Napkins from Space.

Sorry for my silence these past months, but I’ve been trying to finish a draft of my novel (or I’m creating the world’s most literary booster seat ever).  I’ve asked the wonderful Rupinder Gill to entertain you today.

And she agreed!

Rupinder Gill has written for The Rumpus, McSweeneys, CBC Radio, The National Post, and the comedy program This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Her first book, On the Outside Looking Indian, was shortlisted for Canada’s Stephen Leacock Humor Medal and is now available in the United States from the good people at Riverhead.


Every writer has at least one period of self-doubt and panic, when they worry that they’ve made a mistake pursuing their dream. This occurs for me fairly often, around late afternoon when I realize I’m still in my sweatpants, laughing at my own joke that I inevitably erase before the day is done. It hits again at night when I see my ‘To Do’ list and note that the only item I’ve crossed off is “Buy milk.” Writing as a career choice is wonderful but unreliable, which is a lot of why it took me so long to pursue it. It always felt like the antithesis of a real job and I was raised to be a practical. This I took seriously, always aiming not for the stars but for a steady, reliable gig somewhere in the world of business, a decision I made after abandoning my first grand dream.

When I was nine years old, we studied the Milky Way in school and I was hooked. My teacher flipped through slides of stars and planets showcasing the beautiful rings of Saturn and red majesty of Mars, ignoring our giggles when she introduced us to Uranus. I put my hand up for every question shouting out “The Big Dipper!” and “Calisto! Europa!” until the teacher asked me to let someone else have a turn. I couldn’t help it; I wanted to be an astronaut with a fervor kids today only seem to hold for being famous. I took out scores of astronomy books from the library and read up on the uncharted territory that I dreamt of one day reaching. I begged my parents for a glow in the dark mobile of stars to hang over my bed, glancing at it before I went to sleep every night and hoping they had powdered chocolate milk on the space shuttles. Our teacher Mrs. Costigan further encouraged my interstellar dreams by giving us long posters featuring photos and facts about the planets. To keep sharp, I hung mine in my bedroom and consulted it each night. I had absolutely no doubt in my mind that I was going to be an astronaut. I was in the sweet spot of childhood where you had dreams about adult life and nothing could dissuade you from them. Aspirations like blasting off from the Earth seemed less like a ludicrous fantasy and more like a plan that could be enacted with some hard work, sacrifice and an understanding of centrifugal force. I didn’t realize how much I talked about being an astronaut until one Wednesday, when we were sitting in a circle around Mrs. Costigan.

She said “I have something special for someone here.” This was our cue to start a guessing game.

“Is it alive?” one kid asked.

“No,” she replied.

“Is it for a boy?” asked another.

“No,” she replied, narrowing the field. After a few more guesses we ascertained that it was for me and I can’t speak for the rest of the kids but I believe this was the point when the game really got exciting.

“Is it a book?” I asked, hopeful.

“Is it a toy?” asked another kid.

Finally after our Sherlocking proved valiant but still at a nine-year-old’s level, Mrs. Costigan pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to me. It was an every day ordinary serviette, but with an extraordinary touch: on it was a message from Marc Garneau, the first Canadian astronaut and first Canadian in space. On it he had written, “Keep reaching for the stars, Rupinder!”  Mrs. Costigan, upon hearing that Garneau was having dinner at a friend’s house, ran over there and asked him to sign an autograph for a student who had a grand dream. A real life astronaut wrote something to me, likely from one of those fancy space pens while a moon rock held the napkin down. It was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. All the kids gathered around to admire it and in that moment I felt that not only could I do anything in the world, but anything in the Milky Way. I’d love to tell you I’m writing this from outer space, while staying at the country-planet home of Spock, but this dream never became a reality, due partially to a check I bounced to Virgin Galactic. I held on to that dream for a number of years but it started slowly drifting away once my head came out of the atmosphere and I looked at the requirements to hold that particular job. For some reason, NASA felt fairly strongly that you had to be great at math and science to be rewarded with a place on their rocket ships. There were no points for prowess in literature and TV trivia. I cursed NASA for making me so sure of something that everything else now paled in comparison. And I lost that treasured napkin.

I remained dreamless for the better part of two decades, when I couldn’t shake the desire to give writing a shot. I had a steady job in television publicity, which I enjoyed, but something in me was reverting back to that nine-year-old who wanted something so badly it consumed her. After my day at work, I would go home and write until late at night, and all throughout the weekend.

“That must be exhausting,” friends would say, but I assured them, it was intensely energizing. It’s exciting to believe in possibilities. What’s exhausting is living a life where you tell yourself who you can or cannot be, and what you do and don’t deserve. How rich I would be if I could bottle the unbridled enthusiasm and belief in the future that children have and sell it to life-weary adults. When I decided to take the leap into writing, I felt like I was that little girl again, who would read up on planets all night and quiz herself. I had let go of my dreams once and it took me so long to find myself again.  I remind myself of this when writing feels hard. It should be hard. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s a very long stretch to reach for the stars.


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