Brand building through storytelling

I’m new to this game myself

I was waiting at the supermarket checkout on a rainy Friday night when the cashier started to lose it. She punched in the wrong price for someone’s microwave popcorn. Then she jabbed at the keys with increasingly desperate confusion while a long line of shoppers muttered and groaned. I thought of the bus I was missing and the sodden walk home I faced in my pointy-toed pumps, schlepping my two bags of groceries. All because this cashier couldn’t work the register! I looked at her. Tears welled in her eyes as she pleaded, “I’m sorry, folks. It’s just that…well, I’m new. This is my first day.”

Somewhere up front, a woman’s voice rang out. “It’s okay, hon. We’re all new sometimes and we all know how it feels.” In fact we’d forgotten—until one person spoke up. As murmurs of support set the line abuzz, I heard myself say, “I’m new at my job, too. Sometimes it’s overwhelming, the stuff I don’t know.”

I had just moved into the Editor’s office at Chatelaine. Unlike the cashier (and the vast majority of working people), I had a capable team to rely on for all of life’s little emergencies. Lost makeup bag? The beauty editor had a treasure box of product samples. Computer acting up? The tech guy was on his way. And so on.

But when it came to engaging the hearts and minds of three million women, I had many mysteries to unravel. I learned the hard way that readers wouldn’t sacrifice recipes for Very Important Stories, that they cringed at models with Kate Moss arms, and that nothing sinks a cover like a terribly clever visual joke understood by no one but its creators. I learned that what appeals to a certain set in downtown Toronto will have readers in Nanaimo and Fredericton rolling their eyes.

The strangers who sent me letters—annoyed or amused, bewildered or enchanted—became as vividly present to me as the shoppers in the checkout line. More so, in fact, because they spoke with such candour. Like the checkout clerk, I was sometimes moved to answer, “Please bear with me.” And they did.

In time I became what is known as “a veteran.” But I missed the tingling, slightly off-balance thrill of being new to my game. So I left and started over as a writer. I had taught other people to write sharply focused stories for magazines, but I didn’t have a clue what it meant to write a book that propels the reader from one chapter to the next. Where to begin?

At least nobody could see me struggle, rewriting one sentence 397 ways. Then again, nobody particularly cared whether I finished this book or not. That’s the humbling difference between creative work and a job, whether checking out groceries or running a magazine.

JuneBlogPhoto2I found a mentor, the late June Callwood, who had written a slew of elegantly crafted books while making this country a better place. She’d been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer when she took me to lunch at a posh restaurant. Over coffee, she gave me a word of advice: “Just pick a place and start. If you find you’re not getting anywhere, pick another place and start over.”

I used to think a mentor tells you what to do. In fact a mentor shows you where your own powers can take you. That’s what June did for me. She encouraged me to keep knocking on the closed doors of my untold story. Between cancer treatments, she sometimes e-mailed me a few lines that always seemed to arrive at just the right moment. I’ve never known a more modest person than June, who might be amazed that I drew such hope from her messages. But as Mother Teresaonce said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

Roger DaltreyI’m always looking for scraps of wisdom I can use, like a pioneer woman stitching a quilt from scraps of outworn clothes. I keep a file folder stuffed with tearsheets in which other people share their hard-won insights. When writing perplexed me, I liked to reread an interview with Roger Daltrey, lead singer of The Who and a lifelong student of the creative process. He compared making music to “pushing an elephant upstairs, but suddenly that elephant starts to run and it’s that fleeting moment that amazes me.”

That’s exactly how I felt when, after months of starting and restarting the book that became My Mother’s Daughter, the elephant started to run.

June died before she could read my book. Last weekend I spoke to a group of aspiring memoirists at the Humber Writers’ Circle, and I quoted her words to me, along with Roger Daltrey’s. It seemed only fair to admit that while I may be a published author, I’m still new to this game of writing books. And that’s as it should be. I don’t want to be a veteran. I’d rather struggle with that balky elephant, nudging the beast one step at a time to the foot of the stairs. Because one of these days, I’ll hear that improbably glorious thunder of four huge feet bringing down the house.

Posted by Rona

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