June 30, 2014

Great on Paper by Susan Barclay

My love of words and stories began early. My grandparents first took me to the library when I was three and I was introduced to books and story times. From then on, you couldn't keep me away from libraries and books. I was at almost every library program offered, and devoured books voraciously.

Some of my first memories are of me sitting on our family's front porch and making up songs. I wrote quite a bit of bad poetry, but I'm still not sorry my mother kept it for me in binders that I can go back and re-read today. It makes me smile to see those budding efforts and to know how far I've come.

Not so great on paper (sample from grade 3)

In school, English and creative writing were my favourite subjects, and I excelled in them. My grade two teacher can still quote the closing line to a story I wrote for her class (okay, it must have been better than the grade 3 sample above). In upper elementary years I remember writing about subjects like Hernan Cortez for Social Studies and the colourful mandrill for Science. Later I fell in love with the pun and titled one junior high story Steph's Sweet, Swede Dreams (a play on 'sweet, sweet dreams' in case you don't get it). The plot was of a romantic nature and my protagonist in love with a Swede.

In high school I had an amazing English teacher, Mrs. Perle Michna. You either loved or hated her (she could be strict), and I adored her. Her passion for literature only served to heighten the flames of my own, although I was a bit jealous that she called my best friend her 'Miranda' (a character from Shakespeare's The Tempest) when that wasn't even her name! I aspired to be like Mrs. Michna so much that when it came time to choose my college affiliation at the University of Toronto, I chose Victoria, her alma mater. Imagine my dismay when she told me I was mistaken; her alma mater had been University College!

I enjoyed my years at U of T and Vic nonetheless. I had the good fortune to take a Shakespeare course with the illustrious Northrop Frye, although I confess I don't remember a single word he said (I do still have my notes!). I only remember feeling extremely self-conscious riding the elevator with him one day. Word had it that he had no patience for small talk. I don't know if that was true or not, but I certainly was too intimidated to initiate a more meaningful conversation with the great man.

After completing my undergraduate degree, I went on to get my Master of Library and Information Science. From there I began a career in public libraries. A parallel life to the one I wanted as a writer. I don't recall writing for pleasure or publication for the first six years of my career. Monthly reports explaining how I'd spent my work time and Youth Advisory Group newsletters were about as creative as I got.

Okay, that's a lie, albeit unintentional. I just remembered that I also dated during those years and there were some poems, letters and cards of a romantic nature. You'd call those writing for pleasure, no? Some pieces I still have access to; others were probably disposed of by the receiver when the relationship ended badly. Ah well, what's a writer to do but learn to back up her back-up?

When I had children it seemed that the desire to write returned, along with ideas. I started with picture book texts and 'graduated' to short stories and personal essays for adults, as well as an adult novel.

I'm currently pressing forward with revisions to the novel and it's going well. Apart from a period of a few years where I was 'blocked' from completing it, I can't say I've had a hate relationship with words. When the novel writing wasn't working, I still was, just on other things.

Sorry - a bit misleading there on the relationship with words. I have a pretty great relationship with words in my head and words on paper. What's more challenging is getting the right words out of my mouth. I'm definitely not one for off-the-cuff presentations and sometimes my attempts to communicate with others in person - especially when it comes to conflict or problem-solving - don't go too well. I'm misunderstood or don't quite say things the way I intend. And me with a background in English and Psychology. It can be exasperating to say the least!

Does anyone else here struggle with this issue? Great on paper, less great in 'real' life? Please share and end the feeling of aloneness :)

For more of my writing, please visit www.susan-barclay.ca


  1. Hi Susan, you've certainly had a passion for writing for a few more years than myself. As for me....I have many short stories started but not complete. Writer's block, where the heck am I going with my protagonist and the question of who would really want to read this are probably the top 3 reasons my writing ends up on shelf. None the less, I love writing and never feel it's a waste of time. I have submitted for publication some of my work. A couple of articles were published and short story I am still waiting to hear. Everything looks good on paper to me...at least until I start to self edit and sometimes that only confuses me more but in the end I never give up. You are not alone.

  2. Yes, Susan, I have that same problem with thinking and responding off the top of my head--at least if I want to respond properly. Often, I'll re-hash my conversations and think of good responses long after the conversation is over. Writing about it helps me to process. Sounds like it's the same for you. So, you are not alone in this.

  3. Susan,

    I enjoyed getting to know you better through your posting this month about your writing journey an love for words.

    And, yes, I can relate to being better at writing my thoughts out than speaking off the cuff about them. Some people are better at thinking on their feet than others. I realize I need time to think about what I need to say and so I've learned over the years not to jump in until I have... at least most times.

    Thanks for sharing with us.


  4. Susan,
    I concur. I am not as at ease talking in front of a group except when led by the Holy Spirit.
    What year did you graduate UofT. I am a VIC grade 7T0.

  5. Listening to your story, I'm tempted to wish I had taken a different career path into writing as you did.
    Now, as I write, I can only envy the accomplishment that you and so many others have achieved through a life of perseverance in your chosen--more likely your call to--profession.
    I'm so glad you, and others like you, are there to display the Christian message and values.

  6. Yes I can relate to your problem, Susan! When I think something through I can write it down properly, but quite the opposite happens when I am put on the spot! Maybe it's a writer thing! I enjoyed the story of your journey - thanksf for sharing!
    Pam Mytroen


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