Chris Kay Fraser is the founder of Firefly Creative Writing, a safe and cozy space in Toronto’s Danforth community dedicated to supporting writers and their creative journeys. Chris started Firefly after completing the Master of Arts in Adult Education and Community Development at the University of Toronto (U of T), but she hadn’t expected to set up shop in the east end and had never previously dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur.
A longtime writer herself, Chris was passionate about studying the ways creativity drove community and sparked personal, professional and political change. Soon, Chris would find herself studying the significance of writing workshops, while attending dozens of them herself and collecting research through interviews with guests and instructors. Chris’ experience at U of T coupled with her ongoing love of the written word inspired her to start Firefly in the fall of 2005.
We connect with Chris to learn more about her writing journey, Firefly’s growth, the subjectivity of the creative process, the tough business knowledge she’s acquired and why The Danforth has become Firefly’s ideal home.
Read the full interview, for more:
1. How did Fireﬂy officially launch?
I walked around Toronto with a my ﬁrst handmade ﬂyers advertising writing workshops in the fall of 2005 and everything has slowly grown from there. I was a one-woman-show for about nine years, and then jumped to a team of four. Then, a couple of years later, we hired two more coaches and moved into a studio in Toronto’s Danforth community, where we are now.
Firefly was so small back in 2005, it’s hard to even see it as the same business! But the heart, process and intentions are all the same.
2. Before writing and coaching became your job, had you ever sought out a writing coach for your own creative adventures?
Yup! I’ve had lots of writing coaches, teachers and facilitators over the years. That’s a big part of what inspired me to start Fireﬂy. I realized that in some creative experiences, I felt inspired and alive, heart open, excited and full of possibility. In others, I felt closed and competitive and afraid. I hated that second feeling, and I was obsessed with the ﬁrst one.
I started seeking out any creative experiences that made me feel the second way, and slowly started to create a philosophy and set of practices that would let me start to create that space for others.
3. Everyone has a diﬀerent creative process, each with many peaks and valleys. What is your creative process like?
Really, I have two creative practices. There is the creative practice of business, which is absorbing, constant and exhilarating. I just love running Fireﬂy. I love supporting my beautiful team, I love nurturing new writers, I love planning classes, I love dreaming up the materials every month for Hello Writer, our snail mail subscription program, I love making granola for retreats and I love straightening the bookshelves at the end of the night. It’s a creative process at every stage.
Then, there’s my writing, which is a much more vulnerable and fragile process. I often feel like I should have writing, “all ﬁgured out,” since I’m a coach, but, I’d be a terrible one if I wasn’t in the muck too. I struggle in the same way as everyone struggles with procrastination and uncertainty and the vastness of the creative process, but I never doubt that I’m a writer. I constantly come back to it. I have a novel on the go and countless little essays and stories.
4. If you ever ﬁnd yourself in need of a creative recharge, what steps do you take to refresh and reload?
Silence and distance are my best creative allies. Give me a highway and a rental car (preferred with my dog curled up in the back seat) and the ideas will start pouring in. I also thrive best with zero internet access, which is a tricky one since I run a busy business. I work hard to create those windows a few times a year.
5. Was starting your own business something you always wanted to do?
Not at all! It never occurred to me to start a business until I was already doing it and it was too late to stop. There aren’t any entrepreneurs in my family. The, “ﬁguring out how to make money,” thing is something I’ve had to ﬁnd my way through. It doesn’t come naturally, but I think that’s a good thing. It makes me do it my own way, which has a lot more heart and authenticity.
6. What has been the most challenging aspect of your entrepreneurial journey?
Without a doubt, needing to put my focus on money. My personality naturally ﬂows towards generosity and sharing, so being mindful of ﬁnancial gain, clear about our policies, strong in my boundaries and not afraid to put a price on things — ay ay ay. That took a lot of work. But, I’m doing that work, while ﬁnding ways to lessen the burden of capitalism on my clients, like oﬀering a scholarship fund and a Writer In Residence program that lets us amplify new voices and oﬀer more low-cost events to our community.
It’s so unlikely for a creative business to thrive currently, but we’re thriving and I’m incredibly proud of that.
7. What have you learned about time, project and stress management since Fireﬂy ﬁrst opened its doors?
I think my best learning in that area started just last year (2018) when I started to take running more seriously. This is another thing (like running a business) I never thought I would do.
Running has taught me is how to stay present with myself, instead of swept up in fear, and monitor the big picture. If I think, “I’m going to be on this treadmill for another 45-minutes,” I’ll leap oﬀ in horror, walk to the café and settle in. If I think, “Do I feel good right now? Do I have more energy? Do I want to continue?,” I’ll almost always answer yes. When I just keep running, amazing things happen.
This is what running a business should have taught me, but I didn’t learn it until now. Being meticulously present in each moment and not getting overwhelmed by the big picture is the best lesson I’ve learned. It’s what is bringing me the most strength and power at this phase of Fireﬂy’s growth.
8. Why did The Danforth appeal to you?
Honestly, I just wanted an aﬀordable storefront. Our studio was a mess before we took over. It was a former marijuana dispensary that got trashed when the raids happened — imagine electric blue walls full of holes, expletives scribbled on them and a giant black spray-painted pot leaf. All that mattered to me was that it was cheap. I was like, “Yes. I can work with this.”
I didn’t get invested in the area until I started to settle in. I can’t believe how lucky we got. I love all the sweet little businesses on my stretch of The Danforth — The Handwork Department supplies us with endless writing prompts, East of York keeps us nourished, the farmers’ markets are pure joy and the summer music festival is wonderful. I’m so glad this messy little storefront was exactly where it was.
9. Describe any go-to places within Toronto that may inspire you to get writing…
I do my best writing after a long run on the Leslie Spit, with my phone oﬀ, anywhere that catches my eye. Even sitting in the car works.
10. Firefly oﬀers numerous opportunities for creators to come together and write. What do those offers look like?
We have four main oﬀerings.
First, there are workshops. These are small, interactive, cozy gatherings. Imagine seven people around a thick wood table writing, sharing and exploring their creative selves. We have some in speciﬁc types of writing, like poetry, sci ﬁ or short stories, and some that are more general, for people who don’t know what they want to do yet but know there’s something in them.
We also run retreats. These are three, four or five-day experiences around southern Ontario that offer a chance to gather with other people who want to write with a mix of quiet writing time, workshops, downtime and shared meals. They’re headed for total beginners, as well as folks who are deep in writing projects.
Finally, we have a beautiful subscription service called Hello Writer, which I mentioned earlier. We deliver big envelopes of creative inspiration and direction to writers once a month.
11. Fireﬂy is made up of six diverse teammates. Who are they and what do they do?
My colleagues are all brilliant, big-hearted ﬁrecrackers. The best way to get to know them is through the videos on our website. I don’t want to reduce any of them to a single sentence or paragraph. I will say that they’re all amazing at their jobs and I’m grateful for each of them every day.
12. What are a few of your favourite tactics to use when developing content for your workshops and retreats?
Since we’re all writers too, we pay a lot of attention to what we need deep down, and then we focus on what the, “Fireﬂy Approach,” should be to meet those needs. Writing classes are often beset by ego and competitiveness, or a sense that there’s one way to write. We don’t believe that at all. Our motto is, “There’s no way to do this wrong.” So, working from there, we consider: What can we make? What isn’t out there yet?
I also encourage my team to work with their own gifts and create programs from there. For example, teammate Britt Smith has a history of facilitating bereavement groups and has written a lot about death and dying, so she runs a class called, “The Further Shore,” on writing about death and loss.
Jenna Tenn-Yuk, also on our team, identiﬁes with the BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ communities, and runs groups speciﬁc to those audiences. I want the facilitators to be in their own ﬁre and to build oﬀerings that they feel incredibly excited to run.
13. Why have you chosen to focus on safety, diversity and inclusion, giving these issues a prominent space on your website and throughout Firefly’s pillars?
To me, this isn’t a “part” of Fireﬂy, it is Fireﬂy. Everyone has a voice. Everyone’s voice matters. This simple truth seems so obvious, it hardly bears speaking, but we live in a world where it needs to be said. We are always looking for new ways to make quieter voices feel welcome, safe and celebrated.
This is important in any art form, but it holds extra resonance when it comes to writing. We live in a world that’s hostile to a lot of stories. Maybe not overtly, but it’s there. When we’re young, we’re told, “This is what a story is,” and, “This is what a good story is.” What we’re hearing is, “This is what your story should be.” At Fireﬂy, we want to undo that.
Your story matters because it’s real and true and yours. We want to hear it. We want you to experience the joy and catharsis of writing it.
Whether we’re drawn to memoir or ﬁction or poetry or sci-ﬁ or any other form, we’re always telling our stories. When we know they’ll be welcomed, when we see stories like ours being lifted up and celebrated, it’s much, much easier to start telling them.
14. What might you hope other small business owners learn about diversity and inclusion, based on your eﬀorts within the community?
“Diversity” isn’t about putting a sticker on your door or having a variety of people in your website photos. It’s about fundamentally challenging how you see the world. It’s about looking beyond what’s obvious and listening to what’s not being said. It’s about asking yourself hard questions regarding how you hold power and how you can share that power or give it away. It’s about creating diﬀerently, not assuming the frameworks that have been handed down are the way. It’s about patience and awareness and humility, and also joy.
Of course, I’m no expert. I’ve still got a ton of learn. That’s part of it too.
Chris, thank you for sharing your story with us and for giving writers across Toronto the opportunity to create in a safe, inclusive and welcoming space. We’re so grateful to have had the chance to connect with you.
Readers, registration for Firefly’s spring workshop and retreat is in full swing. For summer programs, Firefly will open registration for retreats on April 2, 2019 and for workshops on April 30, 2019. Registration for Firefly’s one-on-one coaching and the Hello Writer is ongoing.
The feature photo is by Shannon Litt.