Shelley A. Leedahl remembers sitting at the table with her mother in Kyle, Sask., being too young to make letters but trying, asking her mom “does this make a word?”
It’s one of her earliest memories, and Leedahl is still just as interested in words today as she was then. But she certainly knows how to make letters now. It’s how she makes her living.
Leedahl, who moved to Ladysmith in April, is a full-time professional writer who has published poetry, novels, short story collections, children’s literature and creative nonfiction.
Leedahl has also had her work anthologized frequently, most recently in Best Canadian Poetry in English, which was published in 2013 by Tightrope Books.
Leedahl’s 11th book, a collection of essays titled I Wasn’t Always Like This, will be published through Signature Editions this fall.
Leedahl, who grew up in Saskatchewan and lived in Edmonton before moving to Ladysmith, also works as a freelance editor, creative writing instructor and radio advertising copywriter. She frequently presents her work in schools, libraries and universities across Canada, and she has received fellowships to attend international artist retreats in Europe, Mexico and the United States, as well as several in Canada.
Leedahl has known she wanted to be a writer since the age of three.
“I’ve always been fascinated by words,” she said. “There was never any doubt for me. I wanted to be a writer. But growing up in small-town Saskatchewan, I didn’t know a writer. We didn’t have writers come to school. I got the idea I should go to journalism school and work for a newspaper.”
Leedahl spent a year studying journalism arts at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary then moved to Saskatoon. She met her future husband, and they became young parents. Her dreams of becoming a writer went on the back burner as her life changed.
Leedahl began operating a home daycare and found herself with nine children in her house each day. She recalls that one day, amidst all the noise and chaos, a voice said to her that if she was ever going to be a writer, she had to begin now.
So Leedahl started reading Canadian novels, joined writers’ groups, starting submitting her writing to contests and began going to readings.
Then, Leedahl received “the most amazing break.” A publisher came to her and asked her if she had a poetry manuscript. She did, and that led to Thistledown Press in Saskatoon publishing A Few Words For January in 1990. The book of poetry sold out in a month and was re-printed.
While she was living in Saskatchewan and raising a young family, Leedahl says she would carve out the time to write very early in the morning and very late at night. When her children were one and three, she started going on writer’s retreats, starting with closer, shorter ones such as the Emma Lake Writers’ Colony or St. Peter’s College in Muenster.
“I found it difficult before to write at home with a busy family life, a garden to take care of and pets, so I had to remove myself physically, and that was good for me creatively,” she said. “When my children got older, I went away for longer and went farther. I was very lucky to have a very supportive family.”
Leedahl says most of her ideas come from life.
“With short stories, I generally start with a kernel of something that happened to me or someone I know, then I fabricate around that,” she said. “For poetry, I’m more of a confessional poet. I love the creative nonfiction genre, perhaps more than any other, because I feel you can combine genres.”
A lot of Leedahl’s later work is based on travel experiences.
“I’m also really interested in exploring the nature of relationships — romantic, familial, work,” she said.
Leedahl’s forthcoming book I Wasn’t Always Like This is a collection of essays, some of which were published quite a long time ago and some that were written as recently as December 2013.
Leedahl’s children are now 30 and 21 and living in Saskatoon, and her daughter is a published writer as well.
To make a living as a professional writer, Leedahl has found many different ways to share her writing and her skills.
“It’s been a long career, and with any career in the arts, I think you have to quilt an income together,” she said. “I teach creative writing, work as a freelance editor and freelance writer. I’ve learned to live close to the bone, and I’ve learned to travel on a literary budget, including hostels and backpacking. I’ve received fellowships for international retreats. Occasionally, I receive a grant from a provincial organization or the Canada Council for the Arts, which is a godsend and makes all the difference.”
Leedahl says she has probably earned most of her living by presenting in schools from B.C. to Labrador.
Now that she’s in Ladysmith, Leedahl hopes to offer creative writing workshops in poetry, prose and creative non-fiction, as well as professional editing and mentoring, and presentations to schools, book clubs and libraries.
“The emphasis will be on fun, because it should be fun,” she said.
Leedahl’s curiosity is what keeps her inspired and keeps her writing.
“What really drives me to write is an intense interest in people’s lives — how do they live, what have their experiences been, what choices have they had to make,” she said. “I like to immerse myself in different social situations. I talk to strangers. It’s just this insatiable interest I have in human life, and I try to live in a state of awe.
“I love what I do. I’m really, really fortunate, and it’s made for an interesting life.”