Cheryl Fines, Essay Runner-Up Winner, Discusses Depression and Critique Groups

Sunday, September 16, 2018
Congratulations to Cheryl Fines, who was a runner-up in our 3rd Quarter Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest with her essay, "The River," which you can read here, and focuses on the theme of depression.

Cheryl is a high school English teacher in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada. She feels fortunate to share her love of writing and reading with her students. It is tremendously satisfying to foster in them a love of literature, or to encourage a young person to find their voice through creative writing.

She also takes part in a biweekly writer’s circle at her local public library. She appreciates the support and camaraderie of this group and would encourage other writers to find similar groups. Writing is a rewarding pastime that she will likely never give up. The trick (which she has yet to entirely solve) is in finding a balance between work, family, and other pursuits like writing. One of these years! Cheryl and her partner of 21 years have two amazing daughters. Aside from writing, she spends time with other creative pursuits, as well, such as spinning, dyeing, knitting, felting: all things wool!

WOW: Congrats, Cheryl, on your essay contest top 10 win! Your essay is haunting, realistic, important, and beautiful. The topic of depression has been on the news more than ever with the recent celebrity suicides. What made you compare your struggle with depression to a river?

Cheryl: Thank you. There was an image in my mind, from my childhood, that just kept resurfacing. It was of the river we used to swim in as kids: the current, the undertow. Right before the footings of the bridge, which was in spitting distance of the swimming area (how things have changed!), there was this legendary undertow. I marvelled, as a child, at how the river ran steadily, the movement of the water – except for this area of the undertow. There, the water seemed peaceful, still (except for that giveaway dimple) – it seemed to be the most serene part of the river; but if you went there, it would take hold of you and pull you under. When I had the experience that prompted this piece of writing, that image came to me. I knew that on the surface, things appeared fine. There were no “reasons” for me to feel like dying; work was good, family was great, I was living in a house I love, I had good friends. But regardless of those things that would indicate to anyone that life was good, underneath it all, I could barely force myself to stay. The two thoughts collided at some point, and this metaphor was born.

Aside from that, the power that water wields has always intrigued me: so essential to life, yet also so threatening and devastating at times. People drown, get washed downstream, or out to sea. Floods, tidal waves, undertows, rip tides, predators in the water – there are all kinds of ways in which water can be treacherous. It’s a fascinating force of nature.

WOW: Thank you for sharing with us so honestly. I think you described perfectly why people have such a hard time understanding depression. On the outside, everything seems fine; but that's not how it really is. The river metaphor fit that perfectly! Do you find it hard to have such personal feelings shared with a public audience in your writing?

Cheryl: Fine question! Yes. Absolutely. I wrote the piece for my own benefit to start, and thought I could not share it. It was an intensely personal experience, and sharing it widely like this left me feeling far too exposed. However, I kind of pushed myself into it, because I am always an advocate of destigmatizing mental health issues; yet, I wasn’t willing to go out on that limb myself? Hypocrisy 101. So, yes, it was difficult to share, but I think that many people will have to share many more stories to make progress on the destigmatizing front. A necessary evil, if you will.

There are many ways that people can actively work toward destigmatizing mental health issues. Using appropriate language (e.g., instead of “committing suicide,” one might say that someone has “died by suicide” or “ended her life.” I read an obit recently that referred to the cause of death as “losing a long battle with depression,” just as we do with other serious illnesses), speaking truthfully about our experiences, allowing others to share theirs. We have a long way to go, before mental health is treated like, and spoken about like, physical health; but in my lifetime, I’ve observed a lot of progress. I think we’re improving in a measurable way, year by year.

WOW: I totally agree, and I know I'm as guilty as the next at the language I use. But now because of this interview, I will pay more attention to how I talk about suicide, depression, and mental health in general. I suffer from anxiety, and I'm pretty open about it; but still, even typing that, I'm thinking: who will judge me? So, how does writing about your depression help you?

Cheryl: Life is a constant journey toward deeper understanding – of oneself, of others, of the world, of how people, things, and situations interact – and I personally find it cathartic to move beyond just thinking things through, to committing those thoughts to paper. Just as some people find it immensely helpful to talk through their problems, I find it beneficial to work things out on paper.

WOW: I'm sure many writers agree with you! Your bio states that you have a great critique group. I find mine invaluable. But how did you know you had a good one? What are some of the characteristics other writers should look for?

Cheryl: I am part of a writers’ circle at the local public library. I discovered it via a local published writer, posting about it on social media. I’m grateful for the group for a number of reasons. Of course, I enjoy getting feedback from others about my own writing – it’s interesting and helpful to see how others interpret your work, what they like, and what they feel needs improvement. But I also enjoy reading the other writers’ work – we all have such different styles of writing, which I find highly engaging. The librarian who runs the group has a lovely way about her – she’s very knowledgeable, which is helpful; but also, she models respectful ways of giving feedback, so that the writers never feel deflated from receiving feedback. I really appreciate that this group is available to me.

WOW: That's fantastic, and I agree--so important. Critique should be a partnership between letting the author know what's working and what needs to be revised, so the reader can have the best experience with the text. What's next for your writing career?

Cheryl: I have a couple of large projects on the go. Both are young adult novels; one dystopic, set in our world, but after a devastating ecological catastrophe, and the other is general fiction, focusing on a couple, whose story unfolds in a series of flashbacks.

Meanwhile, I think I am going to run a poetry group at my school in the fall. (I’m a secondary school English teacher.) I appreciate any opportunity to share my love of writing with others, and I think this might be a great chance to do just that. So I guess I see a lot of poetry writing in my future!

WOW: Good luck with all your projects! I'm sure high school students will enjoy having the chance to express themselves in a safe environment. Thank you for your time and congratulations again on winning and writing this crucial essay.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--Thanks for doing this interview.

Cheryl--Several years ago, I also used the river as a metaphor for a story about the mental illness that runs through my biological family--like a river. I'm happy when there's a drought. When flood stages are reached? Well, those are well-chronicled by a murder trial and obituaries with questionable causes of death.

I am also a teacher. As a teacher and a writer of essays, you might enjoy the book "The Journey is Everything" by Katherine Bomer. Not only does it have incredible essays as mentor texts, but it's wonderful as a guide on some different paths to take when crafting an essay.

Good luck with your WIPs, and congratulations on earning a spot as a runner-up. One of those runner-up essays is one of the finest I've ever read, so you're in great company.

Margo Dill said...

Thanks, Sioux, for sharing that resource with Cheryl and really with all of us. I really enjoyed so much of the insight that Cheryl shared with us today. We are so lucky to have such talented writers enter our contests.

Cheryl Fines said...

Thank you, and I'll be sure to check out that book!

Cheryl Fines said...

Thank you for your feedback - much appreciated - I'll check out your recommended book.

Dawne Richards said...

What a wonderful interview, and the poetry group sounds wonderful!

Renee Roberson said...


You did a wonderful job with this essay and the use of the river analogy. It made perfect sense. I too have struggled since childhood and I have had bad, bad days (even though, like you said, everything looks "perfect" on the outside) and again and again, it's my kids that reel me back in. I love them so much that I do not ever want to leave that legacy for them. That being said, it is so hard sometimes! Thank you for sharing your journey and perspective with us, and congratulations!

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