GCL invited writers on the list to answer a questionnaire to give us further insight into their work. The following are Wency’s answers:
1. How did you start working on this story?
I’d written previous news articles about the demand for donated organs, so I was interested in writing a deeper piece about the need to promote living organ transplants in Canada long before I decided to become a kidney donor.
The trouble is once I became a donor, I had to shelve the idea of reporting about the issue since my own experience put me at a conflict of interest. Still, it nagged at me: there are plenty of good reasons to encourage living organ transplants in Canada – and I suspect plenty of willing donors – yet the numbers of these transplants have remained flat.
Eventually, I pitched the idea to editors in our opinion section, where I figured my conflict of interest wouldn’t pose such a problem. Luckily for me, they bit.
2. How long did it take to write this piece?
I hadn’t planned on writing such a personal piece, nor had I intended to delve into the story about Rith, my friend and colleague who died of kidney failure in Cambodia. Instead, I initially envisioned my experience as kind of a side note to a piece on the bigger issues of giving and of living organ transplants in general. But when I was discussing my story idea one day with my mentor and editor Carol Toller, she zoomed in on this detail about how my friend had died and questioned me about what that meant in terms of my motivation to become a donor. To be honest, I hadn’t given a lot thought about how the two were related, and after she listened to my bumbling answers, she said in her quiet, thoughtful way, “It sounds as though you wanted to give your kidney to your friend, but you couldn’t. So you gave it to the universe.”
For the first time since Rith died, I started crying right there in that conference room when she said that. The tears just started streaming.
My conversation with Carol put me on a very different path, and once I realized this was actually the story I meant to write, it didn’t take long to write a first draft. I think I sent in a draft about two or three weeks later, which wove between my story and Rith’s. I thought it was going to be far too long, but to my happy surprise, this was the first time my editors actually wanted me to add to my draft, rather than trim it.
3. What was the most challenging part of writing it?
I tend to be a very private person and I don’t often write personal essays, so writing about my inner thoughts and feelings made me feel very exposed. It was really uncomfortable and scary! But a friend and former editor gave me some great advice for keeping myself honest: “Write this thing as though you’re going to burn it in the fireplace when it’s done.”
4. Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?
I don’t have a ritual – especially now, when I’m having to work in whatever reasonably quiet and comfortable corner of the house I can find. But I do have the bad habit of procrastinating. It’s always easier to write on deadline.
5. What did you find different about writing during a global pandemic?
I think the questions I raised in my piece – what kind of person do I want to be, how can we be more giving, and what happens when we can’t give enough? – are things we’re all thinking about more than usual during this pandemic.
If there’s anything different about writing right now, it’s perhaps that we’re looking inward more, thinking more about our own mortality, our purpose in life, and what we can do to create a world in which we want to live. I think this kind of self-reflection permeates into the stories we choose to write or the stories to which we devote more energy.
6. What was the most surprising thing you learned about your subject (or in the case of a personal essay, yourself) during the process?
I’ve been a news reporter now for half my life, yet I’ve always been unsure about using my “voice” in my writing. Writing this piece was my baby step toward finding my voice. I learned that it exists, and that it’s worth something.
7. What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?
I don’t think I’ve ever received more messages about anything I’ve ever written, and those who’ve reached out to me have been incredibly lovely. Some have informed me they’ve signed their organ donor cards after reading my piece, and a few have even expressed interest in becoming living donors themselves. I couldn’t have hoped for a better response.
8. For any fellow non-fiction writers reading this, do you have a favourite writing tip to share?
I’d say reach out to other writers whose work you love, and ask for their advice and input. At worst, they might brush you off. But in my experience, most are really happy to talk about their craft and share what they know. Writing can be lonely, but even a few encouraging words from someone you admire can carry you a long way.
9. What writing projects are you working on currently?
I’m interested in further exploring this question of “what happens when we reach the limits of what we can give?” The consequences of failing to take care of others, particularly our elders in long-term care, is something that will hurt us long after this pandemic is over. We’ll be asking ourselves, “what more could we have done?” and I feel certain the answers will haunt us. So I’m examining these themes through the story of one particular individual whose efforts to take care of his mother, who had dementia, were not enough. As a result, she died a terrible, undignified death, and he spent time in prison – a punishment that arguably pales in comparison to the guilt and grief that will stay with him the rest of his life.
I don’t know yet how this project will turn out. I’m only slowly chipping away at it. But I have a gut feeling this story is one worth telling, and I think there’s something about it that may shed light on what we’re all going to have to face when we come out of this pandemic.
Find Wency on Twitter: @wencyleung
This Q&A may have been edited for clarity and length.