I met author Jacqueline Sheehan at the Tucson Festival of Books in March, when, along with Cathy Lamb, we were panelists discussing “Amongst Friends and Families.” Our books all deal with secrets kept from family and friends, so that was our focus.
Today Jacqueline has no secrets, as she shares with us the story of the trip where she finally called herself a writer. You’ll never believe what happened next.
Please welcome Jacqueline to WFW and share with us what inspired you to call yourself a writer.
How Yoga, Stars, And Getting Away From It All Inspired Me To Call Myself A Writer
When people ask me to talk about the road to becoming a writer, I wish that I had a better answer. I don’t have an MFA and I didn’t major in English as an undergrad. I came from a family that could not have imagined writing as a viable career. We were a more practical bunch: nurses, teachers, and tree cutters.
In my twenties, I tried freelancing with newspapers. I wrote feature articles that focused on eccentric characters: book store owners who practiced hypnosis on the side, ski instructors who taught people with disabilities to soar down ski slopes, zoo keepers in the desert of Alamogordo, NM. But it wasn’t nearly enough to live on. When I became a single parent, I scrambled for steady ground and turned to my second love, psychology.
For nearly twenty years, I was a psychologist in university counseling centers. But I wrote furiously, often before I went to work and part of most weekends. I took workshops about writing, attended conferences, and studied everything I could find about the craft of writing. Would I have called myself a writer? Absolutely not. A few short stories were published, then amazingly, I completed a novel and after an arduous search, an agent wanted to represent me. Would I have called myself a writer? No. Many rejections followed from the publishing world until one amazing day when Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster offered to buy it. Would I have called myself a writer? Not exactly. I might have said that I write part of the time.
The sales were tepid and I was discouraged. My job as a psychologist at a college counseling center had grown stale. Correction: I had grown stale. Full disclosure: To say that I was hollowed out was an understatement. My mother had just died a few months before, I was still reeling from working with survivors of Hurricane Katrina, and I was trying to finish another novel.
I signed up for a writing and yoga retreat in the Mayan Highlands of Guatemala. It was a retreat center called Villa Sumaya. I wanted to do yoga, lots and lots of yoga, and scribble in my notebook until something shifted.
The yoga was not the ordinary studio yoga that I was accustomed to, even though I had practiced yoga since college and taught yoga. Yoga took place in The Tiger Temple, facing Lake Atitlan. Every morning I arrived early to sit in meditation as I watched a great blue heron soar low over the lake. Later, the huge temple vibrated with our Om’s and laughter. But the temple vibrated with something else; it was the strumming heartbeat of Lake Atitlan, and the Mayan people who have lived in the highlands for so long. Something started to shift, although it would not fully manifest for months.
Here was a sanctuary along the shores of Lake Atitlan that was so far removed from my daily life that I had to continually go through a reality check. Was it truly okay to nap in my hammock mid-day? Could the food really be this fantastic for every single meal? (Yes!) Are the stars actually this bright at night? Would I ever have as much courage as the delightful ex-pats who had created new lives around the lake? Would I ever be able to live my dream of being a writer?
During the retreat, I put the finishing touches on my novel. I assumed it would sell just as modestly as the first. And then somehow, I got the message that, if the Mayan people could survive an oppressive history, if that great blue heron could swoop over the lake every morning with such hope, if the local Shaman could insist that I would return to the Mayan Highlands, then I could chose to do the one thing I had always dreamt of. Would I call myself a writer? Yes.
When I returned to my job, I handed in my resignation. That book that I finished? Lost & Found became a New York Times Bestseller and sold over half a million copies.
I have just published my fifth novel, The Center of the World, and I owe such gratitude to Villa Sumaya, the retreat center, and the Mayan people. The novel is set partly along the shores of Lake Atitlan in 1990, and in Massachusetts 2003.
If someone had said, back when I was in my twenties, to design a path to become a writer, I could not have done so. I could not have imagined it, yet an ember of hope always glowed, sometimes so faintly that it was unseen.
Today, I offer writing retreats in Maine, Jamaica, and of course Guatemala. I have just turned in my next novel to Kensington Books. I’m a writer and I will be for the rest of my life.
Jacqueline Sheehan, Ph.D., is a New York Times Bestselling author. She is also a psychologist. A New Englander through and through, she spent twenty years living far from home in Oregon, California, and New Mexico doing a variety of things, including house painting, photography, freelance journalism, clerking in a health food store, and directing a traveling troupe of high school puppeteers.
Her novels include, The Comet’s Tale a novel about Sojourner Truth, Lost & Found, Now & Then, and Picture This. Her newest book is, The Center of the World, by Kensington.
She writes NPR commentaries, travel articles, short stories, and essays including the New York Times column, Modern Love. She edited the anthology, Women Writing in Prison. Jacqueline has been awarded residencies at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland and Jentel Arts Colony in Wyoming. She teaches workshops at Grub Street in Boston and writing retreats in Jamaica, Guatemala, and Maine.
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Here is what Lori Nelson Spielman, Bestselling author of The Life List had to say about THE CENTER OF THE WORLD:
“THE CENTER OF THE WORLD is an epic story of war and peace, love and fear, family and friendship. Writing with honesty and grace, Jacqueline Sheehan examines to what length we would go to protect those we love, reminding us that sometimes secrets must be unraveled before our hearts can mend. In turns heartbreaking and heartwarming, it is the perfect book club selection—intelligent, thought provoking, and utterly captivating.”