Brand building through storytelling

A life history of my goals

CoopIt’s been exactly 40 years this month since I first came to Toronto from New Hampshire and moved into a lime-green room under the eaves of an Edwardian house at 596 Spadina Avenue, which had once been imposing, but by that time was tended by the feckless crew of students who lived there in the genially ramshackle empire of Campus Co-operative Residences. We co-op members all had chores—in my case, languidly pushing a broom while thinking of Friday night’s beer bash (beer always flowed freely on weekends, although drugs soon gave Molson’s a run for its money).

I liked the anything-goes spirit of the place. After the geekish solitude of high school, where my hair was never right and boys disdained me (but perhaps not quite as much as I disdained them), I was popular enough that I rarely had to pay for my own altered states. As far as my parents were aware, back home in the stately white colonial full of teak imported from Denmark, I had come to Toronto to study. In fact my goal was to experience teen sex—and with it what seemed to me the full glory of the 60s—while I still could. In October I would turn 19. That gave me a year to raise my small facsimile of hell. If you’d asked me at the time, I’d have said I was enjoying myself, although my old journals tell a different story. I couldn’t really cut it as a hedonist; I would have to aim a little higher.

Every goal is a beginning, and September is the month of beginnings–of new classmates, new clothes and shiny new notebooks. Every goal contains its own ending, too: you either achieve it or you don’t, and then it’s on to the next. The story of my goals is the story of my life so far. A few snapshots from my mental album:

Age 6 At last the power of reading will be mine to control. I can’t conceive of a more thrilling prospect. Before I know it, I’m in trouble at school because I love reading too much. Frustrated when my classmates read aloud too slowly, I flip through the book to see how the story ends. Everyone stares as the teacher puts a rubber band on my book to keep me from turning the pages. Oh, well. When I go home, I can read whatever I want.

Age 11 When I win the National Spelling Bee, all the kids will want to be my friend. I never go anywhere without the fistful of obscure words I’m determined to memorize. I even spell at the dinner table. Appallingly, I’m knocked off the lowest rung of the ladder to Washington—my class bee. I go home sobbing, but I never again misspell “possessed.”

Age 17 Please, please, let me get into Radcliffe so I can hang out in Harvard Square with poets and philosophers! In my mind, I’m already there and have decked out my room with oversize paper flowers in orange and pink. Radcliffe turns me down, along with my second, third and fourth choices. The finest schools in the entire Northeast have all said I’m not up to their standards, so I end up at the University of Toronto, little dreaming I’ll make my home and career in this city.

Age 26 I need a job and magazine editing sounds fun. I write to Doris Anderson at Chatelaine, which I’ve never deigned to read until now. To prove that Chatelaine needs me, I begin my letter with a list of all the stylistic gaffes and grammar mistakes in the current issue. Doris graciously sees me anyway, and suggests that I call the editor of Miss Chatelaine, who gives me first break. It never occurs to me that I should write a thank you note to Doris.

Age 40 (let’s cut to the chase) I’ve been writing for magazines at home, and now every story feels the same. The magazine I write for most often is Chatelaine. I’ve come to know the readers, and they know me. One of these days, Chatelaine will need a new editor. Why not me?

Age 44 After serving an apprenticeship at Chatelaine, I am named editor. I fall rapturously in love with my job, yet somehow I know it’s just one chapter of my life. I tell everyone who’ll listen that I plan to stay for 10 years. No one believes me. How can anyone leave a dream job?

Age 54 My 10 years are up (to be honest, I’ve been restless for a while). Off I go to find a new challenge. And what would that be? I start writing a book of random reflections on my life. When people ask what my book is about, I change the subject.

Age 56 I hold my book, My Mother’s Daughter, in my hands, with Alice Munro’s endorsement on the cover. It’s not the book I thought I would write. It tells a story: how I became my own woman because of—and in spite of—the proud, angry, captivating woman who formed me. Friends ask if I’m excited, but that’s not quite the word that comes to mind. “I’m a better writer than I thought,” I say.

Age 58 (for a few more weeks) Now the question I keep hearing is this: “Are you working on another book?” No, and I’m not in any hurry. My first book, which entailed more time, struggle and setbacks than I could possibly have guessed, taught me the importance of believing in a book (or any big creative project). It’s belief that keeps you going through a long, hard haul. And the love. So I’m keeping my eyes open for something else I can believe in and love. I’ll know my next goal when I see it. And meanwhile I’ll be here, writing to you.


Posted by Rona

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