Eufemia Fantetti on InkWell Workshops, the Curative Power of Writing, and Food

Interview by 
Rachel Thompson
Eufemia Fantetti

Eufemia Fantetti’s collection of short stories,  A Recipe for Disaster & Other Unlikely Tales of Love (Mother Tongue, 2013), was runner-up for the 2013 Danuta Gleed Literary Award and winner of the 2014 F.G. Bressani Prize. A graduate of The Writer’s Studio at SFU and the University of Guelph MFA program in Creative Writing, she teaches English at Humber College, ESL for the Toronto District School Board and Creative Writing privately and through the University of Guelph.

She co-founded InkWell Workshops with Kathy Friedman, a collective that offers writing workshops for people with mental-health and addictions issues led by professional artists with lived experience of mental illness.

Room’s Rachel Thompson caught up with her by phone.

How did you and InkWell co-founder Kathy Friedman meet and start InkWell?

Kathy and I met in the Guelph MFA in Creative Writing program. Moving back to Ontario coincided with losing five people in my life in rapid succession—two friends, two relatives and my cat died. I wasn’t prepared for that loss, plus I’d lost the community of writers I’d had in Vancouver. I always remember Kathy’s kindness during that time—it was so important.

We went to an event hosted by Workman Arts—a reading and talk about the life and work of (late) author David Foster Wallace. Afterward, we discussed how great it would be if there was more support for people affected by mental illness. During grad school, we’d been in workshops sharing our writing, both of us had lived experience and dealt with the stigma that surrounds mental health. InkWell started coming together—the dream of being able to share our skills, helping people who had been disempowered their whole lives have a voice and write.

We talked about what writing meant to us, imagining our lives without it was impossible; we discussed what we could offer, and started brainstorming some ideas about workshops. And we got together every so often to discuss InkWell while juggling our jobs. We approached others we knew to teach—other artists who also had lived experience of mental illness.

InkWell Workshops spent two years in the dreaming stage—many months in discussion and development. After we put up the website we got emails from across the country asking us if our program existed in Alberta, or if there was a Vancouver branch. A lot of people, members of the writing community and members of our cohort, said they couldn’t believe this doesn’t already exist. That’s when we knew the idea was not just one person’s dream, but the community’s collective dream. We were creating, discussing and formulating InkWell at the right time.

InkWell’s both a place for artists to work and for people who have been silenced or marginalized most of their lives to access writing in order to tell their stories. The program is based on the perspective of studies that indicate the efficacy and impact of writing on well-being, surveys that show creativity has helped people dealing with mental health issues.

I noticed the Canadian Mental Health Association logo on your website. Are you partnering with them?

Yes. I contacted them to ask if there was anybody we could talk to about teaching writing workshops. Amy Wakelin (Manager of Peer Initiatives) was immediately responsive, and she has been tremendously supportive. She was on board with helping us from the beginning, and extremely encouraging—we feel so fortunate to have connected with her. As the daughter of a woman suffering from severe psychosis, I’ve had to deal with many mental health professionals and meeting Amy was an enormous relief. I felt, thank god there are these people who are in this field because they want to help, they’re not condescending, they have big hearts and are doing amazing work.

We started offering the workshops in the CMHA space in February. And we found out a few weeks ago we got a grant from the Toronto Arts Council. Not long after that we got a grant from the Ontario Arts Council.

Congratulations!

Thank you, we’re thrilled! It was really great of CMHA to support us from the start with a space.

At this point you’re doing workshops in Toronto, but what are your hopes for that to expand?

We would love for InkWell Workshops to be something available across the country. We both firmly believe in the process—in what writing offers and what InkWell can offer. We built on the model of the Amherst Writer's Workshop method where there’s a leader, but there’s no distinction. In the workshop, we write along with the participants so we can show them that a first draft is never that polished. Some people are only going to be interested in the workshop for the opportunity of doing something creative, but others may be interested in taking their work to the next level. Some participants have approached us saying that they are working on certain projects—some are working on memoirs, some on novels.

The big dream would be to have InkWell available for anybody who wants to participate. I don’t know if that would mean setting up chapters across the country. We don’t know yet, but we would love to make writing workshops (with instructors who have lived experience of mental illness) available to everyone who wants to attend.

I love that. I’ve never heard of a writing instructor who would be so vulnerable in that sense—saying, here’s my shitty first draft, too. Not to assume that’s what it was, but that’s the truth with writing isn’t it?

Exactly. And that’s the goal, to show that everybody starts at this shitty draft stage. Some writers talk about how everything comes out in one fell swoop, but that’s after years of practice, after years of showing up at a blank page and facing it with as much self-compassion as possible.

Your first draft you’re going to be thinking, “Ugh, why did I bother to besmirch this beautiful page?” If you’re lucky and you’ve taken enough writing classes and you’ve been in creative environments with a community of generous writers, then you’ll have encouragement instead of discouragement. I’ve had discouraging instructors and disheartening incidences, times where I was put down or pushed back, especially in my early twenties when I first pursued writing. As a college instructor, I wonder, “What do you know when you’re twenty?” It’s amazing if you know how to put a decent paragraph together. And if you don’t, then the goal is to show you how, not to dismiss you if you can’t do it right away. The point is to teach you how to do something well, not to say, “Forget it, you’re never going to be able to achieve craft.” What’s the point of that? That doesn’t instil anything useful in anyone.

I write nonfiction, mainly essays, and before that, I wrote plays. I went through the process that a lot of creative types go through—writing bad poetry as a moody teenager. I don’t know if you can legitimately be a writer if you don’t go through the writing bad poetry stage. It’s part of the process that everyone needs to experience. Who’s going to show up and say, “Here I am! Here’s my perfect novel”?

I went from bad poetry to playwriting, then I started writing more specifically about my family situation—an immigrant family dealing with a mentally ill individual without the language to cope or a belief system to deal with the chaos. My parents were southern-Italian Roman Catholics with this old world belief in the evil eye. I encountered all these shocking superstitions from the culture I was raised in.

When the medieval assumptions started coming out I thought, “This can’t be the way people think about mental illness.” My mom’s diagnosis came when I was fourteen. There wasn’t a lot of useful material about mental illness; it was the Jurassic age of information. Having the opportunity to tell my story and write about the turmoil, trying to make sense of the chaos of my childhood has been something that helped me survive that painful time. Writing helps me cope with the grief and trauma—my mother will never be well, she’ll always be lost to psychosis. Her illness is aggressive, devastating and extremely high maintenance; her name is in the database of both the Toronto and Vancouver police departments. I can’t do anything to fix the overwhelming problems of my mom’s deteriorating mental health, or her violent upbringing, or the stigma that surrounds mental illness, or the broken care system, but through InkWell—I can definitely empower others to tell their own stories instead of having someone else decide their narrative, or dismiss them as a flawed or broken story.

I went to a conference years ago where a psychiatrist said the dismissal would happen to him as well; sometimes, when he was in a room full of doctors someone would say psychiatry was not a real medical practice. On every level, mental illness is ostracized, pushed to the side and not considered.

At InkWell we offer everyone a safe space and the opportunity to write and be encouraged in the pursuit of craft. We say we’re all coming at writing from the same place—wanting to be good at it and struggling with crappy syntax or whatever it may be, but you get to write the story, the poem, or the memoir. This is your piece. You get to tell it however you want and we’ll keep helping and encouraging you. Some participants are interested in publication.

We met at the FOLD this year, where we had a brief, but intense conversation. What do you think it is about writers in that environment that can facilitate that kind of connection? And how is that important for people affected by mental illness to have that kind of connection?

Good question. It was intense and too brief, I’m glad we’re getting this chance to talk again. My assumption when I meet another writer (or when I meet someone else who has an awareness of mental illness) is that we have a shorthand. We recognize that not everyone is going to sit there with a blank page, and we recognize that we’re not going to be accepted by everyone. So we don’t waste time with the pleasantries. We might challenge each other and we’re aware that we’re willing to go in and do the work—the ditch digging of our being—trying to excavate what makes us respond this way and what bothers us about that, what makes us happy, angry, whatever lives at the core of us and propels us through life. We’re good at assessing ourselves in the greater environment, within the community—our impact—considering whether we are part of the problem or part of the solution. I think that’s a huge part of being a writer, and most every writer I’ve ever met is always in a constant state of assessing themselves, their life and their work.

Fundamentally, I think every person that I’ve ever met who’s a writer is a witness. They do the work of being a witness. I haven’t met one that isn’t. That’s why I feel like the conversation can immediately go to that place of understanding and that there’s a shorthand or a sense of safety in that.

I’ve had moments when I talked with non-writerly types and I’ve thought, Oh! Shared too much! Because I forget. I forget that people who aren’t involved in some creative endeavour—whether it’s writing or something else—aren’t engaged in that ongoing conversation of self-assessment. I mention that my mother has a severe, debilitating, treatment-resistant form of schizophrenia and they look at me like they should put away the cutlery. I forget that I have a tendency to TMI because I’m constantly writing, thinking, and discussing mental health with other writers or reading memoirs about it.

I forget that “How’s the weather,” “Um ... it’s okay. I’m not feeling great today because my mom has these delusions and she’s acting up, calling the police again...” This is not part of a regular conversation, right? But, with other writers, it’s never been a problem. They just take it and go with it.

The other day, I ran into somebody I knew from the MFA program and he did it. He said, “I’m okay,” and then he started talking about the project he was working on. He said it had been so long since he’d spoken to another writer and we kept mining that core material. It was one of those great conversations that feeds your soul and fuels your creativity—the discussion gets to the heart of what’s bothering you, what’s gnawing at you, instead of simply saying, “Wow, that Donald Trump, he’s an asshole, eh?” Do we even need to have that conversation?

Coincidentally, I was talking to one of your writing students earlier today and she said you gave her the best writing advice. At its essence was to just get writing—and don’t forget the chocolate.

Yes. The chocolate is essential.

What I usually say to students is to be kind. I’m stunned it’s a revelation, and I have to give myself this advice again and again. It’s never my first response to myself, which makes me sad.

You compare yourself to other people—to people who are writing at the same time as you are, your peers. And you’re comparing yourself to your favourite writers who may have written their first really good book at fifty-five. Constantly there’s this measuring thing out there that doesn’t work. Comparison is a dead end street, a cul-de-sac in hell. My dad often says, “There’s always going to be someone better than you and there’s always going to be someone worse than you.” He’s said it my whole life, so much that it’s my reflex. I feel like comparison is the route that capitalism has taken us to. I don’t know that you can escape it. You have to find a way to recognize when you’re doing it and stop.

We’re willing to talk about how snowflakes are unique, and we’re way more complicated than snowflakes. Still, we’ll compare ourselves to the next writer we meet: Oh I wish I had so-and-so’s ability this way and their skill that way. I think it’s doubly true if you’re a woman because you’re already being compared to other women on factors that are fuelled by misogyny. Also for some of us it starts very young, being told to behave more like other quiet, good kids or the shame-based comparison to a sibling.

The main advice I give students is to be kind to themselves and others. Kinder than they usually are. Kinder than they are on their kindest days. Kinder than anyone has ever taught them to be. Kinder than the Dali-Lama’s level of kindness.

I also have this speech by Brené Brown that I send to people where she says, “Let’s just acknowledge if you’re going to enter the arena as a creative person you’re going to get your ass kicked.” I’ve said to students trying to write, you’re gonna get your ass kicked anyway. Life is gonna kick your ass. You’re gonna experience grief. You’re gonna experience loss. Things are not gonna go your way. Not a single person has their life turn out the way they imagined or planned. So, you might as well spend your time doing the bad writing because it will get you someplace else—it’ll take you away, it’ll transport you. You’re gonna get your ass kicked anyway and one of the ways it's going to get kicked is when you show up to write and think “Why isn’t this better and how long will it take for me to be good at this?”

All those thoughts are just the inner-critic is having its heyday.

Your book of short stories, A Recipe for Disaster & Other Unlikely Tales of Love (Mother Tongue, 2013), has comfort food in it. And Room has an upcoming issue on the theme of food. Do you have any advice about mixing food with writing?

I tend to mix eating with writing more. I have a disordered relationship with food, to be honest, which again comes from my childhood. My mom was a terror in the kitchen. You know how some writers supply a track list of songs that they listened to when they were writing their books? I want them to supply what they were eating or what they think we should eat when we read their books. There are some gorgeous books you read and you want to taste everything mentioned in them. I want someone to prepare that food for me. It’s similar to that Borges quote about heaven being like a library…a bookstore is like a smorgasbord and I want the food to show up too. I feel like it should be right there.

Author, editor, and member of the Room collective, Rachel Thompson, sends out free weekly letters to writers to help illuminate their writing lives. Sign up on Lit Writers.

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