Welcome to my Second Acts Series!
Today, we have Canadian author Winona Kent sharing triumphs and challenges during her multi-act life.
Thank you, Joanne, for inviting me to contribute to your blog! I’m very honoured to share my story with so many accomplished people.
I had an interesting conversation with my ophthalmologist the other day. He’s elderly, and I wondered when he was going to retire. He told me that he was thinking about it, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to actually do it. I revealed I could hardly wait to retire from my full-time job in 2019, so I could become a full-time writer instead. But my doctor confessed he was afraid to give up his practice, because he wasn’t sure he would know what to do with himself. He had defined himself in terms of his career, and he was afraid that if he gave up his career, he would lose his entire sense of identity.
I’ve never had an issue with my sense of identity. I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was 12, and handing out chapters of my first epic novel to my classmates at recess. But I also knew I likely wouldn’t be able to make a living as a novelist. I decided very early on that if I had to work for a living, I would take jobs that had absolutely nothing to do with writing. My logic was twofold. One, I would keep my creative brain for myself, and not allow it to be used up by an employer. And two, I hoped I’d find interesting jobs that would fuel my writing, and give my characters an authentic place in their world.
So, I suppose, my First Act, after university, was to become a travel agent. I cheated a bit – my dad managed a travel agency and he hired and trained me. He also fired me five times for insubordination. I was always hired back by the Assistant Manager, who pleaded with me to stop getting into arguments with my dad, because they actually relied on me to do ticketing and bookings. After I met my husband I moved to Winnipeg, but I continued in the travel business. I also continued writing stories in my spare time – “practice novels”, I called them, because I knew they weren’t good enough to be published – but I was working on that.
My Second Act happened when I was 28. I was burning out of the travel industry, and I was also suffering from a serious clinical depression. I decided the best thing I could do for myself was to go back to university. I wanted a degree that did exactly the opposite of my BA in English, which had involved the forensic dissection of literature. I applied to, and was accepted by, the University of British Columbia. I moved halfway across Canada, to the west coast, and emerged, three years later, in 1985, with an MFA in Creative Writing. It was one of the best decisions I’d ever made, and it led to my Third Act.
My Third Act was very long, but incredibly productive. I found a full-time job at a communications company, whose head office was just down the street from where I lived. It was fantastic. No commuting, five minutes to get to work and home again, and, best of all, it didn’t tax my creative energies. The start of my Third Act was marked by the publication of my first novel, Skywatcher. Unfortunately, it was a spy story, and spy stories in 1989 were in a very bad way. Because of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the entire Cold War scenario was being rewritten in front of us. My brave little novel had dismal sales, and I wouldn’t be able to recover from that for many years.
But I persevered at Telus… I moved from their Word Processing department, to Learning Services, where I wrote and edited teaching materials – yes, I know I swore I’d never get a job that involved writing, but I needed to know my creative skills actually did count for something. While I was working in Learning Services, I wrote The Cilla Rose Affair, which was the sequel to Skywatcher. Frustrated that I couldn’t find a publisher, I self-published it in 2001, and then began working on what would eventually turn out to be my third novel, Cold Play.
And then, in 2003, after 18 years with Telus, in four different departments, I embarked upon Act Four of my life. The company was downsizing and offered me an enormous sum of money to leave. At first I hesitated…and then, once I realized what an opportunity this presented, I accepted. On a fine Friday in May, 2003, I walked out of the main doors for the last time…and on the following Monday, I walked through the doors of Vancouver Film School where, at the age of 49, I was going to spend a year learning how to write screenplays.
My major writing project at VFS was my third novel, Cold Play, which I adapted into a feature length script. I couldn’t have chosen a more difficult path, as novels and screenplays really have very little in common, and turning one into the other was a daunting task. I was also the oldest student in the writing program.
But Act Four turned me into a much better writer than I’d been before. After VFS I worked on a number of projects, some spec scripts for potential TV programs, some original screenplays. But I had to find a way to make a living, and so I landed at my old Alma Mater, the University of British Columbia, where I became a Program Assistant in one of the schools in the Faculty of Medicine. I revisited Cold Play, and in 2012 it became my third novel, and the second to be self-published.
The end of Act Four was marked by the 2013 publication of my fourth novel, Persistence of Memory, by Fable Press. I have no idea where this accidental time-travel story came from, other than to suggest it was percolating in my creative brain for a number of years, and that it emerged, first as a screenplay, and then as a novel, at exactly the right time. In a way, it was like the closing of a circle. The failure of Skywatcher all those years ago was forgotten. A publisher had decided to take a chance on me, and it was the most successful novel I’d ever written.
But my excellent progress was not to last. Last year, as I was writing my fifth novel, In Loving Memory, Fable Press went out of business. I was left with two choices – to self-publish yet again, or to aggressively seek out a new publisher. Surely, I thought, my four previous novels had to count for something. And I wasn’t wrong. I landed with a New York company, Diversion Books, who not only wanted to publish In Loving Memory – they also wanted to reissue my backlist, with new covers and a new “branding” image for me. Those four books – Skywatcher, The Cilla Rose Affair, Cold Play and Persistence of Memory – were republished this past July, as ebooks and paperbacks.
And so, at the age of 61, I have now embarked upon a glorious Act Five. A new publisher, a new look for my books, new sales to a new readership…a contract for In Loving Memory, which is due out in July 2016…and publication of all the following stories in my accidental time-travel series.
Will there be an Act Six? Oh I do hope so! To go back to the conversation I had with my ophthalmologist…in 3 years, 10 months and 2 days time, I’m looking forward to retiring from my job at UBC and, finally, becoming the full-time writer I’ve always dreamed about.
Do I have advice for anyone planning to pursue a second act? Or a third, fourth, fifth and sixth act? Yes! First and foremost, to quote the wonderful Galaxy Quest, never give up, and never surrender. Be persistent. Never accept the idea that you’re too old, or not talented enough, or not clever enough. Never stop learning.
And never stop trying.
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Wow!! Winona, Thanks for sharing your inspiring journey. Best of luck with all your literary endeavors.