“Reboot: Start Up Your Life Again” is my guest blog series featuring guest bloggers and interviewees who are not afraid to Re-Evaluate; redraw their inner boundaries; and find magic in their life all over again.
My next guest entry features my talented friend, Lisa W. Rosenberg -- writer, psychotherapist, dancer, wife and mother. In this piece from the heart, Owning the Gift, Lisa writes about that pivotal point -- much as my revelation in First Words - when she realized what place writing had to take in her life in order for it to work.
Owning the Gift
“So you call yourself a writer?”
Am I a writer?
Without a doubt, though it took me years to say it so emphatically. Writing was always background music, my secret identity, like a private security blanket that accompanied me through my every incarnation.
I started making up stories when I was three years old. I remember dancing around our living room, narrating the latest episode of The Adventures of Picky the Penguin. My mother sat on the sofa taking dictation. The first “novel” I wrote was called The Club, about a group of kids from Long Island who formed—you guessed it—a club. It was written on 5 x 7 index cards and took me three years—from second grade to fifth—to finish. I worked on it anytime I got a chance, which meant I was never bored. There was always something I was writing, usually a big long monstrous “novel,” with more dialogue than plot, mostly to keep me company as I lived an only child’s existence.
Meanwhile, I went to school, took gymnastics, piano, and ballet—the latter ultimately taking over my life. But even as I ate, slept and breathed ballet, I continued to write. In college, torn between dancing and academics, I mostly wrote papers. Fiction mostly fell by the wayside until I graduated and started dancing with professional ballet companies. At that point I started a new novel, using the world I’d created as an escape from my all-ballet-all-the-time existence.
Then it was time for a career change: the big I-have-to-quit-dancing-because-I-no-longer-love-it-and-besides-it-really-really-hurts-my-body career change.
Since writing was such a private part of me, I didn’t consider journalism, or a degree in creative writing. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I chose psychotherapy because I’d been in it before and it seemed like a great career: hearing other people’s stories, making sense of them, and then using those stories to make the people feel happier. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Besides, I thought, the schedule is flexible enough for me to one day, maybe, possibly, make a go of writing.
By 1995, I was enrolled in a master’s program in social work, kicking off two dynamic years of study. I worked in foster care prevention; I learned the art of family therapy as part of a team; I traveled to Albany to register voters; I interviewed homeless people in New York City Shelters—posing as one myself. (And, believe me: with every experience, I socked away plenty of writing material!) I also participated in, and co-facilitated about a dozen diversity awareness workshops, delivered a professional seminar and later published a paper on eating disorders among women of color.
All the while, my writing was changing and maturing, receiving recognition from my professors. But still, I did not call myself a writer. Sure, I wrote, but …
In four more years, working first for an adoption agency and later for a charter school, I had completed my post masters certification in family and couples’ therapy and had a small private practice. I also had a husband, a four month old baby daughter, and a vision for my life for the next eighteen years. Soon we moved out of the city to Montclair, where I joined a group practice. And had another baby.
Before I realized what was happening, my kids had slipped into the spot I’d carved out for my hypothetical writing career. I didn’t mind at first; I wanted my kids right where they were. I relished those all-consuming diaper and spit-up days, the days of pants-with-snaps-down-the-legs and Chicco toys and Balmex.
But writing was sneaking back in through an unexpected window. Always game for public speaking, I had frequent invitations to present as a mental health expert on parenting, racial identity, eating disorders, teenage self-harm—you name it, I’d speak about it if asked. It was my only opportunity to get on stage these days. But each talk I gave began with research and writing. I’d written over a hundred pages in talks over the years. Finally, when Theo, my youngest, was six months old, I gave a talk at a Synagogue on being a multiracial Jew, which I ultimately published.
Hmm, I thought. If people are interested in what I have to say, maybe I should dust off something else—something fiction. I started getting up really early, before either of my kids, and resumed work on a novel I’d started years earlier. I’d write from four a.m. until it was time for the rest of the family to be up and fed. Still, the writing was just for me.
But here’s my A-hah moment.
One morning, I was up in my study as usual, writing furiously. At about five-thirty, Theo began to cry. It was nothing serious; I could tell—just his “I’m awake! Come get me!” cry. Well, I reasoned, Theo had two parents. I worked on, waiting for Jon to get him. He didn’t.
Finally, hugely exasperated, I went downstairs and got the baby, who needed a change, but not a nurse just yet (I hoped). I carried him into the bedroom, where Jon was trying to maintain a state of slumber.
“Did you not hear your son?” I said, with an edge to my tone that woke my husband fully. (Theo babbled happily: now he had both parents at his disposal.)
“You were up.” Jon said. His defense was logical—I was up. Shouldn’t the already-up parent get the baby? Well, not this time.
“I was working!” I blurted out.
And I realized it was true: writing was working and work time was worth protecting, worth asking Jon to take the baby for. Since then, Writer has gained strength among my many identities, pushed its way to the foreground. A very big step, for which I have my unbelievably supportive husband to thank, was taking a three year leave from my psychotherapy practice to write.
Trying to squeeze writing into the margins of my day wasn’t working anymore; the need to write, to make my book into what it needed to be, was getting too big. It was making me distracted around my clients and even my kids. I was starting to resent everyone and everything that kept me from finishing. I admit, it wasn’t a good place.
Finally I said to Jon, “I can’t do this: I can’t be the mom I want to be, the therapist I should be and write too.” It broke my heart, the thought of giving up my book.
Then Jon said, “Take some time off from work. Learn your craft, finish your book. Then go back. We can’t afford to have you not working long term, but we can do a few years.”
It was a gift which I didn’t dare squander.
I worked as hard as I could on getting better, improving not just my writing, but also my understanding of the publishing world. I went to workshops and took webinars, attended readings and panels, submitted my work to critique forums, joined writers groups. Then it was the query letter I worked on, soon attending conferences and pitch sessions. Then I learned to blog, to use Twitter, where I follow agents and editors and publishers, unwilling to miss any shred of wisdom available that might lead me closer to my grail: the book deal.
I finished my adult book, Birch Wood Doll, hired a professional editor (the brilliant Christina Baker Kline). Then I rewrote, revised, and began submitting Birch Wood Doll for representation. It wasn’t picked up, but the book was selected as a Nilsen Literary Prize finalist. The Nilsen people gave me some feedback for a little plot tweak that might really work, when I get around to revising once again.
This past year, I wrote Second Company, the YA novel I’m in the process of submitting right now. I’ve had some rejections so far, though a few agents have asked for pages beyond the initial query. Among the things I’ve learned is this: it all takes time. Finishing a book, writing a good query, finding an agent, getting a publisher. All of it takes time and faith. I believe it’s going to happen; I have to for now.
When I first took my hiatus from practicing psychotherapy, I believed that I’d have an agent by now, if not a publisher. I don’t. Nevertheless I felt ready to go back to my practice. I’ve accomplished in these three years just what I set out to do. I may not have a publisher, but I believe I understand the business enough to know what it takes to get one. I can be a therapist, mom, and writer all at once, because each of these identities has had its turn in the sun and now fits in its proper place. (Yes, Mom always comes first!) In any case, I’ve written two books in three years. Deal or no deal, it’s something to be proud of.