“I guess I’d been experiencing it for the 30 years before I actually started writing the book,” I admitted. “I knew that I wanted to write a book ever since I was a kid, but I was too afraid to try.”
It’s true. My fears—of failure, of not being good enough, of what people would think, of not getting published—had held me back from starting at all. So I made a lot of excuses and told myself a narrative of “shoulds.”
I should work toward a more stable career.
I should accept that it’s too hard to “make it” as a writer.
I should appreciate my life as it is.
I should be more realistic.
In my latest piece for Elephant Journal, an online magazine dedicated to mindful living, I write about fear, self-doubt, success, and why it’s not selfish to pursue our dreams.
The first draft of my début novel, See What Flowers, was written in Toronto, after I’d returned from just over a year of teaching in Nunavut, Canada. (Check out my interview in Shedoesthecity for details on how living and working in the Canadian Arctic influenced the writing and research for my novel. )
In addition to Vancouver and the Arctic, much of See What Flowers is set in Toronto, particularly on Dufferin Street and Bloordale Village. Landmarks such as Christie Pits Park, the Baldwin Steps (Spadina stairs by Casa Loma), Snakes & Lattes, Toronto Western Hospital, High Park, and the #29 Dufferin bus are described in the novel.
Not only is Toronto featured in See What Flowers, but various locations in the city also inspired the writing of it. Here’s a few Toronto landmarks where See What Flowers was written:
1. Boxcar Social (Summerhill)
Boxcar Social is my favourite café in Toronto. I love the ambience, the lattés, and the back patio. One Sunday afternoon, I even saw Andrew Coyne, one of my heros in Canadian writing, there. He was writing too. I was writing. He was writing. I thought, maybe one day, we’ll both be Canadian writers. Maybe one day.
Boxcar will always have a special place in my heart because that is where I finished the first draft of See What Flowers.
It was a Saturday night in October 2015, just a few weeks before I left Toronto for a year to teach in Colombia. I arrived at the café at about 7pm intending to stay for a couple of hours. The café turned into a nightclub and I didn’t even notice. At midnight I was still writing. Some guys came over to ask me if I was freezing and if they should close the back door. I didn’t even notice that the back door was open. I didn’t even notice that it was dark out. I didn’t even notice that the café had turned into a bar. It was like I was in the zone on a long run. All I could focus on was what I was doing right then. The writing.
The last thirty or so pages of the book contain the strongest writing. They are also the most autobiographical and get as close to the truth of life as I know it. I’m really proud of them. So thank you, Boxcar Social…maybe it was the music, maybe it was the coffee, maybe it was the beer, maybe it was the crowd, but you certainly inspired something in me the night I finished the first draft of my first novel.
In 2015, I took almost a year off teaching high school to write. But I kept my job as a fitness instructor at Goodlife Fitness Clubs and taught lunch time classes from Monday to Friday at the Yorkville, Manulife Centre, and Bloor Park locations. My days usually involved writing at my aunt and uncle’s Forrest Hill mansion (where I was living) in the morning from about 8:30am-11:30am, then I would go teach my class from 12:15-1;15pm, and in the afternoon, I would go to the nearby Toronto Reference Library from about 2:00-5:00 pm.
Luckily, my good friend, Keira, was writing her Master’s thesis at the time, so we would often meet and write together at the library. This enabled us to take coffee breaks together and support each other in what can be a very isolating process.
One thing I loved about writing at the Toronto Reference Library was that I was surrounded by thousands of books. The books were written by humans. Maybe I could write a book, too. It was also great to have a free space to use for the afternoon during a time when I had very little income.
All of those afternoons spent writing at the Toronto Reference Library made for many, many coffee breaks at Balzac’s. I often brought my laptop with me and stayed there for an hour or two for a change of scene. Balzac’s coffee is some of the best in Toronto. They even have an Atwood Blend, named after Canadian literary icon, Margaret Atwood. So perhaps Balzac’s coffee contains some secret ingredient to inspire great writing.
Since she lived in the west end at the time, often my friend Keira and I would meet at Saving Gigi a hip café on Bloor at Ossington. It serves coffee, beer, brunch, and amazing salads and sandwiches. The part I loved most about writing there is that it attracts the staring artist type. I was always surrounded by others working on screenplays, articles, blog posts, graphic design, and other creative projects. Their work made my own creative venture seem less of a silly fantasy and more of a worthwhile venture.
I was inspired and motivated by others struggling to pursue their dreams at a time when social pressures were encouraging me to develop a sustainable financial plan and settle.
Just west of Saving Gigi is Bloomer’s, a homey vegan café which serves coffee, tea, beer, whiskey, salads, sandwiches, and delicious home baked goods. It is an amazing space to write, especially in the summer. It has big booths and tables, a positive vibe, and a garage-style open window which allows you to write while people watching the passerby’s on Bloor Street.
Bloomer’s is the only café in Toronto that I wrote at which is actually featured in the novel, See What Flowers. Adam and Emma’s basement neighbour, Jess, describes a terrible Tinder date experience that she had at “Bloomer’s, you know, that great vegan café at Bloor and Ossington?”
Most of my writing happens when I’m not writing. I get ideas when I’m walking or running or biking or thinking or staring into space. Or reading. I get inspired by ideas that were written by other authors and incorporate them into my characters and plot.
So when I get an idea in the midst of doing another activity, I often stop and write it in my phone. Then I email it to myself and incorporate it into the draft of my writing.
In March 2015, I marked the OSSLT (Ontario Literacy Test), which is a great opportunity for teachers to gain experience in assessment. But it is also a bit soul crushing. It is like an assembly line for grading essays. I marked the same answer from thousands of students across Ontario for two weeks straight! It took me over an hour to travel to the location of the OSSLT at the Toronto Congress Centre. I had just started writing the first draft of Parts 1 & 2 of See What Flowers, and much of it was written on the 52 Lawrence West bus as I worked a little creativity into an extremely monotonous work day.
Where I Wrote It: Outside of Toronto
While I wrote the first draft of See What Flowers in Toronto, much of the editing happened outside of the city.
See What Flowers is available as an eBook and paperback on Amazon. Thank you everyone for all of your support.
This time next week, See What Flowers, my début novel about love and mental illness, will be available on Amazon.
Here’s a sneak preview of See What Flowers to give you a feel for what the book’s about.
See What Flowers
By Shannon Mullen
“Struggling and suffering are the essence of a life worth living. If you’re not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you’re not demanding more from yourself – expanding and learning as you go – you’re choosing a numb existence. You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip.”
― Dean Karnazes, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner
Emma: May 10, 2014, 9:30pm EDT
The party is over. I’m floating weightlessly through the sky like Mary Poppins, grasping my flamingo pink birthday balloons so tightly that my nails puncture the skin of my sweaty palm.
Startled by the sound of myself giggling, I release the balloons. They float to the ceiling as my feet hit the floor but the giggling doesn’t stop. Instead, it becomes louder, more honest: the yelp of a dog off-leash, the squeal of a toddler chasing butterflies, the height of sexual pleasure, the subconscious release of something raw and visceral, something undeniably, yet unexplainably true.
It’s like I’ve pierced a small hole in the balloon, sucked in the helium and exhaled delirium. I’m under the effect of something, certainly too much Malbec, but perhaps also too much happiness.
After more than a decade of cramming for exams, late nights at the library, taking risks, and making tough decisions, I’ve become lighter, like in the way sticking to a running program burns excess fat. The lightness teaches me that struggle lifts us up rather than weighs us down.
I take a blue recycling bag from underneath the sink and start cleaning up empty tall cans–Steam Whistle, Mill St., Muskoka, Great Lakes, Kichesippi and other Ontario Craft beers that I’ve never seen before. Every time I go to the Beer Store, there’s a new microbrew on the market. With so much competition, what makes one product last and another disappear? By the time I’ve tossed a dozen or so empties into the recycling bag, the giggling has stopped and I’m overcome with exhaustion. I check the time on my phone. 3:30 am. There’s a missed call from Adam. Where is he?
Adam will be upset that I already washed all of the dishes—the plates and forks we used to serve my DQ cake, the wine glasses, and the Starbucks mug that that Katie used for her cab sav because we ran out of glasses. Adam wouldn’t make me clean up a mess on my birthday. He’d remind me that a real partner shares the responsibility, and that since I’m the BDG, I deserve to let him pull the weight.
I tug on the ribbon dangling from one of the balloons floating against the ceiling. I want to set it free, let it fly into the wild like a caged parrot being released in the jungle, so I put the recycling bag on the floor and collect the ribbons from all three balloons. How high will they soar before bursting to the ground? Fingers crossed these balloons will drift higher and higher and higher into a limitless universe.
I shiver slightly as a draft of cold air floods the apartment the second the front door opens, like winter has suddenly arrived even though summer’s just around the corner.
I spin around to see who it is. I already know.
He’s holding a couple of pink tulips in his hand, freshly picked from the neighbours’ garden. His eyes are glowing with the droopy haze of booze and he looks like a maniac, a wild dog. We are both high on the energy of the party and the awareness that we are on the brink of something wonderful. As I float towards him, a nagging question tugs me back; I want to swat it away like an annoying mosquito. But it keeps buzzing inside me. I shiver again.
Is there such a thing as being too happy?
He hands me the tulips, luscious lips in full bloom. As I accept the flowers, I release my grip on the balloons, and they bounce gently against the ceiling the way they did before—hovering, annoyed, frustrated, contained by the ceiling and disappointed by the limits of life.
He hugs me tightly and an electric current shoots through me as though he’s resuscitating a heart that’s already beating. We hold each other, our bodies linking in the courtship ritual of dragonflies, our brilliant green darners hover as one above our apartment.