Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

In the beginning...

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By Dennis McCloskey

“Find a job you love and you will never work a day in your life.”

How many times have you heard this claptrap? I’ve even heard myself blabbering this twaddle from time to time. I mean well. In theory it’s a lovely truth but in practice it’s a lie because no matter your calling in life, if you do a good job at it—and anything worth doing is worth doing well—it’s work, no matter how much you love doing it.

I once met Xaviera Hollander (former call girl, madam and author of “The Happy Hooker”) at the Holiday Inn, in Belleville, Ontario, and she told me that she enjoyed her profession immensely but even being a madam was hard work that required business acumen and discipline. Oh come on! I didn’t meet her THAT way!!! I was President of the Toronto Chapter of International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and the famous author/prostitute had been hired as an after-dinner speaker at IABCs national convention. She spoke about Communication. To a group of professional communicators!

Communicating is in my blood. At least, the written kind. I was born in a log cabin that I built myself, and I knew as a young sapling that I wanted to earn a living as a writer one day. Okay, so the first part’s a stretch (nothing gets by you people!) but the second bit is the naked truth. I was reading aloud the headlines in the daily newspaper at age six; and at age 13 I cried when I heard that an old, dying man’s only regret in life was that he never got his name in the paper. I vowed that I’d work at a job one day that got peoples’ names in the paper. I studied Journalism at Ryerson University in the 1970s and my written words have been putting bread on the table ever since. The good kind: Twelve grain harvest bread made from nature’s best wheat, oats, and barley. At age 60, I’m still feeling my oats and not ready to be put out to writers’ pasture. Not by a long shot. And if I had to do it all over again, I would not change a single signpost along my career path.

People are always coming up to me and asking how I got to be a fulltime freelance writer. In fact, so many people come up to me that people come up to me and ask if it’s true that people come up to me and ask how I got to be a fulltime freelance writer. Okay, I’ll be serious! When I graduated from Ryerson, my dream (and goal) was to become an independent journalist/writer. I worked briefly in daily journalism and for a decade in corporate journalism which I still do to help pay for condiments that go between the bread. But one day, rather suddenly, I became a fulltime freelance writer. I am always looking for signs or omens and the biggest and most significant sign of my life occurred on a bitterly cold day in Toronto, in November, 1980. I caught what I like to call “a straw in the wind” that day. Here’s my story and I’m sticking to it:

I was employed as Corporate Editor of Canadian General Electric’s national employee magazine, CGE Progress, and it was a great job. Except for one thing: I wanted desperately to go out on my own, to become a freelance writer. But I was afraid. It was a big move to take; a financial risk. My heart was troubled. So, on a November Thursday just before noon I left my downtown Toronto high rise office building in the Commerce Court North building. I walked east on King Street to Yonge Street and headed north. My destination was St. Michael’s Cathedral at Bond and Shuter Streets where I would attend the 12:10 p.m. Mass to seek solace and quiet from the downtown traffic and noise, and contemplate my future. As I walked along the east side of Yonge and leaned against the cold wind, a tall, thin, shabbily dressed and bearded man thrust something into my hand. I did not break stride and I paid little attention to him because street vendors commonly handed out advertisements along busy downtown streets. I placed what appeared to be a miniature booklet into my pocket, smiled and thanked him.

I attended the Mass and reflected on my growing despair about whether or not to quit my job, spread my wings and fly on my own. When the service ended, I was the last of a small group of people to leave the church. I stood on the steps of the aged and enduring basilica and reached into my pocket for my gloves, to ward off the chill. My right hand fell upon the booklet that had been handed to me by the stranger on Yonge Street. I retrieved it from my pocket. It was a tiny, red-covered booklet that measured approximately one inch by two inches. Inside was a single page with a message in small, black type: “Let not your heart be troubled and neither let it be afraid.”

The advice in the little red booklet changed my life. I saw it as an omen.

I returned to the office and sat at my desk for a few moments. Then, I got up, put on my coat and went home. There, I mixed a Rusty Nail (scotch and Drambui) and thought of my actions and my future. By the time my wife, Kris, returned home from her teaching job that afternoon, I had called my boss to say that I would not be returning to work. He was very understanding. I had decided to become an independent, freelance writer.

Eight working days after that fateful meeting with the bearded stranger on Yonge Street, I received my first assignment as a self-employed writer. On the morning of December 3, I phoned the Toronto Star from my new desk—the kitchen counter. I spoke to Features Editor Mike Walton. I told him that I was a freelance writer and I had a story idea he might be interested in. I said I’d like to write an article titled: “101 Free Things to do in Toronto this Winter.” Mike said if I could find 101 free things to do in Toronto anytime, he’d pay me $250 for such an article.

I was in business.

On January 11, 1981, a full-page article on “101 Free Activities for Winter” was published in The Sunday Star. I am forever indebted to Mike Walton for taking a chance on an unknown freelance journalist. Regrettably, he died on January 31, 1991, at the age of 44, following a year-long battle with cancer. I will never forget what he did for me and my writing career.

3 comments

Hi snickerzmom,
Thanks for your comments about my blogs. I am so glad that you have found them inspiring. I like your comment that there is a book in you. Reminds me of a cartoon that shows a doctor looking intently at a man's stomach X-ray, and the doctor exclaims: "My God! There really IS a book inside you!"
My advice to you is to never, never, never, never, never, give up on your dream to write and publish a book. I didn't mention this in my blog about "rejection" but I often think of the guy who sent his children's manuscript to 27 publishers before it was accepted by Vanguard Press in 1937. Theodor S. Geisel's book was titled "Mulberry Street" and he went on to become a very successful writer, selling more than 100 million copies in 18 languages before he died in 1992. If you don't recognize his name, I'm sure you've heard of the name he wrote under: Dr. Seuss!

Wow! That is right up there with Colonel Saunders' tenacity!

I would love to read a blog about how you get yourself settled down to write. Do you make it a habit? Every day at the same time? Do you have a process? It would be interesting to know, and might be helpful for others as well.

Again, thanks for your blog. It has been great fun to read!

Thank you for your article. I am presently between jobs and trying to figure out a direction to go in. Friends keep telling me (and I keep being haunted by the thought) that there is a book in me that needs to get out. What scares me is some of the fun feedback I received on my writing back in university.

Let's just say that the topic of one of my essays was banned by my professor the following year, and for good cause, even I fell asleep while I proofed it. After that experience, and a few others, I had my brother edit my work and was astounded at the improvement a couple of small changes could make to the tone and readability of my writing!

Keep up the great work, I have been find your articles to be very inspiring - and for me - timely!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dennis McCloskey

Dennis McCloskey is a journalist and editor and the author of numerous books. Several hundred of his human interest and business articles have appeared in over sixty-five newspapers, magazines and corporate newsletters in Canada, the US and Europe. His latest book, My Favorite American, is published by General Store Publishing House.

Go to Dennis McCloskey ’s Author Page