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.

for the love of good: if everything is awesome, nothing is awesome

For better or worse (I argue the latter), we’re smitten with sharing naught but the supposed awesome of every moment of our lives. Social media and digital news feeds are a barrage of best day / spouse / thing EVER proclamations. Despite my want to believe in the positive and great, I’m suspect of any projected image wherein each day is the best, every dinner the most amazing, and all wines are awesome.

The lens through which I view life is one of optimistic realism. On the balance of probabilities, I accept that a “best” of something will occasionally cross my path while a “good” representation is most likely to be the encounter – with “not so good” also an option. Popular expectation of how much fantastic we’ll experience is severely out of whack. Subsequently, we have assigned a new and lower value to good. Nothing stands out from a crowd if the average is set at awesome. When did good lose its charm?

our language

In October 2014 I visited the Clare region of Nova Scotia, where my Acadian family speaks a localized French as our first language. Listening to my relatives chatter in Acadian-ese is both confusing and comforting; the cadence of their speech carries as much emotional expression as their word choice and, in some cases, more – such as when an English word is spoken with the Acadian accent. Adjectives are appropriated and change with emphasis, while nouns gain and lose syllables at random. Hello changes to ‘ello and ‘allo!, eventually becoming ‘ah-lo?! when popping one’s head into a neighbour’s house for an unannounced visit.

DSC_0058
in awe of the atlantic: cause of countless shipwrecks with as many stories, and steps from my father’s childhood home

Among the many interesting discoveries in translating Acadian to English is a word used by my uncle with regularity: satisfied. From discussing his recent furnace replacement to sharing a favourite dining spot in Yarmouth, my uncle referred to being satisfied rather than stating he was happy (or happy with something). I’m paraphrasing, but a typical conversation involving his satisfaction would go like this:

Me: Did you like the clam chowder?

Uncle Anselme: I usually don’t order clam chowder, because I’m particular about clam chowder. But this was nice. I’m satisfied.

or this…

Me: How is your new furnace working?

Uncle Anselme: It’s more efficient than the last one and less noisy. I’d say I’m satisfied with my choice. 

We’ve come to accept happy as a new standard of moderate descriptor for satisfaction or acceptance, displacing where once we would have used good. My circle of friends, in casual discourse, would likely have said their clam chowder was good or that they were happy with their new furnace. Can a furnace make you happy? On a cold night, yes. In the quest for life happiness a furnace might rank slightly lower – that you are satisfied with its performance is a more appropriate statement. Chalk up a win for Acadian translation.

I became accustomed to my uncle’s satisfaction, and upon return to my home life I noticed its absence here. It was also more difficult to ignore the epic, awesome, and best that surrounded me.

the decline of our level of diction

Through the wonder of smartphones we have the world in our pockets – but instead of being inspired by this access to so much, we’re becoming lazy. Satisfied has been relegated to use in surveys, and not much else. Each year more words are accepted into the Oxford English Dictionary, yet we use fewer to describe our experiences and feelings. These best of / most awesome / epic days and events do us a disservice: not only do these descriptors set the bar unattainably high for daily living, we’re less likley to be curious about individual experiences because we anticipate those particular words will convey a larger picture – an understood, unspoken description. It’s a falsehood, and we erode our cultural wealth each time we make these simple statements.

Where packaged individualism is the new socially acceptable collective norm, we strive to show how individually normal we are by sharing our every awesome moment / meal / experience. Discovering the latest hot whatchamacallit can help your voice burn brightly in the new media spotlight; however, like a flare, its shine is short-lived. In this light, the new craft brewery making an epic IPA will briefly attract more attention than the new craft brewery making good beer. Is an IPA epic? Beowulf is epic. Homer is epic. An IPA is refreshing, citrus-y, and satisfying. Can a wine be awesome? A lightning storm is awesome. A volcano is awesome. A wine can be surprising, balanced, complex. I am satisfied with how it tastes.

for the love of good

I aspire to write well and have folks who read my writing think ‘that was good’. This is the benchmark I’ve assigned: good. It lives somewhere between a B- and B+, where a C is average and an A is exceptional. At times I’ll write something that resonates with a group of people, and occasionally a sentence is structured so beautifully I want to frame it. Those are rare exceptions, as are awesome and epic. I’m more concerned with whether someone will find their own level of enjoyment in something I’ve written about – like the aforementioned craft brewery’s IPA – than I am with the length of time the spotlight will be on what I’ve written.

I’ve fallen into the awesome/epic/best trap on more occasions that I care to admit: in bite-sized statements meant for snacking, rather than multi-courses intended for a little more digestion (such as this). We snack on information more frequently than we digest stories. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook support these habits. I am not immune, although I do try to remind myself of the need for digestion.

When in the shadow of awesome, good can’t seem to catch a break. But I love good. We tend to poke and prod a little further when we stumble upon good; we’re more curious about good’s context, and the associated package defies an easy dismissal. Good is layered. Good is sexy. Good isn’t competing for your attention, because it doesn’t have to.

In a world where everything is awesome, nothing is. Let’s try for good, so we can be in awe more often.

~ Jeannette

in awe of art and the artist who lived this life: the reconstructed home of Maud Lewis, celebrated folk artist who lived outside of Digby NS
in awe of the artist who lived this life: reconstructed home of Maud Lewis, celebrated folk artist who lived outside of Digby

writing, wine, and beautiful automobiles

In February I celebrate working the freelance writing thing for six years. It’s crazy. And pretty awesome.

Freelancing has been my sole source of income since June 2012. That’s no small feat, considering my partner isn’t in a position to shoulder more than his share of our expenses – mortgage, car/home insurance, health care, utilities etc. I know writers who don’t need to rely on their income from writing, and I’m happy for them – I’m just not one of them.

The landscape of this life is a patchwork of individual projects, pitching assignments to publications, and finding the elusive regular/ongoing contract. It’s tedious and tiring, but flexible and rewarding in ways not measured by a bank balance. After several years of juggling competing deadlines and surviving lean ‘quiet’ months, I’ve managed to assemble a less jumbled combination of contracts and regular stints. Translation: the times are a-changin’.

endings

Orofino's 1.6 Mile Dinner with Joy Road Catering
Orofino’s 1.6 Mile Dinner with Joy Road Catering

As I make my way into a few more structured contracts, I’m bidding farewell to a few regular gigs – including one that has been dear to my heart since 2011: EAT Magazine.

Under the guidance of brilliant writer/editor/wine professional Treve Ring, I wrote more than 30 articles for EAT’s digital presence and a number of others in ink. At times the writing world can be cold, but Treve (and publisher Gary Hynes) provided me with a warm place to test my writing chops and push boundaries – my own included. I’ll miss writing with EAT, and I hope to contribute occasionally. I have Treve & Gary to thank for things too numerous to list.

beginnings

fangirl time with pro driver Patrick Carpentier
fangirl with pro driver Patrick Carpentier (photo credit: Voth Photography)

For the last year I’ve been working with the lovely group at South Okanagan Motorsports. They’re the folks building Area 27 – a private Motorsports club & track outside of Oliver on land owned by the Osoyoos Indian Band. With my dad an auto body tech and painter, I saw many cars at an early age and have been in love with beautiful automobiles ever since. (16-year-old me had an enormous crush on Jacques Villeneuve)

Things are moving quickly for Area 27 so I’m dedicating more time to them. It might seem an exclusive group, and it takes more than a few bones to join (it is a private club), but the people involved are some of the kindest I know. I arrive with my beater of a ride and park in a lot stacked with cars most only dream about, but no one cares that my ’91 Accord has a belt squeal or exhaust leak. (I’ve also met Richard Spenard, Patrick Carpentier, and Trevor Seibert – which is totally rad)

the wine part

don't assume the valve can be opened
don’t assume the valve can be opened

After making more than a few trips to Covert Farms in the past few years, I’m smitten with the place. In September 2014, I signed on to work harvest as cellar hand; I had no experience but oodles of theoretical awareness. Why work harvest? I’m a writer – I like to know my subject matter. It was gruelling, cold, wet, and exhausting work. It was also engaging, rewarding, fascinating, and addicting.

Since then, the dynamic duo of Gene and Derek have decided to keep me around for a couple of days per week. It’s a small operation experiencing enormous growth, which means people wear many hats and flexibility is required. My having other freelance contracts makes it easier for them, and they can be flexible and adapt to my crazy schedule. It’s win-win.

Lastly, there’s a super rad contract that I’ll be announcing mid-February. No details until then, sorry.

Keeping my hand in the pot, I’ll continue with a few bits-and-pieces contracts that are meaningful and interesting. It’s been a tough slog to get here and I know the challenges are far from over. I’m fortunate to work with wonderful clients who trust me to tell their stories – and there are many more to come.

I’m grateful to each of you who has supported me, fed me, proofed for me, listened to my crazy ideas, and helped me on this wackadoodle path that is freelance writing. You’ll probably end up as characters in a novel that I never publish.

Here’s to a year ahead of writing, wine, and beautiful automobiles.

~ Jeannette