The first apartment I lived in when I got to Seattle had three Starbucks coffee shops within a one-block radius. I always went to the same one, because they knew me there, and my green tea latte was always made perfectly by the same barista with a nose ring and an easy smile. He was great at small talk.
“It’s hard to make friends at first, isn’t it?” he said. “The famous Seattle freeze is a real thing. I moved here five years ago, and I felt shut out for a while. It takes time before you find your people. How long have you been here now?”
“Three months,” I said.
“Right. I used to know someone who was from Toronto.” He pronounced the word the way someone not from Canada would, in three distinct syllables. Tor-on-toe. “I heard it’s a cute city.”
Cute? Toronto is the third largest city in North America. It’s a lot of great things, but I’m not sure that it can be described as cute. But being the polite Canadian, I agreed with him, and what I didn’t say was that I didn’t actually mind not knowing anyone. In fact, not knowing anyone was exactly what I needed back then.
It was a big transition moving from Toronto to Seattle in 2007. They’re on opposite sides of the continent, for one. And in two different countries, for another. The weather is different. Toronto has four distinct seasons I like to call Freezing, Wet, I’m Melting, and Look At All The Pretty Leaves. Seattle, in my opinion, has only two – It’s Raining, and Yay, It’s Not Raining!
But who knew the rain would be so good for writing?
I was born and raised in Toronto, but I became a writer in Seattle. People ask me about this a lot, about why I never published anything until I moved here to the Northwest. I usually offer the standard answer, that in Toronto I just felt like my life was so hectic all the time. I had a full-time job working with numbers and budgets, I had a long commute, and I never seemed to have the energy to tackle anything creative. When I got to Seattle, I finally had time to write.
As I said, that’s the standard answer. The real answer goes a bit deeper.
When you grow up within a large extended family, and have had the same friends since grade school, and everybody lives within a reasonable driving distance from each other, and you have a secure job and a house with a reasonable mortgage payment, it’s hard to do a complete 180 with your life and decide you want to do something completely different. People freak out. They think you’re going through some kind of crisis. They want to know “how they can help.” They judge you. And while all the questions and concern come from a well-meaning place of love, writing fiction can be an abstract concept for a lot of folks. Like singing. Or acting. I mean, it’s cool to do it, but professionally? With purpose? And goals?
“What do you mean, you want to be writer?” a family member who shall remain nameless said, when it came up at a birthday party years ago. She frowned, as if she didn’t understand what I’d just said. “But you have a job. What would you write?”
“Novels,” I said.
“I don’t have time to read,” another family member proudly declared. “And when I do, it’s just self-help books because I’m always looking for ways to better myself.”
“I imagine that’s a nice hobby,” the first family member said to me, somewhat dubiously. “But come on, you don’t want to actually be a writer. It’s not like you can make a living from that.”
I pointed to the stack of paperbacks on the bookshelf behind her. The family member whose house we were at was an avid reader. “Who do you think wrote those?”
She laughed. “Those were written by professionals. Come on now. I’m not saying don’t do it on the side. But you have a job. You have a good life. Be grateful.”
Comments like that, no matter how well-meaning or benign-sounding, can crush dreams. Because on some level you already know it’s kind of crazy. You already know it’s a long shot. And what you need is for people to root for you.
When my then-husband got the job offer in Seattle, I jumped at the chance to start a new life somewhere I had never even visited, where I knew absolutely nobody. It was an opportunity at reinvention, a chance to do that complete 180 without anybody watching or offering an opinion about how my time might be better spent. Which brings me back to the rain. The constant gloom of that first winter made me want to cocoon up inside my apartment, make tea, and write all day. So I did.
A year after I moved to Seattle, I had finished my first novel, and was back at the Starbucks down the street from my building. My favorite barista was there, and I ordered my usual green tea latte.
“You know, I don’t think I ever asked what it is you do,” he said.
I paused. “I’m a writer,” I finally said, and it occurred to me then that this was the first time I had ever called myself that, let alone said it out loud to another human being. But I finally was, wasn’t I? I wasn’t published, and I had no idea if I was even good enough to get published, but I had written a whole book, and that had to count for something.
I braced myself for the dubious look, for the condescending smile. But neither came. He simply said, “Cool. What’s it about?”
“A serial killer who stalks the professor he works for. It’s my first book,” I added self-consciously. “I’m not published or anything.”
He smiled and handed me my coffee. “You’re not published yet,” he said. “But keep at it. I’m sure I’ll see it in bookstores someday, and be like, ‘Hey, my favorite customer from Starbucks wrote that.’”
I’ll never forget the casual way he spoke, how he didn’t laugh when I said I was writer, how he didn’t think it was silly. Sometimes the support you need comes from someone who doesn’t know you. Sometimes a bit of distance from your people – and their loving definition of who they think you should be – is a positive thing.
I moved back to Toronto in 2012. I got divorced. Then I met someone new, an American who lives in Seattle, of all places. After a year of doing the long-distance relationship thing, the time had come to make a decision.
“I’m not sure I can go back to Seattle again,” I said to one of my closet girlfriends, someone I’d grown up with. “It was good for a while, but my life is here. I have zero desire to run away again. I feel like I just got home. I want to write books here.”
“Home is where you want it to be,” she said. “And you can write from anywhere. Go, and be happy. What’s that thing someone said to you once? Oh, right. You have a good life. Be grateful.”
JENNIFER HILLIER writes about dark, twisted people who do dark, twisted things. She’s the author of the thrillers Creep (2011), Freak (2012), The Butcher (2014), and Wonderland (2015). She loves her husband, her son, her cat Kobe, Stephen King, and the Seahawks. Not equally, but close. Born and raised in Toronto, she currently lives in the Seattle area with her family. Find her on the web at jenniferhillier.ca.
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