Beth Everest is a creative writing professor at Mount Royal University. She initially struggled to write after being diagnosed with breast cancer, but writing about her experience took her career in a different direction.
I think I have always written. I’m from a big family and every Saturday we used to walk to the library hand-in-hand and pick up our big stack of books. So, I’ve always read and that led very naturally to writing. In junior high I remember sitting down with a friend and we’d write these crazy love stories that were like Harlequin romance on steroids. Later in high school I became serious about being a poet and submitted things for publication and ended up winning a few contests.
I did my master’s at the University of Windsor in creative writing. At the time, W.O. Mitchell was the writer in residence and Alistair MacLeod was on faculty. They’re both fiction writers and even though I did my creative project in poetry, I studied with them and we had lots of conversations. I think that influenced my writing because my poetry tends to be very narrative and my fiction tends to be very poetic. So, it’s kind of this mix.
Writing about my cancer was more than natural, it was cathartic. While I was having treatment, I couldn’t do anything. It was such a dark and empty time in my life. I couldn’t even read a book. Finally, when I was feeling a little bit better I tried to write, but none of the fiction would come out. Instead, I started producing poems. At first, I saw some images and I thought I might as well write them down. In about three months I had a whole book. It still had to be edited, but it came out so quickly. Silent Sister: The Mastectomy Poems is in its second printing and the publisher just told me it might go into its third. I’m proud because it was nominated for some awards and it won some awards. It feels like it has lifted me from a writer to a writer.
My dad is a fantastic storyteller. He’s what inspired the fiction collection I’m working on. I thought to myself, here’s this guy telling these fantastic stories and who’s going to remember them? All the stories in the collection are based in Jasper where I grew up. It’s a collection about Jasper in the ‘50s, so I spend a lot of time in the archives. It’s fiction, but I consider it historical fiction. I’m taking these events that have happened and creating a community around them to reflect what didn’t, but might have, gone on at that time in the town.
There was a long period where I didn’t write. I was so busy with two small children and things changing with teaching at Mount Royal. I lost the ability to write, but I still had the desire, so it was frustrating. I felt like I had to get out of my head for a while, so I started going to a basic silversmithing course once a week. I loved it. It was a way for me to get out of my head and back into my hands. It’s a nice balance between the writing, which is quite cerebral and the need to be using your hands, which is very technical.
The easiest thing to do as a writer is to not write and to find excuses. I think you have to sit down and do it every day. I find having big chunks of time that I dedicate completely to writing works for me. I’m sitting here and my butt’s in the chair no matter what else is going on. That’s what I have to do.
My teaching and writing are hugely connected. I’m often interacting with other writers and publishers, so I can bring them into the classroom to talk to students. Also, because I’m actively publishing and submitting things for publication I find that I can talk to my students about all the things they want to know – how do they submit for publication and should they hire an agent.
As told to Brittany Willsie. This interview has been edited and condensed.
This article is part of a series of profiles on industry professionals through the Calgary Journal. To see more like this, visit the On the Job page.
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