I once wrote a short piece about the writer, Harriet Doerr, whom I consider my muse. I think that was about 2008, when I was 63, still teaching but nearing retirement. I was taking creative writing classes and entertaining ideas about a possible memoir about my 20 years living in Peru.
I discovered Ms. Doerr’s beautiful short novel, Stones for Ibarra, on the table in the teacher’s lounge one day after school. Enthralled, I read it three times: once as a reader, once as an American with some experience in Mexico, and once as an aspiring writer. Based on her experiences living with her American husband in northern Mexico as he oversaw the revival of his family’s mining business, this prize-winning first novel was published in 1984, when Ms. Doerr was 73.
That gives me 10 years to get my first work published, I remember thinking. I may never achieve the natural beauty of her sparse, clear prose or the perfect voice of her Mexican characters, but I may be able to convey my love for my own adopted country and make Peru come alive to readers the way she makes us fall in love with northern Mexico–by the time I am 73.
When I learned that she published a second novel, Consider This, Señora, also set in Mexico, when she was 83, she became my muse.
With that impetus, I began to call myself a Writer. To non-writers, that doesn’t sound like the big step it is. Taking oneself seriously in a professional sense takes more courage than the uninitiated imagine. I had written for children and pitched my work at writers conferences with no success. At the same time, I had taken two classes in writing personal narrative, but with my self-imposed age deadline looming, I pushed myself to take three consecutive classes on memoir at UCSD Extension and kept writing.
In 2011, when I retired from full-time teaching, I joined a read and critique group with the express purpose of combining my collection of personal essays into a memoir. With only six years to go before my seventy-third birthday, it was time to get serious.
In 2013, with the encouragement of my fellow writers, I submitted two pieces to the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, and kept on writing.
On March 22, 2017, I turned 73, still unpublished. After multiple revisions, my memoir was finished and had gone out to and been rejected by multiple agents. Still without a contract, I acknowledged that I had failed to achieve my goal of matching Harriet Doerr’s inspiring example. I hadn’t given up, and I kept on writing, but the year ended on a note of regret.
Then, a few days ago on Thursday, March 8, the International Day of the Woman, while I was still 73, I was sitting at my writing group when an email showed up in my inbox from…Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman.
Congratulations, it read. Your story, Lighting Fires, has been selected from thousands of submissions to be published in this edition! The book is on its way to the printers and will be in bookstores on May 1, 2018. Your check will be mailed to you about a month later.
Being published is a goal; getting paid is validation.
So Harriet, it’s not a whole book, and I don’t have an agent, a contract for the memoir, or even a very good title, but this totally counts: I am still 73 and my story will be published this year, I will get paid, and you will remain my muse.
New Goal: Publish two memoirs by the time I’m 83. Only 10 years to go.
Nancy has been a member of the San Diego writing community for the past seventeen years, taking multiple courses at UCSD Extension as well as attending Marni Freedman’s ThursdayRead and Critique group in Encinitas. She lives in Carlsbad with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Coco.