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Touchstones of a writing career

By January 30, 2023One Comment

Touchstones of a Writing Career

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately about my journey as a writer. When I look around my office, I’m surrounded by the objects that represent my dream of writing and publishing a book. Some of them, I’ve carried with me. Others are new.  All of them are my touchstones.

Touchstone Number 1:  Typewriter. My Underwood typewriter is probably close to 100 years old with keys that demand strong fingers.    It was a gift from my sister, Joyce, on my 16th birthday.  For more than 50 years, her faith that I would become a published author has never wavered.  Thank you, Joyce, for believing in me! At the time she bought me the antique typewriter, I was still typing on my little portable. I typed the stories I created to entertain my family and friends, or sometimes to offer them solace when they were going through a tough time.  One of my favourites was a short story, a black comedy, that predicted a future in the far-off year, 2000, when my best friend and I were living happily on a beach.  In 1971, we were in high school, despairing of ever becoming popular, getting a boyfriend, or hanging with the cool kids.  But I transported us to a fantasy world set in 2000, where we had come into our own.  Big time!  We were confident and gorgeous, ridiculously busy with our rich careers and feasting upon the finest of food.  (We had not yet discovered wine.) We were living “Live, Love, Laugh,” before it was even an expression, let alone a cliché found on pillows, mugs and wall hangings.

I never saved a copy of that story or anything that I wrote, including my series about the sleuthing orphan girl who inherited lots of money when her parents died in a car crash. She was being raised by servants, who didn’t cramp her style or impose any kind of rules and was much applauded by the police for solving mysteries that stumped them. Having never heard the word “trope,” I was immensely proud of my books. And even now, if I could talk to my 10-year self about her dreams of writing books, I wouldn’t so much as hint that her imagined world was less than original.

Touchstone Number 2: Bronze statue. “The Chris” is an award Michael Jorgenson and I won for a documentary called Sisters’ Secrets in 1999.  It was awarded by the Columbus International Film and Video Festival and was my first big prize. But that has nothing to do with why it’s a touchstone. Instead, it’s because it connects me to two crucial figures in my life.  The first is my dear friend and mentor, John Baker, who passed away in 2017.  John was Executive Producer of CBC TV News in Edmonton where I was a reporter. He called me into his office one day to give me an unusual assignment.  He handed me a letter and said something along the news of, “this might be nothing. Or it might be huge. Check it out.”  The letter was from three women who alleged they’d been abused by nuns.  I met with them and for the first time in their lives, they told their full stories, not just to me, but to each other. This was in 1998 when news of abuse by Catholic clergy was not as commonplace as it is today.  For the next eight months, I dug into their story, researching and interviewing more people.

When we were ready to produce a documentary, John assigned Michael Jorgenson as producer and videographer.  I hadn’t worked with Mike very much because he worked on higher-end productions, and I was a lowly reporter who fed the daily news goat. Working with Mike proved to be life changing.  He taught me to think of myself as a storyteller, articulating the value of storytelling like no one else I’d ever met.  To say that Mike is talented doesn’t begin to do him justice.  He’s won an Emmy for his work as a filmmaker.  He now teaches storytelling to students at NAIT in Edmonton.  And when he was looking for a writer to write a book about a movie he was producing, he called me.

I’m deeply grateful to Mike for believing in me. For taking a chance on an unpublished writer, for pitching my book to an agent.  And for boosting me along every step of the way.

Whenever I look at the little bronze statue, I smile, or sometimes tear up, deeply grateful for the confidence that both John Baker and Mike Jorgenson expressed in me.

Touchstone Number 3: Toolbox: This is a fishing tackle box, rather than a toolbox.  As a touchstone, it sits on a shelf in my office where I can glance up at it any time I need a reminder of how far I’ve come.

It was a gift from my friend Lauren Spencer, whom I first met in 2015 in a writing class at New York University. When I returned to Canada, Lauren and I continued our weekly writing exercises with video meetings. We became writing partners, slogging through first novels, giving each other critical feedback, and sharing the fears that grip all writers. Over the years our friendship deepened. Last year, when I got my first writing contract from a publisher, Lauren and I celebrated at a fancy restaurant in Los Angeles. We raised a glass of bubbly and Lauren reached into the massive shopping bag that she’d tried to hide discreetly under the table and pulled out this bright red toolbox. We howled with laughter, attracting a lot of attention. LA is the kind of town where creative people are always celebrating something, so everyone around us shared the joy.

I carried the toolbox like a purse as I took the subway back to my temporary home in the Valley.   No gift has ever been more symbolic.   It’s based on an in-joke that really does not translate well. All I will say about it is that Lauren wrote a comic scene about her first job at a rock music magazine.  She used the term “writerly tools,” which cracked us up in writing class.  Since then, we’ve gotten quite a few laughs from those words, and the memory of our class.

I don’t use the toolbox for the kind of “writerly tools” that Lauren wrote about. I store USB sticks with works in progress, research, and photos. I’m still old-school when plotting out stories, so I use recipe cards to create scenes that I rearrange to see what works where.  And I file them in my toolbox. Well, maybe those are writerly tool, after all!

Touchstone Number 4: Pen: An actual “writerly tool” that I always keep in sight.  This gorgeous Cross pen is a gift from my friend, Paula Koponyas. I first met Paula through another friend, Lorna St. Thomas, who connected us because I was writing a novel about an engineer reinventing herself. Paula is an engineer and when we met for lunch in 2015, our bond was instantaneous. Paula has been with me on every step of this writing journey, checking in almost daily and devoting an hour to catching every weekend. For years now, our big chat has become a Saturday morning ritual.

Paula was one of the first people I told when I received word that The History Press had offered a contract to publish The Fierce. She immediately anticipated book signings.  She set her sights on finding the perfect pen, a true “writerly tool” that would be timeless, as well as elegant.   There is a dreamy quality to the design. Green is my favourite colour and the gold, besides being blingy, reminds me of gold nuggets and Yukon. The weight of the pen in my hand is like none other.

When Paula presented me with the pen, she included two ink cartridges, making sure they were the kind that wouldn’t smudge when I’m signing  books.  Paula never misses a detail! I’m glad she has my back.

Touchstone Number Five: Throw Pillow with custom text.  It has the title of my book, The Fierce, in a bold headline. The text reads: The History Press has landed a gripping account of a teenager’s victory over the ‘Butcher of the Balkans’ by Judy Piercey….

The pillow is a gift from my friend, Marguerite Baker, the widow of my mentor John. Marguerite has been one of my staunchest supporters, reading and offering a critical eye to almost everything I’ve written since I met her in 1992. Marguerite is a teacher and an artist. She invested both of those talent in me as she pushed, challenged, encouraged, and cheered for the past 30 years.

When my publisher, The History Press, was written up in the trade magazine, The Bookseller, for acquiring the publishing rights to The Fierce, no one expressed more pride more than Marguerite.  She’s played a special role in my journey of writing this book.  Not only was she there from the beginning before I even met my protagonist, David Whitelaw, she became my sounding board as I navigated the process.  When I told her about David’s amazing archival material rescued from Nazi Germany and the primary material that I was digging through, she offered to help.  Marguerite flew to Los Angeles and flew into action, organizing the chaotic contents of bags, bins, boxes, and trunks into a collection of over 40 neatly stacked boxes, catalogued with library- worthy precision.

I cannot overstate how much her contribution aided my research.

Plus, the cushion is one of the coolest gifts I have received!  It sits on a chair within my line of vision, a constant reminder that I have achieved my dream of publishing a book.

Judy Piercey

Author Judy Piercey

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