How I got my longest writing gig, why I kept it and what I learned

As often hap­pens, I found the answer to my prob­lem in a book. I’d recently moved and couldn’t find a job. The heroine in the nov­el I was read­ing faced sim­il­ar cir­cum­stances and solved her dilemma by tak­ing in laun­dry.

Domestic chores rank near the one mil­lion mark on my list of fun things to do. But, in the pre-com­puter days of 1989, there was a sur­pris­ing need – and luc­rat­ive pay­off – for people who knew their way around a key­board. So I decided to take in typ­ing.

The first step in my self-employ­ment plan was to call the Comox Valley Record to place an ad. But instead of reach­ing clas­si­fieds, my call was dir­ec­ted to the edit­or. I’d freel­anced for Bruce Winfield when he was edit­or at the North Island Gazette in Port Hardy. We struck up a con­ver­sa­tion and he invited me to cov­er arts and enter­tain­ment for the paper.

I had no idea the freel­ance gig would last more than a quarter cen­tury and involve writ­ing more than 720,000 words in approx­im­ately 1,200 art­icles — the equi­val­ent of 10 books.

It wasn’t always easy. The first obstacle was to over­come my some­times pain­ful shy­ness. But I can now ask any­one any­thing and am always sur­prised at what they’re will­ing to tell me. If I had $1 for every time I heard, “Don’t put this in the paper…,” I’d be a wealthy woman.

Older inter­viewees were sur­prised I was so young and young inter­viewees were sur­prised I was so old. I spoke to people who were sick, dying or rid­ing high on their first glim­mer of suc­cess. I learned to ask ques­tions and really listen, how to take notes in a dark theatre and to always have three pens in my purse just in case.

I learned how to sniff paint­ings when it’s dif­fi­cult to determ­ine if they’re oil or acryl­ic, was fed Gut-Buster Cookies and dis­covered that a sur­pris­ingly high per­cent­age of comedi­ans are cranky off­stage.

There were some dodgy moments. Most inter­views took place in the person’s home or stu­dio and more than once I doubted the wis­dom of being alone with them. For a month I was stalked by a men­tally unstable artist and twice a man fol­lowed me out of the com­munity theatre mut­ter­ing obscen­it­ies and hint­ing  at what we could do if alone.

But most of the time cov­er­ing arts for the Record was so much fun I couldn’t believe I was get­ting paid to do it. My appre­ci­ation for the cre­at­ive pro­cess and the people who prac­tise it increased immensely and I con­tin­ue to be amazed at the artist­ic diversity and rich­ness of the Comox Valley.

One of the most import­ant things I learned was how to write a cer­tain amount of words by a cer­tain time. I can’t count the even­ings I went straight to my desk after a late night show to write a review. It didn’t mat­ter if it was mid­night and I was tired. Newspaper dead­lines wait for no man, woman or child. Word count and dead­lines are the holy grail of pro­fes­sion­al writ­ing wheth­er it’s for a news­pa­per, magazine or book.

Writing for news­pa­pers has launched many a writ­ing career. It’s a sure-fire way to learn how to write on demand, not just when the muse pays a vis­it. It can be crazy, chal­len­ging and very reward­ing. But after 25 years, I’ve developed a fond­ness for in-depth research and the explor­a­tion longer stor­ies allow. So I’ve said good­bye to the Record to make more time for writ­ing books.

An adapt­a­tion of my farewell art­icle for the Record.



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2 Responses to How I got my longest writing gig, why I kept it and what I learned

  1. susiequinn says:

    Your art­icles were a shin­ing part of the arts and enter­tain­ment sec­tion of the Record, Paula. I am priv­ileged to have edited a few thou­sand of those words and appre­ci­ated work­ing with you for 10 of those years. I smile broadly every time I see a new book added to your list.

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