Boni Wagner-Stafford, Guest Contributor

On Being a Writer

Remember the days when being a “writer” seemed to be awe-inspiring, the claim of the rich and famous?

“Oh, you’re a writer?” Oohs, and aahhs, saliva dripping from gaping mouths.

Well, the world has certainly changed.

I remember reading the news on both radio and TV in my first paid journalism job in the late 1980’s at CKPG in Prince George, B.C. Every day, it seemed, there were stories on the wire, and hence in my newscasts, of both accolades and outrage for Brian Mulroney’s Free Trade Agreement. I understood the notion that globalization was inevitable and our lives would be better if we embraced the concept.

However, as a freelance writer today, globalization and internet technology combined haven’t been good for my bottom line.  It means me and the guy in India, or Pakistan, or the Phillipines, are all competing for the same writing jobs. Only they charge $5 per hour and my rate is $75.

I’m a long way from the days of getting paid by an employer to write stories for the news. I was no six-figure reporter but I was a healthy five. [My six figures came later, leading strategic communications and media relations teams in government communications. But I digress.]  Fifteen years as a journalist, eleven in government communications, and a smattering in between of entrepreneurial endeavours, and I’ve amassed a healthy cache of experience. Wouldn’t you say?

I’ve always been a writer at heart.  My writing disappointments came early, too. When I was in grade five in Port Hardy, I remember my excitement at getting a writing assignment in class. “Write about whatever you want!” I recall my teacher saying.

There were requirements for the assignment but I was already in my own world planning my plot. I believe I have a touch of ADD, so I hear the beginning, my brain races around during the middle, and I might pop back for the end, supposedly clear on what I was to do. I often miss something important .

I went away happy and enthused. Big into the Nancy Drew mystery series at the time, I thought it was PERFECT that I take the Nancy Drew characters and develop my OWN mystery. Seized with purpose, I dreamed about my plot, planned the intrigue, agonized over the dialogue, and ultimately produced a story that I was oh-so-proud of. It was really good.

But my little writer’s ego was soon crushed. On reviewing my assignment, my teacher said my story didn’t qualify. The assignment was to come up with a story completely original, characters and all. I got a zero. A fail. And, this news was delivered in front of the entire class.

I took my writing into a much more private place for the remainder of my time in school. I wrote poetry, lines of thought, and philosophized narratives about the meaning of life, as only a teenager can, sharing with no one – or at least very few.

By my mid-twenties I was hell-bent on writing for television. ‘Entertainment would be nice’, I thought. ‘Maybe I’ll write and produce music videos, wouldn’t that be cool?’ Instead, I found myself on the side of Highway 97 North outside of Prince George, staring at the wreckage of a head-on collision between a fully-loaded logging truck and a propane-powered minivan that had been carrying a high-school boys’ basketball team from Dawson Creek.  There were bodies and logs strewn across a wide swath of highway. My cameraman and I got there early enough that we watched as police laid yellow tarps like daisies on a graveyard.

I was traumatized by that scene.

Of all the thousands upon thousands of stories I covered, in my fifteen years as a reporter, no image has stayed with me as clearly.

But my passion for telling stories won over my trauma, as I told myself there was purpose in sharing this gore. That it might help someone else avoid a similar fate.

There I was telling other traumatized people, witnesses, survivors, families, “Your interview with me on camera, now, will make the world better for someone else.” That is the compartment that made this work worthy, as appalled as I was by the life event I was turning into a story.

I learned a lot about journalism in my five years in Prince George. My work started to win awards, and I no longer seemed to be so affected by crime or death.

When I secured my second journalism job I thought I’d won the literary lottery: Alberta Legislature Bureau Chief.

It was the heyday of the Ralph Klein era. He’d just been elected Alberta’s twelfth premier, and boy, was it fun. I didn’t have a clue how to break stories out of the legislature, no idea where to find those little brown envelopes my bosses seemed to want me to find, but at first I didn’t need to. King Ralph was wrestling the deficit devil, cutting jobs and public sector salaries and I led newscasts four out of five days a week with stories either about Ralph, or about the people outraged because he was actually doing what he said he was going to do when they elected him.

Pretty soon the political landscape settled down, and the drive for delivering television news content that people were interested in caught me in its vacuum. Weather stories (granted Alberta is a great place for weather), animal stories, and even better when you can combine weather stories with animal stories. Like the time I covered a Canada goose that was stuck, frozen in the early glass-like ice solidifying atop a pond, unable to join its mates on its migration south. Top story on ITV News at Six!

They were easy stories, fun stories, but I was bored. I was also, frankly, alarmed that this “demand” for fluffy news was usurping what I believed was more important news. News about government and the decisions being made that were affecting our lives. But little ol’ me? No match for the big, hungry wheels of ratings and revenue.

Anxious for more meaningful reporting, I spent a few years in Vancouver, working for the upstart Vancouver Television, CBC Radio, CBC Television and the Discovery Channel. Nothing set me on fire the way the legislature beat did, and I lost my edge. My son was growing up, I got remarried, and what once had seemed impossible happened. I wanted out.

I found my government fix in Ontario, and man, I had as much fun during my five years inside the Ontario Ministry of Finance as I did covering Ralph Klein. I learned how much the media is manipulated, without knowing it, and I learned that the world is a much bigger place than my conflict-centric black and white journalism view would ever permit.

If ever I thought the cursory review of my scripts by the assignment editor or executive producer was cumbersome, I knew nothing. I helped shepherd more than twenty-five versions of a budget speech through layers and layers of bureaucratic experts. Here was my surprise: every edit, every desk, every analyst and every assistant deputy minister added value. Hmmpf.

History repeated itself for me, in a way, with my second five years in government not nearly as interesting as the first. Add in a little health issue, a more senior role including the management of people in a unionized shop and the rotating door of political staff, and I realized I’d once again walked away from my core purpose.

Writing.

In what many might say – in fact many have – is a crazy move, I quit my cushy government job, with its six-figure salary, awesome health benefits, and pension. I wanted more outside time and less traffic. More peace and fewer urgent after-hours blackberry messages. More fulfilling, less race. I’d been skirting the issue of wanting to be a writer, my own writer, since that day in grade five, but afraid that I’d miss the middle and get caught out as a fraud. It was time to come back to me.

So here I am, with my husband and our two cats aboard the 40’ sailboat we bought nearly a year ago, living in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. We have no property, no “stuff” to speak of back home in Canada, no investments, and I’m writing. A lot. For some of it I even get paid. And that’s important, because if I don’t get paid, we don’t eat.

I apply for a lot of jobs online, knowing I’m competing with the MBA from Botswana, and every now and again I land one.  When I remember that I’ve now got clients in far-flung places like Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton, South Africa, Denmark, Australia, and the United States, it makes me smile despite my hire rate.

I’m getting hired just enough to keep me going on my book projects. I’m writing one about fibromyalgia, an autoimmune disorder that I share with between 3 and 6% of the world’s population. My husband John and I are writing one about the steps we took to make this radical move, and I have ideas for several others.

Today, no one is particularly impressed when I respond to their queries that I’m a writer. Most of the people I meet are also writers, writing their blogs to keep family and friends abreast of their cruising life. And I am living proof that it is not necessarily a profession to choose if you want to make it rich. But I am living authentically, spending more time outdoors, in the water, and going to new places all the time.

And it feels right. To be a writer.

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1 Comment

  • Reply TK October 19, 2016 at 8:38 pm

    My dad was the first person on scene of that accident all those years ago. It haunted him for the rest of his days. So strange to hear someone talk about it all these years later.

    Congratulations on all your success since your PG days.

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