January 5th, 2013 and I’m sitting in a circle, name tag on my lap, head turned towards the entry. It’s Orientation Day for The Writer’s Studio in Vancouver and the room is filling with writing students. Anticipation rides high. As they filter in, my habituated mind starts checking out their shoes. Black Mary Jane's with striped socks, scuffed tan cowboy boots…. A silent scream goes off inside my head and I turn my gaze to the window. And then I laugh. It doesn’t matter! It’s not about the shoes! In that moment, I knew I was in the right place.
Now, this may sound crazy but I came from a world where talented designers could lose out on that valued second interview by simply showing up with unacceptable footwear.
As a Sr. Designer/Project Manager for the international 5-star hotel market, I was cosseted in a glamorous life full of fancy people, fine restaurants and monthly trips to Shanghai or Hong Kong. I also worked sixty hour weeks, struggled through bone-tired days and woke up most mornings dizzy from exhaustion. When yet another recession hit in 2009, the typical anxiety set in, people were let go and my already staggering workload soared. Those running the firms went from being maniacally competitive to psychotically insecure and dangerous.
And then it was gone. Four years later, it all seems like a crazy dream. Looking back on it now, I find it amazing I lasted so long.
Indoctrination starts early. By the time I’d moved into the profession, I’d learned to be merciless in my assertion of fabulousness or more often, brutal in unwavering derision. Spaces and things were to be controlled and manipulated and therefore, remain objectified - never fully alive. The goal was to design the interior, get it built, photograph it and then get out. It was never to be enjoyed as more than a glossy photo.
The tyranny of judging your physical environment colours how you view yourself and everyone else you meet. I left my last job at age fifty-four and the words, “When you’re ready to get some work done, let me know” still ring in my head. I wanted to jab my finger into his botoxed face and shriek that I would never have enough self-loathing to pay someone to take a knife to me. Seeing as how it was my gay, teeth lasered, dyed blond boss who’d made the suggestion, I just laughed and said, “Sure thing.”
Creating a glamorous persona for yourself puts you on center stage in your own life drama. You are expected to pepper your conversations with clever, biting celebrity gossip and never, ever talk about politics. Being witty and entertaining is paramount. I did not excel at small talk, could not figure out who the Kardashians were or why I should care. I was too honest and spoke my mind. Even worse, I showed my emotions and read books whenever I had the time. I talked about ideas, abstract theories and wanted to weave narratives into our presentations. In a world where reading Vanity Fair magazine was considered heavy lifting, I was a freak.
As time went on, as I grew obstinately towards who I really was, I fit in less and less. Trying to summon up what it took for me to care about which shade of white to use became a futile exercise. The work of selecting and specifying the endless amount of furnishings needed for a world-class resort just left me cold.
During two years spent working in Singapore, I shifted myself towards interior architecture and the engineering coordination it would take to put together a seamless, fully functional space. I became adept at pulling together people’s efforts. I’d spend hours red marking architectural, lighting and engineering plans. Senior design staff would look to me for final approval on finishes and detailing as they sculpted the interior spaces. It was the pinnacle of the process and I loved many things about it. My skills at communication and writing soared, but I’d still go home feeling like I’d landed in someone else’s life.
I felt whiplashed by the constant attraction/aversion paradigm and simply did not believe it mattered any longer what I thought. I grew tired of finding fault. I wanted to live in a kinder world - one not seeking surface improvement as a way of life. I wanted to stare at things and see them for what they were. Not right or wrong, just as part of the fascinating world that required my attention. I wanted to stare, as Flannery O’Connor said, and never be ashamed by that.
Now, rather than star in my own dazzling life, I get to create charismatic characters to live out their own adventures. I don’t have to be shy about parading my values or having a strong opinion. I don’t have to veil my intelligence or live in a hidden realm of socially acceptable coda.
Rather than a uniform mandated by “good taste”, I can wrap myself in a costume of individuality and glorious self-expression. I can groove to the beat of my own hard-won wisdom, grow frumpy, wear weird glasses and sport hair as untamed as my thoughts. Without the polished reserve to consider, I can tell stories, wave my arms in the air, throw back my head and stomp my feet. I can curse and use words like languorous, ersatz and trope.
I am a writer.