After 40 years as a science museum leader, Sheila felt it was time for a change. As she considered her options, Sheila began writing down her ailing mother’s story and soon got the writing bug. She is now a published novelist working on her third book.
Tell us a little about your background.
I was born in a taxi in Manhattan (it’s a long story) and grew up in the Bronx going to public schools. A math teacher at The Bronx High School of Science took me under his wing and sent me off to college to study math. At the time, colleges didn’t know you had to make a special effort to keep girls in math and science, and I eventually majored in English. I then went to graduate school at Berkeley, ostensibly to study sociology, but also to see what was happening there—it was the late sixties, after all. I soon discovered that I didn’t want to become an academic and moved to San Francisco to find a job.
Frank Oppenheimer, younger brother of the father of the atom bomb, wanted to start a new kind of science museum in an old world’s fair building at the San Francisco marina, a museum without glass cases that invited visitors to get their hands-on apparatus and play with light and sound. The idea of an alternative science museum suited all my varied interests, and I joined the tiny staff. In the next five years, we invented The Exploratorium, the science center that has since been emulated world-wide, and my job morphed into a career.
Over the next 40 years, I developed exhibits, helped restart a defunct museum, ran our professional association in Washington, D.C., taught newcomers to the field, consulted in several countries, and built a brand-new science center in Arizona, where I continue to live. I loved my work—it was challenging and complex and made a positive contribution to society. Fortunately, during the decade when I was at my busiest, my husband took over the management of our household. He drove our son to the orthodontist and drum lessons, took our dog to the vet, and learned to cook. I remain grateful for his support. (Our son is now the father of two little boys back East.)
When did you start to think about making a change?
Forty years is a long time, and, toward the end, I sensed I was done leading science centers. It was time for the next generation to take over. In 2004, I left the Arizona Science Center, having mentored a hand-picked successor, and began considering my options. Then the universe intervened: My mother had a stroke. She declined over a period of eleven months, losing memories, then words, and then sense of herself. I felt compelled to write her story down. I did so, and then I realized I wanted to write more. Not analytic stuff about museums, but something looser and evocative. So I enrolled in community college to learn a new craft. It took me two years to earn a certificate in creative writing, and to begin writing my debut novel.
What is your next act?
In 2016, at the age of 71, I became a published novelist. My debut novel, Appetite, focusses on the conflict between Baby Boomer parents and Millennial children about how to lead your life. It’s told from the points of view of both the mother and the father. When their 25-year-old daughter comes home from a year in India with her young guru and says she’s going to marry him, the wheels begin to come off.
My second novel, The Contract, is about a hard-driving museum designer, married to her business partner, who bids on a job Saudi Arabia that, she thinks, will solidify her company’s reputation. Her husband has his doubts about working in a policed state. As Pulitzer Prize Finalist Linda Valdez wrote, what follows are “titanic clashes of personality and culture.”
Today, I spend two to three hours every morning at the computer, writing fiction (or writing far less captivating copy about my books), which means struggling to capture the nuances of lived experience in words and scenes. I’m now beginning my third novel, which will be quite different in structure than my first two and will take a different kind of effort to complete. Writing is a torturous pleasure, to which I am addicted. But it doesn’t completely satisfy me unless it finds readers. The ultimate payoff for me is sharing my truth with you.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
In my third short story class at the community college, I looked at the typescript in my hands and said, “It’s too long. It won’t fit in 20 pages.” The guy sitting next to me said, “So write a novel.” I replied, “Okay,” and I began. I didn’t suffer from writer’s block, I just got to it. I think it was okay for me to fail at novel writing because I’d already had a success and been recognized as an asset to the community. A friend and I formed a writing group to support each other—she was a successful journalist turning to fiction for the first time—and we made up the rules as we went along. We both just plunged ahead.
How supportive were your family and friends?
That’s a good question. Friends were tolerant at first. I suspect they felt skeptical about my venture, but they didn’t voice it. I had a reputation as someone who made things happen, and they gave me the benefit of the doubt. My husband saw how absorbed I was in writing, and he gave me plenty of room. After my first novel, Appetite, came out, friends and family were convinced that I really meant to be a novelist, and, for the most part, they turned into cheerleaders.
What challenges did you encounter?
If you want to be published by one of the Big Five publishing houses, you need a literary agent. Agents want clients they can cultivate to develop a recurring base of business. An older woman without a track record or a built-in audience is not terribly attractive to them. After nearly a year trying to break into publishing the usual way, I found an alternative: She Writes Press, dedicated to giving under-appreciated women writers a chance.
Now let’s talk about marketing. My publisher’s job is to sell my books to the trade (retailers). My publicist’s job (Claire McKinney PR) is to sell me and my books to the media. My job is to communicate one-on-one with readers. I like giving talks at libraries and bookstores; I like visiting book clubs that read my work. I dislike spending time—and money—on Facebook and other social media. But I do it, nonetheless. Every business has its burdens (like having to raise $50 million to build a new science center).
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I approached my second act with the same energy and dedication as the first. I discovered that the skills I’d learned in my first career still applied: I knew how to undertake a five-year project with uncertain outcome, I knew not to second-guess myself, I knew to get expert advice when out of my realm, I knew how to stick to a schedule and budget. What I didn’t anticipate was the power of my imagination when I gave it rein. I’d finish a whole section of a book and then look back and see it differently, thinking “so that’s what it’s all about.” Or someone would make a comment that shocked me at first but that, on reflection, rang true. I learned about the unconscious under layers of my preoccupations. It was both humbling and exciting to confront myself this way.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Knowing my career as a writer would necessarily be short, I hurried to publish my second novel. In hindsight, I would have given myself a little more time, demanded less speed so as to pursue the unfolding of the work more patiently. I’m taking my sweet time with novel number three, despite the accumulating birthdays.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
I think there are tremendous benefits to having a second act. You’re still the same person, with the same skills and values, but you get to utilize different aspects of your personality and deepen your knowledge. To anyone who encounters an invitation to explore a new direction, my advice is to take your time but proceed with courage. There will be an unanticipated payoff down the line.
What advice do you have for would-be writers?
I’m often approached by people who say “I’ve always wanted to write,” or “I have an incredible story to tell,” but they have trouble getting started. My advice is to pick one idea and commit to writing about it one hour a day for 21 days. Research shows that it takes 21 days to form a habit, and you need writing to become a habit in order to develop your thoughts and your craft. I also recommend taking classes and joining a writing group; both keep you accountable.
What resources do you recommend?
For help in crafting a next act, see Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans. Their method is used by the nonprofit, Experience Matters, which matches retirees to civic organizations that need their skills.
For help for beginning writers, check out e-newsletters by Jane Friedman, David Gaughran (in his website sidebar), Joanna Penn, and Mark Dawson; as well as the magazines Poets & Writers and Writer’s Digest. There’s a ton of useful material online.
What’s next for you?
I am currently practicing a third act along with my writing. My husband has Parkinson’s disease, and I have learned to be a caregiver in ways that are fair and appropriate for both of us. It’s a tough job, and I intend to continue doing it. I don’t think I have room for more.
Connect with Sheila Grinell:
Contact form: https://www.sheilagrinell.com/contact/
Facebook: You can find me at Sheila Grinell author
LinkedIn: You can find me at Sheila Grinell
Instagram: My handle is @sheilagrinell
BookBub: I’m also on BookBub here