Suzette was leading what looked like a perfect life as a wife, mother, and community volunteer when she had two major epiphanies: She was a writer and editor at heart. And she was gay. She is now a book coach and is in a loving relationship with a woman.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in New Rochelle, NY, a suburb of New York City (Westchester County), the older of two sisters, the daughter of two public school teachers. I always thought of myself as a little bit different but couldn’t quite put my finger on what that was. Maybe everyone felt that way, I thought.
I was a history major at Wellesley College, flirted with the idea of a PhD in history, but went to Harvard Law School instead. Along the way, I met the man I would marry (a Texan who would later attend Harvard Business School while I was at the law school). In law school, I taught legal writing and research to first year students and served as an editor on the Harvard Women’s Law Journal (now the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender). With marriage pending, I turned down the opportunity to serve as the editor-in-chief of the journal, a choice that would later puzzle me and that I would regret.
Like the majority of my classmates in the HLS Class of ’87, I headed to a corporate law firm, in Houston, where my husband and I had decided to settle. From the start, I was ill-suited to the work but didn’t have the tools or imagination at the time to choose differently. I put in three years, left to battle infertility, had two sons, and became a stay-at-home mom. Once I was out of the fog of early motherhood, I engaged in social justice work, initially as a volunteer at an inner-city early childhood program. From there, I re-entered the law, forming an organization that trained advocates to assist low-income families in the special education process. I did a lot of good work in those years but was always searching. Always feeling like I hadn’t quite landed on the thing I was meant to do.
When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
After our younger son graduated from high school, my husband and I left Houston for Montauk, NY (where we had a vacation home and my mom lived) for a year we called “our year of discernment.” The plan: Decide what work we were to do and where we would live for our next chapter. This was in 2012 when I was fifty-one. One day in the midst of this intentional discernment, I had an epiphany: “You’re a writer and an editor. Stop fighting it.” I threw together a website that day, had my first book coaching client the next, and began working on a memoir. The rest, you might say, is history, except that epiphany only turned out to be part of the story.
What is your next act?
Professionally, I am a nonfiction writer and a certified book coach who specializes in helping women find and share their stories, in the form of memoir and self-help books. Right now, I am in the process of drafting a book proposal and revising Graveyard of Safe Choices, my memoir manuscript, which I plan to query in early 2021. I am also beginning to work on Find Your Story, a writing book closely aligned with the work I do with my book coaching clients. I have finally found “the thing” that I have been searching for all these years! Playing with words and helping others dig deep to excavate their stories and then share them with the world makes my heart happy.
Personally, my next act looks radically different from my prior one. Nearly five years ago when I was fifty-five, my writing led me to tune into my inner voice and unearthed a deeply buried truth: I was gay. For eighteen months I struggled—alone and with my husband—about what to do with this truth. It was the hardest time of my life. I’d been married for thirty years to this lovely, kind man, had the two sons, the ocean-view home, financial security … the perfect life … and yet. I eventually made the leap to end my marriage, move to a town where I knew only one person, buy my first home (by myself), engage more deeply with my writing and book coaching career, start a new relationship, and finally, finally felt like I was living my life. My life.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
The professional plunge was relatively easy. Once I had the epiphany, everything became clear. All the things I loved to do and was good at fell under the umbrella of writing and editing. Sure, there were and continue to be moments of self-doubt: is it too late? Am I good enough? Will my memoir ever get published? I hesitated about spending the money, time, and energy to get certified as a book coach with Author Accelerator, the nation’s leading book coaching community, but it was one of the best career moves I’ve made. The training reinforced much of what I knew intuitively about book coaching and also provided me with a long-term, supportive learning community. Learning how to run my own business has been challenging, but I am also fortunate to have found supportive community in places such as The Candy Factory, a co-working space in Lancaster, PA, where I have made business and personal connections and engaged in collaborations. Community in many shapes and sizes has been the key to making my professional pivot a success.
It was extremely difficult to take the personal plunge. The cost was very high—for myself and for those close to me. I battled guilt, wondered if I had the right to make everyone else unhappy even if it was the right thing for me, and also questioned whether I could actually make it on my own in my mid-fifties after having been married since I was twenty-five. Ultimately, I decided that the pain of going to my grave without actually having lived my life was greater than the pain of leaving behind everything I knew. On the other side of the leap, I’ve had moments of deep grief and loss over what was and some moments of grave self-doubt, especially in the first 12-18 months after I leaped. But the change I chose was what I had to do to really live.
How supportive were your family and friends?
Like I said, the professional pivot wasn’t controversial. I think most of my friends and family were relieved that I finally found my calling and stopped “angst-ing” about my work! The personal pivot, well, that was different.
My friends, when I eventually shared with them what was going on, were generally very supportive, as were my two sons. Some family members and friends were less than supportive, at least initially. I heard things like “you’re crazy,” “you’re having a midlife crisis,” “you’re too old to make a change,” and “you should honor your vows, not succumb to the flesh.” While these comments were hard to hear, I eventually realized that they were less about me and more about the speakers. I also realized that I had to allow others to have their own journeys about my revelation, on their own timetables.
My now ex-husband handled the situation with grace, love, and respect, and I am pleased to report that he is happily remarried to a lovely woman.
What challenges did you or are you encountering?
Professionally the biggest learning curve is on the business side, particularly learning how to market my services. I’ve never been an entrepreneur before! The client work itself is challenging and satisfying. I do find it hard to find the right balance between client work and my own writing time, but I’ve recently made a commitment to make my writing a greater priority. I can’t ask my clients to do something I’m not willing to do myself.
Personally, I am in a really good place right now. I am in a long-term relationship; have an adorable rescue puppy, an 8 lb. chihuahua mix; I love living in downtown Lancaster, a small, walkable city. Like most of us, I am exhausted by pandemic life and miss seeing my kids. It’s also been an adjustment embracing a different sexual orientation after having thought of myself as straight all these years. I’m proud to be part of The Lancaster LGBTQ+ Coalition, where I serve as a founding board member. I’m saddened about the direction our country has gone in over the past four years with respect to human rights and am both terrified and hopeful about the future.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I learned that I am capable of listening to and trusting my inner voice. That I don’t have to rely on others to tell me the right thing to do; I am more than capable of doing my own life. That I am stronger and more resilient than I ever imagined.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I’ve spent much of my adult life in regret and have decided not to live that way anymore. I do believe that we take the plunge when we are ready to. I had my epiphany about my work life when I was emotionally ready to act on it. And, similarly, I had my epiphany about my personal life when I was emotionally ready to act on it.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
It’s never too late. And, if you think it will get easier later, it won’t! Pay attention to and trust your inner voice. She’s leading you to your authentic self.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your reinvention path?
As far as writing goes, I encourage women to find their stories and share them with the world. This doesn’t have to mean they have to change careers—writing about your personal story of transformation can be a calling card for your business and/or it can be a source of personal healing and growth. I love this Maya Angelou quote: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I know that all too well.
As far as book coaching goes, if you love books and stories and want a flexible career, and if you are a good listener and enjoy working with clients one-on-one, book coaching could be for you. While it is NOT a requirement, I find that most successful book coaches are also writers who have worked with book coaches before. That was my experience—and it helped me see the value of book coaching.
What resources do you recommend?
If you are interested in writing memoir:
Handling the Truth by Beth Kephart
The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith
The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
Online memoir classes: https://marionroach.com/
Author Accelerator has a nice menu of online courses: https://authoraccelerator.teachable.com/courses/category/For%20Writers/?src=navigation
If you are interested in developing a writing practice:
By Julia Cameron:
The Artist’s Way
The Right to Write
It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Writing from the Body by John Lee
If you are interested in becoming a book coach:
Read Books All Day and Get Paid for It by Jennie Nash
Book Coach Training: https://www.bookcoaches.com/ Author Accelerator free video series and then training/certification programs for fiction and non-fiction.
If you are interested in LGBTQ+ resources:
Lancaster LGBTQ+ Coalition
Anne-Marie Zanzal, Transition Counselor (support for those coming out later in life)
A Late In Life Lesbian Story
Human Rights Campaign, coming out resources
What’s next for you?
I plan to remain in this act for a long time: I’ve had quite enough change in the past five years, thank you very much (!) However, I am hopeful that my two books—Graveyard of Safe Choices (my memoir) and Find Your Story (my writing book) will open doors to new opportunities related to my writing and book coaching careers. I envision more speaking engagements and, post-pandemic, hosting writing retreats where I help women tap into their inner voices and excavate their stories. Life on the other side of the plunge has been abundant, and I don’t see any reason for it to stop being so!
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