Now and then: why do they write, and what’s their recipe?

By Merna Emara
Staff Writer

How do I lead? Where do I start? What should I say? How long should it be?

These thoughts race through writers’ minds as they begin writing, sometimes as the idea percolates in their heads. From the time an idea seeds until it sees publication, only the writer lives with the story and its details.

But the question stands, why do they write, how do they do it, and what impact does it have on their lives?

Local award-winning writer Wendi Stewart was born and raised on a farm outside Fort Frances. She writes “Wendi with an Eye” every Wednesday. She has contributed over 560 columns, all well-received by readers.

Stewart’s landing as a writer was not straightforward. She went off and took physical education and minored in calculus at the University of Manitoba, after which she acquired her CGA (Certified General Accountant Certificate). Even though Stewart was an accountant for most of her career, she had always loved writing as a child.

“I would write letters, not to anyone, and I guess they were a journal form. I had an English teacher who told me I couldn’t write my way out of a wet paper bag,” Stewart said. “I believed her. I never thought of myself as a writer because I’d always been a math person. I thought you couldn’t have both.”

Stewart then went to Humber College and took online courses to advance her writing skills. She would also attend workshops that the Writers Union would offer to hone her writing skills.

Stewart quit her accounting job in 2006 and wrote a book, Meadowlark, in 2015. Meadowlark was on the National Post’s books of that year. It got picked up in Switzerland and translated into German.

Stewart said writing has allowed her to find herself by pouring her soul onto the paper and knowing herself better.

“I don’t think we spend much time getting to know ourselves,” she said. “Most of us don’t get through childhood without some wounds. And I think it helps us as writers if we’re writing on those subjects to make sense of it. I find the creative side very healing or gives me purpose.”

Another columnist familiar to Fort Frances is Mike Behan, the former editor of the Fort Frances Times. Behan is a natural-born writer. He graduated with a Carleton University journalism degree and moved to Fort Frances to become a sports reporter. He would go on be the editor and write weekly editorials for three decades.

Behan wrote about the topic of the day, whether local, provincial or federal. Sometimes his editorials would support a situation or a decision, and other times it was critical. Behan wanted to connect with his readers to engage and illicit letters to the editor.

“The important role of the newspaper is to be objective in news stories,” Behan said. “But then the editorial is supposed to be one-sided. It’s supposed to take a stance on an issue. The reader can decide what they think. It’s the dialogue that keeps the public informed, which I think is the major role of the newspaper.”

Although Behan enjoyed writing his thoughts out, it was the last thing he did a couple of hours before the press ran.

“I guess I needed the extra deadline stress,” Behan chuckled. “I don’t know what it is. But it was my responsibility, and I took it seriously.”

Behan had written in the neighbourhood of 1,305 editorials over the years, and he said being able to write clearly and succinctly on deadline is a learning curve and a work in progress.

“I’m sure the first editorial I wrote for the Times, in 1990, compared to the last ones I wrote, you’d see night and day difference,” Behan said. “In terms of style, I just try to keep it simple, flowing, and hopefully logical. I always had that ability to write well, and I was fortunate to find a career that allowed me to utilize those skills to a degree.”

Behan and Stewart have very different writing styles, but both agree the only way to get better at writing is to write more.

Stewart said she thought some magic words catapulted her into being an official writer if she heard and wrote.

Published author Wendi Stewart didn’t always believe that she was a writer. But practice and perseverance has resulted in a published novel, a grant for a new manuscript, and years as a published columnist. – Submitted photo

“But my only advice to writers now is to put your bum in the chair and write,” Stewart said. “You just get better by writing. You can’t expect perfection. You have to hone your craft, and you have to write for yourself, not the market. Write from your soul. I look back at some of my early work. It’s pretty poor.”

Stewart said writers write for those who cannot, adding that everyone has a story, and often, they are very similar. It’s just how we tell that story.”

Stewart received a grant from the Canada Arts Council and is now working on writing a creative nonfiction book about her Cree grandmother five generations back.