Jane Buss (1948-2020), executive director of the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia from 1992 – 2009, died suddenly on January 9, 2020.
by Norene Smiley and Sue Goyette
It is fitting that Jane Buss was hired in March. March is the month with winter behind it. March understands that blooming doesn’t happen overnight. Would it be a stretch to say Jane’s operating system was that of growing and, in its way, botanical? Easily, those who knew her, those who felt her warmth, left her company feeling nourished and appreciated. And easily, we all grew. This ability to celebrate each of us—in a membership as varied and expansive as that of WFNS—is a gift. When WFNS hired Jane Buss all those years ago on a March day, it was in a precarious situation, financially and organizationally, and did not know yet how lucky a recipient it was.
From the beginning, Jane knew how to enter a room. Headfirst and hand extended. And her hand was strong. It would pull a person into an embrace that was part loving and part osteopathic. These hugs realigned the spirit and the body. She was a force, and in her 17 years of service, Jane put programs into place that are still thriving: the stellar Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program, the Manuscript Review Program, the Writers in the Schools program, and workshops for emerging and established writers. Under Jane’s guidance, several book awards—including the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the J.M Abraham Atlantic Poetry Award, the Evelyn Richardson Non-Fiction Award, and the Ann Connor Brimer Award for Atlantic Canadian Children’s Literature—grew in distinction and monetary worth. This legacy is remarkably sustainable. These programs and awards have become bedrock in the province’s literary community and have made important contributions to Nova Scotia’s distinct and enviable cultural landscape.
In her years with the organization, Jane took service seriously. She collaborated with the other cultural federations to establish their new home, helped writers understand their publishing contracts, and sat on the boards of related organizations like The Word on the Street and the Hackmatack Award. Jane was an absolute whiz at bookkeeping, helping stabilize the federation and infusing confidence in the funding of its sister organizations. She was generous and unflagging, there to help nurture and make sure we were all right, all the while being burdened by the position of running an understaffed and sometimes over-programmed non-profit organization.
As proficient as Jane was in governance and programming, she was also an exemplary host and knew the importance of community for writers, who spend so much time alone and are often befuddled by socializing. Her hospitality welcomed us to annual Christmas parties, which she had spent weeks cooking for, making lemon curd tarted into pastry she had rolled the day before and topped with cream from a farmer she knew. This dedication to cooking for us was Jane’s way of caring for us. How many of us received cards or notes, long letters written in cursive that seemed a fuse burning to that care? How many of us picked up the phone to hear her voice and her latest plan for us? And how many of us knew we could drop into the office, be welcomed to sit in the living archive of her postered walls, and be listened to? In this way, Jane made a home for many of us who needed one. It’s no wonder that the membership of the WFNS almost doubled during her tenure.
In the spirit of sustainability, Jane worked both with young readers and writers and with writers who had achieved mastery and were our elders. She was there at the infancy of the Read to Me program at the IWK. She worked hard to stabilize and refine the Writers in the Schools program. She wrote innumerable nominations to the Order of Canada and to the Nova Scotia Arts Awards to make sure we were recognized for our achievements. And for emerging and established writers, Jane fuelled our confidence to continue. She established an emergency fund for those of us who pursued a vocation that was precarious and underfunded, if funded at all. This fund was put in place for those one-time crises that can befall when there is no financial safety net. Jane helped many of us honour our skills by requesting to be paid. It is important to emphasize that none of this had existed for this community before Jane.
This was not the first time Jane worked her magic. Prior to 1992, she was the director of marketing and public relations with Symphony Nova Scotia. She was well known in the Canadian theatre community as a producer, having worked with such companies as Theatre Passe Muraille (Toronto), Theatre Network (Edmonton), and The Piggery (North Hatley, Quebec). She also served as a consultant to various cultural organizations, including the Canada Council for the Arts and Ontario Arts Council, and was writers’ steward with the Writers’ Guild of ACTRA. She was also the first executive director of the Playwrights Union of Canada.
Getting it done
Who is this paragon, this dynamic force of a woman? you might ask. Surely no one person could accomplish all this. Well, it turns out, she did—all the while being deeply human, possessing faults like any other. Her fierceness might make some tremble, her get-it-done attitude brooked no nay-sayers, and she suffered no fools. How difficult it must have been to shore up so many people and organizations without running out of energy for herself. When Jane was forced to meet her own health challenges, she did so with the same drive, the same refusal to give in. But it was that intensity and resolve that made Jane just the right person for the Federation at the time. No matter how you felt about her, it wasn’t indifference. She evoked emotional responses. When you feel and act with passion, this is always the way. But when the dust clears, and time takes some of the sharp edges off, what remains is a thankfulness, a profound gratitude—that Jane arrived when she did to enrich the writers of this organization, that she embraced all of us with her big-hearted welcome, and that she named us as friends.
The vitality of her company made it hard to realize that she was no longer with us. Almost immediately, WFNS members turned to social media for support and to commiserate our loss. In this way, we understand how she left us: connected, belonging to a community that turns to each other when we need to. Perhaps this is her true legacy, all of us in the wake of her passing, together, mourning and celebrating the grand and exquisite life she led and shared with each of us.
So here we are, turning up for each other, in the way she’d be delighted by…
“So grateful Jane shaped the literary world in NS. Gave so much energy and creative genius to so many of us.” —Mary Jo Anderson
“I loved Jane. So tough yet so soft. I can’t remember a meeting or visit where she didn’t call me sweetie, give me a hug, and then launch into some latest complaint about the lack of program support for writers (with an undertone that I could somehow do something about it). She loved the arts, but man she was ferocious about her love of writers. She hasn’t been in my thoughts for a while (absence and all that), but hearing this sad news opens up a chasm of loss.” —Gregor Ash
“In the early ’90s, when Jane first came to the Writers’ Federation as executive director, I was sitting in a Halifax restaurant booth, eavesdropping on the conversation in the booth behind me. (Of course I was!) The people I listened to were members of another arts organization, and one of them said: ‘We need a Jane Buss.’ And how Jane laughed when I told her this. And how we all were so lucky to have the one and only Jane Buss as our friend and as a friend to writers!” —Sylvia Gunnery
“She was a powerhouse, and yes, she made me feel special and important. I loved her.” —Donna Morrissey
“When I became the ED of the Writers’ Alliance of NL, she sent me a bag of chocolate covered espresso beans because I had mentioned, somewhere, that I loved them. Enclosed was a warm and welcoming note. We talked often on the phone, and I cherished all her wise words. She was so encouraging to others in the field.” —Shoshana Wingate
“I recall meeting her for the first time when she came into Bookmark to invite me to the inaugural Halifax Word on the Street meeting. I was a bit intimidated by her exuberance at first but soon came to admire her passion and ferocity. Her contribution to writers and readers in Nova Scotia is immeasurable.” —Nicholas Graham
“She was such a vital force for writers in Nova Scotia, and I don’t think anyone loved me the way she did. What a tremendous loss for us all.” —Sue Goyette
“Her impact on the Atlantic writing community is immeasurable—what a legacy! And oh, the hearts she touched. When I arrived in Nova Scotia, Jane took me under her wing and pointed me to the job running the Read to Me program, which this single mom sorely needed. She challenged me and championed me and was always a shoulder to lean on when things got hard. Her laugh filled a room, and I can still hear it echo. A wise and wild Viking warrior, Jane made her mark on our province and on our hearts.” —Carol McDougall
“I loved that woman—was on the panel that hired her for WFNS and liked her immediately. Someone who genuinely loved people and especially writers. I’ll miss her hugs and her sweet voice and will cherish the many wonderful hours spent together.” —Ken Ward
“She was one of the most amazing and wonderful women, and champions of authors, ever.” —Joan Baxter
“She didn’t just smile, she lit her face for and to you. And then her endless energy and bottomless basket. Her ability to organize, host, and provision an event was of biblical proportion. Loaves and fishes, water to wine. Many years ago, on a sunny, hot Friday afternoon in the cramped Fed office space on Spring Garden Road, I found her sobbing at her desk. She was reaching out to the Writers’ Union, seeking immediate financial assistance for a member in deep trouble. She was sad and outraged at the state of affairs. I have no doubt that, after her calls, she went out and made a weekend’s worth of meals to get this person through until Monday.” —Allan Lynch
“Heartbreaking loss for so many of us. Jane was such a force and so determined to see that our community of writers would succeed. Can’t imagine muddling through without her guidance and all her cheering through the good times and the bad.” —Carol Bruneau
“I have kept her sweet, cheerleading emails to me to stoke my courage when the pen (or my heart) runs dry.” —Munju Monique Ravindra
“She helped me believe in myself as a writer—and that Nova Scotia was a good place to be a writer.” —Jo Jefferson