After a successful career in public relations, and many fresh starts, Becky found her joy in writing and illustrating Do Your Laundry or You’ll Die Alone.
Tell us about you . . .
I grew up the second of six children in a, shall we say, financially challenged home. My childhood was complicated slightly by a hearing loss in grade school (I lost all the hearing in my right ear due to measles). Instead of holding me back, the special attention I got allowed me to be a better student: I got a reserved seat in the front row plus lip-reading classes. So I didn’t miss a thing!
After high school, I was the first person in my family to go to college. I pinched myself daily to be sure I was awake; I was such a grateful student. So I didn’t dare squander my fancy education on art classes. I wanted to get a degree that would make me employable. In the post-Watergate days of the late ‘70’s, journalism seemed to be a successful path, so I enrolled in the country’s best Journalism School at the University of Missouri.
I took my journalism degree back to my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, lost interest in being a reporter, and instead began a succession of short-lived jobs in marketing and public relations, in areas including entertainment, politics, and business. Each job was interesting for a while but, as soon as it became routine, I got bored and began looking for my next gig. Finally, the excitement of public relations agency work hooked me with its adrenaline and fast-changing scenery. After working for two good agencies, I started my own public relations firm when I was 30. I spent the next 13 years building a business, making it up as I went along.
When did you start to think about a new direction?
I can’t complain about having a burnout job or juggling it with the drudgery of child rearing. I designed my company to serve my life as I was raising my two daughters. We created an exciting place with smart people and interesting clients.
Somewhere around the time my children were 5 and 7, I felt trapped by the company’s success. Rather than working with clients, I was spending my days dealing with financial and personnel issues. Rather than pushing people to become their most creative, I was policing productivity and profit margins. To get my creativity fixes, which have always been essential for me, I was volunteering at my kids’ school and painting in my basement.
I decided I needed a sabbatical. For me, that meant a 3-month vacation in France with my family to paint, learn French, and write. I had grown up without traveling, and now I could afford to. And I wanted my daughters to learn French while they were young.
This luscious break at age 40 helped me find a new part of myself. It wasn’t that I was looking for something that was missing or lost. It was more about creating a new dimension. I acquired a passion for French textiles. I took painting lessons. I improved my French. As busy as all that sounds, I slowed down.
I came back with a new outlook and changed my role at my company. I passed more responsibility on to my managers and partners and took more time to create and be with my kids. Even with these changes, however, eventually, it became clear that my business was no longer holding my passion, and I decided to sell it
I suppose this was the beginning of my next act.
What did you try? How did you figure out what you wanted to do next?
The first year after I sold the business, I wrote a hideously awful novel and began art classes.
The next year, I remodeled my basement and started an art career. I began gifting and selling my artwork. I also started doing more community work and looking for paying positions on corporate boards.
The next year, I started and ended a French accessories company. It turns out that finding vintage French lace—and American women you trust to sew it—is not as fun as it sounds.
The next year, I started Travels With Lola, a business taking groups of women on tours of Paris. This business is definitely as fun as it sounds, but was hard to manage with tween-aged girls at home. We currently fill trips by invitation only and are planning two trips in the spring and fall of 2016.
Was your new life hard? What challenges did you encounter?
This won’t surprise you, but when we had our 13-year-old daughter tested for ADD, I learned that I have a whopping case of it myself. That’s a challenge for anyone. But, honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love my short-attention-span next act life!
But I did begin to feel guilty and unsuccessful with all these unfinished, unprofitable ventures. I could not really commit fully to any of them with my daughters in middle school but I didn’t want to give anything up. I began to do more consulting to at least feel better about contributing money to the household.
In 2007, I read a life-changing book: Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher. The subtitle says it all: Use All of Your Interests, Passions, and Hobbies to Create the Life and Career of Your Dreams.
It validated me. It was a book about precisely what I was doing: scanning, dabbling, starting and re-starting. (If anyone knows author Barbara Sher, tell her you found her poster child!)
So what’s the next act for you?
For my next act, I’m embracing this colorful quilt of life and refeathering my just-emptied nest. My youngest daughter left home this fall and much can change now. I can travel more. I have more control over my schedule and the extra rooms in my house. I can stop waiting up for the sound of the garage door to go to sleep at night.
I’ve discovered that I’ve pieced together a life where I create next acts constantly. Or maybe we should just call them scenes—what girl doesn’t deserve to create a scene now and then?
So what role are you playing in your current scene?
I’m starring as author and illustrator of my first successful book: Do Your Laundry or You’ll Die Alone: Advice Your Mom Would Give if She Thought You Were Listening. It came out last year and was just named a “Best Books of 2014” by Kirkus Reviews.
It began as an advice letter to my daughter her first week of college. She wrote me back with some advice of her own. She said “Mom, you should make this into a book, use your art, and publish it before Tess graduates from high school.”
There is nothing so motivating as your child giving you a challenge.
My daughters are both writers, and they would like to make their livings in creative fields. I know from experience that putting one’s work out into the world is the hardest part of making a living as a creative person. I figured the best way I could parent my almost-grown children was to walk the walk I had avoided all my life: releasing and promoting my own work.
Publishing is difficult these days. What challenges did you face?
I set my sights on getting the book done in time to give to Tess’ graduating classmates, and in time to hand to Taylor by her 21st birthday. It wasn’t easy. The agents and publishers I tried to win over liked the content well enough, but they did not like my timetable, nor the expensive production requirements of my art-filled book. I also lost two hard-earned agents to cutbacks in the publishing industry.
Every signal said “stop.” But because I had told my daughters I would do this, I could not give up. I formatted and focus-grouped the book myself. I hired local women-owned businesses to design and print it. I formed a publishing company. I did my own public relations.
It has been almost a year since I launched the book, and it’s doing better than I could have anticipated. I have started on a second book, which will be about creativity and fresh starts!
Were there times when you thought about giving up? How have your family and friends responded to your many next acts?
I have perhaps an unusual attitude about not finishing things. I don’t consider it failure or giving up. I think every “start” leads us to a next beginning, perhaps something we didn’t plan. I have changed direction many times, but I don’t think I’ve ever given up or quit anything.
My family, my daughters and a husband of 30 years, have embraced my ever-changing life. Most days, they will say I make their lives more interesting. In more challenging moments, they complain that I have taken all the extra rooms in the house for “studio space.” I’m afraid they are right about this.
My friends are creative, driven people who support all my quests as I do theirs. Surrounding oneself with spirited, supportive people is a huge part of any life change. Plus, with every dimension we add, we find new friends along the way. In the past year of promoting my book, I’ve made friends around the country. True, meaningful friendships, not just acquaintances. Because when you are working with passion, you present the very best of yourself, and it attracts just the kind of people you need at the time.
Do you have advice for others considering starting a next act?
Start. Begin. Start where you are with what you have. Start the thing that only you can start. Start more than you can finish.
Don’t take too long planning. The best planning is done while in motion.
And don’t fear failure. It’s a bogus concept. A failed start is not failure. It is an option explored, a variation tried, a moment well lived.
What about advice for those thinking about self-publishing a book?
I had a career that involved graphic arts, so I know how to produce a printed product. For people who aren’t comfortable finding editors, designers, printers, and distributors on their own, it’s easy to find resources these days. I’ve heard good things about Lulu, CreateSpace and OutskirtsPress. Here’s a review of the top publishing providers.
Do you have recommendations for inspiration?
If you want to unstop your creativity, I recommend Julia Cameron’s books, The Artist’s Way and The Right to Write. She deals with all the inner demons we find when we create, and she recommends very specific habits for those of us wanting to build creative lifestyles.
My favorite creative inspiration at this stage is Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work. Like me, he is a writer and an artist, and he has encouraged me to build a body of work with less perfectionism and to use social media to get it out into the world.
You’ll see my efforts on my own creative blog, www.stARTistry.com. It’s designed to give inspiration and encouragement to people starting new things. It is not full-blown yet but, for women who are waiting to start something new, it may be just the loving “kick in the pants” they’ve been waiting for.
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