Broadway Books

Author Essay

The Accidental Author

Never did I think, when I ran away from home, that a memoir would come from my experience. After all, I was only taking a "vacation from marriage," a sabbatical of sorts, during which I hoped to reclaim that raw material adolescent I had left behind when I started playing all the roles our culture seems to foist upon women.

It was a bold gesture, to be sure, not to follow my husband to a new job. Instead, I decided to spend some time at our un-winterized Cape Cod cottage. Some friends called me brave, others thought I was crazy, and the husbands of most disapproved unanimously.

But for once I didn't care what anyone thought. I was working on pure gut reaction, hell bent on shaking up my dull life. Words have a peculiar way of slipping out of my mouth before they are formed, and so, when I announced my intention to my husband, I shocked us both. It wasn't until I was standing on the shoreline of my favorite beach that I began to realize the ramifications of my impulsive decision. I had altered my life and was left holding freedom in one hand and guilt in the other.

As resident nurturer of a family of four, I had spent the past thirty years sustaining others while neglecting myself in the process. Now, it was my turn to retreat, repair, and, I hoped, regenerate myself. Was I being selfish or smart? Fortunately, the feminist writer Adrienne Rich answered my question in her book Of Woman Born, where she points out that primitive tribes send their women away "to go down into herself, to introvert, in order to evoke her instincts and intuitions," strengths that these cultures value in women.

Perhaps an inner voice was leading me, I thought. Perhaps living apart from people and daily agendas would allow me to reconnect to the internal strengths that once were mine. In any case, alone and temporarily independent, I would have no choice but to be both conscious and aware of what my new world would present. I was ebbing like the tide as it turns itself around—not coming in or going out—and, as such, I was being made to follow the rules of the universe rather than those of society.

A chance meeting with a colony of seals told me what was missing in my life. Things like playfulness, vulnerability, mystery, adventure, being at home with my body, being undomesticated.

Working at a job in a fish market taught me about using my body instead of my mind to make a living, and the satisfaction that comes from a day of hard work.

Befriending ninety-two-year-old Joan Erikson, wife of the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, offered me untold wisdom about the meaning of identity and life's stages.

And then there were the long walks into the elements, where the seasons and the shore offered metaphors that helped me understand that all would be mine in its time and season, and that relationships and experiences would become fluid only if I were patient enough to wait for the thaw.

What developed over time was a kind of knowing that doesn't involve my head, but rather my senses. I've come to understand that I am as unfinished as the shoreline along the beach. If you stand on the sand and watch wave after wave, each leaves the beach looking just a little bit different. So it is with people—we are all unfinished and meant to transcend ourselves again and again throughout a lifetime.

My readers are getting this message. A Year by the Sea tempts them into having an adventure, asks some hard questions, encourages them to make a change—big or small—and reach out to embrace all that is unlived about their lives. Just as I never intended to write a book (until some friends came to visit and told me how different and delightful I had become), so I never thought I would be a motivational speaker or "people changer," as Joan Erikson labeled me. But we are all meant to be generative—to develop a relationship to ourselves and the world around us. May you enjoy the adventure of being as unfinished as I am.

An Unfinished Marriage
Joan Anderson
March 2003