When an Economic Upheaval Forces You To Reinvent Your Career
Susan Schoenberger always knew she wanted to be a writer. After graduating from Dartmouth with a degree in English, she launched her journalism career in newspapers. But when the market crashed in 2008, the publishing industry faltered, and Schoenberger’s career of over 30 years came to a standstill. As she applied for new work (more than 50 applications over the next 2 years), Schoenberger never gave up on her writing. Listen in to her conversation with CoveyClub founder, Lesley Jane Seymour, to learn how a personal trauma informed her stunning new novel.
Trigger warning: sexual assault
Lesley Jane Seymour: So let’s talk a little bit about your history. How did you get into journalism and what did you study when you were in school and college?
Susan Schoenberger: I was an English major and I really wanted to be a writer of some kind. I think at the time I was toying with the idea of writing fiction, but I kind of felt like I needed more experience in the world. I needed to kind of learn how to write. And so many people encouraged me to go into newspapers; this was in the mid-80s, it was pretty easy to get a newspaper job. You applied, and if you were willing to sort of go where the jobs were then you were able to become a reporter and get that great experience of writing every day and having great editors work with you. And, you know, building those skills that every writer needs to have. So I worked at various jobs as a reporter. You kind of bump around early on in the business to move from one smaller newspaper to a slightly bigger newspaper to a slightly bigger one.
So I went through three or four small papers and ended up at the Baltimore Sun, which was a great experience for me. I worked there as a copy editor. Then I ended up moving to Hartford, where I am now, and where my book is actually set, and we’ve been here for 25 years almost, and I spent about half of that at the Hartford Courant. I mentioned that was in 2008, that was about when the economy imploded, but also journalism kind of fell off a cliff. Everyone who worked at the paper at that time was given an opportunity to take a buyout and I took one thinking “Oh, I’ll find another job and I’ll be able to work in journalism in some capacity.” And that turned out not to be the case.
LJS: So what did you do when you were confronted with that? Did you apply to a lot of different places?
SS: Originally, I applied – I mean, this is going to sound really sad, but don’t feel sorry for me, it worked out 0 but I applied to maybe 40 or 50 jobs over a period of two years. I did a lot of freelance work, which is not highly paid, and I kind of struggled with that because I don’t really enjoy that mode of working. I met tons of people, had informational interviews, kind of really worked to try to figure out where I could fit into the economy because it just wasn’t what I had done in the past. So eventually I took a job working for an online news organization. I didn’t love that job, but it was a job that I could do. And luckily, I developed a lot of skills in that job. That was kind of the blossoming of social media and video and all of the things that are sort need to be part of the toolbox now.
So I learned all of that at that point in my mid-forties, late-forties, and eventually got the job that I have now, which is as a director of communications at a small graduate school. And that’s a job I love, and that job wouldn’t have come to me if I hadn’t gone through that whole experience of having to spend a couple of years writing freelance, spend a couple of years doing a job I didn’t so much love, but gaining those skills that I needed to become a communications person.
LJS: And so what skills did you pick up that allowed you to shift over? I ask that because I found that I was on a track to get my degree in sustainability at Columbia because I saw that magazines were dying. I knew I couldn’t take on another magazine, it was just too depressing. And I didn’t end up doing anything in sustainability. I got my degree, but I was two-tracking because the Covey Club thing happened at the same time. And yet all the digital skills I learned were at Columbia, not in publishing. Which was shocking. I really was not digitally savvy coming out of publishing.
SS: Exactly! That’s pretty much my story, too. I was working for this online organization, which was a startup. It was almost like running a small business. We had to do our own analytics, and learn how to edit video, learn how to crank out news several stories a day, as opposed to working for a daily newspaper where that would be pretty rare, to write several stories in a day. Learning the social media piece and how to combine that with the reporting and the of the other skills that I had from working in newspapers and also just the independence of it kind of being in charge of your own. This was a particular sort of microsite that covered a town. So there was really no one looking over my shoulder. And so the quality of it was really up to me. And that’s a little scary because I’m a great believer in editing and copyediting. But I think that gave me the confidence to go into an interview with this graduate school and say, you know, I I think I can help you with getting your message out to the public because I felt like I had that that background.
LJS: And how did you get into book writing then, and talk a little bit about your previous books.
SS: Well, this was sort of a dream of mine from childhood. I loved to read as a kid. I always had my nose in a book. And to me, it just seemed like going to Mars. I just thought, “Oh, the people who write these books are geniuses and they do things that no one else can do.” And I sort of couldn’t even imagine how I would reach that point where I felt like that was something that I could tackle.
So I think for many years, I just kind of put it on the back burner, or maybe occasionally tried writing a short story. But I think in my early thirties, I’d already had one of my three kids. I was jogging one day and I came up with this idea that I thought would make a great novel. And I started that process of writing it and I realized, “I really don’t know what I’m doing.” But I sort of persevered, and I did contact agents in an attempt to get that first book out there, and I got some great feedback from people. This was kind of before agents were as overwhelmed as they are these days and people were kind enough to write to me and say, “You know, there’s really something here, but you need to work on your writing skills and you need to learn from other people and and get your craft in place.”
So I started going to some writing conferences and trying to learn. I didn’t have time at the time, I had three young kids in my 30s and I didn’t have time to go back and get an MFA, which would have been wonderful. But instead, I kind of did my own MFA. I sort of treated it like, “Okay, I’m going to read the people I really love and respect and try to dissect what they do and figure it out for myself.” So I I did that as much as possible.
I worked on this first book and that book, as any of you who are writers listening will understand, has never been published because it never got to that level of being good enough. But then I went back to writing short stories, got a couple of those published, came up with another idea for a novel and through a long process of entering some contests that kind of built up my confidence a little bit. After winning a few things I did get an agent in 2007 and I still have that agent today. That really helped me feel like, “Okay, I must be a little bit legit because otherwise this agent wouldn’t want to work with me.” And she ended up selling my first book in 2010.
LJS: That’s amazing! The big stumbling block today is very different. There are a lot of writers in CoveyClub and a lot of writers among our reinventors, but it’s so different today. You cannot even approach an agent. It’s almost impossible. You have to almost figure out ways around them and to get noticed or self publish and then find an agent afterwards. It seems like it’s just kind of crazy.
SS: It is tough, and I felt like it was tough even then. I didn’t have any connections in the business, but I will say, because I do talk to my own agent and I know from her that they really are looking for new voices. Even though they are overwhelmed with queries, they are out there – it’s exciting for them when they can discover somebody that they think they can sell. And so I do encourage people not to give up.
The problem is you just have to invest so much time and energy when you also need to be writing. So for people to be looking for agents, they can’t get discouraged by getting five rejections or 10 rejections. I had to contact 40 different agents. And now people will sometimes say it’s more like 100. So It’s super challenging. But if you believe in yourself and you believe that is the way that you want to be published, then it’s it’s worth trying.
LJS: So what was the first book about?
SS: So my first book is called A Watershed Year, and that book was based on a short story that I wrote; it was based on a young woman who was a college professor who loses her dear friend to cancer and has written emails to her. He knows he’s dying, so he’s written these emails kind of postdated so that she’ll receive them after he dies. And he kind of talks to her about things that he was never able to tell her in person, and it also becomes an adoption story. She eventually ends up adopting a child from Russia. So that’s part of the story as well. But it’s funny because it came out in the same year that the movie P.S. I Love You came out, which had sort of a similar theme of letters written by someone who had died. So it got a little bit buried in that, the hype for that, but that is also just something that happens in the business you can’t control.
LJS: You can’t control what you can’t control, we’re all learning that. Oh, my God, you just have to control your reaction to it. That’s how you handle it. So let’s talk about The Liabilities of Love. How did you get to this theme? First, talk about what the theme is. And how did you get there and why did you decide to approach this thing?
SS: So I’ll tell you, the funny thing about this book is that it started out as kind of a challenge to myself. I had some male characters in my first book. I had some male characters in my second book, The Virtues of Oxygen. And I kind of felt like they weren’t my best characters. And I thought, you know, I’m going to just challenge myself and try to write some more believable male characters. So I started out with writing from the perspective of one of the male characters who’s now in the book, and I wrote this book with a whole different idea in mind, with him as the main character. And when my agent first read it, she said, “You know, I get what you’re trying to do here, but that character just isn’t the voice that we need to hear. It’s this other character.” And she was right because she’s almost always right. So I went back and I wrote it with four different voices, two male voices and two female voices, because I still wanted to take on that challenge of writing the male perspective. And I came up with this idea of a young woman who experiences a traumatic incident, and we should probably say to your viewers as a trigger warning that my my book does get into a sexual assault, a date rape. And I decided that, you know, I wanted to kind of explore the idea of what happens if you don’t resolve one of these traumas in your life and what kind of decisions do you make as you try to go forward and try not to be thinking about something that inevitably is going to come back up for you.
LJS: Have you done a lot of therapy yourself to know this, or did you consult with psychologists? Because when I was still running More Magazine, when Me Too just erupted, the way we got into Me Too ourselves was, we talked. There were so many women in our age group, 40 plus, who had hidden sexual assault and not confronted it. And it was an amazing story, I got about eight people from around the country to talk about it for the first time. And it was things they just buried and they’d let the guy go. And then one person, it actually did kind of pop out like a year later. And all the trauma came out, and she got through it, but it doesn’t go away and it does have to be confronted at some point. How did you know that? Did you talk to psychologists or are you just intuitive?
SS: Well, I have had some therapy myself over the years. But I was thinking about this incident that happened to me that I actually wrote about for the CoveyClub website. An incident that happened when I was in my mid twenties where I was attacked in a parking lot by a stranger, which is pretty rare, but that’s what happened to me. And I wasn’t actually sexually assaulted, I was very fortunate in many ways because someone heard me yell, policemen came, but when Me Too happened and I was actually in the process of writing this book and sort of trying to figure out what it was about, it hit me in just that way that you describe. It was like, “Oh, my God, that incident from back in the 80s kind of never got resolved for me.” And there were choices that I made, most likely because of carrying around that fear. And that’s kind of what I ended up looking at in this book. I wanted to see, what do people do when they are actively trying to suppress something that’s been traumatic for them? So that’s kind of how it evolved. And my books tend to do this: I tend to start out with one idea and end up with a completely different one. And when the Me Too movement happened, it was roughly 2017, 2018, and I was deep into working on this book. So that ended up taking it, I would say, probably in kind of a different direction.
LJS: I’m fascinated that you said to me that you were not assaulted. But from reading that piece, you were – it’s just, it’s so interesting. There was a piece we read early on which was talking about levels of sexual assault, and if you are not a celebrity and it wasn’t a celebrity person and it wasn’t a full on rape of some sort, or something like that, that you felt you had no voice, that you weren’t allowed to say anything because these other people had experienced much worse. So “how dare you say ‘my uncle put his hand up my skirt’ or something like that.” And yet those things we find from history are actually equally as traumatizing, surprisingly, from a psychological point of view.
SS: Absolutely. And I I say that in the piece where my coat never came off, and many, many people told me how lucky I was not to have experienced an assault of a different kind. But you’re right, it was still an assault. I was still attacked and held down and all of those things, which are really traumatic for anybody. But, you know, it really is this idea, and I as I talk about in the piece, that we kind of way our trauma on a scale and we say, “Well, if mine isn’t as bad as that other one, then then I probably don’t need to deal with it or say or talk about it with other people.” So that’s where I think Me Too has kind of helped everybody see a little better that when we don’t tell these stories, we empower people to continue this kind of behavior and keep everybody feeling like, “Well, what happened to me couldn’t have been that bad.”
LJS: Yeah, I think it’s that bad no matter what happens to you, it’s that violation of space and violation of security. I mean, that’s half of the whole thing, “How did this happen to me?” What are you finding from women that you talk to who are older? Are you finding any divides age wise? I have a personal theory that this whole Me Too thing is going to break down among the millennials and the z’s who have been raised differently and are not going to take any of this. I saw that with the whole Andrew Cuomo thing. These younger girls are just not going to have any of it. They’re not going to shrug it off. They’re not going to – “You touch my shoulder and rub my back. It’s just not okay. You might mean it in the nicest old guy way, but I’m not taking it.” What do you think?
SS: Yeah, I think to some extent that’s true, and I know I have two daughters who are both in their 20s and for the most part I would say they’re not going to just stay quiet if somebody in the workplace, for example, says something inappropriate or whatever. They would let that person have the right to their face, no question. I also think there are still those layers of fear of upsetting people and fear of getting somebody in trouble. When you think, ‘Well, was it really that bad?” I think everybody still struggles with that. I think it’s still something we have to cope with and get better at.
LJS: So what’s your hope for women who have been through this and have to reinvent themselves or have it in their background, have not dealt with it? What is your thinking?
SS: My thinking is, it’s never too late to talk to somebody about this. It’s never too late to get professional help. I’m seeing a therapist right now and she’s helping me with lots of different things. But that’s one of the things, even though this happened such a long time ago, it’s something that, if you’re still thinking about it, it still comes up for you, then reach out. And maybe reach out to a friend if you don’t want to deal with therapy right away, but reach out or write about it. Sometimes writing it out, getting it on the page helps you sort out what your own feelings are. So that’s what I would encourage people to do.
LJS: And what if people have suppressed it so much that they don’t even realize that’s what’s bugging them?
SS: Yeah, I think if there are other things in your life that you’re struggling with, sometimes it’s good to kind of look back and say, “Where are the times that I had such a difficult time and didn’t really talk about it to anybody, kept it to myself, didn’t sort through it?” I think that’s where therapy really helps, where somebody can kind of guide you through that process and say, “Well, let’s look back and let’s try to figure out where some of these difficulties are coming from.”
LJS: Yeah, I’m a veteran of 25 years of therapy, so what I say to people is that I think the way you would identify it as something old is that you have some kind of incident that’s happening in your family or your work, and your response is not appropriate. It’s way out of line. It’s like a two or three level incident, but your response is a 10 and you’re crying or you’re angry or whatever. That’s when you got to say to yourself, now, that’s odd. Why is that happening? And usually that means something in the past. It’s digging up something in the past. It’s too familiar. Your little brain is saying, “Wait a minute, we’ve been through this before.” And really, it’s not the same thing, but it’s dragging up something old. So it’s a good sign, to look for the the unexpected response.
So let’s talk about reinvention and for women who are still a lot of CoveyClubbers come to us for reinvention. This podcast is all about reinvention. A lot of times we are forced to reinvent when we don’t want to. I was forced out of newspapers in my 20s. I loved doing newspapers and they were closing and the one I worked for closed and I couldn’t find another job. And I dragged myself into magazines just because there was no other place to go and I needed a job. So what is your thinking, especially when you may be in your 40s or 50s and your sector may be winding down. What would you suggest for them tactically to move over to something else?
SS: I’ve thought about this and I don’t know that I did this when I was trying to make a new career for myself, but when I look back, I wish that I had sat down and said, “Okay, what are my skills? What have I learned from the twenty five years in the newspaper business that could be transferable to another job? And then what skills do I need to get one of those new jobs?” And I’ll tell you that as a communications director, I’ve had to learn all kinds of new software, design software stuff so that we can create brochures and magazines and all that kind of stuff.
Your friend is Google, and there are all kinds of programs or books that would help you add those skills to your resume. So I just encourage people, you know, if I could do it in my 50s and figure out how to work Adobe InDesign, then everybody can do it. And then the other thing I would say is just to reach out to people who are doing what you might want to do, and contact them and say, “What would your advice be?”
I reached out to many authors when I was struggling to find an agent with that first book. And authors are wonderful people who in general are so willing to help. I can’t tell you how many people were just willing to let me complain about how hard it was, and maybe I just kind of needed to do that. So that’s another thing – today, in this day and age, almost everybody has a website or social media where you can directly reach out to them and say, “I’d like your help. Is there something you would recommend for me or my situation?” And you might be surprised. You could go pretty far up the ladder and people will respond to you.
LJS: Yeah, I definitely agree with that, and I think, you’ve got nothing to lose really by reaching out. Either they never see your outreach or if they’re a total jerk and they ignore it, they’ll forget anyway by the next time they see you somewhere, or your paths may never even cross. So what the heck? You’ve got to be little bit fearless in terms of and also humbled by the fact that the Internet is so gigantic. So sometimes you need to reach out in several different places and not worry about being a pain or a pest.
SS: Exactly. And I think you just never know when you will get that response that might really send you in a different direction or just encourage you to keep going.
LJS: What was the best response you got?
SS: As I was saying before, I got a letter from an agent when I was querying for my first book that never got published, and I got a two page typewritten letter from this agent who just said the most amazing things to me and gave me examples of books that I should be reading in order to bring my writing up to that level. And she was retiring, she was on her way out. I didn’t know anything about it when I queried her. But I still have that letter, and I occasionally bring it out to show people when I’m teaching a class or talking about trying to find an agent. But just that effort that she put into encouraging me to say, “I see something here that I think is valuable, but you’re not there yet, and here’s what you need to do to get there.” That was huge. I mean, that probably kept me going for a long time.
LJS: That’s amazing. Well, Susan, thank you a million times for spending the time with us. I’m hoping that everybody will go check out all your books as well as your new one.
Susan Shoenberger serves as Director of Communications for Hartford International University for Religion and Peace, a graduate school with an interfaith dialogue focus. Her first novel, A Watershed Year was published in 2011. She is also the author of The Virtues of Oxygen, published in July 2014 and The Liability of Love, published in July 2021.