Best-selling children’s and young adult author Dorothy Joan Harris is the kind of 83-year-old we all wish to be. Genuine and warm, she has a humble attitude towards an extraordinary life.
“All writers need luck,” she smiles, “and a day job.”
When we met with Joan, she wore a warm yellow shirt and had a steaming mug of tea in front of her. Her youthful eyes twinkled when she reminisced about her life filled with deep roots and dear friends.
She highly recommends being in your 80s “if you can get there!” With daily walks and a busy lifestyle, she found time to provide us with nourishing wisdom. Snuggle in.
1. Upgrade when necessary. Joan learned how to write on a typewriter, then got used to the feel of an electric typewriter. “It’s a very different feel and takes awhile to get used to that.” Once she did, she could “type up a storm” but didn’t have the same relationship with a computer. Just because things are constantly upgrading around us doesn’t mean that we have to.
2. Don’t throw in the towel too soon. Joan learned that Dr. Seuss’ first manuscript And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street was sent out 27 times and came back 27 times. After Joan wrote her first children’s book, she thought of this magic number and kept persevering. Her lucky number ended up being 17. With 20 books now published, we could all learn from her dogged determination.
3. Think ahead, but modify when necessary. Born in Japan, Joan was determined to move back as an adult. After agreeing to two years of teaching, she got engaged in Canada the night before she left. “Very poor timing indeed!” she laughs. She still went, but decided that a one-year posting was more appropriate.
Joan also changed her expected course when she moved into a house with her husband Alan in 1956. They both lost their parents young and felt rootless. “I think we overdid the roots,” Dorothy jokes, “because I’m still here!” A five-year plan (or fifty-year plan) is not set in stone for any of us.
4. Learn by doing. A creative person through and through, Joan likes oil painting and watercolours but when she was a young mother, she switched course: “once you have children around, oil paints are no good.” She signed up for a writing class, knowing that if she paid for it, she would write. “I don’t think you can really learn how to write from anybody,” she muses. If you have the inner spark, “you learn it by doing.” Yoda in Canadian author form.
5. Be inspired by what is around you. Joan’s book The House Mouse was inspired by her daughter Kim’s untouched dollhouse that was discovered by her son Douglas. She wrote the book Don’t Call Me Sugarbaby to help the daughter of her best friend, who was struggling with diabetes. Another friend whose daughter suffered with anorexia inspired Even If It Kills Me. This book now is available in treatment centres and in Sick Kids’ hospital, which makes Joan very proud. Use the world around you to spark your own creativity.
At one point of the interview, Joan quietly said, “I did some good somewhere.” She was speaking about her books, but we think, with all of her accomplishments and relationships, it is universally true.