The summer my family moved out of Toronto and north to small town Ontario, my parents sent my brothers and me off to Port Coquitlam, British Columbia to stay with our aunt and uncle while they oversaw the building of our new house.
It was the summer we ate so many freezies that their plastic slit the corners of our mouths. It was the summer my younger brother refused to bathe for days and had to be physically dumped in the shower. It was the summer that I read Francine Pascal's Sweet Valley High Sagas in three days.
Like many writers, this is how my writing life began: through the voracious, unquenchable need to read. So Pascal is not Thomas Hardy, but as the 10 year old only girl in an all male array of brothers and cousins, she was to me.
She was to me.
It was not the first summer I spent reading. As a child, you're usually at the mercy of your parents to supervise - or at least take you to- outings with school friends. Combine this with the fact I spent most of my summers at my grandfather’s cottage on the lake, and my friends from school may as well have been on Mars.
Oh boo-freakin-hoo. Poor me. Yeah, yeah. I know. As much as I love Hardy, I am no Jude and these are not the tragedies he wrote of. But these minor isolations are where my writing life began.
The other part I share with many writers. Namely, I'm a big baby.
That’s a cute way of saying that I feel raw to the world. Even encounters and feelings I’ve experienced before feel new almost every time, often painfully so, and I can either hold it in, or let it out in a long, self-indulgent wail.
And boy do I wail.
As a fledging writer, I filled at least 5 notebooks a month. Mostly drivel, of course, but it helped me realize what I was capable of. It made me feel powerful, and as a preteen who entitled her autobiography, Memoirs of a Fat Kid on Track and Field Day, I can’t tell you how incredible it is get a taste of invincibility.
When I told my conservative Islamic father I was dropping the idea of law school to become a writer, he asked me why I couldn’t just be a lesbian. Or a prostitute.
This response was the first of many like reactions.
Telling people I’m a writer is not always met with what I consider due awe and admiration of my craft. When my 7 year old nephew asked me what I actually do for a living – understanding that I am home all day and that I also claim to be working –he didn’t believe me.
“People don’t really do that. Not as a real job.”
If I’d told him I was an astronaut, I would have been met with less disbelief.
But writing is often an act of disbelief - in yourself, in the world - and I knew I’d never be happy doing anything else.
The only other time I've felt this way is when I've come home from the ballet, mind full of music, gesture, grace, and danced around my nightly absolutions, face washed, arms poised, toes, tipped. Brain baffled and free. How lovely.
But not every night can be the ballet.
I’ve been writing professionally for over a decade, and if you’re writing professionally, full-time, chances are you’ve dabbled in or are dabbling in some form of creative prostitution.
For most people who write for a living, it’s not all sonnets and short stories; you’ve got to sell a bit of yourself. Or a lot of yourself, depending on the project.
Is it worth it?
Well, I get asked that a lot, and all I can say is it’s a personal call.
I know many writers who make their living in entirely unrelated fields (e.g. as software engineers) - or even semi-related fields (e.g. as professors or in communications) – who work best when they save their writing time for their writing. The act remains pure, chaste, and relatively free of corruption.
I know others writers who rent out their minds (and sometimes, especially in the beginning when you can't always afford to be as choosy, a wee bit of their dignity) on an almost daily basis and are OK with that. Obviously, I fall into this category.
I can’t speak for others, but I can speak for myself when I say that my dignity is one thing, and my morality is quite another. While I have definitely written about topics that I deem trivial or silly, I have never written about anything I find morally objectionable.
Which isn’t to say I go into every project wholeheartedly believing in what I am hired to write about. I do a hell of a lot of ghostwriting, and though I always know that I can nail the content, it doesn’t mean I'm initially passionate about the topic. You can only write so much about BBC period dramas, body dismorphia and Bea Arthur.
I do, however, have faith in my powers of compassion. I have total faith in my empathetic abilities. If I agree to a project, I have no doubt I can get out of myself enough to look at it from another angle. I can learn to see what others see.
I don’t think I could stomach hunting for sport, but writing for conservation-minded waterfowling experts has made me see what they love about it.
I know my acceptance of mortality is far too fragile for me to work in the funeral business, but writing content for a company in the industry has given me a whole new understanding and deep respect for people who not only trod death’s terrain magnanimously, but help others navigate it too.
Even though I love playing poker, it wasn’t until I began writing for a truly inspired professional player and coach that I understood poker will always be a straight out gamble unless you develop the mental, physical and spiritual acuity outside of the game to carry you during play.
Creative prostitution forces me to write from perspectives and in voices that are totally foreign. It forces me into other worlds, and sometimes, uncomfortable corners.
It has not only made me a better writer, you see, but a better person, so for me, it works. The juice is always worth the squeeze. And what a squeeze.