Becoming a Novelist

Growing up in the Hudson River Valley in the 1950s and ‘60s, I loved to draw. I was good at it. And equally as important, drawing distinguished me from my older sister. As is the way with siblings, I had to be different: she liked vanilla ice cream, so I liked chocolate; she liked grape jelly, so I liked peanut butter. Whenever we did projects together, she was the writer, and I, the illustrator.

For decades, making art was how I defined myself to myself—until, in my late twenties, I developed scleroderma, a complex autoimmune disease that has severely damaged my hands and forced me to rethink what it means to be an artist.

By now, I had moved several times, first to universities in Rochester, N.Y., and Pittsburgh, then to a job with the Illinois Bureau of the Budget in Springfield, and, finally, to Worcester, Massachusetts.

I had also shifted careers, from public management to journalism. I was researching and writing stories every week for public radio as a producer-reporter, then in print as a free-lance journalist, specializing in environmental issues. I taught feature writing as an adjunct instructor at Clark University while also writing PR and marketing materials for clients. I wrote a silvan history of Worcester, Trees at Risk: Reclaiming an Urban Forest (Chandler House Press. 2001). I became marketing and communications director at a small New England college for a dozen-plus years, then founded my own strategic marketing consultancy. And in my most challenging career—motherhood—I learned a lot about parenting from our two daughters.

But writing fiction still seemed a hill too far. Identities forged in childhood can really stick until you stop to question them.

I had dabbled over the years with short stories, but was never able to finish. I just didn’t think I was good enough. Then an Independence Day conversation with a good friend gave me a much needed kick in the pants. “Stop talking about it and just do it,” he said. Nike slogan notwithstanding, it was excellent advice.

Starting with a flash fiction class (surely I could finish 100 words!), I gained confidence, learning and writing short stories with help from instructors like Paul Harding (before Tinkers, when he taught at Harvard Extension).

Then I had an epiphany. I much prefer reading novels to short stories. Why bang myself over the head trying to master a genre I don’t often read? So I set out to write a novel.

That was 2014. A serendipitous visit to the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, while I was on a business trip, inspired Line of Flight—that, and an earlier visit to an exhibit of Otto Dix’s WWI etchings at New York’s Neue Galerie. Boston’s Grub Street writers’ community gave me the knowledge, feedback, and encouragement to keep going. During the seven years of working on my novel, I also wrote “Nachtmusik,” a short story about a stretcher-bearer in the Great War, published in Chatauqua (2019).

Along the way, I’ve rediscovered my ability to make art, using words instead of ink pens or paint brushes. It only took almost seven decades to figure it out. As I send my manuscript into the world, in search of an agent and publisher, I’m also beginning my next work of historical fiction. This one is set in Weimar Germany.

It’s never too late to find your voice.