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The Writers' Lost and Found

By Renee Burns Lonner

The first keynote speaker for this year’s Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Dayton, Ohio, Cathy Guisewite, mentioned — in her classic self-effacing and, at the same time, most inspiring way — that she wrote absolutely nothing for the first five years after her 34-year daily comic series, “Cathy,” ended.

I’ll raise her 15 years. That long period followed my spending every weekend for two years interviewing, in-depth, women who identified as “happy and content in midlife.” As I entered my 50s, I felt this was the best decade so far. I looked for other women who felt the same way and without any publicizing, they lined up for interviews. Those were the days of tape recorders (sounds like another century, I know. Oops, it was another century!). I interviewed regular women and a few famous ones — in fact, I interviewed Cathy Guisewite. These women let me — a stranger — into their homes and shared intimate details of their lives, their most profound feelings, struggles and triumphs.

As a strong believer in allowing dynamics to organically form, I waited to see what kind of shape — what organizing principle — would explain why these women felt, as I did, that this period of midlife was the best. And the jam congealed right in front of my eyes. Well, more accurately, via my ears. Each one of them had a “change agent.” That agent ran the gamut from a long-needed divorce to a golden job opportunity. Each of them had something in their lives that made them reach back to a prior love — travel, teaching, writing.

I loved their stories and wrote and wrote and wrote. I found a writing coach and that coach found an agent willing to take on a first-time author. I flew to a small town in Colorado to meet her, and we connected — no matter that she mostly represented Christian authors and books, and I was the most secular Jewish person on the planet. That made exactly no difference — she liked my writing and the story I wanted to tell, and I liked her and her ideas for the book.

At the point that I was approaching a word number that translated to half a book, my agent went looking for a publisher. After the expected number of rejections, she had the brilliant idea to put my writing coach — a NYT best-selling author — on the project as co-author and go after some major publishers. The idea worked and we were granted a meeting with a highly respected publishing house. They set up a telephone conference with the two of us, and I slept very little for the several days preceding the appointment. We called in and three women at the publishing company spent over an hour asking a million questions — grilling us (but mostly me because I was the unknown quantity) on everything from what the rest of the book would look like to the subject of second and third books. I’ve been offered major professional jobs with far less effort and anxiety. They told us that they loved the project and the book and could not wait to present it to their editorial committee the next morning. In a casual tone, they added that editorial committee approval was a mere formality, and that the committee would love the book as much as they did. They ended the call by telling me to start to arrange my schedule so that it could accommodate a book tour that would take up two-to-three weekends a month. Another sleepless night, but this time happy sleepless — no, ecstatic sleepless.

You’ve guessed the next part. This was a book about and for women — the three people who met with us from the publisher were women. The editorial committee was all men. The call came the next day, stating that the committee felt they could not publish the book as written; they went on to say, however, they would love for my coach and me to write a book on women’s careers. In the moment, I — the least impulsive person you can imagine — said no, thank you. And no, I did not need to think about it. I was devastated but somehow also clear on the concept that I wanted to tell my story, not theirs.

My writing coach told me that she had never had that experience with an author, and she had coached dozens of them. She could not fathom how they could have been so “high” on the book 24 hours before and then say no. She apologized profusely, though it was not remotely her fault. Ditto for my agent. Then they both quietly withdrew, never to be heard from again. Understandable and I did not take it personally. My conclusion was that the publishing world was too Darwinian for me. I put the zillion drafts of Rebirth in Midlife in a file drawer (yes, we used paper then, that’s how long ago this happened).

I had a wonderful, fulfilling day job and I threw myself into it. That included writing professional articles and editing the professional work of others. But I could not — did not — return to creative writing for about 15 years. Then a professional piece of mine on a controversial topic was published in a lovely journal and, two months later, I published a parody of a children’s book. That is, I independently published the parody book. In addition, the pandemic motivated me to write more humor essays — I had written a few here and there — as comic relief and a sort of literary therapy. Some of them were published, and they may form part of a second book. Lots of writing. Revenge is a great motivator. Perseverance is a thing, even if it kicks in more than a decade later. Those two made a great engine.

So what’s the point of all this, what are the universal truths in my story?

I think I know some of them now, at least the ones that resonated for me over and over from this year’s Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Number one — writing is a calling for me, not a hobby. I need to write — it feeds my soul in a way that my wonderful real hobbies cannot. I learn what my voice is saying from my writing. Number two — I am a writer, period. Now I am an author, full stop. I have the power and ability to own that part of my identity. It is not owned by an agent or a publisher. Make no mistake, I hope my future includes those folks, but they do not define me.

And the next time I have a project about women, I’ll make sure that they are the ones whose eyeballs are on it from start to finish!

— Renee Burns Lonner

Renee Burns Lonner is a consultant for television newsrooms and a licensed therapist based in Los Angeles. Prior to the pandemic, her published work was serious; the pandemic created the need for comic relief and last fall she published her first humor book, If You Give A Man a Tesla: A Parody

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