Writer's Block: Ruth Daniell
We sat down with award-winning poet Ruth Daniell to talk about the writing process behind her first full-length collection of poetry The Brightest Thing (Caitlin Press), the problem with happily-ever-after narratives and and her hope that fairy tales will open a dialogue to explore more deeply love's many shapes, forms and meanings.See more details below
All Lit Up: Do you have a book that you’ve gone back and read several times?
The fairy tales of the Grimm Brothers—I’ve read those stories, in different editions and translations, many many times, alongside the works of Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen, and some of the lesser-known but no less exhilarating and magical and important stories from women writers like Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy. It’s out of my love for fairy tales—and my growing understanding of the problems within them—that The Brightest Thing was born. Why are these stories still so compelling? Why did these particular stories survive into the collective consciousness in such a pervasive way? Who chose them, or did anyone? Would we know different stories better if women, rather than men, had been the ones to record them? Who told these stories first? Why do they seem so rife for retelling and updating and questioning? Why do we keep turning to these stories to express so many of our basic fears and desires? What does “happily ever after” really look like?
All Lit Up: What was your most rewarding moment as a writer?
I remember a fellow writer once told me a poem of mine made them cry and while I was sorry they’d cried I was very moved to know that, at the heart, they had “gotten” the poem. My most rewarding moments as a writer have all been when someone tells me that something I’ve written has made them think or feel, whether it’s made them laugh, or cry, or shiver, or pause, or otherwise connect to my words in an unexpected but welcome way. Because so much of what I write is informed by the personal, sometimes it’s easy to think I’m writing into a vacuum and that no one else will care about what I’m saying—but the reality is that even when I’m writing from the point of a view of a specific “I” to a specific “you” I am writing for a larger audience than just that “you”—and this is the small, quiet, not-so-quiet way that I hope to change the world for the better. The personal is universal, the universal is personal, and there are things we can learn from each other, new ways to understand and encourage tenderness. To be able to believe that I’ve helped to foster tenderness—that is the best reward.
All Lit Up: What are you working on now?
I’m working on my second full-length collection of poetry, working title Dear bird, and it—as the name suggests—centers around birds. It combines mythological and biological explorations of birds alongside a personal narrative about a couple trying to have a baby. The poems seek hope through the shared desires of humans and animals, especially reproductive desire. I’m looking to see if we, as humans, can find—or deserve to find—consolation in our creaturely similarities with earth’s other parents and children. What is the role of family? What is there to say about the desire to have biological children in a world riddled with increasing concerns about over-population and the negative impact of human life? What is “natural”? What is goodness?
I came to the project accidentally, while I was writing The Brightest Thing, which, of course, focuses on fairy tales and how we use stories to cope with the difficulties of finding and keeping love. During the writing and research for The Brightest Thing I kept on encountering birds, which of course are everywhere in fairy tales and myths. I’m thinking of the dove from Judeo-Christian biblical stories, the birds who help Cinderella, the very many swan maidens, not to mention Leda’s terrible encounter with a swan, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling and the stories attributed to Mother Goose… And, of course, the folk belief that storks deliver babies to new parents. Birds have been particularly linked to human ideas about spiritual life, but also the domestic life: birds are often used to tell stories about marital happiness, fertility, and parenthood.
I’m really excited about this project and where it’s heading, especially because some of the poems go beyond the confessional “I” in a way I didn’t explore in my first poetry collection. Because of the environmental focus I’m looking closely at the “real” world: the land we inhabit is every bit as bewildering and scary and magical as the faraway kingdoms of Fairyland.
All Lit Up: Describe your perfect writing day.
I do well with long, unstructured bouts of time when I have no other commitments and I can afford to be completely absorbed in my writing. When I lived in Vancouver and still taught out of the house full-time, I would get a lot of writing done on the weeks when school was out, and on the days off when my husband was still at work. (If he was home, I was likely to bunk off writing in order to hang out on the couch with him, because our schedules didn’t line up much those years.) Now that I’m a parent, my perfect writing day is much more modest: I hope for a couple of hours in which my daughter has a good, long nap and I know that dinner prep is already done. My husband and I are expecting our second child this spring and I’m going to have to get increasingly more creative about finding time—and energy—to write.
This is a close-up photo of the novelty knobs from my writing desk drawers. My father, who is an excellent woodworker, made me the desk when I was preteen, and I’m thrilled—after years of writing on an ordinary desk—to be making use of it again. The drawer knobs depict little white geese, which was once upon a time my nursery theme. The little geese, and the care with which they were chosen for me, make me smile every time I see them.
Have you experienced writer’s block? What did you do about it?
I’m not sure if I completely believe in writer’s block, but I have gone through dry spells, and they’ve always cleared up when I smarten up and simply start reading good work by writers I admire. And going for a walk outside always helps too.
Ruth's best writing advice: "Write what you need to write. Write what you care most about and you’ll find readers who care about it too."
What question do you wish someone would ask you about your book? What do you hope your book will do?
Ultimately, I hope that my book reaches an audience, and that people can find something beautiful or useful in it. This is really cheesy of me, but I do hope that it inspires people to reach out to those they love. It’d be incredibly meaningful to me if I thought that the book helped even one other survivor in their healing from partner abuse, although it would be even better (of course) if there was never any need to heal from that kind of violence.
The Brightest Thing is definitely a labour of love: the entire book is about love and how we privilege love above all else. I’d like to elevate and celebrate good, nourishing kinds of love, and not just the romantic love prized in fairy tales. I want to push against the specific princess-prince narrative involving romantic love that leaves out so many other people. It’s a very heteronormative, gender-restrictive story and it values silence and physical beauty. I want to point out the importance of healthy love between friends, siblings, parents and children… Because everyone is familiar with fairy tales to some extent, they provide a good common ground for us to engage in conversation about the unhealthy expectations held up by romantic love. I want to show that the fairy tale pursuit of “happily ever after” can be problematic in the contemporary world, I want to be really honest about the harm it can cause—how rape culture is normalized and restricted gender expectations hurt us—but I also want to be really honest about how truly wonderful love can be. I want to tell people I love them, that someone else loves them, that not everything is dark.
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Ruth Daniell is an award-winning writer, editor, and educator. Her first full-length collection of poems, The Brightest Thing (Caitlin Press, 2019), explores fairy tales, sexual violence, love, and healing. Her poems have appeared in Arc Poetry Magazine, Grain, Room, Qwerty, The Antigonish Review and Event. The recipient of the 2013 Young Buck Poetry Prize with CV2 and the winner of the 2016 Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest with The New Quarterly, Daniell is also the editor of Boobs: Women Explore What It Means to Have Breasts (Caitlin Press, 2016). She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree (honours) in English literature and writing from the University of Victoria, a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of British Columbia, and diplomas in speech performance from Trinity College London and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. After years teaching full-time, she currently spends her days cleaning cottage cheese off her kitchen floor, locating toy ducks, and being suspicious of silence. She lives with her growing family in Kelowna, BC, in a house with a rose bush out front.
Find Ruth on her website and on Twitter!
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A special thank you to Sarah at Caitlin Press and to Ruth Daniell for chatting with us! Cure your writing woes with more advice from our Writer's Block column.
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