Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Roberta Isleib: This Writer's Crazy Journey



Let me say first: it’s hard to follow Sheila’s great blog post! Love the postcard from Pat Conroy...But here is something about my writer’s journey…

Oh how I envy those folks who say they have always known they wanted to be writers! Imagine how I could have shaped my college and graduate training, the teachers I might have studied under, the classes I might have taken. I only knew I was crazy about books and reading-and that has never changed, starting with my early run through every Nancy Drew ever written.

After wandering through several career false starts, I ended up training and working as a clinical psychologist-wonderfully interesting and productive work. Then I fell in love with a guy who was a golfer. As I got more interested in the sport, I began a furious campaign to learn to play and spent lots of time (and money) trying to master it. I couldn't get over how nervous I felt on the first tee, especially in a competition. How did professional golfers survive and even thrive with this kind of stress?

I’ve never been able to explain it exactly, but writing became a way to make something useful out of my golf obsession. Over time, the idea of a character called Cassie Burdette, neurotic professional golfer wannabe, began to take shape (write what you know and all that!) In 1998, I hatched the idea of writing a mystery about a woman caddie on the men's golf tour and her pal, a sports psychologist. With Tiger Woods mania incinerating the PGA Tour, I was sure the story idea would be a natural. Besides, this was fun! Any time I spent on the golf course or attending tournaments or even reading golf magazines was, you guessed it, research. Over the course of a five-book series I was able to talk Cassie into starting psychotherapy so that both her golf game and her taste in men improved.

And along the way, Cassie and I had some amazing adventures. I spent most of my first (admittedly modest) advance paying to compete in a real professional-amateur LPGA tournament so I could absorb the correct ambience for book two. And I played golf at Pinehurst, Palm Springs, and in the Dominican Republic—all tax-deductible without stretching the IRS code. I met and corresponded with professional golfers, and many fans—mystery fans, golf fans, and best of all, fans of both. These people worried about Cassie: how can she drink that much before a tournament? How can she eat like that and stay in shape? Lose the boyfriend—he’s a bum! Over coffee, my friends were more likely to ask what was new with Cassie, than with me.

Once the golf gig was over, I wrote a second mystery series starring clinical psychologist Dr. Rebecca Butterman, that tailgated on my own career. I loved showing the world of psychotherapy from an insider's perspective and using Rebecca's special training and talent to solve mysteries. And now I'm busy writing the first book in a third series featuring a food critic in Key West, which will debut in January 2012. How can I go wrong with the research for that??

I still shake my head in wonder when I think about how my life has changed over the past ten years. Maybe I would have learned more about the theory and practice of writing if I'd known I was headed this way back in college. But on the other hand, maybe the timing of my life experience was exactly right. 

How about you? Are you surprised about the turns your life has taken? (I'm delighted to offer two copies of PREACHING TO THE CORPSE, which takes place at Christmas, in exchange for your comments.)

17 comments:

  1. Hi Roberta, People with a background in psychology make for some of the best writers--what better way to all the tools for character development! Add to that your love of books and it seems like a natural progression! Love how you turned golf into research. If my next ms takes on a baseball edge, do you think the Red Sox would let me tag along to spring training(: Great blog!

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  2. Laura--maybe! Did you know that one of writer pals, Mary-Ann Tirone Smith has written a Red Sox mystery series??

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  3. Roberta, I'm most surprised by the unexpected obstacles we've faced, mostly health-related and involving two of our kids. We were hit with type 1 diabetes, thyroid disease, and celiac disease, all within 3 years. These were the most difficult battles, and ones we definitely weren't prepared to fight, but another surprise was that we managed to get through these battles, have persevered, and the kids are doing great.

    I have a daughter who LOVES Nancy Drew, too!

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  4. I'm with you on getting started a bit later in life than some. Your path was wonderfully organic, though, and probably a good bit more fun than suffering through some of the grad school classes I had to take. :-)

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  5. It's so funny how so many of our paths started in other directions! I often wonder what would've happened if I'd gone directly into writing without all of the other stops, too!

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  6. What a fun and interesting journey you've had. I think the the best writers are those who maybe didn't know what they wanted to be at first and who've explored life just a bit. Not to mention those who have read the entire Nancy Drew series, loved them all!

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  7. I once wanted to be a clinical psychologist. (My BA is in Psych.) Then I went to law school (it was nothing like I expected so I quit.) Then I was a travel agent and a teacher. Finally in my forties, a writer. It's interesting the twisting path life takes us on.

    Thanks for this post.

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  8. Loved this, Roberta. My dad was a championship level golfer and I grew up following him around at tournaments. And my best friend is a psychologist and an excellent writer. So yes, our life experiences are so important to our writing. Your post reminds me of Sonny Brewer's new book (he's the editor) "Don't Quit Your Day Job." Each chapter is contributed by a different author, each writing about what they did before (and often during) their writing careers. I'm getting a "late start" with my own writing (8 essays published and now writing a novel) and sometimes I regret not having devoted myself to this from the beginning. But then I realize that the things that life has thrown at me (and some of my own choices along the way) are the fodder for my writing now. Thanks for helping me let go of regrets about those choices.

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  9. Great post, Roberta. I, too, was a Psych major - funny the twists and turns life takes!

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  10. Thank you for the opportunity to read about your journey. Mystery books are tops on my list of books to enjoy. I enjoy finding a new author and reading everything that they write. Character development within a series grabs me and keeps me interested. Thanks, Karen J

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  11. I was a Music major, a Psych major, Geology major, and ended up with degrees in English and Communications. I'm still not sure what I want to do, I just keep doing what I'm doing and hoping things will eventually fall into place.

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  12. I wasn't a Psych major but my grandmother was, and we spent my childhood summers sitting at her back porch table, long after meals had ended, analysing family and friends. I'm sure that's where I was imprinted with the writer's curiosity into character motivation. The rest of the summers, I spent reading Nancy Drew.

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  13. I also came to writing after a career in another profession. I'm glad I did. It gives me much more to write about.

    Thanks for the tip on Mary-Ann Tirone Smith's Red Sox mystery. You sold a book!

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  14. Misa--so sorry about your kids' illnesses! sounds like you've weathered all that very well. Tell your daughter to keep reading!

    I love hearing all your stories about winding paths. I think Pattie may take the prize--hope you find your grand passion! Susan, you are absolutely on target--make your choices into fodder for your writing.

    And tee hee, Therese, remember I'm a writer so I can make it sound like it hangs together--it probably wasn't quite so neat in real life....

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  15. Oh, Roberta, my life since 40 has been one surprise after another! So I tend to expected the unexpected these days. I kind of feel like we end up where we're meant to be, even if something doesn't make sense at the time (or feels like hell to go through). BTW, love your golf photo! It is so cute. :-)

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  16. Misa and Susan Cushman--your names were randomly drawn to receive books! Please shoot me an email:

    raisleib at gmail.com and let me know your mailing addresses and I'll send them out to you! thanks!

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  17. Getting to write off golfing? My husband may just take up a second career as an author!

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