When we see a writer celebrating a new work in a shiny-covered book, reading at the microphone, signing copies at the book table, we seem to ignore the years of struggle, the highs, lows and in-betweens. The self-doubt, the disappointments, the joy of discovery and insight. The discouragement when she asks herself if it’s all worth it. The remembering and letting go.

Last week at Vancouver Island University (VIU), I attended an event called Writers at Work, a panel and Q&A intended to feature three award-winning writers. Richard Wagamese, Jane Munro and Cynthia Flood planned to discuss their work and the writing process.

Richard Wagamese, who has written six novels and three memoirs, was unable to make it due to illness. Liza Potvin, who teaches at VIU, took his place and read “The Country Outing,” a story accepted by The New Quarterly. She read her original version and then let us know what the editor had taken out: the voice of the muskrat! Most of us agreed it worked without the animal’s voice in the story that starts in a conventional way and then has a surprising and quirky twist.

When the ferry finally arrived from Vancouver, Jane Munro and Cynthia Flood  shared some “before and afters.”  A hand-out showed us the final version of a page of “Red Girl Rat Boy” from Cynthia’s latest story collection of the same name.  The reverse side showed us a first draft of the same page written in July 2009.

Cynthia doesn’t actually like the first draft stage and prefers the editing stages to follow. (I actually love the first draft as that’s where all the excitement is.)  Her main steps are to write, edit and then leave the writing alone for three to six months in order to have a fresh look. (Not something university students are able to do as she pointed out.)

I hadn’t seen Cynthia Flood for twenty years. I was still living in Toronto and met with her in Vancouver when I was doing some research. She had written a recommendation for me for a Canada Council grant and I wanted to thank her in person. Yes, I did get the grant for my novel Ordinary Life. As I told Cynthia, two excerpts from the novel were published in Prairie Fire and lately I’ve been writing about the same character having moved her to Gabriola Island.

Jane Munro has written six poetry collections the latest of which is Blue Sonoma (Brick Books, 2014). She had copies, hot off the press, with her.  A hand-out  showed  revisions to some of the poems in the collection. As her publisher writes: “In the tradition of Taoist poets like Wang Wei and Po-Chu-I, her sixth and best book opens a wide poetic space, and renders difficult conditions with the lightest of touches.”

Jane writes in a notebook and for many years kept track of her dreams.  Poems were written from those dream images much later. She would highlight portions or use post-it notes, type what she found and read the pieces aloud. Or, she says, have someone else read the poem to you. Jane’s work is also included in Forcefield: 77 Women Poets of British Columbia (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2013).

Keith Harrison who teaches film and creative writing at VIU, introduced the other writers and said their writing was fully realized as it had been taken to that special place. I may not have Keith’s words exactly but the idea reminded me of Richard Wagamese writing about a soaring eagle in his essay “On the Wings of Eagles,” included in One Story, One Song (Douglas & McIntyre, 2011).

Richard was recalling a time when he was walking through the foothills outside Calgary with his friend and elder Jack Kakakaway. Richard felt honoured to witness the soaring of an eagle “across a wide expanse of bush.” He said to Jack that he had always wanted to be like that. “Graceful. Just like that.”

When they sat down on a log in a clearing, Jack said: “You only admire the display. The important thing is how the eagle learned to do that.”

What an amazing reminder. The eagle has received no flying lessons. While the bird’s flight looks effortless, “each eagle feather is made up of thousands of tiny filaments, Jack said, and the eagle has to control them all, whether the wind is blowing or the air is still. Only that skill will keep the eagle aloft. Just as importantly, the eagle must learn how to see the world, reading the treetops and the grasses for information.”

Richard Wagamese says: “Uncovering your gifts is a spiritual process. That’s what an eagle in magnificent flight can remind us of. It isn’t easy to be graceful. You must learn to really see the world and negotiate it, and that takes humility. Practising with courage will allow us to develop faith, the abiding knowledge that we are blessed.”