Leanne Milech, Writer + English Professor at Humber College

Leanne Milech, Writer + English Professor at Humber College

What is your morning routine?

In an ideal world, I wake up two hours before I need to start my work day. I make tea and check my email so that my mind feels clear. Then I meditate for 10-20 minutes, go to the gym, and do a bit of spiritual reading (I like to read Eckhart Tolle, Wayne Dyer, Caroline Myss, Deepak Chopra or Lissa Rankin). I recite affirmations, practice visualization, and journal for a few minutes; then I feel ready to start working. Sometimes I can only do one of the above things because I choose to sleep in, but that’s okay too :). I try not to be too rigid about my routine.

Tell us about your career path

I am a lawyer-turned-writer and English professor at Humber College.

My career path has been long and circular. As a little girl, I dreamed of being a writer. I spent most of my free time reading and writing stories, sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor. Books were the most magical of lifeboats to me; authors were my saviours. As an undergraduate, I took a couple of creative writing classes at Queen’s and majored in film studies and religious theory (two of my other passions are film and spirituality). Since authors were like mythical creatures to me, it was almost too much to imagine that I could actually become one. Since I wouldn’t try to become a writer in the real world, I decided that staying in school forever would be ideal: what could be better than teaching a subject I loved? If I was going to have a day job, becoming a professor and talking about movies seemed pretty dreamy.

After graduating from Queen’s, I ended up getting into the film theory master’s program at NYU, but I freaked out about the massive tuition and decided not to go at the last minute. Stuck with a year off school and in the midst of a quarter-life crisis, I panicked about taking the route to academia (I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough jobs when I graduated), so I went to law school, almost entirely out of fear about not being able to support myself or my parents, who struggled financially.

As an only child, I planted a seed in my mind that I would have to take care of them one day – especially my mother, who was schizophrenic. My dad worked as an appliance salesman at Home Depot, and they didn’t have any savings, which just made me more nervous. (My parents never told me to take care of them, mind you – I put that burden on myself.)

After graduating from Western law school, I articled on Bay Street at the now-defunct Heenan Blaikie and got hired back as a corporate associate. I was miserable practicing law, though: the hours, the pressure, and the constant need to be perfect drained me. I was good at my job, but I had no passion for it, and I was totally out of balance. I quit after five months of being an associate, in the middle of the recession in 2009. I was in a huge amount of debt from law school, so I needed to keep working for a while before I could go back to school and set out on the right path. I worked at my friend’s father’s boutique estate planning firm for a few years until I paid off my debt. The job was low-pressure, and I loved the partner I worked with, so that was a happy period though I knew I was still in the wrong profession.

As soon as I paid back my debt, I asked myself what I would do if I wasn’t afraid, and the answer was super loud and clear: I would follow my little girl dream and try to be a writer. I applied to the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Guelph and got in. I wrote a memoir as my thesis, something I’d always wanted to do, worked with some of my literary heroes and gained a bit of teaching experience at Humber College. I recently started teaching in the English department there as a contract professor. I teach legal writing to the paralegal and law clerk students, as well as a first-year critical reading and writing course to Liberal Arts students. I am also privileged to teach a grammar and editing course in the Women of Courage program, a wonderful program for women who have survived abusive relationships and are funded to pursue an Administrative Services Certificate at Humber.

While I teach, I’m working on turning my thesis into a screenplay, which is blowing my mind with joy: it is SO fun to combine my two greatest loves (film and writing) into one activity! I’m not focused on the outcome of this endeavour (whether I can sell the screenplay remains to be seen), but rather, I’m staying in the moment and enjoying the process.

I love where I ended up, but it’s taken a while to get here. Along the way, I’ve worked as a legal writer, pediatrician’s receptionist, tutor, and a cross-border wealth strategist at a financial planning firm. I’ve even had my own children’s book publishing company! Throughout my journey, I’ve felt totally lost at times, but somehow I’ve landed in a beautiful place.

What challenges do you or women face in your industry?

In terms of law, which I think of as my industry of the past, it’s all the typical things that you hear – especially the work-life balance issue. I’m not sure how women who practice law and have children do it! It helps if you work in-house at a company or for the government because your hours are better, but then you are probably taking a pay cut. If you work in private practice, especially at a big firm, I think you either need a partner who’s at home more/has a flexible schedule, or you need to hire a nanny.

As for teaching at the college level, hours are flexible because when you’re not teaching, although you have lots of prep and marking, you can do it on your own schedule, which I really like. I don’t have kids, but the flexibility of teaching gives me space to write creatively. I haven’t felt any discrimination as a female professor at a large college: the dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences is a woman, and there are tons of full-time, permanent female faculty at Humber. There are plenty of powerful women around me who are teaching and writing and making it all seem possible, although I know female professors with children struggle with work-life balance just as much as female lawyers.

In terms of writing, I’m still at the baby stages of any career that might unfold there, so I don’t feel like I can speak with any authority about that industry. I will say that Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA), a Canadian literary organization focused on gender equity in the literary world, does a lot of good work on trying to close the gender gap in book review culture, in addition to focusing on other related and important mandates. I’ll also say that as an MFA student, I was mentored by female authors who are at the peak of their careers and seem to be doing extremely well (better than some of their male counterparts), so I know there are a variety of experiences out there. There is, of course, more work to be done and much more conversation to be had regarding gender inequality.

What advice would you give to young girls who want to be the NEXT you?

I would say to follow your bliss like a lighthouse through the fog of your fear. I was so afraid to leave law and go in a direction that fed my soul, but, honestly, there was nothing to be afraid of. I’m living a much more authentic life now. I wake up every day grateful to be of service to my students and the creative muse. The universe has taken care of me financially; while I’m not making the Bay Street dollars I made at the beginning of my career, I have more than enough cash, and I’m approximately one billion times happier. How can you put a price tag on that?

There are so many other things too – I would also say not to define yourself by your career. When things were rocky and I knew I wasn’t in the right place, it was really easy to get sad and compare myself to people who seemed to be doing exactly what they were meant to do. I often felt frustrated and even ashamed of where I was. I wish I’d done a better job at knowing that I was valuable and worthy just because I am alive and breathing and I bring love into the world; our worthiness is not defined by our job title or however many accolades we can rack up. I know that now, but I didn’t always. My ego was running the show for way too long!

How do you separate work life from your personal life?

It’s so hard! I’m a workaholic, so I have trouble turning work off, especially because I do so much work from my home office. I think it helps to have a time of day when I say, “Okay, now I’m not working,” and I turn my computer off. Giving myself a hard stop and shutting my office door makes it feel like I’m “leaving the office.” The other thing I’ll say is that maybe it’s not so bad to have work and personal life so integrated? I’m just musing here . . . but if you love what you do, and it’s an extension of who you are, maybe it’s okay for those worlds to blend together. Just a thought.

What inspires you?

I’m moved by great writing, beautiful films, soulful music, spiritual teachers, and the people around me who live from their heart, remembering that love is the true guiding force of our lives: my friends, who are amazing mothers, doctors, teachers, midwives, jewelry designers, and healers of all kinds; and my fiancé, who constantly reminds me to be mindful, patient, and kind with her huge heart and commitment to self-growth.

When you’re off the clock, what are your indulgences

Netflix. I don’t consider high quality shows like Glow, Love, and The OA indulgences (more like inspiration), but I’m deep into The Fosters right now, and I find that to be a bit of a guilty pleasure because the writing isn’t always so hot . . . but the stories about the US foster care system, racism, class, sexual orientation, gender identification, and addiction are so important, and the acting is really great, so I can’t help myself. Even though the content is vital, The Fosters is still an indulgence. And if I’m being really decadent, watching The Fosters and eating vegan ice cream at the same time : )

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