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How 25 Years of Teaching Shaped Me For My Writing Career

The Loyalist Trilogy Elaine Cougler Historical Fiction
Launch for The Loyalist’s Luck, October, 2015

My writing career found me when I was well on in my life. I had taught high school English, French and Computers, spent some time as an Assistant Head of English, brought student musicals to my high school, met many amazing people both in the classroom and the staff room, all the while with my husband raising two lively children. As John Denver said in one of his songs “It’s been a good life all in all” and I wouldn’t change it.

One of the reasons I liked teaching high school was that for the most part I was judged by my scholarship, my problem solving abilities, and by the quality of my teaching. I judged myself by the progress made by my students and by my relationships in the classroom, in the staff room, and in the rest of my life. Being a teacher was not just my day job at the school but also how I led my life as a bit of a role model in the community.

There was still some of that inherent sexism in the system but I found when I pushed back in a reasoned and coherent way, being a woman was not a hindrance to me. There was the great principal who called me into his office because a parent had complained about a couple of mild swear words I had allowed a Grade 13 student to use in a personal essay. (Yes, we had grade 13 back then!) I explained to the principal that the students in that class were 18 or 19 years old and the student had used the swear words in dialogue to show who his character was. It was totally appropriate. Dick agreed. He always listened to me and treated me as though I had a brain in my head.

Another time with a female vice principal I took a stand. That turned out a little differently. First thing in the morning I got an On Call slip in my mailbox asking me to take an absent Phys. Ed. teacher’s class. Fine. I read further on the slip. I was supposed to supervise in the gym as the students practised their moves on the gymnastics equipment. I had no training for that. I knew it was actually dangerous for me to supervise in the gym, both for me and for the students. There had been a well-publicized case about this very thing happening and students being injured. The teacher was blamed and punished.

I popped into the vice principal’s office and explained I would not be able to do that. Instead I would take the students to an empty classroom and let them work on homework. After much talking back and forth, the VP told me that my first responsibility was to my job and I did not have the right to refuse this class. I told her that my first responsibility was to myself as a person, then to my family, and thirdly to my job. She was not happy. I did not take the students to the gym but to another classroom where they could work on homework. I had listened to my own brain and stood up for what I knew was right.

As a teacher, every day I smiled as I welcomed my students into my classroom, dealt with questions and comments a few might have as they arrived and got the class started. My philosophy was to be in a good mood in order to make the learning environment pleasant. If I had had a rough start to my day with my own teenagers or some other blip in the timetable, once the class arrived, I learned to ‘fake it until I would make it’. I put a smile on my face and in no time I was happy again and giving the students the atmosphere they deserved from me. That has been a lifelong thing of mine. With this philosophy it is amazing how short a time it takes to actually be happy.

So how does all of this relate to my writing career?

2 people smiling
With 2-time Leacock winner Terry Fallis who wrote lovely things on a couple of Elaine’s covers. You just have to ask!

These anecdotes are life experiences. They are things the like of which happen to all of us and they give us the experiences that make us who we are. They also provide details to draw on in our writing. Write about what we know, the writing teachers say, and these experiences are the kind of things that show us how to write the scenes, create the dialogue and imagine our characters’ actions because we can see and hear them in our heads. Experience teaches us what we did right and what we did wrong. How many times have I said that next time I’ll do better?

I taught for 25 years and left the profession at the age of 52. My husband and I were ready to move on to new things. He took a job or two in his skills area and I found a lot of creative things to explore. I learned pottery and loved it but finally gave it up when I had no more friends and family to gift with my creations. Then I decided quilting was something I needed to learn. I started with a giant one for our king-size bed. (A typical Elaine action. Ha ha.) Loved it but how many quilts did I actually need?

One of my music compositions. I have about 30 completed and a bunch more drafts.

All my life I have been a singer so I joyfully carried on with that. I sang in three wonderful choirs (at different times) and got really excited about writing my own music. Those songs reflected what was going on in my life and still do as I sing them at my piano. Right now I am working on recording a few of them before my voice completely gives up. (More on that in the weeks to come.)

When I was 60 my son asked me if there was anything that I wished I had done over my life. Immediately  “Write a novel!” popped out of my mouth. Of course, I had always loved reading and writing but had never stepped up to getting published. The time had come. A week later I walked into a Borders store in Hilton Head, South Carolina and bought a book. How to Write and Sell Your First Novel. I was off and running.





My confidence gained over the trial and error method during the previous years of my life had prepared me for traversing the author trail. I went to conferences, writing groups, book clubs, and other writing oriented groups. I learned all I could. I asked questions everywhere I went. And I loved it all. Finally I felt I had a book to put out there. That took me to query letters. Yes, I wrote hundreds of them and mostly heard nothing. One agent asked to see my whole manuscript and then promptly told me the first 100 pages were crap.

I could have stopped then.

Instead I kept going. I hired an editor, kept learning in all the ways I could and changed my thinking just a little. From my time in 4-H clubs in my teen years, I pulled up the motto. Learn to do by doing. I kept doing. And learning. Finally, after 6 years, dozens of bookish events across the continent, and lots of working my way through this journey, I started my own publishing company, Peache House Press. I hired out the things I needed to and learned myself the things that were in my realm of possibilities. In June of 2013, The Loyalist’s Wife was ready.

The initial cover for my first book.


That was almost 11 years ago. Eight books in total to this point. It’s been a wonderful ride and I’ve met hundreds of amazing people along the way. I found the thing that speaks to my soul–writing. May each of you find your own dream, whatever it might be. And still, when I come up with a way to express something that makes me just smile as I roll the words over my tongue, I get my reward. Here’s one that I used in Canada: Brave New World when it launched last June.

“I am somewhat sad that this book could not contain all the stories from the vast number of new and older Canadians. The more I compiled stories and talked to people abut the book, the more stories I heard about. Of course, I could not possibly use all of them. Just know that the stories here are but a sampling of what is Canada’s history, a quick dip into our refreshing Canadian waters.

I loved that last phrase for its originality and its connection to our Canadian geography. It led directly into the first story, one I wrote from my time teaching English as a Second Language to young Vietnamese escapees at the end of the war in Vietnam. I guess I was writing what I knew!


eight book covers



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