Two decades into a teaching career, saddled with health problems, Jodi chose to embrace her love of writing. She has since published a book, They Could Live with Themselves and is working on more short stories, novels, and poems.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in the rolling hills of southeast Pennsylvania, in Wyeth country, playing in fields and streams with my sisters and the children who lived near us. I read a lot and drew pictures. I was passionate about school. It was no surprise that I went to college in Pennsylvania and studied to become an elementary school teacher, but after doing my internships in a traditional, rather cloying, public school setting, I came away with a deep knowing that public school teaching wasn’t for me, at least not in a school like the one where I had studied.
After some travel and a few years trying on a number of alternative jobs–––living and teaching in a collaborative outdoor learning community, assisting a teacher in an urban Montessori school, and teaching nature programs at a center–––I went to graduate school in New England to get a degree in environmental studies. I loved being outdoors and New England felt more like home than home. The irony there was that just as I was ready to embark on a completely different professional trajectory, I got a teaching job in an alternative public school in a small town in Vermont, the kind of school I dreamed of, the kind of school I had hoped to one day start. So that’s where I landed. Eventually, my two daughters came along and I juggled being a devoted mother and career teacher.
When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
I felt lucky to live in a beautiful place with a wonderful school where I could both work and send my kids, and I relished that life for many years. My job allowed me full freedom of creative self-expression on multiple levels and the ability to serve others in some way, my two goals in life. But things began to change. Demands on teachers and mandates from the state first trickled, then rushed in, while at the same time, basic needs in a number of children were less and less met at home. Social economic and academic gaps seemed to widen, or perhaps I just became more aware of the gaps. Tolerance in the more resourced families gave lip service to liberal views that did not always play out in action. I was heartbroken. An ideal I held about children and schools, our little school, began to erode.
A few years earlier, I had become a single mother. I experienced a great loss of innocence in both family and career. I zigzagged from feeling stressed, exhausted, and at times, completely deflated, to getting charged up over a new idea, a new kind of yoga, a new design idea for the house I was having built; I was completely overdoing it. Health practitioners came up with a host of diagnoses–––thyroid malfunction, liver and adrenal compromise, hormonal shifts, autoimmune, Lyme disease–––and I don’t discount the truth in any of those assessments. But no matter what conventional or alternative medical tracts I was on—seeing specialists, adding supplements, subtracting certain kinds of food from my diet—no matter how much therapy I experienced, stress was the constant factor that did not change.
I’d been in a winter writing group for many years and began to see metaphors in my poetry about life paths and choices. I was writing a lot about exhaustion, empty vessels, and barren landscapes. Sometimes the poetry seemed sad, but mostly I sensed it was expressive of a need for change and the exploration of new opportunities. One night, I wrote a poem titled, “The Suitcase.” It was epiphanic. The next day, in the spring of 2008, at the age of 46, I resigned from an 18-year teaching position.
What is your next act?
I’m the author of They Could Live with Themselves, a collection of linked short stories set in the fictional town of Stark Run, which was published in 2015 by Press 53, a small literary press out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. These stories delve into the inner lives of ordinary people with trouble in their hearts. Often a strange alliance arrives on the scene to shake something up or help move the protagonist forward in his/her emotional evolution in some way. There are eleven stories that take place over the course of one year, from May to May. A main character in one story might show up as a supporting character in another, so as you read along, the overall sense of a place is developed. Place becomes an exterior landscape that mirrors the inner lives of the individuals. One reviewer said that when read together, the stories become a whole that is greater than the sum of their parts.
My next act involves writing full-time, teaching writing, and working with clients as an editor and writing coach. I spend anywhere from ten to sixty hours a week working on ideas, drafts, and edits for my next books, another story collection, this time set on the coast of Maine, a novel, and a Young Adult novel. The hours I spend in the worlds I create are my happiest. I also work with private clients, individuals, and small groups, as an editor and writing teacher. I run these sessions from my home, usually over the phone or on a video chat, but also in person in my studio space. I love the flexibility I control in my schedule. And I need the personal interaction, as writing is often a lonely task. Deciding how much time I want to allot to “this kind of work” or “that kind of work” meets a need I have for variety.
During the exploration phase, my first year at home, I took a coaching certification course that taught me to trust all of the transitions in my life. I recognized that we are often in transition. This can be viewed as a challenge or an exciting opportunity for growth. As well as writing, editing, and coaching writers, I work with clients seeking change in their lives through the exploration of their unmet need for creativity. The work is fun for me, and helps my clients bust through barriers in ways they couldn’t imagine.
At one point, I had considered becoming a certified therapist and perhaps some day I will. I chose writing, the less practical of the two careers, at least for me so far. Coaching and leading workshops meet my need to work with people, so I feel as if I have the best of both worlds, being a writer, a workshop leader, and a coach.
How did your book come about?
In addition to writing poetry, I decided I wanted to learn how to write fiction. After exploring many avenues, I chose to go back to school and earn an MFA in Writing. Out of that program and a few more years of toil, drafting and editing and re-drafting, I compiled a series of linked short stories and published them in a debut collection, They Could Live with Themselves. The book opens with a story about a middle-aged woman, Molly, who is questioning her next steps when her youngest son begins his process of fledging.
I never considered self-publishing. I entered my manuscript in a contest and was a finalist. In the end, the editor of the press running the contest agreed to publish the book. So in a sense, this was not the path of finding an agent who would then shop the book to a big publishing house. There are more and more ways to approach publication. I was honored to have a small press take the time to treat my book with care.
Why did you choose this next act?
2008 would be the first September that I did not “go to school” in one form or another since I was five years old. Besides school and loving my work with children, I also loved reading. I spent much of my spare time over the years reading books, mostly novels, but as I approached a middle of life transition, I also read books about the spirit and the soul. I read poetry, lots of poetry, and I listened to stories in the car with my kids and read to them every night. More than anything, I had a dream of one day making a book that others could read and enjoy as much as I have.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
I am fortunate to have a supportive second husband who encourages my work. The two of us, though nervous about giving up a second income with benefits, decided that I needed to heal or my illness would become debilitating. As I felt more and more well, I took some workshops and went to seminars and read books about things that interested me. I’m aware that not everyone has the luxury to take such steps, but I encourage as many people as I can who feel stuck in their lives to try and do a little every day, to do more of what they love, and to do it a little bit more as they can. Nowadays, there are many inexpensive options to study new areas for free or for little money, online, to watch You Tube videos to learn how to start painting or turn a bowl, to take a on-line Daily OM class for $10.
Another big step was to create a space of my own. Together, the September I did not go to school for the first time in 40 years, my husband and I built a tiny house in the woods. We called it The Poetry House. It’s quite magical! As we built the house, I wrote the lines of my favorite writers and books into the support beams of the tiny house. I spent many mornings that fall doing nothing but sitting in that space in the woods with my trusted dog, listening to the birds. Sometimes the best preparation is silence. We were sad to say goodbye to such a space. In 2014, after 25 years living in Vermont, we moved to the coast of Maine. That’s a different story for another day.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My friends were very supportive, as was my husband as I have said. My daughters were curious. My little one didn’t think it was fair that I didn’t have to go to school anymore and she did. She wondered why I wore pajamas all day.
What challenges did you encounter?
Two challenges. One: How do you train a career teacher to create a schedule for her time, her curriculum, as it were, now that she has all the time in the world to do as she decides? Well, mostly. Time management is still a challenge, but I get more and more used to letting go of a certain definition of structure. I’m learning to trust both the creative process and the practical work to develop as a flow.
Two: I no longer have a job with regular pay and benefits. That’s a challenge in terms of counting on a certain income every year and relying on health insurance that may no longer be affordable in future.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
I think about giving up every day, but I haven’t yet. I trust my role in telling certain kinds of stories, stories about small towns with great heart and an underbelly, stories about families and relationships, the expected and the unexpected. I believe in the power of fiction to paint multi-dimensional portraits of flawed characters, to teach empathy, and teach us more about ourselves as we view the realistic lives of made-up people. What I have known all along through experience has now been proven by studies in neuroscience. It’s so exciting to me when science proves the ineffable.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
Every day I learn something new about myself, as I get closer and closer to living the way I want to live. The biggest lesson has been that I have choice in directing my life. Nothing and no one holds me back except for me. That may sound like a privileged stance, because it is one. Growing up, we weren’t rich, but we worked hard and I am grateful for my parents who supported my curiosity through education. In school, I developed an imagination.
I’m grateful for everyone who encouraged me to develop a work ethic, from family to teachers to friends. I see in my work ethic a balance of creative process and product. I get to control that balance. If I can do it, so can anyone. I’ve also had to learn to accept the gift of support. The challenge of becoming dependent on another, to trust that person with my life, and to soak in the generosity, the deserving of it, has been a roadblock I could have never imagined.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
In the past 10 years, I would have spent less and less time on social media. I look back on this dilemma everyday. I will tell you the same thing tomorrow. If I were to go all the way back to 1980 when I became a freshman in college, I think I would have studied English Literature. There is a part of me that wonders what it would have been like to teach high school English or English Literature in College, to have been an editor in a big house in NYC. Perhaps someday I will.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
As I mentioned earlier, try to do a little more of what you love every day. Start small, use what you have, take a step in the direction where you see yourself when you envision a different existence. Get outside. Get quiet. Do both of those things a lot!
Find at least one good friend who supports your dream; better yet, start a small group where you meet to share your dreams and encourage each other. Be creative if you’re not normally a creative person; and if you’re often creative, try something more left brain, like learning to do your own taxes. If you have the time and resources, hire a transition coach whose mission and personal aesthetic lines up with yours. The main thing is to be aware, pay attention to what your higher awareness and your body are trying to tell you, and to be brave. For that, you need to pause and breathe, to do and be, to act and rest.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing writing?
My best advice is to read what you love and read lots of it. Books are wonderful teachers. Also, read interviews given by writers. Listen to podcasts of writers talking about their processes. But mostly, sit down with the blank page and get started. Turn off all editors and write. It can get messy. Try and flow through that.
If you’re interested in freelance writing, find five people in real life who do what you see yourself doing and take them out for tea ands scones. Interview them. Pay them for their time if that’s required. Think about what they are really saying and not what you want to believe they are saying about pay, time, and clients. For some people, freelancing is a snap. For others, it’s a slog. For me, it’s a little bit of both.
What writing resources do you recommend?
Writing and Editing
Here’s a list of my favorite magazine and media sites that have everything a writer needs to get started and keep going in all aspects of the work, from the spark of an idea to a book contract:
Books I couldn’t have done without along the way:
- Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
- Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
- On Writing Fiction: Rethinking conventional wisdom about the craft by David Jauss
These are a few places I recommend solidly, where I studied the art and craft of writing:
- Vermont College of Fine Arts
- Kenyon Summer Writing Workshops
- Gateless Writing Workshops and Teacher Training
Transition and Creativity Coaching
The following centers, all located in New England, were places I visited to take courses in personal exploration and growth as I sought inspiration for a next act career:
- Gestalt International Study Center, Coaching Certification and Next Phase Workshops
- International Coaching Federation
- Kripalu Yoga Center
- Omega Institute
- Rowe Conference Center
These three books sit among other giants on my shelf that are written on the topic of creativity and following a passionate life path:
- Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life by Gregg Michael Levoy
- The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
- The Courage to Create by Rollo May
Facebook Groups and Pages
There are a number of Facebook Groups in support of writers of all kinds. These two are the ones I used the most often. Once you get going in Binders (for women and gender-nonconforming writers), you will be led to more and more specific private groups on topics ranging from writing poetry to book promotion. I curate Short Stories, Every Now and Then. If you read or write short fiction, you will find on-going resources to good reading materials.
- Binders Full of Women Writers (and Sub-groups That Apply)
- Fiction: Short Stories, Every Now and Then
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
One: I failed to mention that during the first year of my transition, what I call my discovery phase, I took a painting class at the local art school and found that the process of making without a need to produce something acceptable and consumable made me feel euphoric and sharpened my creative aesthetic. The act of creating in an area that is not my main practice, writing fiction, has proven to be very beneficial to my work. Lately, I am leaning towards more and more art-making. I took a course on Soul Collage and have fun with that at one of my stations. I have found collage and mixed media art to be freeing. But now, I am painting and my canvases keep getting bigger and bigger. In my third act, I hope to produce art that can give other people enjoyment when they hang it on their wall.
Two: I love to design houses. My husband and I have designed, built, and renovated a total of 7 houses between us, not counting the sheds and shacks and tiny houses. We have a dream of creating at least one more house together.
Three: More books. I am currently working on a second collection of short stories, a novel, a YA novel, and collection of poetry. I like to have this many projects going at once. It’s not recommended. I trust the process.
Connect with Jodi Paloni
Book: They Could Live with Themselves
Great tips, great story!
Thank you, Haralee…I read your piece on thrift store shopping. Another one of my passions. Thrift on!
Wow! Wonderful post! I loved reading about your journey, Jodi. I pictured you on a two-lane highway, at night, somewhere in the dense Vermont forest, unable to predict what would show up in your headlights as you round each bend… .
Now, back at it. Only this time with a couple more tools maybe, thanks to your generous sharing of resources.
Thanks, Mithra. And what fun to click on your inspiring website The Bubble joy and Finder Not Keeper shop. You seem like the kind of person who never runs out of creative ideas!
THIS. So MUCH THIS: “I believe in the power of fiction to paint multi-dimensional portraits of flawed characters, to teach empathy, and teach us more about ourselves as we view the realistic lives of made-up people.” I’m a believer of this, too! Thank you.
Corie–Thank you so much for reading and shining the light on this line. It’s a good reminder as I head into the work today.
After reading this interview, I had to buy the book! Looking forward to reading it. Thanks for sharing your journey.
Oh, Heidi, supporting the book is such a wonderful form of feedback. Thank you. I hope you find something to like in my stories. This morning, I read your post “Kindness” on your blog and found I completely related to all of it! “In every encounter, I treat myself and others with kindness.” I strive to bring a compassionate stance to my fiction work. I can only hope I have hit the mark on some level. Be well.
Jodi: What a joy to read this! It fills in so many spots we have yet to talk about, in your life. Besides the gift of having you as a neighbor, I treasure your book, your talent and what you and the family bring to my ‘new’ world–the Boat Shop. More conversations on the way, I hope.
Careyleah— Here’s to the wonder and sometimes pitfall of the modern world, that we are connecting here over the ether when we’re probably listening to the same blue jay ruckus this very minute. I, too, look forward to sitting down together within the quiet of our beloved road. I so want to hear about your Next Act story. Thanks so much for reading this and letting me know and for ALL of the support to our family.