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 in midlife. 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.