How The Wrong Calamity Almost Didn’t Get Written

An Obstinate Author Finally Gets Serious

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.

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.

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.”

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. 

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.

How The Wrong Calamity Almost Didn’t Get Written

An Obstinate Author Finally Gets Serious

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