Optics and the Midlife Woman

Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles—my debut novel—examines both literal and figurative optics: Kris, the main character, is marketing manager for an eyewear company; how she and her over-fifty friends are perceived by others—especially bosses and potential employers—is at the heart of major plot developments.

Women in the vicinity of fifty, give or take a decade, are literally in the middle of their lives. Yet just when they hit their prime in terms of career development and wisdom, society often renders them invisible. In spite of a few actors and entertainers who have gained notoriety for looking fabulous after fifty, the average fifty-plus woman in a corporate milieu has a target on her back. Too often the job market discounts her value, assuming she’s got nothing new to offer.

Ageism is real, but judging people (aloud or internally) by how they look is also an age-old human trait we all express from childhood to elderhood. Meanwhile, we’re all PR flacks, trying to control the optics of our journey through this world, regardless of race, age, sex, or income. I’m no exception.

Women Need to Control the Optics

Managing our personal and professional optics—how we’re perceived by other people—can be a high-stakes game, especially for women. Presenting the perfect balance of warmth and competency during job interviews is one of the most obvious examples. But a razor-sharp résumé and friendly smile aren’t enough. Conveying the ideal package to a prospective employer involves managing the optics of everything from clothing and makeup to posture.

That’s one of the messages in Comeback Careers: Rethink, Refresh, Reinvent Your Success—at 40, 50, and Beyond, which confronts the reality of ageism and offers advice on how to fight it. The book, coauthored by MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski and her sister-in-law Ginny Brzezinski, counsels women returning to the workforce after a child-rearing gap and those switching careers in midlife to ensure their skills are relevant and updated. Dress and language, the authors add, also need to be contemporary. In a March video interview with Leslie Jane Seymour via her Covey Club, Ginny Brzezinski noted that glasses and haircuts and dress do make a difference in how midlife women are perceived.

That trio held me back from posting a photo on this website for several months.

Clothes Make the Novelist

I’m not fond of having my picture taken and made public even under optimal circumstances—whatever those might be. My Instagram feed, for example (@GailReit), is the antithesis of the selfie-stuffed social media presence.  I’d probably still be virtually invisible online were it not for a previous job that required me to be active on multiple platforms. Even now I avoid posting selfies whenever possible, but an author website must have an author photo, I’m told by the experts. Besides, web crawlers like to find photos, so if you want people to find your work online, you gotta play the algorithm game.

Even though I had a business-appropriate headshot I liked that was less than two years old, it didn’t seem right for an author photo. I didn’t look like any of the other novelists I saw online. Though the white shirt, navy jacket, and string of pearls were suitable (ahem) for a certain type of nonfiction author—which I once was and still am—the ensemble didn’t convey “novelist.”

So what does a novelist look like? Judging by photos of both famous and “emerging” novelists, they seldom wear jackets. Whether the writer is promoted by a big-time PR firm or presenting herself as an indie, jackets—when worn at all—tend to be leather or unstructured.

OK, so I could find alternative apparel in my closet, but then there was the hair. Another reason to procrastinate.

Blame It on the Coronavirus

In response to the New Mexico governor’s (wise) guidance in early March that all nonessential businesses close to the public, my hair stylist was unavailable in April for a scheduled appointment. I normally go three to four months between cuts and enjoy the transition between chin-length and longer hair, but this spring I wanted a reshaping before taking a new headshot.

That’s because back in November we’d tried something new—a much shorter style than usual. The cut was perfectly executed—my stylist is an artist; it just wasn’t me, and it didn’t grow out in a way I was familiar with. So I was ready for a fresh cut—which would have to wait indefinitely.

Meanwhile, my eyewear was also in limbo.

Glasses: An Obvious Metaphor

The eyeglasses on the cover of Optics, the main character’s career in marketing an eyewear brand, and the primary plot are all grounded in the real-world importance of vision care and prescription glasses. But frames can also make a style statement.

Cover of Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife MuddlesI’ve worn glasses since second grade, and I always look forward to the periodic change in frames. As the Brzezinskis note, you don’t put your best face forward with an outdated frame style. I knew I’d need a new author photo before Optics launched, and my current frames were just beginning to show a bit of wear (if viewed from the right angle), so I ordered a new pair when I went for an eye exam earlier this year.

Shortly thereafter, my optician’s office closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. My new Spanish-made frames were somewhere on this planet, though who knew when they’d sit on my nose.

Fighting Perfectionism

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” I tell myself a lot these days as we continue to self-isolate. After all, there’s no single “novelist” look, and the classic image of the author as idiosyncratic in habit and dress simply doesn’t apply to me. Besides, I don’t believe author photos sell books. Covers—that’s another story.

And so, with my hard-won midlife wisdom, I decided to make the best-for-now of my perfectly ordinary self. I gave a few snips to the front edges of my hair, pulled on a favorite sweater, donned my timeless-design frames (which my trendy optician’s shop still sells), and posed for a photo.

The author photo was necessary, but I think you’ll find the novel is sufficient without it. Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles will be available September 1 from online and physical booksellers.

In the end, I realized my angst about the author photo was mostly a coping mechanism. It was about acting as if—as if things that mattered before COVID-19 still matter, and will matter after COVID-19.

For monthly updates from Gail about her novel, blog, writing, and reading, sign up for her newsletter, Gail’s Reading Glasses.

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Can You Write a Novel?

Empty page with question mark

That’s the question I asked myself in late fall 2018.

It’s a question I never expected to ask. So why then? The short answer is that I needed a new challenge. And then there were those women talking in my head.

Whose Voices Are in My Head?

My careers as English professor, marketing communications consultant, book editor, business reports editor, and magazine editor had given me plentiful experience writing nonfiction. First it was academic articles and presentations that few would read or hear. Then it was more accessible copy for employers, clients, and freelance gigs that reached much larger audiences. For fourteen years, readers around the world read copy I wrote, rewrote, or edited—if they were affiliated with the power generation industry. When that job came to an end, I dove into a related project for eighteen months that was fulfilling but insufficiently enriching.

As I pondered my next steps, I was fortunate to have some client revenue, but I knew I needed a new focus. One day, as I was walking in my neighborhood to clear my head, I started hearing dialogue.

I’m not the first to observe that a walk can loosen the creative mind;

I’ve often found that when I’m stuck with a piece of writing—be it a dissertation, an ad, or an editorial—stepping away and stepping outside can be curative. I’m not the first to observe that a walk can loosen the creative mind; nevertheless, it’s something I need to remind myself of periodically.

So this one day as I was walking down a gravel road, I started hearing dialogue. Like everyone, my mind routinely engages in internal monologue or dialogue—especially when I’m anxious. But this was different. These weren’t my thoughts or my experiences being “talked” about. And it seemed as if I was hearing a party in progress. Multiple speakers—all women.

As I finished my walk, I thought about my unfamiliar turn of mind. Could these be fictional characters wanting me to pull their voices out of my head and onto a page—or screen?

Over the next few weeks, I began making notes. First they were bits of conversation or interior monologue that my yet-unnamed characters delivered. Then I began thinking about who exactly they were, how they knew each other, and their back stories. Soon I began walking with my phone so I could record voice memos about dialogue, character, situation. I wasn’t ready for plot.

Meanwhile, I pulled books off my shelf that I hadn’t opened in over a decade. (More, perhaps, on those another time.) I read about character, plot, story arc, detail. Only then did I let my analytical mind off leash to begin piecing together snippets, stretching them, observing gaps.

In November, I made a commitment to myself to write a novel—or at least try. I sketched out a rough plot, created a roster of main characters, and researched writing tools. I took baby steps.

What I Learned from Writing a Novel

What follows is not an exhaustive list of what I learned over the approximately ten months it took to complete my first novel; these are just the outcomes that were most important to me.

First, I acquired new technical skills. In my corporate lives I had always been game to test or adopt new digital tools or rejiggered processes. That was a given for thriving in any sort of publishing environment. And, as someone who had operated a small services business from a home office even before I became a full-time remote employee, I’d become a passable front-line troubleshooter. It’s not that I like or seek out the brain strain of learning new software or figuring out why a web page won’t load the way it should. It’s just that I’ve accepted such tests as part of my work life.

So when I decided to challenge myself to a new kind of writing, I naturally researched to learn what tools worked best for other writers. Despite the ubiquitous presence of word processing programs, the names most people are familiar with were not most favored by book writers. Genre fiction writers—many of whom spin out multiple titles a year—in particular touted Scrivener. Though I still haven’t mastered all the intricacies of Scrivener, it was a life-saver. I could keep character notes, timelines, and research all in the same file, which minimized friction while I was working on a given scene.

I learned that, despite what one might expect from someone whose first career was English professor, I didn’t want to write Literature. I didn’t aspire to write The Great American Novel—though I’m not averse to winning awards. I wanted to tell a story that would resonate with midlife and beyond readers, especially women. Though there’s a limitless list of novels about women and about midlife, in researching comps (comparable titles), I found few that zeroed in on the dynamics of women and work at midlife. In short, I wrote the sort of novel I wanted to read.

I found that it was freeing, for a change, to write about people who weren’t real. Other than during my brilliant but brief career as an academic, my writing had always involved the real world and real people. For someone with a curious mind, the opportunity to research, interview, and write about everyone and everything from medical researchers and law professors to power plant owners and cutting-edge energy technologies was endlessly fascinating.

But the privilege of writing about real people comes with a heavy responsibility to get the facts and analysis as accurate as possible. When it came to my novel, I was the master of its universe—even though its setting, plot, and circumstances were as solidly realistic as any news story. If I decided halfway through to change the color of a character’s eyes or details of her backstory, I could. All I had to worry about was maintaining the internal logic—no small feat.

My daily record: 6,410 words.

I learned I could measure productivity in new ways. Years of deadline-driven corporate work had honed my self-discipline and project management skills. I’d always had to write, edit, or package words. But other than for specified-length editorials, task completion was less a matter of churning out x number of words and more about completing a detailed task checklist. When I realized I’d have to step up my daily word count if I were to finish the book before leaving on a two-week vacation, I did the math. I set a goal of 2,000 words per weekday and beat that average over the following five weeks. My daily record: 6,410 words. (Anyone who has written fiction or nonfiction for publication will realize that those were draft words. They were subject to multiple revisions in subsequent months.)

Though my novel-writing challenge began as nothing more than an exercise, I was surprised to learn that I enjoyed it. Even more satisfying has been the positive response from early readers. In writing a book I felt was missing from the market, I met my first criterion for success. Hearing that the story resonates with and encourages readers is the ultimate success.

Can You Write a Novel—or Meet a New Challenge?

I’m writing this first blog post for my new website during the COVID-19 isolation period in March 2020. Everything we do these days is filtered through the brain fog of this novel anxiety. None of us can be sure we’ll survive. We can take optimal precautions but still fall ill, die, live with debilitating after-effects, or return to social life much as we were before. Humans are averse to uncertainty at the best of times, but the unknowns we’re facing now are of a different strain. I hope the long-term effects of this period will be more humanizing than not.

Yes, we all need ways to pay the bills, but what’s necessary is rarely sufficient.

Perhaps more of us will be braver than before, realizing that life might be shorter than anticipated. Now may be the time to commit to a new challenge—a new career, relationship, habit, hobby. Whatever it is, make it something that will enrich your life, even if others find it impractical. Yes, we all need ways to pay the bills, but what’s necessary is rarely sufficient.

A few months ago, in LBC (life before coronavirus), I ran across a quote from the poet Mary Oliver and pinned it to my cork board:

Mary Oliver quote

I knew these lines before I knew the rest of her poem “The Summer Day.” I intended them to serve as a daily prompt. Something to slap me out of any funk that crawled into my cranium. A reminder to savor the things I can do each day.

And the lines worked. I set new goals. The biggest was to get my debut novel published. But only recently did I look up the entire poem. It’s poignantly relevant for our times—or any time. It’s short and worth a minute of today. You’ll find it on the Library of Congress website. Go ahead. Read it. I’ll be right here waiting for you.

In deciding to write a novel, I took the chance that I might not be able to do it at all. I might have faced writer’s block or given up when I realized my first draft was novella length—only half the word count of a traditional novel. Now I’m taking the risk of publishing a book that few, or thousands, may read. I have no regrets.

What could you do that you haven’t tried before? It might be something big and public or small and private. Maybe, like the poet, you realize that what’s most important is doing less but doing it attentively. What will you do “with your one wild and precious life?”

For monthly updates from Gail about her novel, blog, writing, and reading, sign up for her newsletter, Gail’s Reading Glasses.

 

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