Listening to Strangers

(…) People need to talk, and often the willingness to sit and listen is the greatest kindness one person can offer to another.  One of the first lessons of childhood is to be wary of strangers, and while this is good counsel to guard against the world’s very small nefarious element, it also teaches us to block out the large majority of those who just have something on their mind they’d like to say.  We are taught to be suspicious, especially of anyone who might not look like us or share out beliefs.  By the time we reach adulthood, many of us have perfected the art of isolation, of being careful, of not listening in the name of safety.  But the truth is that we need to hear other people, all people, especially in those moments when we don’t know exactly where we’re going ourselves.

— Ann Patchett, in What Now?

 

Quit your day job! Don’t quit your day job!

October has been a whirlwind of bookishness.  I had a wonderful time reading and discussing on two panels at the Vancouver Writers’ Fest and then the good fortune to participate as a delegate at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors as part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council.  But more (much more — I have some scribblings I am trying to make sense of, and lots of ideas competing for brainspace) about those events soon.  For now, an excerpt of a continuing discussion I have been having on goodreads as part of a virtual book club meeting dedicated to Mad Hope.  Thanks to Lori at The Next Best Book Club for making it possible, and Coach House Books for allowing Mad Hope license to travel — eight copies given away internationally!  It’s been great talking to people about the stories.

Lori:  Heather, at what point did you realize you were a writer? What did you see yourself becoming when you were a kid?

Joe:  To add to Lori’s question: Once you knew you were a writer, how did you pursue it? Did you go to college? Do you have an MFA? Or did you just write?

Heather:  You know, children really don’t see professions or careers or jobs in the same way we do as adults…  By this I mean I don’t think they have the same notion of what is required to “have a job”.  For example my friend’s daughter always wanted to be either a lamb or a “stirrer” when she grew up because, well, she liked lambs and she liked stirring the cookie or cake mix.  And my daughter is fascinated by the “workers” she sees doing the renovations on the house across the street because she sees worth and excitement in lifting and hauling and building things.  As a child, I think there were many things I could see myself doing, and they changed by the day…  I’m not sure I ever saw writing as a job.  It was just something you did; telling stories, or writing about how you felt, that is.  I did win a writing contest run by OWL Magazine (a children’s publication) when I was about 10, and I’ve saved the note and book I received from the editor, so obviously it was important for me to have some recognition for my writing early on….

I had a hard time once I’d graduated from university with a Liberal Arts BA.  I couldn’t think of ANYTHING I really wanted to do.  I worked for a year as an educational assistant in a grade 4/5 classroom, because I had always worked with children.  It seemed like something you should do as a matter of course.  But then I felt like I needed something more.  Maybe I was missing that sense of play and possibility that hovers around you while you are still a student.  In any case, I decided to apply to grad school in Montreal at Concordia University — an MA program with a dual focus in Literature and Creative Writing.  I took an evening course in Creative Writing and worked on a portfolio.  I was writing mostly poetry at the time.  I didn’t get in to the creative writing program initially, but had checked a box on the form re: being considered for the straight up English degree.  So I began my grad studies in English Lit and eventually made it into the combined program.  At that point in my life, the structure and legitimacy of writing ‘school’ was important.  I come from a working class background — my dad quit school when he was 16 to work in a mine in Scotland — so while my family saw post-secondary education as prestigious, they also wanted me to find a job and security and a better life for myself.  I felt the expectations of my family pretty keenly, and going to school for something I loved (instead of scribbling away in a garret) was a way of compromising and buying some time I think…  Plus it provided me a community, some much needed deadlines, and an excuse to live in Montreal!

So that was my path (or at least part of it).  But there are so many paths to becoming a writer!  And I have two pieces of advice for aspiring writers:  Quit your day job AND Don’t quit your day job.  There are times when having a full-time job absolutely stifles creativity.  And then there are times when the uncertainty (and poverty) of NOT having a regular job absolutely kills the creative impulse.  And:  although non-writing work can be time and energy consuming it is also LIFE, and writers should make it a point to be engaged in it…  I have learned so much about myself and other people through my work as a mother and a teacher.  I don’t think of it as sacrifice; it is its own reward.