Unfinished conversations

The first time I attended the Giller Prize was on Tuesday, November 4, 1997, the night that Mordecai Richler won for Barney’s Version. It seemed all the writers I’d admired from the beginning of time were in the room. My job that night was to help wrangle some of them for interviews at Bravo’s live broadcast of the pre-gala cocktail party. Nearing the end of my first key-to-my career-year as communications director at Bravo, I looked forward to this grand event, knowing that it would be special and that after my official duties were over, I could drink up the atmosphere, mark the experience.

It had been a busy, event-filled week with the Toronto Arts Awards, the Gillers and, at week’s end, an important concert in the short history of the Bravo Rehearsal Hall, a live concert with Diana Krall.

Though I wasn’t the hugest Diana Krall fan, it was a chance to prove my PR mettle at an event meant to build on the success of the nascent arts channel. It was also an opportunity to put some of the naysaying about my promotion to Bravo (from MuchMusic) to rest. It also gave me the pleasure to offer my jazz-loving mother an invitation to an intimate concert of one of her favourite performers.

My mid-week phone call to her was to let her know I’d secured her a free parking spot for the Friday show and some other details. What was on her mind?

“Never mind that, how were the Gillers?” she said.

“The night of my life,” I replied. “I’ll tell you all about it when I see you.”

Friday came and went. My mom didn’t show up at Diana Krall; the next day we found her in her bed where she’d died of a heart attack. That was 19 years ago, November 7th.

The wind-up of one of the busiest and most exhilarating years of my career, my first Giller Prize, Diana Krall and my mother’s death are tethered in my memory. They are written on my body that, each November, relives the most horrifying days of my life so-far.

Had I the chance to tell her about the Giller Prize I would have said how thrilling it had been for me to be amongst so much literary talent, how I felt at home there, how I made a secret wish that one day I’d be nominated and thus begun a plan to get there. My mother was pretty much the only person I’ve ever let know how far up the ladder my personal ambitions go (and still go, though at almost 56, it’s assumed/expected I should be winding down my goals).

This is but one of many unfinished conversations with my mother. They’re not unfinished because I didn’t let her know how much I loved, respected and enjoyed (preferred) her company. I have plenty of letters and greeting cards that, if I ever forgot, remind me how often I poured my heart out to her. They’re unfinished because for 19 years they’ve been one-sided. I talk to her, she doesn’t respond. Sometimes I know what she’d say, though more often than not, her response to things was singular and wholly unexpected. That’s why talking to her was so much fun — intellectually challenging and stimulating.  I have missed our Saturday morning commiserations over news – though it’d be much different now with so much information available and so few trusted sources of it (at least I think that’s how she’d see it).

My mother taught me a lot about how to interpret the world, and how to negotiate my place in it. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I rely on those lessons, lacking any new ones other than my own experience. It’s not that I don’t trust myself – if I’ve learned anything from her and  through age it’s to trust my instincts, to listen to my intuition, to work hard, enjoy the benefits of that work and to face challenges with confidence (not always achievable) and to strive for integrity (an almost forgotten quality). Above all, try to be kind, even if others aren’t being kind to me (which happens more than I want to think about in our increasingly discourteous age).

Some of my female friends remind me every so often that I’m lucky to have had such a good relationship with my mother, such a healthy exchange of ideas, such acceptance. And I know I am. This knowledge doesn’t stop me from feeling sad at her anniversary, or missing her every damn day of my life — maybe it’s precisely why I do.

It’s not as if things were perfect. We had our fair share of fights. But they were over quickly because neither one of us were comfortable being upset with the other. We’d argue, even yell… take a breather, then within the hour one of us would pick up the phone to talk it out. The thing we disagreed on most during her last year was my planned move to Vancouver. She understood why I wanted to go; intellectually she knew and agreed it was a good plan and part of the writing goals I had. Emotionally, she wasn’t having it. At one point she forbade me from talking about leaving. I told her I wouldn’t stop because confiding in her edged me closer to making it a reality.

Finally, she said, “I’ll miss you.”

That first week after her death, me and my siblings gathered to pack up her things. On her living room end table I found my Globe and Mail book review – the first piece of published writing from the month before. Supportive to the end. I miss that too. I miss it so much.

My mother knew how much I relied on my career, on my hard work and talents to get me through, that in the end, I truly believed (and maybe it became a self-fulfilling prophecy) it would be all I had. While others had their relationships, they’re children, they’re close ties, I would have my professional success. My mother understood that my ambitions didn’t necessarily exclude those things, but that I wasn’t going to sacrifice them or compromise them. She didn’t want me to, though she made no secret of hoping I would have both. I remember when I got my job at Bravo she said, “Maybe now you’ll meet a like-minded man!” Maybe she thought he’d be a writer, a musician, a creative soul-mate.

I do wonder what she would think of how solitary my life is now. Of how much trouble I have balancing the copious amounts of time I need alone with a smaller, but important desire for connection. It’s the challenge of my mid-life and I dearly wish I could talk it over with her. The last thing I want to be is alone in my senior years (or even now) but I have absolutely no idea how to not be.

Although my mom had plenty of good jobs, she didn’t have a career, per se. Her support of mine might have been tinged with regret for her unrealized goals.

I’m no longer lucky enough to get invited to the Giller. I dropped off the invitation list when I moved from my job at Bravo pursue writing and journalism in Vancouver. I will be anxious tomorrow (her anniversary) to hear who wins. It takes on an additional meaning for me as I prepare for an intensive fiction workshop at the Humber School for Writers in January. Maybe hoping for a Giller nomination is a lofty goal, and who knows if I even have the talent but this year I reminded myself that it doesn’t hurt to try and I might as well.

Of course, there’s one person who’ll never know but who’d understand why this is still something I think is worth achieving and why it’s important to try. Some people will say that she sees everything, that she knows my life. I don’t believe in that. I really don’t. In dreams of her I can never see her face or hear her voice. Sometimes all I see are her arms reaching out to fold me in where I cry and cry. That’s a dream I have when I especially need to talk to her, want to work out a life problem, or just want to laugh and chat with someone with a common worldview. Armchair psychologists will say it’s time to get over her death. Or that ridiculous word “closure” will be rear its head. There’s no closure.

There’s just this: My mother gave me life, she gifted me with life-long reciprocal love and care, she taught me everything I know that’s important about living, she was my first (maybe only true) mentor, she was my most trusted, trusting and thoughtful friend.

And there’s this: I miss you. Always and forever.

Freedom to read

I’m on a reading kick. Does that sound ridiculous coming from a voracious reader? The truth is, I don’t always have time, make time, or sometimes I’m only in the mood for a particular kind of book that hasn’t found me yet. Thankfully, that is not the case now.

Sharing good books is not only something I feel compelled to do, it’s something I’ve been doing to make up a fair part of my living for the last 20 years. So in that spirit, here are some must-reads from me to you. They’re not all literary. Some are purely for entertainment value. I’m not going into major detail here, just a taste.

camilla-gibbThis is Happy, Camilla Gibb – Though I worried the topic would upset me, I knew the writing would get me through. When her partner left her early in her pregnancy, Gibb cobbled together a crew of people who would become confidants, friends and family to her and her newborn. It’s excruciating at times because you don’t often read depictions of raw despair, but is joyful in the end. And the writing is exquisite, as always. You’re right there with her, even when she’s not afraid to show herself at her non-best. The best memoirs don’t white-wash the truth in every single character and situation.

Sixty+Ian+BrownSixty, Ian Brown – Wit, insight and emotional truth are the three elements present in all Ian Brown’s writing. Here he takes all the cliches about getting old and either debunks them or explains why they’re true. A big revelation is that the brain begins to decline after 28. Brown captures his day-to-day obsession with aging, while pining for his younger self but never takes himself too seriously, except when he knows that a certain truth can be universally applied. The bits of the book that are the most revealing are those that involve his children and his feelings about his father’s life and death.

I’ve previously written about the book for TVO.org and produced a segment with Ian Brown for The Agenda with Steve Paikin: This is what 60 feels like / Ian Brown: Diary of a Sixty-Year-Old

tender-bar The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer – A boy grows up knowing nothing much about his dad but he becomes fascinated with Dickens, a local bar in his hometown of Manhassat, New York. The story is of his life in and out of the bar, how the fellas there acted as mentors, sounding boards, friends and sometimes, bad influences. Moehringer is a seasoned journalist and writer and it shows – every word is beautifully, skillfully measured for maximum storytelling, entertainment and emotional lurch. This is by far the best book I’ve read in a very long time. ‘Course I do have a soft spot for men in search of fathers.

lowe

Stories I Only Tell My Friends, Rob Lowe – Don’t judge. I’ve been fascinated with him since we were in our 20s. Turns out he can write – not ghost written. The big reveal for anyone interested in his work in The West Wing is that he grew up with the Sheens and Martin Sheen was father-like to him. That knowledge gives his scenes with Sheen a richness that makes sense when you re-watch. I’m thinking especially of when President Bartlett tells him one day he could run for office and to not be afraid to do so. As the NYTs review I’ve linked to above says, Lowe must know that his ridiculous good looks and fame mean he couldn’t take the easy way out if he wanted to be taken seriously as a writer and storyteller. And he doesn’t. It’s full of insights, humour and just plain juicy info about Hollywood of the ’80s and ’90s. He’s candid about his missteps, his alcoholism and his issues on The West Wing. His later life continues in Love Life.

alan cumming

Not My Father’s Son, Alan Cumming – See what I mean about fatherless sons? This follows the actor’s journey to have his roots chronicled for the TV show, Who Do You Think You Are — only it’s what’s going on behind the scenes as his brother and he confront his father with questions about why he abused them. A fascinating look at Cumming’s early life and its threads to his work in front of the camera.

This is his episode of WDYTYA.

Miriam-Toews-All-My-Puny-Sorrows

 

 

 

All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews – One of those books you must read slowly in order to handle the emotion. It’s relentlessly sad, so thankfully Toews is adept at lightening up just when you need it. One sister is dying, the other is falling apart – their connection is unforgettable, especially as they grapple with how and when to die. A timely read as Canada figures out how to legislate assisted death.

Witness

Rummaging through some computer files, I found this piece that I wrote in about 2001. In reading it over, I wondered if it’s still true in the age of social media and quick, all-hours connection. Also, it seems I’ve been writing about loneliness for a very long time!

WITNESS

Henry Porter, the debonair British editor of Vanity Fair, was a guest on the talk show I work on and while the lot of us were out for drinks after the taping he said something simple, yet so profound that all who heard it have found cause to repeat it at one time or another. He said that recently a single  male friend of his made a confession of sorts, saying  he envied Henry his marriage relationship because when you live alone and are unattached, you have no witness to your life, and no-one’s life to witness. And it can be quite lonely and a little frightening.

True.

I call it the “check in.”

Something else:  While reading a book called Solitaire, in which writer Marion Botsford Fraser takes the temperature of Canadian single woman — currently an unprecedented 4 million of us —  one thing became painfully, depressingly clear to me. People will say anything in order to avoid saying they are lonely. Out of 50 excerpted interviews, only about four women were able to even utter the word. These four women were over 50. If you’re young and single you may not use the L-word (those damn L-words are a big problem, aren’t they?). It seems to be socially unacceptable.

But the truth is we all get lonely. Every single living being. Even cats and dogs get lonely. We are not meant to live in isolation from one another. It is the most natural thing in the world to be among people, and to fall into couples. To touch and be touched. To have a witness and to bear witness. What is unnatural is this denial and bravado we are all striving so hard to pull off. Like we’re fooling anyone anyway! Lest we should be considered crazy women with a small apartment, dinner for one, the cat batting about the ball of yarn we are using to knit doilies, or worse, booties for someone else’s baby. Lest we be perceived as drying up from lack of sexual activity. Lest we be considered social outcast loser women who sit at home every night crying into the hot water of our bubble baths.  But, God forbid and heaven’s above, don’t, ever, ever, ever let anyone catch us being human, and being (don’t dare say it… okay, but only if you whisper) l-o-n-e-l-y.

I used to be one of these women who feared a word. Not anymore. Maybe because of this book, and all the transparent denial within it.  I do get lonely. Sometimes capital L lonely. Used to be my lonely feelings were attached to a specific person. So, if I spent a great deal of time with someone and then we were separated, I’d feel lonely for them. Like a best girlfriend who went away, or a boyfriend after a break-up. That was before my mom died. As long as she was alive, I really never felt free floating loneliness because I knew I always had someone within reach. A witness to my daily thoughts, triumphs, sadnesses, boredom. laughter, tears, what’s for dinner. Someone to check in with. Someone who thinks what is on my mind at any given time is important and interesting. Someone to whom I can give everything that is in my heart and on my mind. Knowing that they are willing, because of trust and friendship and love, to share their personal self and all their intimacies. I guess I’m past the point of pretending, for whatever reasons I used to, that this is not what I want, what I need. I am willing to be strong enough to be vulnerable enough to be human.

Roaming in Vancouver

You know how it is; you break up with someone great because you’re convinced it’s the right thing to do. Maybe the timing is wrong or you think there’s something more suitable out there. Time passes. Nothing better presents itself. You don’t have the self-revelations you thought you might. And so you begin to revisit the decision, flirting with the possibility that, this time, things could be different… and better.

That’s how it is with me and Vancouver.

I came here for a rest and refuel, as I’m inclined to do every couple of years since my 2006 heart-wrenching break up with the city at the end of things. But tonight’s Jericho Beach sunset is the exact lure to get me thinking about staying.

Jericho Beach sunset, Aug 27

How can this sunset, and the blue hour it creates, go on nightly, weekly, monthly, yearly without me! Dusk is my favorite time of day, even without the blue upon blue upon blue of ocean, mountain and sky.

You can’t live somewhere just because you like the weather, can you?

I remember asking myself that when weighing whether to stay or go back to Toronto. But comparing this weather to the 45 degree plus exhausting heat and humidity I’ve experienced most of this summer, the answer is a resounding “yes, you can!”

Okay, maybe I should forget about the sun, Vancouverites are the first to remind me about its rare existence in this rainforest of a city. I must try to be practical and not let idealization creep in.

It is true that I wasn’t always happy here and if I recall correctly I had a fair number of lonely days and nights. I struggled for work and money, for acceptance from new friends who feared getting too close because I might leave. I had a big and then a smaller heartbreak. I dealt with the worry and guilt that comes when tragedy strikes far away back home.

Through it all though, the certainty of a mountain in my view and the ocean surrounding it was usually enough to ground me. And I don’t think I ever took it for granted. When I come to Vancouver now, I’m newly wowed by it, yet I have the luxury of knowing my way around, and feeling at home. The first few days of my 3 week stay felt strange, even confusing, but then I started roaming.

Retracing my steps is a habit I have, not just in Vancouver, but here I roam to remember my early days on the west coast, when my senses were so acute because everything was brand new.

Sunset, English Bay, Sept 7

At English Bay I think of the first time I happened upon a sunset, only to discover a crowded beach of aficionados, picnicking, throwing footballs, playing music, holding hands. From that day forward it was a daily check for sunset time and a rush to watch it, no matter what. I simply had to see the sky change hues with every passing moment.

Only in Vancouver do I fuss about missing the sunset. This visit, I’ve been alternating my viewing locations. Each one has different characteristics, each vantage point is unique. I’m trying to commit every single one to memory.

I suppose it’s natural for Vancouverites to worship the sun, considering its shyness.

A West End roam wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Lost Lagoon and my beloved swans. My first spring in Vancouver I became part of a small but passionate community of Swan Watchers. We were joined in the mind/heart work of making sure their eggs stayed viable and in delight we surrounded the nests during hatching to just love the cygnets out of their eggs.We made sure our schedules allowed us to see their first tentative dip into the lagoon, and their awkward climb on mom’s back for their first twirl around.

One of my beloved Lost Lagoon swans. Aug 24

That spring was equal parts exhilarating and difficult and I pinned all my hopes for a successful Vancouver life on the healthy lives of those wee creatures.

Walking the seawall conjures a 10-day trip I made in November 1999, two years after my mom died, when it rained every single day, which suited my mood and allowed me to cry without detection. At dusk one night, I made my way around the perimeter of Stanley Park, snapping pictures even as the rain fell. The sky was a brooding but hopeful mix of blue/grey/yellow and I made a vow that I would be living in Vancouver within a year. I framed that one photo and hung it in my work office to remind myself of the commitment.

Seawall, Stanley Park, Sept 7 – a recreation of the framed photo in my office, on a much sunnier day!

It was an easy goal to meet.

As I write this, I’m sitting mid-point Stanley Park seawall looking out into the open ocean. Tony West Van is on my right and the historic Siwash Rock on my left. Taking pen to paper at just this spot is so familiar. The first summer I lived here I would walk from my Alberni Street apartment, past Lost Lagoon, across the park to the seawall and along to at least this far. Then I’d double back to either 3rd, 2nd or English Bay beaches – depending on the value of my need for solitude. How many problems did I work out on those walks, on this bench, or laying in the sun listening to the waves?

Siwash Rock, Sept 7

If I had to put my finger on just what this part of the world means to me which, let’s face it, I’m constantly trying to do, it would have something to do with the fact that it’s the place I made peace with the past, started fresh and learned to be my original self.

I was finally able to alleviate the bottomless pit of loss the death of my mother had left, and learned to live without her. I learned how to be alone, and in the process discovered I prefer solitude. I lived for the first time on my own time and began to fully understand I’m a writer. I began to live as one, letting my creativity take me to new places and I followed it without fear. I learned to enjoy and appreciate the outdoor life, which up until then I regularly shunned, saying “I’m a city girl.” Not so, I found out. I became protective of the beauty of this place. I learned to open up my heart again, even if it meant getting it broken.

In recent years, I’ve forgotten that one , and it’s had consequences. In Toronto I live a too static, too insular life. It never occurs to me to chase down a sunset, and though I live minutes away from the lake, I rarely go there.

All this it very difficult to explain casually when asked, “what’s with you and Vancouver.” Easier to point to the beautiful surround of the city, no matter how cliché.

In these last few weeks of summer 2012, I’ve roamed every part of Vancouver that I know and to which I have special memories attached: North and West Van, there on the seabus – which, much to my amazement used to to be my commuter venue to one of my Vancouver jobs – and back by the Lion’s Gate Bridge, and it’s breathtaking view (or, as Doug Coupland says “one last grand gesture of beauty, of charm, and of grace before we enter the hinterlands”). Commercial Drive to Cafe Calabria, my Italian touch-stone in the city, Granville Island, just because it’s there and it’s great. And home of the wonderful Vancouver Writers Festival, where I’ve spent much time listening to – and drinking with – my tribesmen and women a.k.a writers. A walk along Alberni and then Pacific to look in on my first ever and most recent Vancouver apartments. I’ve gone to all the old haunts, and relived a lot of great, and some painful memories.

I should be exhausted from all the walking and remembering. Instead I’m relieved. It scares me when I think I’m forgetting the important time I spent living in Vancouver.

But I’ve also added some new memories and connections. I’ve been staying in Kitsilano, on the opposite side of the bay to where I always lived, so my roaming has included places I’ve never spent a great deal of time. Kits Beach, Jericho Beach, Point Grey, getting to know the small businesses and cute cafes and bars on West Broadway and West 4th. A discovery of a new, growing part of town, Olympic Village.

Seawall towards Olympic Village, a growing part of town.

When I worked at Citytv on West 2nd, there was nothing there: no bus route, no Starbucks or any decent lunch spots, no fun place to go for after work drinks. Now there’s the beginnings of a vibrant community and a gorgeous new seawall walk linking Granville Island to Olympic Village to Yaletown and beyond.

Now, I know there are some problems associated with this area of town, but from the point of view of fresh eyes, it’s good to see Vancouver not only growing, but with a renewed sense of civic pride born of the world’s favourable gaze during the 2010 Olympics. It’s what I hoped would happen.

This luxurious stretch of time here – remembering the old and discovering the new – is maybe my attempt to reconcile my regret about having left, and to begin a process to decide what to do about it. Try again, or stay put. Is it where I should be living, or is it my second place, a place to come for peace and restoration.

Coal Harbour, Sept 7

The one big plus on the side of returning has nothing to do with any place I saw, anyone I spent time with or any landmark I visited. It’s simply this: I like myself better in Vancouver!

Usually the person you feel most comfortable with, the one who can still surprise and inspire you no matter how long you’ve been together, the one you feel your very best self with is the one you return to, saying “I made a mistake, if you’ll have me, I want to come back.”

Maybe Vancouver and I are due for a second chance.

Message to young writers: Creativity is forever, be willing to experiment

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.

***

My well-worn high school copy of The Great Gatsby

“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.

my high school scribblings in the margins of the last page of The Great Gatsby

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!