Becoming a Novelist in her 60s: Joan’s Story

 Joan’s life has been full of next acts, yet it would be her son’s drug addiction that would propel her to begin writing. She is now the published author of two novels.

Tell us about your background.

As I reflect on this topic, now at 70 years of age, a pattern of next acts emerges that has occurred roughly with each decade of adulthood. Each one is more dramatic than the last it seems. It takes courage to step out of one’s comfort zone, or even out of an uncomfortable one for that matter. Ultimately, I’ve always been able to gather the courage to move forward, make changes, and reinvent myself, which I owe to the solid foundation built from a calm, carefree childhood in the small lake community of Silver Lake Village in northern Ohio in the ‘50s. Summers were spent swimming in the lake (a short bike ride away) and boating (no motor boats); winters, ice skating and sledding; and we walked to and from Silver Lake Grade School (no carpools). Our fun-loving, supportive parents encouraged us, my two younger brothers and I, to explore, study, find our own path, pursue our interests and “step out of the box” (not their words).

Age 10, with my brothers

I fell in love with the French language in seventh grade, which continued throughout high school, college, and adulthood. Never having traveled outside the United States, I longed to study abroad in France, which wasn’t the norm in the ‘60s. Not like it is today. I found a private program because Ohio State University had none at that time, and was accepted for advanced/graduate study for the summer of 1968 at the Université de Grenoble. Yes, I was nervous, since I knew no one in the group and had never traveled outside the United States, but I was excited for the experience to stretch myself.

I was placed with a rather well-to-do family of the haute bourgeoisie, who proved to be stand-offish and distant, yet because I could spend most of my day in town, in classes and cafés with new friends, I endured those challenges in their home. I began dreaming in French and reached fluency. I had definitely stepped out of my comfort zone and felt stronger for it.

I married my college sweetheart and taught secondary French in Kent, Ohio, while I lived at home with my parents for the year my husband was in Vietnam. That year, in May 1970, I was teaching at the public high school on the day of the Kent State campus shootings. Tumultuous times in our country. But another tragedy was unfolding at home. My younger brother, the middle child, had his first psychotic break at 20 years of age, and would later be diagnosed with schizophrenia. He’d spend the next two decades in and out of mental institutions and ultimately remain with our parents in our childhood home.

My husband and I moved to Bloomfield, New Jersey, where my daughter was born (I joined the Alliance Française), then to Chillicothe, Ohio where my son was born, only to move within six months to Lake Oswego, Oregon. My husband changed jobs with frequency and travelled weeks at a time while I stayed home to raise our children, pack boxes, and adjust to new locations. It seemed I was constantly starting over. Next Acts could’ve been the title for the first twenty years of my adulthood. Daunting times, yet in hindsight, I learned how capable I was at adapting to change, which I came to accept as life’s only constant.

Taking the kids to Disneyland, 1980

In May 1980, Mt. St. Helen’s volcano erupted—Lake Oswego is approximately 50 miles southwest of it. For months, we heard updates on the movements within the volcano. When the powerful boom brought us to our feet, we knew, and ran to our back deck to watch the plume rise. Ash rained down for days. We had to wear masks and keep our cars in the garage for fear of clogging the engines.

In my early 30s, I filed for divorce and needed to go back to work. I’d spent ten years at home raising my children, so I obtained my teaching certificate for Oregon and lucked out when the Lake Oswego School District needed a part-time French teacher for junior and senior high school. Perfect timing for me. Another French teacher and I (she’s still a close friend) decided to promote a new program for teaching foreign language—to teach classes only in French, not use English. The school board loved it. And eventually, so did our students. While I was often performing charades (exhausting) for the beginners to create interest, the overwhelming response was encouraging; the students could speak the language, albeit in phrases, and interest was high. How many times have you heard people say they “can read a little, but can’t speak it”—frustrating for most. Granted, it takes years to speak fluently, but early exposure helps toward that end. I was asked to teach an evening class for adults at Portland Community College. An entirely different experience, because adults thirsted for learning the language—no charades required.

Field trip to Quebec City while teaching French, 1970

Kids at home and kids at school and not enough pay made for a desire to change jobs. Another act was around the corner.

In the early ‘80s, software companies were growing exponentially but extensive travel was required and I wouldn’t leave my children. Oregon is lumber country. I found an ad (only a P.O. Box to submit résumés) in the Lake Oswego newspaper for a full-time job as a French bilingual executive secretary. I’d never been a secretary but I could type and I needed a job, so I made calls to find out where the company was located. Dressed in a navy-blue suit, résumé in hand, I confidently walked in to request an interview. It was granted on the spot. The owner turned out to be an elderly Frenchman (in his 60s) so I spoke to him in French at the outset. With his encouragement and frequent absences (he often yachted up and down the West Coast), I learned the business, buying and selling finished lumber, dealing primarily with French importers in French Polynesia. I was actually using French in business, in real life. It was a high learning curve coming from the classroom, but pursuing my love for the French language was paying off in unexpected ways. An executive from a large lumber company once said to me, “I bet it took you longer to learn French than lumber!” True.

Now on the cusp of turning 40, another change was in store. A French importer of plywood in Tahiti, who was becoming one of our largest clients, asked me to open a brokerage office solely for his company. My boss had ignored him a lot, seeing him as an upstart. After much deliberation and research, and the opportunity for more income, I chose to be the manager of this new, Tahitian-owned, lumber export company. Because I’d established good relationships with lumber companies in the Northwest as a buyer and had learned the nuances of shipping, the new brokerage company was a financial success within a short time. I also traveled to Tahiti and the outer islands every few years, meeting with other French Polynesian importers, who didn’t speak English.

In 1989, at the age of 42, I went to my high school class reunion in Ohio. I’d been a single parent for nine years and felt happy, content. My life was quite complete and I never cared to get married again. Never say never. Jeff and I met again at the reunion (we’d never dated) and fell head over heels in love. The only caveat was that he lived in Los Angeles and was a devoted hands-on dad to his two young children, who were only 5 and 8 years old, so he’d never move away and leave them. A credit to him really. My children were 13 and 18 years old. But I’d have to relocate, move the business and begrudgingly leave my beloved Oregon if we chose to marry.

After three years of a long-distance love affair, we married in 1992. I was 45 years old. Three weeks before our wedding in Sunriver, Oregon, my ex-husband was killed in an automobile accident. One of the hardest times in my life was to tell my children of his death. I even reconsidered whether to move to L.A. but my home in Oregon had sold and all arrangements had been made. My soon to be 16-year-old son and I moved, while my daughter stayed in college at Oregon State University.

My wedding to Jeff

When did you think about making a change?

My son adapted well initially. By the time he was a junior in high school, he’d changed from the outgoing, clean-cut, popular, athletic guy into a pot smoking, pony-tailed hippy and was struggling in private school. Five years later, he was in detox for heroin addiction. My daughter had dropped out of school and was lost. My whole world spiraled into despair. And I felt to blame—bad decisions all around.

I was 50 years old when I learned of my son’s drug addiction. My work with the export company had lost its luster some years before and I’d considered going back to school (UCLA was a mile from our home) for a Master’s in French Literature. I quit my job and devoted my time to Al Anon, the support group for families and friends of alcoholics and addicts. Two of their mantras: “Focus on yourself” and “Get busy, you’ll get better,” took hold. I signed up for creative writing classes at UCLA Extension. In time, a whole new world opened up for me.

I’d never considered writing. I loved words, French words especially, but because my grades in English were most often Cs, I never considered writing. One sentence, one paragraph at a time (Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life), I began to write short stories, mostly about my family and my experiences.

Writing became the only endeavor I’d found where I had no concept of time passing. I’d never been so absorbed in anything else. Of course, I didn’t think I was any good, but one of my professors suggested I write a novel and that I get one of my stories published. Nothing could’ve been further from my mind, particularly publishing. But I signed up for another class, “Writing Your First Novel.” I haltingly began and realized I had tons of material. Although a cliché, I wrote about what I knew: home life, tragedy, divorce, affairs, my brother’s fall into mental illness—details came rushing in. I was learning the craft of writing.

What is your next act?

I am a novelist. I self-published my first novel, Voluntary Chaos, in 2009, at the age of 62; it won Honorable Mention in the New York Book Festival 2010. It’s the story of a stay-at-home mom who becomes entangled in a passionate love affair. Unable to reconcile her duty-bound commitment to the husband she’s outgrown and her devotion to her two young children, Sylvia wrestles for years with the moral dilemma to stay married or divorce. Under the shadow of Mt St Helens, everything blows apart. We see her best friend advise her to stay married but “live separate lives,” her return to work teaching French, her parents’ despair coping with her younger brother’s schizophrenia, and her endearing children struggle with their parents’ inability to avoid chaos. From Oregon to Europe, she gradually learns to face the inevitability to find contentment within herself.

My second novel, Just In Time, was published in fall of 2017 by She Writes Press, an all-women’s publishing company. It’s based on the story of my brother, who had his first psychotic break at the age of twenty. In and out of institutions most of his adult life, the only place Steve feels at peace is at home in Silver Lake, Ohio with his parents. He’s not able to live alone. After both his mother and father suddenly pass away, his siblings hope to preserve his sense of relative stability and scramble to find someone reliable to live with him in the home. Their search turns up only one contender: a sister-in-law desperate for a new place to live. In the months that follow, these two virtual strangers, thrown together out of necessity, navigate tension and crisis—and ultimately forge a fragile harmony. Just in Time, reveals a hopeful, first-hand account of the day-to-day rollercoaster of life with a schizophrenic.

I love writing—the long, laborious process of putting the “right” words on the page. I once spent two hours writing and rewriting the following sentence, a lake setting at night: “A wispy curtain of clouds that seemed to drape the sky created a sheer-like film over the stars.” And I wasn’t frustrated! I used to see rewriting as a flaw, implying my writing wasn’t any good. Good writers rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. It’s the only way to improve. The best, well-known writers swear by rewrites. I love the people I meet, all kinds, all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. It’s a wildly diverse, fascinating group of people with a lot to say. They’re substantive and I learn from them.

I also host a literary salon. I joined the Women’s National Book Association in 2007 and became an officer on the board for several years. When Julia Drake, my current publicist at Wildbound PR, was President and I, Vice President, we discussed the need to revitalize the organization by creating more social events to bring members together. A Literary Tea Salon seemed ideal. She’d provide the authors and I, my home. The salons took off. They’re held twice a year, in April and November. Authors come to read and discuss their work and their writing process. And their books are for sale. We average 25 to 30 people at each event, which is open to anyone who’s interested, for a $15 fee at the door. Check out your local chapter for events in your area. 

A literary salon

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

Most of my family and friends have supported me from day one and read numerous chapters along the way. Even though my son and daughter have been my biggest cheerleaders, each chose not to read my first novel (many childhood memories were too painful). Someday they will. And I understand completely. Granted, there were scenes I hesitated to write or expand (sex scenes for sure), but my writer’s group insisted. “You can’t have a hot love affair without sex scenes.” And I relented—they were the hardest to write. Many novelists pull stories from their real lives and encounter backlash. So far, no one has been upset. A bit uncomfortable, but not angry. It can be a hazard.

Our family, 2007

 

What challenges did you encounter?

While my first novel has sold quite well (I earned what I’d invested), the marketing, however, proved to be more challenging than the writing, which is true for many writers. I’d heard in a class I’d taken, “Marketing your book, finding an agent and publisher, will take longer than writing the book.” Not what I relished, but I dove in, sent my books to cruise lines and bookstores, and went on websites to learn where and how to market. And the novel is still selling.

I also found I needed a deadline to keep writing. Thankfully, I began working with a writer’s group in 2002, and their support helped me finish my first novel. The group kept me going, submitting one chapter at a time. I finished my second novel with a different writer’s group—we’ve been together since 2013, and still going. We’ve told each other that we feel like a family.

My writing group, meeting twice a week since 2013

What did you learn about yourself through the writing?

I find it redeeming that it took a great personal tragedy, my son’s fall into drug addiction, to turn my life in a whole new direction. And it took lots of courage and striving and openness to follow the direction that was presented to me along the way. By the way, my son has been clean and sober since 1999—eighteen plus years and his life is truly a miracle. Happy, healthy, successful and loving. There’s always hope.

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Be open to change. Don’t try too hard to “find your passion.” Rather observe what crosses your path and/or your mind, and go with that. Remember, “90% of success is just showing up.” My reinventions came with adversity, every time and over much time. It’s amazing what and who may be around the corner if you just get out of bed, turn off the TV, and take the walk.

With my son, Tyler

What advice do you have for late-in-life would-be writers?
Take a class to learn the rudiments of the writing craft. You need to know the basics. Start with short stories, taking one slow step at a time. A short anecdote. I had a class where I wrote about our dog waking me up in the morning when she stood by my side of the bed and licked my face. It was just a paragraph. Write about the mundane; it helps you observe details you might never have noticed.

 

What resources do you recommend for would-be writers?

I’m pretty old school, so I repeat what I said above: Get in a class with other people. Online is ok, but face to face even better.

There are a myriad of books on writing. One of my favorites is by Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit. I also recommend Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers by Carolyn See and Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within by Dennis Palumbo.

 

 

What’s next for you?

I’m now 70 years old and my world is still opening up in ways I never dreamed.

I travel to Ohio 10 weeks a year to manage our childhood home where my mentally ill brother lives alone, and to look after his needs (I cook a lot of homemade meals for him that he loves!). I stay a month at a time to give myself room to breathe, see old friends and, in the summer, swim the lake (across and back), a childhood rite of passage. I’ve made new friends, renewed old ones, and become close friends with some of my parents’ friends! I have book signings there, so I have been able to go home again and thrive because of my brother, not to mention the material he’s provided for my current novel. I’ve also learned more about myself and my family through these visits. Occasionally, others in the community have stopped to visit. In this way, my brother is no longer thought of as the “village crazy,” but an interesting, humorous, gentle guy. And more is to come…that I know.

With my brother in Silver Lake today

 

Connect with Joan L. Jackson
Email: linneatwo@gmail.com
Website

Facebook Page




Let’s Hear from an Expert: Joann Dobbie, Founder of Legacy and Lores

Legacy and Lores helps to preserve family stories. Why did you launch this business?

It’s extremely important to preserve our family stories! Documenting them in writing is the best possible gift a family gives to future generations. Without this legacy, every generation starts over. By embracing the importance of family, we bring life to the family tree.

How many times do we hear: Put your will in writing or make sure your estate plan is written. We’re told that if we don’t do this, it will cost our heirs a lot of money and time. But what happens if we don’t put our family stories in writing? Once someone dies, their stories and memories are gone forever. There is no amount of money or time that will give us what we need to capture these stories. By documenting them, we create a customized book that becomes a priceless family heirloom.

This idea really hit home when, after spending over 20 years in corporate America in the financial services industry, I wrote a book about my grandmother. I found a box of Grandma’s “things” (passport, birth certificate, letters, photos, etc.) in my mom’s basement, and decided to put together a 7- to 10-page document about Grandma for my brothers and sisters. This project took on a life of its own and it ended up as a 153-page book I self-published, named Journey of Discovery.

During my journey researching and writing, I discovered so much about myself, the importance of family, and how critical it is to talk to our parents and grandparents while they are still alive. I continually wonder, why didn’t I ask Grandma more questions when she was alive? I want to prevent others from making this same mistake.

Tell us more about your services with Legacy and Lores and how you work with families.

Legacy and Lores helps individuals and families document their stories into a highly-customized book. We understand the sensitivity and emotional involvement this entails.  Each project is individualized and can be accomplished in one of two ways. As a ghostwriter, we interview family members and write the book for them. Or, if a family member wants to write the book themselves, we coach them through the process. Let’s discuss the process for each of these vehicles.

When we are the ghostwriter for an individual or family, we meet in their home to conduct the recorded interviews. These are usually scheduled in two-hour sessions, with a total of at least 12 hours of interviews, depending on the number of family members we talk to. Additional hours may be needed for research. This involves names, dates and locations, especially when we need to verify or search for information. The Newberry Library in Chicago is an invaluable resource. Records from churches and cemeteries, court houses and city halls, in respective cities, can be useful as well. We also consult immigration and census records as needed. We then transcribe the interviews, organize the materials, and write a narrative. The family reviews this first draft and makes any changes and corrections.

When we work with our client as a writing coach, we partner with them to help them write the family story.  We assist with organizing the materials, facilitating the writing and development of the manuscript, editing and, if needed, conducting research. We encourage the individual to stay focused and motivated.

In either case, once the narrative is completed, the next step is to select photographs, documents, and letters that the family wants to include. While our designer creates the layout, binding, and cover, our editors conduct a final proofread of the manuscript. The client also has the opportunity to review the manuscript several times to make sure everything is correct.

After receiving the final sign-off from the client, the book goes to print. Most of my clients self-publish their book. If the manuscript is “just for the family”, printing is still involved so we determine which route is best for the client. The complete process from start to finish can take anywhere from six months to two years. Because this is a highly customized book, the minimum price is $10,000.

It’s such an amazing experience to see the family when they receive their beautifully-bound, customized family book.

Going through documents and photos

Can you give us examples of families you’ve worked with and what you did for them?

I have worked with some amazing and remarkable individuals and families!

While the work I do with families is highly private and confidential, I can share how I helped Lenore Janecek write her memoir, A Thousand Sparks of Light, which she self-published. I met with her in her home and I coached her through the process. It was amazing for me to walk with Lenore as she wrote about her life from a young child to the incredible woman she is today. Lenore tells the story of being diagnosed with cancer and going through invasive surgery only to discover, through dogged perseverance, that there had been a disastrous mix-up, followed by a cover-up. She went through an extensive legal battle to obtain her “lost” medical records. This book is an intimate spiritual journey about survival, empowerment, and fighting for yourself.

Examples of client books

What resources do you recommend for memoir writing?

In the past, most people wanted to keep their stories “within the family.” Now, with the emergence of celebrities writing their stories, we are seeing an increase in memoirs going to market.

I firmly believe every woman has amazing stories to share about their life.   It’s important to share our journey’s not only to help ourselves (writing a book can be very cathartic) but also to help other women learn from our experiences.  A book is such a tremendous gift of giving.

Good questions that are often overlooked when writing your memoir include:

  1. What makes you happy/sad?
  2. Who has had the greatest influence on your life and why?
  3. What is the hardest thing you ever had to do?
  4. How would you describe yourself?
  5. What’s important in your life?
  6. What the most important lesson you learned in your life?
  7. What’s your idea of a good time?
  8. How would you describe yourself as a child?
  9. How would you describe your spiritual beliefs?
  10. What’s a secret ambition of yours?

A book to read if you want to write your memoir on your own is Eating an Elephant: Write Your Life One Bite at a Time by Patricia Carpenter.

My favorite memoirs, for inspiration, include:
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Von Trapp
A Woman Named Jackie: An Intimate Biography of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis by C. David Heymann
Estee: A Success Story by Estee Lauder

Resources for research:
Newberry Library in Chicago
Family Search
Find a Grave
Census Records
Immigration Records
Also check out Church records and County/City/State Historical Societies.

 

Connect with Joann Dobbie
Email: j.dobbie@legacyandlores.com
Website
Book: Journey of Discovery
LinkedIn

 

Joann Dobbie is a published author, writing coach, ghostwriter and personal historian. Her most recent book, Journey of Discovery, chronicles her Grandmother’s life in Austria and America. To accomplish this, Joann parallels her first trip to Austria in 2010 with her Grandma’s journey from Austria to America in 1913. It is a priceless family heirloom full of engaging family stories that embraces the importance of family.

Joann’s extensive experience writing newspaper feature articles and monthly magazine columns goes along with her vast background in writing training programs for sales, sales management and marketing campaigns. 

Ms. Dobbie is an international business communicator and global leadership development trainer. Her professional career took her to Northwestern University as Director of Corporate Education, Axa Advisors as Director of Business Development, and Aetna Financial Services as Director of Financial Planning and Director of Seminars. She is President and Owner of Legacy and Lores as well as Art of Business Communications.

In her free time, Ms. Dobbie enjoys running marathons, volunteer work, reading and spending time with family and friends.  

 




Becoming a Poet in Midlife: Lisa’s Story

After graduating from divinity school, it would take a nudge from her wife to encourage Lisa to explore her interest in poetry. She is now a published poet and poetry teacher—with a collection of poems recently published via Black Lawrence Press.

 

 

Tell us a little about your background.

I grew up in Hyde Park, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, as the youngest of four. My father (retired now) was a physician and my mother (deceased since 2001) was a social worker. The house I grew up in was located a block away from the University of Chicago, an institution I had learned from an early age to associate with the highest standards of academic excellence. My father received his undergraduate and medical degrees there. My mother attended the U of C for her master’s degree in social work. Our house was full of books and there was a strong emphasis on academics—particularly on math and science. The message I received growing up was that logic and empiricism were superior to feelings and personal experience. I did not excel at either math or science, so I spent a good portion of my childhood and early adulthood feeling inadequate academically—as well as denying the importance of my feelings.

At age 2, with my 3 siblings

Another key aspect of my family’s culture was that we embraced fairly traditional gender roles. My mother was a social worker but the message I received growing up was that her career was secondary compared to my father’s. I was not encouraged to think of a career for myself. Instead, the expectation was that I would marry a man when I grew up and that my husband would provide for me financially. After graduating from The College of Wooster with a B.A. in Religious Studies, I moved back in with my parents and took a job as an appointment scheduler at the University of Chicago’s employee health clinic. Because I had never given much thought to a career, it was easy enough to settle for an entry-level job at the same place where I had worked as a high school and college student. It was here—during my post-college years—that I met Scott, a U of C student my age. My parents were very pleased when he and I got engaged and were then married a year later. It was as if, by marrying a man, I suddenly became a whole person, a real adult, in their eyes (and certainly my own as well).

My marriage to Scott lasted five years. We lived mostly in San Francisco where, initially, I worked as a receptionist at a dermatology clinic, then took a job at Harper San Francisco Publishers—first as an office assistant, later as a design assistant. While working at Harper, I started to think about going to graduate school to study theology—particularly feminist theology. Harper San Francisco specialized in religious and “new age” spiritual books and, given that I had been a Religious Studies major in college, their books naturally caught my attention. But the books being published by Harper were very different from anything I had been exposed to during college. Most of what I had studied and learned about in college was very male-centered. Now I was being exposed to books that had a more woman-centered and feminist approach—books about goddess culture, for example. I was entranced and hungry for more. I hadn’t yet had my feminist awakening but something inside me was beginning to stir.

In San Francisco, just before moving to Nashville to attend Vanderbilt

Four years into my marriage, I applied for and was accepted to Vanderbilt University’s graduate program in religion, where my intention was to get a master’s degree in feminist theology. I had recently read Sallie McFague’s Models of God—in which she articulates female-centered models for understanding the divine—and wanted nothing more than to study with her at Vanderbilt. I still wasn’t thinking in terms of a career, though. This was all just for my personal enrichment. My plan was to take a year or two to get my degree and then to settle down somewhere in the Midwest with Scott. Settling down in my view meant we would buy a house and start a family. Scott would be the breadwinner—he had completed a master’s degree in library science while living in San Francisco—and I would stay at home with the kids. I even had a name picked out for the daughter I had assumed we would someday have: Katherine Louise.

Halfway through my first year of graduate studies, I realized—or finally accepted myself as—a lesbian. Deep down, there had always been some part of me that knew I was a lesbian. I hadn’t grown up hearing anything bad about people who were gay or lesbian. But I’d also never heard anything positive. There was just this total silence on the topic. Without a framework in which to understand who I was, I had no choice but to deny my feelings and to store away the clues that had been accumulating over the years into some small corner of my brain until I was ready to deal with them. At the age of 30, they came tumbling out. There are lots of reasons why this point in my life seemed to be so conducive to my coming out: studying feminist theology, studying in an environment that was very open and accepting of the GLBT community (as the Vanderbilt religion department was), and living in a city that felt like home to me. All these, no doubt, contributed to some deep sense of emerging “homeness” inside of me.

The divorce was mostly amicable but still difficult. Even though I knew I was a lesbian, I couldn’t imagine how I was going to live out my new life. I was depressed and emotional during this time. There was no script for this life like there had been for my previous life. After about six months, I sought professional help. That was a turning point for me. Once I started getting help for my depression, everything changed in terms of my perspective on life. I started to gain confidence in myself and in my ability to be who I really was deep down and within. It was like I was falling in love with myself for the first time (as an adult).

Three years after coming out, I met Laurie at a dinner party hosted by a woman I had just met who was starting her life over after a recent divorce. A couple months after our initial meeting—after running into each other at various gatherings hosted by our mutual acquaintance—Laurie called me on the phone to ask if I wanted to have coffee sometime. How about now? I said. That was back in 1998 and we have been happily together—and now legally married—ever since.

Working in the garden with Laurie

In terms of my work life during this time, I had secured a student assistant position at a research center focusing on mental health policy shortly after my marriage ended. I was still enrolled as a graduate student at the time and then—once it became clear that I was never going to finish my master’s thesis (my heart just wasn’t in it after so much personal turmoil)—I formally discontinued my schooling and took a full-time staff position at this same research center. This is where I was working when I met Laurie in 1998 and where I continued to work until 2009. Throughout my years at the research center, I worked in various support-level capacities. It didn’t feel like a career but it felt like a good enough job.

One day, in the spring of 2001, I came home from work and announced to Laurie during dinner that I wanted to go to divinity school. It was a total surprise to her—I had given no previous indication that I had been thinking of this—but she was completely supportive. Some people who go to divinity school talk about feeling “called” to enter the ministry. I never felt called to enter the ministry; I only felt called to go to divinity school. I started the program in the fall of 2001 and received my Master of Divinity in 2005. I did the program part-time so that I could continue working at the research center. Towards the end of my divinity program I had begun to write poetry. I had written poetry in high school and college but very little since then. Just as I had not been able to think of myself as a lesbian for so many years due to the lack of a suitable framework for understanding my sexuality, I also had not been able to think of myself as a poet for so many years. Poetry was not something I was supposed to take seriously. The only serious—i.e., worthy—pursuits were math and science.

Celebrating graduation from divinity school, with my family

During divinity school, I was drawn to studying the Bible. I wanted to learn as much as possible about this text—or texts—in which women appeared to play such a minor role. I wanted to somehow crack open the stories so that I could hear a fuller story. During my last year of divinity school, I began to write poems in which I creatively re-imagined certain keys stories in which women appear only peripherally. My point was to give these women a kind of voice—or at least my version of a voice—that had long been denied to them.

That’s where I was workwise in 2005. In terms of my family life, Laurie and I had by this time been in the adoption process for a year or two and, in the summer of 2005, a few months after I had graduated from divinity school, we found out we had been chosen by a birth mother. We were ecstatic. For several months, we had phone contact with the birth mother and then, in September, flew up to Boston for the birth. Our plan was that I would continue to work at the research center and Laurie would stay home with the baby. We had decided this mostly because my job at the time was slightly more lucrative and stable than hers.

But things did not go as planned. Instead, the birth mother changed her mind. We did not return home to Nashville with a baby. We returned to Nashville feeling depressed and empty. Soon after this, we both returned to our jobs (Laurie by this time was working at the same research center where I had been working for so many years). We muddled along for the first few weeks after our return, both of us just going through the motions of our jobs. Then, towards the end of September, Laurie spotted an announcement on the Vanderbilt webpage for a weekly poetry workshop that was going to be starting that fall and that would be open to anyone from the Nashville community. She forwarded the announcement to me with a message saying I might want to consider signing up. It turns out that signing up for this workshop was the beginning of a whole new journey—my next act—during which I would finally uncover my deepest, most real calling: to be a poet.

My writing desk

 

When did you start to think about making a change?

I wouldn’t say I had one big “aha” moment. It was more like a series of gentle nudges pushing me in a new direction. Having been told my whole life that there was only one legitimate way to acquire knowledge—one dominant and correct orientation for wisdom—I spent years feeling “out of sync” in terms of my ability to learn about and experience the world. This was similar to how I had felt for so long about my sexual orientation. Just as I had grown up thinking that logic and rationality were the most legitimate pathways to knowing the world, I had also grown up thinking there was only one legitimate sexual orientation, and thus felt “out of sync” in this respect as well. Both of these “impulses” had been present inside me all along but had been buried deep down inside as a result of the familial and cultural messaging I had received while growing up.

The first nudge towards my new life as a poet was the announcement forwarded to me by Laurie in the fall of 2005 about the upcoming poetry workshop. The workshop was led by Stephanie Pruitt, a local Nashville poet, and met once a week for ten weeks. I had never taken a poetry workshop before and was terrified about showing my poetry to other people. But Stephanie was a very encouraging guide throughout the process. Being in Stephanie’s workshop gave me the confidence to contact Kate Daniels, an English professor at Vanderbilt. I knew Kate taught creative writing at Vanderbilt and I wanted to see if she would look at some of my poems. She agreed to meet with me even though the only connection we had was that we both worked at Vanderbilt. I was nervous but Kate was encouraging about my writing and even invited me to audit one of her undergraduate creative writing seminars scheduled for the spring semester. I was honored but, when it came time to sign up, I chickened out. A week later I received an e-mail from Kate reminding me to sign up for her course. This was a very direct nudge. I knew I couldn’t let this opportunity pass.

With Kate Daniels

It was Kate’s class that subsequently led me to audit more classes—Kate’s as well as those of the other poets on the faculty. After auditing five semester-long poetry workshops over a period of two and a half years, I decided to apply to Vanderbilt’s Master of Fine Arts program in poetry. I had been resistant to applying earlier because I knew it would be expensive to attend the program and I wasn’t sure it was worth it to spend all that money for a degree in poetry (since, typically, poetry is not a lucrative field). Then I found out that Vanderbilt had received a windfall of money for the program and would subsequently be offering full tuition plus a stipend. I applied and was accepted for the fall of 2009. With that I began the next phase of my next act: being a full-time graduate student at the age of 45.

Teaching poetry

 

What is your next act?

I am a poet and teacher.

After I graduated from Vanderbilt’s MFA program in 2011, I was offered a teaching position at Vanderbilt and have been teaching there ever since. I love teaching. I love the enthusiasm of the students and I love sharing the “good news” of poetry to students who might not otherwise read poetry (most of my students are not English majors). As a teacher, nothing makes me happier than having a pre-med or econ student say to me at the end of the semester that the next time they visit a bookstore, they are going to browse the poetry section.

As much as I love teaching, though, it is not the primary focus of my next act. Teaching is not the thing that I absolutely can’t not do, the way writing is. If someone told me I could never teach again, I would be sad but not crushed. If someone told me I could never read or write poetry again, I would be devastated. The primary focus of my next act is writing poetry—and reading poetry as well because reading and writing go hand-in-hand. Reading and writing are like two sides of a conversation—the listening side and the speaking side. Both sides are equally important.

Reading at a women’s conference, 2017

Prior to enrolling in those first poetry workshops back in 2005 and 2006, the only poetry I had been exposed to—in terms of reading it—was whatever poetry had been assigned to me in my high school English classes or in the one literature class I had taken in college. Poetry, quite frankly, scared me. On the one hand, I was scared by how little of it I understood and, on the other hand, I was scared by how removed it seemed to be from the more “serious,” rational pursuits of, say, science and math. Through my classes at Vanderbilt, I was introduced to a wide range of poets, and it was in the process of finally reading lots of poetry that I began to feel a sense of “homeness” inside of me—a sense of deep contentment—as, finally, I was able to feed the deep hunger I had for knowing the world in the way that I needed to know the world.

This is what had been missing from my life for so long: the kind of radical, visceral, feeling-based immersion into the world that, for me, would come from reading and writing poetry. By immersing myself into poetry—by lowering myself into it—I am, at the same time, being lowered into the world, past and present, in a wonderfully embodied way. When I read poetry, I feel physically affected by it. Something happens inside of me. I am reminded of that great story in the Gospel of Luke when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visits Elizabeth when Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist. As soon as Mary greets Elizabeth, little John the Baptist leaps for joy (in the womb) because he recognizes that Mary is the mother of Jesus. Obviously, I don’t want to make too direct of a connection with this story. My point is simply that when I read poetry, I feel something inside of me responding to it.

Sometimes when I read a poem, it feels as if I am entering a room, a room in which every word has been loved into being; other times it feels as if I am walking along a wooded trail—as if each line of text is a path I must follow, must gladly follow. When I experience poetry as a kind of walking, I am aware of how much reading it slows me down. Poetry is sometimes described as language in which every word matters—take away one word and you take away the poem. When I enter the world of a poem, I am entering a world in which every word must be paid attention to. Slow, meditative attention. This slowing-down effect is particularly helpful to me at those times when I am feeling depressed or just generally overwhelmed by the events of the world around me. Reading the work of some of my favorite poets, slowly and meditatively one word a time draws me back to my center, to the present-ness of the moment. The French philosopher Simone Weil once said that absolute attention is prayer. The act of reading poetry is a way of paying absolute attention and, thus, for me, a kind of prayer.

Too, when I read poetry, I know that I am not alone. I know that my life is bound up with the lives of others in this strange and wonderful and too often profoundly painful narrative of life. And when I write poetry, I know that I am not alone—that, in the process of writing, I am being led towards something bigger and deeper than my life alone. And it is in this feeling of transcendence—this feeling of connection to the larger web of creation and the web of human history in particular—that I feel a sense of deep, deep joy.

Another thing I love about being a poet is that it allows me to follow and immerse myself in all sorts of quirky research interests—from the cultural history of rain to the burial practices of Anglo-Saxon Kings to the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864—wherever my curiosity takes me. Back when I was in divinity school, I had to write a 15-page research paper on a Biblical text for one of my Biblical Studies courses. We were expected to read as much as we could about the historical context of the passage, the cultural context, the literary context, and to offer our own insights about the passage in light of our research. One of the students in the class did not see why he needed to do any research on a passage from the Bible. In his mind, all he had to do was pray for the Holy Spirit to guide him. When he expressed this sentiment to the professor, she responded with: You need to give the Holy Spirit something to work with.

I find the same is true with respect to my writing. I need to give my creative spirit something to work with. Some of what I work with comes from my own life experiences, but a lot of it comes from learning as much as I can about the world, from taking in the world, and loving the world in all its pain and beauty and despair. In some religious circles, people talk about reading the Bible with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other—which is exactly the way I approach poetry. Poetry in one hand, everything else in the other. It is important for me to anchor myself in that which moves through me. To write poetry is, for me, to be focused on a mountain that only I can see—on the messy, amorphous stuff emerging out of my exploration of the world. When I lose sight of this mountain—when I become too focused on external concerns—book contests, journal submissions, writing residencies—I lose sight of what is most important, of what gives me my deepest joy: the writing itself.

In terms of the focus of my book, Mosaic of the Dark portrays my journey to wholeness and addresses the psychological harm that can arise from restrictive societal expectations for women. As I examine my own early experiences as a closeted lesbian trying to fit my life into the prescribed script of heterosexuality, I also grapple with my mother’s possibly non-heterosexual orientation and eventual death from alcoholism. As the poems in the latter part of the book suggest, I eventually shed familial and cultural expectations in favor of my true self and, in the process, experience a spiritual re-visioning that allows me to move beyond the confines of a male-centered Christianity to a more expansive, mystical way of experiencing the divine.

Below is a sample poem from the book. In this poem, I draw from the Biblical story of Sarah and Abraham traveling through a foreign land, and Abraham lying about his relationship to Sarah in order to protect himself.

 

The Lies that Save Us
Driving through Georgia,
we lie like Abraham.
Are you sisters?, people ask.
Yes, we answer. Twins, even.
Though we are dressed similarly
in broad-brimmed hats,
long-sleeved shirts and tan pants
tucked into thick white socks
(it being tick season and all)—
we look nothing alike.
Thought so, people say,
as if they have figured out
some secret code. We smile back,
knowing the power of things unseen:
atoms, quarks, and auras
and all the love that lies between.
Kissing energy, we call it.
But all they can see is
something.

 

Celebrating my 40th birthday with Laurie

 

How hard was it to take the plunge?

In many ways, it didn’t feel like a plunge as much as a path that was slowly revealing itself. So, in a sense, I never felt like I had to prepare for anything. I just had to be open and receptive—which is, of course, much easier said than done. There were so many times when I wanted to leave the path. The first time was when I almost didn’t sign up for that Vanderbilt workshop with Kate Daniels. At the end of that semester, Kate encouraged me to ask Mark Jarman, one of the other poetry professors at Vanderbilt, if I could audit his workshop in the fall. He said yes. But then on the first day of class I learned that one of the course requirements was a giant (in my view) research project and presentation. At the time, I was working 30-40 hours a week. I really had no interest in doing a big research project on top of everything else. I figured the only solution was to drop the course. Luckily Laurie talked me out of this. She wisely suggested that I explain the situation to Mark and ask him if I could just do the poetry assignments, not the big research project. I was, after all, only auditing the course. So I sent Mark an e-mail. He wrote back right away and said: “Of course, that’s fine. You’re only auditing.”

There were countless hurdles like this along the way—many of them self-imposed. Even now, after having achieved some publishing success, I still have to remind myself that I am doing the right thing and that doing the right thing means there will be successes and failures. Failure is part of the process. Rejection is part of the process. I sent my poetry manuscript out for four years before it was accepted. I got lots of rejection letters. Part of the problem was that I started sending it out too early—before it was really as good as it needed to be—but the other part of it is that this is a very competitive and arbitrary field. There are lots of writers out there doing exactly what I am doing—sending out poems, sending out manuscripts. A lot of poetry publishers only pick one or two manuscripts out of hundreds of submissions. Oftentimes a poetry manuscript is chosen through a contest in which hundreds of poets pay an entry fee and submit their manuscript. Out of these manuscripts, one manuscript is chosen. This doesn’t mean that only one manuscript was good; it just means that only one manuscript was chosen.

One of the best ways to prepare for this kind of rejection is to know ahead of time that it will occur; to accept that it is part of the process and that everyone experiences it. Sure, there might be people in your life who seem to be magnets for success but it’s best not to compare yourself to those people. It will only make you miserable and get in the way of your writing. The only person you should ever compare yourself to is earlier versions of yourself. 

With Laurie and friends Sarah and Nate, biking in the Tour de Nash

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

Laurie has been wonderfully supportive on all fronts—the writing front, the publishing front, the teaching front. Everything. And her family also has been supportive, as have my friends. My siblings have been supportive of my teaching endeavors but they have never been as vocally supportive of my poetry endeavors. I think this is largely because they don’t really know how to handle my poetry. I write a lot about very personal issues—my mother’s alcoholism, her possibly non-heterosexual orientation, my experience of coming out as a lesbian, my experiences with depression and alcohol abuse. I think some of my material makes them uncomfortable. This kind of disconnect between a writer and his/her family of origin is fairly common in the writing world. I try not to dwell on it. I know they love me and support me as a person. I just think they would prefer it if I wrote more dog poems!

Hiking with Laurie in the Grand Canyon

 

What challenges did you or are you encountering?

I would say that most of my challenges have been and continue to be mental challenges. I have to constantly remind myself that writing poems is my goal—whether or not they get published is not something I can control. I am certainly pleased when my poems do get accepted—and I am thrilled to have a book published now. However, the only true intention I can set for myself is to keep writing and keep developing my craft. My goal can only be to become the best writer I can be. When I become too focused on external concerns—on getting published, for example—I lose sight of what is most important. The external concerns are important but the problem is when I allow the external concerns to move inward to such an extent that I lose sight of that which gives me joy: the writing itself. The experience of immersing myself in my curiosities and passions far outweighs the experience of getting a poem published because it comes from a much deeper place; a place of exquisite interrelatedness. A place in which I feel a sense of deep communion with the lives of those who have come before me.

I remember—not too long ago—having a particularly bad day in which my external concerns were completely drowning out my internal joys. At one point, I walked into my study and I suddenly felt one of my arms reaching out towards my bookcase (where I keep a lot of my poetry books and research books). It felt a little like a poet’s version of an altar call—as if my body was leading me towards that which would heal me. Suddenly I was reminded of what is most important. Of what it is that I am called to surrender to and to dedicate my life to. I think it’s crucial for all writers (for anyone, really) to have some sort of touchstone—whether it’s a mental image or something physical—that they can return to when they are feeling lost or off-center.

The wonderful thing about immersing myself in my curiosities and passions is that this is the one thing with respect to my writing life that I can control. I will always be welcomed by my own curiosity. I don’t have to enter my curiosity in a contest. I am never going to get a rejection letter—even a personalized hand-written one—from my own curiosity. No one can take my curiosity away from me. And now, whenever I’m feeling off-center or having a bad day, I think about this altar call experience. About the way my own body and mind—at a deep level of interiority and consciousness—was reminding me in that moment of what is really important.

Getting curious!

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

This might seem like an obvious thing to say but one of the things I learned about myself is that I’m a poet—and that poetry is my way of making sense of the world around me. As mentioned previously, I grew up in a family in which math and science were seen as the most legitimate forms of knowledge. Since I wasn’t particularly good at math or science, I always felt inferior to my father and my brothers (all of whom excelled at math and science). I felt like I wasn’t very smart and that there was something wrong with me.

I remember as a teenager sitting in the living room of my parents’ house reading a heart-wrenching story in Time magazine about a boy who had been kidnapped at the age of two and then returned to his parents fifteen years later. I couldn’t stop looking at the picture of the happy little boy on one page and the much older boy on the other page. I couldn’t stop thinking about the anguish the parents must have felt when their child disappeared—and the new kind of sorrow they must have felt when he was returned to them as a kind of stranger. While I was sitting there thinking about all this—feeling all this—my brother, Peter, walked into the living room, picked up the magazine, and read the entire issue in less than ten minutes. Then he left the room. I sat there thinking there must be something wrong with me because I couldn’t read the rest of the magazine. I sat there thinking I wasn’t smart like my brother. All I could do was sit there and feel. Now when I think about this experience, I don’t see myself as not being smart; rather, I see myself as being smart in a completely different way from my brother.

As another example, I have always been drawn to the past, to history, but it has taken me years to figure out what to do with this interest. My minor in college was history and, at one point, I briefly considered doing graduate work in history. I had assumed that my only option was to do something conventionally academic with this interest. It had never occurred to me that there might be other ways for me to engage with the past.

There is a story from the Gospel of Thomas (an extra-biblical gospel) in which Jesus says: “If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” This is perhaps the most important lesson I have learned through the process of becoming a poet: I must bring forth what is inside me. And the way to do this is through writing. By not writing, I was destroying a key part of myself.

 

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

One thing I would have done differently in terms of looking for a publisher for my manuscript is that I would have waited a couple of years before sending it out. I remember attending a writing conference several years ago and hearing a panelist tell the audience that you shouldn’t bury your weaker poems at the end of your manuscript. Instead, you shouldn’t include them at all. I realized in that moment that this was exactly what I had been doing—sneaking in my weaker poems in the back of the manuscript instead of taking them out altogether. In the end, it worked out. But I could have saved time and money by waiting a year or two to send out my manuscript.

With Laurie in Maine, to legalize our marriage (2013)

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Don’t compare yourself to other people! I know this advice gets thrown around a lot but it is hugely important especially when you are reinventing yourself later in life. It will be tempting to compare your newly invented life—at the age of 45, 50, 55—to what someone in your “field” has already accomplished by the age of 25 or 30. Don’t do this! You will just make yourself miserable. The only person you should ever compare yourself to is previous versions of yourself. Every now and then I think of my former self sitting in the cubicle of my former job. My former self was a good self. I don’t mean to be critical of this former self but, honestly, I am so glad that I am not still my former self. I am so grateful that I am doing something completely different with my life now, something that really enlivens me and feeds my spirit. Yes, it can be scary to re-invent yourself at a later stage in your life but, to me, what is even scarier is the thought of not taking the plunge at all.

One of my yoga teachers used to say: Keep your ego on your mat. In other words, don’t worry if the person next to you can stand on their head or touch their toes or curl their body into an annoying, smiling pretzel. Just worry about what you can do. I think about this whenever I ride my bike in the very hilly park across the street from where I live. Some of the hills seem to go on forever. In all the times I’ve ridden my bike in this park, I have never passed another cyclist. Instead, other cyclists pass me. Sometimes even runners pass me. At first this felt just shy of humiliating. Then I realized something: I am in the park. Sure, I might be getting passed up by everyone but what about all the people who aren’t even in the park? What about all the people who haven’t taken the plunge, who haven’t reinvented their lives, who haven’t followed their passions and joys and curiosities? The key is to be in the park. It doesn’t matter how fast you’re going or whether other people are passing you by. The only thing that matters is being there and doing your thing—even if it means using the granny gear.

 

What advice do you have for those interested in writing and publishing poetry?

My first piece of advice is to not lose sight of your writing goals. In other words, focus on writing success not publishing success. Writing is the only thing you have control over. Reading, writing, and getting better and better at what you do. That’s all you can do. You can’t control whether or not your work will be loved or accepted by the world. If it is, that’s great. But getting published is never going to make you as happy as writing is. To that end, you need to read as much as possible. Other writers are often our best teachers. Writing is a two-way conversation and requires both speaking and listening.

One summer, several years ago, I made a point of reading a book of poetry every day. I’d never be able to sustain this practice during the school year but I was able to do it for a month or two one summer and I found that this daily practice of reading poetry really helped me with my writing. I wrote lots of lovely poems during this time but I’m pretty sure I would eventually burn out and become completely miserable if I tried to sustain this practice 365 days out of the year.

During the school year I often have designated reading and writing days (one or two days a week) during which I focus entirely on reading and writing. During the summer (when I’m not teaching) I try to write at least five days a week. The key is to find the schedule that works the best for you. Some writers have a daily writing practice—thirty minutes a day no matter what. Other writers are binge writers—writing a ton for weeks on end and then taking several weeks—or months—off. Writing is like a muscle. The less you use it, the harder it will be to use that muscle when you sit down to write. So, yes, it’s important to keep your writing muscles in shape but it’s also important to listen to your body-mind. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to write every single day. If writing every day isn’t possible with your schedule or if it makes you miserable, do what works for you. I try to ride my bike four times a week. Biking gives me great joy. If I told myself I had to ride my bike every single day, it would no longer be fun. It would no longer give me joy. Never lose sight of joy.

I also recommend connecting with other writers. Join a writers’ group if there’s one near you. And if there isn’t one near you, think about starting one! If you live far away from other people, try connecting with other writers online. I am currently in two different writing groups. One of these groups is an online group—we connect every summer via e-mail, sending in poems once a week for feedback. The other group meets in person once a month all year long.

With members of my writing group (and Laurie)

In terms of submitting your work to journals, keep in mind that there are lots of different kinds of journals. Some journals are very difficult to get accepted to—The New Yorker, for example, or Poetry magazine. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try these journals. It just means you shouldn’t be crushed if you don’t get your work accepted to these journals. If you get rejected from a top-tier journal, then move on to another journal—or even another tier. And keep a spreadsheet. You will likely want to submit your poems to multiple places simultaneously and a spreadsheet is a great way to keep track of which poems are where. This will be especially helpful when you get a poem accepted because you’ll need to contact the other journals to retract the poem.

If you are at the point where you have a book-length manuscript and are trying to get it published, the first thing you need to do is acquaint yourself with the various presses. Not all publishers are going to be right for your work. If you write free-verse poetry, for example, don’t send your work to a press that only publishes formal poetry. This is an obvious example but there are all sorts of gradations of this same idea. Another thing to keep in mind is that many poetry presses—either during their open submission periods or for their contests—charge a reading fee (usually $20 or $30). So, it’s best to be as strategic as possible about where you send your manuscript. Keep track of those places where you were lucky enough to have been a finalist or a semi-finalist. These are the places to focus your attention on. And if you do get a manuscript accepted, keep in mind that, unless you already have a large following, you will likely have to do most of the marketing and publicity yourself. There are lots of great resources out there for marketing and promotion (I’ve listed two books below) but the key categories to think about are: book reviews and interviews, readings, post-publication contests, and book festivals. Again, I recommend a spreadsheet to keep track of everything.

It’s important, though, to not lose track of your actual writing in the midst of all the external concerns. Keep joy at the center! I once got so overwhelmed with the marketing and promotion side of things that, for a brief moment, I found myself wishing I had never written my book. If you ever have this thought, I recommend stepping back, taking a deep breath, and reminding yourself that the only thing that really matters is the writing. As my former homiletics professor used to say about sermons: Keep the main thing, the main thing. Writing is the main thing, not publishing.

 

What resources do you recommend?

Books about Writing and the Writing Life:
Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within (Kim Addonizio)
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (Elizabeth Gilbert)
The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language (Natalie Goldberg)
Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice (Laraine Herring)
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anne Lamott)
A Poetry Handbook (Mary Oliver)

Books about Marketing and Promotion:
The Frugal Book Promoter: How to get nearly free publicity on your own or by partnering with your publisher. (How to Do It Frugally) (Carolyn Howard-Johnson)
Guerrilla Marketing for Writers: 100 No-Cost, Low-Cost Weapons for Selling Your Work (Guerilla Marketing Press) (Levinson, Frishman, Larsen, Hancock)

Websites and Organizations:
Poets and Writers
Association of Writers and Writing Programs
Poets.org/Academy of American Poets
Submittable

 

What’s next for you?

The way I look at it, my “next act” is to continue the journey of being a poet. Specifically, to go deeper and deeper with my writing. As much as I love being a poet—and as much as I feel called to be a poet—writing poetry is not easy for me. I have to constantly fight the voices in my head that tell me I’m no good, that I’ll never write again, etc., etc. So, although it feels wonderful to finally know what I am supposed to do with my life, each time I sit down to write is itself a kind of “next act.”

Writing is a process of discovery. I never know where a poem or insight will lead me. I feel certain that I will write more poetry in the future—and publish more books—but what I will write is a complete mystery. Only time will tell what shape my future books—my “next acts”—will take. In many ways, writing poetry is a kind of spiritual practice. A way of deepening my connection and attention to the world around me. Just as one’s spiritual life can deepen the more attention one gives it, so too can one’s writing life deepen the more attention a person gives it. In some respects, what’s next for me is more of the same—more reading, more writing. But in other respects—key respects—what’s next for me can never be “more of the same” because ever poem I read and every poem I write is an entrance into a richly varied and wonderfully mysterious new world.

 

Connect with Lisa Dordal
E-mail: lisaadordal@gmail.com
Website
Black Lawrence Press website
Facebook
Twitter
Book: Mosaic of the Dark

 

Lisa Dordal holds a Master of Divinity and a Master of Fine Arts, both from Vanderbilt University, and teaches in the English Department at Vanderbilt. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, the Robert Watson Poetry Prize, and the Betty Gabehart Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in a variety of journals including Best New Poets, Sojourners, Feminist Wire, The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, CALYX, Ninth Letter, and The Greensboro Review. Her work has also appeared in various anthologies including Rainbow in the Word: LGBTQ Christians’ Biblical Memoirs (Wipf and Stock) and Forgotten Women (Grayson Books).




Entering Nonprofit in Midlife: Nancy’s Story

After 35 years in Corporate America, a layoff and big birthday were the catalysts for Nancy to reinvent her work life. She now enjoys her “slash” career working in nonprofit while doing some consulting and writing on the side.

Tell us a little about your background.
I’ve lived in NYC for 37 years. My partner, Peter Conrad, is a labor and employment lawyer and was born and raised in Manhattan. Peter’s adult daughter is also NYC based. My two nieces and a nephew add to the New York family contingent. A sister and brother live nearby in New Jersey. Other family members are in Northern and Southern California, New Orleans and Atlanta.

At age 5, with my younger brother Gerry in our Easter Sunday outfits

I’m one of six (middle child); my parents were first generation Italian-Americans. My mother prized education and held firmly to her Roman Catholic beliefs. I spent nine formative years in parochial school taught by nuns in the ‘60s, then attended a public high school and received a B.S. from Penn State in Fashion Merchandising. My five siblings and I had library cards in first grade and from my love of reading, I learned there was a big world beyond Hazleton. By age eight, I decided I would be leaving. Less than six months after college graduation, I won a spot in Lord & Taylor’s executive training program in New York. Later I became a buyer at Bloomingdale’s and held merchandising roles with other retailers in children’s and women’s apparel.

By the late ‘80s, department stores were consolidating and losing market share to emerging discounters like Target. I made a switch to brand licensing/marketing, initially working for a well-known fashion designer. In the early ‘90s, I found my dream job licensing the merchandise rights for comic strip characters, Dilbert and Peanuts (I revered the Peanuts characters and creator Charles Schulz as a kid). This allowed me to expand beyond my apparel expertise to market other products, such as toys, gifts, and books. I was exposed to international business in Japan, Europe, and Latin America and eventually took a role with the BBC to create consumer products for select TV programs. But the TV market was competitive and after a few years struggling to build a business, in the early 2000’s I returned to my apparel roots. I built and led a brand licensing department for Hanesbrands, a Fortune 1000 apparel company, for the next 11 years.

BBC Worldwide Weakest Link Tournament on the Today Show

 

When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
During my 35+ years in corporate settings, I’d developed a strong set of skills in merchandising, licensing, and marketing within the retail, media, and apparel industries. Having executive roles at global companies gave me a broader perspective, thanks to my wide travel overseas and the opportunity to meet many interesting people. These roles provided good compensation/benefit packages, and I saved accordingly, providing a cushion I’d need later. I knew the time would come when I would leave the corporate fold for something different.

At various points in my forties and fifties, I yearned for a personal creative outlet. After I left the department store world in the late ‘80s, I started taking writing classes at The New School and NYU. When I was a girl, I’d fantasized about becoming a journalist and news anchor. However, as I was considering career plans and college majors, I was not confident about my abilities to get into a communication/journalism program. I had no interest in becoming a starving freelance writer. Instead I pursued retailing, because I loved clothes and at the time, the possibility of becoming a buyer-in-training at a department store in Philadelphia or New York was within my grasp. This was key in my desire to rise above my lower middle-class background.

In the early ‘90’s, I volunteered at a non-profit that placed business executives into projects at local arts organizations. Later, I joined the board of an affiliate Penn State alumni chapter for professional women. Graduate school was a consideration while I was in retailing (at the time, many senior execs had MBA’s). Given my experience building and running $10+M sized departments, pursuing an MBA seemed redundant. Around 9/11, I was accepted into NYU for an Independent Study Master’s program (I’d planned to do creative writing and media studies), but I decided to pass, given the jittery times and economic uncertainty as a result of the attacks in NYC.

MFA Graduation

After I joined the apparel company in 2002, I kept writing. My mother passed away in 2009 (my father died 16 years earlier). As I reflected on her life and all she had sacrificed to help her children achieve success as adults, I decided I should not wait to pursue an MFA degree. I learned of an MFA program at Stony Brook University I could do part-time in Manhattan and Southampton. I tested the waters as a non-matriculated student for the first two semesters and was accepted in 2010. By then, the recession and subsequent recovery had made for a difficult business environment. There were frequent restructurings at my company. I’d survived several rounds of re-organizations and layoffs, but eventually my downsizing day came in mid 2013 along with a big birthday (60!). It was then I had no choice but to change course.

With Susan Collins, Executive Director of TTN

 

What is your next act?
I am a non-profit staffer/business consultant/writer—what Marci Alboher, Encore.org VP and author of the The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life calls a “slasher.” “Slashers”, Marci writes, are “people who, like me had trouble describing their working lives without the use of a slash or two.”

I handle marketing and operations on a part-time basis for The Transition Network (TTN), a non-profit organization supporting women 50+ in transition, professionally and personally. I was tapped to become an Encore Fellow at TTN in late 2016 and, after completing my fellowship, was asked to stay on at TTN. Encore Fellowships are awarded to corporate executives age 50 and over interested in parlaying their business skills into social mission work.

I also am the Founder Elan Brand Licensing LLC, a consulting business I launched three years ago. This includes business development for brands and manufacturers, plus advising professional service firms and financial institutions about licensing and select apparel/retail segments.

In 2015, I received my degree in Creative Writing/Literature after five years of part-time study. My thesis, a memoir entitled Finding My Footing, centered on coming of age from small town to big city, with stories about family, work, love, and travel. Since starting my consulting business, I have also written business articles for various trade magazines, and blogs on apparel, retail and brand licensing trends.

I am currently working on a collection of personal essays, utilizing material from my MFA thesis. I had my first two essays (Check them out here and here) published this summer, received good feedback, and excited to keep writing and submitting my pieces this fall.

My writing desk

How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
I did not wake up the next day after my corporate job disappeared and know what to do next. Fortunately, I was in graduate school, so I had my classes as an anchor. I was able to take a two-week writing workshop without the distraction of work issues while on vacation.

I was bound by a non-compete, and could not begin another role in my field until the following year, so I put my resume together and started networking. I had many lessons to learn on both fronts! I had been in career transition before, but much had changed by 2013, given technology and social media permeating job search. This meant using digital skills to network and job hunt. I sensed my age was also a potential barrier.

The next year was a confusing time as I didn’t know what to call myself (no longer an Executive, now a Writer, but without published pieces). I wasn’t clear I wanted another full-time job doing what I had done for 25+ years in brand licensing, although I started interviewing for these types of roles. I was reluctant to return to a 50- or 60-hour-per-week high-stress job. Plus, the changing landscape for the apparel and retail industries meant higher level positions in NYC were scarce and I was not interested in relocating for a new job.

I had learned about Encore.org a few months before I was downsized and filled out the fellowship application the week after I left Hanesbrands. Encore sent me out on interviews a couple months later but the assignments were not the right fit. Fellowships are competitive, given the strong pool of talented professionals over age 50 in the New York area. In early 2016, I decided to re-apply for an Encore Fellowship and by summer 2016 the opportunity at The Transition Network emerged.

To get more exposure within the non-profit segment, I decided to volunteer at Girls Write Now (GWN), a non-profit that supports under-served teen NYC girls by providing writing workshops. I learned about fund-raising at this small but growing organization focused on developing young women’s confidence and educational opportunities. It was gratifying to help solicit auction/gift bag items for the annual gala and to serve on the host committees in 2016 and 2017. This volunteer project also inspired me to write a blog post about GWN honoring Gloria Steinem and the teens’ reaction to her. I was glad to have the article posted on the Women in Communications website, another organization where I had volunteered.

 

How supportive were your family and friends?
My significant other, Peter was very supportive during my transition, but he gave occasional hints he’d expected me to take another full-time job. We’ve worked through that and I am now busier than ever! Friends were good sounding boards, as some were also in transition. One career coach, Bonnie Diamond, in particular, provided excellent advice and shared her thoughts about the realities of today’s job market for boomers.

 

What challenges did you or are you encountering?
When I first left corporate, it was difficult to figure out where I belonged and to no longer be considered an industry insider.

The next challenge was how to deal with “NO.” Rejection came in many forms, whether pitching for a consulting opportunity that did not materialize or editors passing over my writing submissions or pitches.  As a writer, one has to develop a thick skin. This is also true for job seekers and career changers, entrepreneurs seeking investors, and so on. The rejection may not be about you, but about timing or the circumstances at a particular company. I have two ways of looking at rejection: “No” may mean “not yet”. Or, as Nora Ephron, the writer and filmmaker, has said, “I spend 2 minutes on no.”

Some of my favorites

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?
Patience. It takes time to make big life changes and let these new areas take root. I am inspired by artists who hit their stride later in life, like Alice Neel and Carmen Herrera (she is 100+ and had a recent exhibit at The Whitney). Frank McCourt, a Stony Brook professor, had his book Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir published when he was 66 and it won the Pulitzer Prize. People taking on new careers later in life should keep in mind that although it seems we are starting over, we bring a wealth of life experience, business acumen, and wisdom to whatever we want to do next.

 

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I would have allowed myself a mourning period after I was down-sized. Although I was busy with school and networking, I realized looking back, I needed time to heal before plunging into the planning of my next phase.

I would have kept up with my network more consistently and made more time to meet with friends, colleagues, and business associates outside the office, especially during my last corporate role. Cultivating relationships (personal and professional) is key to creating a support system and a strong network. I am grateful for friends and mentors I’ve met throughout my career and the efforts we’ve made to stay in touch. Speaking of mentors, I would have been more proactive about finding the right people to advise me during different stages of my career and a superlative Executive Coach throughout my peak earning years.

2016 Reunion with United Media co-workers

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Get comfortable with your financial situation so you can develop plans and make choices fitting your situation. Married women should be well-informed about a couple’s holdings, real estate, wills, etc. Find a competent financial planner, lawyer, and accountant—professionals you can trust. Many people have to continue to work out of financial necessity and may need to take a bridge job while moving into their next act.

Accept that changes will take time, your plans don’t have to be crystal clear, and you may try paths that aren’t a good fit.

Join organizations where you can be with like-minded people (The Transition Network, for example!) and make new connections. Volunteering at an organization with a mission that resonates can fill time and add new skills. Mentoring others is another way to give back. I’ve served as an ad hoc coach for younger family members and colleagues and in turn, there’s always something to learn from them, be it their digital savvy or popular culture trends.

Learn how to use your laptop and smart phone effectively. There are YouTube tutorials, Lynda.com is available at many public libraries, and hands-on classes at libraries are free. If you live in NYC, Senior Planet is an amazing tech resource and also free. For more specialized info on social media, check out classes at your local college and high school. You don’t need to be coding, but you may want to keep up with family and friends on Facebook or various message services. For those starting their own businesses/entrepreneurial projects or pursuing another job, your presence on LinkedIn is a must. Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest use depends on your field.

Mingling with TTN members and guests in Chicago

 

What advice do you have and resources do you recommend in your fields of interest?
For those specifically interested in the non-profit world, take continuing education courses to learn about it. Many colleges focus on this area, whether single courses or certificate/degree programs. Classes are a great way to network with classmates and faculty. Consider a board of director’s role if your schedule and budget permit. Volunteer at non-profit organizations that appeal to you and list those assignments on your LinkedIn profile and resume to show new skills acquired.

Non-profit/social mission:
Foundation Center: classes and webinars on fund-raising, grant writing, non-profits operations, and a trove of information on U.S. foundations and the non-profits supported by them.
Encore.org Fellowships
Be the Social Change: NYC group with events and classes on social mission endeavors
The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life
The B Corp Handbook: How to Use Business as a Force for Good

Entrepreneurship:
Kauffman Foundation: FastTrac boot camp for entrepreneurs (offered in select cities)
Government organizations supporting small businesses such as Small Business Administration, Chamber of Commerce

Creative Writing:
Local colleges/universities continuing education classes/workshops
Pen & Brush NYC arts organization (Writing circle is good for beginners)
Poets and Writers Magazine
Public libraries as a place to write, attend author readings and classes, do research, and borrow books, DVDs and other media

 

With my significant other, Peter Conrad

 

What’s next for you?
I would like to continue supporting underserved girls and women. There is so much need around the globe! As I get more immersed in the non-profit sector, I’m excited to learn about organizations where I can contribute and apply a combination of marketing, business development and operational skills. I recently took an advisory board role at Indego Africa, a non-profit with a mission to empower African women artisans by showcasing their beautiful crafts and investing in their education.

Writing essays and creative non-fiction, with the aim of publishing a collection. I have some ideas for short stories and maybe even a novel down the road. I would love to travel to India and South America and return to countries I visited long ago, including Japan, Italy, and Portugal.

  

Connect with Nancy Gendimenico
Email: ngendimenico@gmail.com
Website: Elan Brand Licensing
LinkedIn
Twitter 
Instagram
Facebook




Let’s Hear from an Expert: Jeanne Safer, Author of Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life Without Children

In your speaking and writing, you often tackle taboo topics. What drew you to write about women who choose not to have children?
Personal experience. It took me 5 years to make the decision not to have children myself, and I wanted to use the insights I gained to help others through this essential decision process. My most important insight: I realized I didn’t WANT to have a child; I WANTED to want to have a child.

It was also wonderful to be asked to contribute an essay to the anthology Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum. This gave me the opportunity to revisit the issue 25 years after I wrote Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life Without Children. I realized how important the decision, and the decision-making process, had been in my life. Now at age 70, I can honestly say it was absolutely right for me.

What are some of the challenges these women face in our American society?
I’m sorry to say that, although the stigma has lessened somewhat over the years since I struggled with this issue, women making this choice—or even thinking about not being mothers—worry that they are selfish, unfeminine, or missing out on fulfillment. And society reinforces these fears. The women I interviewed worked this through, and, to a woman, felt their decision was right for them.

What misconceptions would these women like to clarify with mothers?
That there are many ways to nurture; that motherhood should be a choice, not a foregone conclusion; that selfishness is equally distributed among mothers and non-mothers. And that there is NO life without regrets, losses, and gains.

What advice do you have for women who choose not to have children?
Think about it fearlessly! Make a conscious decision. You will never regret doing so. Realize that you can be creative and loving and fulfilled without a child. There are lots of women of all ages who can attest to the profound satisfactions of life (and marriage) without children if that’s the right choice for you.

What resources do you recommend for women who chose not to have children?
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, Meghan Daum’s marvelous book, which includes MEN (of all things!) for the first time, is a wonderful resource. It provides a spectrum of wise, funny and thoughtful voices.

My website has many articles and interviews on this topic that I’ve done over the years.

 

Connect with Jeanne Safer
Email: Jeanne@JeanneSaferPhd.com
Website
Twitter: @JeanneSafer

 

Jeanne Safer, PhD, has been a practicing psychoanalyst/psychotherapist in New York City for over 40 years. She is the author of 6 books on “Taboo Topics”—the things everybody thinks about but nobody talks about. Her most recent book is The Golden Condom: And Other Essays on Love Lost and Found, which explores the many faces of passion. Dr. Safer is currently working on a book about the challenges of mixed political marriage.




Becoming a Novelist in Midlife: Orly’s Story

A health scare, long hours at work, and the birth of her son would be the catalysts that propelled Orly into a new creative outlet: Writing fiction. Her first novel, The Distance Home, has recently been released and her second novel is on its way.

  

Tell us a little about your background…

If I had to describe my background in one word, it would be “ordinary.” I come from a loving family with parents who are about to celebrate 52 years together. I had every opportunity growing up, from ballet and music lessons to a pony and horse shows. We had pets and family vacations and a lovely house. I had and still have a great relationship with my parents (okay, a few rocky periods during my teens but that’s pretty normal, right?). Ordinary, normal, no traumas, no drama.

Now for the longer version.

I was born in Israel and, except for my parents, most of my family still lives there. When I was four, we moved to England for three years, then back to Israel before moving again to the United States. That last move wasn’t a whole bucket of fun, though. We moved to the Midwest and fitting in wasn’t the easiest for me. I had a very British accent and kids made fun of me. For a few years I schemed how to get back to Israel and, when it became clear that wasn’t an option, I did whatever I could to become like everyone else. There were a handful of years when I refused to speak Hebrew, didn’t want to celebrate the Jewish holidays, and made sure my British accent was buried deep.

As a young girl, at a horse show

My first couple of years in college were rather unsettled. I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around what I wanted to study. I went in as an art history major and switched several times before finally graduating with a major in English and no idea what I wanted to do with it. Well, not exactly. I had a fascination with the publishing industry and applied for jobs in New York publishing houses (I was living on Long Island at the time) but quickly realized that my entry-level salary wouldn’t come close to covering a Manhattan apartment that would allow my mother to sleep quietly at night.

That meant graduate school. While applying for publishing jobs, I’d also submitted applications to law school. Not that I had a burning interest in the law but it seemed the right path at the time. When the time to commit came about, I aborted the idea of law school and applied to journalism programs instead. That brought me to the University of Maryland and, after graduating, a job as an editor at a monthly trade publication for the satellite industry.

With my husband pre-wedding at the Maryland Renaissance Festival in 1994

I’d always been a space junkie – I watched every shuttle launch and read everything I could about the space industry – so it was pretty exciting to get to be part of that world, even if my slice of that world was on the other side of the industry. After a couple of years, I joined the corporate communications department of an up and coming satellite communications company. Several years and a couple of job hops into different industries, I went to work for my dream company – a satellite launch company. Rockets, baby. I worked crazy hours and loved it—most of the time.

While I was working as an editor at Via Satellite magazine in 1994, I had the opportunity to go to Kourou, French Guiana to visit the Space Centre with a side trip to Devil’s Island

At some point, I started loving it a bit less. My husband and I had been married 10 years by then and, at 37, I was at the ticking end of my biological clock. I loved being in the corporate world and never had strong maternal instincts (except for animals—show me a puppy or kitty and I melt). But at some point, I started noticing the kids as much as the family pets.

Then life took a slight detour. I had a health scare that, coupled with some pretty unhappy times at work, made me realize that crazy long hours just weren’t what life was meant to be about. Somehow, out of that mess of doctor visits and hours crying on the bathroom floor and more visits, I came out with a clean bill of health and a positive pregnancy test.

As cliché as this sounds, from the moment my son was born, I was a different person. Priorities changed. Wants changed.

With my son in 2008

When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?

After my son was born, I quickly realized that I no longer fit into the skin of the “me” I’d cultivated all those years in the corporate world. Part of it was struggling with postpartum depression, even though I never acknowledged that at the time. Part of it was an unpleasant shift in family dynamics.

And part of it had to do with my new role working from home. I’d started freelancing while on maternity leave and when my son was a bit over a year old, I made the switch to full time freelancing. It wasn’t that I missed the work environment. I actually found that I was perfectly happy in my cave, working at my own pace. I had great clients, mostly in the space industry. But at some point, the work itself stopped tugging at my creativity.

A friend recommended writing essays for various parenting magazines but the idea of putting my thoughts and feelings down for strangers to read made me queasy. When I mentioned to my husband that I needed a new creative outlet and was considering going back for my Ph.D., he suggested that I give writing a shot. If I wasn’t up for essays, then maybe fiction. I had nothing to lose; that same day, I signed up for a fiction workshop. By the time I finished that first workshop, I had a completed draft and a new passion.

What is your next act

I am the author of The Distance Home, which I published with Forge Books in May 2017, at the age of 50. Here’s the official blurb:

Sixteen years ago, a tragic accident cost Emma Metz her two best friends—one human and one equine. Now her father’s dead too, and she’s forced to return to the hometown she’d fled. She uncovers a history of lies tying her broken family to the one place she thought she could never face again—the stable that held her secrets and her grief. But to exorcise the ghosts of her past, she’ll have to release the guilt, embrace the uncertainty of a future she’d buried, and trust again in the healing power of horses.

The Distance Home is a story about fitting in and the lengths we’ll go to in order to be accepted and feel loved.

My sophomore book, Carousel Beach, will be released from Forge on May 8, 2018. Here’s a bit about the book: A mysterious inscription carved on the belly of a historic carousel horse and a cryptic letter left on her grandmother’s grave lead an art restorer on a quest for the truth buried within family secrets. I have a couple more manuscripts in the works and a notebook full of other ideas.

I joke that writing is cheaper than therapy. There’s more truth than joke in that. I’m not a talker. I think better through my fingers. But while I’ve always loved reading, I never had the pull for writing fiction. What I found, though, is that fiction gave me the outlet for the emotions and feelings and thoughts that I’d trapped inside. My characters are able to sort through emotional upheaval. They can confront the people who hurt them. They can change their lives in 300 pages.

My characters can do all the things I can’t always do. Through them, I can release the pressure building inside me. The characters I write about don’t speak for me and they don’t deal with the issues I’m going through at that period in my life. But through their emotional journeys, I can release my own fears and heartaches and dreams.

My stories are the family and friends I can’t always open up to. Through them, I can spread my wings. The stories don’t reflect who I am or what I do. But through them, I can explore new ways of becoming whole again.

My writing desk

How hard was it to take the plunge?

It was terrifying. I worked hard to get to where I was in my professional life and that was the only professional life I imagined. When I got pregnant, the idea of not working wasn’t something I remotely entertained.

Granted, I eased into it to some extent—first switching to full-time freelancing then slowly cutting back on clients. But the day I sat with my husband and said, “I want to see if I can make a go of getting published,” was palm-sweaty, heart-banging scary.

We worked out a budget. Sacrifices were made. The hardest for me, though, was reminding myself that I was still “working.” I may not be clocking in at an office and I wasn’t responsible to clients anymore, but I chose to make writing my new career and I was now accountable to myself.

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

My husband was very supportive. Even with the financial concerns, he assured me we’d make it work if that’s what I really wanted to do. He doesn’t read my work or pat me on the back or even commiserate with the frustrations of the publishing process, but he’s the first to remind me to say no when I overextend myself with other commitments and give me the weekend to work when I have a deadline. And he gave me the very best advice I’ve gotten… If I don’t take myself and my writing seriously, why should others? That was the kick in the pants I needed to become more protective of my time and when I stopped tip-toeing around the question, “So, Orly, what do you do?”

My parents have been very encouraging, even if slightly hesitant at the beginning. My mother, especially, was concerned about me giving up the corporate job. But they’ve since gotten fully on board and are interested in every step of the process.

My biggest supporter, however, is my son. He tells everyone that I’m a writer. I went to pick him up early from school one day and the lady at the front office, who I’d never met, said, “Oh, you’re the author. I’ve heard all about your book. I can’t wait to read it.” I actually looked behind me to see if there was someone else there. He’s dubbed himself my “manager.”

What challenges did you encounter?

One of the biggest challenges I came across was finding a writing support group. In that early workshop, the instructor had recommended several writers’ associations. I joined one but it was for a genre I didn’t write, although they did have a few specialty chapters including one for women’s fiction. And while that chapter was great and I met many wonderful writers in my genre, the majority of the resources out of that parent group weren’t helpful to me personally.

Then at the end of 2012, that parent association made the executive decision to tighten their mission. It made complete sense for them but left our genre homeless. A handful of us came together and founded the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA). We made a wish list of the things we wanted from a professional association and set out to make it happen.

The connections and support from WFWA were a major part of my road to success. In the three years I was the founding president, I learned that I could step beyond my comfort zone and not only survive, but thrive.

With Women’s Fiction Writers Association co-founders, Linda Zohman Avellar, Laura Drake, Kerry Hall Lonsdale at the first WFWA retreat September 2015

With respect to finding a publisher, like most aspiring writers, I worked my way through the trenches. I queried and gathered a box-full of rejections. Scrapped one manuscript, wrote another, and queried again. More rejections. With each manuscript, I pushed myself harder to strengthen my craft. I followed agents on Twitter, read every relevant blog, took more workshops, and kept my eyes on the end goal—an agent and a publishing deal.

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

Giving up was never an option. I didn’t always believe that it would happen, but it never crossed my mind to stop. I had – still have – a core group of writing buddies who keep me grounded and focused. They’re my daily sanity savers in what can be a lonely and rather neurotic business.

And there’s really nothing else I’d like to do. I love writing. I get twitchy when I’m between projects or have to be away from a project for a length of time because of other commitments.

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I learned that I have way more patience than I ever gave myself credit for. My lack of patience is a great source of amusement in our house. Even my son, when he was younger, used to tease me. You know you have a problem when your 8-year old tells you to relax. The path from aspiring author to published author is bumpy with lots of turns and detours and hurry-up-and-waits. There were queries that I sent to agents that didn’t receive responses for months. One actually came over a year after the original query.

I also learned that I have more staying power than I thought. Rejection stings, no way around that. But I very quickly accepted that the rejections were not personal. Writing may be deeply personal, but publishing is a business. The agents weren’t rejecting me; they didn’t think the work I was presenting to them was ready. I used each rejection to fuel forward momentum. And despite a dizzying amount of rejections, I kept at it.

2017 Gaithersburg Book Festival with Adriana Arrington and Jenni L. Walsh

 

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

Yes and no.

I would have been more patient. And yes, I get the irony of saying that after my response to the previous question. I was quick with the trigger finger several times and sent manuscripts out before they were really ready. Then again, I didn’t know they weren’t ready until the rejections came in. The personalized rejections were the most valuable critiques I could have gotten and each one helped shape my writing in a positive way. So yes, because I wish I’d taken more time with those early manuscripts but no, because those early manuscripts taught me so much.

With my grandmother when I was in college; she’s a major inspiration for a character in my second book

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Trust yourself. It’s incredibly easy to fall into a spiral of doubt. Those nagging questions of “why did I think I could do this” and “what if I fail” can paralyze your creativity and motivation. We expect to go through rejection early in our careers but going back to square one is harder after you’ve already pushed that box aside and thought you were past that phase in your life.

While I’m incredibly proud of my accomplishments in my early career, this time around feels so much more rewarding. This time, I went into it with the knowledge of what failure could mean. When you’re in your 20s, the future is forever away. There’s time to explore and time to detour. When you’re closing in on 50, it feels a little closer. Failure now doesn’t guarantee a second chance.

 

What advice do you have for those interested in writing fiction?

Find your tribe. Writing can be incredibly lonely and frustrating at times. You spend hours upon hours alone with people you’ve created in worlds that exist only in your head. Sounds a bit crazy, doesn’t it? As supportive as family and friends are, they rarely understand the depths of what goes into writing and publishing.

When I’m in a story, those characters are real to me. They’re part of my world and at times, I find myself expecting them to sit down for dinner with us or I fret about something a character has done or needs to do just as I would any other member of my family. I’ve been known to get lost in the middle of washing dishes and blurt out, “that’s what I was missing,” then continue to talk out the missing piece of the story while my family gawks behind me. Other writers get this. We can talk to each other about people who don’t exist without feeling self-conscious.

Other writers get the pain of rejection or a negative review. They understand the agony over first person or third person point-of-view. They share experiences and knowledge. And they get the exhausted excitement over typing “the end,” even if it’s only the end of the first draft and there are at least five more to come.

With a few of my writing buddies

What writing resources do you recommend?

There are a lot of amazing resources for writers, both “live” and online.

My work time was limited to when my son was at school so the online resources were a godsend. Facebook communities are a great place for connecting with other writers. I belong to way more than I have time for, but there are a few that I “visit” every day. The Motivated Writer is a must for me. We do regular check-ins, announcing our weekly goals on Monday then following up on Friday with progress. It’s a wonderful, supportive group and everyone is ready with advice or a pat on the back or a woo hoo.

Writer Unboxed is another fabulous online community and it’s connected to a great blog for writers. Another amazing blog with articles for every stage of the writing career is Writers in the Storm. I also love Thinking Through Our Fingers for the variety and helpfulness of their articles.

Another favorite online hangout is BLOOM. It’s a great group of book lovers—both writers and readers. The group is hosted by the Tall Poppy Writers and it’s become my go-to to connect with readers and my daily happy stop.

Writer’s Digest is one of the best overall resources for writers of any genre. I devour the magazine the moment it arrives in my mailbox. There are online articles and a whole host of reference tools through the website. There’s a bookstore with a brilliant selection of books to help writers at every stage of their writing process and career growth. I’ve also found their online workshops incredibly helpful.

There are numerous writing associations out there. I suggest every author find the one that fits their genre or, if they’re straddling genres or not yet sure what genre best fits for what they write, then test join a few until you find the right fit. For me, it’s obviously the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. But pretty much every genre has its own group.

One resource I found particularly helpful when I was querying agents, and to be honest, still find helpful when I’m developing new projects, is the twitter hashtag #MSWL. MSWL stands for Manuscript Wish List. Periodically, agents and editors will post the types of projects they’re most interested in seeing to twitter. But there’s also a handy website that makes finding the information easier for those of us with Twitter issues.

Some of my favorite books

What’s next for you?

Next up? More edits on the novel I recently turned into my editor, finish another manuscript that I’ve been working on, and get another underway. I’ve also been tinkering with a middle-grade manuscript that I’m hoping to finally finish. And dig my house out of the mess that’s resulted from months on deadline.

 

Contact Orly Konig
Email: orly@oklopez.com
Website
Book: The Distance Home: A Novel
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Let’s Hear From an Expert: Cathi Hanauer, Novelist and Editor of The Bitch Is Back

Photo Credit: Phoebe Jones

You’ve released a new compilation of essays called The Bitch Is Back, featuring many of the writers from your first anthology, the New York Times bestseller The Bitch in the House. What was your motivation behind your new book?

The first anthology, The Bitch in the House, had come out at a time in my life when I was angry and overwhelmed. Since then, I’d gone from a young, harried, struggling working mother with too much to manage and do, to a happy, middle-aged working mother with a ton of gratitude for my very nice life. And while a lot of that outcome was due to luck and privilege, a significant other part resulted, I felt, from having been true to what I wanted all along, to have really done the work of digging deep and trying to figure out things and ask for things and get things, even if they bucked the norm. And I knew the same was true of my friends—some of whom were contributors to Bitch 1 (as I now call The Bitch in the House).

For example, one contributor had gotten out of her problematic marriage and then married a much more suitable guy who happened to be 20 years younger; another contributor, who had been single and searching in Bitch 1, had since gotten married and had a child. Other women had taken other steps, some large, some small—changing partners or careers, having a child on their own, transitioning from male to female, going on anti-depressants, taking up new things in life…or just accepting the limitations of the lives they had chosen and developing a new perspective on it.

I wanted to be able to tell some of those stories—what happens AFTER those hard, Bitch 1 years? Do things get better, easier, less stressful? If so, why and how? What have we learned? And I wanted to do a book that wasn’t about anger, but about wisdom and enlightenment and gratitude. That makes the book sound very new-agey, which it’s not at ALL—it has the same edge as Bitch 1—but it’s a book about getting through those hard years and into the next phase, with the specifics of how a number of women—nine from Bitch 1, the rest new ones—did that. And with the advantage that many of these contributors are top writers or editors—so, people who are paid to think about and articulate these things in an interesting way. In other words, the book has an element of literature, too, of real, and impressive, writing.

 

How will this book speak to women in midlife and beyond?
I probably answered that in my long-winded answer above! But the book offers both wisdom and specific stories about middle-age, in topics ranging from breast cancer and sexuality to sex after 60 (by the amazing Sarah Crichton, whose husband dumping her was the best thing to ever happen to her), to no longer caring about your weight, to whether or not to do artificial things to your face, to how a marriage changes from the time of a baby being born into it to that baby leaving for college….lots of topics.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities facing us as we age, as heard through the voices of your writers?
Where to start? First, just the physical challenge of aging—how our health, looks, sexuality, perspective change. Then there’s marriage: how to figure out what we want from it and how to get it; how to move on if it’s wrong; how to move on if we thought it was okay but our partners didn’t agree and moved on (see Sarah Crichton, above!). How to deal with aging kids, from teenagers who are moving away from us to our kids physically leaving home. How to hold onto ourselves with the pressures of work and family. How to age into a better place, to make middle age the best years of your life rather than the beginning of the end.

 

What advice do you and your writers have for women as we age?
THINK. Read, question, dig deep. Go to therapy if you need to, challenge yourself…most of all, don’t become complacent (unless, of course, that works for you!). Figure out what you want, and then get it. Easier said than done, right? Be true to yourself. If you do, you are headed toward happiness and possibly the best years of your life. If you don’t… Never mind. We won’t go there.

 

What resources do you recommend on the topic of women and aging?
I love the new website NextTribe—smart and relevant. I love Michelle Rage’s website Rubber Shoes in Hell—hilarious and smart, and tacky in the best ways.

Books, where to start, there are so many great ones. Abigail Thomas’s What Comes Next and How to Like It—god, what a beautiful book. Almost anything by Elizabeth Strout, ditto Kate Christensen. Dani Shapiro’s sparse and lovely recent memoir Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage. If it’s not too obnoxious, my own novel, Gone, about midlife marriage and motherhood, art and depression. I recently reread A Brief History of Anxiety…Yours and Mine by Patricia Pearson—not about aging per se as about anxiety, but still about midlife, and so smart and great. There is great stuff out there.

 

Connect with Cathi Hanauer
Email: cathi.hanauer@gmail.com
Website: www.cathihanauer.com
Facebook Page
Twitter: @cathihanauer

Books:
Gone: A Novel
Sweet Ruin: A Novel
My Sister’s Bones
The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage
The Bitch Is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier

Cathi Hanauer is the New York Times bestselling author of three novels—Gone, Sweet Ruin, My Sister’s Bones—and editor of two anthologies, The Bitch in the House and The Bitch is Back. A co-founder (along with her husband, Daniel Jones) of the New York Times “Modern Love” column, she has contributed articles, essays, and reviews to The New York Times, Elle (where she’s a contributing writer), O—the Oprah MagazineReal Simple, and many other publications. She lives in Northampton, MA and New York, NY.




Supporting Parents of Adult Children: Barbara’s Story

After retiring three times, Barbara has reinvented yet again, this time seeking to bridge the divide between parents and adult children with her website and blog, Parents of Grown Offspring.

Tell us a little about your background…
I was born into a conventional middle-class, suburban American family: working father, stay-at-home mother, two children. I am now the mother of two and the grandmother of four. The only unusual features of my early years were being sent to 8-week sleep-away camp at the age of 3–and for the 13 years thereafter–and skipping my senior year of high school to start college. Looking back I seem to have been born driven, writing, and focused on the future. As proof of the third-mentioned, look no further than my last will and testament, which I wrote at the age of 8!

A portrait of me as a young girl

Although I’ve done many things in my long career, communication was the thread that connected them all. Researching, organizing, and writing an undergraduate thesis at my alma mater, Vassar College, was the very best preparation for my life as a writer. Right out of college, I joined the staff of The Book of Knowledge and then The New York Times.

After those stints, I wrote 4 non-fiction books: America Fever : The Story of American Immigration, which was inspired by my Russian-born grandfather (and put on display at the New York Public Library); Children Through the Ages, Forward March to Freedom., the civil rights leader; and Help: A Handbook for Working Mothers. More recently, I wrote two young adult novels, Animal Kingdom and Good-To-Go Café which were designed to encourage low-achieving students to aim high in the real world. These grew out of my volunteer work with would-be entrepreneurs at our local high school.

My books

Shortly after college I met my husband on a blind date and married him four months later. Making the wedding while working at a high-stress job became the subject of my first published article, “How to Get Married, Work, and Survive.” (We writers never waste an important life experience.)

My wedding day

When our younger daughter was in second grade, I joined the corporate world as a public relations practitioner, first for an energy company and then for a satellite communications firm. Upon moving from New York to California, I got in touch with my inner entrepreneur and founded my first company, Greenleaf Video, to take advantage of the how-to video craze. I ran it for several years and then was happily acquired by a public company. Upon this first retirement at the age of 47, I took classes in every craft known to woman: among them basket and fabric weaving, quilting, calligraphy, knitting, bookbinding, and paper folding. I also studied the piano, the ukulele, specialty hors-d’oeuvres, organic cooking, Pilates, and yoga. I was pretty bad at almost all of it, except for quilting, which I still do.

Eventually, my happy housewife phase petered out and I found myself putting on a suit and high heels to do the dishes. That’s when I knew it was time to go back to work. While volunteering for a political campaign, I met the head of a major accounting firm, who then hired me as a PR consultant. Strategic Communications/LA was born. I was fortunate in attracting such wonderful clients as Price Waterhouse, the RAND Corporation, the Santa Monica Pier, and the Southern California SPCA. It was during this phase that I wrote speeches, which turned out to be my favorite genre and earned me spots in Vital Speeches of the Day and a “Best Speech in Los Angeles” award. After 10 years, I split the company into two parts, found buyers, and retired again at 57.

During this second attempt at retirement, I played golf, became an environmental activist, and founded and ran the Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival. After some time and some soul-searching on a milestone birthday, I realized I missed working for money. That led me to resuscitate Strategic Communications. I drew on my network of social contacts to reboot, and among my initial clients was Antioch University Santa Barbara.

When the school had an opening for a fundraiser and event planner, I was invited to apply and, lo and behold, I was hired! I got a big kick out of my lovely office, being part of a team, dressing for work again, having business lunches, being accepted by the younger staff (and they were all younger), and learning a lot about higher ed. It was truly a shot in the arm for me at this stage of my life. Alas, after a few years, circumstances at the university changed, so I retired for the third time at 73.

 

When did you start to think about making yet another fresh start?
I had been thinking of creating a blog/website for some time, but my third retirement was undoubtedly the catalyst for finally pulling it together. Over the years friends had shared their heartaches, happiness, and their own growing pains during that confusing time of life when their children left home, returned home, or started their own families.

As a historian interested in the evolution of human feeling and a mother myself, I began to ponder if there was any purpose to the nuclear family today once the children had grown up and gone their separate ways. In the past there was a definite connection: The generations often lived under the same roof, tilled the soil communally, or ran the family business together. Today, matters are much less clear-cut. In fact, parents and children often have very different expectations of their roles vis-à-vis one another, which leads to a lot of misunderstanding and hurt feelings.

 

What is your next act?
I feel my mission in life is now to help parents have a more fulfilling relationship with their adult children. My blog/website Parents of Grown Offspring (to remember, think “POGO”), which I recently launched at 73, celebrates intergenerational success stories, suggests ways to heal rifts, and lets parents know they are not alone or the only ones encountering problems with their grown “kids.”

Basically, there are three parts to our content. The first, “Think About It,” contains sticky situations à la Dear Abby, only the readers propose the solutions themselves. The second consists of interviews with experts and research on such sore-spot subjects as intergenerational communication (or lack thereof), how to give advice and when to zip it, and how to set limits when your child comes home to live. In the third, we offer cartoons, poems, movie reviews, songs, and jokes about parents and their adult children.

Designed to be interactive, POGO encourages readers to help each other by sharing their own experiences and tips for an improved relationship. As I am not looking to make money from the blog, signups are free and come with The Ten Best Things You Can Say to Your Adult Child.

At work on my blog

How hard was it to take the plunge?
As a serial entrepreneur, it was not difficult for me to start a new project. But, before I did any writing for the blog, I thoroughly searched the Internet to see if there were already websites devoted solely to my topic. I can’t stress strongly enough how important (and yet how often not undertaken) it is to do “due diligence,” i.e., your homework. If you have a copycat product, your chances of success are slim. In my case, I couldn’t find anything devoted specifically to my topic, which is when I knew I had a unique niche to fill.

 

How supportive were your family and friends?
When I told the family about POGO, my husband was immediately supportive. A real trooper, he’s always there for me, no matter how off-the-wall my ideas! Our older daughter was also enthusiastic, offering to do a podcast about the benefits of having a mother with whom to commiserate about bringing up “unusual” children like her. Our younger daughter, however, was cool to the idea. She felt the subject matter and tone of the blog were negative. After hearing her reaction, I looked at my initial material with fresh eyes and agreed that, indeed, the site reeked of exasperation. I went back to the drawing board to make it more solution-oriented and to highlight successes as well as frustrations.

As to friends, by now they expect me to always have some new project brewing. Although when I took my last full-time job, well past the age when most people have retired, one woman did exclaim, “Barbara, what’s wrong with you?!”

Recent family reunion at a Santa Barbara beach, celebrating my birthday

What challenges have you encountered?
In the months preceding the launch, it was a hard slog to put together so many original articles because my web designer felt POGO should look like a going concern from Day 1. Since then I’ve been finding that researching and writing while spreading the word and keeping up with social media is a lot more work than I had anticipated. But by far my biggest bugaboo is the technology. I have no aptitude for, nor interest in, things electronic, yet here I am operating in a digital world. I’ve committed to becoming more computer literate, but I’ll probably always need a lot of propping up. I also find it a little creepy doing business in the silent world of computers without any aural interaction. I’m afraid I’m going to become one of those crazy ladies who strike up conversations with strangers on the checkout line just to hear the sound of another human voice!

 

What did you learn about yourself in this process?
I thought I was empathic before, but I’ve become much more compassionate toward parents, who have been given an impossible set of standards to live up to. I see my mission as giving them a big group hug accompanied by the assurance, “I appreciate all you’ve done and are doing. I celebrate you not just on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day but all year round. You showed up for your families.”

With my grandson

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
I should have left my last full-time position as soon as it became apparent that I could never fix what needed fixing. It’s not wrong to say, “It’s not my job,” but somehow we women often feel an enormous—and misguided—sense of responsibility to try to make things right. I should have listened to my gut feelings.

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Make “What the hell!” your motto. At this stage of life, there’s little at stake; no one cares if you try and fail or try and lose interest. Give it a go, get what you can out it, and when it’s time to stop, stop. If you can afford it, undertake only what interests you and what feels right. I like participating in the world because I conceptualize life as a piggy bank: You have to put in to take out. My mother started to suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease when she was younger than I am and slowly deteriorated for 15 years. Given that family history, I’m grateful (and amazed) every day that I still have the brainpower to do what I love—work.

 

What advice do I have for those interested in pursuing your reinvention path?
Altruism does not come free. There are many start-up costs and ongoing fees associated with creating and maintaining a blog/website, not to mention Facebook ads and other social media boosts to build your list of followers. Unless you are remarkably adept at website design, know the ins and outs of the Internet, and live and breathe social media, you are going to need help and that help is going to cost. Even if you are doing this as a labor of love as I am, you have to face the fact that at some point you may have to monetize your site. You will also have to pay to get out the word because, as one blogger warned me, “If you build it, they may not come.”

What resources do you recommend?
Books:

I Only Say This Because I Love You: How the Way We Talk Can Make or Break Family Relationships Throughout Our Lives by Deborah Tannen. The classic on intergenerational communications.

You’re Wearing That?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation by Deborah Tannen. Drilling down to particularly fraught interactions.

Setting Boundaries® with Your Adult Children: Six Steps to Hope and Healing for Struggling Parents by Allison Bottke. A tough love approach with a Christian perspective.

When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up?: Loving and Understanding Your Emerging Adult by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Fishel. For parents whose children are 18-29.

When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along by Joshua Coleman, Ph.D. You’ll find a lot of fresh, sensible, and actionable advice here.

Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents by Jane Isay. Heartfelt wisdom shared parent-to-parent.

Websites:

Grown and Flown. Insights for parents whose kids are just entering or just leaving college.

Next Avenue. PBS site with some articles on parents and their adult children.

Ga Ga Sisterhood: Grandmothers’ site with some articles on interacting with daughters-in-law and other aspects of intergenerational relationships.

Empowering Parents. Some articles on dealing with young adults.

 

What’s next for you? Do you have another next act in your future?
I sincerely hope not. I have ambitious goals for Parents of Grown Offspring that should keep me busy until the end of my days. I want to create an awareness that parenting grown children is a separate stage of life—with its own pitfalls, protocols, and opportunities—and initiate a national dialogue on responsibilities and reasonable expectations on both sides of the parent/adult child divide.

I’ve also acquired a new passion, assemblage, so perhaps I’ll be the Grandma Moses of art from found objects. I scour thrift shops and tag sales for odd items that will add interest to my pieces. Tellingly, no matter how disparate my pieces, they always seem to include at least some writing. As I just told a young audience at Girls Inc., if you cut open my veins, words will come tumbling out . . .

 

Connect with Barbara Greenleaf
Email: info@parentsofgrownoffspring.com
Website
Facebook
Linkedin
Twitter: @bkgreenleaf
Instagram




Publishing a Collection of Short Stories in Midlife: Jodi’s Story

Two decades into a teaching career, saddled with health problems, Jodi chose to embrace her love of writing. She has since published a book, They Could Live with Themselves and is working on more short stories, novels, and poems.

 

Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in the rolling hills of southeast Pennsylvania, in Wyeth country, playing in fields and streams with my sisters and the children who lived near us. I read a lot and drew pictures. I was passionate about school. It was no surprise that I went to college in Pennsylvania and studied to become an elementary school teacher, but after doing my internships in a traditional, rather cloying, public school setting, I came away with a deep knowing that public school teaching wasn’t for me, at least not in a school like the one where I had studied.

After some travel and a few years trying on a number of alternative jobs–––living and teaching in a collaborative outdoor learning community, assisting a teacher in an urban Montessori school, and teaching nature programs at a center–––I went to graduate school in New England to get a degree in environmental studies. I loved being outdoors and New England felt more like home than home. The irony there was that just as I was ready to embark on a completely different professional trajectory, I got a teaching job in an alternative public school in a small town in Vermont, the kind of school I dreamed of, the kind of school I had hoped to one day start. So that’s where I landed. Eventually, my two daughters came along and I juggled being a devoted mother and career teacher.

When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?

I felt lucky to live in a beautiful place with a wonderful school where I could both work and send my kids, and I relished that life for many years. My job allowed me full freedom of creative self-expression on multiple levels and the ability to serve others in some way, my two goals in life. But things began to change. Demands on teachers and mandates from the state first trickled, then rushed in, while at the same time, basic needs in a number of children were less and less met at home. Social economic and academic gaps seemed to widen, or perhaps I just became more aware of the gaps. Tolerance in the more resourced families gave lip service to liberal views that did not always play out in action. I was heartbroken. An ideal I held about children and schools, our little school, began to erode.

A few years earlier, I had become a single mother. I experienced a great loss of innocence in both family and career. I zigzagged from feeling stressed, exhausted, and at times, completely deflated, to getting charged up over a new idea, a new kind of yoga, a new design idea for the house I was having built; I was completely overdoing it. Health practitioners came up with a host of diagnoses–––thyroid malfunction, liver and adrenal compromise, hormonal shifts, autoimmune, Lyme disease–––and I don’t discount the truth in any of those assessments. But no matter what conventional or alternative medical tracts I was on—seeing specialists, adding supplements, subtracting certain kinds of food from my diet—no matter how much therapy I experienced, stress was the constant factor that did not change.

I’d been in a winter writing group for many years and began to see metaphors in my poetry about life paths and choices. I was writing a lot about exhaustion, empty vessels, and barren landscapes. Sometimes the poetry seemed sad, but mostly I sensed it was expressive of a need for change and the exploration of new opportunities. One night, I wrote a poem titled, “The Suitcase.” It was epiphanic. The next day, in the spring of 2008, at the age of 46, I resigned from an 18-year teaching position.

What is your next act?

I’m the author of They Could Live with Themselves, a collection of linked short stories set in the fictional town of Stark Run, which was published in 2015 by Press 53, a small literary press out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. These stories delve into the inner lives of ordinary people with trouble in their hearts. Often a strange alliance arrives on the scene to shake something up or help move the protagonist forward in his/her emotional evolution in some way. There are eleven stories that take place over the course of one year, from May to May. A main character in one story might show up as a supporting character in another, so as you read along, the overall sense of a place is developed. Place becomes an exterior landscape that mirrors the inner lives of the individuals. One reviewer said that when read together, the stories become a whole that is greater than the sum of their parts.

My next act involves writing full-time, teaching writing, and working with clients as an editor and writing coach. I spend anywhere from ten to sixty hours a week working on ideas, drafts, and edits for my next books, another story collection, this time set on the coast of Maine, a novel, and a Young Adult novel. The hours I spend in the worlds I create are my happiest. I also work with private clients, individuals, and small groups, as an editor and writing teacher. I run these sessions from my home, usually over the phone or on a video chat, but also in person in my studio space. I love the flexibility I control in my schedule. And I need the personal interaction, as writing is often a lonely task. Deciding how much time I want to allot to “this kind of work” or “that kind of work” meets a need I have for variety.

During the exploration phase, my first year at home, I took a coaching certification course that taught me to trust all of the transitions in my life. I recognized that we are often in transition. This can be viewed as a challenge or an exciting opportunity for growth. As well as writing, editing, and coaching writers, I work with clients seeking change in their lives through the exploration of their unmet need for creativity. The work is fun for me, and helps my clients bust through barriers in ways they couldn’t imagine.

At one point, I had considered becoming a certified therapist and perhaps some day I will. I chose writing, the less practical of the two careers, at least for me so far. Coaching and leading workshops meet my need to work with people, so I feel as if I have the best of both worlds, being a writer, a workshop leader, and a coach.

 

How did your book come about?

In addition to writing poetry, I decided I wanted to learn how to write fiction. After exploring many avenues, I chose to go back to school and earn an MFA in Writing. Out of that program and a few more years of toil, drafting and editing and re-drafting, I compiled a series of linked short stories and published them in a debut collection, They Could Live with Themselves. The book opens with a story about a middle-aged woman, Molly, who is questioning her next steps when her youngest son begins his process of fledging.

I never considered self-publishing. I entered my manuscript in a contest and was a finalist. In the end, the editor of the press running the contest agreed to publish the book. So in a sense, this was not the path of finding an agent who would then shop the book to a big publishing house. There are more and more ways to approach publication. I was honored to have a small press take the time to treat my book with care.

 

Why did you choose this next act?  

2008 would be the first September that I did not “go to school” in one form or another since I was five years old. Besides school and loving my work with children, I also loved reading. I spent much of my spare time over the years reading books, mostly novels, but as I approached a middle of life transition, I also read books about the spirit and the soul. I read poetry, lots of poetry, and I listened to stories in the car with my kids and read to them every night. More than anything, I had a dream of one day making a book that others could read and enjoy as much as I have.

 

How hard was it to take the plunge?

I am fortunate to have a supportive second husband who encourages my work. The two of us, though nervous about giving up a second income with benefits, decided that I needed to heal or my illness would become debilitating. As I felt more and more well, I took some workshops and went to seminars and read books about things that interested me. I’m aware that not everyone has the luxury to take such steps, but I encourage as many people as I can who feel stuck in their lives to try and do a little every day, to do more of what they love, and to do it a little bit more as they can. Nowadays, there are many inexpensive options to study new areas for free or for little money, online, to watch You Tube videos to learn how to start painting or turn a bowl, to take a on-line Daily OM class for $10.

Another big step was to create a space of my own. Together, the September I did not go to school for the first time in 40 years, my husband and I built a tiny house in the woods. We called it The Poetry House. It’s quite magical! As we built the house, I wrote the lines of my favorite writers and books into the support beams of the tiny house. I spent many mornings that fall doing nothing but sitting in that space in the woods with my trusted dog, listening to the birds. Sometimes the best preparation is silence. We were sad to say goodbye to such a space. In 2014, after 25 years living in Vermont, we moved to the coast of Maine. That’s a different story for another day.

How supportive were your family and friends?

My friends were very supportive, as was my husband as I have said. My daughters were curious. My little one didn’t think it was fair that I didn’t have to go to school anymore and she did. She wondered why I wore pajamas all day.

 

What challenges did you encounter?

Two challenges. One: How do you train a career teacher to create a schedule for her time, her curriculum, as it were, now that she has all the time in the world to do as she decides? Well, mostly. Time management is still a challenge, but I get more and more used to letting go of a certain definition of structure. I’m learning to trust both the creative process and the practical work to develop as a flow.

Two: I no longer have a job with regular pay and benefits. That’s a challenge in terms of counting on a certain income every year and relying on health insurance that may no longer be affordable in future.

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

I think about giving up every day, but I haven’t yet. I trust my role in telling certain kinds of stories, stories about small towns with great heart and an underbelly, stories about families and relationships, the expected and the unexpected. I believe in the power of fiction to paint multi-dimensional portraits of flawed characters, to teach empathy, and teach us more about ourselves as we view the realistic lives of made-up people. What I have known all along through experience has now been proven by studies in neuroscience. It’s so exciting to me when science proves the ineffable.

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

Every day I learn something new about myself, as I get closer and closer to living the way I want to live. The biggest lesson has been that I have choice in directing my life. Nothing and no one holds me back except for me. That may sound like a privileged stance, because it is one. Growing up, we weren’t rich, but we worked hard and I am grateful for my parents who supported my curiosity through education. In school, I developed an imagination.

I’m grateful for everyone who encouraged me to develop a work ethic, from family to teachers to friends. I see in my work ethic a balance of creative process and product. I get to control that balance. If I can do it, so can anyone. I’ve also had to learn to accept the gift of support. The challenge of becoming dependent on another, to trust that person with my life, and to soak in the generosity, the deserving of it, has been a roadblock I could have never imagined.

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

In the past 10 years, I would have spent less and less time on social media. I look back on this dilemma everyday. I will tell you the same thing tomorrow. If I were to go all the way back to 1980 when I became a freshman in college, I think I would have studied English Literature. There is a part of me that wonders what it would have been like to teach high school English or English Literature in College, to have been an editor in a big house in NYC. Perhaps someday I will.

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

As I mentioned earlier, try to do a little more of what you love every day. Start small, use what you have, take a step in the direction where you see yourself when you envision a different existence. Get outside. Get quiet. Do both of those things a lot!

Find at least one good friend who supports your dream; better yet, start a small group where you meet to share your dreams and encourage each other. Be creative if you’re not normally a creative person; and if you’re often creative, try something more left brain, like learning to do your own taxes. If you have the time and resources, hire a transition coach whose mission and personal aesthetic lines up with yours. The main thing is to be aware, pay attention to what your higher awareness and your body are trying to tell you, and to be brave. For that, you need to pause and breathe, to do and be, to act and rest.

With friends from my writing group

What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing writing?

My best advice is to read what you love and read lots of it. Books are wonderful teachers. Also, read interviews given by writers. Listen to podcasts of writers talking about their processes. But mostly, sit down with the blank page and get started. Turn off all editors and write. It can get messy. Try and flow through that.

If you’re interested in freelance writing, find five people in real life who do what you see yourself doing and take them out for tea ands scones. Interview them. Pay them for their time if that’s required. Think about what they are really saying and not what you want to believe they are saying about pay, time, and clients. For some people, freelancing is a snap. For others, it’s a slog. For me, it’s a little bit of both.

What writing resources do you recommend?

Writing and Editing

Here’s a list of my favorite magazine and media sites that have everything a writer needs to get started and keep going in all aspects of the work, from the spark of an idea to a book contract:

Books I couldn’t have done without along the way:

These are a few places I recommend solidly, where I studied the art and craft of writing:

At the Vermont College of Fine Arts

 

Transition and Creativity Coaching

The following centers, all located in New England, were places I visited to take courses in personal exploration and growth as I sought inspiration for a next act career:

 These three books sit among other giants on my shelf that are written on the topic of creativity and following a passionate life path:

 

Teaching an art class

Facebook Groups and Pages

There are a number of Facebook Groups in support of writers of all kinds. These two are the ones I used the most often. Once you get going in Binders (for women and gender-nonconforming writers), you will be led to more and more specific private groups on topics ranging from writing poetry to book promotion. I curate Short Stories, Every Now and Then. If you read or write short fiction, you will find on-going resources to good reading materials.

 

What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?

Three things…

One: I failed to mention that during the first year of my transition, what I call my discovery phase, I took a painting class at the local art school and found that the process of making without a need to produce something acceptable and consumable made me feel euphoric and sharpened my creative aesthetic. The act of creating in an area that is not my main practice, writing fiction, has proven to be very beneficial to my work. Lately, I am leaning towards more and more art-making. I took a course on Soul Collage and have fun with that at one of my stations. I have found collage and mixed media art to be freeing. But now, I am painting and my canvases keep getting bigger and bigger. In my third act, I hope to produce art that can give other people enjoyment when they hang it on their wall.

Two: I love to design houses. My husband and I have designed, built, and renovated a total of 7 houses between us, not counting the sheds and shacks and tiny houses. We have a dream of creating at least one more house together.

Three: More books. I am currently working on a second collection of short stories, a novel, a YA novel, and collection of poetry. I like to have this many projects going at once. It’s not recommended. I trust the process.

 

Connect with Jodi Paloni
Email: jodipaloni@gmail.com
Book: They Could Live with Themselves
Website
Facebook
Twitter: @JodiPaloni




Let’s Hear from an Expert: Margaret Morganroth Gullette, Age Activist

You write and teach about ageism. What has made you so passionate about the subject?

I wasn’t originally passionate about ageism. Quite the contrary. I was looking for progress stories. “Midlife Exhilaration,” the first mainstream article I wrote, for the New York Times Magazine in 1989, reported some giddy new surprises about feeling good about growing older. Midlifers were being seen by writers and pundits as more competent, more assertive (and sexier) than anyone anticipated. The book I published, also in 1989, was called Safe at Last in the Middle Years. Many thought the so-called Baby Boomers would change old age as well as midlife decline ideology.

But I soon found that the Boomers couldn’t make it happen. People in their middle years were being dropped out of the workforce. Many long-unemployed midlife men in their fifties were committing suicide. “Anti-aging”—those cosmetic responses to ageism—turns out not to be a protective strategy. Today, ageism is hitting people younger than ever. The book I recently published, Ending Ageism, is subtitled How Not to Shoot Old People.

 

So as a cultural critic, writer, and scholar, over 25 years, you observed grave changes in the United States. What factors are responsible for these observations?

Not my own aging past midlife. I do identify with old people now that I am old enough to be a victim of ageism (and I have been a victim), but I’m fine in terms of health, work, and love. What has changed in painful ways is our society. It has made aging-past-youth darker and more painful through its concerted ageism. This ranges from micro-aggressions like calling me “young lady” to true violence. Some of it shocks me, some of it is appalling to anyone, but worst of all much gets ignored. We don’t know what ageism is.

Many enemies of later life are never reproached for ageism, even though their effects on old people are nasty or lethal. Congressional neoliberals, for instance. I watch the constant attacks on the safety nets translated into scapegoating old people for budget deficits that come from Congress having lowered taxes on the corporations and the rich. Republicans recently attempted to end Meals on Wheels, famously little more expensive for millions of recipients annually than Trump’s visits to Mar-a-Lago would be over the same period. I feel the nation needs to wake up to this most accepted of biases.

 

What are the most pervasive issues you’ve uncovered around aging in the US?

Familiar though I was with an array of ageisms that include unrelenting Congressional attempts to unravel the safety nets of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, people started relaying personal stories that shocked and upset me. They reported everything from casual insults, threats of bodily harm, to real violence. And sometimes, but parsimoniously, their feelings. I started listening harder.

Here is a friend who is a respected lawyer, a gorgeous woman in her mid-seventies with beautifully coiffed white hair.

I had my first ageist assault yesterday. I was in a convenience store paying with a credit card on a machine. I hesitated, thinking about whether I wanted to get cash and this young punk thrust his arm across my face, aiming his finger at the no button. “Just say no,” he said. I had to physically push his arm away to keep him from taking over the machine. “Leave me alone,” I said. He said, “That’s what I do for my grandmother.” His arm within millimeters of my face was a physical assault and his assumption that he knew what was best for me was even more enraging. All I wanted to say was “F*** you,” so I said nothing. The anger was intense.

I call know-it-alls like him “Young Judges.” They have internalized ageism. They have absorbed too much of the magnificent imaginary power conferred on them by the Western world’s cult of youth.

Behind this young man’s arrogance and invasiveness lie much worse for people aging past youth: nasty fantasies, hostile regulations and laws, practices, disdain, avoidance, invisibility and hypervisibility, intolerance of our appearance, lack of audiences for our grievances, underestimation of our trials, dislike of our alleged characteristics or disgust at our apparent weak­nesses, and unwillingness to look us in the eye or spend time in our company.

The Internet empowers hysterical young men to publish hate speech against elders, as in, “God forbid these miserable once-were-people not [sic] survive as long as possible to burden the rest of us.” This fantasy wish—that a large and easily identifiable group, “miserable once-were-people” should die prematurely for the convenience of youngers—can be matched by many other Web slurs.

Careless bullies on streets, on bikes, even on college campuses, make walking while old, as I call it, dangerous. One 65-year-old white acquaintance wrote to me about sidewalk encounters, “I feel like it’s a battle of wills as we close in on each other, and eventually one of us steps out of the way. I often feel invisible…” She feels the risks of having “less muscular flexibility to duck and weave.” One 80-year-old man I know, a retired CEO, was shoved down subway stairs and endured a knee operation, opioids, rehab, and a cascade of problems thereafter.

The shootings, when I discovered them through research, were the most appalling. Men—men over 55—are shooting their sick wives and calling it a mercy killing. Sometimes they kill themselves too, but if they don’t, the law is lenient to an old white man with a gun.

Medicine. If you get breast cancer, the odds of your surgeon not recommending chemotherapy if you are a woman over sixty-five are seven times greater than for a woman under fifty. Medical neglect, medical undertreatment—this is ageism.

Business. Through outsourcing and downsizing, corporate global capitalism is depriving midlife workers—not just in the Rust Belt factories or on farms, but across the professions, in Silicon Valley, in Hollywood—of employment and decent jobs. Letting people go, keeping people out of work, refusing aid to select groups because of age—that is all ageism.

Media oblivion. The media raise the fear of Alzheimer’s, erroneously equating it with aging into old age. Older women, who live longer, are tasked as particular “burdens.” This is ageism and sexist ageism.

Speaking at the University of Graz, Austria

 

How can we as a society change attitudes around aging?      

Recognize the harms, first of all. The law and society recognize that sexism and racism can be violent. We need to recognize the violence of ageism. Sometimes the attacks are invisible—or perhaps it would be better to say, they go unseen.  And often the victims are silent, or rather their cries go unheard. We old people are supposed to appear dignified, which means uncomplaining. We are not permitted to take offense. We are not allowed to be violent. So it behooves those who have hearts to be vigilant. One way to become more human is to listen to the pain of others. To try to hold ourselves steady to listen to the pain of being shamed, the ignominy of being a target. To report the biases and the sufferings.

Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People, my new book, ends with a short Declaration of Grievances. At an international conference in Austria, a brilliant designer named Carolyn Kerchof came up to me after I read the Declaration as part of my keynote and she offered to make a poster of it. Now the Declaration she designed is available to download and print (in English and Spanish) for free on Facebook. Memorize it and apply it to what needs to be done.

 

How can individuals combat ageism as we encounter it?

Don’t be silent, like my friend was in the convenience store.

Learn what counts as ageism—perhaps from thinking about the Declaration of Grievances, perhaps from direct observation—and be prepared with a riposte when it happens to you, or to a friend. Your response can be polite or crude. It can be brief or a short speech. It can be preventative: “Never call me ‘little lady’.” When in doubt, go to Ashton Applewhite’s Website, Yo, Is This Ageist, and ask her. It’s interactive, and she’ll answer. And watch your back, if you are aging past midlife. Your aging is the trigger for their ageism.

If you have children and grandchildren, teach them anti-ageism in whatever ways you can.

It’s a bitter irony that the Age of Longevity—when we should be proud of having so many people growing old, and glad to have them with us, enjoying life in these extra years—should be driving the terror of growing old. It’s a harsh fact that ageism has grown so much worse, while most of the public has yet to learn what the word means.

What resources do you recommend about ageism?

Set up a Google Alert for the word ageism, and read, week after week, what comes straight to your inbox. This week, age discrimination against relatively young people in Silicon Valley was covered twice. Ageism adds to the stigma faced by adults with HIV—and HIV/AIDS rates are growing fastest among older people. Jessica Lange, like many other stars, has complained about sexist ageism in Hollywood. In the admissions process at an Indian university, if two candidates have the same grades, the younger one will be chosen. (This can happen in graduate school admissions in the US also, or in choosing adjuncts.) The range of ageisms observed on these Google Alerts is not yet as wide and bad as those I reveal in Ending Ageism, but it is growing worldwide. These are global issues of behavior and rights.

Ask friends and acquaintances of all ages whether they have experienced ageism, and be patient as they try to figure out whether what bothered them was it. Get these conversations going, reassure, give support.

Books and websites can be great. I return to recent readable books like Peg Cruikshank’s Learning to Be Old, Ashton Applewhite’s This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism and Anne Karpf’s How to Age. If you are a teacher, join NANAS, the North American Network in Aging Studies, which sends you a monthly list of blogs and academic writing in age studies

But knowing your own mind, understanding your own experience, and listening to others are basic to changing our society. Then, get active. Start an ageism-consciousness group, a reading group, join or start a chapter of the Gray Panthers.

 

Connect with Margaret Morganroth Gullette

Email address: mgullett@brandeis.edu

Academia.edu

LinkedIn

Facebook

Twitter

Her Books:

Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People

The Big Move: Life Between the Turning Points

Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America

Aged by Culture

Safe at Last in the Middle Years: The Invention of the Midlife Progress Novel

Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife (Age Studies)

 

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, an internationally known age critic, essayist and activist, is the author most recently of Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People. Her prizewinning books include Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America, a 2012 winner of the Eric Hoffer Book Award and Declining to Decline(1997) which received the Emily Toth Award as the Abest feminist book on American popular culture. Aged by Culture(2004) was chosen a Noteworthy Book of the Year by the Christian Science Monitor. Her essays are often cited as notable in Best American Essays, and she writes frequently for the mainstream and feminist press and literary/ cultural quarterlies. She is a Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis.