On Writing: career, identity, and redefinition

On Writing: career, identity, and redefinition


In the autumn of 2016 I took a full time job with the federal government. Our mortgage was up for renewal and banks look favourably on steady income if, like me, you’ve had a break in what’s considered regular employment (such as freelance writing). So I mined my pool of transferrable skill sets and re-entered the structured work world with what is considered one of the most desirable employers for those seeking financial stability.

I told myself I can do this; I’m not defined by how I collect a paycheque and in my heart I’m really a writer.

There’s a reason jobs like these are described as offering ‘golden handcuffs’ – and no, it’s not a sexy thing. For the most part it’s one of the most secure employment environments, regardless of your skill set, and offers a decent income in some of the more limited job markets like that of my Okanagan community in rural British Columbia.

The handcuff part of the scenario announced itself early on: my time was scheduled with little flexibility (Monday through Friday, set hours); I would be part of a union and unable to negotiate my working conditions outside of that contract; in accordance with a Values and Ethics guideline, I had to disclose ‘outside income’ – my work as a writer – and declare any perceived or potential conflicts of interest. The outcome of this disclosure was that, as a condition of my employment, I had to refrain from lobbying government (goodbye, Free My Grapes) or doing work/writing that could be perceived as critical of government (farewell, writing about meat inspection regulations) or anything that could put me in a potential conflict of interest (adios, long form essay on BC wine sub-appellations). Work I’ve been doing for years.

Sustainable Food Systems Mar 2013
Chefs Derek and Jeff. How can I not write about these two? Really.

I signed the letter, kept the job, and a light inside me began to slowly dim.

What was asked of me is not unreasonable; I agree with all of it. Public servants have an obligation to serve the public. Their salaries are paid by taxpayers (me included), and to have any potential or perceived conflict of interest does not support democratic governing. I needed to ask myself some hard questions. Am I a writer who finds ways to pay the bills, or am I someone who pays the bills and finds ways to write?

In hindsight, taking this job was an exercise in redefining what career means to me and how career is tied to personal success. That meant unravelling the tightly wound perception of vocation as definition of self, value, and place of contribution. It turns out this is more difficult than it appears, considering place of contribution and value, at an early age for many on this continent, are concepts closely fused with vocation.

We do it so frequently it’s barely on our radar. It’s done to us almost daily, sometimes indirectly. There’s an expectation of identifying one’s self in a predefined career path with clarity and intention. The steps we take in our adolescence when we’re busy making poor choices are received as the footprints on what will be our career path. So it’s no surprise when, in our adult years, something as simple as an introduction to a new person can inadvertently focus on what we do – after all, that’s who we are. Or who we’ve learned we’re supposed to be.

It’s been a few years (ahem) since I navigated the network of high school career pathing trails, but I recall aptitude tests and interviews to determine The Path I would take to Become Something. I was interested in literature, so perhaps librarian was in my future. By showing interest in learing about others, maybe counsellor was the right choice. I was creative – had I considered teaching dramatic arts? Among the network of trails no one path shone brightly enough to dim the others. I was fascinated by all of them. My career counsellor was frustrated and asked me to ‘really focus’; I was confused and felt I had disappointed her. The recommendation: first choice librarian, second choice teacher. Off I went with a list of post-secondary institutions that would offer the best education to fit these selections, and a pile of grant/loan application forms.

Recently, a friend asked if I could speak to one of his 10th grade students about what it’s like to be a writer. For months my subconscious self had been struggling with what it meant for me to be a writer and so I was taken by surprise (and flattered). Who am I to engage an inquisitive youthful mind on career pathing? Am I a writer? I felt unprepared and 16 years old again, but this time I’d be speaking with a version of my 16 year old self. Trippy.

I asked her some questions and listened to hers. She has a curiosity about social constructs that manifests in opinion essays and poetry, self doubt, and introspection. Her classmates provide her with perspectives different from hers that encourage her to ask why and engage in dialogue. She wants to express her thoughts, share them with the world. She doesn’t know what career is out there for her, based on this, other than maybe writing for National Geographic and travelling. She wants to travel.

If, when I was 16, I had been able to speak with someone who identified as a writer, the conversation would have been framed with some similarity. So I took the opportunity to share my thoughts as I would have liked to hear when I was 16.

If you don’t see yourself reflected in any of the career paths laid before you, that’s okay. If you’re more interested in who is attracted to certain careers than the career itself, that’s okay too. Be curious. Be a pilot, a physician, a server. Take a job and do it to pay the rent. Aside from learning the foundational pieces of language, what a storyteller needs is more lenses through which to see the world. The broader the horizon against which you filter the world you take in, the better prepared you’ll be to reflect it with your own voice. A career is what you make it, and how you define it. What you do to pay your bills might be different than what you do to be who you are. Don’t choose a path if you don’t want to – you can choose all the paths. Experience the network of trails.

I quit my job.

It was easier than I had made it out to be. I’m a writer, and if I can’t write then I’m trying to be something I’m not. At the tender age of 43, I’m not financially stable enough to throw caution to the wind without a way to keep those mortgage payments happening; I’ve been the majority income earner for the duration of my partnership and that means if we want to pay the bills I need to make a certain amount of money. How I earn that money is up to me; if it doesn’t look like one of the predefined jobs or careers, that’s okay.

Hi. My name is Jeannette. Nice to meet you. I love Canadian literature, baby cows, and advocating in the BC wine industry – among hundreds of other things. What are you interested in?

Joy Road 1.6 Mile 2013
Chefs Dana and Cam, a thousand stories in their hands.

three bottles in

I love how conversation evolves when I’m with friends who are imbibing, especially if some of the friendships are newer than others.

Generally (and although I dislike generalizations this one has fit many of my scenarios fairly well), friendship conversations have three phases: research, experimentation, and development. Yes, these are phases of many things scientific – but they can also be used to describe the evolution of conversation among newly acquainting people.

For example, this weekend my fella and I met a new-to-us couple and a current (mutual) friend for dinner. The new-to-us couple cooked and I provided wine – it was to be a merry-making evening under the guise of event planning (we’re all involved in our local art gallery).

Phase I: research (“When I lived in a warehouse in Australia…”)

The first wine of the night was a 2009 Pinot Gris from Wild Goose Vineyards. My fella and I chatted with the new-to-us couple while we awaited the mutual friend. Bright, with light acidity, playful and not entirely serious, the wine was a perfect accompaniment to our learning about each other. We eventually remembered to include some snacks after most of the bottle was consumed – a good sign of things to come.

Phase II: experimentation (Me: “I’m going to make shoes this winter – I have a pair I think I can copy.” New friend: “Really? I want to do that, too!” <runs to get example>)

Our second wine of the night was the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from Fairview Cellars. I love Bill’s wine (Bill Eggert is the proprietor, grower, and winemaker). We sipped this big, earthy cab while noshing on roast venison – a stellar combination. It’s at the second bottle in that the newly acquainted start to experiment a bit more, finding areas of relating and testing the waters to see how deep those connections might go.

Phase III: development (“…and that’s the last time I ran drugs for anyone.”)

By the third bottle, it’s game on. Once the initial research has met specific criteria, and the parties involved have experimented to determine the strength of those connections, the new friendship is forged. There’s no going back now. It’s during the third bottle – Poplar Grove Wine’s 2006 The Legacy (Bordeaux-style blend); large, round, and lingering – that entering a conversation half-way can provide an excellent soundbite out of context. See example above.

There were more than three glasses consumed in this evening, and I believe it was fruitful yet productive. We explored fundraising ideas (from gala auctions to occupied public spaces with graffiti art), exchanged tall tales (that drug-running story), and laughed way too much. An existing friendship was reinforced, and a new one was solidified.

I won’t delve into the Chilean pinot noir that arrived sometime during dinner, nor will I remark in detail about the Australian botrytis-affected semillion that appeared for dessert. In this experiment, those would be considered a “lurking variable” whose influence may skew the outcomes.

~ Jeannette