Recently I had two pieces of writing accepted and published. Neither was brilliant, nor will likely last in the minds of readers after the next issue, but someone is trying to pay me for my words. It’s not a lot of money, but that doesn’t matter. The point is that someone is trying to pay me for that which I’ve always given away.
Some people would jump up and down and consider it a sign of a budding career, a payback for a nurtured dream, but for me, it meant something different. As best I can, I’ll try to explain my reaction.
Many years ago, while attending my first writing course at a community college, one of the assignments was to write an essay of less than five hundred words about a place we’d visited and what it meant to the writer. I wrote about Venice. I described the opulent upper floors of the buildings we passed as I rode the ferry down the Grand Canal. I made a point of talking about the foundations that were rotting below water after five hundred years of being submerged, while the people upstairs were filling their lives with accessories to impress the travellers who could only dream about living in one of the canal-side mansions.
When I finished reading this to the class—a most detestable part of the course, this ego driven use of time—the instructor stopped the flow and screamed at me—literally, she screamed.
She told me to quit my day job and decide—she emphasized the word decide--to be a writer. She went on to tell me that she raised four children on money she earned from writing.
“Until you put it all on the line, you’ll never know how good you are.”
Its not that I’ve never been paid before, I have, but I’ve never held the check in my hands.
The first time I was asked to write a letter to the editor for a very dear friend who was dying of ovarian cancer. She wanted to thank her employer for his support for her during treatments that caused prolonged absences from her work. The company she worked for had a reputation for its severity in treating its employees with harsh repercussions for any shift from company policy. She wanted to dispel any negative opinions about their reputation and asked me to write a letter to the editor of a well-read trade magazine.
I hated her company—with a passion and I had every reason for my feelings. But, my friend asked me to do it and I did.
I listened as she poured her heart out about every kindness they’d extended and then I translated it into a written letter to the editor. When it was published, the reaction from the industry was immediate and intense. The owners got phone calls from customers who apologized and said they’d misjudged their policies and pledged their support in future business dealings.
When she could no longer work--long after her disability insurance ran out, the company continued to pay her salary—at full pop. When she died, the company chartered a bus and allowed employees to attend her funeral, covering their salaries for the time out of the office.
Most people who knew my friend well, questioned her ability to author the letter, but it was signed by her and reflected every emotion she expressed to me on that painful afternoon when we sat together .I honoured my friend and while my writing never resulted in a royalty cheque and I never—not ever—admitted any participation in her words, I got paid. Sometimes words can be squandered and occasionally they will earn dignity.
Even now, many years later, I knew the teacher who told me I was a writer couldn’t make me believe that my words had any value, but Ivana did, and her legacy to me was the knowledge that sometimes words can make a difference.
ESSAYS BY INGRID THOMSON