Writing from the Heart: Technical writing and a tinfoil boat

Sometimes doing what you love takes precedence over everything else.


There are so many brilliant writers that come to the Chilmark Writing Workshop that I’ve decided that once in a while, I would like to feature one as a guest writer, and share their work.

So please welcome Allison Roberts! –Nancy 

By Allison Roberts

In college I majored in fine arts and English, with a minor in writing. My alma mater, Nazareth College of Rochester, only offered technical writing as a focus, which was fine — I learned a lot — but what I really wanted to do was write nonsensical blurbs, fiction, and poetry, draw and paint, and bring all the characters living inside my head to life. I realized, however, that all these arts-centered interests were tough to nearly impossible to make a living at. So when I graduated, I put on my big-girl panties and set out to find a “real” job. The first organization to hire me was a small IT company affiliated with Kodak.

My job was to write directions on how to use software (insert yawn here). It was horrible, or I should say, I was horrible at it. The subject matter evoked the same level of enthusiasm I felt watching dust settle. Where do I put the inflections? Are there any inflections? Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. I was afraid that if I did, in fact, put myself in the reader’s shoes, I’d wake up in a pool of my own saliva. For eight hours a day I sat in a seven- by 10-foot cubicle with no windows. To keep my muscles from atrophying, I’d go to the bathroom or the break room — every 30 minutes or so — or entertain myself by seeking out unexplored hallways to hide in.

My direct manager was a pleasant young woman with dimples, who quickly caught on to the fact that I was about to jump off the roof. She tried to find creative things for me to do on the down low to help ease my suffering. She asked me to illustrate the building we were housed in to use for a company badge, which I joyously attacked. But then, just as we began brainstorming additional inspiring projects for me, someone from upper management caught wind of our creative mutiny and fired me. “I understand you don’t like your job very much,” the big boss said, “so today is your last day. Finish it out and turn in your timesheet.” 

My face burned as I numbly took the walk of shame from his office back to my cubicle. I’d lasted one month as a technical writer. I’d never been fired before. I was mortified, yet I also felt like running out of the building, ripping my shirt off, and yelling, “I’m free!” while leaping over cars in the parking lot. In truth, I had no business writing directions on how to use software. Getting fired was a blessing — for everyone. In that moment, though, I was scared. At 24 years old I longed to be good at something secure, practical, and solid. I’d watched my artist parents doing what they loved, while simultaneously dealing with the consequences of not having consistent incomes — a reality for many creatives. So, believing I was acting responsibly, I shut down the things I loved the most.

I went directly to my mom’s house the day I was fired. “I feel like a failure,” I blubbered. “You’re not a failure,” she said, “you just don’t belong there.” My mom’s house was perched along the canal in Fairport, N.Y, and we sat on her deck drinking iced tea. I watched people paddle by in their kayaks, suspecting that they all had good-paying adult jobs, dental insurance, and killer retirement packages. I had no idea what to do next, and no matter how hard I tried to ignore myself, all I wanted to do was draw, act, and write weird shit.

Out of nowhere my mom said, “I have a great idea!” She got up, went inside, and returned with a piece of paper and a pen. “Here,” she said. “Write down the name of the company and the guy who fired you. We’re going to have a Pirate Funeral.” We made a boat out of tinfoil, put the paper in the boat, lit it on fire and sent it down the canal. I clearly remember watching that tinfoil boat floating away from me, with black smoke and flames flickering out from the top of it. I can still feel my mother’s arm around me as she yelled after the boat, “Burn, baby, burn!” 

And no matter how hard it’s been trying to make a living doing the things I love, I’ve never once dipped my toe into the technical writing pool again. Instead, much like a lost bird looking for its mates, I moved to Martha’s Vineyard to find mine.


  1. This is a wonderful and surprisingly universal story. What a wonderful and surprisingly universal tale. Getting fired under any circumstances can feel humiliating but it’s surprising how often it leads to a far better situation!

    How fortunate we are that Allison has brought her prodigious talents to our island. Thanks for featuring her, Nancy!

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