In an album released after his death in 2001, George Harrison shared this wonderful observation: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” When I think about the past seven years and my writing journey, Harrison’s words resonate. They speak to me of hard-won lessons in humility and relinquishing control, in taking chances and letting life take you where it will. Enjoying the adventure.
But then there’s the realm of the subconscious. In my dreams, either when I was actually sleeping comfortably in my bed or those that come in the hours of sleep-deprived half-consciousness–when fantasy takes over and your hopes and desires go where they please–I was always writing a novel. A few years ago, I would have said that having books out in the world, in libraries and bookstores and in the hands of readers, was as likely as going into outer space. It was that far-fetched and out of the realm of possibility.
I’d been practicing as a criminal defense attorney for many years, representing indigent defendants on appeal from felony convictions. It was engaging but emotionally taxing work, and writing the legal briefs was as much an exercise in creative storytelling as any I’ve done since. The job of an appellate attorney is, of course, to argue the legal points in favor of the client. But it’s so much more. Just as important is framing the discussion to shed a positive light on a person who has done some pretty terrible things. After nearly two decades, I started to find these stories harder and harder to tell, and I decided it was time to leave the work to those with fresh eyes.
At nearly fifty, I found myself unemployed and directionless. A friend asked me to accompany her to a memoir writing class at a nearby university. I walked into that class on a lark, grappling, in middle age, with the question of what I wanted to be when I grew up. Like so much that has gone on since with my writing, I had no idea what I was getting into or whether it was the right move for me. For someone used to planning out each step of my life in a purposeful and thoughtful way, signing up for that writing workshop felt a bit like jumping off a cliff. I was trading in the blank slate before me for a blank page, and it was terrifying.
That class changed my life. Nearly everything I have learned in the past seven years can be distilled into the invaluable lessons I learned both in that classroom and from the experience of taking the chance of showing up.
Here’s some of what I’ve learned:
I learned that one thing can lead to another, in unexpected and wonderful ways, if you don’t prejudge and try to control everything.
I learned that writing memoir is not just for celebrities, and it isn’t necessarily about writing your whole life story. Writing memoir is focusing on the small moments in your life story–the conversations, the interactions, the relationships, the emotions–and learning to express them so that readers will recognize aspects of themselves in your words.
I learned that if you want to grow in the craft of writing, you have to make yourself vulnerable. You must let readers probe and dissect your writing so that you can determine if what you’re writing is what you mean to express. You can’t, in my opinion, write in a vacuum and hope that your true message will come across.
I learned that it’s an art to give feedback that’s thoughtful, kind, and generous, but still rigorous and useful. And I learned that there will be some writers who just want to be heard and not critiqued, and that’s also to be respected.
I learned the profound importance of revision, and the maturity it takes to understand that no one gets it right the first time around.
And I learned that creating a community of writers around you is critical in feeling that you’re not alone but are part of a larger creative endeavor, for understanding the ins and outs of the publishing business, and for keeping your sanity in the process.
After that first workshop, there were others, taking me down many different roads. I studied humor writing and wrote several essays for internet magazines. I expanded some of the short memoir pieces I had written into creative nonfiction pieces. Some were centered on my relationship with my mother, who had passed away several years earlier, and some were about my children. Buoyed by the reception that the essays received, I tried my hand at some short stories. The liberation that fiction affords was intoxicating, and I set my sights on writing a novel, working for nearly three years on a story inspired by my work as a public defender. In 2018, Unreasonable Doubts, a romantic legal thriller, was published.
My writing journey swerved unexpectedly when I took a class called “Writing For Youth,” plunging myself into the world of children’s books. I found that if I listened hard enough, I could hear the voice of my fourteen-year-old self and the emotions that swirled around my adolescence. Those days of being asked on my first date (I said no), my father’s first heart attack (he survived), the shooting of John Lennon outside the Dakota in New York City (he didn’t), Layla, the protagonist of my middle grade novel My Name Is Layla, faces a very different set of challenges. Her undiagnosed dyslexia pushes her frustration level to the limit, and sets in motion a series of events that could seriously derail her. But the zeitgeist of eighth grade remains universal.
With my new novel, Both Are True, I’ve returned to a legal/family drama set in New York City. The idea grew out of the time when I was a young attorney, married but not yet a mother, practicing as a law guardian representing children in family court. One day, I was in the courtroom when the Department of Social Services removed an abusive mother’s children from her custody without prior notice. It was basically an ambush, although one that was necessary for the children’s safety. The mother’s raw howls cut into me deeply. Over twenty-five years later, the horror of witnessing that moment hadn’t faded.
I began to wonder about how a family court judge presiding over the chaos of such moments would feel. Would a judge who didn’t have children be able to handle the emotion better than one who was a parent, maybe be more decisive or objective? Or would a judge who had a family herself be more empathetic, understanding the situation from a more informed perspective? These musings were the germ of the creation of Judge Jackie Martin, the protagonist of Both Are True. My days in family court helped shape Jackie’s character, both professionally in terms of how she interacted with the complicated family situations that came before her, and personally, in what sort of relationships she pursued with lovers and family.
And what’s next in the writing journey? That’s the beauty of the George Harrison methodology. I don’t know where I’m going, and any road can take me there.