How The Wrong Calamity Almost Didn’t Get Written

When I moved to New York, the last thing on my mind was writing a book. After living 40 years in Boston and 5 in Tokyo, I wanted to have a larger life, full of new friends and new things to do. But most of all, I wanted to move beyond a shattering personal loss that had unmoored me for five years.

This Is So New Yorky

In my very first week in Manhattan, I found myself applying for a play-writing workshop. “This is so New Yorky!” I thought. Life in my new city was off to a great start—until I came to the part of the application where I had to write on the topic “Tell Us About Yourself” in 100 words max.

Keep my story to 100 words?

Impossible, I thought. My life was too complicated. Back when I was young and painfully insecure, I’d married a secretive, controlling man and moved to Japan with him. A chance encounter led to my getting a job at Mattel Toys Southeast Asia, and as success made me more confident, my husband became more abusive. When we got back to the US, I had to escape from him by running from the police with our two toddlers. Eventually, I attended Harvard Business School and launched a career, all while raising my daughters and fending off their vengeful father.

Forty drafts? . . . Fifty? . . . Seriously, I might have written as many as sixty 100-word drafts of “Tell Us About Yourself.” All of them were lousy, and none of them got to the rest of my story: Years into a glorious second marriage, a terrible secret in my husband’s past revealed itself, and his PTSD shattered both our marriage and me. I was still grieving when I moved to Manhattan, and this felt more important to me than anything else.

The Heart of Who You Are

My daughters are excellent writers, so I sent them lots of 100-word drafts for feedback. One draft, about getting my MBA despite a serious injury, seemed promising but was too hard to condense. In the end, I cut it from the piece I finally submitted. “I see why it had to go,” one daughter said, “but it’s a shame. That story’s at the heart of who you are.”

I was rejected for the workshop and moved on. But I kept thinking about my daughter’s comment. To me, the business school thing was significant but not the heart of who I was. I decided that since my daughter, who knows me so well, thought it was, I’d write a personal essay about that year of school to set the record straight. 

I discovered I liked writing personal essays, and soon I had a whole sheaf of them. Though I’d never before considered myself an author, I set my sights on publishing a collection of essays that would cover a range of unconnected but interesting, maybe whimsical, episodes in my life. 

Someone told me that Joyce Johnson, the much-awarded author, ran a small workshopping group for writers. I sent her one of my essays and was thrilled when she accepted me into the group. After just a few weeks of reading my work, she said, “Forget about essays. This should be a memoir.”

My Inner Four-Year-Old

I was reluctant. Actually, I was adamant. My inner four-year-old practically stamped her feet. I would not write a memoir and would not change my mind. But Joyce kept at me for weeks, until, finally, I decided to prove to her once and for all that essays were my genre, not memoirs.

Over the weekend, I copied and pasted a bunch of essays into a single document and started writing connective tissue between them, intent on showing her it just didn’t work. How wrong I was. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. Joyce was right. I needed to write a memoir.

As I worked on stitching together the essays, many landed on the cutting room floor. Others became flashbacks or flashforwards. A long essay about a hat became just a few lines in the book. A short, funny essay about my losing eighty pounds by invoking a magic spell became a whole chapter and no longer turned myself into a joke. Eventually, almost nothing in the book could be traced back to an essay.

Occasionally tears rolled down my face as I wrote. Sometimes I cried because I was reliving an old sadness. More often, it was because I was realizing for the first time how much love and support had come my way in those long-ago hard times. Back then, I’d been so overwhelmed just trying to make it through each day, I hadn’t fully appreciated the people who’d stepped in to help me over hurdles I couldn’t manage on my own. Though over the years I’d lost touch with many of these extraordinary people, I tracked down a lot of them and was able to let them know how much they’d mattered to me. 

A Tangle of Interconnected Threads

When I started writing The Wrong Calamity, I thought my story was “simply” about an insecure woman who became sure-footed over the course of two broken marriages. But as the book developed, more themes emerged. I couldn’t include the hat without connecting it to grief. I couldn’t write about my first marriage without grappling with self-esteem. Far from a straightforward arc about an insecure woman with two broken marriages, my story was a tangle of interconnected threads that included neglect, eating disorders, single-parenthood, domestic violence, PTSD, the sources of resilience, and, ultimately, triumph. I felt a profound obligation to future readers to untangle these threads; to be unflinchingly honest; to offer a way for readers in similar circumstances to relate to my story and find hope and inspiration.

Not too long ago, I gave a reading from The Wrong Calamity. Afterward, a woman in the audience came up to me and said, “All the details were different, but you were telling my story. Now I have hope I’ll make it through okay.” I spent seven years writing this book, and that moment alone made every moment of those years worthwhile.

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