In early 2001, I was lying on a beach in Bocas del Toro, bored out of my palm tree. Sweating profusely in the Panamanian heat, I turned to my friend Holly and blurted: “I want to write for a living but I don’t know how.” We talked about if for a long time (Holly is still my number one cheerleader) and I knew journalism school was the best choice for me but there was a problem: I had no idea how to use a computer and I’d been out of the academic system since I dropped out of school at 18 and ran off to Banff with my artist boyfriend.
At 32 years old, I had been toiling as a server all my adult life. I put in five years at Hy’s Steakhouse, two of them as the only female on a team of male waiters (aside from the manager). It was a swanky joint that catered to hockey players, celebrities and politicians. As restaurant gigs go, it was considered one of the juiciest places to work. Free steak dinners on the daily and the tips were decent. To this day, I still remember the Caesar salad recipe and how to flambé Cherries Jubilee. But I wasn’t fulfilled. I was in a rut of working, going to the Ship and Anchor, stirring up drama galore, and saving up once or twice a year to go laze around beaches in Central America. My soul was screaming at me to get my poop in a group.
When I arrived to Calgary, I was welcomed home with a 50 degree drop in temperature and a raging snowstorm. The transit workers were on strike and cabs were scarce. But I had decided the first step to a career shift was getting into a writing class. At the time, I had no email address and no computer so I had to apply in person. I slogged five kilometres through the snow, filled out the forms and paid my fees in cash. Then I went to work at Hy’s, feet still freezing and my cheeks windburned. The spark had been lit and I was determined.
When I applied for the journalism program, I was told it was full for the fall intake, but that sometimes a student or two dropped out. I went to offices of the dean and introduced myself, told him how keen I was to take the program. He was polite but probably didn’t expect to see me again. Over the course of summer, I made a pest of myself. After my writing class, I would march over to his office and check in, let him know how well I was doing (finished with an A, thank you very much) and ask if anyone had pulled out of the program. I did this every week for two months. On days class was cancelled, I called his office.
By the time September rolled around, I was getting nervous. No one had left the program and it didn’t look good. But I kept practicing typing on the clunky home computer I bought for $350 from a friend’s mother. I still remember how noisy that keyboard was, but it gave me a sense of getting shit done and I loved it.
On the day classes started, I got a call from the registrar’s office. I was in. All I had to was get myself over the campus and pay the deposit.
Over the next two years, I worked harder than anyone in the program. There were plenty of people with more experience writing and working on computers. But I didn’t care. I wanted it bad. I was published in the school paper within my first two months, then went on to join the editorial staff, later interviewing globe trotting legend Ian Wright . I started writing a restaurant column for the Calgary Straight. I also interned at the Calgary Sun and got bylines in the business section. By the time summer break rolled around, I had a few freelance gigs lined up.
During second year, I was grateful to learn from Governor General Award winner Nancy Tousley when I wrote about theatre for the arts section of the Calgary Herald. I’ll never forget her advice about writing. She told me it’s not about cramming a bunch of information down people’s throats, but rather gently leading them towards what you’ve discovered so they can share in your experience. Beautiful. I must confess she scared the crap out of me at the time, but I remain grateful for that simple yet effective piece of advice.
I kept my part-time job at Hy’s. At graduation, I had been published in both daily newspapers and the arts weeklies. A few months after graduation, Paul Jeffries hired me to co-write his commemorative memoir about his legendary tattoo studio, Smilin’ Buddha (named after the famed cabaret here in Vancouver where he grew up).
From no email address to functioning freelancer in less than a year. I’m telling you this story because I met with a colleague recently and when I told her this story, I broke out in goosebumps. It’s easy for me to forget as I tap away on my Mac there was a time I didn’t know how to string a sentence together, much less what the bleep the internet was about. Yet here I am.
The way I see it, if I can go from slinging chateaubriand to writing best-selling books, what’s stopping you from telling your story? Maybe you’re a woman who rose to the top of a male dominated industry. Or you worked multiple jobs to get through school. Or you’ve started a heart-led business after years of self-doubt. I love hearing about resilience and faith in the face of challenges.
I’ve just made a promise to myself: to invest that same energy and tenacity that I threw at getting into journalism school to connecting with people I can help. Because I’ve got it in me to tell stories in a way no one else does. I’ve been writing for 18 years and I’ve interviewed stellar people from all walks of life. We’re all heroes on some level and I get so stoked thinking about helping you share your trials and triumphs.
What do you say? Is it time to tell your story? Let’s get started.