Born in 1967, I am the only child of a Canadian intelligence officer who worked the foreign sector and eventually became the CEO of Basketball Canada, and a clinical nurse specialist mother. Growing up an only child, I spent an inordinate amount of time in the company of adults. That was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I developed a greatly enriched vocabulary, and my ability to navigate routine, as well as difficult social scenarios was ingrained at an early age. The more negative aspect of being the only one was the essential ability required to create my own entertainment and amusement. For a future writer, that sometimes lonely existence may have had a silver lining.
From an early age, imagination and storytelling were not simply a form of play, they were the necessary traits that allowed me to exist as a healthy, happy, and relatively sane child. For whatever reason, I had a more than rigorous imagination, resulting in a knack and love for storytelling. The positive attention that garnered from adults and teachers encouraged both its growth, and my love for it.
Like most kids with an aptitude for the written word, after learning to read in elementary school I began doing so in earnest, quickly recognizing the power that was central to books, to narrative, and to the art of storytelling. It was as if the entire world opened up when I discovered that by spending some quiet time in the company of a book I could enter the realm and experience of someone else, even if only for 20 minutes. Perhaps because I was a curious child, I never found the stories that I had no personal frame of reference for difficult to relate to or understand. Though I was largely unaware of it at the time, through the connection literature offered, I was creating a solid foundation for future self awareness, and a keen ability to access empathy.
When the intrusion of puberty hit with full force at the age of 12, my writing aspirations were tempered by preteen realities. At that point in my life, I was an outgoing, but in many ways shy, only child. Though you probably wouldn’t have seen that side, since I tended to mask it well. Like most of my “stuff”, I did an exacting job of not letting let it show, but the idea of sharing the deeply intimate parts of myself felt very threatening, and was something I would go to great lengths to avoid. So at 13, when Mr. Hartley, evil grade 7 sadist teacher that he was, asked me to read aloud to the class all the stories I had written that term, since they were “at an advanced high school level” (whatever that meant), I choked. Why the fear? To say grade 7 was not my best year would be an understatement.
Made all the worse through stubborn brushing trying to force it into submission. Top all that off with an obsession over not smelling like sweat, thus developing the unfortunate and socially marginalizing habit of sniffing my armpits whenever I was anxious. Enough said.
So, instead of feeling honored when asked to read my work, I just wanted to die. The looming threat of having to present to the class became the sudden catalyst for my intentionally writing at “nowhere near high school level”. See Spot Run would have been a challenge. Thankfully, my parents were, by this point, familiar with my various techniques of wiggling out of things I found unpleasant and caught on to that little game pretty quick. Slowly I began writing again, though I was always cautious over sharing it and became quite adept in the more complicated patterns of avoidance when it came to reading my work.
Through my high school and undergraduate years it got a bit easier, having successfully passed through the awkward and unfortunate early teen stage into something of a quick-witted and confident extrovert. But even though I did my best academic work in creative writing courses, when it came to deeply personal writing, that was something which I rarely shared.
A jump now to age 25 (don't worry, it does circle around). After certifying as an intensive care paramedic, and acquiring my MA in Community Health, I worked as an expanded scope paramedic for over 12 years in a variety of non traditional clinical environments. A rural EMS service, an urban critical care unit, a mountain climbing base camp in the Tien Shen mountain range of Central Asia, an outpost clinic in the Russian Arctic, and a critical care air ambulance in Ontario, Canada. During my final year in EMS I was seconded to our University pre-hospital medicine research department, where I helped trained paramedics in the fundamentals of clinical research. While I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything, trust me when I say that there is a point at which even adrenaline gets tiresome. There was also the issue of responding to daily experiences of crisis and disaster. After 12 years in the field, the effects of that accumulated energy were starting to manifest in other areas of my life in problematic ways. After some serious introspection, I knew I had to leave emergency medicine. So, in 2005 I bit the bullet and applied to a graduate level creative writing program, something I'd always secretly wanted to do. I was accepted on the first round, and in 2006 I left a secure, high paying career in EMS for grad school, round 2. A decision which had many people fear for my sanity. Thankfully, their concern was misguided, and obtaining my MFA in creative nonfiction turned out to be the best decision I could have made. For me, my career, and my writing.