Jonina Kirton - credit: Ayelet Tsbari

Jonina Kirton

There is of course the non-writing work of being a writer.  Those who are not writers may think it is a glamorous leisurely profession but this is a career choice that involves very little glory and a lot of work.

My two-week break turned into a… slightly longer break. Don’t worry! I totally used my not-posting into an excuse to berate myself. Repeatedly. But now we’re back on track, although the posting schedule is going to slow down a bit, as my body has slowed down a bit.

I had the great pleasure of conversing with Jónína Kirton, a fellow Talon author. Jónína is a prairie born Métis/Icelandic poet and facilitator. She is a member of the SFU Writer’s Studio advisory board and the Room Magazine editorial board. Her first collection of poetry, page as bone ~ ink as blood (Talonbooks 2015), has been described as “restorative, intimate poetry, drawing down ancestral ideas into the current moment’s breath.” Jónína was the recipient of the 2016 Mayor’s Arts Award for Emerging Artist in the Literary Arts category. Look out for her next collection of poetry, An Honest Woman, out with Talonbooks next spring. She currently lives in Vancouver, the unceded territory of the Salish people.

Sachiko Murakami: So, Jónína. What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?

JONINA KIRTON: It is not the writing. I love the burn of words as they make their way through my fingertips to pens, to keyboards. The hard part is the many hours spent working with the rough drafts that present themselves. It can take me years to finish a poem. Contemplation is a big part of my process. I sit with things, sift through research and allow my mind to wander. Sometimes I worry about how much time I have left to do all that comes to my mind (ideas to pursue, titles of poems and books etc.) I am aware that I am playing catch up. I am a late bloomer; I just published my first collection of poetry, page as bone ~ ink as blood, a few months after I turned 60.

What I find most difficult about being a writer is that the job requirements are many and you constantly have to update skills and learn new things. To be a writer is to be a perpetual student. There is always so much reading as you do research and look for inspiration. I continue to take writing classes and belong to writing groups. These I enjoy, but at 61 years of age I find some technical things challenging. My poor editor, Greg Gibson, who was working at Talon at the time, had to contend with my confusion around things like how ‘track changes’ worked. In the end, he kindly sat with me in a coffee shop for hours while we both went over every detail of my book. I am forever grateful for his patience and willingness to steady me as we made the necessary changes to the book.

But it doesn’t end there. There is of course the non-writing work of being a writer.  Those who are not writers may think it is a glamorous leisurely profession but this is a career choice that involves very little glory and a lot of work. You are always juggling priorities. At best it is one-third writing and two-thirds managing your social media presence, doing readings, interviews, writing reviews, volunteering on literary magazine boards, writing grant proposals, presenting on panels, doing manuscript consults and developing and delivering workshops. Most of us cannot afford to hire social media gurus or accountants or managers. We must become many people in one body as we take on the mundane tasks that come with being ‘self-employed’.  So here I am an unintentional entrepreneur in one of the most fickle fields there is; and poorly paid to boot, which brings me to the second hardest thing about writing.

As mentioned earlier, I published my first book last year. It did very well (for poetry) but even so, I couldn’t cover one month’s rent with my royalty cheque. The competition out there is HUGE, so very quickly everyone is on to the next new book. It is easy to get discouraged. It is human nature to doubt ourselves, so even if 50 people said they loved your book and 500 people purchased your book it is that one bad or negative review that takes up air time in your head. How to sustain ourselves while writing is one thing, but how to keep going after a pithy comment from someone who thinks you just got published because you are Indigenous is a whole other matter. I find I need to have a lot of alone time and that I MUST pay attention to what I call my sacred self-care.  This kind of care is easily left behind when one is busy but I need a clear mind, a relatively healthy body and a connection to what some call the Great Mystery if I am to maintain my sanity and write good poetry. I have to find ways to nourish myself. And this I must do on a tight budget. My husband is a saint for supporting me. My writing life has cost us a lot of money and taken a lot of time and attention away from our relationship.  I have no idea where this is going or if one day I may be able to support him in his old age with grants or prizes or book sales. But I am a dreamer and I am willing to do the work.   

SM: A lot of what you said resonates with me – the poor pay of being a poet, the self-employment hustle, the need for “sacred self-care”, as you put it. I’m curious about the challenges of being a new writer later in life. You published your first book at the age of 60. Had you been writing your whole life? Or did you come to writing later? Beyond the “track changes” difficulties, what challenges have you faced becoming a published author at 60? For instance, I know you’ve done quite a bit of travel to promote the book as well as attending conferences, etc – how has that been?

JK: Most of my life has been spent in careers that had nothing to do with creative writing or being in the public eye. Until I attended the SFU Writer’s Studio nearly ten years ago I had never taken a writing class. I was certainly not looking to stand in front of people and read my work. In fact I imagined writing under a pen name.

The only ‘writing’ I had done was in my private journals. Much of this was sappy poetry about unrequited love so I had to produce 20 pages of writing to submit with my application to the studio. None of it was all that good but Betsy Warland and my mentor, Miranda Pearson saw promise in what I submitted. I had hoped to be in the non-fiction stream but it was decided that I belonged in the poetry stream. I objected but they assured me that that I was a budding poet. Boy, were they right.

Suffice it to say I have been on a very steep learning curve in all areas. This would not be easy for anyone but adding to the steepness of this curve is the many indignities that come with aging and a chronic health issue which has made me feel ‘old’ for some time now. Age and these health issues has affected my ability to learn and almost always leaves me with less energy than one needs to run the gauntlet of a writing life. When I travel to attend writing events or to do research I have to add a few extra days on each end. I was just on a panel at the Canadian Writers Summit in June. I spent much of my time in Toronto in my room. I managed the daytime activities but evening events were out of the question. Once I returned home I was on the couch for a week so lost a lot of time. This was time I could not afford to lose as I am in the midst of finishing my second book which is due in September. Pacing is key so I try to schedule readings etc with the awareness that if I overdo it I pay dearly. Yet I know that I must try to keep up with the young ones so have been finding my way with Facebook and have a Twitter account. These two things allow me to keep up on news in the writing community and to maintain a public persona without leaving the house.  

SM: I hear you with the energy-drain of the public literary life. I think I’m much more careful now about protecting my energy. In my 20s I would say yes to everything, run myself into the ground, “reward” myself with a giant drinking binge, and then be completely out of commission. Now that I attend to my self care and listen to what my body can and can’t do, it seems that my body is piping up that it can’t quite a lot, actually. So I have easy-does-it solidarity with you! But that gives me major FOMO – I see all these healthy, robust folks who go out to all the readings and do all the tours and feel a bit envious that I can’t do the same. Do you have the same FOMO? If not, how did you achieve serenity?

JK: FOMO features big in my life. When I was a drinker I never drank alone. I was a party girl. I enjoy people and still hate to miss a good party which these days looks more like a poetry reading. I am also a person that needs a lot of alone time. People see the outgoing part and probably get the impression that I am an extrovert but most days I am quite solitary.

When I began my healing journey 30 years ago I had to re-learn to do things alone. I went to movies, to dinner all of which seemed quite foreign to me. I was super self-conscious and felt everyone was looking at me thinking “that girl has no friends.” I made this change in my life as I had read somewhere that grieving required alone time. Having lost two brothers and my mother meant I had a lot of grieving to do. I began by committing to spending one day a week alone.

I also found spirituality. My serenity is directly contingent on my spiritual maintenance. Some days I am good at this. Some days I suck at it. I now view alone time as essential. It is important to my spiritual life which feeds my writing life. I must protect this for the sake of not only my writing but also my health (which directly affects my ability to write and enjoy life.) I need time to walk, to contemplate, to pray and to offer tobacco. If I feel clogged or muddy I will smudge myself, my workspace and my writing. I ask daily and give thanks for assistance from the ancestors of these lands, from my ancestors and from Creator. I am grateful for the fact that although I am a bit of a nervous Nelly I do respond well to things like meditation. In fact in early recovery I meditated every day for 17 years. I also learned to use mantras to calm my mind. I have always been the “canary in the mine,” the one who feels things. I am very sensitive to my environment and do much to ensure it is peaceful and that I am surrounded by beauty which feeds my spirit. Once I am full I have so much more to give.

SM: Jónína, thank you so much for your generous responses. Do you have any last words of advice for a writer is in the position you were a few years ago – just starting to “become a writer” later in life?

JK: My first thought is that I would say the same things to anyone beginning writing. If being a writer is what you want then learn to stay true to your own voice, to trust yourself. Regularly add to the potential that already exists in your writing by attendings literary events and classes. Find and devour the writing of those who resonate with you.

I would also say what my mentor, Betsy Warland said to me… “it takes ten, to twenty, to thirty years to become a good writer.” I was fifty when I heard her say this and I was so very aware that I may not have thirty years. One might think this would scare me but oddly it did not. In fact it inspired me. I can still remember hearing her words and in that instant making a commitment to becoming a good writer (no matter how long it would take). Even so it took a number of years before I felt comfortable calling myself a writer. There will be uncomfortable growth – don’t worry this is normal and you do not need to do this alone. Find a supportive writing community or group and good mentors. We all have to do a lot of bad writing before we get to the good stuff. Hang in there and don’t let the young ones intimidate you. You have something they do not. Find out what that is…

I’ve got several wonderful conversations on the go right now, and I can’t wait to bring them to you very, very soon. Stay tuned!

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2 thoughts on “Jonina Kirton

  1. Hi Sachiko. I read the piece you wrote in the TWUC magazine and it brought me here. Yes, writing is a really hard life. I enjoyed your interview with Jonina as I am in the same age group as her and only began writing books in my 50’s.

    I share the same challenges: mastering the art of social media and having to do my own marketing. (I’m a hybrid author, having been traditionally published, but more recently, having self-published my first book and about to self-publish the second.) That makes the writing process even harder, as you have to either do everything yourself or pay others to do things for you. I choose the latter with respect to having someone manage my website as that in itself can discourage anyone from being a professional writer. Being a member of writer’s groups really does help.

  2. The many hours working on the drafts is definitely the hard part of writing. I’ve convinced myself to love revision, but sometimes, after years of looking at the same sentences and wondering if you should exchange a word here and delete one there, it gets old. I also have a husband who might be a bit dismayed that this writing life has taken me away from our marriage! Jonina is right. The life of a writer is far from glamorous.

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