“I almost have this naive faith in life at times, trusting that everything will be okay. It’s a string connecting me to some higher power, I’d like to think, helping me find purpose and keep trudging on.”

IMG_8770About Chasity St.Louis

Chasity St.Louis grew up in a small fishing village on the Southwestern Shore of Nova Scotia, a place that remains very much in her veins and informs much of her writing. She has a BAH in French from Acadia University and a Masters of English and creative writing from The University of New Brunswick where she wrote a short story cycle set in her hometown for her thesis. She’s studied in France and is now in her second year teaching English in South Korea where she’s part of a writer’s group and theatre troupe as well. Other than writing and reading, she loves baking for her friends, and walking, especially in nature, and traveling as much as possible.

The Interview

1. What is the force that drives you forward? What fuels your ambition?

The main force driving me forward and fueling my ambition is probably my determination/tenacity.  I’m rarely satisfied with where I’m at in life and always want something more and better. I want to be better. I’ve never really been a “that’s good enough” person, at least not comfortably.

The times I’ve had that mindset, it didn’t sit well with me because I know deep down it’s not the type of person I’d like to be or a pattern I want to fall into. When I want something bad enough, I’ll try my best to get it whether it’s with school, writing, teaching, personal relationships.  My brain is never still, and I’m constantly contemplating life and searching for something that brings fulfillment. I think about the big questions a lot, such as:

  1. What is the meaning of my life?
  2. What is my purpose?

And asking those tough questions helps me make choices that push me forward. As long as I’m still searching for a career and activities where I feel like I contribute meaningfully to society and feel satisfied with myself, I think I’ll always feel the drive to move forward and keep trying something new. And I think I’ll always be a person aware that there’s a need for self-improvement. I don’t give up without a fight.

2. Can you talk about your greatest “failure”? (something that led to your most significant shift in consciousness, and made you who you are today).

Greatest failure, that’s a hard one. When I hear “failure,” I think more in terms of tasks or tangible goals. I can’t think of any one of those types of failures that have been particularly memorable or formative. However, it isn’t hard to think of the time my life hit rock bottom and definitely shaped who I am today.

I suffered from anorexia when I was in grade twelve. It was sheer hell – like becoming someone I could not even recognize myself.  It’s like some type of demon decided to hijack my brain and all thoughts of rationality so that I was unable to realize the full extent of harm I was inflicting upon my body and mind.  I’m “ better” now, but even though I’ve been physically healthy for quite some time, the mental part continues to linger and rear its ugly head more often than I’d like.

I still don’t feel like I have my brain back, and I’m not sure if I ever will.  I can’t help but think of my life as having a dividing line, before and after ED. There seems to be a pattern where I’m feeling okay with my body and there’s not so much anxiety surrounding food, and where I even think I might be on the road to beating it, but then it returns just as vicious as ever. Like today I’m sitting here at school thinking about how the skirt I’m wearing is digging into my waist and it didn’t do that the last time I wore it so that means I’ve gained weight so I need to lose weight because I don’t want to get any fatter than I am and and… pure exhaustion.

The worst thing is when you can’t trust your own mind. It adds a lot of stress and wears me down on top of the daily stressors that come along with just being human. So it’s still really, really hard.

However, having gone through this has definitely made me a stronger, wiser, more empathetic person. I kind of feel now that I can deal with anything that life throws my way.

It makes me really tough, tough as nails I think, even though I don’t think I normally come across to people as a very strong person.

I think when people first meet me, they think of me as someone shy, meek, sweet and innocent, and I kind of hate that in a way because, at times, it seems dismissive. Having been so close to a death-like state makes me feel more of a push to do things, like a knife to the throat.

I don’t want to have any regrets. I’ve become an experiential person; I just want to live and do things and take chances, sometimes against my better judgment, but I’m just too damn curious and want to take all this life has to offer, both the good and the bad, because what the hell, at least I’ll be able to write about it? Right?

Thus, I think ultimately my illness has made me a better writer.

3. Are you happy? What does happiness mean to you?

Am I happy? Well, I’m not necessarily unhappy. Content would be perhaps the best word. Even though the main force driving me forward is my determination, I find it hard to be as passionate about things as I naturally was before. I feel like I’m not the person I used to be.

I felt stuck and hopeless during my MA years, and I continue to feel that way now while teaching in South Korea. Luckily, these feelings aren’t constant, but it’s really frightening when things, especially the two things that have always been a big part of my life and enjoyed since I remember, reading and writing, have become activities I feel like I must force myself into doing.

It’s like I don’t know who I am anymore. I used to feel more ambitious and that I really wanted to be super successful, but now I don’t feel that same intensity.

Happiness is a life long journey, which boils down to being satisfied with what you have and not being in so much want all the time. My lifestyle now is a bit unsettling. There are things that I want that I’m worried I’ll never get – such as a good and lasting romantic relationship and children. I’ve been through some rough times in that area recently. Something always doesn’t match up. It’s especially hard living here in South Korea where most people are on term contracts that often end before a relationship has much of a chance of developing.

I often feel like I have so much love to give, but I get too ahead of myself, and my heart is squashed in people’s hands. I sometimes look at people my age who have a stable career, are married, and have children and feel jealous.

It’s often hard to remind myself that maybe sometimes people feel jealous of me too, living in a foreign country and traveling the world. Maybe one day, I’ll have these things, but perhaps I won’t feel any happier. Maybe I’ll be bored.. And I must remind myself that it’s not as if having a long term relationship and children will magically make me happy. There are things that I need work on independently from that.

All of these feelings are signs that I just need to keep working on finding happiness within myself, because I know that’s where it lies, not in things and other people.

4. What do you think is your greatest strength? On the reverse, can you identify a personal challenge (something you currently struggle with)?

My greatest strength is my hope/perseverance. I’ve been through some rough times, as has everyone, but I’m thankful for that little glimmer of hope inside me that always seems to say

“don’t give up yet.”

It’s what kept me going when I felt so alone and miserable through my school years (when I was bullied and had no friends); what kept me going when I had my eating disorder; what keeps me going now in these aimless mid-twenties. I almost have this naive faith in life at times, trusting that everything will be okay. It’s a string connecting me to some higher power, I’d like to think, helping me find purpose and keep trudging on.

Another strength is my honesty. I’ve had people tell me they love how open and honest I am and feel like there are no layers to go through to get to the real me. Someone described me as Chasity #nofilter for better or worse.  I have unintentionally hurt others’ feelings for being so honest and saying things that were probably better left unsaid. But with me, what you see is what you get. I wear my heart on my sleeve which can be a default because  it’s so easily hurt, and  my inability to hide behind a mask has caused me to behave not as professionally as I would have liked at times. However, the upside of this is I openly say how much I love and appreciate those I care about. I frankly state if something is bothering me in order to resolve it; there’s very little passive aggressiveness. I am not afraid to talk about or share my flaws. There’s no mask.

5. When did you first realize that you wanted to be an artist? Can you talk about that moment or time in your life?

There’s no specific moment where I realized I wanted to be an artist; I think I’ve just always been one. I have always loved stories. My parents read them to me since I was a baby. My mother said that even when I was two, I could easily sit still and listen to a story. I wish I had that attention span now!

My mother has a degree in early childhood education, so she always encouraged learning and creativity through crafts. I enjoyed painting and drawing. I loved playing with dolls and Barbies, up until a fairly, probably embarrassingly, late age. I think this had a lot to do with storytelling. I’d create characters having jobs and families and continue the stories or keep creating new scenarios.

We have a video of me putting on a puppet show when I was three. One of the first stories I remember writing was a Christmas picture book we were assigned in grade three. Even then, I knew I wanted to share thoughtful and impactful words. Its last lines are “life will be strange and life will be life.”

Our grade six teacher was big on creative writing and we had several writing assignments throughout the year. My first person narrative poem was called “When I feed Fuzz” about going outside in the cold to feed my rabbit. He loved it, and I won the Young Author’s Award that year. I feel thankful to have had teachers continue to encourage my writing in high school, followed by professors in university. They all seemed to believe in my potential and encouraged me to “keep writing.”

As a teen, I wrote in my diary religiously, almost obsessively, pages and pages each night. It wasn’t just a matter of jotting down brief sentences about what I did that day, it was a matter of describing everything I did from the moment I woke up and all my thoughts and feelings about it. There are boxes of filled journals from that time period. Writing always seemed to be something that gave me meaning and helped me make sense of my life and feel better, some sor tof relief, cathartic really. It helped me survive my teenage years and all my years since then.

6. Habits, routine, morning rituals — What are the positive things you do daily that have had the most significant impact on your life and work?

I don’t have a writing routine/morning rituals, though perhaps I should. Like I mentioned, I used to write in a diary religiously, and maybe it’s a practice I should fall back into. In my undergrad and MA program and also the summers in between, I’d often get up, eat breakfast, have coffee and read for an hour or so then go for a walk if I had the time; I think it set up my day well.

In my current life, it’s important for me to still have time to ease into my day, which means waking up earlier than it actually takes me to get ready. I make coffee and eat breakfast while reading things like news articles online before getting ready to head out the door. I tend to prioritize the reading stuff as opposed to getting ready so I’m always still rushing out the door, so maybe this morning routine isn’t as relaxing and effective as it should be. I also walk forty minutes to school each morning, then after school I go to Daewangman Park, which is a park made up of rocky cliffs and pine trees and hiking trails near the beach and ocean close to where I live. It’s so gorgeous and reminds me of home.

I think being by some body of water in general is important for my creativity and mental health because I’m instinctually attached to it in some way. If I could just walk in nature all day long, then I’d be pretty happy and it’d keep more demons at bay. It clears my mind and puts me at ease; it’s when I feel most like myself. I don’t really get a chance to feel calm otherwise. I have a lot of nervous energy that’s built up and causes trouble sleeping and walking helps me release that. It helps ground and centre me, which I think is important for my creativity and writing, which is harder to do with anxiety.

7. How do you deal with doubt? Where do you go for support?

I don’t know if I deal with doubt all too effectively, but in recent years, I have become better at telling myself and believing that I’m only human and humans are full of faults, that I can’t keep expecting myself to be superhuman and handle everything perfectly all the time.

I remind myself that even really great artists doubt themselves.

I think for me it’s a matter of telling myself to calm down, suck it up and just keep going. I’m certainly not going to get anywhere by complaining and letting my doubt stop me from trying to create. Being with other creative people and doing workshops or joining groups where I can share my work with others and receive feedback also helps. I often zero in on my faults and what needs to be fixed.  However, others help point out the good parts and what they really like about my writing.

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself with well-matched people, you don’t feel criticized and torn apart (as one might expect), but rather surrounded by lots of support and community. You realize that others struggle with the same problems. Someone is going to think you’re valuable and want to encourage you. Writing can be such an isolating vocation so it’s good to have people that help you get out of your own head.

I also find that reading quotes or books about writing can help. Or re reading some of my favourite poems, stories, and books helps me re discover why I’m doing this or why it might be important in the first place.

8. What, in your opinion, are the qualities of someone who is a “great” artist (in whatever discipline)? 
  • A great artist is original, doesn’t give up, seeks to push the boundaries of themselves and society, exposing people to a quality of art and a way of looking at the world they might not have otherwise experienced.
  • A great artist gets people to think and feel deeply.

When I talk about pushing boundaries and challenging, it doesn’t necessarily mean being radical, it just means writing truthfully and searching for the truth. I think a great artist is very tapped into the human condition, though I doubt anyone knows how to understand it completely but we sure do try.

Great artists often get to be great for a reason; they are passionate and make whatever art form they’re practicing a priority.

A great artist carves time out of each day, and often a significant amount of it, to devote to his/her craft.

I’m not there yet.

We all have time and can make time if we want to do something bad enough. It’s a question of priorities and sacrifices. What matters most? Great artists aren’t afraid of failure; they don’t let that stop them from trying and use failure as a learning opportunity, not something to wallow in.

9. Any advice for artists on a similar path? (Perhaps advice you wish you’d been given when you were first starting out).

Everyone has potential, that’s what I would tell those on a similar path. It’s what I try to remind myself. I think that truly great artists are probably born with some “natural” talent and are able to produce great work a bit easier than other people. However, they still have to put in a lot of time and effort. The biggest piece of advice would be have patience, and like my teachers told me “keep writing” or acting or singing or painting or whatever your craft is.

You can always get better and there’s no knowing what you can achieve unless you keep pushing yourself.

Writing sometimes gives me great stress and anxiety because it seems so daunting. Take it bit by bit and soon you’ll get somewhere. The hardest part is starting.

Also, I think what I would have liked someone to tell me is that you’re not going to always feel inspired. In fact, there might be times when you don’t like writing at all, when you hardly produce a thing. Yes, you should push yourself to keep working on your craft, but allow yourselves breaks. Don’t allow yourself to get so stressed out and overworked that you associate it with misery.

It helped when a writer friend told me that she didn’t write hardly at all for a period of five years. Now she has multiple collections of poetry. There’s maybe a bit of ebb and flow to it. Last year, I hardly wrote and didn’t even want to look at the stories for my thesis, but this year, I’ve found my way back to writing and have produced a lot more and am ready to improve my stories to hopefully get some published.

Writing can be such a lonely profession, and it led me to feeling rather nihilistic, wondering what is the point of me writing these stories? How does this even relate to the world/do any good? Why does what I say matter? It sucks, etc.

This is why, like I mentioned, having a support group of sorts is recommended. I often feel like my writing self exists in a vacuum, like I’m writing about the real world instead of actually living it. So it’s good to have people who help you take yourself outside of yourself and offer some feedback and suggestions, just to sometimes know that you exist and your work exists. It feels good to have people support you and want you to succeed, who value what you produce enough to want to read it. I don’t really think many of us can make it alone.

10. Ever experience flow/being in the zone? What does it feel like for you, and can you tell us about a time when you experienced it? 

Have I ever experienced being in the zone? Yes. Does it happen as often as I’d like? No.

The most recent time I experienced flow was when I sat at my desk at school during some free time and edited a poem for about two or three hours. I was trying to just block out the distractions around me, and sometimes, ironically, when there are more things that can distract me, I can focus more easily because I must make myself focus. I’m usually so restless and distracted and moving around and getting up, checking Facebook and clicking on links endlessly, but in the zone, I can sit very still and just be in the world of my piece of writing and calm, not anxious like I usually am. I appreciate these rare moments because I find my attention span is increasingly zapped in this age of being plugged in. It’s hard to tap out of that most of the time.

What happens more often than being in the zone (and by more often, I mean not often enough) is that a line for a story or a poem will come to me in a sudden moment of inspiration, and sometimes, it is these lines that are some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever written, achieved with relatively minimal effort, which somehow seems cruel and unfair.

However, when thinking about this further, I think those lines or moments of inspiration are actually maybe the result of lots of cumulative work and creative thinking, getting your mind in tune with your own creative voice.  When that happens, good lines come more easily, and recently, since beginning writing again and writing lots of poetry, when I’m talking to or message one of my writer friends, he’ll say “that’s a good line.” In this way, writing is almost spiritual.

11. What is your favourite book? It could be about your craft, or maybe just an excellent story. If that is too difficult to answer, who are your favourite authors?

It’s hard to pick favourites here, but anyone who knows me knows how much I’m in love with Alice Munro.  

I was given Runaway for a gift at Christmas when I was in grade ten, and I had never read stories that seemed to ring so true before, that seemed to be speaking to me and my life. Her version of small town Ontario reminds me a lot of my version of small town Nova Scotia. I think reading Runaway was what inspired my interest in short stories and in writing them. And showed me how where I’m from might be worth writing about. I’m still in awe of Munro’s skill, how she can weave in and out of time between past and present seamlessly and make stories work that theoretically shouldn’t. I want to be able to write her non-cheesy epiphanies but I can’t. Ahh, aspirations.

I’d say my favourite book about writing is Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. My writing professor recommended it to me when I was in second year at Acadia, and it touched me in such a deep way at that time that I have loved it ever sense.  I like the way Lamott addresses the artist’s life as a whole and seems to get at that doubt and how we can transform our lives into writing and how powerful and transformative writing is. I try to go back to my favourite passages whenever I’m feeling down and hopeless about writing.

There’s this quote:

“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

Right, right? She makes writing seem important and noble. And it is, but I think it’s all too easy to forget that.

Check out the favourite books by the other interviewees

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Chasity St.Louis: I’ve never really been a “that’s good enough” person… at least not comfortably.
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These conversations are about the creative soul. They are the true experiences of creatives with their own creative impulse, and they are the private (made public) reflections on what creativity feels like on a very personal level. All interviews are conducted by Christine Bissonnette
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