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An Interview with Shirley Harshenin

Editorial Assistant Rosie Leggot's Interview with Shirley Harshenin whose story "Readiness Quiz" was published in Issue 298 (Winter 2024)

Rosie Leggot: As a person who answered a majority of B answers and has a love-hate relationship with everything I write, I sincerely appreciated the honesty in this piece. I could not help but be reminded of the continual projects assigned as exposure therapy. 

Was this poem based on a real-life assignment that you grappled with? If yes, is that an assignment that you have/would share with the world? 

Shirley Harshenin: Yes, this piece was based on a real-life writing assignment, and “grapple” is an accurate term to describe the wrestling match that ensued. 

The nine “Prompts” and all “C” responses in “Readiness Quiz, Are You Ready to Start Writing About Past Trauma?” accurately reflect my experience while working through a lesson on hermit crab essays in Nicole Breit’s Spark Your Story Program. 

Initially, I believed I could manage the escalating triggers, brain scramble, dissociation, and startle responses (ex. coffee geyser response to a doorbell ding), but, as I dug deeper into the material the triggers became unmanageable, forcing me to concede defeat hours before deadline. 

Slumped on the sofa bearing the weight of my opponent, the past, my muse took pity on me and nudged me to write about my perceived failure while the wounds were still stinging. 

And somehow that evolved into a quiz for writers. 

RL: How did you settle on the name “Readiness Quiz?” Do you feel that this title encapsulates your pieces, or did you intend it to be a subtle introduction for your reader to be followed by the subheading? 

SH: I am terrible at titles. I often request suggestions for titles from my early readers and reviewers. With this essay, I sent a list of potentials, such as, “Readiness Test for Writing About Past Trauma.” When the feedback suggested something punchier, I tried, “Are You Ready?” with several subtitle variations like, “A Test to Determine If You Are Ready to Write About Past Trauma,” and “Writing About Past Trauma, A Quiz.” Arranging and rearranging bits and pieces from the possibles finally came together into its current title.

Without subtitles, neither “Are You Ready?” or “Readiness Quiz” provided any context to the topic, situation, or event to which your readiness was going to be assessed. So, in that regard, yes, “Readiness Quiz” could be considered a subtle introduction. 

RL: This form is very interesting and well-developed. Although there are certainly many poetic elements to the piece, the quiz describes the process for an essay. If you were to put a label on the piece other than “quiz,” what would you choose and why? 

SH: This is an essay in the form of a quiz discussing the process of writing and ultimately abandoning an essay. Makes my head spin just thinking about it. 

Both the form of and the form being written about in “Readiness Quiz” are hermit crab essays. My initial topic for a hermit crab essay and its container, a travel brochure, ultimately became the content for my new essay in a new container, a quiz. 

Not a succinct answer, and not even sure it is an answer. 

RL: This piece is — impressively so — almost exactly the length of most quizzes of this nature. I was pleasantly surprised and found myself wanting to check the feedback at the end as I would with any kind of quiz like this. As a writer, did you find it difficult to layer this piece with the intimacies of the craft while making it compelling within its form? What kind of challenges did this form present for you? 

SH: I am so pleased to hear that you read my essay as you would any quiz with anticipation for the results. That tells me I did okay with the form.

Yes, there were many challenges. 

Most of the initial feedback from my peer group was that the form was good, but the content lacked the intimacy needed to draw readers in. So, I dug into recent events, pulling out scenes and surrounding sensory details. Incidences that started as typical procrastination progressed to dissociation (escaping into screens, mostly), then to full-blown PTSD where the past event I was trying to write about was gripping me by the throat and squeezing until I felt sucked back into the past and couldn’t tap, talk, or self-care myself back to present. 

Another challenge arose with feedback I received from a respected journal. The editor found the piece engaging but was confused by the format and felt it a displaced account of recalling personal trauma. 

Whomp. Did I go too far the other way, providing too many intimate details? Did I miss the mark entirely?

Finding balance is tricky. 

Gratefully, “Readiness Quiz” found its home with The Fiddlehead and saved me from further torment and another major revision! 

RL: Your artist bio explains that you believe in “the human spirit’s extraordinary resilience.” That phrase was captivating for me and I was hoping that you’d be willing to elaborate on the impact that belief has on your writing. What kinds of resilience stand out to you most during your written process?

SH: I’m so pleased by your feedback on my bio phrase, “the human spirit’s extraordinary resilience.” 
On a personal level, I truly believe we are a resilient species. 

Resilience pertaining to my writing process. 
Past trauma dictates what I can and cannot write about. Sometimes, as described in “Readiness Quiz,” I embark on a topic I believe I’ve fully processed and am ready to dive into, only to discover, nope! These incidences and their impact on my writing vary from shake it off, onto the next, to a depressive episode and ensuing “writer’s block.” 

Resilience to me, regardless of setbacks, is refusing to quit. It’s getting back up. It’s moving forward, even if that looks like scribbles in a notebook or cutting up magazines and collaging. 

For as long as it takes.

— Shirley Harshenin lives in the Okanagan Valley, BC. She believes in angels, caffeine, and the human spirit’s extraordinary resilience. Her work has been published in RoomContrary MagazineNailed, and others. She won National Magazine Awards 2023 Gold-Medal in “One of a Kind Storytelling” category.

Read an excerpt of "Readiness Quiz"