Jan Redford describes herself as a compulsive journal writer who always knew that she would like to be an author.
“I remember filling pages with squiggly lines when I was about four or five, pretending I was a writer. As I got older, writing is what grounded me, clarified my experiences, allowed me to trust my interpretation of the world. It’s almost like nothing is real or understandable until I write it down.”
It was not, however, a straight line from desire to reality. Her online bio describes a convoluted career path.
“I’ve worked as a waitress, pizza cook, housekeeper at a fly-in fishing camp in the Northwest Territories, assistant beekeeper, geoduck cleaner, cook for loggers, farmer, tree planter, climbing instructor, assistant Outward Bound instructor, radio dispatcher, pro ski patrol, forestry silviculture technician, elementary French Immersion teacher, substitute teacher and a writer.”
She spent her early years in the North, in Inuvik, Fort Smith and Whitehorse, where her father was the Administrator of the Yukon, before heading south for the next 40 years. Her first trip back was to attend the Atlin Writers’ Festival last summer. She’s thrilled to be coming back again so soon. Redford’s literary influences include Erica Jong, Anne Lamott and Nora Ephron. She has written some fiction and poetry, but says that her present niche is non-fiction. She often draws on her own life experiences, as she did in her memoir, End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage and Motherhood.
For Redford, preparing to be a writer involved taking a lot of writing courses at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University and eventually doing a masters in creative writing at UBC.
“Constant feedback was what helped me improve my writing and then weaning myself off the need for that constant feedback allowed me to learn to trust myself as a writer.”
Eleven years ago, she won a local writing contest in Vancouver for a piece called “The Big Sex Talk.” That made her feel like she was getting somewhere. She had already started her memoir, which took her about 12 years to finish.
“It is a lot of work, this becoming-a-writer business,” she said. “So you’ve got to really love the process, not just the promise of some kind of outcome, like a published book.”
Her writing process involves a lot of planning, some of which sounds a bit like the way Robert Service used to write in his cabin in Dawson.
“Because I’m very visual and kinaesthetic, I pin up huge sheets of paper and take a bunch of markers and go crazy. I write lists, draw mind maps, flow charts, timelines, pictures, etc., until it looks like I’ve plastered my brain all over my walls. It’s very messy, but sometimes it works”.
She said she veers between being hyper-focussed on her writing and finding all kinds of distractions to avoid it. She keeps lists to help her focus and she ticks things off as she accomplishes them.
“I tend to stay in the planning stage for a very long time. I transfer the mess on my walls to outlines, but I don’t stick with them. They work as a guide that I can change up as I go along. Getting out of the planning stage is an effort for me—planning can turn into procrastination—and I have to force myself to actually write a scene. When I do finally start, I can stay in the flow for hours.”
She has some advice for would-be writers.
“To a person who is passionate about writing, I would say throw yourself into it without holding back. Everyone is afraid of failure, of never getting published, of criticism—even the most highly published authors—so that fear should never be a deterrent.”
Redford is this year’s guest of Yukon Public Libraries, and will be travelling to a number of rural communities during the Yukon Writers’ Festival between April 30 and May 4.