You can trust yourself. You’ll need peer input and you’ll need editors, and the instinct may be to defer to them or even please them. But ultimately the work is yours and its direction is yours. Sit with what people tell you and learn to sift through it to determine what is useful and what is not. As a pleaser, I found this one of the hardest practices to turn into a writing habit.
Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their lives. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.
How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?
In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jane Ward.
Jane Ward’s third novel, In the Aftermath, was released on September 21, 2021. The author of three novels has also worked as a baker, an events planner, and as a contributing writer and occasional host of cooking videos for online food blogs and newspapers. Find her at janeaward.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was the kid who read early (age 4) and from then on proceeded to lose myself in books and make-believe. I have a still vivid memory from kindergarten of the teacher sending someone to the rest room to bring me back to class. The teacher was so upset with me and I couldn’t understand why. I thought I’d been gone for about a minute; come to find out it was more like 20. I had started daydreaming and completely lost track of time.
My parents were older when I was born — 39 and 43 — not unusual for today, but rare in the 1960s. They’d had two daughters 16 and 14 years before I came along, and their second daughter died as a young teen from a brain tumor. It took them a while to think about more children, so that when I arrived, I was pampered, especially with food. I loved to try everything my parents were eating, and both my parents were excellent cooks. We had some wonderful family meals! Eating and cooking together were favorite pastimes for us all.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My parents didn’t often impart words of wisdom or advice. When one of them did, it was of the practical variety. I can still remember my mother exhorting me to “Never put anything in writing!” And of course, I put everything in writing — all my impressions, thoughts, feelings, opinions are in black and white for the world to see. I realize now that my mother wanted to keep me safe from people who might take advantage of something I had made a record of, but her piece of advice is only relevant to me for how much I rejected it. I appreciate that my parents weren’t heavy on the life lesson quotes, though. I was able to navigate the world and draw my own conclusions. They made me very independent of them, and that’s a gift.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
I remember making a huge mistake with a Christmas party dessert a few years back. The custard for a tart didn’t set and the tart was a mess. I took stock and decided there was time to make another simple dessert, and so I did. My daughter wandered into the kitchen as I was well into the second effort. She asked what I was up to, and I told her everything that had happened.
“You,” she said when I finished explaining, “are indefatigable.”
Sometimes I am, I thought to myself as she left the room. Indefatigable in dessert, in work, in life. I always keep my cool and keep going when the custard doesn’t set or my writing work needs more effort. I just don’t stop trying.
I love solo travel. I tend to be shy and having to rely on myself when I’m on the road really jolts me out of my comfort zone. When I’m among strangers on my travels, I will find someone to talk to about what they are doing or making or cooking. People will often answer and then go on to share likes and dislikes; personal memories about growing up, about their parents, about their friends; they will reveal to you how they like to live, what they like to do, what they like to eat and how they cook favorite meals. Talking helps me connect. For fiction writers especially, making a connection that helps us understand others is something to treasure.
I’m funnier in real life than my books with their heavy themes would suggest! I tend to let the emotion of a piece collect inside myself, and humor is an effective way of shaking off the worlds I get immersed in when I’m writing fiction. I love being silly and laughing at the end of the day.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?
After college graduation, I began working in the food and hospitality industry. That was such a comfortable world for me after growing up in a food-centered home. I started out working as an assistant to the Catering Sales Manager at Creative Gourmets in Boston, typing her contracts and managing the sales appointments. I got a great break when my husband and I moved to Chicago. Based on my Boston experience, I was hired by ARA (now Aramark) to plan private events at The 95th Restaurant, the dining rooms at the top of the John Hancock Building on Michigan Ave. I took a leave after my daughter was born and that coincided with my husband starting law school in Champaign-Urbana. Not long after moving there, I began working again, for the C-U Convention and Visitors Bureau helping convention groups plan off-site events for attendees.
And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?
All the time I was working in hospitality, I was keeping journals and writing character sketches and story drafts but not doing anything with these. As much as I loved working in the world of food and feeding people, I kept thinking back to the moment in a college creative writing class when I finished reading my final project aloud. There was a loud pause in the room when I finished and then my classmates erupted in applause. I was reaching a point in my life where I needed to connect with the writer inside myself. I had kept her under wraps for too long.
Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?
It was necessity, really. My daughter started school and, as smart as she was, it soon became clear she wasn’t thriving in a classroom. We had her tested and found out she had some profound and challenging learning disabilities. As parents, my husband and I realized our child needed someone who would be present during the stresses of her day, someone who could advocate for the services she needed. I had been working, my husband had just started his law career. I made the decision that I would give up the job out of the house. No one ever talks about turning to writing out of necessity because freelance writing is such a tough way to earn a living, but I did exactly that. And I had to make it work.
What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing?
In my case, it was taking the old writing skillset out of storage, dusting it off, and giving it a chance to see the light of day again.
How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?
I was willing to jump in and get back into the practice because I knew it was a way to continue working and contributing while affording us the opportunity to have a parent home for our child. It’s that dogged persistence I was talking about earlier. I was indefatigable and looked for opportunities everywhere. At first, I combined the daily writing practice with my interest in food and cooking to produce recipes and articles. Then I began a novel, and it eventually was published. That gave me confidence to write a second novel. Then a third. Telling it this way, it sounds as if it all the opportunities fell into my lap. But when one project ended, there was never any certainty there would be another, and for every single piece of work I produced, there exists a paper trail of publishing queries and rejection. However, as I said, I had to make working from home as a writer work, so I kept going.
How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.
It has turned out that I am happier than I have ever been, probably because the challenges we faced pushed me to incorporate all my skills into one effort. That kindergartner who daydreamed in the lavatory now gets to dream up stories as her job; I can cook and continue to write about cooking adventures; my schedule is my own to fill. This new book, In the Aftermath, is one I worked very hard to put out in the world, and it is resonating with the readers. I really love what I do. This is great good fortune that I absolutely do not take for granted. Not everyone’s sacrifices lead to rewarding work. Mine did. I am grateful.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My husband and I worked together to get here, supporting each other at every turn. He’s the one who told me, when I wondered if I had it in me to begin to write full-time, “Stop questioning yourself and just try. You’ll only know if you try.”
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
I have been able to interview some amazing people working in the food industry — a small batch jam maker, an ancient grains expert and cookbook author, even an Italian truffle hunter and his dog! Also, the online food writing turned briefly into hosting some online cooking videos to accompany the written recipes, and that was fun. Every new experience is.
But perhaps the most rewarding thing that has ever come out of my writing was the note I received from a reader who had picked up my second novel during a vulnerable time in her own life. She told me it gave her courage and hope about how she might live her life after divorce. There is nothing better than knowing something I have written has touched a person in some way.
Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?
Oh, of course I struggle with self-doubt! Every so often it hits me that the world is full of amazing and accomplished people — peace makers, justice warriors, epidemiologists — and compared to their efforts, what I’m doing feels inconsequential. Faced with those feelings of inadequacy, I have to remind myself I am writing a story that will transport readers into worlds they might not be familiar with and introduce them to people/characters who lead lives different from their own. Fiction in its own stealthy way helps build empathy. That’s a pretty important job.
In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?
My primary support system for my work is made up of the writers who help me put out the best work I can — those people in the writing groups I have been part of over the years. The work we do is equal parts manuscript critique, craft discussion, and support group. A writer friend thinks of writing group members as akin to service animals or emotional support animals. And she’s right: they help us navigate all of it — the story’s progress, the self-doubt, the solitariness — so we might make it over the finish line.
Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?
I’ve never been fond of public speaking, but it’s something I have to do a lot of now. I rambled and stammered in my first appearances. Then, one night, while watching a movie, I had an epiphany. I could approach a public speaking engagement like an actor approaches a role by adopting a new persona. I can be up on a stage now as me but at one remove — Jane playing Jane, if that makes sense. Once I understood that, I didn’t feel so exposed, and the pre-event nerves no longer plagued me.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- When you work as a writer and spend so much time alone, you will need to work extra hard to build your support network. I touched on the structure I built around me in an earlier answer. Meeting those people who make up the support system requires effort and dedication — I need to find where they are and make sure I am there too — and quite a bit of extroversion, which doesn’t always come naturally to me. This means doing research into writing groups and writing conferences and then attending. When cash was low, I relied heavily on meeting writing groups through bulletin board posts in our public library.
- Creating your own structure for your day will be challenging, especially with the distractions of working in a home setting. I tried early on to establish good habits of being in the chair and ready to work at a certain time every day. But there are days when laundry or grocery shopping can interfere. And other days when the writing is going so slowly that even organizing closets can look like more fun. I once had a writing teacher who said, “If you’re thinking about your story, you’re writing.” I try to remember his advice when I need a break from a tricky piece. Even if I stop to do something else, I try to use some of the break time to mull over the work in my mind and maybe come up with a way to move forward when I return to it.
- You will need a thick skin. I am a sensitive and receptive person. When people express feelings, I carry those along with my own. It’s a great quality for a novelist; this prepares me to walk in others’ shoes and understand motivations. It’s also not such a great quality for a novelist because it leaves me vulnerable to criticism of my work. When I had written a few chapters of my first novel, I decided it was time to go to a workshop for peer input. Most of the group of writers were very supportive and very helpful, pointing out where I needed to be clearer and more focused to find the way forward. I went into the one-on-one meeting with the workshop leader — a respected literary journal editor — expecting the same critique. Instead, he was blunt in his assessment that I likely had no future as a fiction writer. He was the expert and I was the newbie. I felt I should listen to him. But after a few weeks of sitting with the idea of quitting, I decided instead to toughen up. I began to build that armor. I wish I’d been better prepared for his harsh remarks though.
- You can trust yourself. You’ll need peer input and you’ll need editors, and the instinct may be to defer to them or even please them. But ultimately the work is yours and its direction is yours. Sit with what people tell you and learn to sift through it to determine what is useful and what is not. As a pleaser, I found this one of the hardest practices to turn into a writing habit.
- Even though words are your currency, you will need to use math. This is my way of saying, keep good financial records. Some writers find this difficult, and I was halfhearted in my efforts at first. But I learned the hard way: we need to keep track of expenses as well as sales. Your tax accountant will thank you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would like to inspire a movement that involves traveling to other countries and hosting travelers from other countries. There is nothing that promotes understanding more than seeing how other people live and eat and work.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
I’d love to have lunch with author Barbara Kingsolver. I’m a fan of all her novels, and also the non-fiction Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. We’d find a lot to talk about, don’t you think?
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Please check my website regularly (link in bio)! There, I blog about writing under the tab, “Sleight of Hand.” I also keep the events calendar updated with upcoming programs and appearances.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!