After a career in PR, it would take the encouragement of a fellow writer for Lisa to take the plunge. She completed an MFA in writing at 48 and had her first book—a memoir about her journey to rediscover her dad after his death—published 10 years later. 

Tell us a little about your background.
I live in New Jersey with my husband and two college-age sons. It’s a small suburb about 12 miles west of New York City, where I was raised in a newly affluent Italian-American family. My father had no higher education, having quit school in 10th grade, but was a scrappy entrepreneur and made a small fortune as one of the first polyester manufacturers and wholesalers. I was a fortunate kid, traveling a lot, and a privileged teenager, riding horses and going to concerts and Broadway plays.

I graduated with a degree in journalism from Syracuse University, then spent three years on the hunter/jumper horse show circuit, riding and working as a freelance journalist for American and international equestrian publications. Then I segued into a job with a Manhattan public relations agency handling accounts that required horse knowledge. I stayed in PR for 12 years, moving on to other clients, and eventually left to run my own PR business. All the while, I was doing varying amounts of freelance writing, and by the time my second child was born, I was growing more interested in a life centered around writing.

With my first typewriter, 1966

When did you start to think about making a change?
I had two bouts with postpartum depression and read a memoir on the topic (Sleepless Days: One Woman’s Journey Through Postpartum Depression by Susan Kushner Resnick); it turned out the author was a fellow SU alum, we started e-mailing, and she encouraged me to pursue an MFA in creative nonfiction writing. But graduate school seemed impossible financially and logistically. Even though I live just outside NYC, and there are good programs there, my kids were young, my husband worked long hours in his own small business, and I had no family around for reliable childcare. I ignored the itch for a few years.

I remember a day when my boys were around ages nine and five, and all three of us were sick and I had PR clients and media calling and faxing me constantly, late into the night. I realized that the PR world had changed in ways I wasn’t willing to. All I wanted to do was read and write. I wanted a bold, dramatic change. I wanted to shake up my life and see where it landed.

With my sons, Sean and Paul, 1999

Eventually I looked into “low residency” programs—twice a year, you attend an intense residency on campus, then work one-on-one with a faculty mentor in the intervening months. I chose one of the more affordable programs, but still needed loans, which terrified me (I later paid them back within 18 months). I was 48 when I completed the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine in 2008. I loved the two years in that program, but life went on, as it does: My father had a stroke and died during my first semester; my mother had her first heart attack during my final semester.

What is your next act?
It’s been ten years now since I completed graduate school. My first full-length book will be published by University of Nevada Press on May 1, 2018. Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss is the story of what transpired in the three years after my father died, as I got to know him again, rediscovering this very complicated man who I was not close to in life.

Today I work as a part-time college writing professor and as a freelance writer, manuscript editor, and writing coach. I’ve also been a book reviewer, a website editor and researcher, and worked on ghostwriting projects.

I love that no matter what I’m working on, my daily life is built about the written word, and that reading is part of my “job description”! I get to work one-on-one with writers on their manuscripts and serve as an editor for two literary journals. And—I write. My articles and essays are published in literary journals and mainstream publications, including the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, and listed in Best American Essays 2016. You can find some here.

With fellow faculty members of Bay Path University MFA Program, 2016

How did you prepare?
I often plunge into things without too much preparation—and see what happens. When I began the MFA program at age 45, I was restless and bored professionally. I wanted something dramatic to happen and I ignored all the wise advice about how you can’t make money as a writer, that I should stick with my PR career, that student loans were a bad idea for an unnecessary degree, blah blah blah.

In the months leading up to the MFA program’s start, I ramped up my reading game by a lot; suddenly books were more than just for pleasure. I asked friends to help get my kids to and from school and activities while I was away for the residencies and taught my husband Frank to cook some meals. When I started the program, mentally I decided to go way outside my comfort zone—to say yes to every option and opportunity during graduate school, to go all in and not hold back.

Teaching at the Hippocamp Writers’ Conference, Lancaster, PA

How supportive were your family and friends?
Frank never had the opportunity to attend college, so I think he was puzzled by my desire for an advanced degree at that point in our lives—plus, he’s not really a reader! But bless him, even though he knew our finances would take a hit, he encouraged me. My residencies (five stints over two years) turned into wonderful opportunities for him and our boys to discover what they could do on their own—and develop their own little mischief-making club. My sons couldn’t be prouder of me. Many days we worked in my home office together; they thought it was cool that Mom also had “homework.”

My father was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s when I was preparing for the first semester and kept saying, “You already went to college,” but in his lucid moments, he wished me well. My mother was less enthusiastic because when my father died, she wanted me to hop on airplanes more often (I live in NJ, they retired to Las Vegas in 1981).

It was after I graduated that support really mattered because it took me about three years to get my footing again, cobbling together a work life that made sense. All through the MFA, I said I wasn’t going to teach, but it turned out I liked teaching.

With my husband, Frank, 2018

What challenges did you or are you encountering?
It was harder to build a business/income model this time around than it was when I was in my 30s and started my PR business. I don’t know if that’s due to my age or the economy, or that I didn’t have children back then.

Our bank account is a daily reminder that there is a continuing economic trade-off to the decision I made. We have two kids in college and honestly, it’s a struggle. Adjunct professors are not well-paid, and as for editing and other work, like any freelance business, it’s often feast or famine. I try not to think about how much money I could be making now if I had stayed in PR and remind myself how unhappy I’d be.

I’m more aware now too of my age (58) and how that might be affecting opportunities. Ageism is real and decision-makers in the literary world are often overly fixated on the idea of the hottest new (meaning: young) writer.

A corner of my home office

What did you learn about yourself through this process?
That it’s okay to try new things at any age, that you can reconfigure your life if you want, that there will be trade-offs. My patience has improved and my skin thickened (the literary world is full of rejections!) and I’m more aware of the value of accumulated wisdom and experience that comes with aging—and how that can be an advantage in most aspects of life, both personal and professional.

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I suppose I could have done it sooner, but I believe things happen at certain times in our lives for a reason. My attitude is to continue to move in the direction of what you want, and if it takes longer or a more circuitous route, so be it. Onward.

My family today

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Find mentors who are genuinely interested in helping you, then actively make the most of them. Ask for what you need and tell people what you want. Pay that forward when it’s your turn to be the mentor. If you need to study/work at home, try to do that in a room where you can close the door. Foster independence in kids and make alliances with other mothers.

Spend a little money on things you really need—new technology, for example—and on things that you don’t absolutely need but that will help. When I was in the MFA program, we had our house cleaned twice a month; that added a little to the financial strain, but it eased stress and kept our home manageable. I always stayed an extra night in the hotel after residencies to decompress and rest before driving seven hours home to a family and house full of accumulated needs.

With fellow writers and presenters at BooksNJ (from left: Michelle Cameron, me, Lisa Marion Calabro, Judith Lindbergh, Karen Kaplan)

What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing writing?
If you hunger for a literary life, an MFA degree is a chance to totally immerse yourself for two or three years in the world of writing and books, and begin to build your future literary peer community, which will become invaluable. Personally, I wouldn’t go into any more debt for an MFA degree than you can comfortably pay back in a few years. When I knew I had to pay off my loans fast, that was a great motivator; I took on many writing-related jobs I might not have considered—ghostwriting, for example. These helped me grow as a writer in addition to paying bills.

But if you want a writing life (and don’t care about teaching at the university level), you do not need an MFA degree. There are so many reputable writer conferences, summer workshops, retreats, online classes, and other short-term programs, as well as community college and regional literary centers. I know many writers who attend a few of these each year, year after year, and that amounts to a significant writing education too.

Teaching teen writers at The Writers’ Circles Summer Intensive, Drew University

What resources do you recommend for would-be writers?
Poets & Writers lists MFA programs, small presses, publishers, writers’ conferences, submission opportunities; articles on the business and art of writing; message boards, etc.
American Society of Journalist and Authors (ASJA) offers an annual conference, awards, member education, resources, information exchange
Author’s Guild reviews publishing contracts free for members and safeguards rights of authors
Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) runs the largest annual conference for writers; keeps extensive lists & rankings of MFA programs
Council of Literary Magazines & Presses maintains guide to literary journals and publishers; submission calendar, etc.
The Writer Magazine
Writer’s Digest – magazine; conferences, online classes, website resources
The Memoir Project — Marion Roach Smith’s website/blog
Jane Friedman’s website on the writing & publishing business
Women on Writing (articles, classes, etc.)
She Writes – a literary community/resource
DIY MFA

Facebook — There are many Facebook groups that focus on writing and in particular, on connecting women writers interested in helping one another. The Facebook search bar will turn up quite a few, and one leads to another. Or begin with the pages associated with some of the resources mentioned above.

Reading at a local gathering in NJ

What’s next for you?
I’m poking at a second book, writing really rough drafts of pages and listening for which topic calls to me most strongly. Meanwhile, I’m deep into promotion for Starting with Goodbye appearances and author events at bookstores, book festivals, writer conferences, etc.—and that takes time for travel and prep. It’s very exciting because the book was an Amazon #1 New Release the first week pre-orders opened.

I love writing essays and always look for new and more challenging publication venues. I think I’ll always teach writing in some capacity; it’s the older-than-average writing student who most interests me—women (and men yes, but honestly, it’s mostly women)—who have lived a little, had some professional success, and yet want to write, passionately. I’ve been involved in organizing writing retreats and workshops and have an interest in the planning and development of writer conferences, so we’ll see where that might lead. I serve as an editor for two literary journals, and one day I might like to take on the challenge of publisher/editor-in-chief myself.

I’ve learned not to discount anything. Say yes. You never know.

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Book: Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss