Writer Life

I get up early, because a deadline looms.

The deadline isn’t a surprise, really. I’ve known about it for some time, but I’ve found reasons to delay the actual writing of the piece in question because:

  • I need to finish all the interviews!
  • I need to figure out the story “trajectory”!
  • I need to do an outline!

Those are really great but all completely bogus reasons:

  • Of course I can start it before I do all the interviews
  • I’ve never figured out the trajectory before I began
  • Outlines are for schmucks and I haven’t done one since Mrs. Van den Beuken forced one out of me in Grade 10

The truth is while all writers are different, many of us are similar in some ways. We moan about deadlines we’ve known about for weeks, we are master procrastinators and we take all the rules of writing and quietly shred them, burn them and dance on the ashes.

And some days, writing life goes like this:

  • Get up early
  • Coffee
  • Turn on laptop
  • Play with dog
  • Look at laptop briefly
  • Play with cat
  • First sentence typed
  • Google a word from first sentence
  • Get distracted by Google search and find yourself googling obscure ufo sighting that has nothing to do with current writing topic
  • Guilt
  • Coffee
  • Second sentence
  • More googling
  • Complete PayPal purchase of completely unrelated item after 46 minute search for said item
  • Sigh
  • Go for a nap with cat
  • Get up groggy and type third sentence
  • More coffee
  • Suddenly tsunami of words hits and madly and furiously type away
  • Triumphantly finish and throw hands up in air while dancing like you’ve just scored a touchdown
  • Realize you are now 600 words over your word limit
  • Scowl at keyboard
  • Begin dismantling your opus, your work of beauty, your baby
  • Finish it feeling a bit like the final runner across the marathon finish line
  • Pour a gin and tonic
  • Realize you have a second piece also due
  • Cry

Yep, writer life.

Five years ago, when I began writing as a hobby after a long absence from writing at all, it was a bit different as every single project was new and exciting and fresh. Over time, though, writing has not only become my craft but my job. For the last four years it’s how I paid the bills. I have a house and a car because I write. Writing isn’t just my passion; it’s my paycheque.

That doesn’t make it any less special, or any less exciting. I’ve just learned a few things, like how to write regardless of how I feel. Whether I’m excited or bored by a subject, whether I’m sick, whether I’m hungover, whether I’m distracted; it’s all immaterial. I just write because that’s what I do.

Most days it’s smooth as butter, and some days it’s not. But that’s how jobs are. And that’s okay, because it means I have reached the point where some of my writer friends, who have done this for decades, finally think I am worthy of the description “professional writer”. I’m no longer the eager-beaver novice who never wanted to ask for a deadline extension (not realizing editors always build this in because writers are not only notorious for needing extensions but almost expected to ask for them) and who often submitted pieces before deadline. I’m no longer the writer who simply agrees with any changes the editor suggests, as I’ve become a bit proprietary of my work. And I’ve come to realize that at times writing should be difficult, because if it’s always smooth as butter then it might be because I’m not working to better my craft.

Objectively, I write better now than I did five years ago, and it’s because of days like the one described above. Those are the days when I’m not just writing but polishing my craft, having to hone down 2,000 words to 1,400, forcing myself to re-evaluate every sentence and justify every letter. I’m forcing myself to self-edit and self-evaluate, not just my words but my skills.

And in writing, as in any job, that’s a good thing.

At the end of the day, I write because it’s part of me. It’s not what I do, it’s who I am.

I’m a writer, and with that comes the writer life, including deadlines, word limits, and coffee.

A helluva lot of coffee.

10 Reasons Stranger Things is the Best Television in Years

After a weekend (okay, a night to be honest) spent binge-watching new Netflix series Stranger Things, I began reflecting on why this is the best series I have seen in years. Maybe decades.

Okay, maybe the gin and tonic I was drinking while watching fostered this reflective state, but the truth is that this really IS the best TV in years. Here’s why:

  1. Winona Ryder – For the record, I graduated in the 1980’s. In the 80’s, every North American female wanted to be Winona Ryder. She was living with Johnny Depp, she was starring in movies with Christian Slater, she had this dark mysterious cool girl thing going on and as if that wasn’t enough she got to be LYDIA for god’s sake. She has been absent from the screen for a bit, at least in any meaningful way, but as the slightly haphazard, kinda disconnected, wacky and yet desperately loving Christmas-bulb hanging mom she knocks it out of the damn park. I still want to be Winona Ryder, dammit.tumblr_inline_oac2ra1nhr1t6ym0o_1280
  2. The Music! – The Clash? Peter Gabriel? Echo and the Bunnymen? New Order? JOY DIVISION!?! Yes please. Man, as a survivor of the real 8o’s I can guarantee only ebony-haired, black-lipped, cleopatra-eyed goth-before-it-was-a-thing freaks like me were listening to JD back then. And now it’s used as music for a television series. It’s about damn time, really.
  3. Eleven is a girl – Yep, the super-power-wielding and mind-blowing (literally) protagonist is a heroine, not a hero. And she likes pretty dresses and blonde wigs. I shouldn’t find this as satisfying as I do, but I do.strangerthings.jpg
  4. Pre-adolescent boy friendships – Is there anything really as sweet and touching as the friendships between adolescent boys? None of the cattiness of girls that age (hey, I was one, I know) – just straight up giggles, farts and steady friendship.
  5. Barb – Holy hell, how did they find one of my best pals from the 80’s? Except my Barb was named Judy. I don’t know how often we told Judy to just go home as we wanted to party on without her watchful and slightly more wise (even though we doubted it at the time) gaze upon us. We loved her but we totally undervalued her, too. I’m genuinely glad my Barb didn’t get eaten, though. The Barbs of the world deserve better.
  6. Chief Hopper – Okay, so he’s kind of messed up on booze and drugs, and he isn’t exactly dedicated to his job (at least in the beginning). But somehow the person I thought would be a failed hero became an actual hero and redeemed himself. The dead daughter storyline is a bit weak, but hey, that’s part of the beauty of this all and leads to my next point…
  7. Messy storyline – Huh. This storyline is really a bit of a mess. I mean, there is a lot of shit that doesn’t exactly make sense, and from a writer’s point of view one starts to suspect they might be making a lot of this up as they go along. And then you realize you don’t care, because it’s just too good to care about it being a clean plot. And while every character is pretty much a cliche, they are good solid 80’s cliches. That rocks.
  8. Unexpected success – Show of hands, who else thinks they had no idea this would be as successful as it has become? It just has that low expectation feel to it, which makes the way it’s soared to success even more delightful.
  9. That monster – Pretty sure I have seen him in my nightmares. I mean, that is one scary-ass and yet recognizable monster. The gin and tonic didn’t make that creature seem any less menacing, incidentally.
  10. The return of science fiction – Okay, sci-fi didn’t really “disappear”, but this is like a throwback to the good ol’ days of sci-fi, like John Carpenter’s “The Thing”. Man, we must have watched that every Saturday night while sitting on plaid-covered sofas in my parent’s basement for months. You know, on my dad’s VHS player. Because it was the 8o’s.


Maybe it really is the nostalgia captured by Stranger Things that does it for me. All I know is that when I heard them play Joy Division, I knew I had come home.

There’s only one problem with Stranger Things.

I have to wait for season 2. But S’ok, I’ve got the gin chilling.

No Dress Rehearsal

Given that it was a rock concert, it is remarkable that there were moments when you could have heard a pin drop.

On Saturday evening, 1/3 of Canadians were transfixed in front of a stage or a screen as they watched one of those pivotal moments in history. For Canadians my age, being present for this event was almost a given, whether or not you had ever been a fan; these were moments not to be missed.

What is left to be written about The Tragically Hip playing the final show of what will very likely be their final tour? I hesitated to write this, knowing my words would only be new drops of water in what is already a tidal wave of commentaries written and said about The Hip, but I decided to write about it anyhow because of what they – and Gord Downie, lead singer now battling brain cancer – have meant to me.

In the 1980’s I was living in Toronto. As people in their twenties in big cities often are, I was part of the music scene during that era, every weekend seeing a different night club and a different band. Everyone had their “home” club – mine was The Cameron House, a seedy hotel-turned-apartment building on Queen Street that housed a deeply sketchy and completely bewitching pub. That was the start and finish point of every weekend night (and admittedly some week nights too, back in the days when going to work mildly hungover was something I could handle). From there my ragtag group of music fan friends and I would venture to other clubs, like standards such as Lee’s Palace, the Horseshoe Tavern and the Brunswick, and the other clubs that would spring up quickly and disappear almost as fast (one notable in my memory is a basement club that was once a soup kitchen for those down on their luck, and so carried the moniker “The Soup Kitchen” even when it became a briefly-lived music venue).

I think it was at the Horseshoe where I saw The Hip the first time. They had a strong following even then, but hadn’t yet found the fame and success which came their way very soon after. I must admit that while I liked them, I was a not a “super fan”, not one of those who went to every show; I was following other bands around, like The Grievous Angels (who knew Chuck Angus of the Angels would go on the become Charlie Angus, MP?) and other bands that never really found much beyond local fame. To be honest, at The Cameron House the sense was that those who became too popular or too famous were somehow breaking the code of cool, which dictated “cool” was to be struggling and the underdog fighting for success. If you then achieved success, it destroyed your cool – such a vicious circle, really, but all part of the cynicism and skepticism of the era.

But back then everyone knew who The Hip was, and every one had been to see them at least once. Some became ardent fans, and some didn’t, but most followed their rise to some degree.

Saturday night, though, was probably the first time I had actually seen them in concert since that night at the Horseshoe Tavern. I had of course been listening to The Hip ever since, but had never felt compelled to see them live. This Saturday, though, I sat in front of my big screen TV along with millions of others and was transfixed.

In the past couple of years, Canadian musicians who are my chronological peers have been hit hard. John Mann, lead singer of Spirit of the West, struck down by early-onset dementia, and now Gord Downie hit with glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer known for its aggressive nature. Couple this with the loss of iconic international figures such as David Bowie and Prince, and suddenly people in my age demographic begin to feel rather vulnerable, as we are no longer the cool kids at the happening clubs but rather full-fledged adults who are seeing others similar in numbers of trips around the sun being hit with the effects of age.

I suspect every person of my age demographic knows lyrics to some of The Hip songs, if not most of them, whether we would call ourselves fans or not. Their music was the background at every weekend BBQ and house party for decades; it’s as Canadian as hockey and excessive apologies. And likely every one of us had a favourite song and line, just as I do.

For me, that song is “Ahead by a Century”, and the lyric is this:


Maybe it’s just me, but when Gord sang this on Saturday night, probably for the very last time in front of not only a crowd of adoring fans but also a nation sitting silent in front of screens across the country, I felt like he sang it with new meaning and new poignancy.

This is a man who has had a powerful reminder that life is finite and precious, and that we never know when it might end. This is no dress rehearsal.

This is our life.

And he sang it to all of us, aging once-upon-a-time-club-scene-sters like me and young adults like my daughter. It was a wake-up call to everyone, to grab hold of this life and shake it ferociously, to live every single day as if it could be your last…

Because one day it will be.

Mortality comes for all of us. For some it comes sooner, and for some it comes later, but each of us will one day face the end of our time. On Saturday evening, every single person who watched The Hip in concert saw a man who was forced to come to terms with his own mortality because of a disease beyond his control. Perhaps that is why when he sang this lyric it had new impact; perhaps that is why this time when he sang it I cried, never before having done so over the past few decades.

Whether you are a Hip fan or not, what was on display on a stage in Kingston on Saturday evening was grace and dignity and courage – and a reminder. It was a clarion call to stop living your life as if you get a second chance, and as if the next time around you will have a chance to live it better. This year in Canadian music has been a tremendous reminder of that.

There are no second chances, my friend. Decades ago when I stood in the Horseshoe Tavern on Queen Street, the thought of mortality didn’t even occur to me – but now I know this is…

No dress rehearsal.

This is our life.

Thank you for reminding us, Gord. It has been a pleasure doing business with you.

The Mutiny

When the wildfire hit my community in May, it was like a tsunami of flames and feelings. As it burned away homes and businesses, the flames licked even deeper into our hearts and heads, and if we are honest the singe marks aren’t only on our neighbourhoods.

It affected all of us differently, and while the common experience provided a bond we each reacted in different ways. There were feelings I anticipated: loss, grief, fear, worry, anger.

And then there was the one shadow I didn’t expect but that has dogged me since May 4.

I say May 4 because on May 3 this companion wasn’t with me in the car when I fled with 3 cats and a dog in tow. It only appeared the next morning, hovering at the end of my hotel room bed, quiet but demanding to be acknowledged.

Self-doubt had crept back into my life, taking advantage of a moment of vulnerability to reappear.

I suppose we all experience self-doubt, but once upon a time I had it to an almost crippling degree. I hid it under a veneer of confidence, but the veneer was thin and easily cracked. In recent years, though, I had shed the self-doubt as I grew more confident in myself both personally and professionally – but the fire opened a doorway to my old companion, and self-doubt glided back into my world.

Perhaps it was the startling change in routine that invited it or the distance from the safe retreat of my home. Regardless of the cause, I knew it well because we were old frenemies.

Self-doubt makes you question everything. I suspect it’s why I was nomadic in the early days of evacuation, constantly on the move; self-doubt made me question whether to stay or go, like The Clash song but only far worse. Self-doubt made me recheck everything a million times: had I packed everything from the last hotel room? Were all the cats in the car? Did I have enough cash, cat food, clean socks?

I felt adrift and yet I felt moored by the doubt that was my heavy companion, weighted to me like an anchor. Every conversation became cause for dissection and more speculation on the dubious nature of my character, my abilities, and my existence.

It was maddening. And I hoped that when I returned home self-doubt would be left behind, crying on a deserted island of loneliness as I sailed away.

I was wrong. It followed me, although it took a few days to show up as I was preoccupied with “return home chores”. But when it did it began to pick at me, that quiet and yet incessant voice.

It made me question everything from the shade of my hair to my life choices. It kept me awake at night and it nattered at me during the day. It never grew stronger or weaker, just remained there until finally, very recently, I became so exhausted I demanded to know what it wanted.

What it wanted? 

What did self-doubt want? 

It wanted me to doubt myself of course – but more crucially it wanted me to reaffirm that I believed in myself. Self-doubt was my devil’s advocate; it wanted me to fight it.

And so I did.

When it began to question me, I fought it down with irrefutable proof: examples of my abilities, my character and yes, my existence. I sat down with self-doubt and I laid out the puzzle pieces, fitting them together quickly once I found my rhythm.

Here was the mother piece, and here the friend. Here was the writer piece, and here was the community advocate. I fit them all together, forming a solid picture where once there had been scattered puzzle pieces – and I showed self-doubt that there was no room for it in the completed puzzle of who I am.

The truth is that self-doubt will likely remain in my life forever, as it’s also the tiny voice that occasionally asks very reasonable questions and provokes me to alter my course in a good way; but self-doubt had come perilously close to declaring itself captain of the ship, and it was a mutiny I could not tolerate.

The fire on May 3, 2016, had consequences which we can see with our eyes; but it is perhaps the ones we cannot see but only feel in our hearts that may impact us the longest. Even after homes are rebuilt and neighbourhoods are alive with members of our community once again, the marks left by the fire will remain; it’s just that some of them may not be visible. I hope however they remain visible to our hearts, and that we realize others will struggle with sorrow, sadness, anger, fear, and even self-doubt. I believe that if we acknowledge our struggles openly we then allow others to do so as well, and we continue to provide strength to them to fight their own mutinies.

 The equilibrium of my ship had been badly affected by self-doubt; it had made every challenge loom large as a tidal wave and every disappointment look as deep as an ocean trench. My ship was trying to straighten itself, and I was struggling to be the strong captain and right it single-handed, but while I  am the captain of my ship, my family and friends in this community are members of my crew. It is with their support, encouragement and help I defeat the mutinies that threaten to overtake me. 

Rely on your crew, my friends, and let them fight your mutiny with you, at your side and ready to hold your ship steady as you reclaim your captaincy. 

After all, that’s what a crew – and a community – is for.

Everywhere A Sign

The sign in the elevator catches my eye almost immediately.

This hotel and I are already off to a bad start, as they have just checked me into a room that is already occupied, and after a long day of travel it has taken me two trips to the reception desk to finally land me in a room for the night.

But the sign in the elevator intrigues and amuses me, both as a guest and as a communications professional. I have now written hundreds of signs and documents for public consumption, and this one is quite unlike any I have ever authored.

“Dear Valued Guest,” it begins, innocently enough. It’s when it continues that things begin to get a bit odd: “As this elevator comes to a stop you will feel a jolt as it aligns with your chosen floor. Please don’t be alarmed, the elevator is safe and inspected on a regular basis. This style of elevator has a braking system that is solid and secure but not hydraulic, the new technology that you may be used to. We exceed all provincial and federal guidelines for elevator maintenance. Your safety is a top priority for our hotel. Thank you, the Management.”

I read it 3 or 4 times. I stay on the elevator past my floor to read it again, in fact, and I take a photo of it with my phone so I can recall the wording. It is undoubtedly well written, but it is quite the sign and it raises a lot of interesting questions in my mind.

It’s on my third trip past the front desk that I decide to ask a couple of those questions. After the already-occupied-room-check-in debacle, I know the staff have likely already pegged me as a guest who comes with problems, even if they aren’t of my own making. The nice young man behind the desk seems unprepared for the elevator conversation, though.

“So about that sign on your elevator,” I begin.

He eyes me warily. I can tell he’s talked about the elevator before, and it’s not a favourite topic.

“Instead of putting up a sign,” I continue, “Why not replace the elevator?”

His eyes widen a bit in surprise at this. He expected me to debate the safety aspect, I think, or demand to see their inspection records. This is not what he thought was coming.

“Well, that would be really expensive,” he says finally. “And the elevator is perfectly safe!”

He delivers the second line triumphantly, well rehearsed from previous discussions I suspect.

“Whether or not it’s safe is actually beside the point,” I say. “People think it might not be, and enough of them that you have had to put up a very long sign to tell them it is safe. And do you still get questions on the elevator?” I ask.

He nods, reluctantly. He doesn’t like this conversation and wishes I would leave his desk, I think.

“So is the sign actually doing anything?” I ask.

He stares at me and I smile and let him off the hook. I tell him to have a great day and I walk away, thinking not about elevators and safety, but about signs.

Signs, signs, everywhere a sign – and signs can be very good things. They tell us how to get places. They tell us things we can – and cannot – do. And signs keep us safe and secure and informed, but there is one thing signs cannot do: fix problems.

You see, when you encounter a problem it is very easy to say: “Hey, I know how to fix this! Let’s put up a sign!”, and there you go, problem solved.

Except the problem isn’t solved – all you have done is put up a sign. The problem still exists, and will continue to exist.

The elevator problem is a tough one. Elevators are expensive to replace, but the hotel with the sign does a brisk business with tourists and is part of an international chain, so the budget argument doesn’t really resonate with me as a reasonable excuse to avoid it. And yes, it would be inconvenient, but the hotel has down times when guests are sparse and it would be good timing to schedule the work. And yes, the elevator might be perfectly fine, but if the only thing guests remember about your hotel is a) the elevator that bounces you like a carnival ride and b) the sign that tries to convince you this carnival ride is perfectly safe, you have a problem that no sign is going to fix.

After spending a few years working in public communications I began to realize how quickly we resort to the “signage fix” as opposed to addressing the actual problem. And when you suggest that instead of erecting a sign the problem be fixed instead, people can become a bit stubborn, because signs are easy and problem solving can be hard – or expensive, or time consuming, or inconvenient. And I began to realize we do it even in our personal lives, as it is so much easier to “put up a sign” in our heads that warns “well, you know I have Problem X” instead of working to solve Problem X so we don’t need that sign in our heads that actually provides us with some mental security but does nothing to address Problem X.

The hotel I stayed in had a problem with an elevator.It took some time and thought to craft the sign, and they decided this would be their solution. They now have a problem elevator and a sign that says a great deal about their philosophy on problems: don’t fix them, sign them. This message rings loud and clear, and is the very unintentional result of a well-intended sign.

Before any sign is ever erected, the very first question that should be asked is this: If this sign is about a problem, should we be solving the problem instead?

In a world already littered with signs, more attempts at problem solving – and fewer attempts at sign crafting – would go a long way to avoiding signage overload.

And we might even actually solve a few problems along the way, too – and change the way we think about signs.