Sara de Waal recently became the inaugural winner of Canada’s only national short story competition open exclusively to students studying at Canadian universities and colleges. The Bridge Prize, as it is called, was established in 2019 by the University of Lethbridge’s School of Liberal Education and Vancouver-based alumnus and donor, Terry Whitehead (BA ‘94.) Chosen from a pool of 340 story submissions and earning her the $7,500 first place award, de Waal’s story, Cecilia and Richard, is essentially about the intimate relationship between a father and his young daughter as they grieve together.
“I was shocked,” confessed de Waal, upon hearing that she’d won. “I was not expecting it. I was amazed that such an esteemed group of jurors had read my story – and they liked it!” Two months later, having officially graduated from the University of British Columbia (UBC) with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, she still can hardly believe it.
De Waal grew up in Abbotsford, B.C. where she attended New Life Christian Reformed Church. She later graduated from Dordt College (now University) where she focused on teaching with a visual arts focus. “I only took one creative writing course,” de Waal said. “I just loved it. After that I wanted to do a Masters in Creative Writing but decided I needed to work.” She taught at Surrey Christian School for three years before she started the Masters program at UBC, working part time on a dairy farm. “I had worked there during high school and in the summers while studying at Dordt,” she explained. “Teaching music and art takes all my creative energy so I knew once I got into UBC I couldn’t balance both teaching and writing. Working on the farm would give me time to think. And I love animals. It’s a job I knew I could do while writing.” After the first year, however, she received enough money through grants and some substitute teaching that she could quit the dairy farm.
While working on Cecilia and Richard, de Waal lived off the grid for a year at the family cabin near 100 Mile House, B.C. “Other than the ducks, there were not many other voices to distract me. I spent a day just fully being with my characters. I put the father and the daughter in different places and imagined what they might say to one another. I knew they loved each other a great deal, and I wanted language to be a shelter for them – a leaky shelter, perhaps, since pieces of the mother’s language are now missing – but a special grieving place where no one else belonged. In the wake of a death, people tend to say, ‘words fall short’ or ‘there are no words.’ If the relationship between the father and the daughter feels intimate in this story, then I hope it is in part due to the special and often figurative language they share and invent and, at times, even hide behind when the literal world proves too painful to put into words.”
These days, de Waal is back teaching music and art four days a week to children in grades kindergarten through grade 3 at Surrey Christian School. “I’m not the same person as I was before,” she confesses. “Before, I was a teacher who wanted to be a writer but now I’m really both. I feel torn about it for sure. Once I get settled, I hope I can get a project on the go.”
While she considers a new writing project, De Waal’s first picture book, 48 Grasshopper Estates, is projected for release through Annick Press in April 2021.
Sara’s advice to writers
“I keep a line from a child’s poem pinned to my bulletin board: “Permission is a sail for your boat.” What stops me writing is the worry that what I’m saying is not important, or that it is important but I’m saying it wrong. What keeps me writing is reading. My advice to myself and any other aspiring writer is to be an aspiring reader.
If permission is a sail for your boat, rules are, perhaps, the anchor. Here is my own personal list of rules for writing. They helped me write my first book at the moments when I needed more than permission.
- Read everything twice.
- Use fewer words. Leave bigger gaps. Jumping from stone to stone across a river is infinitely more fun than a bridge.
- Write sentences that you find delightful. Why weed the portulaca garden you planted if you don’t even like portulaca?
- To borrow from Susan Sontag: “Love words, agonize over sentences, and pay attention to the world.”
- When you stop loving words:
- Make bread. If something doesn’t rise in you while the dough rises – no, don’t worry. Something always does.
- Read the dictionary. You will come across a word like “flummery,” and be delighted back to the page.
- Read a restaurant menu out loud and then order what sounds best to say. Eating words is a sure way to want to write with them again.
- Work outside until you hear a sound that both invites and resists onomatopoeia. Create small problems that make you want to solve bigger ones.”