I had no other specific encouragement in that direction. In fact, a college English professor handed back a paper that was covered in red ink and critical comments. This caused so much shame, I didn’t write anything beyond school or work assignments until I was thirty-something, a project manager at First National Bank of Boston, and taking a night class in business writing. Once again, the professor singled out my work as excellent. My letter to employees of a fictional company who were to be laid off a week before Christmas was chosen to be read in front of the class. The professor liked my composition, but he also praised the way I envisioned the problem, my creative ideas for approaching people, and my sensitivity to those who would soon lose their jobs. Perhaps my sensitivity emerged from my own recent experience of unemployment.
During my healing and recovery process, I had done a lot of journaling (and I still do) about my thoughts, feelings, and experiences. So, it was a somewhat easy transition into writing personal essays which became important in a concrete way when I began applying to graduate programs. I had not been successful at writing fiction or poetry for school assignments, but I now seemed very capable of composing a compelling story about my own life and things I had discovered and learned. The graduate applications I was completing were to seminaries, and knowing that seminary staff members would be reading what I wrote about myself instilled a sense of safety; and I felt freed to speak my truth in a more public way for the first time. I didn’t realize it then, but those personal essays were actually the springboard for me to find my authentic voice and share it with the world.
It took a long time for me to be able to call myself a writer or an author. It’s not an identity I wear easily, and I don’t practice my craft the way most writers do. Writing classes encourage writers to have a strict schedule for writing. For example, to set aside a few hours in the morning and sit and just write—something, anything. If it’s not good, it will be discarded, but something will have been written. Instead, I think about—actually wonder about—my topic. My wondering accompanies me while I pray and meditate in the morning, while I’m walking before dinner, while I’m doing dishes or cleaning the house or doing almost anything. When interesting or inspiring thoughts come to me, I write them down on scraps of paper. After a while of wondering, or if I feel especially drawn to the keyboard, I sit down for a brief time and I write. A first draft is a creative process, and it comes to me in this reflective way. This process does create some anxiety if I have a deadline, but the inspiration always comes. After the first, inspired draft is captured on paper, editing of that first draft, a more technical process, can be done on a schedule.
Because I didn’t follow the recommended process of scheduled writing every day I felt that I was an inferior writer, maybe not a “real” writer—until I read that Truman Capote, a very famous novelist, playwright and actor, had used the same process that I did. Redemption!
The professors at Harvard Divinity School, where I studied for my Masters of Divinity degree, were interested in papers that expressed innovative ideas and an understanding of complex theological concepts in addition to excellent writing. From interacting with some of my fellow students who tried to impress others with their intellect by using lofty theological terminology in ways that separated them from others, I deliberately chose a simpler way of expressing myself in order to connect with, rather than alienate, others.
My professors accepted (for which I was grateful) and praised (for which I was surprised) my unique style of writing, which wove together the complex theological concepts they craved with my own ideas, questions, and stories about personal experiences and discoveries. As a paying customer in seminary, I wanted to receive more than a grade and a degree in exchange for the four years of time, effort, and money I committed to this endeavor. I wanted to learn and heal and grow! That’s why I needed to make my writing personal and exploratory.
One professor commented that reading my papers was riveting for her—“Rather like reading a mystery story,” she said. Her reference to mystery made sense to me, because unlike many writers who begin with an outline, I don’t create an outline or table of contents until my writing is complete. The reason for this is that I don’t really know where my writing will take me. I discover where I’m going while I’m writing. My readers become companions as they travel along my path of discovery with me—none of us knowing where the path will eventually lead.
I remain ever grateful to my seminary professors—all of whom embraced the unusual and unique style I brought into their world of academic composition. I’m also grateful to a classmate, Christina, who shared my Iowa roots. We were paired as writing companions for our senior M.Div. theses. One of my professors was smitten with a paper I had written for his class on the history of child sexual abuse through a religious lens, and he encouraged me to expand this for my thesis. I did. Chris also really liked my topic and paper—more than her own, I think, because she insisted on spending more time going over my project than hers. Perhaps she was procrastinating? Whatever Chris’ reason was for focusing her attention on my project, I wasn’t sure. And although her focus on my paper made me somewhat uncomfortable—I wanted to be helpful to her as well—her encouragement, and her repeated suggestions (almost badgering) to seek publication for this paper, is what officially made me into an author. I contacted a professor I knew from Brown University who had expressed interest in my work because his adopted daughter had been sexually abused, and he referred me to his editor at Sheed and Ward, the book imprint at the time for the National Catholic Reporter. Several months later, and after a tussle over the title (they hesitated to include the word “sexual” on the book cover), my first book, A Moral Emergency: Breaking the Cycle of Child Sexual Abuse, was published.
It was very exciting—similar, I think, to a birth process: months (often years) of nurturing ideas and expressions (sometimes it becomes agonizing), and then the book appears at your door! But it wasn’t as exciting for me as it is for other writers who have long held the dream of becoming published. This had not been a dream of mine—my publishing felt truly accidental.
But the accidents kept happening. I had multiple articles published in the local paper, The Cambridge Chronical, the first of which taught me that good writing is important; but it’s also important to have something meaningful to say. My article, although part humor and part rant, was a valid expression of outrage that there were no public rest rooms in Harvard Square. This I discovered when friends from Iowa visited me and we and their two young sons went for dinner in a popular Cambridge restaurant—where we were informed that not all restaurants in Harvard Square had restrooms! Seriously. Stores and libraries were closed and bars would not allow the young boys to enter—so these dusty tourists hot off the Freedom Trail needing a restroom were in a heap of trouble. A couple years after my article was published, public restrooms were built in Harvard Square.
My second book, a going to court guidebook for adolescent victims of child sexual abuse, We Are Not Alone, grew out of my internship at the Middlesex County District Attorney’s child abuse project. Again, I learned that good quality writing is not the only ingredient necessary for having a book published, although it is certainly important. Having something new to say that fills a void in the current literature, was another critical ingredient, as well as identifying specific publishers who are interested in what you have to say. Another thing I learned from the beginning of my publishing experience, was that once an editor expresses interest in a book—the author should be prepared to re-write it! The publisher for We Are Not Alone requested that I include a manual for professionals and parents of teen victims. Once the editorial suggestions are integrated into my original manuscript, I always expect it to be a better book since editors have wonderful ideas. I also found that it was necessary to defend my artistic integrity at times—after all, this writing came from my soul.
Since We Are Not Alone was published in 2000 (it was a 12 year birthing process for this one), I’ve written numerous articles and another book: Where Two Worlds Touch: A Spiritual Journey Through Alzheimer’s Disease (2014). My advisor for my Doctoral program, Dr. Brita Gill-Austern, noticed something unique in the papers I was writing about my journey through Alzheimer’s with my mother. Brita encouraged me to delve deeply into this topic and to consider making it my doctoral project. I did. And then, she and another professor encouraged me to seek publication for it. I did. The editor, Mary Benard with Skinner House Books, loved my manuscript, and she guided me to transform it from an academic thesis (albeit in my unique style) into a scholarly resource in story form that is completely accessible to typical Dementia caregivers. Where Two Worlds Touch is grounded in theological research and weaves together Alzheimer’s science, creative drama, and my own personal story.
Although I consider myself to be an accidental author, writing about my ideas and experiences for publication and/or for public presentations, is something that I truly love doing. It’s the one activity in which I can become immersed, to the point of losing track of time and becoming annoyed when I have to stop writing to eat! It’s the one activity I can do joyfully for its own sake— pleased with completing it even if it is never published or received publicly in any way.
I embrace my writing with humility. Much of it comes from deep within, and I realize that some of it (the truly inspiring parts of it) come not just from me alone. Over twenty-five years ago, I saw a poster in a career counseling office with a quote from Richard Bolles, the author of What Color is Your Parachute? Bolles reminded me that “God and I” have co-created my work.