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.