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.



Catch a cougar by the tail

Dogs chase cats and dogs that chase cougars seem to be particularly enthusiastic.  

One of the most famous cougar hunters, former US president, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote about “dogs that climbed trees.” He said a bloodhound named Turk scrambled almost nine metres (30 feet) up a pinyon tree before plummeting to the ground. And a half-breed bulldog regularly went as high as six metres (20 feet) or more after cougars. Apparently, the branches broke the dogs’ falls as, no matter how far they fell, they continued to “climb trees.”  

Winston Vickers, associate veterinarian at the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, told me about a cougar that jumped out of a tree, landed in the middle of a pack of research tracking hounds, grabbed a dog by the head and took off. Of course, all the other hounds gave chase. One got close enough to grab the cougar by the tail. That was enough to make it drop the dog it was carrying. The dog survived but wasn’t keen on tracking cougars after that.  

But until recently, I’d never heard of a dog catching a cougar by the tail and going up a tree. The footage on this short video clip is incredible. And yes, both the dog and cougar survived.

Cougar running in snow.
Isn’t that tail just begging to be pulled?
Photo courtesy California Fish and Game.