Martina had already shifted from being a divorce attorney to a mediator when a writing class would open up a new passion. Her book, I’m Still Here, is a braided memoir, part cancer-odyssey (including a terminal diagnosis in which she failed to die), and her life story of being married to a man, coming out, finding her life partner, Tanya, and becoming a two-mom family in the 1980s when there were very few lesbians with children. It’s a story of hope, perseverance, and being who you truly are.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up all over the world. My father was in the Navy and my family usually moved every one to two years. My two younger brothers and I went to eight different schools in Virginia, Rhode Island, Hawaii, California, and Japan before I graduated from high school in Japan in 1967.
My wanderlust continued until I finally settled down with my wife Tanya and our son Cooper in Berkeley, California, just after Cooper was born in 1986. Tanya and I have now lived in our house for thirty-four years, although I must give Tanya most of the credit for staying put. Whenever I got restless, she’d smile with her blue eyes sparkling and say, “I’m not moving.” I’ve learned most of what I know about community and the ebbs and flows of life from being in my neighborhood all these years.
I graduated from college in the early 1970s, taught preschool and kindergarten for a few years, and then decided to go to law school in the mid-1970s. I knew I couldn’t survive working in a daycare center for $350 per month, even though I loved the work. An ardent feminist, I wanted to change the world. My weirdest and most stressful job was driving a bus during rush hour from the suburbs south of San Francisco into the financial district to support me during law school.
I graduated in 1981 and came out. Single, in my early thirties, I needed a job as soon as I passed the bar. Through friends, I was hired to work with a respected family lawyer in Berkeley.
Before our son was born in February 1986, I was a partner at my law firm, trying to convince myself that I was lucky to have my job. I wasn’t thrilled with adversarial law, but how stupid could I be, to leave my beautiful office and my lovely staff and my esteemed partner? What would I do? The answer to these questions was clear the moment I was diagnosed with lymphoma in May 1986 when Cooper was three months old. I immediately knew that I would quit practicing adversarial law. I had no ambivalence anymore. I didn’t know what I’d do, but I wouldn’t be a gladiator.
Eventually, I settled on being a divorce mediator, as opposed to representing one person against another in a divorce. It felt more in line with my strengths to work with people in a collaborative way, solve problems, write agreements in plain English, and communicate deeply with clients.
When did you start to think about making a change?
All my life, I imagined myself as a writer. In my mind’s eye, I had that trite fantasy of sitting at a long desk filled with books and papers looking out a window into a garden. Despite this fantasy, I never wrote. But I read avidly. Finally, in 2006, when I was 57, I saw a listing for a class at the U.C. Berkeley Extension called “Writing Fiction from Life Experience.” This idea intrigued me. I was terrified about taking a class, but I enrolled anyway and became engrossed as I worked and re-worked my first short story.
At this point, I had been a divorce mediator for over twenty years. In the early years, most of my clients chose mediation because they wanted to have an amicable divorce. As I developed in this career, I began to get more and more difficult cases with clients who were mediating primarily to save money. Sitting between two people going through one of the worst times in their lives became less satisfying. I attended trainings and workshops to revitalize myself, knowing I was doing good work that made a difference in the world. What happened in mediation was infinitely better, most of the time, than what happened in litigation. Still, I was in my late fifties and burning out.
The writing class revived me. I felt creative, enlivened, and wanted more. But then, in 2008, I was diagnosed with tongue cancer.
What is your next act?
At 71, I am now a writer. In April 2020, She Writes Press released my first memoir, I’m Still Here. I worked on this book from 2007 until 2018. At first, I just wrote unrelated stories that were each 15-20 pages long. After I started my classes with David Schweidel in January 2008, just after my second diagnosis, I wrote story after story for four years. Sometime in 2011, David said that he thought I had a memoir: “Print all your stories and lay them out on the floor. Then put them in an order that makes sense to you.” I worked at this task for several months. The first time I printed them up in one document, I was elated. I had a book! Of course, this was followed by years of editing and writing additional stories.
The braided format was there from the beginning. The cancer story, told chronologically, is a tough read. Interspersed with my life story, though, it’s more alive and meaningful.
I caught the writing bug with my first class in 2006, but my intense involvement emerged in 2008. I’m enlivened by writing. A different part of my brain is involved when I write, and I find it both engaging and calming. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll run out of things to write, but so far, that hasn’t happened. I hardly ever have writer’s block.
How did you make this transition?
I didn’t know I had a next act right away. I kept my mediation practice open and began to take more writing classes. My second class at the Extension was a memoir class. I was too intimidated to take an in-person class and enrolled in the online option. I wanted to write about the family Tanya and I have created; about figuring out how to get pregnant and how to navigate the legal and medical systems when neither accommodated lesbian families; about what it was like in the 1980s being a two-mom family when there were very few others around; about raising Cooper and meeting his bio-Dad when he was 19.
Fortified by encouraging feedback from the online class, I finally enrolled in an in-person class in “Creative Nonfiction” at the U.C. Berkeley Extension, taught by the man who later became my mentor, David Schweidel. Between the time I enrolled in his class in December 2007 and the start of the class in January 2008, I was diagnosed with the second cancer, a long 22 years after the lymphoma in 1986. This time, I had tongue cancer. I plowed into cancer surgery, proceeded with the class, and wrote about my life and family as well as the cancer odyssey. Stories poured out of me.
Following three head and neck surgeries and six weeks of radiation during 2008, in January 2009, the cancer came back and I was told I was terminal. “You probably have double-digits of months left,” the surgeon said. At this point, it was easy to make the decision to close my mediation business and focus on family, close friends, and healing. I couldn’t imagine continuing to sit between two people to grapple with money, property, and kids, while also contemplating the end of my life. I’d been good at mediation, but I was done. I wanted intimate connection and time to write.
For reasons that are not clear from a scientific point of view, I failed to die. I call it a miracle. Throughout the three years of acute illness, I wrote. I love writing; my life has meaning when I write. To this day in 2020, I still take classes from David Schweidel. In addition, I have joined several writing groups, one of which I formed.
For three or four years, I considered writing a hobby; it was something I was doing while I recuperated from cancer, and then something I was doing in my early retirement. But now, I’m a writer. As Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press says, I have “author-ized” myself.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
Plunging into writing was difficult, after all those years of fantasizing about it. What if I was no good? What if I had nothing to say? What if nobody liked my work? I soon learned to focus on the writing, and not so much on what others had to say. Over the past fourteen years, I have taken many writing classes, gone on many retreats, joined writing groups, formed writing groups, read many books, and immersed myself in a writing world.
How supportive were your family and friends?
Tanya has been remarkable in supporting me. She is always my first reader. David Schweidel, my mentor, is always my second. Friends have been very happy to see me morph from a self-employed mediator to a writer more at peace with myself. I feel completely lucky that I survived cancer and was able to retire early and devote myself to writing.
What challenges did you or are you encountering?
Starting to write in my late fifties has meant that I had much to learn about the craft of writing. I felt I had the stories to tell, but I needed to learn how to tell them. For the first three or four years, I didn’t even contemplate publishing anything. I just wrote and learned. Later, when I started to send pieces out into the world, I felt discouraged by the rejections. But after a while, pieces got published. When my memoir is released in April 2020, the challenge will be promoting a book in the time of coronavirus.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
In both of the career changes I’ve made––lawyer to mediator and mediator to author––I learned that I shouldn’t compare myself to others. As a lawyer, I thought I was lucky because I didn’t have to work sixty hours a week and I pushed myself to persevere, even though I wasn’t fulfilled by what I was doing until I switched to mediation. As a mediator, I didn’t pay enough attention to my feelings and the need to be creative. I’ve also discovered that the best marketing is a deep belief in and excitement about what I do. People are drawn to that.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I definitely would have acted on my impulse to write when I first had it in my twenties. It would have been completely compatible with most of the “day” jobs I’ve had during my life.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Trust yourself. Don’t act impulsively, but trust yourself. Put one foot in front of the other, go step-by-step, and make a plan. If you need training or education, get it. Gather support from your nearest and dearest.
What about advice for other would-be writers?
Get training or education. There is always more to learn. I can’t underestimate the importance of good training and education. Check your local adult schools, community colleges, university extensions, and writing organizations to discover classes you want to take. If you live in a rural area, there are always online courses from most universities.
Find mentors who will give you honest, concrete feedback while also being supportive. Mentors have been important to me in both of my career changes. Ask for their help when you need it.
Find or create support groups and cultivate writing buddies. Find at least one writing buddy with whom to share your work. This person needs to be able to give you helpful feedback and support you. Be selective. Not everyone will be right for you. As you start out, select a person that you resonate with. As your writer’s “ego” gets some reinforcement, then you’re less susceptible to people who are unkind or inept in their feedback. My caution comes from hearing people who stopped writing years ago because of unkind feedback they received at a vulnerable time. If you run into a person like that, persevere anyway.
What writing resources do you recommend?
Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Live Writing: Breathing Life into Your Words by Ralph Fletcher
Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers, edited by Dinty W. Moore
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, Second Editionby Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter
Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg
Brooke Warner, Publisher of She Writes Press. She is a wealth of information about writing and publishing.
Creative Nonfiction is not just a literary magazine. It has on-line classes. Check out www.creativenonfiction.org and click “Learn.”
Many colleges have online writing courses.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
My second book, Ebb & Flow, is now in the stage of being read by my trusted first readers. It’s a series of flash memoirs written between 2013 and 2020 about my aging, my mother’s aging, and my reflections on life in the 21st century.
I’m so happy at the moment that I can’t imagine another big act. I’m now 71 and know enough to never say never. In fact, I’ve started doing meditative drawing called Zentangling. Some of my drawings are on my website. I’m not an artist, but I love doing this work; both the process and the results are satisfying. At this point, though, it’s still a hobby.