It’s hard to know where to begin. All stories have a beginning, a middle and a grand finale but sometimes starting at the end makes more sense. You can imagine, then that I love to read the last page of a book before I venture to the start and read through the storyline. That’s how I am going to start.
Writing a book and getting it published fulfilled a lifelong dream. It’s always good for the soul to manifest wishes. But, finding the courage to put an intimate part of myself in the public eye, with my name on it, was a difficult decision. No matter how removed the story is from my real life, the thoughts of the characters, the situations and the words on the page come from within me, from places I’ve seen and people I’ve met. However, the feeling of accomplishment was able to override my anxiety. And every time I see and hold the finished product I know that the effort was worth it.
Before I go any further, I have to ask this question. Do you know what you want to be when you grow up? A very engaging commercial on TV asks that question of seniors. You know, when you are 18 years old, the possibilities seem endless. At 55, not so much. But as I watch that commercial, I think about my answers then, when I was 18 and now.
My beginning starts way back in junior high school. I wrote my first screen play when I was fifteen but the idea of pursuing a career doing something as exotic as writing, was just too far-fetched to even contemplate. As a woman and a woman of colour, my opportunities were limited, at the very least, to professions suitable for a woman. Motherhood, nurse, teacher or secretary. Those choices were my reality in 1966 when I graduated high school. Anything else seemed unacceptable. Hard to believe in 2012 but less than fifty years ago, many young women were still trapped in stereotypical roles. So when an uncertain career in writing, might have taken off, it died a unnatural death and I went on to become a professional nurse. Did I submerge my desires? I don’t know for sure but since you know the ending of the story, the answer could be yes, but I don’t feel that’s true.
To be honest, I had two great role models. In 1927, my grandmother left her island home, all alone, to travel by boat to Nova Scotia, another island five times the size of her native Jamaica. She then took a train across Canada to Kingsville Ontario to take on a job with a family she had never seen. She wasn’t well educated but she was ambitious and took the opportunity to help each of her siblings back home and provide for her son, my father. My own mother was a public health nurse in a time when married women with children often stayed home. In high school, I was the only one of my friends who had a working mother. In the end, I chose to travel abroad like my grandmother and like my mother, became a professional nurse.
I have no regret about taking on a nursing career. Because of it, the middle part of my story is full of fascinating interactions with people from all over the world. I grew up in Toronto in a multicultural community filled with stories of escape from war torn countries, political intrigue, courage and ambition, struggle and change. Because I Travelled abroad to study, I got to listen to a different culture and character of people. And I did listen to everyone, file-ing away the details of their individual histories. My mind was fertile ground waiting for the seeds of stories to be planted.
At one time, I began to believe that I must have a headline on my forehead which reads ‘tell me your story’. If I do have a look that invites confidence, as part of my work, I hope it makes me a better nurse, but the ability to listen, also makes me a better person. Everyone has a story to tell. All stories should be told because everyone has a right and a need to be heard.
Why are stories important? When you read a story which resonates with you, it is part of your story. It gives validity to your story. It puts you in touch with others and allows you to empathize, and sympathize and receive both. A story releases emotion, gives you courage and makes you want to change. A story should inform and transform. A story has meaning even if it only provides a few minutes of laughter to ease an ache which won’t go away.
The same ideal is true whether you read the story or write it.
These are all reasons why I read voraciously in my youth. Epic books were not daunting to me at all. Mostly, I enjoyed the stories of a romantic, historical or biographical nature. I loved going to the movies because they were also a way of hearing and seeing someone’s story. Like most kids of my generation, I was also a big TV fan. Each episode of those weekly sitcoms filled my head with lessons that have stayed with me. Analyzing the plot was as important to me as understanding the message born in the mind of the show’s creator.
The need to write became a force in the middle of my own life story. I was now forty years old, still raising my children and working just as I had always done. What changed for me was not my job, or location. I did not have a great revelation but I did get sick and suddenly all the hopes and dreams I had as a child came back to haunt me. There was no planning, or thought behind this desire. I was simply watching a TV show which resonated with me. When the series ended abruptly, as good ones often do, I felt a yearning to create a better resolution of the unrequited love which drove the plot line.
One day, I just sat at my computer, with a dedication well beyond my normal nature, and started to write a story. It wasn’t about the TV show but about the challenges of falling in love with the wrong person. My first drafts were saved on a disc. I applied myself to writing every day. Each week I would send out a few pages to my sister to edit and return. My friends, that was more than twenty years ago. I wrote both my stories within a year, started a third and then put them away. I have no excuse to offer. Procrastination is the bane of our existence. But in retrospect, I felt that I had used an extensive recovery time to lay the groundwork for my future endeavours.
Twenty years! You may ask why I waited so long to bring the stories to their natural conclusion. Again, in retrospect, I can see that during those twenty years, I learned many things which added a maturity and confidence to my own sense of self. Clearly, I needed time to think about crafting a story that was reasonably well written, grammatically correct and held all the elements a story should have, including drama, laughter, tears and a happy ending. But more than that, I wanted the plot to include bit and pieces of ideas from those people who could not speak for themselves, to have their ideas brought forward. I see now, that I had twenty more years of listening to do before I could craft a narrative which met those standards.
Another important point is that the creativity generated by writing those early stories was not in vain. I would not consider myself illiterate but the discipline of making myself write gave me the courage to return to school and fulfill other childhood dreams which were not available to me in 1966.
Interestingly, when I did decide to restart writing back in 2007, twenty years later, I did not take out the unfinished work sitting at the bottom of a drawer, in my home office. Instead, I started writing an online story to complete the unfinished love affair of that old TV show. There is a wonderful site called fanfiction where thousands of would be writers fulfill their fantasy of creating stories based on movies and TV series. Once I got started in that exciting realm, there was no stopping me. But each time I crafted a story for the online community, slowly and surely, the books at the bottom of the box called out to me every day until I could no longer ignore them.
I have to say that the challenge of actually rewriting the books was intimidating. I had to retype the manuscript from my original handwritten hard copy. What I had saved on five inch floppy discs in 1989 was obsolete by 2009. There was no computer program that I had, which could bring those original words to life again. The prospect of typing one hundred thousand words seemed really daunting and yet, in doing so, I found inner strength and even more discipline beyond what I could ever imagine.
This time around, it wasn’t my own health issues which precipitated a return to writing. My husband of more than forty years was seriously injured in a car accident. He spent a long time in hospital followed by months in rehab. I needed to use my time wisely because thinking about the status of his health, and the changed circumstances of our life was even more daunting than writing. If I learned nothing else in my 45 years of nursing, I knew that ‘over thinking the future’ and worry would have been the best way to create ‘anxiety- related’ ill health in my own body. I had already been tested with a life threatening illness. I had used my recovery time to restart something close to my heart. The close brush with death and the enormous challenges of my husband’s recovery were a huge reminder of the fleeting nature of our existence and the importance of self care. It was time to complete those things left undone because I was now grown up.
We spend a lot of time living in the here and now, and we should, because today is what matters but we can also bring our dreams forward into the present. When we dream of the past we only picture that dream as it was, but we can renew its presence in our lives and not allow it to remain unfulfilled. If you have ever thought about that elusive bucket list, know that it is never too late. I wasn’t too old at forty to start crossing off buried dreams from my list. And, according to that line ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’……I have a pretty good idea now.
It isn`t about being a published author, which is important even though I consider myself more of a storyteller than author. What I learned was the value of using times of maximum stress in my life to find comfort, pleasure, self worth and healing by completing a lifelong goal. I was able to be a voice for the women and men who filled my life with their stories. Most importantly I am able to leave a legacy of hope for my grandchildren just as my grandmother did for me. That’s my story and I hope it will inspire you to tell your own story and share it with others in your own way.
I leave this with a quote from Thoreau
A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.