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CSL Blog Project: A Talk with Joan Taillon

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Madame Joan Taillon, writer, editor and journalist, about her lengthy career.

Joan’s teachers and peers early recognized her exceptional writing ability, but circumstances dictated that she engage with the workforce before acquiring the requisite education to build a career on those skills. By age 22, Joan had acquired eight years’ experience as a professional race horse groom, was married and was a new mother. She and her horse-trainer husband were committed to raising and racing Standardbred horses on the Quebec and Ontario circuits and were fully immersed in that life. The work was nomadic and seven days a week; there was no time for writing short stories or poetry as Joan had done prior to leaving home to work with racehorses.

The sudden death of her husband in the same year as their child was born led Joan away from the horse racing world to pursue an education in Toronto. Her new goal was a career in book publishing. Two years of college in the 1970s resulted in an interim medical secretarial career that allowed Joan to support the family while she studied English and journalism at university. Concurrently she sought other writing and editing training. At that time, no publishing degree programs existed, and most editorial prospects pursued an undergraduate English degree as their entry into a publishing house. Joan joined the Freelance Editors’ Association of Canada and the American Medical Writers Association. Later, she enrolled in Ryerson Polytechnical Institute’s (now Ryerson University) first post-graduate-level magazine journalism certificate program.

She obtained freelance and contract work that included government and non-profit organizations. A stint of unpaid writing for an alternative Toronto newspaper. Contract medical editing and a university course in writing for medical journals, facilitated by an employer who was an associate professor of medicine. Eventually Joan obtained a full-time writing and editing position within a highly regulated corporate manufacturing environment. She continued to seek work in a publishing house.

Joan’s publishing career began properly when she obtained consecutive employment with Canada’s two major law book publishers in Toronto. Following several years as a law reports editor, senior technical editor, departmental co-ordinator, and finally achieving the title of Editor of Legal and Academic Texts, Joan next joined Southam Business Communications’ Public Policy Group as Managing Editor of Legislative Services. Subsequently she was promoted to Associate Editor of the clinical journal Modern Medicine of Canada within Southam’s Health Care Group. Joan was on the career track she had desired, experiencing perks and promotions. Until Southam’s share prices drastically dropped.

Southam instituted a Canada-wide round of editorial layoffs in the late 1980s, which led to Joan returning to freelance and contract work and subsequently obtaining positions as editor of five community newspapers in three provinces. In 1997, she received a Native American Journalism Association award for feature writing. In the early 2000s, Joan left newspaper journalism and obtained a position as Communications Manager with a commercial real estate firm in Edmonton, where her media experience coupled with the ability to create contractual documents, technical manuals and sales correspondence stood her in good stead. She remained in that position for two years until the company was sold. Joan retired, but for a few years continued to produce c.v.’s and résumés for executives and professionals.

Joan now writes fiction and poetry with psychological and metaphysical themes.

Here is the Q&A conversation I had with Joan:

AN: What kind of challenges do you face during the writing process?

JT: The challenges I face writing today are almost entirely related to the physical limitations of aging. The challenge can be just to sit in a chair long enough to meet some short-term goal. No more marathon all-nighters as in my newspaper days, but I like to say that I’m not dead yet! And I remind myself that Leonard Cohen, whose photo is above my desk, did some of his best work near the end of his life.

Writing fiction, I’m reconciled to my first through multiple drafts being trite, flat, and boring. While I wish I could produce a greater quantity of “keeper” material faster, I know that ultimately, I shall succeed. Having proved over 45 years that I can write in almost any genre, I don’t stress as I once did over results. If it doesn’t come to me today, it will tomorrow.

Fiction and poetry are more challenging for me than other types of writing. The creative process is entirely different from writing an article, biography or report. One does not begin with firm guidelines, taped interviews, or a press release full of concrete facts. A fictional story or a poem seemingly is created from the ether. Even so, when the writing goes well, or a piece comes together after a struggle, it is eminently more satisfying than journalism or the corporate or other writing I’ve done. Fiction and poetry constitute my purpose, my real work; whereas, most of what I wrote before, notwithstanding that I put forth a genuine effort, was just the means to pay the rent.

I thought about more literary-sounding answers to this question that could possibly inspire other writers to stay the course and achieve their goals. My best honest answer to your question about personal challenges, however, is that I must daily manage pain and strategize to work consistently.

AN: Where do you find inspiration for your writing?

JT: Inspiration comes from within, fed by my experiences and my relationships. I’m speaking of my relationships with the land, with my Celtic culture and the mythology of my people, with other sentient beings in this world, and a few in the Otherworld. Fragments of ideas arrive in dreams, but not every day. I draw encouragement from reading the works and biographies of other authors as well: Leonard Cohen, Seamus Heaney, Arlette Cousture, Louise Penny, Marie-Claire Blais, Frank McCourt, Gabrielle Roy, Anne Hébert, Michel Tremblay, Mavis Gallant, and John O’Donohue among them.

I need no mentors at this stage. Of course, it was different in my youth. For more than 20 years a horseman named Art Donovan encouraged all my endeavours, including the short stories that I wrote in his barn. His support was constant, and his death in 1978 left a void that nothing has filled. Other than him, Leonard Cohen, whom I met twice in the 1960s, was, and continues to be, my muse.

Although I did not try it on until mid-life, I believe newspaper writing is the best training there is for a writer to produce on demand and on time. It gets all ego-issues out of the way, such as annoyance about the cutting of copy over which one has slaved, or being compelled to “waste” one’s perceived abilities on advertorials and other stifling assignments. There’s no waiting for inspiration when there’s a deadline looming; one’s pending pay cheque is all the inspiration required.

It’s been a while since I had to deal with the self-doubt about my talent (or the lack of it) that plagues writers. More than half my life to this point, somebody has been willing to pay me to write. Now I have nothing to prove and no expectations to fulfill except my own. For a few years after I retired I couldn’t produce anything of value, but in the last couple of years a renewed sense of writerly purpose has emerged. All that matters now is that I complete a book before I’m off the clock, so to speak. Also, I hope to write a few more good poems.

AN: Do you believe that writing can make a difference in the world?

JT: Writing does make a difference. Words absolutely matter. They are the sword that can, and does, cut two ways: a sword attacks or defends. It can also cut away another person’s drivel and dross in one well-landed blow to reveal truth. Or somebody’s perceived truth.

That is not to say that all writing must aim to be political, serve a cause, or attempt to influence or re-jig society’s norms. Some writers have that mandate. They are the de facto journalists, essayists, academics, and politicians. Novelists and poets have a much broader template, in my view. Their products convey messages or life lessons too, but in many cases the difference they make is simply to uplift the spirit or to provide escapist entertainment. That’s legitimate and it’s needed in today’s world.

Through my conversation with Madame Taillon I have learned what it really is like to be a writer and what the difference is between writing for enjoyment and writing for work. Writing about a topic just for the sake of writing, has a much different process than writing on a topic that you care deeply for. Writing for work does have its benefits. It teaches one the skills and mindset that is needed to produce work that is not only thoughtful and meaningful, but also cohesive. Most importantly, it’s not what you write, but the fact that you are writing that is the most prevalent.

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