Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Forks in the Road: One Writer's Journey

Recently the opportunity arose for me to participate (or not) as a regular on this blog. Me? I knew nothing about blogging. I doubted my ability to get up to speed. I hadn't even been reading the blog until one day in January when a minus 40 wind chill kept me home from the SRW meeting. Then I began dropping in daily to learn from the creative women who started this. I heard myself say that I would learn the ropes. A new door opened, and now I am delighted to call myself a Prairie Chick.

It got me thinking that we face choices all the time, as individuals and as writers. J.K. Rowling has said, "It is our choices ... that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." And we never know until we attempt the unknown, even if we think it will be difficult or scary, what the outcome will be. I want to tell you about some of the forks in the road that I have faced in my life and career.


When I was eighteen, a friend suggested that we study for a year at a university in England. I didn't have to think too long. My parents' permission helped, too. I'm grateful for her challenge and for what I experienced that year. There were complications that you wouldn't believe. But there was also a week in Scotland at Hogmanay, and we took a trip to Paris over spring break.Yes, April in Paris!

I pondered what to do after my general arts degree. My choices? Journalism or librarianship. I chose a library degree, followed by a long career in academic libraries. It was rewarding work. But what if I had taken the journalism route? For sure I would have had an early kick-start to my writing life. But on the other hand, I might not have been in the right place for my personal life to play out as it did.


I moved to a new city for my first library position (followed my boyfriend, if you really want to know). Within a month, I was dumped by the boyfriend, but almost simultaneously met the man I would marry. Full of European charm, he had an irresistible twinkle in his eyes. An engineer with a Swiss company, he installed turbines for a major hydroelectric project. Didn't even intend to stay in Canada, but then, that was a fork in the road for him.


As a teenager, I aspired to be a writer. My high school English teacher encouraged me to attend a summer writing workshop. I might have taken creative writing courses at university, if they had been offered. However, my life soon took over: I was a very busy wife, mother of three sons, and full-time librarian. Occasionally, I wistfully attended workshops, and once began a short story with a rural setting. I began to think about writing a romance novel about a young prairie girl who would go to university in Scotland and fall in love with a handsome Scot. Aye, I did. (Start working on the plot, that is.)


Why am I rambling on about my life story? Because I believe my journey has set me up for a rich writing experience. I lived in and travelled to a variety of places. Do I use them for my settings? You bet I do. I've met people from many different walks of life, witnessed their struggles and joys. I have experienced love, childbirth, grief, happiness, and disappointment. My characters and plots must be based on what I care about deeply; my own emotions and observations become the foundation upon which my imagination builds.


Soon after I retired, I was widowed. I stood at a crossroad where one signpost said: This way to a new life of imagination, creativity, and excitement. I embraced the world of writing, though tentatively at first. I joined organisations, writers' groups, and took courses. I dabbled in many genres. Poems came to me unbidden; I worked hard to perfect them. I wrote memoir/travel pieces about trips with my husband, and a hiking trip in Austria taken on my own after his death. Revision became my watchword.


In progress: both a memoir and a novel about studying abroad, set in the fifties. A short story about a retired widow(!) placed second in a manuscript competition, which motivates me to keep writing. A few poems and a short memoir about my prairie childhood have appeared in a small literary journal. Each new contest entered or submission made ... another fork in the road taken.


Oh, yes. I am still working on the romance set in Scotland. I have added a generational twist. I don't know if it will fit into a particular category or not, but I'm writing it anyway. I'll worry about target market later. I'm having the time of my life. I'm also watching for the next fork in the road. Where will it take me? I enjoy watching movies, but I don't know anything about writing screenplays ... Hmmm



What influences your writing? Is your life story reflected in your writing? Even if you write fantasy and make up a completely new world, do you draw on your own experiences and emotions? Do you crave adventures, grasp new opportunities when they appear at the fork in the road?

26 comments:

Janet C. said...

What a wonderful first post, Helena. And we're very glad you joined us here on The Prairies. It's a wonderful place to learn and grow as a writer.

I have so many forks in the road that I'm sure my knives and spoons are jealous (that was a bad similie, wasn't it?). And each one enriches my life and leads me to discovering new faucets of me - and wonderful friends to add to my extended family. Do I use my experiences? I think I do - but mostly I write romance because of these rosey colored glasses that I wear. Every opportunity is a chance at love and happiness, and that's what I try to convey in my stories.

Again, welcome and thanks for sharing a snapshot of your life with us.

Janet

Karen said...

Good morning, Helena. Welcome to the Chicks. What a lovely first post!

I hope my style, what makes my writing uniquely mine, is a combination of my personality and my experiences. I write romance because I'm a happy endings kind of gal, always have been for as long as I can remember.

Thanks for the glimpses and I look forward to reading more.

Helena said...

Oh, Janet, I didn't even think about how the knives and spoons in my life would feel! Nice pun.

I think the trick is to use our own life as a springboard. I too have the desire to turn everything into the positive. So I am constantly asking "what if" or "how could that have turned out differently", even if the initial thought comes from not-so-happy circumstances.

The neat thing, as you say, is that we learn from all our experiences and the fun is turning what I learn into stories.

I didn't want to leave the impression that my life can be tracked through my fiction, just that who I am and where I've been permeates everything I write. Worth another post perhaps to talk about the pitfalls of trying to write about stuff you don't know (whether by experience or research).

Thanks, Janet, I'm glad to be here.

Helena said...

Thank you, Karen. I know I am going to enjoy this "new" venture. Three weeks from now I won't be able to claim newbie status, so I'm enjoying it while I can.

I am attracted to the romance genre because I enjoy happy endings, too. I keep coming back to my Scottish story because I am determined to get Fiona and Gordon back together again.

Happy writing!

Silver James said...

Helena, when you get to our age, how could our life experiences not cast shadows over our writing? How does one write honestly about loss if loss has never touched one's life? We each call on our own experiences to make our writing real as this is as it should be. There's a reason that old chestnut "Write what you know" is still around.

I don't know if I've had forks so much as nudges (and in a couple of instances, downright shoves). lol Squire Rushnell wrote a book titled When God Winks, in which he talks about coincidences (God Winks). In looking back at my life, I can see the winks along the way.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts today.

Captain Hook said...

Great post, Helena!

Most of my stories spring from my real life experiences. Being disabled and adopted has given me a lot to work with.

I also tend to write primarily for children and teenagers (of which I have five ranging in age from 6-19) and get a lot of material from my children themselves.

And don't even get me started on my personal forks in the road! Too many to count.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
So glad you joined us! And what a wonderful first post.

I think a little bit of a writer's personality and life experiences goes into everything she writes. Not that I think a writer like Agatha Christie "offed" anybody in her spare time. But I'm sure a little bit of Ms. Christie was in Miss Marple.

I too thought of journalism in high school and university but it wasn't meant to be. I rediscovered writing again after several forks in the road and I'm glad I did. I feel it's where I'm supposed to be. I guess everything happens for a reason.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Welcome to our virtual prairie world Helena. You're lucky you said you've been reading this blog since Jan and not the actual starting date. I guess we can all say we've been here since Jan, too. :)

I loved reading your writing journey and being as how I'm of Scottish descent, I'll stand in line to buy your book when it's pubbed.

My books are all prairie set and have God somewhere in them because I'm influenced by the prairies that surround my farm and my personal relationship with God.

Forks in my road include the following and for your info, I always picked the seccond choice:
- academic or technical high school
- secretary or military career
- stay with the CAF or retire for a second career after 20 yrs service
- continue to dabble at writing or treat writing as a serious business by attending conferences, joining writing groups, etc

Helena, I salute you for a wonderful inaugural post.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful inaugural post. I salute you fellow writer! I have learned a great deal from you and continue to do so. I look forward to reading more.

Erika said...

This is my first time reading the Prairie Chicks blog and what a blog it has turned out to be. What a wonderful post.

My life is very uneventful now at the ripe old age of 35. I'm married have two kids and am finally dipping my quill into the world of writing romance.

I haven't traveled internationally (yet) but my life is full of young adult adventures (for lack of a better term) that I feel will work well for me should I ever decide to dip my quill into that genre.

I also am a fan of rose colored glasses and believe in happily ever after, that's what helps me in my endeavor to write romance.

Thank you for sharing your story with us.

Janet C. said...

Jumping in to say "Hey, Erika" - glad you decided to brave the wintery Prairies today and we hope to see you over here again, you Colin Farrel fan :)

Janet

Erika said...

Hey Janet! Had to visit, will definitely return. See you at brunch on Saturday.

Helena said...

Sorry I had to duck out for a while today --- prepping to host a book club meeting tomorrow. I'm back.

Anita, I thought I had given a you a great big clue to the date I started reading the blog which I did instead of going to the Jan. mtg of SRW. Also you had done such a good job of promoting Prairie Chicks and our first guest blogger that I couldn't ignore y'all anymore :) And then I kicked myself 'cause I didn't get going from day one.

I was waiting for someone to comment on the prairies as setting. I truly believe there is something magical in the blood of a prairie dweller.

I'll do my best to get my romance out there for you to read, Anita.

Helena said...

Hey, Erika, it's great so see a new name among the familiar ones. Welcome to our world, and thank you for your generous comment on today's post. It's my first time here as a blogger, so I'll remember it was also your first visit.

I remember my thirties. That was the blur that whooshed by me when I wasn't watching. Actually, I spent that decade in hockey rinks and on soccer fields with my three boys, plus lots of family camping. Tremendous memories.

Good luck with the romance writing. I admire the women who manage to juggle all the family stuff ... and write, too. I guess I didn't multi-task all that well, so I have to make up for lost time now.

Do come back again. We'd love to hear from you as you travel the writing road.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Duh! I am so dumb today because I read that about missing the SRW meeting but it didn't sink in. You'll have to forgive me... I'm heavily into critting my critique partners entries and taking their crits and revising mine for the big American Christian Fiction Writers contest. The deadline is the end of this month and it's coming fast!

When I lived in Ontario (trees) and Northern Alberta (sun until 11 pm and mountains), I didn't think I'd like the prairies, but now that I've been here over a dozen years, I've fallen in love with the landscape. Well, not the flat treeless part... but we have lots of hills and bush on our land...

Helena said...

Silver James, thank you for visiting today and adding your thoughts. I agree that there is a perspective gained through years, but I also think that younger writers nowadays have a depth of understanding and a sensitivity to issues that is marvellous. I don't think my generation was that perceptive at that age.

Thanks for the reference to the book. Sounds like something I would want to read.

Helena said...

Captain Hook, I am so impressed that you can turn your challenges into opportunities. And I thought I was busy with three children (less than five years apart). But how inspirational children can be, so you are right ... they can provide a lot of material for a writer.

My five grandchildren range in age from 5 to almost 20, tho they are in two families. I guess we would have some similar experiences to share. My 10 yr old g'daughter is crazy about horse stories, and I got really well-acquainted with Spiderman a few years ago with the boys.

Best wishes with the stories you write for children.

Helena said...

Hi Jana!
Good to hear from you today. I love to hear about the choices, or forks in the road, that other people have grappled with.

I like your notion that we get to where we are for a reason. Someone once said that there is no job (however menial or boring) that doesn't teach you something that will be useful some day. So I think we have to be grateful for everything that we experience along the way, whether boosts, nudges, or setbacks.

Thank you for the boost you have given me today with your comments.

Helena said...

Thank you, Anonymous Commenter. I'm glad you found something useful in my post. One thing I have found in the last few years of immersing myself in writing activities -- writers are so willing to share their knowledge and ideas. It has made me proud to call myself a writer.

Suse said...

Hey Helena, I'm very impressed with your first blog. You've lived an interesting life and have a lot to draw on for story ideas.

I believe we all have forks in the road that affect where we end up. Life is about choices and how we choose to react to the events and people in our lives. My favourite poem of all time is "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost. I've always believed that I have taken the road "less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

I think I use things from my life in my stories, but maybe more the essence of an event rather than an actual event.

I look forward to more of your blogs.

Helena said...

Thank you so much, Suse. You don't know how much I appreciate your opinion of my post.

I think you have put your finger on an underlying intention (tho it was fleeting, at best). The poem by Robert Frost is one of my favourites, too, and very apropos to today's theme.

"Essence of an event rather than an actual event" -- what a perfect way to describe the transformation of something you have experienced into a piece of writing, of any format.

All the best to you as you move forward on your writing path.

connie said...

Hazel,
WOW! what a great blog. You have me thinking about a number of things you mentioned. I am having some long thoughts on whether or not I agree with Rawlings. What I am, devloped from my childhood and I have been struggling to overcome it ever since. So what I am has determined the choices I made and how I regret some of them because I didn't think I was worthy.
I have had some incredible experiences in my lifetime and I keep getting 'aha moments' years and years after the event.I have met so many great people (and some real bummers)and been involved in such a range of organizations that I have a very deep well to draw on, thank goodness. I am also overloaded with bits of unconnected facts. I even know the name of Alexander the Great's horse. (Buccephelus)(sp?)and that the top speed of the Brant goose is 45 mph.
But am I reflected in my writing? I don't think so. I think I am there but so woven in even I couldn't find me. Although my lack of self confidence and self esteem is reflected in my not writing.
I crave adventures now that I am almost what I want to be and wish I had been in my 20s.
I am curious as to which hydroelectric project as most of those are in the east, especially where I come from (Niagara).
Your husband sounds wonderful, not to mention good at making the essential choice - you.
Again, what a great blog! I am looking forward to your next blog.
Connie

Hayley E. Lavik said...

What a lovely first post, Helena. Welcome to the Chicks. I'm replying a day late here, but I finally found some time, and wanted to make sure I stopped by to read and reply to your blog.

Your grand collection of life experiences sound marvelous. So many places visited, adventures had, and the entire gamut of emotions for you to draw on. I humbly acknowledge I am very new in that department. I don't think I would ever dare to write about childbirth and being a mother right now.. I simply cannot comprehend. I'd have to either experience it, or do some major interviewing to get a proper sense of it from others.

I really hope to get out and experience more in the years to come, now that I'm almost finished my degree. I've always wanted to travel, to see different places, and I'm glad to have had a few neat adventures on family vacations, but it's certainly not enough. I had actually been hoping on a travel scholarship which would allow me to visit England for experience, for folklore, and for historical research, but unfortunately it didn't pan through. I still hope to go though :)

In my own writing I absolutely draw from my life experiences and the places I've been. I feel very strongly that world-building in fantasy and the like is nothing without a strong base. That's not to say fantasy worlds must be based off real places, but I think it's the touches that come from personal experience that make a place truly believable.

From basing my focal kingdom off my home province, my character's hometown and other atmospheric elements from my childhood, and building folklore from the stories that captivate and intrigue me, I really try to draw on those personal aspects to make the story and the world feel unique. Without those personal touches to breath life into a fantasy work, it can easily feel like just another Lord of the Rings attempt, and hollow at the middle.

Hayley

Helena said...

Hayley, I found your ideas on building a fantasy world rather fascinating, since I've never thought I could sustain the creative energy necessary to do what you do. However, I had a hunch that it would require the same type of foundation as other fiction. And as other people have pointed out in response to my questions, and imbedded in my own intent, it isn't a question of facts and events as much as the "essence" (Suse's word) that "permeates" (my word) the fiction.

Believe me, you are racking up lots of invaluable life experiences as we speak. It doesn't happen overnight, but is cumulative and just happens layer by layer. It's called life! I do admire you for your adventurous spirit and your desire to seek out opportunities to travel, etc. It seems to me that you have already accomplished a lot, but I know it's hard to see that when you are in the middle of it. New things will keep arriving on your doorstep.

Forks in the road! I know you will make good choices.

Helena said...

Connie, I'm glad to see your comments. I have checked back a few times to see if the number of comments has changed. So, better late than never!

You've given me quite a bit to chew on. I can certainly relate to what you say about getting close to being the person you'd like to be. I keep thinking I may get there, too. It's never too late to take a different fork in the road.

Sounds like we could have a great chat some day over a cup of coffee!

Helena

Liz said...

What a great post! I really liked the story you told -- I especially like imagining myself in England at 18... I chose journalism myself but wonder about my own forks -- such as not going to law school, and choosing my first job over sticking it out in suburban CHicago and trying to find a job closer to the city. Decisions, decisions...

I just finished a book, "Flying into the Sun," by Ginger Blymyer. It's a romance kind of book, with a lot of spiritual growth and going where life takes you. What's interesting in the context of "forks in the road," is that this author ALSO wrote a book several years ago, "Hairdresser to the Stars," that was all about her life as a film hairstylist! Forks indeed...