Kathy Friedman is the author of the short-story collection All the Shining People (Anansi, 2022). She was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, and her writing has appeared in Grain, Geist, PRISM international, Canadian Notes & Queries, and the New Quarterly, as well as other publications. She is also the co-founder and artistic director of InkWell Workshops. She lives in Tkaronto.
Writing Towards Joy
I’m thrilled to be returning to the Brockton Writers Series. I came by last September as a guest speaker to share strategies and resources I use to maintain my writing practice while living with mental illness, (you can check out the recap here). I’m so excited to come back to read from my debut collection of short stories, All the Shining People. In this post, I wanted to connect the dots between my two appearances, since mental health has been a huge part of my life and my writing journey. It’s also one of the themes in my collection, which explores identity, connection, healing, and belonging among Toronto’s Jewish South African community.
In 2014, I was one of seven nervous women seated around a table at CAMH, pens in hand. This was day four of an intensive group therapy program, which had a creative writing component, and every time I took a smoke break on College Street I was terrified someone I knew might spot me.
At the time, I believed that writing, and the pressures of building a writing career, only worsened my chronic depression and anxiety, which had peaked while I was finishing my MFA and threw me into a full-blown mental health crisis. A couple of years later, still working on the same collection of short stories and trying to piece my life back together, I was sure I wouldn’t find writing for five minutes among strangers the least bit helpful.
For the first prompt—what did we like best about this time of year?—I wrote about walking to a bar through the long July twilight, bare-legged in a powder-blue summer dress. When our time was up, I was eager to read my paragraph aloud to the other women, and proud to hear them sigh when I finished, as though after a good meal. Not for the first time, writing and sharing what I’d written brought me real joy.
This incident led me to co-create InkWell Workshops, which runs free creative-writing workshops for people with mental health and addiction issues, led by professional writers with lived experience. In 2016, after partnering with a local drop-in centre, I taught my first workshop. It was a disaster: one participant loudly objected to the material I’d brought, and many of those who’d gathered out of curiosity slowly drifted away. But I persisted, and gradually, the project began to gel. Every Wednesday afternoon, the drop-in would overflow with writers from across the city, ranging in age from their early twenties to their eighties. As InkWell’s lead artist, I published their work in anthologies (see here and here), organized launches and public showcases, provided one-to-one mentorship, and arranged tours of local cultural institutions. Two weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, we shifted our programming online and continued to gather.
Some of our writers have called the workshops “lifesaving,” saying the group has given them a sense of belonging and purpose. They’ve found their confidence growing and their identities shifting. “I now feel like I’m a writer,” one told me recently.
The uncertainty of both the writing life and the publishing industry makes such assurances key: as the years passed, and my MFA peers were publishing their first and second books, I still couldn’t land an agent. “The writing is amazing,” one said via email about my manuscript. “But a story collection rather than a novel is going to prove difficult in the marketplace.” In response to the rejections, I kept revising. Meanwhile, through InkWell, I was building recognition and valuable connections in the literary community. I was also learning to stop hiding my mental health challenges, and to use my voice to advocate for the value of Mad people’s stories. Eventually, I grew confident enough to send my short story collection to publishers directly. To my terror and delight, All the Shining People quickly found a home with my dream press, House of Anansi.
Published last spring, my debut seems to have resonated with readers, a gratifying experience. But regardless of the response, my recovery journey has taught me that sustaining a literary life involves always returning to the simple pleasure of crafting and sharing stories. This task is made far more joyful when we pursue it with others. I may always have struggles, but these two goals—finding joy and community—have kept me writing, no matter what.