Let's face it, a change in career mid-life can be challenging, and when such change is not motivated by an external circumstance but purely out of an emotional need to express oneself in a different way, it borders on lunacy. Yet this is exactly what I did when I put the brakes on my career as an attorney some 13 years ago and set out to write what I hoped would be an entertaining and informative historical novel that would be a catharsis for me as well.
Choosing a career in law in the 70s seemed the optimal choice for me when I graduated from UC Berkeley. It would give me the stability that I longed for after a chaotic childhood in France as a refugee from Egypt, and then as an immigrant to the United States when I turned 18. But most importantly, as the product of the feminist movement I believed it would provide me with the financial independence I aspired to as a woman and a place in a man's world. I worked hard at it, and yes I worked harder at it because I was a woman. But after a few years I could boast some of the most desirable clients in the entertainment industry and I took my place at the table. Sheryl Sandberg would have been proud of me.
But a funny thing happened when I expected it the least-another voice deep inside of me started to cry out, "What about me!" A voice from the past, the one who loved storytelling and contemplating the universe. The one that made me keep a diary since I was 13 and led me to write plays in college. It cried out until I could no longer ignore it. I gave in. I knew I had a book in me. One of the partners in the law firm I had first practiced with wrote detective novels in the wee hours of the morning before coming to the office. I would follow his path and divide my days as he did.
Little did I know how difficult it would be to switch from the right to the left brain hemisphere, from intuitive and contemplative to matter of fact and tough. People expect their lawyers to be bulldogs, not deep thinkers.
The novel proved to be huge in scope and the research endless-Egypt 1941. Think of the movie Casablanca but layered with real historical characters and events. An epic to wrestle with and I had to learn to give up words like "therefore" and "herewith" in favor of a more fluid prose. Next to my computer was a note: "Where there is a will, there is a way."
Between the book, work and life, my plate became impossibly full. Juggling it all was exhausting. I had to give up all things that were not an absolute must. The only must was my family. What about the cavity in one of my teeth that I had no time to deal with until I could no longer ignore it? By then I had to have a root canal!
The novel increasingly demanded my time and soon I found myself practicing law less and replacing my suits with sweats. I loved writing and losing myself in this incredibly exotic world I'd discovered, but I became increasingly anxious. What was I doing? I had no publishing deal in an industry that was collapsing. All I had was a book agent who had pronounced my first few chapters "promising."
Most troubling of all was the shift of identity that was taking place inside of me. Law had been so good to me, I couldn't think of shedding that identity. And why should I? I was still a lawyer; just not as active as I used to be. But in the eyes of the world, the metamorphosis from lawyer to author was at the very least confusing. People could not pigeonhole me anymore, and did not know how to relate to me. Some people could not reconcile the fact that a lawyer could be creative. Others thought me arrogant: who does she think she is? The arrogance to think she can be both creative and sharp in business. Some others pitied me: look what she gave up, a brilliant career for what? Others thought I was plain nuts: how can you give up the practice of law when you had to work so hard and for so long to get there?
But the most devastating comment was: "Juliana, you command so much respect now as a lawyer!" They did not need to finish their sentence. I knew the end of it: "You are going to be nothing now." I was losing my place at the table and knew how hard it would be to get there again.
I was in agony, questioning myself every day. Was I making a mistake? I was well into the book and felt like I was halfway across a river- there was no turning back. So I finished it. I can't describe the immense satisfaction I felt when it was all done. And then one day I got a letter from a reader: "I just finished your amazing book and wish it could go on and on...Please write more books." Suddenly, all the hard work, sacrifice and self-doubt had been worth it. I had touched another human being. I am so very glad that I found the courage to hear my inner voice amid the din and act on it.