When Writing Steps From the Life of the Imagination Into Hope for the Future

I’ve had a novel percolating in the back of my head for the last several years. It keeps threatening to bubble over, but the demands on my life have kept it largely contained. Nevertheless, it has grown characters, a world, and the seeds of a narrative. I’m not sure whether it will ever become a full story or remains scattered between notes and neurons, but up until a few years ago I never believed I would ever apply on a Masters degree either.

The two are interlinked in my mind. This novel’s earliest incarnation was my first inkling that I not only needed something different out of life, but was ready to pursue it. After a couple years being mentally ground down by a dead-end retail job post-bachelor’s degree, I finally landed a office job. It was low-level administrative on a three-year contract, but I had hope that, once I made a name for myself in the company, I would be able to leverage my skills into something with better prospects. It went well for the first year, but it soon became evident that unless I could transmogrify myself into an engineer or an accountant I would have few options there that didn’t involve answering a phone…assuming the company ever deigned to permit me into the ranks of the permanent employees. By that point, the recession had hit and being out of work was a far worse fate. I enrolled in a continuing education course on the rational that proving I was working on tacking an administrative certificate onto my degree would improve my chances.

The course was on writing. My fellow students were a mix of people looking to improve their command of English, middle-aged business types coerced by their bosses, and a few people pursuing business management or administrative certificates. Most of them were there to get a handle on writing sound e-mails and memos, or getting an obligation out of the way. It was the first time since high school I’d been in a classroom where hardly anyone was interested in the topic for its own sake. I was already dubious of the value of an administrative certification to my future; this course was the first step in confirming it. Coming from a university English background, I found it banal and unchallenging. It showed me a few tricks to tighten up my writing, but was effectively a checked box toward something I wasn’t certain I wanted. When it came to the final writing assignment, I was the only person who wrote fiction. The course had an unintended effect: rather than teaching me to write a better e-mail, it made me remember how much I missed applying myself creatively. Another place had rooted in my imagination.

I managed to forget both the story and my uncertainty for a while. My home department, despite not only needing and appreciating my work but advocating on my behalf, no longer had the budget to keep me. I was bounced around thereafter. The first time, it wasn’t so bad: The Land department needed coverage for a senior administrative maternity leave. The job was interesting and the group welcoming, but the department head made it, in retrospect, abundantly clear that I was Temporary and Not to Get Attached To. When the person on leave decided she needed to come back early, the department head was insensitive and rude. I later learned she had handled some annoyances with my work style by gossiping nastily about me, rather than taking me aside and discussing the issue. I had to hear this second hand, and I’m still not sure where I rubbed her the wrong way.

The next few months were a serious blow to my self-worth. I had been convinced that if I was a good enough employee, I could not only stay on, but get out of the administrative pigeonhole and into something in better alignment with my interests and capabilities. I had been searching for another position both internally and outside the company, but it never bore fruit. Instead, I was told to accept a casual position or be out of work. I lost my benefits, sick days, and had to fight to get paid a rate just below my original hiring hourly. It was a warm-body position that entailed covering a few phones, light filing, sporadic make-work data entry and opening doors for the men who couldn’t be bothered to take their pass cards to the washroom.

I spent about a month on anger and humiliation, and then I started writing. The writing made me remember that there’s more to my worth than a job, and that I shouldn’t need to mold myself to someone else’s expectations the way I had been trying to. Over the last few years, I had been told I needed a whole bunch of things – and administrative certificate, land agent status and a few more – to conform to a series of someone else’s idea of what I should be. It was exhausting, and the process of putting something of myself into that creative act made me understand why. I couldn’t let myself be molded into something I’m not and pretend to be happy with it.

It was time to remember what I am good at. I applied for a Masters.

I kept my educational aspirations to myself and I managed to ride out one more internal job transition to the end of summer. It showed me some unpalatable things about the inner workings of the company and the value of someone like me to it. It proved just how wrong for my personal growth it would be to stay. When, toward the end of the summer, the company refused to give me a straight answer about whether I had a job past September, knowing I had been accepted to my chosen program gave me the confidence to leave.

I didn’t reenter the university with designs on becoming an academic. While I can’t discount the eventual possibility of a PhD, I went into this to build a resume, not a CV. I didn’t want to pursue something comfortable again; that was how I ended up with a BA instead of a BSc even though I read books in the biological sciences for fun. Instead, I’ve been working on a Digital Humanities MA that has had me spend the last few years learning everything from introductory programming to project management to posthumanist theory. It’s solidified my thoughts on a few things I hold dear. I’ve made meaningful, resume-building contributions to several projects. I managed to write the best paper of my life and hinge it on the effect of toxoplasmosis infection on the human mind (you had to be there). Best of all, thanks to a wonderfully flexible thesis, I’ve been given carte blanche to challenge myself: I’m currently working on implementing a web site with a database underlay and using it to test out the feasibility of applying responsive design principles to adapt an academic project to tablets. I’ve leveraged my humanities background into programming and web design.

I’m proud of what I’ve done and where I’m going.

The story woke up in me again a few weeks ago. I’m excited to see where it will point next.