Time, Mentorship and Funding: How I Started my First Memoir

I am what is described as an “emerging writer,” someone in the beginning stages of doing serious projects. This is not to say that the writing I’ve done in the past is not useful or worthwhile. However, it’s only in recent years I have pursued writing which led to small contracts and publications.

In the summer of 2022, I took a leap of faith and resigned from my job of eight years at a non-profit organization. I figured I had six months of savings to rest, reset and redirect my life. After a leisurely summer, fall came and while diligently searching for a new job, I thought that it was time to take on a larger-scale writing project.

The topic of my memoir was something I’ve had in mind for quite some time. My childhood, its unusual setting, tragic circumstances and a satisfying comeback, would make for a compelling book. However, I knew that writing a 1000-word essay for the Edmonton Heritage Council, or a 700-word article for the Alberta Filipino Journal was different from a 50,000-word vulnerable narration of my personal life.

I had heard numerous awful stories of authors suffering financially while they crafted their first manuscripts. Being in debt, in conflict with family and many more unpleasant situations plagued them while trying to craft their brilliance onto the paper. I swore to myself that the same would not happen to me.

Maya Angelou, one of my favourite writers and the author of several memoirs, shared that when she was getting started, she had mentors who worked closely with her in her first drafts of her writing. I thought – that’s great advice. I’ll apply for one of those.

I had also heard of grants for artists, to fund your life and supplies while doing art projects. I assumed at first that those funds were meant for those who are doing art full-time. But as I looked closely, there were smaller grants meant for starting a project idea. I thought, “I suppose I can apply for a few of those too. It’s like applying for a job anyways.”

With my savings draining by the month, I anxiously waited for the results of these writing-related applications. I got rejections for some of the grants and awards, but my first success was being accepted for the Horizon Writers Circle, a program funded by the Writers Guild of Alberta. The program is specifically for emerging writers from underrepresented demographics. I am both!

I was matched with a local writer, Wendy McGrath, whose most recent work is a novel trilogy narrated from the perspective of a child. It was a perfect match, as I wanted to write my memoir from the perspective of my childhood self. On our first meeting, I told her exactly what I aimed to do. With confidence in her voice, she looked me in the eyes and said “Yes, I’m confident by the time our mentorship is over, you will have a first draft manuscript by March 2023.”

Her emails, meetings and the big bag of resource books she lent me helped with moving this ambitious project forward. I applied for jobs during the mornings, ate lunch and in the afternoons, tried to follow the advice of writer Stephen King to write a thousand words per day. Applying for jobs already felt like full-time work. Intensely writing for long periods of time on top of that felt like doing two jobs.

Some days were better than others. When I was writing chapters about particularly tragic moments of my childhood, I would sometimes get lost in my mind, write non-stop for up to three to five thousand words, and then feel like my brain was mush for the next two days. The experience of organizing my personal experiences artistically and emotionally was a strange combination of therapeutic, exhausting, re-triggering and energizing.

By the time December 2022 came, I’d written 30 chapters and Wendy reviewed 12 of them, four chapters at a time. We discussed them over Zoom meetings and then I would receive a follow-up email with all the edits. While pushing myself to write the last 10 chapters I wanted to wrap up the story, I took a chance again and applied for another grant. I was panicked as my savings were running out and I didn’t have a job yet.

2023 arrived with no new job, but I did have 48 chapters completed and a successful grant application. I received a $5,000 grant from the Edmonton Arts Council to help me pay for living expenses while I continued work on the manuscript.

March came and the formal period of the mentorship ended. All of the mentees had to share a sample of our written work in front of a crowd. As my mentor Wendy went on the stage to introduce me, she said, “She completed her first draft of her manuscript in just six months!” Gasps of wonder and amazement erupted in the crowd. I read a chapter of the memoir to the kind and energetic applause of the audience.

Wendy said that it was now time to get editors to look at the manuscript. I wanted to ensure my editor would receive a fair wage but I didn’t have any spare money, so I once again applied for grant funding for editor services and to pay myself.

This type of funding application was more comprehensive. I needed to set a budget and explain clearly what I would use the money for. I joked on many occasions that these grant applications were like a combination of filing taxes and applying for jobs.

Based on advice, I decided to not look at the manuscript until the spring, when I received the results of my grant applications and then return to it with fresh eyes. To my great surprise and elation, I was approved for funding again, with enough to pay editors and myself.

With the funding I received, I contracted a developmental editor who read through my 80,000-word manuscript from beginning to end, analyzed the story for plot, structure, style and writing patterns that can be improved. With her long report and comments in my 130-page document, I’m getting ready to re-write the manuscript again. Once I’m satisfied with my edits, I will be hiring the line editor next to ensure that every line of the manuscript is properly reviewed for grammar and punctuation.

I look at the past year with awe and gratitude. Given my circumstances as a Commerce graduate, an immigrant from the Philippines and someone who didn’t personally know anyone with a writer or artist career, it was difficult to envision that starting to write a whole book was possible. I know I have a long journey still to go before my first memoir will be available for sale. But this combination of my time unemployed, the opportunities with mentorship and grant funding, have accelerated this project in a huge way. The biggest lesson for me is applying for support and funds for artistic ideas as an emerging writer is worth the investment. I am worth the investment.

Giselle General is a Filipino-Canadian artist who calls Edmonton her home since 2008. Her artistic expression ranges from creative nonfiction such as essays, anthologies, articles and blogs and mixed media visual art with a focus on upcycling.

Her previous works are published by CBC First Person Series, Edmonton Heritage Council's Edmonton City As Museum Project, numerous anthology books documenting Canadian immigrant stories and the Alberta Filipino Journal as a monthly columnist since 2017.

Giselle is a 2023 Edmonton Arts Council grant recipient for her first full-length publication under development, a memoir that narrates her experiences from being orphaned as a child until her migration to Canada. She is also a 2023 Telus STORYHIVE grant recipient for her documentary proposal about Edmonton’s Filipino community and their journey to have a community centre.

By day, she works in government communications. When she isn’t writing, she volunteers for five nonprofit organizations and boards in the city. You can follow Giselle on Instagram at @filipina_yeg or on Twitter @giselle.general.