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Psychotherapy and writing…

Psychotherapist and author, Jean Davies Okimoto, shares with us the changing balance between her work as a therapist and her writing life, and how she drew on her success as a children’s writer to publish a novel for her own, older age group

After thirty-two years as a practicing psychotherapist, at age sixty-seven, at the height of the worst recession since the Great Depression, I did perhaps one of the nuttiest things I’d ever done:  I started a small publishing company.  I suppose it would have been worse if the publishing world was entirely foreign to me, but I had worn the hats of both author and therapist almost from the beginning of my dual careers.  They were arenas that worked well together for me; I would often joke that writing fiction complemented my work in the mental health field because in my novels, unlike therapy, I could always guarantee people a happy ending.

Writing has been one way I process emotion and most of what I write has some humour; I’m sure it’s how I metabolize some of the sadness I absorb from clients who are struggling and hurting, and from the world in general.  But as much as writing fiction may have abated the helplessness I sometimes have felt as a therapist, my work as a psychotherapist has contributed significantly to maintaining some emotional equilibrium in navigating the world of corporate publishing. My worries about what the marketing people might decide as they considered the sales figures from my previous books would seem pretty stupid in the face of the very real problems my clients faced.  I always felt honoured to have the trust of my clients and appreciated the opportunity to try to be useful and helpful. Going to the office everyday to see real people has grounded me, kept things in perspective, and made a potent antidote to obsessing about the fate of the imaginary people in my books at the hands of a publisher’s acquisition committee in New York.

The biggest challenge about trying to be both a writer and therapist was the same challenge that exists for all women, no matter what their dreams may be.  It was the issue of time. How to find time, make time, and carve it out in the face of responsibilities to your loved ones and the work that pays the bills.  As I tried to figure out how to find time to write, I came to realize there were three things that I had to understand:

There was no magic cabin in the woods.
I would need to learn start-and-stop writing.
Writing would be slow and be accomplished in the smallest increments.

There was no magic cabin in the woods

This meant that the vision of some secluded place, birds chirping, wind rustling through the trees, waves lapping against the shore­­ – some serene place where I would have great blocks of uninterrupted time to write – simply did not exist. Therefore, if I wanted to write, I would have to learn to weave writing into my everyday life.

I would need to learn start-and-stop writing

Accepting this involved learning to go in and out of the story, starting and stopping to write.  It would mean being deeply involved in the story for a short time, and then checking back into the real world.  I found this way of working wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.  Therapists switch their intense focus from the diverse worlds of one client to another client, from session to session, all the time.  Mothers do the same with their children; we do it with our friends.  I just had to learn to switch focus back and forth from the imaginary people in my story to the real people in my life.

Writing would be slow and be accomplished in the smallest increments

This was the critical piece involved in the start-and-stop writing I was learning to do.  I had to change my belief of what constituted progress and recognize that even a paragraph, or a sentence or two, was forward momentum; that no matter how little I seemed to be accomplishing, it was worth doing. I carried a steno pad everywhere and wrote in longhand.  I would pull it out of my purse and write for a short time at our children’s gymnastic meets, soccer games, at the junior symphony before the lights went down, or when I was stuck sitting in traffic coming home from the office.  Sometimes I would only write a few sentences, or jot down an idea or two for the next scene in the story.  At the office, because I had the flexibility of being self-employed,  I blocked out one hour in my schedule to write each day, and wrote the name of the protagonist in my story in my appointment book so I would not be tempted to fill that hour with a new client.  It was a trick, but it worked.

My first book was published in 1978 and I had seen the publishing industry go through many changes and many lean years – but the year I started my publishing company was the worst. Independent bookstores were fizzling like town blacksmiths with the invention of the automobile, library budgets were being slashed, banks were failing, and most of the big publishers were handing out buckets of pink slips hoping to keep their companies afloat. It was in this deadly business climate that Endicott & Hugh Books was born. Our mission was to publish fiction for older readers, a huge demographic with boomers hitting retirement age, and one I strongly believed had not been well served by corporate publishing.

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Endicott & Hugh Books got its name from the middle names of my mother and father, who both had great senses of humour.  Had they been alive I’m sure they would have gotten a kick out of the rather posh sound of Endicott & Hugh Books and the image it evoked of some silver-haired, tweedy, preppie guy, chewing on an unlit pipe (not a bong) running the company from Boston, in a Beacon Hill office, or better yet London, complete with its solid mahogany door and polished brass name plate: endicott & hugh books.  It is a vision quite disconnected from the actual company headquarters: my somewhat musty and very cluttered basement that also serves as a playroom when our grandchildren visit.

I didn’t come late to writing, it was a dream I’d had at a young age.  In 1953 when I was in the sixth grade, my next-door neighbour and I had a newspaper on our block and the lead story in our first issue was about a neighbour lady who had dyed her hair red.  In our Donna Reed world this dramatic change in hair colour was wonderful and exciting; we thought we were quite clever as we wrote our banner headline in big block letters:  Mrs. Greenbaum Lights Up the Neighbourhood! Mrs. G. however, didn’t think we were cute or clever; she complained to our mothers who promptly told us we couldn’t continue the paper unless they approved our stories.  This didn’t sound fun so we quit the paper.  But I didn’t quit writing; it continued to be a dream and in the late sixties when I was in my twenties, I began a novel.  It was based on a chapter of my life at the time: the Vietnam War when I was the wife of an Air Force pilot and my brother, a war protestor, resisted the draft and left the United States for Canada.

Writing was slow going with two small children and, three years later, when the Air Force pilot and I divorced, I put the unfinished novel away, wanting to put away the military and the Vietnam years as well.  By then single parenthood had taken centre stage in my life and when I looked for a book to read to my children about divorce and couldn’t find one, I decided to write one myself. My Mother Is Not Married to My Father was rejected by seventeen publishers over a five-year period, but was finally bought by G. Putnam’s Sons now part of the Penguin Group.  Getting it published was a long, bumpy road, but a great introduction to publishing, an industry not strong on instant gratification.

I kept thinking I’d eventually pick up my Vietnam novel, but discovered it was delightful to write for kids.  I loved interacting with them when I visited schools, and there was the added bonus of captive audiences free of those embarrassing bookstore moments when no-one comes to the signing and you chat away with the bookseller, each of you valiantly pretending that you haven’t noticed that you are the only two people in the store.

In 1990 when Little, Brown published what was then my eighth book for children,  Blumpoe the Grumpoe Meets Arnold the Cat, I didn’t realize it would someday lead to my becoming a publisher.  The picture book was based on the Anderson House Hotel, a country inn in Wabasha, Minnesota, which has over a dozen cats to loan guests who would like a four-legged companion for the night.  I named the cat in my story Arnold, as I liked the alliteration with Anderson House even though the hotel didn’t actually have a cat named Arnold.

When we were about a month from the publication date, it began to bother me that the Anderson House had no Arnold. The more I thought about the Anderson House with no Arnold, the more I felt I must try to remedy the situation and I approached the owner of the hotel with a proposition.  It was quite simple: I would adopt a cat from a shelter, we would name it Arnold and present it to the hotel as we launched the book.  Not only did I love the idea of rescuing a homeless cat, but my daughter was a student at Macalester College in St. Paul that year, and it would give me a wonderful excuse to visit her. I was elated when the owner of the hotel thought it was a dandy idea and I immediately contacted the Hennepin County Humane Society and explained my mission.  I described the way Arnold looked in the book, and they assured me that it would be no problem at all for them to come up with a white-nosed, somewhat skinny, black cat that would fit Arnold’s description.

We flew to Minneapolis a few days before the book launch and I was eager to go to the shelter to rescue the cat who would be Arnold. But when I arrived at the Hennepin County Humane Society, I was confronted with a difficult situation – a dilemma I had never anticipated.  The staff had set aside not one, but four black cats with white noses and wanted me to choose my Arnold.  It was awful, like Sophie’s Choice.  I felt terrible about the three cats that would remain at the shelter and I tried not to think about their fate. Then I imagined adopting them all and writing a sequel to the book to accommodate four Arnolds, but when I pictured arriving at the hotel with four cats and the promise of a sequel, I suspected it might not go over so well.  There was no avoiding it.  I had to face the four homeless cats and make the choice.  It turned out that the cat that best fit the description of Arnold was a girl, but that didn’t seem too important and my husband and I, our daughter, and her college roommate left for Wabasha and the Anderson House with one female, white-nosed, skinny, rather shy black cat: Arnold.

The launch at the hotel was a great success and the book and Arnold’s photo appeared in many major newspapers in Minnesota.  We also got a lucky break when the late Peter Jennings did a piece on the ABC news about the hotel, showing all the cats and mentioned Arnold’s popularity with the guests. And then…Hollywood called!  Shelley Duvall bought the rights for a television series called Bedtime Stories and Arnold once again found herself on television.  John Candy, who made a perfect Mr. Blumpoe, narrated the story but sadly, it turned out to be one of John Candy’s last roles, as he died soon after finishing the project.

With the good publicity, the sales did well and the first printing sold out.  I was absolutely certain that with the television series on the horizon there would be a second printing.  But alas, that was not the case.  The powers that be at Little, Brown, then part of Time Warner, needed every inch of space in the pipeline for the arrival of their next big blockbuster.  The title of the book was Sex.  (I’m not making this up, that was the real title.) And the author of Sex was Madonna.  And it was a coffee table book with a bunch of pictures of her in her underwear.  The material girl reigned supreme over Arnold and Mr. Blumpoe, who were destined for the out-of-print graveyard and in the big library in the sky.

Madonna was rich and famous, and I knew millions of people would want her book and the tantalizing photos of her barely clothed body, but with all my heart I believed that there were also people who would like to read about a white-nosed, skinny, rather shy black cat, a grumpy man and a country inn in Wabasha, Minnesota.  With this leap of faith, I decided to become a publisher.  I brought the book out under the imprint of a small school and library distributor and when that company went out of business, I signed with Partners West, a book distributor which covers thirteen states west of the Mississippi.  Every year the Anderson House Hotel buys some books and a few other orders even dribble in.  Arnold the Cat lives.

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When I semi-retired from my work as a  psychotherapist and my husband and I moved to Vashon Island near Seattle, I decided it was time to go back to the beginning and write for adults, specifically older readers. When I wrote my first book for children, I’d been motivated because I couldn’t find any books about a family where the parents had divorced.  In much the same way, I was inspired for write for my own age group because I found so few contemporary novels with older characters that spoke to me and my experience in this chapter of my life. The decades after fifty make for challenging and complex times.  Perhaps one of the major questions concerns our values: what’s important to us and how do we spend the time we have left?  There are themes of loss, facing mortality, accepting one’s identity as an elder, and issues around parenting adult children, relating to grandchildren, caring for elderly parents, their health and our own, and coping with the death of our parents, friends and spouses.  Another theme that had always interested me was women and creativity: the pull between self-expression and the needs of family experienced by so many women; this interest, together with themes of aging resulted in The Love Ceiling.

The novel tells the story of 64-year-old, Anne Kuroda Duppstaad, who has dreamed of being an artist her whole life.  After the death of her Japanese-American mother, Annie finally finds the courage to confront the toxic legacy of her father, a famous artist and cruel narcissist.   With the encouragement of a former art professor, she begins pursuing her life-long dream, but the needs of her family tug at her heart.  Her thirty-two-year-old daughter’s love-life is falling apart and Annie’s husband, facing retirement, struggles with depression, leading her to conclude: “There is a glass ceiling for women. . .and it’s made out of the people we love.”

After many drafts and false starts I finally finished The Love Ceiling and my agent began shopping it, and shopping it––and we got rejection, after rejection.  Several editors did want to buy it, but weren’t able to get it through their companies’ acquisition committees.  There was no getting around it: the fiction market was terrible, there was no telling when things might pick up, and I wasn’t getting any younger (although the editors seemed to be) so I began to think about putting on my publisher hat again. The more I imagined sharing the book with readers of my vintage whom I thought might enjoy it, the more excited I became.  It was exhilarating to think that a book by Madonna would have no influence at my publishing company.  I also liked the idea that no one could fire me.  I gave The Love Ceiling to our local bookseller who read the novel and urged me to get it into print.  Bolstered by her reaction and by my husband’s encouragement, I took the plunge and within six months Endicott & Hugh Books published our first title.

Juli Morser, a friend and the event coordinator at Books by the Way, one of our local bookstores, planned the bookstore launch of The Love Ceiling.  We billed it as “a coming of age novel for women over 50…60…70…80…90!”  The night of the launch women literally flocked to the bookstore.  The majority who came were over sixty, we had several in their eighties, and the oldest fan of the novel was Margot Morgan, 95. Margot lives on the property of her daughter and son-in-law in a yurt, a setting that had found its way into the novel.  But the biggest surprise was the positive reaction from a handful of men who had read it, and from quite a few younger women who found the themes around creativity resonating for them as well.

Although I still work as a therapist and see several clients, the balance I used to have between my work as a therapist and my writing life is now weighted toward writing and being a publisher; however I feel blessed to be able to wear two hats, continuing to do both things I love.  The jury is still out on how dumb this publishing venture may be in financial terms but, when you measure the receipts in fun, it has been an overwhelming success. On the back cover of the book, it says “The Love Ceiling is the story of a daughter, a wife, a mother and grandmother, and a journey into creativity.”  For me starting Endicott & Hugh Books has been journey back to where I started, returning from a delightful thirty-year detour in children’s books to publish my debut novel for my own age group.

Jean Davies Okimoto is a psychotherapist, author and publisher; she lives and works in Washington State USA.

Image: Hasselblad by sjtaylorphoto