On Becoming a Writer
“How do I make it as a writer?” aspiring scribblers have often asked me. Their question has made me chuckle. And takes me back. Way back to my high school English class after I’d arrived from the Netherlands in my teens. The chalk squeaks on the blackboard. “Write a 600-word expository theme,” my English teacher writes. My stomach tightens. Expository? I try the dictionary. Exposition: A statement or rhetorical discourse intended to give information about or an explanation of difficult material. Huh? The laughable theme I hand in exposes just one thing—my incompetence.
Since World War II, my dad has fantasized about leaving the overcrowded and post-war Netherlands and finding greater opportunities for himself, my mom and four children in the “new world.” That’s how I’ve found myself in central Ohio. Although I’d studied the Queen’s English for a year before emigrating, my schoolmates’ rapid talk and mid-western twang defeats me. No ESL yet.
Reading becomes my saviour. The local library loans unlimited books. Not a single title sticks with me, but I learn that the heroine, when in danger, is also in jeopardy. That streams are also brooks and creeks and canals and ditches. That “wait,” “wait up,” “wait on,” and “wait for” all have different meanings. Slowly, the language starts to make sense. I apply to university. Of course, the profs want written work. My writer’s block when putting pen to paper continues through university and graduate school.
Eventually, I become an administrator in a university’s continuing education program. My job demands I produce course descriptions, brochures, news releases, grant proposals. I raid the files to see how the guy before me wrote the stuff. Gradually, it gets easier. I start getting compliments on what I write. Later, I leave academe to form my own company. Among many contracts, more and more include writing—government reports, handbooks and corporate literature. Almost by accident, I sell a story to a regional magazine. My next career is launched. That’s why I chuckle when future writers ask for advice. Imagine—they’re asking me! That foreigner whose English put her in the dumb readers’ row.
When I tell them to get a library card, they’re astonished. “Take out armloads of books, including those on writing,” I advise them. “Absorb them. Six months later do it again. And again.” I tell them to read everything consciously. To accept criticism. And to write, rewrite, hone.
I point out to the aspiring writers that Woodward and Bernstein became famous for their persistence (“Who?” their blank looks ask). That curiosity is a writer’s best friend. I tell them that, if during my teenage years, anyone had told me that someday I’d be panting to get to the keyboard to write a story, I would’ve thought them certifiable.
In the late 1990s, with my husband, David, I sailed to French Polynesia’s Tahiti and Bora Bora in our 35-foot sailboat. This round-trip adventure on the Pacific Ocean changed my writing focus.
Instead of penning weekly Chamber of Commerce articles, general interest articles and teaching writing seminars, I chronicled marine-related topics, boating in all its guises, travel, people and places. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to sail about 30,000 nautical miles and write about our voyages in the Baltic and North Seas, the Dutch canals, and the waters of Washington State, British Columbia and Alaska—all in our family sailboats.
I like offbeat stories that include unusual people and events, history, geology, science and technology. Thus, I’ve described the scientific work of Oceans Network Canada, life aboard Capt. Cook’s Endeavour, plastics in our oceans, hitching rides on other people’s yachts, charting adventures in the Northwest Passage, the sinking of the Explorer off Antarctica, a rescue at sea, ecological cruises, and about our sailboat’s dismasting in a storm. I’ve profiled scores of people influential in the marine industry—renowned yacht builders and naval architects. My bi-monthly column in Pacific Yachting features “coastal characters”—people whose lives are influenced by the sea. Three of my books focus on marine-related subjects. But there are always more topics to write about—my most recent book describes the craft distilleries on Vancouver Island.