Midlife can be a time of uncertainty – a cross-roads of life, where you wonder “what’s next?” Midlife Magic gives you the first step to embracing the adventure of midlife through a journey of self-care. Combining memoir with self-help, author Bonnie Leonard weaves her personal stories of traveling the world with a 7-day, easy to follow self-care program. We speak with Bonnie about how she wrote Midlife Magic and how her own journey to self-care can help others.
Getting Started: The Inspiration to Write a Book
Charlotte: Midlife Magic follows your journey on sabbatical travel in the early 80s. When did you know that you wanted to write this book? Did you know during your travel that you wanted to document it, or did you only recently want to write the book?
Bonnie: I only came to write this book in recent years. After working with return-to-college students as a dean at Wellesley, and then as a midlife coach for women, I gradually came to recognize the importance of self-care for any midlife woman seeking to reinvent her life. Many of the women I coached and advised were moms with jobs, taking care of kids, and even going to school. The last person they cared for was themselves, so I decided that topic would be an ideal one for a book. The inspiration for this subject didn’t come at a specific time; it was more a slow process of accumulating experiences through listening to others and observing my own life,
During my travels, I did document professional observations including the names of all the people I met, but I didn’t keep a consistent personal journal. I poured out more private reflections in letters home to my family and friends. Happily, my Dad, a lover of family history and my personal champion, saved all my letters to him and my Mom. I had those for reference plus the hundreds of photos I took with my pocket Olympus camera, along with some very vivid memories.
Self-Care Strategies for Writers
Charlotte: How do the self-care strategies in Midlife Magic support a writer, in particular? Which strategies do you think are most critical to support a woman (since the book is written for women) in her writing practice?
Bonnie: Off the top of my head, I can think of two self-care skills that would be eminently useful to a writer. The first is Self Compassion. In Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, she promotes the notion of a “shitty first draft”, and maintains, “All good writers write them.” To compose such a draft, you need to keep that critical mean girl at bay—a Self Compassion practice.
A second essential self-care skill for writers is Supportive Connections. The other classmates in Lisa Tener’s book writing course were wonderfully helpful to me with their feedback and suggestions for Midlife Magic. Taking a class, or forming a writing group, are two Supportive Connections practices for any woman writing a book. I chose to do both, and formed a writing group with some classmates from Lisa’s course, so I could continue to receive their assistance.
I suspect practices for the other five self-care skills would also aid a woman in her writing. With a Happy Body, she would be in a better mood to write; with Optimal Organization, she would be sure to schedule times for writing in her calendar, and with Nurturing Environment, she might scope out which locations are better for writing. Is writing in a local coffee shop more productive than at home, for example? With Time on Your Terms, she might determine what time of day is best for writing, or what time of day is better for editing. Finally, with Completion/Celebration, she would celebrate the small gains she makes when completing a chapter, or a long edit, or that “shitty first draft.” This pause for celebration will boost her energy and propel her writing forward.
Magic at Midlife: Finding Your Focus
Charlotte: This book is for women who are at midlife and at a crossroads in life. Do you think these practices can apply to younger women and older women and benefit them? Would they apply these practices differently for their stage of life?
Bonnie: Since Midlife Magic provides that critical first step for any women stuck at the midlife crossroads, I suspect it might be useful for any younger or older woman facing the challenges of a transition. Life passages demand both time and energy, so instituting a program of self-care that will boost your energy as you embark this voyage simply makes sense.
I don’t know if you need to apply the practices differently for another stage of life. The seven skills outlined in the book seem essential at any age and the book is designed for you to choose a practice you like to develop a particular skill, so age may not matter.
To be specific, each day you find me somewhere on my journey around the globe where I bump into my need for a specific self-care skill. Then you learn how to develop that skill with examples from other women, and finally, you take action by selecting one step (of many) to implement that day.
Charlotte: Why did you choose to write a book focusing on the mid years of life? Do you think self-care is especially pertinent or beneficial at this time? Do you feel there isn’t much literature focusing on these years of life?
Bonnie: I chose the mid years of life because that’s my area of expertise. I currently coach midlife women and those mid years were the main age of the return-to-college students I advised at Wellesley College. They were also critical years in my own life. Yes, I do believe self-care is not only pertinent, but essential, at this time of life when so much change is on the horizon.
I know of many fine books and articles that focus on these years and of other books that focus on self-care. I’m not aware of any books that focus specifically on self-care for midlife women.
The Process: Developing and Writing a Book
Charlotte: You have years of experience in academia and now as a life coach. Did you find your writing process similar to how would you write for academia? Did you use a similar style or voice as you would use at academic speaking engagements? Or did you find your writing process closer to how you would approach coaching with a similar style and voice, as you would speak with the women you coach?
Bonnie: There is definitely a difference between writing for academic publications and the way I converse, write, or give presentations as a life coach. The style and voice for Midlife Magic is much closer to the way I speak with the women I coach.
Charlotte: How did you develop the list of actions for each day? Were these practices that you already did yourself and found useful and apply them to the book? Or did you come up with them as you were writing the book?
Bonnie: A few action steps were derived from my own experience and applied to this book. But the majority of them emerged from articles and books I read, training programs I attended, and my conversations with the women I coached and the students I advised.
Know Your Audience: Engaging the Reader
Charlotte: Who did you envision as the audience when you wrote Midlife Magic? Did you envision most of your readers to be women actively seeking steps toward self-care or help in midlife? Or did you want it to be for readers who may not even realize they could benefit from more self-care?
Bonnie: I envisioned readers as women stuck at the midlife crossroads, unsure as to how to move forward, and still itching to do something. When your direction is unclear, a self-care plan is the perfect first step. In that way, whatever path you ultimately chose to follow, you will be a strong and resilient traveler. So I suppose the answer to your question is all of the above.
Charlotte: How do you envision readers using this book? Do you see it as a daily step-by-step guide? Or do you envision readers working to implement self compassion and then, once successful, moving onto a happy body?
Bonnie: That’s a great question. Thanks for asking it! You helped me realize I should include an answer to it in my book. I will plan to do that for future editions.
Which approach to use is really up to the reader. Either of the options you describe will be perfect. And if you’re a dive-right-in gal, a third option would be to start on Monday, implement one Self Compassion action step and continue with it moving forward. Then on Tuesday you would add one Happy Body step and keep moving forward with that too. The basic answer to your question is whatever approach works best for you.
Charlotte: Is there a best way for readers to work on their self-care? Do you have tips on how to most successfully gain confidence, and the other attributes you discuss in this book? Is there a way you recommend readers to engage with the book to get the most of their self-care journey?
Bonnie: Any of the three options I mentioned will be splendid, because the best way for readers to work on their self-care is to find their own path using the framework of Midlife Magic. I’m a great believer in adopting the approach that seems most natural. That is one you are likely to continue to follow until it becomes a habit. Even if you adopt only one action step to advance just one self-care skill, you will be better off than before you picked up the book.
If confidence is your objective, I would head for Day 1: Self Compassion. It’s a foundation skill for building confidence. If that judgmental mean girl voice in your head is constantly criticizing your thoughts and deeds, she will surely tear down your confidence. However, when you start consciously paying attention to your compassionate kind girl voice, she will boost your confidence.
Getting Personal: Combining Memoir and Self-Help
Charlotte: I love how the structure of the book itself follows the structure of your sabbatical trip, with each destination of your journey a step along the journey of self-care. How did you decide to structure the narrative that way? Did you know that you wanted the structure the book this way before writing? Was it developed while you were writing it?
Bonnie: I’m so glad you like this structure! It developed while I was writing the book in Lisa Tener’s “Bring Your Book to Life” program. One of the most powerful aspects of her class is the feedback on your writing you receive from other participants, as well as the informal conversations you have with them. A class member, Suzanne McDonald, actually suggested I include my midlife sabbatical trip in the book. I knew immediately it would make the book more interesting, and I always wanted to document my trip somehow.
I figured out pretty quickly it would be fun for the reader to follow me around the world. So I decided to introduce each day with an episode where I discovered a self-care skill I desperately needed.
Charlotte: While on your sabbatical, did you realize you were practicing the steps outlined in the book? For example, while you were in Maseru, did you acknowledge that you were experiencing the supportive connections you outline? Or were these practices the result of reflecting on your trip when you began writing the book?
Bonnie: That’s a good question! I did not realize whether I was practicing any self-care skill along the way. For instance, when Connie, my landlady in London gave me the compassion I needed to give myself, I deeply appreciated her kindness and company. But at the time I couldn’t tell you what Self Compassion meant, nor realize how critical a skill it is.
And despite the relaxation and relief I felt traveling with my former boss and his wife in Maseru, I did not understand Supportive Connections was a self-care skill. I doubt the concept of self-care, itself, even cracked my mental awareness. My understanding of the skills, and even the concept of self-care, itself, emerged long after my travels were complete.
The Journey of Reading and Self-Care
Charlotte: Is there a specific reason the days of self-care are ordered as they are in Midlife Magic? Are they ordered to follow your trip or do you find the journey is best achieved in this order?
Bonnie: Some days are ordered for a specific reason. I put Self Compassion first because it is the primary self-care skill. If a midlife women can develop self compassion, she’ll travel with a smile on her face in the days ahead. I spent years developing this skill, myself, and I’m still working on it. I placed Completion/Celebration last because, because that seemed a natural way to finish the book.
The order of the other self-care skills was determined by the chronology of my journey, where a specific locale revealed my need for a particular self-care skill. For example, when I had a chance to visit my old boss, Bill, and his wife, Carolyn in Lesotho after weeks of traveling on my own, my relaxation and just plain relief revealed the importance and need for Supportive Connections.
Charlotte: I like how readers are encouraged to revisit the book and choose different practices to try each time. It’s almost like a trip itself. You can return to the same place, but each time and experience will be different! How do you think this changes how readers engage with the book?
Bonnie: I really love that aspect of Midlife Magic; it’s like a reference book. After working your way though the seven days and installing a self-care plan for yourself, perhaps you want to up your game in some way—improve your organization at work, for example. If so, you can head back to Optimal Organization and add a different action step. Or if you get bored over time with one action step, you can return to that same self-care skill and substitute a different one. Flexibility and choice are hallmarks of the book.
The Postscript: After Writing a Book
Charlotte: Did writing this book give you more insight into your own self-care practices? If so, how? Did you find yourself practicing the self-care actions you outline in the book while you were writing it?
Bonnie: I think writing the book made me both more aware of and more structured in incorporating these practices into my daily life. I list some practices on my iCal, to-do list every day—doesn’t mean I always complete them! Other practices come more reasonably as part of my weekly schedule. Every Thursday I meet with my Stitch and Bitch group, and every Saturday morning I head for my local farmer’s market with a friend—both of which are Supportive Connections practices.
Charlotte: How can our readers reach you?
Bonnie: My website www.bonnieleonard.com is probably the best place. Simply tap or click on Contact Bonnie where you can shoot me an email. I love hearing from readers. It’s a special treat for an author to receive feedback, so I’m thrilled with any individual contacts or book reviews! Reading my first review for Midlife Magic on Amazon was pretty darn fabulous!
Bonnie Leonard is a midlife coach for women. She was formerly the Dean of Continuing Education at Wellesley College and an Associate Professor at Lesley University. Her midlife sabbatical travels around the globe, supported by the Stevens Traveling Fellowship from Wellesley College, are brought to life in her new book, Midlife Magic: The 7 Day Self-Care Plan to Boost Your Energy and Make You Smile. Bonnie has appeared on Good Morning America, and was recently featured in The New York Times.
Readers, do you have any questions or comments about writing? Share them here! If you enjoyed this interview, you may enjoy this author interview on medicine, art and recovery with Shawn Jones or Lisa Tener’s article on how to start writing your own book.