One year ago, SheDoesTheCity published a personal essay that changed everything for Toronto author Rachel Stone.
In her piece, I Quit Bay Street to Be a Writer — And It Healed Me, Rachel spoke publicly about her brain tumour for the first time. Until that point, she couldn’t stand the mental toll of revisiting such a traumatic time in her life. But last year, she decided to unpack it all on the page, finally sharing the story of how she left her corporate career to write her debut novel, The Blue Iris, and how at the same time, her tumour started to shrink.
For Rachel, writing that essay was an extremely emotional process—she recalls being in full-body shakes and sobs as she submitted her piece. But finally sharing her story was a massive relief. She received an outpouring of love and support from strangers, friends, and family. It also opened doors for her to promote The Blue Iris freely, without fear of sharing the story behind it.
Rachel’s essay captures exactly what we strive for with our New Voices Fund for emerging writers and artists. We’ve seen SheDoesTheCity contributors go on to achieve an array of amazing creative things in their careers—writing books, plays, TV shows, and films. We’ve also seen many writers find peace and healing in the process of writing and sharing their stories. Our hope is that the opportunity to share their story, the catharsis of putting pen to paper, and the support of our community will give our writers the boost they need—whether it be personally or professionally. For Rachel, it was both.
We were excited to catch up with Rachel one year after her essay was published to hear about how it changed her life, and to learn more about The Blue Iris, her novel about six people whose lives converge on a Toronto flower market.
Can you tell us about what led to your decision to write the New Voices essay?
The call for essays seemed like it was written with my story in mind. But there was a problem: that tumour was a fault line. If I stepped anywhere near the subject, there were aftershocks for days. I didn’t talk about it, ever. So, I was torn. I had this amazing story of healing, but sharing it meant dragging out the backstory I’d kept locked away for years.
Meanwhile, an eerily similar dilemma was unfolding in real time. The Blue Iris, the book at the heart of this journey, was getting published! Any mention of my book was swiftly accompanied by the question, “how did you come to writing it?” My wildest dream was coming true—and it had me colliding with my sorest subject at every turn. In other words, I had to write that essay.
How has your life changed in the past year, since writing I Quit Bay Street to Be a Writer — And It Healed Me?
When that essay ran, people I didn’t even know were so positive and encouraging. My writer friends (who had no idea about any of it) made the loveliest fuss, cheering and telling me it inspired them.
I kept bracing for the usual fallout that came with talking about it—nightmares, flashbacks, that sort of stuff. But none came. All I felt was lighter. I’ve now done several interviews and podcasts to promote The Blue Iris, even live video segments, which is still unbelievable to me. A year ago I was at my kitchen table in a cold sweat just discussing the possibility of doing any of those. I said no to all of it.
Now, I say yes without hesitation. I’m incredibly proud of this book and what it represents, so to be able to embrace all opportunities to support its launch, knowing I can speak about that part of the journey from a place of unprecedented peace, is such a gift. I’m forever grateful to SheDoesTheCity for running that essay. The ripple effects continue to this day.
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Writing The Blue Iris was part of a huge transformation for you—what is your biggest takeaway from that time in your life?
I’m living proof of what’s possible when you make space for the thing that lights you up inside. The mind-body connection can take you to a whole other plane, and while I’ve always loved to write, I see now that I need to in order to be at my best in all areas of life. It’s right up there with exercise and eating well.
The world will tell you there are bigger priorities, that there just isn’t the time. But the healing power in doing something that makes time disappear altogether cannot be underestimated. Nor should it be taken for granted; to do what fulfills you is a privilege denied to many. I never want to waste it again.
How do you approach writing about your own experiences versus fiction writing? Do you tap into a different creative flow or mindset?
Writing from my own experience happens at full steam, in a rush of ideas and questions to explore. My main challenge is narrowing the focus, deciding the angle, then trimming back to a palatable length.
The fiction, by contrast, starts with nothing at all. There’s just blank silence, which is very unsettling. Patience is not my virtue! The story forms in slow, faint threads that don’t connect. The characters straight-up cross their arms and ignore me for a while. But eventually they start talking, then taking over, and it’s spellbinding. Completely surreal. All of a sudden, I’m back to having way too much to say.
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As the characters in The Blue Iris all grapple with traumas from their pasts, what ideas were you looking to explore around trauma and healing?
I’d set out to write a story of found family and love tested beyond its limits, set in beautiful Toronto. It was probably two years of rewrites before it hit me that every single character in this book was deeply scarred and outrunning their hardest truths. Their common thread was learning to let go.
I think we tend to barrel through the painful parts in life for fear of getting stuck there. We keep insisting we’re fine, it’s not that bad, it could be worse. Ignore it and it will go away, you know? In my case, that totally backfired. Dismissing my post-traumatic reactions because I didn’t believe I was entitled to them, deciding I should be “over it by now,” is how I ended up so stuck.
The characters in The Blue Iris taught me that when the moment presents itself (and I believe it always does, as soon as we’re strong enough), we have to stop running. Just feel whatever we feel, even if there’s no tidy label for it.
What were your favourite Toronto locations or references to include in The Blue Iris?
I recently heard someone refer to the book as a “love letter to Toronto,” which had me floating for days. Capturing the spirit of my home city was certainly one of my intentions while drafting.
The location I loved drawing from the most was Avenue Road in North Toronto, where I lived as a young child. Much of Tessa’s flashbacks in the opening pages are my earliest memories of walking that street with my mother, and visiting the flower market that inspired the one in the book.
Years later, I worked at that flower market while attending the University of Toronto. I met my lifelong friend and mentor there, not to mention my husband, so it meant a lot to pay homage to it through the fictionalized Blue Iris flower market—more so since the real one isn’t there anymore.
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What conversations do you hope The Blue Iris inspires?
There’s so much to unpack in this book, but I’d be thrilled if Tessa’s struggle sparked more discussion about what I call the “What’s Next Complex”. There’s a ton of pressure on young people to “have it all figured out,” especially by age thirty, and it needs to change. We have bright, educated, ambitious, hard-working people who are feeling like failures—just because they’re not sure what sort of job they want yet, or they’re not married, or maybe don’t want kids?
The yardstick we’re using to measure progress is obsolete, and it’s leading people away from their truth for fear of falling behind. Nobody’s telling them the struggle remains largely the same at forty, fifty, sixty, or that “getting our lives together” is how we spend the majority of our lives. The truth is, we’re all still figuring it out. I’d love for that message to reach more young people.
What would you say to anyone who needs that push to start working on the book or project they’ve always wanted to write?
That idea you just can’t shake, the one that keeps you up at night, it’s there for a reason. Carve space for it, whatever you can manage. Don’t worry that you can’t see the whole way! Nobody can. Just start. Keep making space. The path only becomes clearer as you go.
Meanwhile, find your tribe. The journey to publication is long and steep, and I spent years flailing around in circles because I had this idea that writing was a solitary venture. The moment I found “my people” (the incredible Women’s Fiction Writers Association), I saw how wrong I’d been.
To be able to bounce ideas around, write alongside each other, cheer the collective wins and dilute the sting of the blows, even just hearing what I was experiencing was normal—it changed everything. Writers spend lots of time alone, but it isn’t supposed to be lonely.