In the Spotlight: Steph VanderMeulen

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Steph is one of my illustrious TAs in the Story Intensive this fall. Perspicacious readers of this website will also recognize her from my Deep Revision series. Steph's scenes have a lot of buzz and warmth in them – you can feel them in your body when you read.

In this excerpt, check out the way she describes how it feels to drink rye. Isn't that beautiful and true? Then notice how the repulsive and compelling Ed eats a plate of cold fries. Although – I love this – Steph doesn't write about him eating fries. Instead, she shows him picking up a cold fry. Then he "sucks on it before chewing like he's working a pencil end." See if you can sense how she's transferred a feeling through language here, without explaining it. The word "fry" itself has become so unappetizing in this scene. Ugh. It's wonderful!

Steph VanderMeulen

Meet Steph

Steph VanderMeulen is a freelance copy editor and proofreader for Canadian publishers and independent writers. She writes the book blog Bella’s Bookshelves, is an avid short story reader, and a stalwart promoter of authors, publishers, indie bookshops, and Canadian literature in particular. She’s currently working on a collection of short stories. Steph lives in Belleville, Ontario.

Handwriting or computer?

Computer. I broke my right hand when I was 20 and writing often makes it ache. I do journal a bit and take notes or start stories by hand. There’s nothing like a lovely notebook and special pen!

Page count or time count?

Neither. If I have any objectives like that I won’t do it: for me, they invite feelings of obligation, guilt, etc. So I just show up and go until I can’t or don’t want to anymore. Sometimes that’s ten minutes, sometimes almost a whole day.

First drafts or revision?

Oh, revision, hands down! I really enjoy first drafts when the writing is coming. I like discovering things: you know, that first thrill when you reveal details you didn’t know were coming, or tapping into memories, or deep creating. But revision, the art of cutting, fleshing out scenes or characters, choosing better words, and tightening text, that’s really exciting for me. I’m a copy editor by trade, so I suppose that’s not surprising.

Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?

Writing solo, for sure. I really enjoy my me time. I need to be alone a lot and free of distraction, as I tend to get distracted very easily. That said, though, I don’t know what I’d do without my writing group of five other women. When I write something, I feel the need to share it. I love getting feedback and workshopping our stories. Whereas I love to do things alone (write, exercise, shop, read, etc.), when I’m ready to emerge from my space, it’s really good to have a support group to help me move past my solitary limitations.

Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?

Quiet, but no earplugs. That makes me a bit too aware of myself. No music or anything else that might distract me. I dream of a room of my own to write, outside of the house, the way booklovers dream of personal libraries. (I dream of that, too!)

Why do you write?

I write because I love stories, and because I love to read. I read so much great writing, stuff that really, truly gets me excited, enough that I can’t stand the thought of not doing it, too. What I relish most is allowing myself to write freely, no inhibitions, entering that deep, amazing place of creating real people and settings, especially when I tap into my own life experiences for details. There’s something to putting the right words together that I haven’t been able to resist since I was a kid. When I was in Grade Four, I wrote a story about headhunters in Borneo. Across the title page, my teacher wrote, “Cheers! Here’s to a future novelist!” I’ve never forgotten it. I’m a short story writer, but the dream of being published one day was implanted then and there.

What's the best advice you would give a new writer?

The most valuable lesson I’ve learned about writing is that you have to get out of your own way. It is such a simple concept, one that completely makes sense, but is not all that easy to do. It took me a while to fully understand how to do that. But when you get it, when you take charge of your inner critic, oh what changes occur! Your writing becomes more natural, the process is much more enjoyable; you understand that now you can write from a place of love rather than doubt and self-criticism. Your goal becomes putting out the best writing you are capable of no matter how long that takes, and that creates patience for you to do multiple drafts and really enter the space of going deeper, remaining present, staying in scene. Only then can you truly be in the story state of mind. Writing is a kindness to ourselves, and if we allow us the treat of it, we’ll get how much we have to be kind to writing, too. Ultimately, this is much more fun than trying to get each word, sentence, and paragraph perfect the first time; it’s less stressful than trying to figure out things we can’t possibly know, like the how of things (which we discover only as we go), or like whether or not we’re good. We’ll never know. That doesn’t matter. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf has a fabulous line (the latter part of which I’d love to get as a tattoo): “That is not for [us] to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” So what matters for us as writers is that we show up. We create freely. It makes sense that when you’re in the way of your writing, it’s so much harder to do. It becomes a chore instead of an act of love.

Tell us about your experience with the Story Course. How it has changed your relationship to writing?

Everything I said above came from the Story Course. Not only has it taught me how to create and write effectively, and how to view writing—that is, as the part of me that deserves and needs compassion, kindness, love, and literary husbandry—it’s also taught me how to be myself, how to view vulnerability and shame. It’s actually affected how I live in general. The course has also greatly rewarded me by introducing me to a group of writers I’ve come to admire and be in love with. They inspire me, support me, encourage me, and help me, and I enjoy doing the same for them. I have learned so much from SSM. It’s the most valuable gift I’ve been given and have allowed myself, in spite of my initial fear, to accept.

Tell us about the excerpt you’re sharing today.

An unusual event happened here in Belleville in April 2011. I was told about it by a journalist friend, and when I went to write an email to another friend about what had happened, my first line sounded like a story to me. So I ditched the email and wrote a couple of paragraphs about these two guys in a bar speculating on why some guy had committed suicide. The cavalier tone of their discussion came from the way the journalist told me about the event. After two paragraphs, I truly thought I was finished. (Wha??) It was my first bit of fiction writing in 15 years. When I sent those measly paragraphs to an author friend to read, he said, “…But who are these guys? I want to know more!” After sitting around trying to get over the feeling of being finished, I thought about why I was so intrigued by the event, why it hit me so hard, and all the questions I had about it. Sarah’s always talked about paying attention to your writerly tugs, and I ended up following that and writing this story. It’s in its second draft now.

Exerpt from Bar Talk, by Steph VanderMeulen

We warm the seats in the low light. Beer bottles clink, tumblers make hard sounds going down on scratched tabletops. Men grumble and slur or bark out cusses that are mostly religious. Smoke swirls slow like drugged moths caught in the hazy glow of the lamp above us.

This guy driving into the hospital parking lot, five minutes from where I work. Thinking about the gun, maybe. Maybe charting the objects around him, getting one last look at the keys on the GM keychain swaying in the ignition, the never washed, stained travel cup by the dash, a quarter sitting in the pen groove above the glove compartment. Maybe these things reminded him of other things, and he turned around to face the back before feeling the barrel cold on his tongue, like orange juice and toothpaste against his teeth.

Maybe he was on something, says Ed. Got fucked up and freaked out.

I hold rye in my cheeks, taste the peppery bite, then swallow. Like ginger candy, it goes down in a warm stripe between my ribs.

Naw, I say. It was premeditated.

I toss back the last of my drink, put three knuckles to my chest, hold up two fingers for a double.

Ed belches, blowing out beery air tinged with the hamburger he ate earlier. He picks up a cold fry from the plate by his elbow, dabs it in the mess of ketchup and mustard, and sucks on it before chewing like he’s working a pencil end. His smoke burns down in his other hand.

Remember Scott’s sister in high school? I say.

Christ, says Ed. He drops the butt in the bottle, starts peeling off the label.

In high school one of the kids in our class, Scott, his older sister killed herself. Whispers in the hall: hung herself with a coat hanger. I think about her bending the hanger, trying to get it right, looking up at the spot where she planned to do it. Swallowing. No second thoughts. My hand goes to my throat before I realize what I’m doing and I scratch like I have an itch and drop it back on the bar.

Would have been easier with her uniform tie, that’s what I don’t get, says Ed.

What we knew for sure was, we all had to go to Mass for it and if you didn’t want to go you had to get a note from your parents. Our footsteps echoed on the stone floor. Light filtered in through the stained glass in the otherwise gloomy church, huge and cold.

That church always gave me the creeps.

Yeah. But my ’rents wouldn’t write a note, and the one time I forged it, I ended up in the principal’s office.

We half-kneeled, recklessly crossing ourselves, before jostling into pews. I didn’t mind going, I guess, I say.

Kelly O’Donnell, says Ed. She was wearing that tight V-neck sweater. Those titanic tits. All I could think of was putting my hands all over her top. Ed shakes his beer bottle to gauge how much is left. Underneath it, more like, he says, grinning. Those fine tits. He gets this faraway look for a second. Then he says, She guzzled your custard once, didn’t she? Felt sorry for you?

As I recall, she nicknamed you Special Ed, I say. Rather have her pity.

Note: These monthly spotlights showcase Mysterious Middle Drafts (MMDs). That means they are somewhere between first drafts and final drafts. This is a challenging stage! Emerging writers bravely share their work-in-progress here for discussion, but this is not a book review or critique: this is a venue for the appreciation of Mysterious Middle Drafts. Thank you for making this writing space safe and supportive.  


  • What remains with you after reading Steph's work?

  • Can you articulate what’s working in this excerpt – and more importantly, why it’s working?

  • How is your own writing practice like Steph's? How is it different?

Please leave a comment below. And thank you, Steph! 

Tigers on a gold leash.
Creative Collaboration: On Being Islands In the Stream



Steph's writing always excites me to the bone. The way she describes such average things in such extraordinary ways. How her characters are real and alive and tangible from the first words they speak. How visceral and true the experience is of reading Steph's stories. All of these things are signs of a talented, honest writer, and Steph, you certainly are one. A quick story: I went to England with my husband this summer. We were walking around London. It was crowded. And then I spotted a man -- a total stranger -- who looked EXACTLY how I'd always pictured a character in another of Steph's stories. I mean, it was him. In the flesh. I wish I could have snapped a picture of him without being a complete creep. But that's the kind of writer she is. You can go to another continent and still have her characters rolling through your mind without even realizing it's happening! xo
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Ahhhh, Steph's writing makes me so happy. She's fantastic at using details that evoke a visceral response. I can taste and feel the scene. Her word choices always surprise me, are so specific. There's an ashy, dirty, unclean feeling that remains after reading this scene. It feels so real. I never think for a second that I'm reading an untrue story. She is a master of dialogue and using just. the. right. word. Mark Twain would be proud. Even though these two characters are unsavoury, I find myself caring about them and wanting to know.
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How does my own writing practice compare with Steph's? It's still in the process of becoming a genuine practice. It's almost every day. Like someone in our writing group said (Kristin Offiler), I realized that the magic happens only *after* committing to making the writing a habit. Not before. SSM has blown open my mind about what storytelling really means, and I'm so grateful to you, Sarah, for creating this course. I have to bring myself fully to the present moment and stay in scene. I get that gritty feeling when I'm starting to fade out and get distracted, like I do in my daily life. It's an escape and protection mechanism. We are so similar in terms of what makes us stumble. She is my soul sister.
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The coat hanger and the intensity of the hanging stand out to me still. It causes the reader to reflect on why, how, why that particular way... The spare language works well here married with the masculine. You have the juxtaposition of taking ones own life set up with the primal act of sex. I relate with writing being an act of love and how as you are practicing it changes you, your worldview, your own routine and inner life. Isn't it inevitable as a writer to hunger for more? Bravo!
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Mary Nicholson

Steph! What I am left with is some very visceral images...and I KNOW these people, I can picture the culture, and they way they are left to figure things out after inexplicable loss. Loved the juxtaposition of church, loss, and tits. Lol! So well done. Xo Mary
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Christopher Meades

I will be the first person in line to purchase Steph's collection when it's published (one day)......
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Gabriele Kohlmeyer

Steph! This is fantastic, I am blown away, congratulations, congratulations. I'll be the second in line when to purchase your collection. It is *unbelievable* how far you've come in a year. I've got to write and catch up with you now !! :-) Such a pleasure to read this! xoxo Gabriele
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Thank you, all, for your wonderful, encouraging comments. I am so grateful!!
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