Pull back the curtain and see how a suspense writer puts the thrills and chills together.


Happy Friday, dear readers!

In the movie Sliding Doors, the shape of Gwyneth Paltrow’s life is hinged on one simple event: whether or not she catches the train home. Most of us will never know how many minuscule incidents are altering our existence, but the big life-changers are easier to spot.

For this week’s writing exercise, tell me about an event or incident that changed your life in some way. It can be anything, big or small. Did you realize it was life-changing at the time? Did it change your life for better or worse? Would you go back in time and handle things differently if you could?

As for me, the event that changed my life in an insurmountable way was entering a writing contest when I was in Grade 11. The Canada Safety Council wanted essays, stories, or artwork with an anti-drunk driving message, and my class was required to enter a piece of writing. Everyone else wrote a statistical essay, but I went with fiction and wrote the story of a teenage boy reeling after a house party. He let his friend leave the party impaired and drive home, and when the story opens, the boy has just learned that his friend died in a car accident as a result. Pretty powerful stuff. This is the story I received the applause for.

When I won the contest, I was excited, but I had no idea how much it was going to change my life. The winning writers and artists were flown to Ottawa to receive an award and attend a special conference. I met my first serious boyfriend at this conference–a moody artiste from the small town of Thompson, Manitoba.

Until I met him, I fully expected to attend university in Calgary, Alberta, the home of my extended family. Our relationship changed everything. He convinced me to move to Manitoba, and for some reason, I felt drawn to Winnipeg. Whenever I visited this city, I felt like I was supposed to be here. I couldn’t explain it.

Journalism was my only option in Calgary, but in Winnipeg they had a program that taught advertising, journalism, and public relations, so that’s where I enrolled. I liked that it gave me more options, and my schooling certainly came in handy when journalism became unstable and I had to switch to public relations.

The guy I met in Ottawa also drastically effected my health and well-being, which in an odd way led me to kickboxing, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

It’s incredible to think that–if not for writing that one little story–I wouldn’t know any of the people who have become my friends and family in Manitoba. I would never have worked at the Museum, or The Winnipeg Free Press. I wouldn’t own the same home, or even have the same cats. Talk about a life-changer!

Your turn! What changed your life?

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  1. Lisa

    In 1989 shortly after my family’s house burned down (another story in itself) I decided to move to Winnipeg to look for work. Earlier that spring, I had met a guy from Winnipeg, and couldn’t see the relationship moving forward unless we were in the same city…So in the fall, I found an apartment and moved – without a job or prospect of a job (even though I had one back in the small town from where I uprooted myself). I spent the next 6 months half-assed looking for a job and spending time with this new boyfriend.
    As my EI $$ began to slowly dwindle I started to panic because I still hadn’t found a job. His sister-in-law was working as an Instructional Assistant with autistic students in a local high school and taking Education courses on the weekends. She was leaving for a 6-week student teaching assignment and the school was going to need someone to fill in for her for that time-period. She put in a good word for me (even though I had never worked in a school with students before) and I got the term-contract. When she returned to University full-time in September the school division hired me on to fill the empty position.
    While working there I ended up meeting my now-ex-husband as he was student teaching in one of the classes in which I worked. If I had never gone out with the other guy I wouldn’t have moved to the city when I did. My two wonderful children wouldn’t exist…it could go on and on because my ex-husband pushed me towards a computer programming career where I was inspired by one of my instructors who ran. So I started running…And running was one of the reasons my now-ex cites for our marriage breaking down. It can be crazy when you think of where one seemingly small decision leads you…

    If I had stayed in the small town I would have ended up working in the local forestry office as an admin assistant, partied my face off at one of the two local bars on weekends and likely married one of the guys from town…AND I’d probably be overweight and an alcoholic by now…

  2. Julius Csotonyi

    Great story Holli! Very inspiring. I love hearing about life-altering events of the type you describe, the personal history equivalent of the “butterfly effect” from mathematics and chaos theory, where small perturbations in initial conditions can significantly alter the outcome of a process.

    In my case, the perturbation could be said to have started during grad school, when a professor with a common interest in the burgeoning field of astrobiology brought to my attention a conference on Mars polar science that was going to take place in Lake Louise, Alberta. Despite the totally uninspiring setting, 😉 I decided to go because one of the few places in the solar system where we’d expect to find evidence of past extraterrestrial microbial life is the ice-rich polar regions of mars. Little did I realize how much life I would inevitably find…

    So I arrived, and my eye was quickly caught by all the fascinating presentations and posters…and one attendee in particular. I remember the first time I saw her, walking up to her seat on the left bank of chairs, quiet, but with a magnetic charm. After my clumsy first attempt at a scientific equivalent of a pick up-line later on, we ultimately discovered that we tapped a deep common well of interests. Alexandra hailed from Europe and I from Canada, and although it took a few years of on-and-off long distance communication, our recent adventures have culminated in an exchange of vows and leis on a Hawaiian beach at sunset.

    I could easily not have heard about the conference, and because she was also attending it as an observer, she could easily have missed it too, and who could have known that in missing it, we would each have slipped past the Loves of our Lives.

  3. Kim

    On a whim, having never talked about it before, I told a friend about how I had spent the previous 9 months writing a book. I don’t know what made me tell him, he simply asked the right question at the right moment and his response amazed and touched me. I had told him I was going to Brandon for the weekend and he asked what for. It crossed my mind to lie as to why, but I was going there to meet with my writing mentor. And I told him and that changed the entire path my life took from that day forward. Some good, some bad.
    1. I learnt how to talk about writing with people in my life.
    2. I learnt how to be willing to talk to people in general about things that were making me hurt (perhaps sometimes too much — had to make up for lost time you see).
    3. I came to see my marriage for what it was worth because of the talking I allowed myself to do.

    I’m only willing to talk about the good now. The bad I’ve talked about enough.

  4. kungfusinger

    The summer after my first (and miserably failure) year of university, I was working in the Museum in Peace River. That year I had determined to return to school in the fall and pass three more courses so that I had eight courses showing on my transcript. I really had no plan for after that. That summer, a tourist, one year older than me came into the museum in mid-July. We talked for about two hours and it came to light that he was from Calgary, which was where I would be returning to school in the fall. He gave me his phone number and told me to call when I got into town.

    This in itself was not a life-altering event. The life altering event was deciding to actually call him in September. I debated over it for months, whether I should or not. I was so nervous when I called…

    As it turned out, he remembered me. Dated and were married a year later. It was a monumentally bad situation. He was suicidal and emotionally abusive. He had double standards about everything. We were married four years when I had had enough and left.

    I have no idea what would have happened if I had not called him, but I do know it would have been different. Maybe I would have stayed in Calgary and loved it. Maybe I would have discovered a love for U of C and finished my engineering degree there. Maybe I would have moved to the okonogan or Toronto or… Maybe I would be a massage therapist…

    I do know one thing for sure. If I hadn’t called/married my first husband, I would not have built the strength of character I have now. By cutting me off from my family he taught me to appreciate them more. By living with a suicidal case, I have learned the vital importance of metacognition. I never let someone say things like “I am so stupid” or “I wish I were dead” or “I want to kill myself” in my hearing. People may think I am crazy, but I always make them take it back.

    I would not have moved to Grande Prairie in 2002 to go back to school. As a consequence of that, I would not have met my wonderful husband and soul mate. For all of my frustrations with finishing my Master’s in Engineering, I LOVE my life.

    The path my life took all hinges on one moment. September 9, 1997. Around 8pm. I was sitting on my bed in my grandmother’s basement in Calgary, staring at a sheet of yellow fullscap paper with a name and a phone number on it; Trying to decide wheter or not to take a chance and call the cute tourist I met at the museum.

  5. Story Teller

    Wow, brilliant stories everyone! I loved them all, and they are each so personal and heartfelt…I am touched and honored that you chose to share them here.

    Isn’t it interesting how many of our life-altering moments have to do with love? I wonder if the chance of love always makes us braver and more willing to take chances. I, for one, certainly wouldn’t have moved to small town Manitoba on my own! 🙂


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