out all that work I wrote in my early twenties that I stopped believing in after one rejection. Three of those bloody pieces have since been accepted, it turns out they weren’t as terrible as I thought.
When I was in my undergrad, a fiction professor told me that I didn’t belong in a creative program after I told her I was interested in writing young adult and speculative fiction. I was about nineteen and after that, I started trying to write what I thought was more “literary” fiction, i.e. writing like hers. My work really suffered, and didn’t improve until a friend lent me her book and I realized I found her stories as boring as she had apparently found mine. I started experimenting again, and writing stories I thought I might like to read, and, yeah, they’re about a million times better. Now, whenever I want to explore heavier topics in my fiction, I often turn to speculation. I’ve explored parental neglect and narcissistic abuse through superheroes, sexual assault and trauma through time travel, and in my Tesseracts contribution, depression and mental illness through a global pandemic.
There will always be people who don’t enjoy your writing. If you’re unlucky, you will encounter this person as someone in a position of power over you early in your career and they will choose to push you to give up or write the way they do, instead of helping you improve your own work. Don’t let that person crush you. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that I didn’t need to listen to that particular opinion.
Now that you’ve broken in, is it like or unlike what you expected? How?
Haha, see my answer to question one!
What are you working on now?
A young adult novel about a teen hockey player who starts acting out—and lashing out—after her older sister dies in an accident.
How can people keep up with you online?
Thank you to Meghan for the interview! I look forward to reading her story in Nevertheless, even though as it happens my story in the anthology is also about the aftermath of a global pandemic and when I realized that I had a wee attack of writer anxiety and am now absolutely convinced that I’ll only ever be remembered as the author of the book’s Less Good Global Pandemic Aftermath Story.
Coming up next on the blog: More Breaking In stories from Nevertheless contributors. Next up, author Alison McBain!