Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The first time I got paid for my writing

I have submitted my writing for publication in very random flurries of stamps and envelopes since my early 20’s and this is likely the reason I only got published twice in that decade.

As with many creative types I had a complex and convoluted relationship with getting my writing published which involved thinking it was not good enough, being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of writing to select my submissions from, choosing the right handful of publications (sometimes on a whim, sorry publishers) to submit to, and then sleeping in too late to mail anything off today or not having money for stamps. After my daughter, Morgan, was born the convoluted relationship had diapers, nap times and tantrums added to the roadblocks for why I couldn’t submit for publication today.
But one of my fitful flurries involved submitting a poem to the Descant-Winston Collins prize for Canada’s Best Poem in 2007 and hearing back in the frozen, white heart of the following January.

I was 35 years old and Morgan was two. I was doing translation from home for APTN news as a very unpredictably part-time gig. Morgan’s dad was working long hours getting a fledgling woodworking business off the ground. And we were living a relatively decent life in Montreal.

I got giddy pleasure from being told I had been short listed and left it at that. Even though I was invited to Toronto to watch the winners win I graciously declined and went back to cleaning up toys and reading picture books aloud.  

But the email exchange went on for several days;

“Are you sure you can’t come?”

“No. Have you done a six hour drive with a toddler?”

“We would really like it if you came. You’re actually on the short, short list”

“I suppose if I could afford to ride the train, I would go but I can’t afford the train.”

“Please come. We really, really want you to come. We will pay for the train fare.”

“Oh well, in that case…ok.”

By this time I got the hint that I might actually get to be on the podium, one of the lower steps, where the bronze winner stands or something. Or maybe beside the bronze winner, where I could smile graciously and get my picture taken with the winners.

So I took the train, arriving in Toronto with Morgan in tow, making the whole process of getting to the event at all an epic task that involved snowsuits and diaper bags and strollers, the wheels of which love to gather snow and ice, and snacks and mittens and and and. 

The event was quietly posh. Everyone in eveningwear and lightly holding the stems of their wine glasses as they nibbled the cheese on crackers. I tumble in, rosey-cheeked and breathless with a baby on my hip, the lady from Montreal they had to beg (in fact pay) to show up.

I won honourable mention and was asked to read my poem. I was there solo so I plopped Morgan on the floor in front of the little stage with its solitary mic and kept my eye fixed on her as I read, just to be sure she wouldn’t wonder off. In hind sight, if she had wandered or better yet start to cry, what would I have done? Finish the poem in a rush and dive off stage to retrieve her? Let her crawl under the snack table as I gracefully wrap up the poem? Blurt out “sorry” mid word, dive for the baby and then finish the poem with her again on my hip? I’m not sure. Each option seems very me.

They presented me with a cheque for $250, some flowers and a bottle of champagne. There was also a certificate, which I had forgotten about entirely. I forgot because the only part of the prize that mattered to me was the cheque. Not because I was broke (although it did come in handy that month) and not because I’m greedy. It mattered because it was the first time I got paid for my writing. This prize money symbolized to me that, because I had exchanged my writing for money, I could now legitimately call myself a professional writer.

Two other times since were similar milestones; my first paid published article and when I published my book of poetry. But those are stories for another time.