Writing a Lesbian Novel in Midlife: Anne’s Story
After she got a handle on her son’s medical issues and homeschooling, Anne finally put down on paper the story that had been percolating in her mind. She is now shopping her lesbian novel to agents and publishers.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in a small town in Iowa and now live in Chicago with my wife Joanne and our ten-year-old son. I’ve been a voracious reader my entire life and wrote a lot of poems and short stories in my childhood. In high school, I wrote consistently for the school paper, which led me to consider a career in journalism.
I attended the University of Missouri-Columbia, and my original plan was to get a journalism degree and become a sports reporter. I took some electives in technical theater and fell in love with the communal creative process, so I finished with degrees in journalism and tech theater.
I moved to California to work in the production office at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts, and stayed four years. I did some writing during my off hours and also explored my interest in photography, taking photos during rehearsals and dress rehearsals. I taught myself to develop and print my own black-and-white shots in an unused darkroom at the theater. It was while I was in California that I realized I was a lesbian. I was a little slow to the party, figuring this out in my mid-twenties, but I’m lucky that my family and friends were supportive and caring.
I met Joanne online, way back when that was still a crazy way to find someone! We supported each other as we came out in our respective worlds, and soon our friendship turned to more. She was in her medical residency in Chicago, which made it difficult for her to relocate, so I left my job to move to back to the Midwest and see what was possible for us. It’s been over fifteen years now, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made!
My hope was to find a job in theater in Chicago, but I ended up working in condo management for a few years while I did some freelance proofreading. My relationship with Joanne was everything I could have hoped for, but losing the creative spirit I’d found in theater was a challenging transition.
As Joanne finished her residency, we decided to adopt a child. We’d been warned to expect a long wait, particularly since we were a gay couple, but we were selected within a month of submitting our portfolio to the agency, and within another month, our son was born! At the age of 31, I quickly pivoted to being a stay-at-home parent, which had always been our plan.
Before our son was a year old, we discovered he’d had a neonatal stroke, which resulted in hemiplegia (weakness on one side of the body). The next few years were a blur of therapies as we worked to get a handle on what this meant for him. I wasn’t writing during this time, but I signed up for a wheel-throwing pottery class, and it’s something I continue to pursue. Pottery was my first step back into the creative world that I’d been missing.
We originally put our son in public school, and my hope was to use some of that time to start writing again. I also began exploring ways to sell my pottery at art shows and festivals. But as many parents of special needs kids know, a lot of schools don’t have the resources, staff, or training to address the individual needs of these children. By the beginning of second grade, it was apparent that traditional schooling wasn’t a good fit for our son intellectually or emotionally.
In another quick pivot, we pulled him from school and began homeschooling. The change really helped our son, and I put all my energy into planning his curriculum and finding educational resources. My wife was always extremely supportive and involved during this time, but as the stay-at-home parent, I put a lot of pressure on myself to find the optimal way to handle our son’s schooling, sometimes to my own detriment. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve found more of a balance between meeting all of my son’s needs while allowing time and space for my own interests. I think finding that balance was necessary before I could move forward with my novel.
When did you start to think about making a change?
I’m not sure I view it as a change so much as an addition to my current life. I’m still a stay-at-home parent and still homeschool our son. But his medical issues and the struggle with the public schools took up most of the space in my head for a while and I had to learn to step away from the intensity of that experience and still leave time for myself. As I did this, I think the framework of the novel began to fill the open space in my thoughts.
The story grew out of a discussion Joanne and I had around my 40th birthday about what would happen if one of us died first. As a doctor, Joanne has witnessed death from many perspectives, and because of that, we have more honest conversations about death than many couples might. We asked each other to be open to the idea of moving on and finding happiness with another person.
As I drove my son to various appointments and classes, I pondered this idea, wondering what that experience could possibly look like. That’s really the genesis for the book. This percolated in my brain for a few years until the need to get the story down on paper became too great to ignore.
What is your next act?
I am a novelist. I’m searching for an agent for my novel, Beyond Any Experience, which focuses on a woman in her mid-forties who lost her wife to a tragic accident a few years ago and has been unable to move on. Complicating things for her is the fact that she’s also a single parent to their autistic son. It’s a love story, but it’s also an examination of grief, recovery, and the struggle to care for a child during a time of emotional trauma. It’s not a typical light-hearted romance, but I’ve always enjoyed stories that mix the dark and the light in a realistic way. I like books and movies that make me laugh and cry.
Given that I spent a good part of my twenties trying to write a novel, it’s ironic that the novel I finally finished could never have been written then. At 26, I didn’t have the life experience to even conceive of this character or this story, and I’d only recently discovered my sexuality. This story exists because of my age, not in spite of it.
My novel is a contemporary romance that contains elements of women’s fiction along with frank scenes of lesbian sexuality. It was a goal of mine to have the book be sex-positive, because a lot of the framework for lesbian sexuality is either it’s something to turn on heterosexual males or it’s the “we’re best friends, lesbian bed-death” trope. Also, and this is true in any new relationship, the development of the relationship hinges on many factors that all interrelate. The emotional life of my characters and the physical life of my characters are not separate. For me, I needed to examine the whole relationship, not just one half or the other.
Why did you choose this next act?
The book chose me, really. I’d written a lot in my teens and twenties but never finished a project, and everything got put on hold with the sudden adoption of our son. I wrote this particular story because I couldn’t find anything like it. A common piece of advice is to write the book you want to read, and that’s certainly true for me. I devoured fantasy and science fiction as a teen and young adult, but in the last decade, I’ve been trying to find more realistic stories that portray an experience I can relate to. I’ve ended up reading a lot of non-fiction because I can’t find much thoughtful, serious fiction that speaks to my experience as a lesbian, as a parent to a special-needs child, as a middle-aged woman.
It’s been important for me to learn that my creativity can be an integrated part of my life, rather than something that will happen when my son is old enough, or when retirement age comes around. Along with writing this book, I continued to throw pottery. Working with my hands is very meditative, and I’m grateful pottery provided a bridge back to the creative world when I didn’t have the mental space or energy to write yet.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
I’d been stewing on the book for several years in my head, off and on, so the only hard part to taking the plunge was to admit to myself I wanted to take the risk of putting this on paper. I believed in the story, but I was nervous to actually start writing again because I’d set it aside for so long, and because I’d never yet finished a book I’d started.
My sister gave me a blank journal at Christmas, with no idea I was considering something, and it seemed like the last little sign. I finally took a breath and told my wife that I wanted to write this book, and she was completely supportive and enthusiastic. I knew she would be, of course, but saying the words out loud to her was really the last thing that would commit me to the process.
About mid-January of this year, just before my 42nd birthday, I started writing it longhand when my son was at classes and in the evenings, and within four weeks I had the first draft. I’m not sure I’ll ever write another book that quickly, but it worked this time!
I’m very much a planner and organizer. I excel at it, actually, but the best things in my life have come unexpectedly — meeting my wife online, moving to Chicago without a job, our son falling in our laps in such a short time. I think this particular book worked because I didn’t sit down and plan to write a novel from a short summary or outline. I just started writing down the story that already existed very clearly in my mind.
How supportive were your family and friends?
I only told my wife as I worked on the first draft. It was a promise to myself to just do the work rather than talk about it. My wife has been my biggest cheerleader from the beginning, and that has never wavered. My son, who doesn’t know the topic of the book, quickly figured out I was working on something, and he’s also been a big supporter. He loves to “out” me to random people and inform them I’ve written a novel!
After I moved into the next few drafts, I started telling family and friends and everyone has been great about it. Lots of people volunteered to be beta readers, and having their feedback has been incredibly helpful. Handing the book over to a new reader is always nerve-wracking, especially with the sex scenes being a part of the story, but all my readers have been encouraging and enthusiastic. It’s helped to have straight readers tell me they really identified with the main (lesbian) characters, and the sex scenes were just part of the story development for them.
What challenges are you encountering?
I’m in the challenging part now! I have a manuscript I believe in, and I’m shopping it to agents. The first time I clicked the “send” button to email the query letter to an agent, I flinched a little, I can’t lie. The pragmatic part of you expects rejection, of course, but it does sting each time you get a polite “no thanks.”
On the positive side, there has been agent interest in reading the entire manuscript, so I’m waiting to see how that turns out. My goal is to work with a traditional publisher. I’ve researched self-publishing, and it is an option, but given the demands on my time, I’d love the collaboration and support of working with a publishing team. To that end, I’ve started participating in various Twitter contests that can provide an avenue to agents, including a large one called Pitch Wars, organized by Brenda Drake. Although I wasn’t one of the writers selected, diving into the contest provided invaluable connections with the writing community and feedback.
I still struggle with the idea that putting time and energy into this novel (or my pottery) is time not spent homeschooling or doing research about homeschooling, but I have enough perspective now to realize keeping some time for myself makes me a happier, more relaxed parent overall. And my wife is excellent about reminding me of this! Also, I like the idea that my son sees both of his parents pursuing work that fulfills them. He’s a gifted computer programmer for his age, so he works on his projects while I work on mine.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
I never thought about giving up as I was writing the book, but there are times I feel insecure about the market and the fact that my book deals with issues like grief, single parenting, a special-needs child, and an intercultural relationship, all wrapped up in a passionate love story. But that same mix of elements is what keeps me going, as well.
A lot of romances revolve around perfect bodies and perfect ages and perfect incomes. I believe we need more realistic love stories involving people of all ages, shapes, colors, sexualities, and backgrounds. Having the sexual relationship be an equal part of the novel made me a little nervous, because the idea that women can have strong sexual lives is still taboo for many people, especially when those sexual lives don’t involve men. But I was heartened recently when, during the White House Summit on the United State of Women, President Obama said, “We need to change the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality, but gives men a pat on the back for theirs.” I agree completely with this sentiment.
In terms of who has kept me going, my wife is the most amazing spouse on the planet and has been a champion of the book from the moment I told her I wanted to write it. (Although I wouldn’t let her read anything until the whole first draft was finished, and the waiting nearly killed her!) Also, all of my beta readers have been so positive, and they’ve been extremely patient with all of my questions.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I learned that I can write 100,000 words, which is no small feat! Given my past work as a copy editor and proofreader, I had to learn that it’s to my advantage to turn off the editor and just get the ideas on the page. There’s always time to go back and rework and tear it apart and try again, but without the words on the page, there’s nothing.
I also learned how to put more time into my own interests, and to commit to my needs without compromising the needs of my son.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Not really. Part of me wants to say I should have kept at the writing through my thirties, but honestly, I think the break and the chance to live my life without the expectation of being a writer is what allowed me to be where I am now.
I think the sudden pressure to be a homeschooling parent may have shut off some of my creative energy for a time, but that experience has made me better aware now of keeping balance in my life.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Having the support of a spouse, family member, or friend makes all the difference. You need someone to talk to when you hit a sticking point, or feel insecure, or struggle. Also, I’m 42, which I know is on the younger side for midlife transitions, but I hope other women who are still in the middle of parenting or careers read this and realize a dream doesn’t have to wait for kids to finish high school or for retirement to come around. It’s about giving yourself windows in your current life to explore the opportunity you’ve been considering.
If you know what you want to do and haven’t found the courage yet, I would say take a breath and just start. Don’t overthink or over-edit before you even get a chance to get going.
If you don’t know what you want to do, but you’re feeling a loss of direction, or a drifting sense, take some classes. Try something. My pottery, for example, was a creative interest I’d had for years and never indulged. It’s been great to find that outlet. Try a few things. Risk being bad at it for a little while. It’s the only way you’ll know what’s available to you.
What advice do you have for would-be novelists?
Start writing. Read a lot. (I feel like this is pretty natural for most folks who would like to write.) I came to this with prior experience writing and editing, and that was a help, but it’s not a requirement. Try to find the story or the idea that you’ve always wanted to read but have never been able to find. I know some people try to write to a market (Young Adult is very hot right now with agents), but if it’s not a story you would want to read, then don’t write it just because it’s a trend. It’s hard enough writing an entire book when you believe in the story. Don’t make it harder by writing to meet someone else’s perceived market.
Also, write where you can, when you can. A lot of writing advice is to write at the same time every day in a sacrosanct space. This sounds nice, but not everyone has that opportunity. I live in a two-bedroom condo! I write at the kitchen table and at Starbucks, primarily, and not always at the same time of day.
What resources do you recommend?
Twitter – It’s a good place to track the writing/agent/publishing world, including trends and which agents are seeking your kind of manuscript. But it’s been most valuable to me in discovering a supportive online writing community, both within my genre and outside of it.
Facebook – again for networking, and it’s helpful in building your author’s platform, which agents like to see.
SquareSpace – I used this to set up my website.
Park district/YMCA classes – for those women wanting a midlife change but unsure of a direction, I really recommend affordable classes in different topics. Give yourself a chance to try something new. Also, if you want to be a writer, I think a second creative hobby involving your hands is a good way to step away from the screen or page and use your mind in a different way.
Peer feedback – having multiple sets of eyes is really helpful, and if you ask enough people to read it, you’ll have a collection of unique perspectives to consider.
Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Query Tracker – helping authors find literary agents
Brenda Drake – good resource for tracking pitch options on Twitter
Script Alchemy – helps you sort out the hashtags and what weekly Twitter options are available for authors
What’s next for you?
I want to write more novels that feature lesbians who are already out and who are comfortable with their sexuality. Coming out books are important and they’re being written, especially in the YA world, but I want to tell stories beyond the coming out process. Themes like love, grief, and parenting are universal, and there’s no reason the entire lesbian experience can’t be used to reflect those themes to the wider world.
I’m also working to expand the sale of my pottery. Typically, I’ve sold face-to-face at shows, but after putting a gallery of my work on my website, I’ve received requests for individual pieces online and through email. I’ll be working to build a small shop through my website.
Contact Anne Terpstra at firstname.lastname@example.org