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"How did you become a writer?"
Visitors to this site ask me that question all the time. (Well, okay, once every couple of weeks or so.) Here is the latest inquiry, from "DG BH" -- a Hotmail user about whom I know nothing else -- and my reply:
Q. If you don't mind my asking, how did you get into writing, how did you get your first 'job', and how did you make the contacts needed to get published?
A. The short answer: Hell if I know.
The long answer:
I've always written -- I remember writing about a rocket trip to Saturn (where the travelers landed on the ring) about the time I learned to write, more than 25 years ago. I've since discovered I'm not that good at fiction, though.
I worked on my junior and senior high school annuals, as well as student newspapers there and at university (I helped start two new ones while at UBC). I also put together a Science beginning-of-year handbook in 1987 and edited the student society's handbook for the whole student body in 1990. I had a semi-famous spoof character (among a small cohort of people going to school in Vancouver between 1984 and 1992 or so) called Dik Miller, Private Eye, as well. He appeared in short stories starting in an inter-high-school paper called The Plague in 1984, and continued in UBC's Science paper The 432 after 1987.
When I came out the far end of my B.Sc. in biology in 1990, I realized that I could either wash glassware in someone's lab (all a basic B.Sc. is good for in most cases), go on to grad school (something I had no burning passion for), or try getting paid for the writing and editing I'd been doing for free over the previous decade and a bit.
In order to avoid the decision for a couple of years, I enrolled in UBC's diploma program in Applied Creative Non-Fiction Writing, which was interesting and helped hone my skills, but wasn't exactly a vocational school. Then I worked at for the student society for a two more years, while doing a bit of freelancing on the side.
Next, I stumbled into playing drums for a living for two years (something I still do, just not as intensively) and scaled back my writing work somewhat. Finally, I got married, bailed out of the band, and started working in the advertising department of a small magazine called Gardens West. It was a good learning experience, but I didn't like working there, so I scoured the classifieds and landed a job as an administrative assistant for software developers at Multiactive Software in Vancouver (they make Maximizer contact management software).
I stayed there for more than four years, moving throughout the company before I was laid off this past January as part of the general tech purge. (Multiactive now has about 1/3 the staff it did at its peak in 2000, and fewer people than when I started in 1996.)
In each of my jobs I've gravitated toward writing and editing tasks -- at UBC, I drafted a lot of policies and proofread anything people could throw at me; in the band, I did most of the publicity material (and now the Web site); at the gardening magazine, I ended up writing articles even though I know nothing about gardening and was in another department; at Multiactive, I moved into managing the Web site, editing monthly newsletters, drafting press releases, and always editing and proofing.
After the layoffs, I went freelance. (In fact, I'd only been part-time since 1998, when my first daughter was born. I spend more time as dad to my two girls than as a writer and editor.) People I'd come to know through all my previous jobs turned into a network -- I sent out one e-mail to them when I lost my job, and had contract work a couple of weeks later, before my Multiactive severance cheque was ready.
I've been working pretty steadily since, on large and small contracts, mostly doing technical writing (manuals and other documentation), but also some marketing work, Web content, proofreading of academic papers, cover letters, you name it. So far the work has come to me, and I've enjoyed it.