Writing conversation: early years

Catharine writes:

Writing is a fascinating and varied occupation. In 1970, much to my surprise, I landed a job as speechwriter for the Minster of Citizenship in the Ontario government of the time under Premier Bill Davis, I had never written a speech in my life, but his team was interested in empowering women, so everyone rallied around to help me the best they could.
I had just come back from 5 years as Research Editor at Pace magazine in Los Angeles. My big scoop was the unforgettable story of Robin Lee Graham, the youngest person to ever sail around the world at age 16. He wrote to me from out at sea in his 25 foot boat with two cats for company. His mast had just blown overboard. But there he was facing untold dangers with immense equanimity. Fortunately, he grabbed a line to the mast in time to stop it floating away. His story became a book with the help of one of the senior editors at Pace, Derek Gill, then a movie, ‘Dove’ with Gregory Peck.
I had also had an article published in the Financial Post, entitled ‘What does Canada want from Japan?” A question which had been put to me by a Japanese editor of a newspaper with over 5 million readers. This article landed me the job as speechwriter.
I had never written a speech in my life. That summer I thought I would die from frustration trying to master this new artform. Fortunately my immediate boss was a trained social worker, Robert Sirman, who patiently corrected my work, saying to himself in exasperation, ‘This woman must have something to say!’
The truth is each of us has something to say, if only we can discover what that is, and how to express it.
Then my young mentor left for Europe and the powers-that-be fired me as speechwriter and gave a lowly job in another department. Then they hired a hot-shot writer from Maclean’s magazine – he lasted exactly four weeks then walked out on them. Sheepishly they came back to me, saying ‘Catharine, we have an emergency. Our Minister has to give a speech in Los Angeles about Canada. Can you come up with something?’
I asked a young secretary in our department, ‘what is your vision of Canada?’ Without thinking she answered ‘I believe it is the creation of a new society’ – Eureka, I thought! I found a good joke to get the speech up and running and somehow it all came together and the speech was a great hit. Our minister, Robert Welch, was a fine orator and could make the words of a speech dance off the page.
From then on, I never looked back. There were at least four speeches to produce a week, sometimes more. New immigrants had come flooding into Canada after the war; Toronto at that time had some 70 cultural centres, a far different city from the one I left in the 50’s to work as a volunteer in post-war Europe. I enjoyed talking to all the different people of different nationalities to find out the special purpose behind their work. I learned a lot. Then I would sit in a restaurant, surrounded by students from the university, down there on Bloor street, and write the first draft of the speech.
One time I had to write a speech for the annual ‘Departmental Estimates’. I flubbed it; the Deputy Minister was not pleased. But the minister gave me another chance. I got up at 4 in the morning, rewrote until dawn, then the staff at the office pitched in to help me race to get it typed and copied in time. Phew!
Moving to Montreal with Neil meant leaving this job and looking for a new one in a new city. It took me four months to find one, as Researcher at the ‘Reader’s Digest’ magazine.
To be continued


  1. 1

    I remember as a kid reading about Robin’s round-the-world adventure. As kid who sailed, it resonated well with me.

  2. 2
    bluemoosebicycle Says:

    Hello Terry Robinson,
    Am so interested that you are a sailor yourself, what was your own experience of sailing?
    Never will I forget the time I was given the chance to captain a tiny sailboat in a race on a small stormy lake in Algonquin park in Northern Ontario, organised by Camp Tanamakoon. During July and August at camp, aged 13, I spent every single moment I could in one of the 5 small boats owned by the camp.
    So there we were on a July afternoon paddling out from the dock – just me and two crew-members – until the wind could catch the sail. Then we were flying along – everything else in the world forgotten – what the counsellors didn’t realise was how inexperienced I really was to be in the role of captain in such a windy day.
    We were well ahead as we raced along, then on the homeward stretch one of the other boats began to catch up with us. I told the 2 crew members, aged about 12, to slide down to the lee side of the sail, thus increasing our speed but tipping the boat dangerously.
    As we sped toward the dock, all the counsellors were jumping up and down and shouting frantically, ‘reef in the sail, reef in the sail!’ (Have I remembered the terms right?) We just made it safely in without too much damage – thank goodness! You can imagine the glares I got from the authority figures!

    This is just to explain another reason the Robin Lee Graham story was so significant for me.

    Catharine McKenty

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