Traci Skuce: It's all about tenacity

Uncategorized Jun 13, 2022

"The biggest thing is to believe in your work." -- Traci Skuce

Busy Women on Writing Books

This is the 16th instalment in a new interview series on writing, profiling women writers who’ve written and published books while also working, parenting, volunteering, caring for family, attending school, and ALL OF THE THINGS.

This week, I'm pleased to introduce Canadian author Traci Skuce.

Traci lives in Cumberland, BC. She founded the Writing Journey with Traci Skuce, an online creative writing school that explores craft through body, mind, and spirit, so writers can finish their best stories and get them out into the world.    

As a writer, her fiction and personal essays have appeared in several literary journals across North America. Her short story collection, Hunger Moon, was released by NeWest Press in April 2020, and was a finalist for the 2021 Kobo Rakuten Prize.  

I know how amazing you are, but please let everyone else know a bit about yourself and the books you’ve written thus far. Own it and brag a bit for us!

I started writing back in ‘95 after my first son was born. Writing Down the Bones inspired me, and I spent the hours of his nap time scribbling in a notebook.

From those scribbles, the odd poem emerged and I’d send it off. These poems got published and encouraged me to continue writing. And so I did. 

Along the way, I’ve written essays and stories that were published in various journals. But a long stretch of stories that never went anywhere. Somewhere in the 2010 zone, maybe earlier, I decided to write a collection of short stories. 

Hunger Moon came out in 2020 (right at the beginning of the pandemic!). It’s been fun to have readers, and hear their feedback.

I’ve had many people say: How did you get inside my head?! Which feels like a great compliment. The reviews I received were all positive–and Hunger Moon  was a finalist for the 2021 Kobo Rakuten Prize

What’s your current writing routine? Has it always been like this? What about it might be different for you now than in the past?

I’m definitely a morning writer. I suppose when I first started writing, I wrote mid-afternoon when my son napped. But then, when he got older, after I had another kid, plus a husband, I’d wake up before everyone else and write.

Now that nobody in the household needs me in the morning, I still write in the early mornings–mostly out of habit. 

This past year has been extremely disruptive to my writing reality. Not only Covid, but my marriage ended and I’m about to move for the second time in only a few months.

My hope is that when I settle into my new place, I will be able to write twice in the day. Mornings and after dinner or something. I’ll keep you posted. 

Tell us the story of when you first got published. What was special about that experience for you?

The first story I published… I don’t fully remember! I do remember taking a Terrance Young story and thinking, I’m going to write a short story now. It was the form I liked. Past / present in alternating sections.

I wrote the story in, like, two hours and it came out pretty whole. It never got published but it did a couple things. One, tricked me into thinking writing a story was easy. And two, got me into the BC Festival of the Arts 2002. The last year it ran.

And because I got into the Festival and worked for an entire week in a workshop setting, I came to realize there was more to writing than I realized. 

But, prior to that, or around the same time, I had a couple of essays published to the CBC. Which is to say, I got to go into the studio and record them. Back then I loved the CBC (early 2000s), and it felt so cool to have my words on the airwaves. People I hadn’t heard from in years dropped me a line. Hey, I heard your story on CBC. Almost famous ;)

book cover for HUNGER MOON by Traci Skuce interview cover is blue text on green over a moon

HUNGER MOON is available everywhere good books are sold.

When did you start "getting serious" about writing and what did that look like for you?

Writing has always been serious for me. But there was a pivotal moment for me after I took a workshop with Zsuzsi Gartner at the Denman Reader and Writers Festival. Can’t remember what year.

But at that time, I knew I wanted to write stories. And I couldn’t figure out why some of them worked, and some (most?!) didn’t. It was dawning on me that there was a craft to the whole business of writing.

Anyway, I went to Zsuzsi’s workshop and, in three hours, she blew my mind about POV–except in a very pronoun, superficial way, I’d never thought much about it before. 

So, after that, I had an appetite for understanding craft. Alice Munro lived part of the year in the place where I live and I kept hoping I’d bump into her and she’d become my mentor. When that didn’t happen, I applied for MFA programs and ended up at Pacific University’s low-res program. It was the best thing I ever did for my writing. 

What have you had going on in your life over the years that wasn’t writing and may have made finding time to write challenging? What strategies did you use to overcome those obstacles and get the writing done?

So, kids, for one. And then work. Although I’ve always tried to create a working life that allowed me time to write. So I made maybe not the smartest economic choices early on. I taught yoga, worked part-time, and did rely heavily on my now ex-husband’s work as a treeplanter.

We did live in a place that was (but no longer is) affordable for young families, so it seemed an okay decision to make. And I put a lot of time into my writing, in and around teaching yoga, in and around kids being away at school. 

Then in 2020, I started my own business. And my marriage ended. And the pandemic. All which have challenged me with respect to time, but more so the reality of focusing.

I’ve been really gentle with myself, though. I trust the practice I established all those years ago, so I know I’ll be able to get back into a more ‘serious’ schedule when I feel more settled. 

But this past year I did a lot of what I call record-keeping. Essentially, I just wrote what was going on in my life–from the heat dome, to the grief and anger of divorce, to some cool thing I saw the day before–all fodder for future stories. 

Did you ever think about giving up on writing? Why didn’t you? How did you move past that point and recommit?

I never thought about giving up on writing. Or, probably I thought about it, but my curiosity has always been much stronger than any desire to give up.

Back in the early days, I wondered where the writing would take me. I just always wondered. For sure I had dreams of becoming a bestseller, but really I mostly wondered.

For me, it’s like, if I didn’t keep turning the page of my life, so to speak, if I’d given up on my writing journey, I’d be disappointed in myself. I’d feel like my life was a book I loved, but never finished reading. 

How are you feeling about your writing practice right now?

In truth, I wish I was writing more. But I think that’s what most writers always feel. This low-grade feeling of wanting to write more. And I’m hoping that once I move to my new house and have, once again, a room of my own, I will write more towards my new project idea. 

What’s been your favourite part of finishing and publishing your books?

The physical form of it. I love my book. The cover, the font. I love that I walk into friends’ houses and see it on their shelves. Last week I was at a friend’s place and was like, my book is on a shelf with other books! Because for so long it was stories on my computer. Or on 8x10 printer paper. And then, in literary journals (also cool).

But to see them all together in a book? A book that people read? And then tell me how they connected with the characters, or the era, or whatever? That’s awesome. 

Like one friend told me she’s read it three times. Another friend sent it to his eighty year old mom last Christmas. She wrote me an email and said she loved it so much she started reading the first story again right after finishing the last. A few bookclubs have asked me to sit in on their meetings, and I love that the stories are so alive for them. 

Do you ever get “stuck” or find yourself avoiding writing? If/when that happens, how do you get yourself unstuck?

No, this never happens! Kidding. Of course it does.

Sometimes I circle the house and pick random books off my shelf as though I’ll find the answer to my problem in another book. Like, hey Alice Munro, what would you do in my situation? Which is actually a good question. A

nd what I use sometimes to get myself unstuck. Not opening and closing Alice Munro books, or Virginia Woolf for that matter, but to sit down and imagine how they’d open up the scene or story I’m stuck on. So that’s one way.

Another thing I do, probably not advised, but I start again. This is the thing so many writers tell you not to do.

But I will begin the story again. Which means I print out the material I have, and then start a new document in Word. I transcribe what I have, making changes along the way, and usually this process helps me figure out why I’m stuck and allows me to unstick myself and carry forward. 

What’s your favourite book about writing or writing craft?

I love Charles Baxter’s books Burning Down the House, and The Art of Subtext. I appreciate his sensibility, and what he gets the writer to consider. It’s not so much the basic nuts and bolts of writing craft as it is the ways to finesse and nuance your stories.

Same with Douglas Glover’s The Attack of the Copula Spiders. He has one essay in there that I particularly love about creating tension on a sentence level which has served me very well.  

Who do you consider your mentor(s)?

Jack Driscoll was one of my mentors in my MFA program. He’s an amazing writer and human who lives in Northern Michigan. We still write back and forth and I do go back to things I’ve learned from him when I’m deep into revision. 

Also, Alice Munro and Virginia Woolf. You don’t have to know a writer for them to mentor them, though it helps. But I figure if I study these two amazing women and something rubs off on me, then I’m better off as a writer. 

What are you working on now? How are you feeling about it right at this moment?

My next project is just starting to come together. Another short story collection. It’s really interesting for me because the title has come before the stories. And five of the story titles. So now I just have to write them.

The subject matter is a bit heavy–grief of climate change and the dissolution of a marriage–so I’m a bit reluctant to dive right in. Also, when dealing with heavy material I like to find ways to write it that don’t just sucker punch the reader, so I will spend a lot of time figuring out form. 

What advice would you have for writers who do really want to finish a book but just haven’t been able to get there yet?

It’s all about tenacity. And craft. Keep going and keep learning. Get the support you need to do both those things.

If writers gave up after a rejection or two or even ten, they’d never carry on.

The biggest thing, I think, is to believe in your work. To trust that you have the capacity, no matter how long it takes, or what you have to learn, to finish the book. 

 

Traci offers a regular newsletter and occasional writing craft summits and other free events. You can sign up to receive news from Traci right here.

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