[SWP: Behind the Book] How My Scientist Mom Made Me a Novelist

The idea for my historical novel came to me when I was twenty-five, but in that pre-internet era, I quickly concluded that I had a lot of living to do, and it wasn't the kind that could be done within the confines of a library cuddled up to a card catalog.  Twenty years later, my life was entirely different - married with two school-age children, house in the 'burbs, and a laptop on my desk available to endlessly Google all the research I would ever need for my book.

But for all the things that made it easier to start writing later in life, there was one thing that made it more difficult.  At twenty-five, I was still full of the confidence of youth:  the trust that what I knew was correct, the assumption that things would go well, the ignorance of how much I didn't know. Maturity gifted me with a lot more knowledge - including an awareness of how much I had yet to learn, and how plans could go sideways in a hurry.  Now I wanted to write, but I was aware of all the hills I would have to climb to see this kind of project through. 

After The Island of Worthy Boys was published, I looked back and wondered how I pushed aside all the voices in my head that were telling me why I would never walk into a Barnes & Noble and see my name on the spine of a book.  And I concluded that it had a lot to do with my mother.  In 1972, after ten years of being a stay-at-home parent (or, as they used to call it back then, a mother), my mom went back to school.  Not to get her undergraduate degree, which already had under her belt.  To get her PhD.  In Anatomy.

As an eight year old, I couldn't appreciate the magnitude of what she chose to do.  What I knew was that my ten-year-old sister and I were given house keys and learned how to put dinner in the oven for the days when mom had late classes or labs.  One of the family stories that is told to this day is how young Connie put the chicken upside down in the roasting pan every single time, despite several attempts at re-education.  (In my defense, the way my mom showed me it should be positioned just didn't look right to me.  Speaking of the confidence of youth.)

So I could see that my sister and I were alone more and were working harder with my mom in school, although I don't remember ever feeling resentful.  It was just the new way things were.  What I failed to see was how hard my mom must have been working, trying to satisfy her intellectual desires with as little impact to the family as possible.  I didn't see that none of her female peers were doing anything like this, and that some people must have been thinking she would never see this through, assuming it was something to keep her busy now that her kids were a little older.

I was thirteen when we had the party to celebrate my mom's PhD.  My clearest memory of that night is my dad letting me pour wine for the guests (after instructing me that you don't fill up a wine glass to the top like you were pouring a glass of milk).  But now I can imagine what my mom might have been feeling that night.  How being middle aged doesn't mean you can't achieve something new.  How sweet it is to have a family to celebrate with.  How reaching this goal doesn't make you feel younger per se, but somehow makes you feel less old.


It's only now that I realize how much she set the stage for me.  Even though she chose a hardcore science degree, which is pretty far flung from writing a novel, I learned at a tender age that with enough hard work, difficult things are achievable without short changing the family that needs you.  My mom never told me that in so many words, but as the old writing adage goes, "Show, don't tell".  Had my mom tried to tell me back then that I could achieve crazy goals at any stage of life, I wouldn't have believed her.  Instead, she just showed me how it's done.

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  • Bobbi Dawn Rightmyer

    Great post!! At 25 years of age, I was a single mother of two children under the age of five. I went to nursing school and worked parttime. After three years I was able to support my children and they learned the lesson of working hard to succeed. I love your story!

  • Irene Allison

    What a lovely post! Especially your line:  How being middle aged doesn't mean you can't achieve something new. Life is so full of possibilities, and it's important to remember just.There's a saying somewhere that women hold up half the sky and then some ... so, so true. Raising children, caregiving, looking after a family, getting PhDs and/or writing novels in the midst of it all!!! Yes, indeed, women hold up half the sky and then some ... Wishing you great good luck with your book!

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    I LOVE this post.  Thank you for sharing your journey.  One of my goals is to show my own daughter the same message.  Not sure if I'll succeed, but I hope she benefits from my efforts all the same.  She is very supportive of my writing and has enjoyed reading what I have written. ~:0)

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Love this Connie!

  • We are all examples to the people around us! Thank you for sharing. By the way- it turns out that baking a chicken with the breast down makes for juicier white meat - so you were on to something!

  • Michelle Cox

    Great piece, Connie.  I agree - youth has a certain idealistic confidence that anything can be achieved, but age grants us wisdom and the discipline to actually complete something.  I toyed with being a writer in my 20's, but decided (thank God) that I didn't yet know enough, plus I needed a real job to pay off my student loans!  Now as I approach my 50's, with so many life lessons under my belt, I'm in a much better position.  And, as in the case with your mom, there's that discipline part that is gained from staying up all night with a sick baby, even when you're sick yourself; or from sitting night after night helping someone with math homework; or attending endless basketball games or school plays.  It's a trial by fire.  After that, you're definitely closer to what it takes to write a novel.  What a beautiful example she gave you!