If I build a circus, will you come?

Toronto skyline
Toronto skyline. This is where I started out…who knows where I’ll end up?! (Photo credit: Mike UCL)

I did it when I was six.

We lived in Toronto and we had a long, deep, narrow backyard. I decided to create a circus (which was extremely small and didn’t even have animals beyond our black dachsund, Henry Stook Bowser von Hound Dog) so I could invite all our neighbors. I think I wanted to charge admission (I wanted to buy a typewriter) but I can’t remember if I did.

But I look back at that crazy self-confidence and chutzpah and wonder — where on earth did that come from? What made me think it would work? I’m not sure it occurred to me that it wouldn’t.

And why do I keep wanting to erect a large striped tent and fill the seats with an appreciative audience? To bring a bunch of people together and send them away again happy?

(Why I love throwing parties and big dinners. Sort of like this blog, actually.)

Do you ever step back from your daily life, searching for the underlying, even invisible/unconscious, patterns within it?

Taking inventory, as it were, of what you do, and have done, that has filled you with joy and turned into the most satisfying successes — and the holyshitwhatwasIthinking moments that led to the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth.

It’s challenging to step away from the non-stop everyday must-dos, from the brushing of teeth and preparing of food to caring for kids and pets to ask, in a non-narcissistic way:

Who am I? What fuels me? Am I really happy?

If not, now what?

It’s easier to sleepwalk through life, doing what our parents want and our friends think is cool and our teachers praise and our professors think well-done and our bosses agree with. Then we die.

So much easier to step aboard a moving conveyance and let it take us somewhere that looks sort of pretty than the terrifying notion of making it up as we go or questioning whether we’re even on the right train, bus or boat in the first place.

Since I was very young, my impulses have remained consistent: create, share it, connect with others, connect them to one another. 

It hasn’t been easy, simple or smooth. I could certainly make a hell of a lot more money being less “creative” and more docile, that’s for sure.

I also became a lot more comfortable in my own skin — sad to say — after two hyper-critical voices in my life since childhood were stilled, my late step-mother, who died in 2007, and my 76-year-old mother, with whom I no longer have a relationship.


It’s my oxygen. I start to feel restless and bored if I’m not working on my own projects — usually three or more at once. They may be in totally different phases (vague idea, general outline, asking for advice and input) but without multiple irons in my fire, so to speak, I get so boooooored. I like being able to leap from dyeing and sewing a pillow cover to working on a book proposal to making butternut squash soup for dinner.

Share it

I’ll be lecturing at my old high school soon about writing, (Leaside High, Toronto, alma mater for Margaret Atwood), and I once compared writing without publishing to masturbation. I had no idea the principal was in the room! But I meant it. It’s too easy to clutch your work, Gollum-like, to your chest, terrified of others’ judgment. Go on! Creativity is a great gift and one best shared with others, whether on-line, in your backyard, sold on Etsy, donated to a local women’s shelter.

Truth be told, I do like to be paid for mine. I sold my own bead necklaces on the street when I was 12, hand-made envelopes at 15, my photos at 17 and my freelance writing starting at 20. If I’m  not out there selling something, I feel a little lost.

Connect with others

The greatest value of my working retail for 27 months, the basis of my memoir, was finally understanding what I love most about my work as a journalist and author. Not writing. Not researching. Not travel. But connecting with others, people I would never have had the chance to meet or speak to otherwise. These have include convicted felons, Olympic athletes, royalty, politicians, a female Admiral, cops, a milliner and the parents of soldiers killed fighting in Iraq. I’ve wept at work (quietly) and suffered nightmares and insomnia from secondary trauma while researching my first book about women and guns.

But the more I learn about the world, the more it’s obvious to me that connecting with one another, with empathy and compassion whenever possible, is what it’s all about.

Connect them to one another

So fun!

In 2008, I organized and planned, (with four hard-working volunteers’ help), a panel discussion in Toronto that required two writers I had never met to get on airplanes from New York and arrive at that room on time. They did. Whew! The room was SRO and the goal was to help Toronto-based writers sell to American editors. It was so satisfying to make this happen.

One of my favorite examples was getting to know a young, smart writer then in Vancouver, who I finally met and had dinner with on one of my visits there. He’s 30 years my junior (younger, I think), but a lovely guy with great manners. A former colleague from Montreal in 1988 then re-found me on LinkedIn — and needed a smart hire for his new political website in Ottawa. Cha-ching!

Now I’m trying something crazy-ambitious, creating a conference from scratch. The women I’ve reached out to so far for advice and input seem really excited, so let’s see if I can make this one fly. The goal, once more, is to put cool people together to spark ideas and create mutual support.

Do you know — yet — what drives you?

And are you OK with it?

16 thoughts on “If I build a circus, will you come?

  1. tryityoumightlikeit

    I think about what really motivates me ALL the time. I work at an office job but I find time to do what I love despite that. I often wonder which is better? Having a job that enables me to do what I love in my spare time or having a job that is what I love to do. I feel like society pushes the latter as true success but I’m not so sure. I just started a new blog featuring my artwork. I love the comment you made about not sharing your creations. What is art really worth unless it’s shared? http://TryArtYouMightLikeIt.wordpress.com

    1. That’s a question a lot of people are asking, especially now that the recession has dinged a lot of hopes for good, enjoyable jobs. I have my own reservations about having a job you love only because if/when you lose it, it’s a real blow. And in the U.S., that happens a lot

  2. I’ve learned what doesn’t drive me. I spent most of my life defining myself with an ambitious career. Maybe it’s the economy, cancer recovery or turning 50 … but I’m finding real motivation in life outside work. A job is very practical, and these days a blessing. But it will never love me like my wife or wear cute sun dresses like our dog.

  3. I agree with the need to find the courage to get my writing out in the public realm – but what a challenge. My background has been in writing peer-reviewed, academic articles – as I move into writing fiction and a blog that is basically about my own thoughts and life – well, that type of writing is personal – these are my words and thoughts – no one else to cite here folks – its all on me. Thanks for the encouragement. Feel the fear and do it anyway.

  4. But that’s what it’s all about! It’s a lot easier to cite others (who had to put it out there, too!)

    What’s the worst that can happen? 1) No one reads it. 2) Nasty trolls trash it (they might.) After that…? It’s not as though (?) your entire ego/existence/identity will rise and fall on others’ approval of it. If so, desist. If not, go! Needing approval will only hold you back anyway.

  5. “I once compared writing without publishing to masturbation.” I think in one sentence you have destroyed two enjoyable hobbies. I will never be able to do one without thinking of the other. The grasshopper bows to you.

  6. Hay una cuestión a tener en cuenta, y es casi trascendental, es logico que a las personas como nosotros de mediana edad, sintamos la necesidad de dar un giro existencial a nuestra vida. Pienso que se está produciendo un cambio de paradigma en cuanto a posiciones en el ambito de la educación: pondré un sencillo ejemplo. despues de la ilustración y posteriormente la llegada de la revolución industrial y hasta nuestros dias simplemente en la escuela nos formamos dentro de un entorno demasidado general, adoctrinamiento, un fin, ser formados para la nueva industria y derivados. Pero hay algo importante innato en los seres humanos, Sobre todo en la etapa de la educacion primaria, los niños, si observamos hay algo en ellos de valor incalculable, “” La imaginación y la creatividad, a medida que hemos crecido y formado en este ambiente educativo de pensamiento unico, muchos de nosotros hemos perdido poco a poco esta capacidad.
    Una vez que tenemos trabajos, cualesquiera que sea, otra cuestión será ¿ porque hacemos un trabajo determinado ? muchas variantes. AL llegar a la mediana edad, nuestra mente una vez adulta, nos retorna lo que olvidamos en nuestra primera edad, la infancia. Sentimos que quizas nuestro camino se haya desviado y llegue la hora de enderezarlo, hacia nuestro entorno natural de realización. Gran parte de las personas de occidente sufre de ansiedad, traumas laborales e infelicidad. ¿ aqui se encuentra la base de la cuestión ?.

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