After years of giving tours in China and honing her passions for aviation and photography, and with the encouragement of her husband, Beth finally took her old manuscript off the shelf and edited it for publication. Flying Alone is Beth’s memoir of the turbulent and dangerous years in the 1980s when she was climbing her way to become an airline pilot.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in metropolitan New York in the 1960s and 70s. As an Italian-American with a big Italian family, my childhood was filled with family dinners, family gatherings, lots of cousins, and great food. Everything was as it should be until my father died suddenly when I was 13 years old. He died of leukemia, with which he’d been diagnosed seven years earlier. His illness was known only to my mother; not even my father knew. It was a decision my mother made when the doctor told her he had only 5-10 years to live, so that my father, brother, and I would have as normal a life as possible. So she held this horrible pain inside while trying to keep everything ‘normal’.
When I was about nine years old, I remember standing in front of my bedroom window on a winter day looking at the snow. I defined at that moment three goals for my life: write a book, learn the Arabic language, and renovate an old house.
When I was 15, we moved to Michigan. After high school, I attended Middlebury College in Vermont, where I majored in East Asian Studies and Chinese language. If Arabic was offered, I would have chosen that, but I embraced learning Chinese language, history, religion, and everything else about East Asia. More than anything, I wanted to study abroad junior year. I went to Taiwan with four of my classmates and without a formal study program or housing. It was kind of self-fashioned. We found rooms for rent by looking at homemade ads on bulletin boards on the city streets and took Chinese classes at a small language school. Best of all, the four of us went our own ways soon after we got there and became immersed in the culture of the city and the island. It was one of the best times of my life.
When I returned to the US and graduated college the next year, it became very clear that pursuing a conventional career with my skills was unlikely to be successful. It was 1984, and China was just beginning to open up. Instead, I got a job as a tour director taking groups to China. I have continued taking groups to China ever since then and have taken more than forty groups over the years, including many for National Geographic and the Smithsonian. Eight years ago, I started teaching photography workshops in China and Mongolia.
Six months after graduating from college, knowing leading tours to China was not a career, I also began pursuing a dream to learn to fly and become an airline pilot. During that time, I held various aviation jobs, including driving a fuel truck, flight instruction, towing banners, towing gliders, flying night freight, and flying passenger charters, until I was hired by Trans World Airlines (TWA) in 1989. In 1990, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and my aviation career ended.
I went back to graduate school at Harvard University, earning a master’s degree in Regional Studies-East Asia in 1997. I began a career as a freelance Chinese language translator. I have continued to translate since then, along with taking groups to China.
In 2008, I developed a strong interest in photography and, in 2011, it became an additional career when I organized a photography tour to China. It was on that trip that I met my husband, Ron. He was from Arizona, and I was living on Cape Cod. We married in 2012 and now spend summers on Cape Cod and the remainder of the year in Fountain Hills, Arizona.
I continue teaching photography workshops, specializing in night photography, for my own company, Ruggiero Images LLC, and Arizona Highways PhotoScapes, as well as other photo workshop companies. I also sell stock images for agencies such as Getty Images, Adobe Stock, and others. I wrote a popular instructional photography book in 2015, Fun in the Dark: A Guide to Successful Night Photography, and co-wrote Everglades National Park: A Photographic Destination the following year.
When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
It was more of an evolution with one pursuit leading into the next. If there was a change, though, the most notable was the decision to finally publish my memoir, Flying Alone, which I wrote in the early 1990s after my flying career ended. When I finished it, I began sending the huge paper manuscript out to literary agents. Rejection after rejection came back, and I finally decided to set it aside knowing the time wasn’t right yet, but confident I would publish it someday. Over the years, despite sitting in a box, the manuscript has always been in my thoughts; it was never forgotten. I knew the time would come.
After Ron and I got married in 2012, he encouraged me to complete my memoir. He truly is my greatest supporter. Finally, a year and a half ago (May 2018, at the age of 56), while being hospitalized for three weeks for a radical alternative Lyme disease treatment in Mexico (this health challenge is detailed below), I had a lot of time to think and ponder.
It became clear that I was ready to return to the manuscript, and I edited, polished and, now, have published Flying Alone: A Memoir. So, my “next act” is, in fact, that—a new act that ties directly in with one of my earlier acts. This will not be the last book I write—my “next act” is authorship, and the memoir is a debut of sorts.
My memoir is the story of my years after college when I took up flying with the ultimate goal of flying for a major airline. It was a rough and tumble man’s world, but I was determined to make it through no matter what. An agonizing love affair with my flight instructor, dangerous risks in the sky, and flying broken airplanes for shady companies all played roles on my road to the airlines.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My husband is my most supportive family member. I also have wonderfully supportive cousins with whom I grew up, and many dear friends who are my cheering squad. This is particularly inspiring.
What challenges did you or are you encountering?
There have been many challenges in this venture.
Revisiting Flying Alone and preparing it for publication was cathartic, on the one hand, and difficult on the other hand. The catharsis came as I read the manuscript for the first time in so many years. There were some events that I didn’t remember! I am so thankful that I wrote it all down, kind of like a diary, because if I hadn’t, some of these stories would have been dead and buried. In other cases, I remembered the events as though they happened yesterday, mostly because of the deep sadness or terror they caused.
Originally, I planned the manuscript to be a novel. In third person fictional format, I didn’t have to own the experiences that revealed my vulnerability, my mistakes… my humanity. So the greatest difficulty in the process was telling it as my own personal story, i.e., owning it and baring myself. I had to come to terms with what I would share and what I would not. In the end, most everything was shared, and I was able to forgive myself for things I had been carrying on my shoulders all these years. Getting through that difficulty, though, is what made it all worthwhile. Now that it has been completed and is being published, I have truly come full circle after more than 30 years since it all happened, and that is cathartic.
Another big challenge was the decision between pursuing an agent for traditional publication or self-publishing. Although my previous two photography books were self-published, I had never considered any other road for Flying Alone except landing a traditional publisher. In my mind, that was the only route that would give the book full credibility. After months of research and back and forth decisions, though, I came to the strong conclusion that self-publishing was the better route. Since I made that decision, I have never regretted it. Instead, I have enjoyed having full control of the road to publication, the marketing, creating my website, and writing weekly blogs. It’s a lot of work requiring a lot of time, but it’s the best thing I could ever have done. There are so many great resources out there to back up a self-publishing author.
For me, though, the supreme challenge has been my health. I first showed the symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) when I was twenty-two years old and leading my first tour group to China. Upon return to the US, the doctors told me I probably had MS. I was definitively diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1990. I lost my FAA medical certificate and, therefore, no longer qualified to fly commercially. I tried to regain my lost balance over the next couple of years until I applied to graduate school to get a master’s degree, ultimately returning to my original passion for China and everything Chinese.
I was able to manage the challenges of MS over the next twenty-plus years, but when I was going through a very bad period in 2013, I was tested for Lyme disease, and it was positive. I have probably had Lyme since I was a child growing up in New York, Ground Zero for Lyme. I remember when I was in grade school, I couldn’t wait for the end of the school day to get on the bus for the 25-minute ride home, so I could go the back of the bus and sleep.
The Lyme likely caused the MS, though there is no way of ever really knowing. Since 2013, I have been through debilitating health challenges and more ineffective Lyme treatments than I can count, but I have continued to navigate these obstacles while still continuing to do the things I love. It has been very difficult, but since my MS diagnosis, I always promised myself that I would not let illness or disease stop me from living a very full life. With the Lyme diagnosis, I have reaffirmed that and continue to press forward. The hardest part is following through when I’m having a bad day.
What have you learned about yourself through this process?
I have learned and continue to learn so much about myself. I have learned to accept my shortcomings, rejoice in my victories, and simply enjoy the road. There is always room for anyone to grow and learn. The secret is to look for the opportunities to grow and learn and to embrace them. It makes for a full life.
I have also learned that I have always loved to write. With two published books before my memoir, you could say I am indeed a writer. But it was not until publication of this book that I committed to writing. Of course, I continue to do the other things I love—translate Chinese, teach photography and sell my photos, and take photography groups to destinations in the US, Asia, and Europe. So, my commitment to writing does not signify a break with everything else I do. It just means I’m further enriching my life.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I’ve given a lot of thought to this question, so I’m certain when I say that, with regard to Flying Alone, I would not have done anything differently. Of course, if I look back on my life as a whole, there are some things I would have done differently, but isn’t that the case for most everyone?
Writing is a beautiful pastime, and when I am in my special writing “zone,” I am at peace, and the thoughts flow. It is like a meditation.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
We are in “midlife” – the middle of our lives – and if you have the chance to reinvent your life in any way, give it a lot of thought and choose what inspires you most, even if you think you’re not up to the task or can’t do it. Forget about limitations. Set yourself free. I have been fortunate in that I have been able to pursue my dreams and interests all through my adult life despite the medical challenges. I do not have children, so for better or for worse, I have not had that responsibility. If you have spent the past years raising children, take this midlife opportunity to craft your “next act.” It may turn out to be the best act of your life.
What advice do you have for would-be writers?
If you are interested in pursuing a writing career, there has never been a better time. If you haven’t started writing, start now. What do you want to write? A memoir, fiction, children’s books, a blog…? Write down your goals to start and create a plan. Most importantly, write consistently and write from your heart. When you can’t find inspiration, walk away for a day and don’t think about it. But always be sure to go back to it. The flame will re-ignite.
What resources do you recommend for writers?
There are many resources for new authors, especially new indie authors. Some of my favorite websites and training programs:
www.authorlearningcenter.com – Unlimited access to webinars, articles on interactive programs covering writing, editing, publishing, and marketing ($9.99/month).
www.reedsy.com – This site is free, but there are a lot of valuable courses and services. I used the reedsy.com Marketplace to find my copy editor (Brooks Becker), interior and cover designer (Lance Buckley), and web designer (Joelle Reeder). It has been an invaluable resource.
www.creativelive.com – Creative Live is always airing live online courses for creatives. If you catch a course you’re interested in when it’s live, it is free to watch. After that, there are fees. The instructors are excellent, and there is a lot of good material for authors.
My favorite books for authors:
The staple for every writer is Writer’s Market 2020: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published by Robert Lee Brewer. It is and has been the go-to book for authors of all types. Brewer has written similar guides for poets, children’s authors, fiction writers, etc.
Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips
Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity, Ray Bradbury
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
The first book is very practical, a manual of sorts. The other three are inspirational. All are highly recommended.
There are also great advocacy organizations for writers:
Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi)
The Author’s Guild — It is not free to join, but they provide very valuable services, including legal guidance in the world of literary contracts.
What’s next for you?
I believe my next act after this is to write another book, probably related to China. There may be other next acts I haven’t dreamed of. I will embrace whatever comes my way to the best of my abilities.
Connect with Beth Ruggiero York:
Email address: https://bethsbooks.net/contact/
The website for my memoir https://bethruggieroyork.com/.
The blog is https://bethruggieroyork.com/blog
My photography website is www.bethruggiero.com.
Book: Flying Alone: A Memoir