WHAT MAKES A WRITER, by Jay Forman
My father was a psychiatrist and he often told me that psychiatrist’s children are the most messed up people on the planet. He may have been right. Like every other writer I’ve been told “no” more times than I can count…and yet…I kept on doing the same thing over and over again — writing, submitting, getting rejections galore, writing some more, submitting…and isn’t that the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for different results?
I first caught the writing bug when I won a creative writing prize in Grade 3. I felt alive, at home in my skin, when I was writing and my teacher encouraged me to keep writing. She didn’t give my “Snowflakes” poem a prize though. Reading it now I can understand why. It needed several more centimetres of depth, but boy was it ever Canadian!
Snowflakes, snowflakes, all around
Snowflakes, snowflakes, falling on the ground
Snowflakes, snowflakes, not making any sound
Snowflakes, snowflakes, all around…
In Grade 5 our class read Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and Harriet became my inspiration for my aspiration. I copied Harriet and created my own neighbourhood spy route, riding my bicycle around every day after school, spying on neighbours, and writing down my observations in a notebook.
I entered high school dreaming that somehow, someway, I was going to be a writer. I put my heart and soul into a Grade 9 creative writing assignment and felt immense pride when I handed it in. I was barely a teenager at the time so I’m sure it was probably laden with teen angst. I wish I still had that assignment; I’d love to know what I wrote in it. I don’t have it because I burned it after my teacher handed it back to me with this comment written on the top page — “These pages aren’t even good enough to go on the roll beside my toilet”. I was devastated and resigned myself to accept the dire reality of what my über successful mother (an endocrinologist with enough letters after her name to fill an alphabet) had told me — I was expected to get a ‘real’ job. The guidance counsellor at my high school suggested that I should aim for a “junior secretarial position”, making it clear that a senior secretarial position was far beyond my reach — in her educated opinion.
I got stuck with the same English teacher in Grade 10, but the year wasn’t a total disaster. Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners was making a huge splash at the time and some of my classmates and I were assigned to write a term paper on it. I absolutely loved the book; it’s now revered as one of the classics of Canadian literature. When it was published it was considered controversial, which only added to my enjoyment of it (I had/have just a smidge of a rebellious streak in me), it also had more blasphemy in it than the usual high school required reading (my own dialogue, then and now, includes the occasional off-colour word — more so then than now), and it had some sex scenes that would be considered tame today but were called obscene at the time (my hormones were just firing up and sex was starting to seem pretty interesting to me — I’ve since confirmed that that interest was warranted). Someone in my group got in touch with Ms Laurence and she agreed to let us come to her home to interview her. I was so in awe of her that I couldn’t speak as we sat around her kitchen table. My classmates asked intelligent questions. Ms Laurence gave insightful answers. Before I knew it the interview was over and we were all standing up to say goodbye. As we were leaving Ms Laurence turned to me and asked me if I had any questions. I could only think of one — “Why do you write?” She smiled, said “only a writer would ask a question like that” and then asked my classmates to wait in the car. She was the first person I ever told of my intense desire to someday be a writer, that when I thought of other careers nothing else felt right. I felt safe telling her and my trust wasn’t misplaced. She encouraged me and even invited me to send her some of my work if I wanted to. I wanted to. And I did. She never thought that any of it wasn’t good enough to be wrapped around a roll beside her toilet. In fact, she strongly suggested the opposite — she told me I was a writer; that I had stories to tell. I wish I’d listened more carefully to her and believed her encouraging words more. But I didn’t. I spent another two years with the toilet roll English teacher and pushed the dream down. To be more accurate, I stomped on it until it was pulverized and flushed it out of my hopes.
Then came university. I started at the University of Toronto, studying political science and economics — my mother was thrilled. I quit in the first year — my mother was mortified,
especially when I told her that I’d be studying Radio & Television Arts at Ryerson University. I started to come alive again at Ryerson. I was free to be creative, not stuck dying of boredom
while studying gross domestic products. My media writing professor repeatedly told me that I should focus on my writing, not on mastering the board in the control room or the lights and cameras in the studio…but what did he know? He was just some old fart of a professor. (Who thoroughly enjoyed saying “I told you so” when I saw him shortly after my second book was published.)
After graduation I got a different kind of not ‘real’, but not as unreal as writing, job. My former high school guidance counsellor would have been shocked to learn that I ended up one or two rungs above “junior secretary” on the employment ladder – senior producer at a Canadian television production company. We shot in exciting places like Australia, South Africa, and the Caribbean. We drove cars off cliffs and blew things up. The hours were insane. The pay was good. Most of the people I worked with were characters in the extreme. But I knew it wasn’t enough for me. So I started writing again.
Then the rejection emails started to flood my Inbox; some were nice, others were downright rude. But I kept on going. I’m still going – two standalones and a three book mystery series later.
My mother died before my first mystery was published. When I was cleaning out her house I found my “Snowflakes” poem pinned to the bulletin board above the desk in her home office. Behind the degrees and fancy titles was a woman who had done the unthinkable – she went against the norm in the 1940s to become a doctor when women were expected to be housewives, and a mother who may have tried to talk her daughter into getting a ‘real’ job, but who quietly recognized that her daughter was a writer.
I’ve always been a writer. It’s who I am. And all of the ups and downs in my writing life have made me a better writer.
Or maybe I’m just a messed-up psychiatrist’s kid?
Either way, I’m fairly certain that spending my formative years sleeping over a bullet hole in the floor under my bed (a by-product of a kidnapping gone wrong) helped to inspire my murderous mindset. But that’s a story for another blog post…or manuscript.
Added bonus to writing mysteries: I can kill a high school English teacher without having to worry about going to prison.
Jay Forman’s latest book, Excess Baggage, the third in the Lee Smith Mysteries, is published in April by Level Best Books. Read more about Jay here.