Friday, July 15, 2016

She writes!

After a year and a half, I return to Cattown. It's hackneyed to say what a long, strange trip it's been, so I'll just say it's been quite a journey, down a dark night's road into the graying light of a new day.

Retirement. It's just not something "we do" in my family. We don't retire. We evolve.

I rebel against the very idea of retirement being "the end," the period at the end of the sentence. I've had two careers -- journalist and minister -- and now I'm embarking on the third: novelist. I thought I knew all about writing. I've been doing it all my life, since the age of six, when I penciled a primitive form of a graphic novel about my kitten, "Little Runt May and Her Mother Molly in Adventuretime." I went on to write horse novels, heavily influenced by Walter Farley, in study hall from the ages of ten to thirteen.

In high school I decided I wanted to be a magazine editor, and that decision led me to Syracuse University's program in magazine journalism and a summer internship at Advertising Age in New York City through the Magazine Publishers Association/American Society of Magazine Editors. (It was not long after Don Draper's era in "Mad Men": from things I learned at the magazine, I understood the in-jokes of the industry in that show.) Originally I thought I'd work for one of the hip magazines for young women in New York after graduation, but when I learned that pretty much everyone started as a secretary, making coffee and running the copy machine, and the pay was minimal, I decided I wanted to be a business journalist. (This was the heyday of the feminist era. Serious journalists, in my opinion, did not make the office coffee.)

After college, I moved to Atlanta and worked for several business and technical magazines. Along the way I got an MBA, which never brought me the big bucks I'd hoped to make when I spent those long semesters struggling through cost accounting, finance, and macroeconomics. (I still have nightmares about a final exam in macro, when I haven't been to class all semester and don't even know when or where the exam is.)

But the MBA did help me understand the ins and outs of institutional investing when I became the editor of a magazine about pension funds. Sounds boring, but it wasn't. I liked to say the pension industry never had a conference in Cleveland. No, we went to Hilton Head, the Cloister at Sea Island, or Hawaii.

Midlife brought changes. After struggling with the decision for fourteen years, I left the world of journalism and went to seminary. My friends in the publishing industry were stunned. My friends in the church said, "Oh, yeah. Of course." I spent four arduous years going through the process to be ordained in my denomination. A number of my classmates managed to finish seminary but never got through the tortuous (not tortuRous, although it was that too -- tortuous means "twisted") process.

As an ordained minister, I served three churches, each one somewhat larger than the last. It was hard work, with long hours, but I had the joy of knowing I had made a difference in some people's lives. Oh, yeah, I served for six years as a director of the denomination's pension plan. We met at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia. It was fun.

And I got to write sermons every week! Terrifying at first. There were many dark nights at four a.m. when I'd be struggling to get through those sermons, my writing path just as dark as the night outside. Over time, it got less frightening. Sometimes I was blessed with a sermon that seemed to write itself. Sometimes I stared at the blinking cursor until I fell asleep at the keyboard, then woke up in a panic.

It took a few years, but I developed a system for writing a sermon, just as I had learned a system for writing news stories and feature articles years ago. It worked.

And then the last ministry ended and I came home to New Orleans. I knew I didn't want to relocate again to take a position. I wanted to be home. So I officially retired from ministry and started getting a pension.

What happens to one's identity when one decides to "retire"? Poof? Or not? That has been the struggle of the last two and a half years. Who am I now? I decided I wanted to be a New Orleans Novelist.

I thought I could write a novel in three months, no sweat. I knew how to write. Wasn't I writing novels in study hall back when I was ten years old? Hadn't I been writing all my life, as a journalist and as a minister? Hadn't I written short stories over the years?

I discovered I had a lot to learn. There is a huge difference between writing a five-hundred-word article, a two-thousand-word sermon, a five-thousand-word short story, and a seventy-five-thousand-word (or more) novel. It's the difference between a hundred-yard dash and a marathon.

It's been a learning experience. I'm grateful for the workshop leaders and participants at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference for their help, as well as an online class in story structure I took through Stanford.

The novel's not done yet. But I know where I'm going, and that's half the battle. I'm awed when I scroll through the manuscript and see how much I've written so far.

The novel is a story of life in New Orleans before, during, and after Katrina, told through the eyes of two women, one white and one black. The white woman, Maggie McBride, is the narrator, and the black woman is her housekeeper, Eloise Jackson. Both are widowed in the aftermath of the storm.

I've started another blog, fictional Maggie's blog of life after Katrina. The title for now (subject to change) is I'm Still Here.

And, oh yeah, I'm preaching again. And writing new sermons, because the old ones don't always fit the state of the world today. What did I say about retirement? In my family, we don't retire. We evolve.