How I became a storyteller
I grew up in a big white house in New Hampshire, where the state motto is “Live free or die” and I was known in the local accent as “Roner Maynud.” I wished I could have a normal name, like Susan, but nothing in our family was normal. My parents, both Canadian, didn’t even have a vote, let alone a station wagon or wall-to-wall broadloom. Other kids thought we all “talked funny.”
Upstairs in my room, I would lie on my green satin bedspread (which seemed fit for an English manor although it actually came from a rummage sale) and tell myself stories while time disappeared. My stories were a world that I ruled—a world of magic, intrigue and adventure. If my heroine wasn’t doing battle with demons, she was being rescued from a burning wagon train by a stout-hearted Indian prince.
I dreamed up so many thrilling tales that I couldn’t write down more than half of them. What a waste, I used to think. Surely magic, intrigue and adventure were the essence of a story worth reading.
Downstairs in the kitchen, another kind of story unfolded over coffee and homemade date nut bread. My mother would listen and advise while a friend shared her latest drama.
There was Marion, who had lovers instead of a husband and who traveled all over Europe in her high heels and tight skirts. Once on a train, a Frenchman put his arms around her waist and murmured, “Faisons-nous un petit plaisir...”
There was our neighbour, Claire. She was getting something called a divorce, which I thought must be a fancy new appliance until my mother’s grave expression set me straight.
There was Joan, who seemed terribly sophisticated with her art school diploma and beguiling English accent, although she never traveled anywhere without packing her childhood teddy bear.
These stories were the keyhole through which I observed adult life. Grownups, I observed, had a carefully composed public self and a rebellious private one that kept secrets best confined to intimate female spaces like my mother’s kitchen.
As far as I could tell, it was only grownup women who shared secrets. I found their exchange more intriguing than my father’s talk about departmental meetings at the state university (where hardly any women taught in those days, the 50s and 60s). But the lives of real adult women couldn’t possibly compare to the lives I invented in my room, and dreamed of writing down someday. It never crossed my mind that everyday hopes, regrets and yearnings might be worth writing about.
I vowed to stick with demons and Indian princes. They served me just as well at school as they did on my green satin bedspread. I couldn’t hit a softball or land invitations to the best birthday parties, but I could tell stories that mesmerized my classmates.
Stories rescued me from the bullying of bigger girls who would encircle me daily on the playground and ask mean questions like “Why don’t you have any friends?” Those girls liked my stories as much as the other kids—so much that I thought they might want to be my friend. Instead they found another kid to pester. And I missed them. That hurt more than the bullying had.
At 12 I won my first award in the Scholastic Magazines writing competition for students. My parents were alarmingly delighted. Now I’d have to repeat this victory. I did, over and over, but the more awards I won, the less I enjoyed inventing stories. What began as pure pleasure, and a way of connecting with my peers, had become an obligation.
Stories remained my language, and that I couldn’t change. What changed as I grew up was my focus, from stories I made up to stories that really happened.
It’s no accident that I became a journalist. I wanted to listen to people’s private selves, as I’d learned to do in childhood. Most of those people were women, because women understand that what the average man might dismiss as “gossip” or “trivia” is in fact the study of human nature and human possibility. I over-researched every article, filling my notebook with stories that had nothing to do with the topic at hand but were simply too compelling to ignore.
I remember sitting in a sidewalk café with a lawyer who exuded confidence and style. She crisply dispatched my topic—the range of career paths open to lawyers—and then got around to her life. An immigrant from a Caribbean island, she had married young and invested all her energies in making a home. Then, with a teenage daughter, she was forced to start over. Her husband left her for another woman, so she set her sights on a law career. Within weeks of her acceptance to law school, she faced more bad news: a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. First term would coincide with her radiation treatments.
When it comes to survival rates, ovarian cancer is among the worst. Yet there she was, radiant in a white sheath dress that set off her black skin. I asked what seemed to be the obvious question. How had she marshaled the energy for law school? Did it never cross her mind that she might not live to be a lawyer?
“Of course it did,” she said. “But I decided that if I had to die, I wanted to die in law school.”
While I mulled that over, she asked me a question. “How old do you think I am?” Thirty-seven, I guessed. Forty, tops. I’ll never forget her triumphant smile. “Fifty-two,” she said. It wasn’t me she’d outwitted, it was death and discouragement.
None of this was part of the article I wrote. It wasn’t what the editors wanted. But it was what I needed to hear. When I met the woman in white, I was struggling with depression. Before I fell asleep, I would think of her. I’d tell myself, “If she can find meaning and purpose in her life, then surely I can do the same thing in mine.”
I had just discovered the power of one person’s hard-won truth. In my reporting years, the 80s and early 90s, I must have made that discovery dozens of times. My interview subjects ranged from the bejeweled queen of residential real estate to a woman who had nearly lost her baby to the child welfare system before turning her life around. They seemed so different from me on the surface, yet their stories shone light on my own.
I became enthralled by the dramas of ordinary life—provided they weren’t my own dramas. To write about myself seemed the height of self-indulgence.Then an old friend and mentor, Keitha McLean, became Editor of an innovative little magazine called Pathways. Its readers were “working on themselves,” as she put it, her smile both wry and deeply sympathetic. They were mostly recovering addicts, like Keitha (whose alcoholism had nearly derailed her journalism career) or family members of addicts, like me (daughter of an alcoholic father and sometime member of an Al-Anon group). They were looking for inspiration, and Keitha chose me to provide it in a first-person column. When I doubted that anyone would care about the details of my life, she gently urged me forward. She once told me, “I can’t wait to read what you’re going to say next.”
She didn’t explicitly say that one person’s story, authentically told, is other people’s story, too. But that’s what I learned from our work on Pathways.
Pathways died too soon. So did Keitha, of cancer, not long after I began editing Chatelaine. When I sat down to write my monthly editorial and found myself groping for words, I would hear her voice in my head. Then the next thought would come to me.
I wrote about things that had once seemed too small to capture on a magazine page—everyday pleasures like walking to work while my neighbourhood came to life, and everyday triumphs like keeping a lunch date with a friend despite a slew of reasons to cancel. These are the things that root me in the world and challenge me look after my corner of it. My readers might have chosen other things, which their letters described in loving detail. The point of these letters was not what to celebrate, but the necessary joy of celebration.
In my parents’ big white house, I grew up with an acute sense of difference. Through storytelling, I discovered how much we all have in common. The great adventure is not about magic spells or escapes from burning wagons, as I used to believe long ago. It’s about creating meaning in this fragile and dangerous world that’s the only one we’ve got. And we’re all in it together.