After careers in journalism, catering, and marketing, Helene went back to her first love: Books. She reviews works of fiction on her blog, Books Is Wonderful, and is finishing up her own first novel.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, about an hour from where I live now. I had a loving, nurturing childhood with two parents and a brother. I think of my old neighborhood as Happy Days, the TV show — it was that kind of safe place where kids played outside until dark, went swimming at the local pool every day in the summertime, had sleepovers with friends, etc. I wasn’t the best student in high school but I had an amazing social life and made lifelong friends, many of whom I am still close with today. But when I went to college, something clicked and I became a diligent student. It might have been the influence of my studious roommate. Or perhaps it was because I found something I loved — languages and linguistics. I went to Georgetown University and had an extraordinary education. I will always be grateful to Georgetown for taking a chance on me.
When I was a senior in college, I started to think seriously about life after graduation and I was torn. I loved linguistics but I wasn’t sure I could make a career out of it. Being practical-minded, I thought that business would be the right path for me in terms of finding a job. I took a few business courses my senior year and decided to pursue an MBA with a concentration in Marketing at Temple University in Philadelphia. There were only a few women in my program. While in graduate school, I got married and, shortly after finishing the program, gave birth to my first child, Evan.
I found that when I was ready to go back to work, there were no part-time opportunities in my field; I wasn’t ready to take on a full-time job with the demands of a four month-old baby. So I scoured the help wanted ads (remember them?) and found a perfect solution: a 20 hour/week job at the local newspaper doing a little editing, a little mail sorting, a little coffee getting – they even gave me my own column with a byline that covered social events for teens. It was fine as a temporary position, I thought.
However, when one of the reporters left suddenly, the managing editor brought me into his office and asked me to replace the departed reporter. I was stunned. Never mind that I had never taken a journalism course in my life. The managing editor said he would teach me on the job. And that was my entree to journalism. I had a regular “beat” and covered news stories and features. It was like Journalism 101 in real time. I did that for about a year, then got a job at the corporate office of a bank doing internal communication – an employee newsletter, press releases, etc. I became pregnant for the second time and ended up having complications, and was confined to bed rest for three months. After my daughter Emily was born, I decided to stay home and turned down a promotion at the bank.
My third child, Laurie, came along three years later and I was happy being a stay-at-home-mom. Still, I wanted to work in some capacity; I just wasn’t sure what I could do. A friend of mine, a professor at a local university, asked me out of the blue to cater a reception for his students. Why did he ask me? Well, I have always loved to cook and bake, and he had sampled my cooking several times. Taken completely by surprise, I sputtered that I didn’t know a thing about catering, but sure, I would do it. And that launched my catering career.
I laugh now when I think of all the mistakes I made in the beginning, but I guess everyone liked what I prepared because I began getting requests for catering gigs, totally through word of mouth. It was great fun for me. I did it by myself for several years and then, when the work became too much for just one person, I asked a good friend to partner with me. We called our company Fête Accomplie.
Catering was fun, lucrative, and best of all, we could still spend the weekdays with our children. Most of our events took place on the weekends, so our husbands were able to pitch in with the childcare. We ran our company successfully for about five or six years. We then found ourselves at a crossroads. Our business was growing and we needed to make a decision. Did we want to invest the resources to take it to the next level? At this point, my youngest child was in middle school and I felt it was the right time for me — and for my family — to go back to work full-time in my chosen field, marketing. My partner, whose children were roughly the same age as mine, was on the same page. Another factor in our decision was the sheer physical nature of catering. Our backs were killing us and we knew we couldn’t do this heavy lifting indefinitely.
Well, easier said than done. Without specific marketing experience, it took me eight months to find a marketing job. I was lucky to start my marketing career at our local Jewish Federation as a marketing associate, then moved to a local publisher as marketing manager, then to a consulting firm as marketing director, and finally to a college campus where I was director of marketing and university relations. That was my favorite job and I stayed seven years.
When did you start to think about making a change?
I didn’t anticipate that turning 60 would be a turning point for me, but it ended up being so. I thought about where I was at this stage of life and did a lot of soul searching. I had dreamed my entire life of writing a novel, but working full time just didn’t allow for it –at least, not for me. I felt that I had achieved what I wanted to at my university job and that I was ready for a change. Staying home, writing and freelancing seemed like the right choice for me now. It would mean a dip in our income but, with some modifications, we could make it work.
What is your next act?
I am a blogger and aspiring novelist. I started my blog, Books Is Wonderful, in 2011. I was 57 and was still working full time. I needed an outlet for creative writing and, more importantly, I wanted to get back into the routine of writing regularly, giving myself deadlines, etc. I felt that this would be good training for the self-discipline I would need for writing my novel.
is named for what I scribbled in green crayon on a piece of paper when I was four years old. My mother kept that paper and had it laminated and I have it to this day. I was an early reader and a total book nerd. I always had my nose in a book and was reprimanded more than once for having a book on my lap in the classroom and not paying attention. I am passionate about books. Although my blog is primarily about books and writing, I also blog about other issues that are important to me: parenting, current events, culture, and cooking and baking.
My favorite genres are contemporary fiction, historical fiction, women’s fiction and memoir. I have relationships with several publishers who are aware of the types of books I like to read. The publicists contact me when a book is about to be published and ask if I am interested in receiving a copy for possible review. If I say yes, the publicist sends me the book. If I don’t care for a book I will let the publicist know that I have decided to pass on it. My intention is to share good books with my readers. If I end up writing a review, the publisher will provide a book as a giveaway to one of my readers. I really like that.
A few of the standouts from the last few months are Saint Mazie: A Novel> by Jami Attenberg, Bettyville: A Memoir by George Hodgman, Kitchens of the Great Midwest: A Novel by J. Ryan Stradal, and After You: A Novel by JoJo Moyes.
I read other books as well on my own, but don’t always review them. I might recommend them on social media without blogging about them.
What I didn’t anticipate when I started my blog was the immense social change it would make in my life. I quickly met other bloggers and became part of a network. Through these relationships, I learned so much about writing and social media. Doors opened for me that never would have otherwise, I’m convinced of it. I became a contributor to The Huffington Post and other online publications, such as BlogHer, Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop, Midlife Boulevard, What the Flicka, and Better After 50. This has been so exciting and rewarding.
How hard was it to take the plunge? What challenges did you encounter?
I can’t say I didn’t have a few regrets about leaving my college job. The fact is, I had enjoyed it and was attached to the organization. However, the combination of turning 60 and dealing with some inter-office politics led to me make a change. I hoped I wasn’t being impulsive. That did concern me, but it turned out not to be the case. I’m glad I took the plunge and if I could go back and do it over again, I would do it exactly the same way.
My biggest challenge was learning how to adjust to being my own boss, being strict about a routine and a schedule. I am a morning person, so prime writing time for me is from 8am to noon. I mostly write from home, but I can also be productive at Starbucks. I am able to tune out the ambient noise and be very focused. I start my morning with coffee and a walk with the dog, and then I sit down and write. At noon I take a break for eating lunch and again walking the dog. Afternoons will be devoted to running errands, and before dinner I can sit down at the computer and do more writing, editing, and social media before shutting down for the night.
How did you come to develop relationships with book publicists?
The initial goal of my blog was just to get into the habit of creative writing, something I missed doing, and something I thought would get the juices flowing for the novel writing. In the beginning I would write about anything that came to mind. About a year into blogging, I thought to myself, the blog is called Books is Wonderful. Why am I not reviewing books? I wrote a review of a JoJo Moyes book and tweeted the link to that post. Either JoJo herself or her publicist must have noticed it, because subsequently I was contacted to review her next book. After that review, other publishers contacted me, and now I work with five or so of them.
How did you figure out how to set up a blog and use social media?
Several years ago I attended a workshop on blogging because I wanted to start a blog for my campus, where I worked at the time. I figured I should create a personal blog as well so that I could practice at home.
I was an early adopter of social media because of my interest and also I had to be, given the positions I held in marketing and communications. When I joined Facebook, it was only open to email addresses that ended in .edu, indicating it was a college or university. Fortunately, social media has been mostly intuitive for me. I try to stay current on the latest trends through webinars and conferences as well.
I promote through the usual channels – Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, StumbleUpon – and I participate in blogging threads in several groups.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
Honestly, I never looked back. I don’t think I have the stamina for the kind of schedule I had before — working long hours with a hefty commute and being exhausted, both physically and emotionally. I’m so much happier being at home and being accountable only to myself.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
It sounds like a cliché, but I learned to trust my gut. And I learned that what they say about life being short is all too true. There were things I wanted to do with my life that I felt I couldn’t and shouldn’t put off any longer. Because of some internal changes in the workplace, my job was no longer fulfilling. When it seemed like there were more bad days than good, I knew I had to make a change.
I actually wrote a humorous blog post about inter-personal challenges in the work setting; it was picked up by The Huffington Post and I was contacted to do a live HuffPost segment about this topic. I think that might have gotten the ball rolling for me, now that I look back.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
It is so worth it to take a chance, to do something different, whatever you think will fulfill you. I’ve seen it now so many times. Midlife women have a lot of living left to do. They’ve paid their dues. Their kids are grown. Now it is time to pursue that lifelong dream, or find a new hobby, or do something new that helps you grow and learn. Take up painting or learn how to play bridge. Stretch yourself and your boundaries.
What advice do you have for those interested in becoming bloggers in midlife?
If you enjoy writing and sharing, I say do it. I have met literally hundreds of midlife women bloggers and I treasure their friendship, their advice, their life lessons. It is a giving, enriching community and I feel very lucky to be a part of it.
I heartily recommend finding your tribe, whether it is a neighborhood writing group or an online group, or both. Finding support and friendship from other midlife women has been key to my happiness with my chosen path. Also, try to attend conferences if you can. You will meet other like-minded people and learn so much.
On Facebook, I highly recommend joining groups organized by Midlife Boulevard and Better After 50 to connect with talented, interesting midlife women. Midlife Boulevard has a wonderful conference coming up next spring. For both newbie and experienced bloggers, BlogHer conferences are very worthwhile. I particularly enjoy writing conferences at this stage – BinderCon will take place at UCLA this March;Erma Bombeck will be in Dayton this March; Philadelphia Writers’ Conference details will be announced shortly.
I don’t think anyone will get rich by blogging. There are hundreds of thousands of bloggers out there now, and the competition is staggering. I would not suggest leaving a job with the expectation that blogging will pay the rent. You need to have another income stream. I have occasional short-term projects with brands. I do consulting for small companies that are looking to establish a social media presence. I am in discussions right now to write and produce a newsletter for a school. So the opportunities are there, but you need to be realistic about your earning potential.
What are your favorite sites/blogs about women and midlife?
There are so many, but these are the ones I always read:
What’s next for you?
I am editing the first draft of my novel, continuing to blog once or twice a week, reading lots of books and still learning every day.
My novel is a multi-generational saga, loosely based on my family’s history, that begins in Russia in the late 1800s and continues to the present day. I have always been fascinated by the immigrant experience – what it is like to be torn from your home and thrust into a totally alien and confusing environment, with a different language and customs, often without family or friends. How do you cope? How do you manage and survive? What impact does this have on your children? After I finish my first novel, who knows, maybe I’ll start writing another one.
I want to continue reviewing books on my blog. I enjoy writing essays and hope to break into some of the larger publications. And the occasional paying gig is always welcome.
Contact Helene Cohen Bludman at email@example.com