Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and this November marks the same number of years since my mother’s death. I wrote this piece in 1998, pondering the connection between the two and my own journey a year into grieving. Looking at it after all this time, I ache for the person who wrote it. I’m well past active grief now, but I can hear the pain I felt coming through my writing voice. And yet, much of it is still the way I feel today.
What a difference a year makes. Last September I, like so many others, sat glued to my television set watching blow-by-blow coverage of Princess Diana’s death. I watched Diana’s funeral, not once, but many times. I listened to Charles Spencer’s eulogy over and over, and cried every time, as if repetition could somehow make it all true. Why did I do this? What was I waiting to see, to hear? What emotion locked deep inside was this spectacle tapping into? Flipping back and forth between channels for coverage and critical comment, I told myself that my interest was media deconstruction and trying to attach some meaning to the phenomenon of millions upon millions of mourners displaying emotions that they’d perhaps bottled up for months, even years. Feelings maybe not even their loved ones knew they possessed.
When I spoke to my mother about it all her attitude struck me as somewhat cynical and I was bothered by that. She was critical of Diana’s public persona, her courting and shunning of the media. And although she also watched, she seemed unaffected and unimpressed. But then my mom was no stranger to grief. As a young child she had lost her mother, then later, her oldest daughter before her youngest were grown, and two siblings far too early. All too often she’d been attending funeral after funeral as family members and friends succumbed to age or illness. Of course, she knew then what I know now – something that my multiple viewings of Diana’s funeral was in some strange way foreshadowing. Once you’ve lived through the real thing, you have little or no appetite for voyeuristic viewing of death via “breaking news” broadcast venues.
It never occurred to me last September as I watched and participated in the Diana display, that two short months later I’d be sitting panic-stricken at my own mother’s funeral mass. Nothing in my life could have prepared me for standing in a room full of caskets choosing one for my mother’s dead body. Or greeting every single family member and friend at her visitation – their presence creating a domino effect of memory of her life and my own. Nothing could ever be further from my mind than the few torturous minutes it took me, on rubbery legs, to walk up the church aisle behind her coffin. The fact that my private feelings would be publicly seen felt overwhelming and I remember trying to hide my face even from the familiar and also grieving gathering of people who knew and loved my mother.
Watching anniversary commentary and coverage of Diana now is excruciating to me. Suddenly my tolerance for anything funereal is drastically diminished. Reality, after all, is not at all entertaining. It’s painful in a way that only becomes obvious in the many months that follow – even almost a whole year later when I no longer expect to still remember the details so acutely. When what has forever changed my life is a faint memory to those around me. When nothing and no-one can relieve the emptiness of not hearing her voice for so many days in a row. After weeks and months of the processing and reprocessing that it takes to fully understand that the kind of comfort her voice provided is no longer available to me. The refuge of my mother’s love, custodian of my memories, champion of my successes, holder of my tears, my own personal spin-doctor, will sadly never be enough as a mere memory.
Remembering how much courage I had to muster for my brief walk behind my mother’s casket makes it impossible to think of what it took for Diana’s young sons to walk through the streets of London behind their dead mother. In order to purge a collective grief that probably had nothing whatever to do with the woman in that box, we forced two terribly impressionable boys to experience an extremely private moment right in front of far too many hungry eyes. Who can ever forget the picture of the word “Mummy” peeking out among the flowers atop Diana’s coffin? Not at all lost on me then, it has since taken on a much more poignant significance, and beauty.
For me, the death of my mother means the loss of my main relationship, my closest friend and my strongest connection to my personal history. But by this time, this is not outwardly noticeable. Inside me, however, everything has shifted so that even the tiniest occurrence takes much longer to process, leaving me with a block of confusion in my brain. I still need time and space to adjust to profound and unalterable loss. This fact is difficult to articulate in the real world of grief, where people need to see that you’re “coping” well. Sometimes I think we have more empathy for the loved ones of dead public figures because we can measure their loss without asking questions whose answers make us afraid for ourselves. It’s less messy with the protection of a television screen.
Ironically, I would have shared these observations with my mother first – a person whose point of view was both familiar and surprising, my daily breath of fresh air. Had I more experience with the extremely personal after-effects of losing her – or any such profound grief – I would have agreed with her about Diana. So, now when I reflect back on our differing opinions on the subject, I just know my mom is up there somewhere beyond the ether hearing me say: “Hey Mom – how come you’re always right?”
You can’t do everything you want to in New York in three days. I tried. Twice. I came back overwhelmed and exhausted. So, I’m still trying to figure out how to experience that crazy, beautiful, noisy, smelly, exciting city without knocking myself out.
The first time I went in 2011, I was part of a bus tour of women escaping families for a shopping/Broadway/sightseeing trip. I didn’t fit in, nor did I have money to spend on most of those activities. I broke free one day and experienced some moments that stayed with me and kept me hankering to go back. I was blown away by the architecture, the skyscrapers, the sheer number of people on the street at all times and fascinated that, in a city so engulfed by noise, it was still possible to experience quiet.
That solitary day, I started out at the 9/11 museum, where the only sound was muffled crying, me and every single other person. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral I stumbled into a all-black high school graduation ceremony and cried again at the sentiment the young valedictorian expressed while thanking the women in his life for keeping him in school. I lit a candle for my mother because I’d been walking around New York for two days thinking of how much she adored the city when she visited as a still single woman before my dad and five children complicated her life.
I then moved on to the Algonquin Hotel, a must-experience for a writer since it’s the birth-place of the New Yorker and the second home to most of its writers. (also figures prominently in Mad Men) I sat enjoying a beer (cheapest thing on the drinks menu) when the couple beside me, in town from Philadelphia celebrating their anniversary, invited me to join them and generously bought me a couple of drinks. It was magical and, I thought, could only happen in New York – or at least, it was the kind of thing you can experience when travelling alone and feeling free of the everyday stress of home and the shackles of at-home identity.
This trip was a bit different and for some reason I felt myself even more overwhelmed by the city. Perhaps, having been there once, I felt I was more prepared for its offer. Wrong. I doubt it’s a city you can judge in one or two experiences… or a million.
Here, a list of my impressions this time around:
I haven’t flown in 3 years and it’s not my fave thing to do. I’m edgy about it, but my excitement to be in NYC trumps the nerves. Plus, my pal is distracting me with chatter, at my request. I barely remember taking off or landing. It’s a short flight – less than an hour in the air. I’m curious about the islands we’re passing over just before landing. Must look them up.
We’re in NYC! Though my trip this time is more street level than bus level and less tourist, more traveller, every once in awhile you just have to say, “I’m in New York!”
The city is so mythical to me in so many ways – all those films, TV shows and books set in New York that live in the imagination – walking around feels out of this world, at first.
Chelsea is a cute area, the best part of which is Cafe Grumpy on 20th, in between 7th and 8th. A good independent shop, great coffee and just about the best almond croissant I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot of them! Our hotel, not so much. Note to self for next time: stay out of the noise, you’ll need it as a nightly refuge.
Chelsea art galleries are delightful. We happened upon an art
class while looking at the fascinating Lisa Yuskavage exhibit in the David Zwirner gallery. What luck! The instructor was a wealth of knowledge putting the pieces we were looking at in feminist and artistic context and good thing because I’m not hugely art articulate.
fabulous – I appreciated the program before, but so much more after seeing the painstaking, intricate detail Matthew Weiner & Co. took to make sure it was as authentic to the time as possible. If you’re a fan of the show, go see it! (it’s on until June 14) I never saw this series as a period piece since all the props, costumes, etc were part of my childhood experience. Walking into Don and Betty’s Ossining, NY kitchen was like stepping into my mother’s kitchen. (No photos allowed, heavily guarded, but I snuck a pic of the secretary’s desk.)
Is there anything more NYC than the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, founded by Tony Bennett? It’s across from the Museum of Moving Image in Queens. A prof chatted to us about how students don’t know how to spell or write, but they can sing and play, I guess. Just when I was thinking this, a young man belted out a song on the sidewalk.
Getting around on the subway is a challenge for a person from a city with two defined routes and a poor sense of direction. I figure it would take me at least 3-5 years of living in New York before I understood how to get around by transit. Thankfully, New Yorkers are friendly and obliging to two lost souls.
The Rockwood Music Hall is a wonderful venue to see music. Small, comfortable and with great sound. A fellow called Andrew Ripp is a talented up and comer, originally from outside Chicago but lives in Nashville.
Greenpoint, Brooklyn – the Polish district – feels a lot like home in Roncesvalles. A young stylist named Stephanie gave me a great haircut and told me about Ovenly – a cute bakery
where I bought their recipe book because, unlike so many I have in my collection, this one has some unique baking tips, plus rare but welcome process photos. This only has to do with New York in the sense that the bakery is situated there and the baked goods were delicious – quality ingredients, expertly executed. And the joint was hoppin’.
Who knew you could take a NY Ferry from Brooklyn to Manhattan. We did and it was great! (brought Vancouver to mind, a cross between Seabus and Granville Island Ferry). Why can’t Toronto transport some of its commuters by ferry? For that matter, why do we only have two (and a half) subway lines?
Central Park is always an oasis, even on a crowded Saturday.
Down time in New York from our whirlwind New York mini-vacation. The perk for one Big Brother fan like myself is that my fave contestant from last year, Zach Rance, was in town from Florida and hanging out at Strawberry Fields talking to fans. In Toronto, I would never show up at such an event. In New York, why not?
My travel companion took me for an authentic Lower East Side experience at Katz’s Deli (which employs security people to make sure you don’t slip out without paying!) – then on to a comedy/music show at Fontana’s (a huge bar with a tiny performance space in the basement). My tiredness got the better of me on Night Two so I went home to the 8th St. hotel and attempted to drown out the relentless noise. (During a restless night before, I noted that people don’t stop partying at 8th and 30th – and probably everywhere else – until at least 4:30 am. Then, the city quiets down for at least a couple of hours, on the weekend at least.)
The outdoor 9/11 memorial was not yet built on my last visit. My pal and I reminisce about the horrific event on the way there, but we know our impressions are nothing compared to what New Yorkers went through that day. The waterfall and pool, with names of those who lost their lives is a fitting and remarkable tribute. After my visit to the museum last time I knew I couldn’t do it again. Too unbearably sad.
The only reason to walk into Macy’s is to experience the wooden escalator, a relic from, if not the original store, one of the early incarnations. I put off going to New York for years because I mistakenly thought I had to have a boatload of money to even step one foot on a NYC sidewalk. I’m not much of a shopper anyway, but on both my trips I never felt the need to spend money in stores. There’s seriously too much else to do! Having said that, I did splurge on a pair of coral Birkenstocks – which saved my feet and legs on this trip.
Stopped into Grand Central to meet up with my friend and
didn’t realize until I got home that I can never spend enough time in that great hall of antiquity, a feat of architecture and design (and didn’t that day). If ever there was a time to shout out, “I’m in New York!” it’s surely when standing at the information desk in the middle of the atrium, the scene of so many, many films.
Bryant Park is delightful, from it’s food kiosks to its Reading Room, and ping pong tables. Another (needed) respite from busy NYC – truly, I could’ve sat there all day long. But.. place to go, things to see…
The Highline – what a great idea that is! Take an unused elevated train track and turn it into a green space with
spectacular city views and an excuse for a simply lovely stroll. Chelsea Market, a spot I wish I’d discovered on day one. A relaxing dinner with two good friends in New York, then off to see Lucy Wainwright Roche, one of myriad number of musical Wainwrights and Roches. First, the Highline Ballroom is a special venue with, again, great sound. Then, talent galore and even more when Loudon Wainwright III got up to sing. Only in New York, where the family hails from and lives.
How’s this for a crazy NY moment: walking home from the Highline Ballroom, I ran into an old colleague/friend from Vancouver (who now lives in Toronto) whom I haven’t seen since before I left that city in 2006. Crazy.
Now that I’ve been to New York twice, I’ll probably keep visiting, if only in an attempt to get it right – which for me means balancing all it has to offer with my need to take all things slow and savoury in life and in travel. Still, I think I can sum up the experiences I’ve had there like this:
One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years… Tom Wolfe
It’s a day late, but in honour of St. Paddy’s Day, here’s a little something I’ve imported from my old website, herkind.com. It seems appropriate just now.
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth our while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
I’ve read Angela’s Ashes a handful of times, listened to it twice on tape (read to me by the man himself), I’ve given this book to at least a dozen people as gifts for various occasions, or none at all, and seen the film (only once, generally I dislike books to film). It’s safe to say I’ve done some serious time with Mr. McCourt.
It’s hard to believe I resisted reading this book that makes you cry and then laugh through the tears. I guess I thought it was just too popular so not my kind of read. Hey, I’m a self professed book snob. Published in 1996, I think I finally got to it a couple years later, and of course, didn’t put it down til it was finished. While reading it I found a newspaper photo of McCourt and pinned it to my bulletin board at work. I simply couldn’t believe he had lived through his miserable childhood But live he did, and the literary world was richer for it. Of course, Angela’s Ashes is the ultimate father/son story, a topic which has always been on my radar.
Now, I’ve met quite a few famous people. Just about anyone you can think of – writers, musicians, actors, celebrities. It doesn’t faze me usually. But when wee Frank McCourt came into Bravo! (where I worked at the time) for a news interview, I suddenly felt very shy. Though I was determined to get my book signed I didn’t know what I could possibly say to a man who had lived ten times the life, and hardship that I ever would. Feeling nervous, I waited in the wings while the interview wrapped up and then timidly approached. Lacking the courage to say very much I just asked for a signature. A co-worker who must have known what it would mean to me later, snapped our photo. I shook McCourt’s hand and walked away. Happy.
When I got the photo I tucked it away for safe keeping. Then, when I moved to Vancouver, changing my career to full time writing and journalism, I framed the photo and put it the desk by my computer. Inspiration.
I didn’t know if I’d ever meet him again, but his book, life and this meeting had made enough of an impression.
And yet I did meet him again. A few years later, working as a producer on a TV show in Vancouver I had the opportunity to invite him to the show while he was promoting his book Teacher Man. Now, getting authors on this particular show wasn’t easy, it simply wasn’t the best venue for a considered interview. And, no one there expected to ever have the chance to score this particular author, but there I was one bright, sunny, early morning greeting Mr. McCourt again. This time I had to overcome my shyness to talk to him since I was producing his interview. We chatted in the green room about his teacher anecdotes, deciding which ones he would tell and discussing how the profession has changed since his early days.
He was quite simply a lovely man. And though I didn’t by any means begin to know him, I miss him and his unwritten words.
“On Thursday, The Agenda explored whether our modern obsession with collecting “stuff” — gadgets, toys, appliances, and other consumer goods — might be coming at too high a cost to our pocketbooks and our emotional well-being. (You can watch that program above.)
Writer Carla Lucchetta, who has contributed many personal essays to The Agenda over the years, was inspired by the program to tell a story about a cherished object, emotion, and learning move forward.”
I’ve been telling 1st person stories for most of my writing life. I can’t help it, it’s my strongest voice. Which isn’t to say that by reading something I’ve written, that you will know everything about me. I get some criticism, but mostly praise and sometimes awe for having the so-called courage to put my life out there and myself on the line. The stories I choose to reveal my life through are the ones I think are the most relatable and the least told out loud. An example is my continual return to my feelings about being childless – I just think it’s a taboo topic that needs to be made a little more visible in order to be understood. Another is my struggle with loneliness, a word and state still so feared. Yet, another is my interest in fatherless sons and the voids in their lives because of it. Not my story to tell, but the topic of my upcoming book because of the many men I know who have suffered in silence. When we reveal ourselves in the most vulnerable ways we show how connected we really are by the condition of life. It can only help.
That’s why I’m so interested in a new show on OWN Canada (Oprah Winfrey’s network) called Life Story Project. My friend and colleague, the talented Dale Curd is a creator and co-host. Armed with deceptively easy to answer questions (“what was your most memorable 1st?” or, “what was your moment of truth?” and, “what does it feel like to fall in love?”) the two hosts – one a life-coach, the other a seasoned men’s counselor- invite random passers-by to sit on a purple couch and chat. What ends up being revealed is often a surprise to them, even though they have so much experience listening to “truths” from their clients. The show is not over-produced or stylishly edited. Participants have not been cast, though I’m sure the footage has been picked over for the best, most moving or entertaining stories. That’s just TV. The result is a fairly authentic representation of the powerful stories we all have living inside of us. People seem immediately to go to the crux of their pain or joy. One woman revealed how an accident she had caused resulted in her child’s eye disease which meant he couldn’t recognize her until he heard her voice. When asked if she had regrets her answer was a thoughtful and very raw, “I don’t know.”
Life’s just like that. It’s not always possible to wrap it up with a pretty bow and that elusive thing we love to say we’re seeking… closure.
While watching the debut show, I shared my experience of it with other viewers on twitter. Some of the comments surprised me. More than a few people said things like, “you never know what the person next to you is dealing with.” Really? Do we not know? Are we so caught up in our own private dramas that we can’t imagine others are having their own versions?
With all the soap boxing that’s available on television where people are continually revealing their issues to Oprah et al, how is it possible to still not realize we all have emotional confusion, pain, loss, doubt just as much as happiness, joy, contentment. You can’t have one without the other. Just because our minds return to the place of hurt when asked a simple question does not mean we haven’t processed it and moved on. Resilience is one of our finest qualities. But, why are we still so afraid of the dark side, even when we know experiencing it has certainly shaped our lives?
I think the beauty of this show is two- maybe even three-fold. 1) it’s local – the purple coach was placed on the Kew Beach boardwalk, in the middle of the Distillery district, and at Sunnyside Pavillion, so there’s always a chance someone familiar will show up. Not only that, but it’s much easier to relate to people nearer to us than on talk or reality show taped in some remote American city. 2) People seem to need a reminder that we all operate along the same thin emotional thread, though the manifestation may be different, and 3) Even the more empathetic of us who regularly tell the powerful stories of others, and our own, can be further moved by these ones, and also appreciate the skill of the hosts in drawing them out.
I recommend the show, especially if you need a reminder of the vulnerability of and the triumph over being human. Here’s the broadcast schedule.
Veteran 3rd wave feminist Naomi Wolf‘s new book, Vagina: A New Biography, reveals some new science about female sexual response and the power that good, attentive sex can give women. It’s been receiving scathing reviews, but I think there’s valuable and interesting information contained within.
The sexual revolution has not been kind to women or men; our information about the intricate science of female sexual response is at least a half century out of date; history reveals that in many cultures the vagina was once revered but has also been continually under attack as a systemic way to suppress women’s power; the click-of-a-computer-key availability of porn is rewiring our brains and impeding our ability to be intimate; and a woman’s sexual history – especially if it is violent – is held in nerve memory, but can be healed.
(Summer is the time of year I really feel I’ve missed out by not becoming a mother. I think I said it best in this post introducing my TVO essay on the topic. Originally published on Jan. 6, 2011)
Last year I met the writer, Molly Peacock and began, by chance, to talk to her about a piece I was trying to work out about being childless and how hard it was to a) reconcile that fact, in a world where motherhood is revered, and b) how silent the process is because there’s so little written on it, and it’s rarely discussed. What I didn’t know was that she had written an entire book on her choice to be child-free and how it had defined her life.
I devoured Paradise Piece by Piece and, though my childlessness has happened more from circumstance than choice – it would never be my choice – I still related to a great deal of what she wrote. That’s because to be a “non-mom” is still fairly undefined and misunderstood.
Here’s my TVO The Agenda essay on the topic. It’s Part 2, which began with an essay on how the advent of fertility technology makes us mistakenly believe we can delay motherhood. It struck quite a nerve and this one is a response to a question posed to me :is it really all that emotionally difficult not to be a mother?
Recently I had the great opportunity to give the keynote speech at the annual Literary Dinner at Ridley College in St. Catherine’s. In the speech, I tried to balance some inspirational words about pursuing creativity with the reality of the writing life. I’ve had some requests to read it so I’m posting it here. (there are a couple of notes of clarification, which are denoted by asterisks and explained below the text)
Good evening Ridley students and congratulations on your accomplishments this year in the literary arts.
I’ve spent a great deal of time in my career reading the work of young writers and I have to say that the stories and poems that I read in “Voices”* are among the best. Writing is hard work, but the reward is sweet, isn’t it? Seeing your name after all those hard won words, phrases and sentences is a thrill, and I hope it always will be. Making your work public is risky business, so, my hat is off to you for your confidence and courage!
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but I’ve only been making my living at it for the last decade or so. I guess I’m the quintessential late-bloomer, but as the astute essayist Malcolm Gladwell* has pointed out, late-bloomers are only people who don’t dive right in, but rather spend some time experimenting. So it takes us awhile to get where we’re going.
I’m here to share with you a little bit about my creative journey, which started when I was about your age and has culminated, at least this far, in the signing of my first book contract, with many interesting – and sometimes exasperating “experimental” twists and turns.
“In my younger and more vulnerable years…” Recognize those words? Of course, they open that unforgettable novel, The Great Gatsby. Those seven words have been imprinted on my memory since I read them for the first time in Grade 12. That was 1978. Recently, I picked Gatsby up again to read for perhaps the 5th time since then, once for every decade. It’s not that I don’t know the story by heart, it’s that the book – universally thought to be one of the best ever written – reminds me time and again that economical yet evocative writing is always the way to go.
I think I picked it up this time ‘round in anticipation of a new film adaptation set to hit screens in December, where Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby and Carrie Mulligan takes a whirl as Daisy. It’s a flashy, 3D version no less, as if the story isn’t captivating enough!
The copy I’m reading – here it is – is from high school. It’s a 1953 imprint and the beauty of it, besides the writing and ideas contained within, is my marginalia. All the notes I took during class readings and analysis. The very ones I must have used to write an essay on Fitzgerald’s themes.
Now, I have to tell you, I spent my high school years being pretty lazy about homework and essays. I got away with it with most teachers, probably because I could write and therefore pull off a decent assignment, last minute. But my Grade 12 English teacher, Mr. O’Gorman, recognized the laziness pretty quickly and one day sat me down and told me he knew I was smarter than I let on, he could tell the material we were studying affected me, and there was no doubt I could write. He said the only way I could pass his class was to show him he was right about me.
This conversation was remarkable for a few reasons:
A) I couldn’t fool him with a believable excuse and a good sentence
B) He said things like “Look to the words, they are pools that are very deep,” showing that he loved the literature he taught us and,
C) He saw my natural writing talent but made me dig deeper.
Not only did this teacher bring out the best in me, his support fostered a love of literature, reading and writing I really didn’t know I possessed. It could even be the very push I needed in the direction of the career I now have.
Then…I forgot all about it. I quit school and started working fulltime. I kept reading, I kept writing – mostly overwrought romantic poetry and always a journal, but I randomly decided that university wasn’t for me. Well, I say randomly now…I’m sure at the time I had a perfectly plausible rationale to tell my parents.
Years of full-time retail work does wonders for conjuring up a longing to be back in school. So at the age of 25, I entered York University in Toronto to study Creative Writing and English Literature. Not only did I remember what I love to do – read and write, but I began to see writing as a vocation, a compulsion – something I simply had to do as often as possible, maybe even every day. Writing was pure joy. Some of you are probably already feeling this sensation. Writing folds time. It carries you away. It’s both a journey and a destination. For four years I dedicated myself to the craft, and still, after graduation, I veered away from it.
Why did I discover such pleasure and then turn my back on it? It’s hard to say, except that creativity is sometimes a difficult thing to accept into your life. Although I knew I had the sensibility of a writer – the tendency to stand back and observe, the need to, as Anais Nin says “taste life twice; in the moment and in retrospect,” the impulse to share my impressions of the world with the world – I also had a fear that the writing life would be a struggling one, and a lonely one. Plus, I finished university at the age of 30. I had some catching up to do and had to earn money!
So I put my skills to work in PR, writing great press releases and marketing copy, and spent ten years being the wind beneath the wings of many creatives – musicians, writers, artists, actors. I saw, first hand, what that life was like, and as much as I may have been enamored of it, I still wasn’t ready to try it.
During this time I became the publicity manager for the International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront in Toronto. Mixing and mingling with some of the biggest authors from Canada and around the world became my norm. Weekly, I spent one-on-one time with them, taking them around to their media interviews, having lunch with them, driving them to and from the airport. So, I got to see them on and off-stage.
On stage, they were super stars, no matter what their level of achievement in literature. I was in awe of them AND I felt strongly I could never be one of them. Oh the tenacity, the patience, the confidence and sheer talent they possessed! But off stage, in casual conversation – anything from helping calm Alice Munro’s nerves backstage at a reading, to passing the time with William Golding and his wife on an their first trip to Niagara Falls during a festival, or taking a parallel parking lesson from Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) – I felt a kind of affinity with them. No matter if we talked about mundane topics, or engaged in deeper conversations, I slowly began to realize that I shared their lens on the world – asking questions, analyzing everything, and of course, those deep powers of observation so common to writers and creatives of all stripes.
Many times, one of them would ask me if I was a writer. I always said no, mostly, because during this time I really wasn’t writing that much. I had no inclination in the face of so much genius. Then one day a young poet told me I must be kindred because he felt I had a writer’s personality. Encouraged by what I considered a compliment, I reluctantly confessed that I did write, and in fact had a creative writing degree. “I knew it,” he said!
After that I gave myself permission to openly revel in the company of writers. AND, I began to pound the keys again!
But it wasn’t until I approached my 40th birthday, and the ten year mark in my PR career – the one I’d been growing increasingly tired of because… well, it wasn’t my vocation, no matter how well it paid the bills – that I decided to throw caution to the wind and try to live on my creative brain. In order to do this, I felt I had to move clear across the country! I wanted to start fresh, way outside of my comfort zone and I had the idea that the West Coast Mountains and the Pacific Ocean would ignite my muse.
It was an experiment.
I should tell you that I attribute some of my false starts in a writing career with the desire of both my parents that their children have solid, full-time jobs with benefits and a good pension. If there’s any creativity in this picture, it should be a sidebar only. You can’t fault them for that; they lived through some hard economic times when good jobs were hard to come by and hang on to. My first ever job was at age 13 in a public library and I’d never been without a job since then, so I was taking quite a chance- as many creatives feel compelled to do.
During the first few months, I remember experienced two competing feelings: one of guilt for not getting up and going to work every day, pulling in a regular pay cheque, and the other pure bliss, for living on my own time for the first time, which gave me the space and freedom to let ideas percolate and words flow. Despite the ups and downs, and the feast or famine that seems to characterize this line of work, I haven’t really looked back.
The thing about the writing life is; you have to love writing. You sure do always have to harken back to the joy you experience when you’re in the thick of it, because much of what surrounds it is hard work. As a freelance writer, a good deal of time is taken up with the business of writing; finding ideas and people with interesting stories to interview, designing the perfect pitch to editors, writing to tight deadlines – forgoing the natural inclination to sit and stare out the window while the story unfolds in the brain – invoicing, waiting for money, waiting for money, waiting for money…
But… on the gorgeous plus side: After many years of practice, I’ve finally found my truest voice and have begun to be recognized for it. I’ve reached many goals I never thought I would, I’ve met and interviewed some amazing people with fascinating stories that have enriched my life, and some very unexpected opportunities have come my way. Speaking to you tonight is one of them. Paying it forward by mentoring young writers and new writers of all ages is another.
As a book reviewer, I actually get paid to read some great books and people are interested in what I have to say about them. I’ve come to know so many accomplished writers, many of whom I’ve admired for years, that I can now call friends. After so many years of feeling on the outside looking in, I’ve finally found my tribe.
Each month I present an essay on one of the most respected current affairs shows on Canadian TV, and though I’ve been doing so for 2 seasons, I still get a thrill when host and veteran journalist, Steve Paikin, a man I greatly respect, introduces my segment and thanks me for it afterwards. I’ve taught university courses, I’ve published short stories and personal essays, and the biggest goal reached to date is my first book which will be published next year.
The night I signed my contract, I didn’t get a wink of sleep. I just couldn’t believe that, after all the hard work – the disappointments and triumphs, the fussing and fretting that I didn’t have enough talent, enough time, enough confidence, I would finally have a book on store shelves (and Kindles, I suppose) that has my blood, sweat, tears and name on it!
I’ll tell you a secret, I’ve already written my acknowledgements for the book. That’s because I can’t wait to officially thank, in print, all the people who’ve encouraged, supported and helped me along the way. That’s a long list since, no matter how solitary the act of writing is, pretty much the most important required constant is care and feeding.
You better believe Mr. O’Gorman, my Grade 12 English teacher, is on that list.
What I’ve learned is, for all my revving up and experimentation, I’ve finally begun to feel like I’m making real the visions I’ve had in my head. All it takes is belief in YOU, faith in your talent, surrounding yourself with people who believe in you and support your efforts, practice and more practice, good instincts and steady steps forward.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have time to experiment.
Although you may, at times, have to put your ultimate goals aside when life gets in the way, know that the thing that compels you to pick up a pen, paint brush or musical instrument will probably always be there. Creativity is a forever thing. Keep your eye on the prize, whatever that prize is to you, and try to remember to nurture your creativity in whatever way you can. Keep working towards that final product.
You will get there. You’re already on your way.
Thanks for having me tonight. I wish you the greatest good luck with your creative endeavours and your lives.
# # #
* Voices is a publication the Ridley College English students put together every year to showcase their creative writing; essays, short stories, poetry, photography and art.
* I was referring to Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent essay called Late Bloomers, which changed the way I think about my slow and painstaking approach to writing – as in, I don’t think it’s so bad after all!
For a long time it’s been my intention to write about my time spent living in Vancouver (2000-2006) but for one reason or another I never have. Since Vancouver is my unrequited love, it might have been a bit painful for awhile. But in honour of my visit there later this month, and as a primer for it, I offer these small memory vignettes.
Take That Toronto
In my freelancing writing quest in Vancouver, one magazine that I pursued had a “Take That Toronto” column. My idea was to write a short piece on how perfect everyone’s hair looked and how immaculate their shoes were. The editor wrote back telling me “Vancouverites don’t need to be told we have great style, we know we do.” Well, she told me!
But if you’ve ever lived in Toronto, with its humidity, over-treated, hard water, and snow and salt then you can appreciate what I meant.
I never understood the term “manageable hair” until lived in the land of soft water. It was softer, shinier and for the first time I could use “product” in it without worrying about buildup. In Toronto my hair was always BIG.
(to be honest my BIG hair sensitivity began in elementary school where I used to get called “mop-head” but we don’t need to go there today)
That it could, or ever would be any different is one of those happy discoveries that, while not life-changing by any stretch, certainly goes a long way to making your aging self feel better.
The shoe thing is just a matter of getting longer life out of a pair of shoes or boots due to little or no snow or salt. That means you’re more inclined to spend more on them, hence the well heeled feet of Vancouverites. (you could say the same about their cars actually).
Moving to Vancouver coincided with the first time since I was a teen that I grew my hair long, so having it so easy to take care of was a delight. In fact, I didn’t go for a haircut until about two years in. You can read about that harrowing experience in a piece I wrote called Of Human Blondage .
When I finally did get a salon haircut it was for a makeover show on CityLine. My former work colleagues from Toronto came to Breakfast Television, where I worked and couldn’t believe what they saw. Not only was my hair way long, but I wasn’t wearing the usual impeccable outfits and full makeup they were used to seeing me don as a junior exec at Chum in Toronto. They swiftly sent me to The Lounge Hair Studio on Richards, deaf to my protests of enjoying my new found “naturalness.”
That’s where Martin Hillier let loose my curls – yes, curls, which I didn’t even know I owned – and showed me how to enhance them with product! Product, I might add, that washes out just fine!
Now that changed my life. Let’s just say, men really like curly hair.
So as I sit here with a lump of build up at the back of my head, after years of detox shampoos, extra long rinses in the shower and narrowly escaping my own threat to just cut it out and off, I am really looking forward to 5 days of great hair in Vancouver later this week! And even though I cannot afford to get my hair cut and styled for the wedding I’m attending, I do know that no matter what, my hair will feel soft and look shiny clean! No buildup!
And, if you missed it, watch the hilarious SNL skit.
The popular romantic / erotic trilogy, 50 Shades of Grey, occupies the top three spots on best seller lists. After reading the first installment, it’s hard to understand why. I get that the material is titillating, but, as a writer who appreciates and is inspired by great writing, I’m a little disappointed. Still, you can’t argue with success, especially since the trilogy began as Twilight fan fiction, then developed its own storyline and characters and was self-published before being picked up by Vintage and became a runaway success.
Oh, there will be sequels, and yes, there will be a film! Any guesses on who will portray Anastasia and Christian?