By Jess Taylor
In the summer of 2013, I had no real publications to my name. I was running a reading series, The Emerging Writers Reading Series (EW), and while I had just finished The University of Toronto’s Creative Writing program, I was known more as a curator than a writer and had a manuscript that turned out to be a total disaster. I felt a remarkable sense of failure even though I knew I was young, knew that I shouldn’t have expected so much for myself so soon. At least I was writing: I was writing every day and when I was writing stories, I was really having fun. The other thing I was doing regularly was performing at reading series. Since I ran EW, people seemed to think I enjoyed being on stage, and I’d often be invited to perform a story or a set of poetry. That summer, I was invited by Chris Graham to read on Toronto Island as part of the series Amazing New Stuff.
Since we were reading outside, Chris requested that the readers read family-friendly pieces that could appeal to all ages. I didn’t have a lot of work that fit that category, but I did have one short story that I’d been writing to blow off steam. It was called “Paul” and featured three Pauls in the same town, loosely based on the landscape of Caledon, where I grew up. The story had a cat based on my beloved childhood cat, Cally, and I thought kids might enjoy the playful nature of the story, even if they didn’t understand its subtleties.
Ward’s Island was the perfect place to read a story with so much imagery of trees and clearings, forests and fields. Everything was green and I could see the lake from where we were reading. The crowd was surprisingly large even though it was the only reading series that required its audience to take a ferry. They were mostly people who were there to support Stephen Thomas, the other reader, who was originally from Toronto and only in town briefly. Two of the people there were Emily M. Keeler and Charles Yao, who were the publishers of Little Brother.
Readings are terrifying. I guess people have different levels of fear when it comes to getting up on stage. Some are able to divorce themselves from that fear and become someone else while performing. I’ve never seemed to manage this—whether I’m hosting, reading or even teaching in front of a class, I’m terrified. But people learn to manage the stress or find techniques to conquer the fear. For me, preparing extensively helps tackle my stage fright, and even though I was scared, my reading on Ward’s went as smoothly as it could.
I often think about how one thing could have been different that day. I could have read a different story. Emily and Charles could have not come. I could have botched the reading. I could have not even read at that show. But having everything happen the way it did set off a wonderful and unexpected chain of events for me. Emily and Charles really liked the story and requested it for Little Brother. The publication looked great and I was so proud. At this point, Little Brother didn’t yet pay contributors (they do now), and I still hadn’t ever had a paid publication. Emily nominated the story for a National Magazine Award and it was selected as a finalist. Then, on the awards’ night, it was named the Gold Winner, and “Paul” became my first paid publication. This led to my book of short stories, Pauls, being picked up by BookThug, which has directly led me to reading at the IFOA this year.
I wonder if my 2013 self who was so poor she could barely afford to eat, who was sad often and wondering about her purpose, who felt that sense of failure, who was scared but did it all anyway, I wonder if she knew that exposing herself to that fear meant exposing herself to that one opportunity that could change everything. I’m certainly never going to stop being afraid, and I’m never going to stop putting myself out there anyway.
Jess Taylor is a writer and poet based in Toronto. She is the host and founder of the Emerging Writers Reading Series and the fiction editor of Little Brother Magazine. Her work has been published in a variety of journals, magazines and newspapers, including Little Fiction, Little Brother, Joyland, This Magazine, National Post, Emerge Literary Journal, Great Lakes Review, Zouch Magazine and offSIDE Zine. She received the Gold 2013 National Magazine Award in Fiction for her short story, “Paul.”