A few years ago, on a warm Sunday morning in a Georgia garden, my daughter, Allison, gave me a book for Mother’s Day that changed my life. Women Who Think: Tales of real-life Parenthood, edited by Camille Peri and Kate Moses of SALON Magazine. It followed women struggling to regain their spirits after divorce or other hardships. “I gave you that book in hopes that you’d get back to your writing,” she told me. “Oh. I thought you gave it to me so I’d get back to my thinking,” I said flippantly.“Well, that too!” We were on the same page.
It was hard to admit, but I’d given up writing, thinking, being … Newly divorced, I went to work everyday, came home, went to sleep, and got up the next day to do the same thing all over again. What I realized in reading the first few chapters of this book, this wonderful gift from my daughter, is that I’d given up hope. And I didn’t even know it. Years before I’d tucked my writing dreams into a bottom drawer of my life during the sad breakup of a twenty-three year marriage. After selling many short stories, humor essays and non-fiction magazine articles, I no longer had energy for any of it. My new working routine drained me of any spark of creativity that ever existed in my body.
And writing? Big joke! At the time an editor at Avalon in N.Y. wrote to ask me to write a hard cover teen romance, and an editor at Good Housekeeping wrote to ask me if I’d be interested in editing a short story (“Blueberries”) that they were interested in publishing. Both letters came within days of each other. I tossed them both into a large packing box with other papers from my home office, and found the box some ten years later. I Just kept packing moving those boxes to move out of our family home. It seems so long ago.
But now, with this book in hand, I boarded the plane for my flight from Atlanta to my home in Spokane, not the least bit ready to return to work the next day. I began reading the book the minute the plane took off, and finished the last page when my last flight touched town in Spokane, hours later. Reading this new book was a powerful elixir for me, and started my juices flowing again. I thought they’d dried up. By the time I pulled my car into the garage late that afternoon, I knew I’d begin writing a memoir for my kids. And maybe more.
Within a week of returning to Spokane I read an announcement in the Sunday paper for a class on “Recapturing the Creative Spirit” at a Barnes & Noble bookstore only minutes from where I lived with my new husband. Just the ticket I needed. I decided I’d give this class to myself as a birthday present. Excitement began to flow through my veins. This was especially meaningful because years earlier, long before my divorce, my husband had told me I hadn’t been good enough one year, that I didn’t deserve a birthday present. I hadn’t realized until this moment how painful those words had been. Friends would say, “Get over it. Time to move on,” but easier said than done. Yet this class I gave to myself, this self-given birthday gift, blew all the other gifts out of the water, in more ways that I could even imagine.
The very next evening on the way home from work, I stopped at the bookstore to enroll in the class. After signing up I found my way to the book shelf that held the suggested text, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Opening the first page of this book was literally a matter of opening the first page of a new life for myself. Reading the back cover alone soothed me like someone with Strep throat who’s finally gotten hold of penicillin.
I sat down on the floor at Barnes & Noble, in-between the aisles. My purse and jacket landed in a pile beside me. People stepped around me. I hardly noticed them except to occasionally move my foot out of their way. I sat there and read the first two chapters and forgot all about dinner.
Within days I began writing the suggested morning pages. A friend, who later became a writing mentor, told me I was writing like I’d been shot from a cannon. It felt like it, too.
Later that summer I started a gardening journal, noting when the iris bloomed, when I found a bird’s nest, when the lilac burst forth in color, and when I needed to separate the chives. This was the summer the oregano tried to take over the garden. This was also the year the peonies finally bloomed, after years of lying dormant. Everything was alive, including me, and I had it all down in my journal!
In the months that followed I quit one job, found a new one, and began to write more than daily journal entries. I wrote essays, sketches, bits for a memoir ~ every word feeling like infection oozing from a boil. Breathing became easier. That fall I began to write my first novel, about a woman who cuts all of her strings, emotional and otherwise, and moves to Benson’s Cove, a small seaside community on the coast of Washington State’s Whidbey Island, to help her Aunt Tilly with her bookstore.
It was a matter of dreaming up an ideal life for myself, and I couldn’t think of a better new beginning. It’s fun, gratifying and amazing to know that I’ve imagined a whole new life for a character who slipped into my mind one day during a long, hot shower. Soon there were more characters ~ a whole community full of people living in my mind, all with problems in their lives much larger than any I’d encountered, but none that flattened any of my characters the way I’d let a divorce and broken family flatten me.
Sometimes driving to work now at a job where I only work part-time, to give me more time for writing, I have complete conversations with the residents of Benson’s Cove. One day I caught myself wondering if writing a novel is a bit like having a nervous breakdown, where you aren’t sure what’s real and what isn’t. It’s okay, I told myself. You’re not crazy. You’re just a novelist!
My protagonist has a moment of realization, digging in her garden one summer day, when she pulls up a chrysanthemum plant with slugs swarming among the roots. “That’s it,” she said out loud to herself, holding up the pitiful plant. “This is what my life has become. A pitiful plant where I allow other people to feed off me. I have no direction for myself!” With that she dumps the plant into trash, and adds a healthy dose of slug killer to the garden. The next day she resigns the job she hates, then phones her Aunt Tilly and accepts her offer to move to Benson’s Cove for the summer to help with her bookstore. In two weeks flat she’ll be in Benson’s Cove, but only after she breaks an engagement and infuriates her family.
Typing the title of the novel on the first clean, crisp piece of paper opened a wound in my heart. One thing I’ve discovered is that writing is the best therapy I’ve ever encountered.
This fall I plan to attend a writing conference with a copy of my first novel, Benson’s Cove, tucked away in a large file folder in my home office, which my new husband makes sure is always stocked with copy paper. Everything there works like a charm: computer, printer, and even me. Having the support of someone I love and who loves me seems to be the necessary ingredient for my life to move forwards.
I’m happy to say I’m at my computer by 5 a.m. each morning, writing to my heart’s content. This October, now that I finally live in Georgia where my daughter moved, I plan to attend the GA Romance Writers’ Conference with a synopsis of my novel in my hip pocket, and big dreams sitting on the top of my desk. Trying to live without writing for me would be like a fish trying to live out of the water. Like the peonies in my garden, I needed care, something I hadn’t given to myself in years. Just like a plant, I needed mulching, water, sunshine, and occasional raindrops falling down around me. For me, writing is an essential nutrient. Only with this self-care care am I able to bloom.
I used to think that if I were a flower, I’d be a pale pink azalea, but I’ve changed my mind. I am beginning to suspect that I might be a bright and lovely peony, bursting forth in glorious color with the first hot breath of summer. At least that’s what it feels like inside of me now. It’s hard to imagine that I once thought I could live without writing, or that I’d put this on a back burner in my life for so long. How could I even think I could cut this out of my life? It was as if a part of my life had been lost in a tragic fire. My daughter was right. The book she gave me did get me back to my writing. It also got me back to my thinking, and a whole lot more!
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