When her husband moved out and her father died in the span of six months, Alice’s charmed life was turned upside down. She is now a tutor, teacher, writing coach, and book discussion leader. Having been a guest speaker at Alice’s writing workshop, I can attest to her talent as a teacher—and the praise of her students!
Tell us a little about your background…
I like to think I hit the childhood jackpot: I grew up in a beautiful home in suburban St. Louis with two loving parents, the only girl sandwiched between older and younger brothers. From a young age, I was a voracious reader: Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins, The Boxcar Children, and any Judy Blume story. Plus, I loved to write, especially in my diary at night—under the covers—when I should have been sleeping.
I honed my reading and writing skills and slogged my way through biology at a progressive, independent day school that encouraged its students to become critical thinkers. I attended college on the East Coast, worked briefly in publishing, and then returned to graduate school and became a high school English teacher, hoping to impart my love for reading and writing. In the midst of this “first act,” I fell in love, got married, and moved around quite a bit: New York, San Francisco (where my son, Colin, now almost 20, was born), Denver (where my daughter, Izzy, now 18, was born), and Los Angeles, before settling in Chicago.
When did you start to think about making a change?
Change in midlife was neither something I consciously considered nor something percolating inside me. Instead, it careened into me, like an unexpected torrent, disrupting a balance I’d naively taken for granted. You see, nothing had ever gone wrong. Or, at least, not really wrong. I had lived what many might consider a charmed life. Sometimes I would worry that surely the other shoe was bound to drop, but this fleeting concern only surfaced in my dreams or in an occasional journal entry.
My fear was founded. In 2014, over the course of six months, my husband moved out, I sold the home I had lived in for over a decade, and my beautiful, sweet dad—the person whose reassuring voice always made me feel safest—died. I once heard that death, divorce, and moving are life’s most stressful events. I had never experienced any of these upheavals, much less one right after another. In the midst of all three life-changes, my teenage son was involved in a terrible accident that required two separate eight-hour surgeries. Fortunately, he is okay. Some mornings I woke up so sad and weak, it was all I could do to get out of bed and make it through the day. In retrospect, I realize these events served as the catalyst for my change.
My next act meant that my children were increasingly independent, navigating their way through high school. My days of keeping a Houzz-perfect home, making Ina Garten dinners, and folding the laundry just so were part of my past. I became involved in Reading Power, a literacy program for elementary students in North Chicago. Many of the children I tutored came from families that couldn’t afford breakfast, much less have a houseful of books or time to read before bed. I would leave my students’ stark halls and their “snapping” teachers, who reminded me of drill sergeants, and reenter a safe haven. My eyes opened fully for the first time to education in our country and the privileges so many of us take for granted.
What is your next act?
I am a teacher, a tutor, a writing coach, and a book discussion leader. After participating in a writing workshop for years (something I did “on the side” when my children were young), our longstanding facilitator moved to Ann Arbor. Several writers encouraged me to take over her role and I haven’t looked back. Originally, I taught the workshops (Let’s Write: A Workshop) through New Trier Extension, but I now run them independently in Glencoe, Illinois.
The participants in my workshops represent every age and profession you can imagine (picture a 20-something sci-fi writer, a middle-aged ER doctor, and an 80 year-old grandmother from Shanghai); some are published writers while others haven’t picked up a pen in decades. Through exercises and models — designed to motivate and jumpstart the creative process — and a forum in which to share their work, I assist both emerging and established writers mold their own voices.
Additionally, I do a lot of work with The Book Stall, an independent bookstore in Winnetka. I lead frequent book discussions and occasionally interview bestselling, contemporary authors (special events entitled “In conversation with…”). My book talks have led me—primarily via word-of-mouth—to several suburban and city book groups for whom I facilitate their monthly or quarterly book discussions. Recently, I “formalized” these discussions into a business and joined forces with Ann Walters, a writer, blogger (Books on the Table), and fellow facilitator. We just launched our own enterprise: Between the Covers Book: Professionally Led Book Discussions.
While I enjoy my work with adult writers, my love of working with students never abated. I spend a lot of time every summer and fall working one-on-one with high school students, helping them craft their college essays. Nothing brings me greater satisfaction than helping teenagers—who are in the midst of their own first acts—share their story. I also work with several high school juniors to help them prepare for the English, Reading, and Writing sections of the ACT/SAT.
This winter, I added instructor to my list of “jobs” and began teaching two courses at the Graham School at the University of Chicago: “Storytelling for Business” and “Powerful Punctuation: Commanding Commas, Sexy Semicolons, and More.” I know—how can anyone consider semicolons sexy? Trust me, it’s possible! Needless to say, my multiple hats keep me busy.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
Taking the plunge did not feel like a plunge. I did not wake up one day and say to myself “Alice, this is who you will be now.” Creating this next multi-scene act has been more like learning to swim versus taking a plunge. I began in the shallow end, expanding my reach to students and writers. As I eased into the water, I developed my strengths: leading literature discussions, creating content and teaching new classes, and forming a “business” out of it all – a business that somehow coalesced my disparate interests.
Perhaps the hardest part was learning how to promote myself. I have gone through a slew of business cards (thank goodness for Vistaprint!) and am still trying to settle on my exact title. Even getting a LinkedIn account seemed, at first, silly for a former stay-at-home mother. For weeks I wondered, how on earth do I summarize myself? After going through an enlightening experience of discovering my professional (and personal) value proposition and creating a mission and vision statement, I realized that being authentic was the best approach. I created my own website (Platinum Pen Consulting) and have tried to market myself.
Such efforts have led to me to the most incredible writing coaching opportunities: crafting wedding toasts, polishing resumes, editing Peace Corps applications, revamping a financial service firm’s website and marketing materials, and revising external communications for a trading firm. My work has introduced me to the businesses of finance, law, and marketing—entire professional worlds with which I had little interaction in my previous act. More significantly, I have met so many amazing people: analysts and editors, grandmothers and entrepreneurs.
How supportive have your family and friends been?
My family and friends have been incredibly supportive. My son, who has been away at college, asks me about my work whenever we talk. My daughter, who is about to graduate from high school, has had to often fend for herself during my busy work schedule. She makes a mean chicken stir fry, takes loving care of our yellow labs, and—with a bit of cajoling—has learned to embrace the ever mundane world of laundry. She sees the pride I take in helping others and the satisfaction that comes from getting paid for working hard. She babysits, delivers groceries, and teaches field hockey to earn spending money.
My friends have been a wonderful support system, seeing me through some really tough times, giving me advice, and sometimes providing a much-needed shoulder to lean on. Many of them have sent “business” my way, promoted me on social media sites like Nextdoor or their Facebook pages, and helped spread the word about my workshops and book discussions. My mom, too, has been a constant champion, showing me through her own resilient model how to take what life gives and make the most of it.
What challenges are you encountering?
One challenge I face is continuing to believe in myself. The title of mom remains my greatest privilege; however, after years of moving around and taking care of everyone, it feels good to (re) discover and embrace my own passions. Sometimes I wonder what makes a little girl who loved to read and write someone who can help others. But when I hear my clients/students tell their stories of triumph or transition, realization or regret, vice or victory, I see that helping them tap into what makes them unique is my greatest gift. Sure, I love to write, read, and discuss stories, real or imagined. But at my core, I love to inspire others to discover their own stories, make sense of them, and retell them with passion and vulnerability.
Another challenge I face is feeling worthy of my rates. I used to charge significantly less than what I do now for hourly assistance. Because I Iove what I do so much, I would do it for free, if I could! Unfortunately, finances dictate that I am not in a position to follow that financial model. When I began to see the work of people who, even now, charge much more than me, I said to myself, “Hey, wait a minute. You know what you’re doing. You should really be charging more.” Another hurdle has been marketing myself. There is a certain level of embarrassment for me (someone who does not want to be the center of attention) when I promote or sell myself. One day, a few years ago, I said to a student, “If you have any friends who’d like my help, please let them know.” Within a week, I was working with three of her classmates. It was that easy. And yet, it remains that hard.
What have you learned about yourself through this?
I have learned that I am capable. I have learned that feelings and emotions make me strong, not weak. I have learned that I love making connections and my “sensitive” nature is actually a strong fit for hearing stories, seeing how they resonate, and helping people write and tell them. I’m not a hard numbers, facts and figures type of person. Emotion and empathy empower me daily.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
My advice is simple. Do not waste time worrying about what was or what will be. Do not worry, as I once did, that the other shoe will drop. Even if it does, you are strong and you can find a way—especially with the help of those you love—to get through anything. What defines you in your mind does not need to define you always. You are not stagnant or static.
Find a passion! This three-word imperative sounds simple, but—trust me—I know it’s not. Some people have something they love from the get go (pets, social causes, building businesses, traveling) and others, like me, have to gradually come to realize that a little girl who simply likes to read and write can do something with that interest, even after spending year upon year at home caring for her kids and family. Begin with your core values and find an outlet that enables you to express them. I am obsessed with Simon Sinek. He talks about our WHY. We all have a “what” we do and “how” we do it, but it takes a lot of beneficial soul-searching to discover our “why.”
What advice do you have for those interested in teaching writing?
My advice is to volunteer with students, join a writing workshop, or participate in a book club. Read, read, and read. Write, write, and write. Read blogs, novels, memoirs, non-fiction, articles, essays… Listen to podcasts, plot and plan, and work…Think outside the box…(easier said than done). Write your story!
Oh, and team up with other women (or men). My friend, Meg Murphy, has a similar background helping secondary students. This summer, we’re planning to offer college essay workshops for groups of students who may not want to work one-on-one with an essay coach. And, as I mentioned, another friend, Ann Walters, and I just started a book discussion business. Not everything you do has to be solo. Often it is more fun to plan and prepare with someone else.
Surround yourself with people who share your interests. Say “yes” to opportunities, even if you’re not quite sure how they fit with your overall plan. Maybe your overall plan will shift. At the end of the day, everyone is looking to connect. By remaining open to possibilities, you will form satisfying relationships and learn more about yourself.
What resources do you recommend?
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark
Long Story Short: The Only Storytelling Guide You’ll Ever Need by Margot Leitman
The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytellingg by Annette Simmons
Dear Sugars Podcasts & Columns by Cheryl Strayed
Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek (and Sinek’s “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” TED talk)
Kindra Hall, Strategic Storyteller
College Essay Guy
Andrew Stanton: “Clues to a Great Story” TED talk
Jonah Willihnganz: “Telling Stories” TED talk
Chimamanda Adichie: “The Danger of a Single Story” TED talk
What’s next for you?
My belief in the transformative power of story will never wane. I hope to continue teaching and leading writing workshops, facilitating book discussions, and acting as a writing and essay coach for years to come. I would love to expand my individual writing coaching practice (and storytelling course) across multiple businesses and industries. On another front, a couple people have expressed interest in having me help pen their memoirs. I am fascinated by the prospect of digging deep into an individual’s life to help write his or her story.