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People would say, “You should write!” and then they’d turn to me and reiterate, “Really, your sister should be a writer.”
I’d smile at my sister, all the while seething with envy. She was the athletic one and now she was going to be a writer, too! Some people have all the luck.
There was no arguing the point about the talent that was simmering in her, though. Kim expressed ideas in a way that few others did: She was fierce, yet vulnerable and beyond-her-years witty.
Where my sister was innately ironic, I was irrepressibly hopeful and shamelessly precocious. I used to hold court on my mother’s pink velvet couch and give her friends relationship advice. I don’t remember what I said to them, exactly—I might have told one woman she should probably leave her husband—but their startled expressions at my clear-headedness gave me an even higher opinion of myself than I ought to have had.
Smart as I was, however, no one ever mistook me for a scribe in-the-making. People would usually say, “You should be a lawyer!” or “You should be a therapist!” And those were the labels that stuck, as labels tend to do.
I did write one memorable piece of creative non-fiction, though, as a youngster. The story itself wasn’t remarkable, but my mother’s reaction to it was unforgettable: She found it uncomfortably revealing. Even then I’d been dabbling with what has become my signature confessional style and, not surprisingly, it rankled my mother.
I made a mental note to never do that again and surrendered my pen. Case closed. From there on out it was, “Pull up a piece of couch, folks, and I’ll help you solve your problems!”
Anyway, I was happy enough to be a young barrister/therapist with a bright future whose sister was a writer. Happy, of course, until about 20 years later when I heard:
“Who in the hell wrote this?”
The moment lives in my mind’s eye as a 3-panel cartoon strip, with speech bubbles and everything. My boss was talking to a colleague, he hadn’t seen me come back in the room, and his reaction to the page in front of him, that I had written, was terrifyingly ambiguous.
There had been some confusion that day and the donor profile he needed wasn’t ready and I was asked to find out everything possible about a particular V.I.P. in the next 30 minutes and write a report. I Googled and wrote and there wasn’t much time for editing. I wasn’t sure if the briefing was to be strictly informative so I snuck in a few entertaining bits, thinking, Why not give him a good read?
Anyway, writing donor profiles wasn’t my forte. The job at the Art Gallery of Ontario, as advertised, was “Executive Assistant” but, in practice, it was more like gopher-in-a-suit (so much for law or psychotherapy.) I spent much of my time running through the streets of Toronto in stiletto heels filling exotic food and beverage orders for international celebrities.
I never did get an answer as to whether or not my boss liked the report. But, good or bad, my ability to communicate through the written word had caught his attention. As an unapologetic practitioner of extravagant hope, I filed it away as a glass-is-half-full experience.
Then, one day, still at the AGO, where creativity goes to be unleashed (quite literally in my case), a really funny thing happened on my way to lunch. I had brought a can of tuna to work only to discover that the can opener had disappeared. In addition to procuring Frank Gehry’s egg-white omelettes and Diet Dr. Pepper, I was also responsible for taking care of the staff kitchen, so low was my position on the food chain.
Instead of sending out yet another gallery-wide email excoriation, “Return the can opener or die!” I decided to go in a different direction and wrote a wildly satirical mock review of a contemporary art exhibition called “Can!” or “Tuna!”—I don’t remember which. It even included a make-believe interview with me—the artist—about the greater social and political statements I was making by exhibiting the can on its own with no opener.
I used lots of arty verbiage: “nihilism,” “existentialism” and “isolation.” Having announced that the limited-run exhibition would be installed in the Director’s office until the can opener could be found I cleaned off my desk, set the canned fish on the edge of it and waited for visitors.
About an hour later, someone—a V.I.P. who shall remain nameless—stopped by my desk and said: “You should write!”
Out of force of habit I glanced over my shoulder to look for my sister, but she was nowhere to be seen.
“Yeah,” I thought to myself, “I should probably give it a try.”