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[SWP: Behind the Book] Novel as "Second Act"
Written by
Sheila Grinell
January 2016
Written by
Sheila Grinell
January 2016

I was inching closer to the end of my forty-year career in science museums. I had realized that the museums needed to be updated for the next generation, and I wasn’t one for the job. Institutional dynamics no longer fascinated me, and my son had left home, taking with him my opportunity to understand digital natives. Change was in the cards, and I had begun to plan its trajectory.

And then my mother, who lived with my sister two thousand miles away, had a heart attack. Two months later, a blood clot killed a segment of her brain that looked to be four inches long on the MRI at the hospital. She lost the ability to organize her memories—and her inhibitions. She sassed the nurses and flaunted regulations. But, to my sister and me, it wasn’t funny. We intuited that struggle lay ahead.

Over the next little while, I flew across country, at first every two weeks and then once a month, as my mother slowly declined. One day, I said to her, “Mom, would you like to know about your past? Shall I tell you your story?” She said yes, and she listened, apparently rapt, for forty-five minutes. I told her the highs—and some of the lows—and she thanked me. She said it was a good story. I said I knew she wouldn’t remember but I’d be happy to tell it again. A month later, she couldn’t pay attention for forty-five minutes. So I broke the story into little chunks. The following month, she couldn’t digest the chunks. Walking that night, I felt like someone had punched me in the gut: I knew I had to write her story, the uncensored version, before she faded away.

Back at home, I wrote a draft and found, at the local university, the name of a woman who might help me turn it into prose my mother would be proud of, if she could still read. Let’s call the woman Crazy Lady. She helped me write a story that made my friend, Linda, cry. She also gave me weird advice (“write a memoir in the third person and change the names”). Crazy Lady said I should check out a creative writing program at a local community college. She borrowed money and we parted company.

And then my mother died. Linda called, telling me to do something special, beyond my work or yoga or cooking for my husband. Out of the blue, I said, “I think I’ll sing.” I had no musical training and not much of a voice, but so what. When you lose your mom, you need to howl at the world, even if you don’t realize at the time that you’re howling.

I enrolled in voice class at a community college and sang once a week, poorly but gratefully. There was a silver lining: I discovered that I liked community college. I sympathized with the troubled young people trying to redeem themselves and the mature people recharging batteries. I found myself making decisions without considering the financial and political consequences, as was my professional custom. Talk about change!

After two semesters, the need to sing left me. But I still craved the atmosphere of the class. It had felt good to receive knowledge rather than transmit it. It had felt liberating to hear nine different covers of “Blue Skies” and find them all good, in their own way, without ranking them or contemplating the bottom line. Then I remembered the creative writing program Crazy Lady had mentioned at another community college. I enrolled, and so began the next chapter in my second act.

Over the next few years, as I wound down my professional commitments, I kept taking classes, eventually starting a novel. When I completed my last museum gig (in Saudi Arabia), I was finally free to finish it. Appetite will be published this May by She Writes Press, and I’ve begun to write a new novel. This unexpected second act is proving to be compelling. I wish I had another forty years to give it.


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  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Beautiful story, Sheila.  Thank you for sharing.  I'd love to sit down and read our book.

  • Irene Allison

    Sheila, what a truly lovely story about growing from grief into creativity. I look forward to reading your book!