When I was around seven, I fell in love with the show Little House on the Prairie. I identified with the character of Mary, the older sister of the main character Laura. This was mainly because I was a blonde and my little sister was a brunette, just like the two characters. When I learned that the TV series was from a series of books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, I immediately searched out the books in our tiny town library and read all of them. I loved them and even convinced my parents, who never bought books, to give me the boxed set of books for my birthday.
I was amazed to realize that Laura Ingalls Wilder was just an ordinary woman because, until then, I thought writers were a somehow a special breed. I didn’t realize that anyone, who had the desire and a story to tell, could be a writer.
I wanted to a writer and decided that I didn’t need to wait until I was grown up to start. I began scratching out terrible stories and poems on pads of newsprint that my best friend’s father made when he wasn’t busy at his job at the local paper mill.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait too long before I had a story to tell. My father, much like Laura Ingall Wilder’s father, is wanderlust and doesn’t like to stay in one place for very long. When I was fourteen years old, he bought a 35-foot sailboat in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia and my family spent a week sailing through the fog to bring the boat back to our home on Cape Breton Island. My account of this trip, my first published piece, was published in a non-defunct sailing magazine.
In November 1986, my family sold our house, car and all our large possessions and moved onto that sailboat. We spent the next year and a half sailing around the east coast of the United States and the Bahamas. We endured terrible weather, storms, personal conflicts and living in a sub-tropical paradise before we returned to settle in Picton, Ontario. It was a trip of a lifetime, as much an ordeal as an adventure. My father would have been happy to continue sailing and working occasionally to make ends meet. My mother wanted the safety and security of a stable home, job and a pension plan. This conflict was never resolved and my parents eventually divorced. I am currently writing a memoir about this trip, as much to resolve my complicated feelings about this period of my life, as well as to explain to people what it was really like living on a boat.
While we were living on the boat, I continued to write, banging out stories and poems on a baby blue Smith Corona typewriter. I read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and wrote short stories that were terrible Hemingway imitations. I got a poem published in an international children’s magazine, but writing got harder once we returned to a more normal life on land. I went to high school, but the time spent on the boat meant I was almost two grades behind and had to work hard to catch up. My father had also decided that I was too old to get an allowance, so if I wanted spending money, I would have to get a job. I spent my evenings and weekends working as a cashier in a grocery store. I wrote occasionally, now on a Commodore 64 computer. I got a poem published in TG, a magazine that was distributed to high schools across Canada. This made me a minor celebrity for a few weeks, an experience I found equally exciting and embarrassing.
In my last year of school, my English teacher assigned the class to write an opinion piece and submit it to a local newspaper. This was 1991 and the Ontario government had just passed law a prohibiting smoking inside public buildings. Everyday I passed the local public school and saw the teachers standing outside the front doors smoking as the children walked by. I knew that these same teachers would go into their classrooms and teach lessons about the dangers of smoking using Health Canada materials. This struck me as hypocritical. So, I wrote an opinion piece arguing that while teachers have every right to smoke, they shouldn’t do it in view of their students. It was was published in the Picton Gazette, although I didn’t tell the editor I was a high school student because the paper didn’t like to publish students. The piece got a lot of attention from fellow students and others in the town. Many people agreed with me and some didn’t. That was fine by me because it got people thinking and talking about the issue.
A few weeks later, a woman I worked for, who happened to be a trustee on the local school board, told me that the issue had been hotly debated at the latest meeting. The school board didn’t want teachers standing in front of the school smoking, so they decided to make the music room the new teacher’s room. This room had a door to the outside that would allow teachers to smoke and not be in view of students. The old teachers’ room became the new music room. This was a win for the students too as the new room was bigger than the old room. My sister remembered the old music room being so small that she was routinely bonked in the head by a trombone during band practice.
This was the first time I realized that writing could be more than just a form of self-expression. Writing could make people think and take action. The teachers had been smoking outside of the school for more than a year before my opinion piece was published. It had bugged some people but no one had bothered to do anything about it until it appeared in writing.
The conflict between adventure and security that split up my parents has raged within me since high school. Despite having always wanted to be a writer, I somehow decided I needed to find a “real” job and enrolled in university to study accounting. This lasted one semester, but the need for security held sway. I completed a degree in Political Science with the intention of going to law school. But my desire to write couldn’t be crushed, so I went to journalism school.
Journalism school didn’t live up to my expectations. I was dismayed to discover that most of my fellow students weren’t passionate about writing – they just wanted to be on TV. I was also disappointed by the low pay that entry level journalism jobs offered. After seven years of university and journalism school, I had student loans to pay off and needed to make some real money. Through a friend, I found a job in public relations at a not-for-profit community agency. I was responsible for writing, editing and designing two newsletters, as well as doing media relations. I got to tell the stories of the people the agency served. I believed that I was helping people think about and act on the issues that affected the low-income communities.
I held that position for over three years before moving on to a higher paying job and eventually moved into a management position in communications and marketing. I was no longer writing, instead I was delegating it to staff, as I had to spend my time managing projects and budgets. I hated it.
I had moved far away from my original passion to write for self-expression, to write things that helped people think and act differently. In seeking ever-higher pay cheques and a fancy title, I had lost myself.
In October 2011, I resigned from my management position to focus on writing full-time. Since then, I have taken on freelance copywriting assignments and pursued my writing. These days, I’m focusing on travel writing, personal essays and journalism, and I’ll have a couple of pieces appearing in magazines these fall. I’m also finishing up a memoir about my family’s sailing trip.
I’ve come to realize that I prefer to live my passion and deal with any uncertainty that might come, than live a stable, conventional life.
Since writing this post, I have returned to full-time work – for now. I have found it easier to pursue a life less ordinary when you have the funds to do it 🙂