How I turned my passion into a second profession
AMBITION: Teacher and Author
PROBABLE DESTINATION: Authorizing excuse slips.
These two sentences from the year book of my senior year of high school must have found a permanent place somewhere in the depths of my psyche to have a silent but very effective voice in mapping out my career, and prove to myself that I could not only authorize excuse slips, but I could also autograph my own book.
Ever since I can remember, there were two things I loved doing the most: teaching and writing. My first passion revealed itself when I became my sisters' teacher at about the same time I started school myself. Whatever I learned during the day was repeated to my sisters who were still at home.
My love of writing manifested itself in the form of story-telling, creating make-believe worlds, using our limited number of toys as actors in improvised plays with my sisters. It was an oral form of creating, not captured in writing until I would become more sophisticated. Eventually, my love of teaching and my enjoyment of literature combined to beckon me towards what would become my call: Teacher of English literature.
It is rare in this age for anyone to spend 25 years of one's career with the same company or the same school board in the same office or school, doing more or less the same job. Yet in an age of mobility, change, reinvention as much as I loved what I was doing, I did spend a quarter century of my life within the same building, the same class rooms, traversing the same halls whose slow demise paralleled mine. When one grows older with a structure, one does notice these things. Every room I taught in, every cabinet or window sill I decorated with plants, each little window that allowed me a peek to the outside world still owns a part of me.
While I was earning my living by teaching my students how to write, my inner writer was not dormant. I wrote poetry, short stories, submitted to competitions, attended writing workshops, joined writing associations, and lived in an alternate world that caused me grow more and more estranged from the confinements of the classroom and the monotony of my vocation. After two decades of pouring my heart and soul into it, pedagogy did not interest me any longer as it did. I started longing for a work life not regulated by bells and five minute recesses. I wanted to fill invoices for writing I completed; not discipline forms for despicable misconduct. I longed to sign my name at the end of an article; not on an excuse slip authorizing a student's tardiness.
It was the turn of the century and a turning point in my life too. I took two years' leave of absence and went to Newfoundland, where my then husband worked. I hoped I would find employment there and quit my teaching back in Montreal, but we all know about the best laid plans of mice and men.
While I was applying for different positions advertised in the paper, I also kept busy by volunteering at the provincial museum of archeology and history. The museum's education program offered schools hands-on learning experiences on their province's heritage. My teaching background and bilingualism helped to qualify me for docent volunteer, and after a week's training I was ready. I never missed a session, three mornings a week teaching all of the three different programs. It was more fun for me, because I saw it as a learning opportunity for myself. My devotion and enthusiasm did not escape the eye of the educational programs coordinator. At the end of the school year, I was named the museum's “volunteer of the year”, an honor I which still cherish.
My interest in photography and fascination by how children were involved in interactive learning led me to write a reflective piece about the program and its innovative impact on education. Then I sent a cold pitch to the editor of the provincial newspaper, The Telegram. He was interested! My piece was featured in the following week's Life Styles section. They paid extra if I provided the photos. That was in February, 2001. When I saw my name at the end of the front page long piece of the section with the words introducing me as “... a freelance writer who recently moved from Montreal.”, I almost cried with joy. Actually, I did.
I didn't know how a freelancer worked, how often I could submit a piece, whether that one was a strike of luck, yet what I had instinctively learned was that if I wrote well and wrote interest pieces about the local personalities and history, I had a chance of being published again. That's what I did during my stay in Newfoundland. I looked for a story in everything and everyone I came upon. Sometimes I tried to tell stories through a Montrealler's point of view. Other times, I found a Newfoundland connection in other places. One of my features, “Newfoundland Hospitality in Nova Scotia”, is about a historical B&B in Nova Scotia, run by a couple, originally from Newfoundland. Then I learned that the husband owns and flies his Tomahawk single engine plane. He took me on a thirty minute flight over Cape Breton, which gave rise to another piece, “Romancing Romeo”, about him, his plane, and the couple's plan of flying it to Newfoundland after tourist season to visit their family.
When I had to return to Montreal to honor my teaching contract, my heart was no longer in teaching English. I changed my discipline to teaching Consumer and Home Economics – although I really wanted to be a full time writer. Thus I kept my connection with The Telegram by seeking stories that would interest Newfoundlanders. One of my students, a skater, turned out to be the grand niece of a former federal cabinet minister from Newfoundland. Her family lived in St John's but sent her to school in Montreal, because we had the program which accommodated skaters training for championships. “A Jewel in the Crown” was my first piece submitted from Montreal.
While I was teaching housing, design, nutrition, and needlepoint to young people, I was also noticing how much they lacked in food education and common sense, yet they had so much creativity with their hands. This gave rise to the creation of a new direction in the course and subject matter for me to write and tie to my Newfoundland experiences. Knowing I was limited in topics from a distance, I started thinking hard and came up with the idea that if I wrote about food, I may have a longer “shelf life” as a freelancer from afar. I wrote tempting pieces and shared recipes with photos I took, for the Food and Drink section. I sought the weekly arts, readings, book launches, and other events happening in St John's, and contacted artists, painters, entrepreneurs, specialists by phone to interview them and submit a piece to the paper. I worked as long distance freelance writer on the side, while I taught and dreamed of getting out of teaching.
In the Spring of 2004 when I enrolled in a workshop on how to promote oneself as a freelance writer, I knew it was in feature writing that I had found my voice. That workshop marks an important step in reinventing myself by learning about and joining the Professional Writers' Association of Canada. By then I had published enough articles in different venues to meet the criteria to be accepted as a media card-carrying professional member.
Having my name in PWAC's list of Canadian writers opened up other opportunities for me. I started getting offers by editors who wanted to know if I'd like to write for them. Trade magazines paid much better than newspapers. Most of the assignments I received were out of town which meant I worked from home, conducting long distance phone interviews and submitted my work electronically. Initially this was a step beyond my comfort zone, and as with everything else in my life, I was reluctant to tread on uncharted territory. Then I remembered the words of my father every time I hesitated before a new venture. "Success belongs to those who go after it."
Seeing my pieces on glossy magazine pages, accompanied by the work of professional photographers, brought another level of satisfaction. In 2007 after consulting PWAC site and seeing that “food writing” is one of my areas of specialty, the on-line editor from New York offered me a contract to develop and test five new recipes for WeightWatchers™ .
I never made money hand over fist by my writing; my bread and butter always came from teaching. Yet when I look back over the last ten years, I realize how far I have come in a self developed second career as a writer, with over a hundred features in my name. Freelance writing has given me the ultimate satisfaction by fulfilling my dream of writing for a readership and doing so mostly on my own terms. It has provided me with the balance that a restrictive teaching life imposed on me for many years. On the other hand, teaching not only provided me with the means to live a decent lifestyle, but also with valuable insights and experiences about people, which I incorporated into my writing. While my writing itself is not lucrative, my teaching has granted me a basic pension to live on.
My advice? If you think it is worthy of considering my advice, here are a few points which helped me in reinventing myself as a freelance writer and author. View every life experience as a possible story and consider how you can connect it to experiences with which people can identify or from which they can learn. Network with like-minded people and expand your experience base. Be inquisitive.
Don't shy away from working for free and volunteering until you establish yourself. Volunteering is a great way to get in touch with people, hear their stories, share one's own, make contacts and get a perspective on a community and its people.
Be creative and try fitting occasions to your purpose without being overbearing. If you want to write a piece and pitch to an editor to consider for publication, ask yourself these questions:
A) What's my purpose in writing this? B) Why now? C) What's my message?
If your answers are relevant to the times and satisfy you beyond doubt, then you have something to share with readers. Next work on a hook, an angle to your piece - that's how you'll try to catch your editor.
Will of my Own - a Memoir, which I wrote and self-published in 2009 answers these three questions. Had making a fortune been my quest, I would not considerate it successful. I'm happy, however, from all the feedback I have received to date that my book has been a better success than I ever expected.
I used to be fascinated by women who "reinvented themselves" in their fifties and told their success stories on talk shows. I never thought one day I'd see myself in a similar situation - and I do not in all honesty. Still, when I look back at a career I chose years ago, I'm happy and fulfilled that the path I chose allowed me not only to authorize hundreds of excuse slips, but also to author many featured pieces as well as a book to tell my story. It took much hard work and determination to get here, but it was a passion well worth pursuing.
And that's what I, modestly, call my brilliant second career.
Füsun Atalay ~ Copyright © Will of my Own - 2011