I grew up in Windsor, Ontario with the Detroit River and the Great Lakes as my backyard playground. Our family had a boat and it wasn’t uncommon for my mom to pack a quick, cold supper after school and work—what she called a “boat supper”—and off we would fly to the marina. Within an hour we would be out on the water, the wind suddenly pulling back our hair, driving out cobwebs or nasty moments from the day. When the boat picked up speed and left the land behind, my heart lifted and my spirit soared, much like the seagulls that kept pace with our boat.
It was an early experience of freedom that I carried with me into my adult years and it came to be associated with being near large expanses of water. When I moved to Guelph for five years in the 1990s, I felt the absence of water acutely. There was only the narrow, placid, inaccurately-named “Speed River,” which I would go and sit alongside, aching for waves and movement and the cry of gulls.
At that time, I felt misplaced in my work too, as if I were playing at what adults were supposed to do. I found a full-time job with benefits but I felt like a fraud, excelling at a job I didn’t much like and having no sense of investment in the work. I remember moments of rising panic, sitting in my office and looking out at the world, thinking that real life was going on out there and I was missing out. I can remember watching people walk by and believing that everyone else had their lives figured out. I thought there must be something inherently wrong with me, that I was nearly thirty and still didn’t know what I was doing with my life. I knew that I was the only one who could make the kind of changes I wanted to see happen, but I felt terrifically stuck, very much in a prison of my own making.
If there was one constant thread, beyond that of my family, it was the act of writing. Up until then, writing was a solace and a comfort and a companion, but it was not something for other people to read and it was definitely not a way to make a living. In those days, I was a journal writer – I wrote as a way to help figure out my life and my unique place in it.
If someone had asked me if I considered myself a writer, I would have said that I wrote, and that I enjoyed writing, but I wouldn’t have thought I had earned the title of “writer.”
Something happened in Guelph to change that.
I saw a purple flyer at the local library. And then I saw it again at the café. And again at the bookstore. Women and Writing Workshop it said; an eight-week session for women to explore themselves and their lives through the written word.Something in me said yes to that flyer. It was something tender and terribly excited. I think it was something that knew this was the first breadcrumb on what would become a wonderful and fulfilling path.
Don’t get me wrong. Despite the knowing, I was scared. I remember shaking like a leaf when I introduced myself. But I also remember the feeling of camaraderie that grew every week and the wonder of spending time with women who revealed themselves through their writing. I think it was my first real experience of being with like-minded souls, some of whom became dear friends.
I also remember the way the words started to flow out of me once I gave them permission. And how good it felt to read those words aloud and have other women nod their heads and say “yes, yes.” You understand me? I thought. I started to feel not so alone. I started to see myself in others. This was a whole new thing.
There were writing exercises in class and others to do at home. There were lists of books about writing. There were poems that made us think and sparked conversation. There were cups of tea and there were tears and there were gales of laughter. Oh, the laughter. I remember thinking that I had never felt so alive.
Our wonderful facilitator, Melinda, posed questions that I had never considered before. What do you hear when you ask yourself what you need to pay attention to? How do you honour the light inside yourself? What are some brave things you’ve done lately?
My handwriting changed throughout the course of the first notebook – from clenched and tentative to a free flowing scrawl, the pages dense with words. When I hold the notebook in my hands now, 20 years later, I can feel how hard I was pressing. Life beginning to flow from me in words on the page, freeing something knotted inside.
I became brave. I dared to care about my inner life. I dared to think it was important and that it contained treasures. I dared to share. I dared to shine.
In Melinda’s eyes, we were all writers. This was not up for debate or ever in question.
“A writer is someone who writes. The genius in her upstairs room writing ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you? Are you Nobody Too?’ is a writer. The grandmother in a frame house in North Dakota penning a letter on lined paper from Woolworth’s is a writer. The child in third grade pushing her pencil to form cursive letters is a writer. You are a writer. You are an artist. Accept it, celebrate it, use it, for the rest of your life.”
—Pat Schneider , The Artist as a Writer
This was a typical Melinda quote. She, and the other women in the group, helped me believe I was a writer. It’s easy for me to see now that taking part in that eight-week course (which turned into two years of bliss, every Thursday night) was the first step in the journey to where I am now. I developed the confidence to write more, to attend other kinds of writing training, to get published, to form writing groups in other places where I lived, and eventually to “become” the writer that I am today, running my own business and making my living from words on the page.
I’m sure my 29-year-old self would have thought all of this utterly fantastical and slightly preposterous, but perfectly wonderful. I would like to take her by the hand and show her what she was able to do by believing in herself. I would like to ride with her to the ocean and show her where she lives now too, watch as her hair blows back and her smile grows.
She didn’t think she had any of this in her. I’m so happy she discovered otherwise.
I’m curious, dear reader. Are there past experiences that have helped you “become” yourself? Are there things you are resisting now that would help you further become? Is there something you feel called to do but aren’t doing? Are there small steps you can take in the direction of where you want to go?
The most important thing one woman can do for another is to illuminate and expand her sense of actual possibilities.
Originally published on my blog “This Sweet World”
Painting credit: Valerie Hardy