In April of 2013, I lost my husband of 32 years. Soon after my loss, I enrolled in a writing class. Initially, I was looking for community and writing had always been a passion of mine. My late husband and I had led isolated lives so I needed a reason to leave the house and connect with people.
Once I started writing, I discovered there was a lot I wanted to say about widowhood and being a midlife single—such as why our society treats grief as an embarrassment to be worked through as quickly as possible. Or why being a single, middle-aged woman seems to have such a lower currency than being coupled. Or how it feels to form a new self as an “I” after spending most of my life as half a “we.”
Fourteen months after losing my husband, I decided to start dating, which was a shock since I hadn’t dated since 1980 when I was a high school junior. Once I joined an online dating site, I found a new wealth of writing topics.
I remember being a widow of eighteen months, sitting in a chic Oakland café having breakfast with the wealthy but dyspeptic artist I was dating when he started ranting about how I’d failed to pay for our meal or appreciate him enough in general, his voice rising shrilly in indignation. When I asked him, not for the first time, to air his complaints privately, he whined, “My shrink doesn’t want me to feel resentful.” A few days later I started my blog; that line was so terrible it needed to be shared.
I wrote Available As Is: A Midlife Widow’s Search for Love to offer hope that reinventing yourself and having a good life is possible after a devastating loss. Even for cautious people like me who can talk themselves out of doing almost anything. But I joke that I wrote the book to warn other midlife women about the exceedingly poor quality of so many single, middle-aged men.
By the time I started writing my memoir in 2016, I’d had essays published, but I’d never written anything longer than a couple thousand words. I wanted my book to read like a work of fiction so I had a steep learning curve discovering how to create characters, write dialogue, and interweave back story. I also had to learn how to introduce the deeper ideas I wanted to talk about like free will, mortality, and the patriarchy, but without losing the story line.
In an effort to write less like a lawyer, which was my former profession, at age 56 I earned an MFA in creative writing from Saint Mary’s College of California. I wanted to work on my book in an intense writing environment which offered workshopping. I loved the process and was relieved when my work resonated with the younger folks in class. The concepts I learned also helped me when I’ve taught writing classes.
But what helped the most was hiring an excellent editor who showed me where the book was weak, and who worked patiently with me to improve it. I remember submitting what I thought was the final draft only to have her say, “You’ve missed the point. You need to be objective about your marriage instead of idealizing it.” Ouch, but I learned to write deeper, adding what my MFA instructors referred to as “interiority.”
To me, writing a longer work feels like painting, starting with a sketch, then adding more details, putting in shadows, building up layers. When I was first widowed, I never expected to have my work published or write a book or teach a writing class. I didn’t realize I had a voice, but we all do, and we shouldn’t need a devastating loss to find it.
Writers will learn about:
-Incorporating back story into the main narrative.
-Writing difficult characters when they happen to be your family.
-Handling tragedy and humor in the same work, and using humor to break up the tragic parts.
-Shaping your work to incorporate underlying themes.
-Avoiding author/narrator convergence.
-Bonus: I can teach you a lot about dating at middle age!
Debbie Weiss is a former attorney who earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from Saint Mary’s College of California in 2020. Weiss’s essays have been published in The New York Times’s “Modern Love” column, HuffPost, Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, and Reader’s Digest, among other publications. A longtime Bay Area resident, she lives in Benicia, CA.