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Photo of Shawna Forester-Smith in red floral printed shirt

Creative Manitoba member Shawna Forester Smith is a writer, creator and all-together inspiring human being. Read on and immerse yourself in her story and artistic journey.

My name is Shawna Forester Smith and I am a chronically ill and disabled Ojibwe artist and writer living in a chronic care unit at Deer Lodge Centre in Winnipeg. I was born in Dauphin and my family has connections to Pine Creek First Nation. I have intestinal failure and require intravenous nutrition called Total Parental Nutrition to survive — I am unable to eat or maintain my hydration. I have other serious medical issues and I am unable to walk. Before getting very sick, I worked for the WRHA. First in communications, then in HR. I have both a Diploma and a BA in Communications and an MA in Health Leadership.

I have been writing and creating art for as long as I can remember. I had my first publishing credit at age eight. It was a story about spending the summer at the lake for a magazine called The Cottager. I remember thinking it was fantastic that I could get paid to do something I loved. From then on, I knew a career in writing was in my future. I continued writing throughout school. I even volunteered my writing and publishing skills to the police department to create materials for youth auto theft deterrence. For this, I received an award from the Police Chief. A few years after I graduated high school, I applied and got into the Creative Communications program at Red River Polytechnic. That was a transformative experience and it opened up opportunities for me as a writer. I also met my husband there and many lifetime friends. I have written all kinds of different things- from newspaper articles to copy for ads, to poetry, online essays and more recently full-length novels. I’m also a visual artist- I work with watercolour, gouache, acrylic, pen and ink and mixed media. I enjoy doing traditional beading and making cards. I may be very sick but I keep busy. I have written six novels since August, which I have been told is pretty remarkable.

Writing is extremely important to me, it brings me so much joy, peace and comfort. Like beading, it’s medicine.

In August of 2023, I was dealt some difficult news: I was never going to be able to walk again. For whatever reason, I opened Notes on my iPhone and just started writing a story about a single Indigenous mom named Wanda, who has her life upended by a breast cancer diagnosis. The words just poured out of me. The file got so big it started crashing the app and I moved it over to Pages. In five days, I had written my first novel- on my iPhone- from my hospital bed. That book saved me. It gave me something to put all the negative energy and grief into. Storytelling in my culture is medicine, it’s how we heal. I have written three other books chronicling Wanda and her family’s journey over ten years. I then wrote two other novels. I’m about to start my seventh novel. Writing is extremely important to me, it brings me so much joy, peace and comfort. Like beading, it’s medicine.

All the education I’ve had the opportunity to take has helped me a lot. I realize how incredibly fortunate I am to have had the education that I have. I also worked extremely hard. School has always been important to me. I was the youngest student in my master’s program at 26, but one of the top students out of 50 healthcare professionals from across Canada- most of whom were much older and more experienced than I was. When studying, we learned a lot about ourselves and personal leadership. The program really changed the way I looked at things and my approach to life. It was a tough program but I learned so much. All three programs helped me with networking and connections.

Being sick has helped me find my voice as a writer and an artist. I have a lot of time to practice my craft. I recently had the opportunity to connect with Indigenous author, Richard Van Camp. He has been helping me prepare my first manuscript and is even submitting work on my behalf to a publisher- which is amazing!

“Keep writing” is my mantra. I have so many stories that I want to write.

I got a Creative Manitoba membership because I was interested in attending the Modern Publishing Landscape workshop and it was cheaper to buy the membership than pay for the workshop. I had the pleasure of attending two creative fiction writing workshops this fall with Richard Van Camp and Arlea Ashcroft. They were fantastic, I got a lot out of them both.

I have benefited so much from being a member! Arlea has been so supportive and has given me lots of resources to check out. The networking opportunities are amazing. The opportunity to work with a writer the calibre of Richard Van Camp is something I am so grateful for. That would never have happened if I had not attended the writer’s workshop. He has been so supportive, helpful, and encouraging. As a novelist trying to publish their first book, that is the kind of help you need. I feel much more confident about my writing.

All the workshops I have attended I have learned something from. I have a lot of barriers that make it hard for me to attend things in person so it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to participate virtually on Zoom.

Creative Manitoba’s programs have helped me hone my craft and learn new things. It’s also a way to network and make connections, which is important in the writing world. So much of it is getting your work in the hands of the right people.

I want to find a home for my first novel, Getting Better. Ideally, I will find a home for the entire tetralogy. But I would be very happy to start with publishing my first novel and going from there.

I also want to write my life story. This will be hard. It’s something I have attempted and abandoned many times over. But I feel like it might be time to dig in and do the dirty work. It means opening up some wounds and reliving some trauma but I know if I write about it, there will be healing from doing that. If I start spinning my wheels, I’ll keep with fiction until I am in a better place to tackle my story again. “Keep writing” is my mantra. I have so many stories that I want to write.

I thoroughly enjoy the editing process. Most people probably think that’s strange, but I love revising and editing. I have a hard time saying enough but I become very attached to the characters in my books and I’m always looking to make them better. Often I’ll see if I can make something even funnier or keep a running gag going. In my tetralogy, I’ll refer to something from another book. I forget who said it, but satisfaction is death1. I believe the revising is just as important as the writing.

I love bringing characters to life. I like giving people quirks. Mannerisms. Making it so you can imagine this person in your mind. I also love writing engaging dialogue. A sarcastic comment. A good zinger. A well-deserved swear word. I’m very intentional with what and how my characters interact with each other. All in all, writing good dialogue brings me happiness.

Although it’s not my main pursuit, I enjoy making handmade cards for friends and family. A lot of people save them. Some people even have them framed. I love sending people actual mail, I’m old-fashioned that way. Card-making brings me a lot of joy because it makes other people happy.

That’s what I hope to do with my books: Make people happy. Make people who are struggling realize hope is always there. The books tackle some serious subjects: addiction, racism, the Sixties Scoop, the child welfare system, cancer, mental illness, and death. But there is also a lot of humour. And like I said earlier, hope.

  1. {Creative Manitoba note: This quote is generally attributed to George Bernard Shaw} ↩︎
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