Alicia Elliott; @WordsandGuitar
How do you describe your job to your family?
I’m a writer and editor.
What was your first paying gig out of school? (In your field, or not.)
The first time I was paid for my writing was a feature [on the meaning of elections for Six Nations] for Briarpatch Magazine.
What’s the weirdest gig you’ve ever done solely for money?
Selling 50/50 tickets at the racetrack on the rez. Dirt clumps in my teeth and tinnitus ruining my ears every weekend!
What was your BIG break? How did you land it?
Winning Gold at the National Magazine Awards in 2017. I probably wouldn’t have written the winning essay if I wasn’t encouraged by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who was editing the Creative Nonfiction portion of the Indigenous issue of The Malahat Review. She’d heard me read a piece and asked me to submit something for the issue. If not for her initially messaging me and following up, I probably wouldn’t have written “A Mind Spread Out On The Ground,” she wouldn’t have accepted it, it wouldn’t have won any awards, and I might not have such a great title for my forthcoming book.
What would you say has been your most significant setback, career-wise, to date? How did you bounce back?
Being rejected from every creative writing MFA program right out of my undergrad was pretty devastating. After that, it was hard to convince myself that my writing was worthwhile. Because I needed to provide for my kid, I couldn’t sit around perfecting my craft. I had to get a job and the only place that would hire me was Starbucks. I was on my way to becoming store manager, when I realized I was putting more effort into a job I didn’t even want to succeed at than earnestly trying and failing at something I loved. Changing my focus and energy outside of work back to my writing made all the difference for me.
Name one piece of career advice you always give.
If you want to write well, read well. Analyze what you’re reading, figure out how it’s working or not working and utilize those techniques in your own work.
What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?
When I started tweeting complaints about the politics of Canadian literature, a woman messaged me to tell me that CanLit was a tight knit community and I should be careful what I say if I want to build a career.
She was genuinely concerned for me, but if I’d followed her advice I would have missed out on the opportunities I’ve had. My voice is the reason I’ve been asked to write editorials and essays by so many publications I admire, and I’ve built a career based on integrity and honesty instead of fake ass-kissing.
Who is your favourite person to follow on social media from your industry? What do you love about their social feeds?
I love following Jen Sookfong Lee, Zoe Whitall, Gwen Benaway, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Arielle Twist, Amanda Reaume and Jaye Simpson on Twitter. They’re all hilarious, brilliant, well-informed and straightforward. Plus, they’re all super cool and I want to be best friends with every single one of them.
How would you describe your industry in terms of representation and inclusivity?
Opportunistic and absurd. Right now, both journalism and CanLit are realizing that marginalized people are not only talented, but that they can make them a considerable amount of money. They only need the opportunity. Both industries are investing in a very specific version of “diversity”—but not necessarily because they want to change those industries to actually become inclusive. It’s because by doing so they can silence claims of racism, ableism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia, while simultaneously making money off of the same people they’ve pushed out of those industries for so long.
Looking to the future, what excites you the most about your career?
I’m excited and terrified about publishing my first book, which is coming out next March. Excited, because it’s a huge milestone for me and I’m proud of what I’ve written. But terrified because I’m very vulnerable in this book and I’m unsure what the reaction will be. It’s a complicated feeling.