Work of Her Own: A Woman’s Guide to Creating a Right Livelihood

“A fine, inspiring study of women’s work.”
—Publishers Weekly

If you feel discouraged about your creative options in the workplace, frustrated with entrenched beliefs that don’t reflect your values, and disillusioned about your career, Susan’s book will help you. It tells her own personal story—the worklife she left, the reasons why, the contentment she found in new work and a new life. It also tells the stories of over a hundred other women who left positions of leadership and authority to create work that expresses more deeply who they are as women. You will be inspired by the stories of these career-leavers and find in them the practical guidance you need to take this courageous step on your own.

Praise for Writing From Life

“A fine, inspiring study of women’s work.”
—Publishers Weekly

“If you’re rethinking your work, this is essential reading.”

“This book brings clarity and hope to the often confusing process of change.”
—Maureen Murdock, author of The Heroine’s Journey

From the Book

WORK OF MY OWN: 1992-2012

The original edition of Work of Her Own: A Woman’s Guide to Success Off the Career Track was published in 1992, at a turning point in my work and my life. Now, preparing this anniversary edition of Work of Her Own gives me an opportunity to look back over the past two decades of work I have chosen—and over the past two decades of women’s work in America. Here’s how I saw it—then.

I have a story to tell about work.

In 1982, at the age of forty-two, I became the first female vice-president of one of the fastest-growing universities in the country. I was on an escalator headed for the peak of achievement in higher education and expected to move to a presidency in another few years. I had the proper credentials: a Ph.D. from Berkeley; fifteen years of teaching, research, and administration; and extensive experience in managing organizations, including my own small business, which grossed nearly a quarter of a million dollars in the year before I sold it. As vice-president, I earned a substantial salary and a full range of benefits. I managed a forty-million-dollar annual budget and a faculty and staff of more than a thousand people. I served on numerous boards and national committees and played a leadership role in the development of state and national educational programs. Someone looking at my life from the outside would have said that I had everything a professional woman was supposed to want.

But looking at my career and my life from the inside, I had the disquieting sense that I did not have what I wanted. I had become increasingly disillusioned with the competitive politics of higher education. I had entered college teaching with the idea that the business of professors was to generate new knowledge through their research and to teach what they knew to their students; I had believed that the goals of higher education were accomplished in an environment that was relatively free of the power politics characteristic of commercial business. Neither of these perceptions, however, proved to be accurate. I began to question the ethical integrity of the industry to which I had committed my life and felt unable to make any changes other than superficial, cosmetic changes in it. Although I tried, I could no longer empathize with its purposes or its people. My professional life had become empty of real meaning, filled with nothing but the tense, frantic gestures of busyness.

There were other difficulties. At the same time that I was experiencing a sense of separation from my work, I began to realize that I had allowed that work to become the most important influence in my life. It was not hard to understand the reason for this imbalance. I was the oldest of two children in a lower-middle-class family. My father had been a blue-collar worker. My mother worked as a dime-store clerk to help support the family. Neither of my parents graduated from high school. For me, achieving in school was a way to distinguish myself and to earn my father’s approval. I had excellent grades when I graduated from high school, but few women in my rural community went to college during the fifties. I married instead of continuing my education and by the age of twenty-one had borne three children.

After five years of being a wife and mother, I felt the need to do something more with my life. Emboldened by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and assured by Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness that I owed it to myself to choose my own course, I entered the university. There, I felt I had found myself and decided to become a professor. The goal seemed impossible: I did not have a single female professor as a role model. My undergraduate grades, however, brought me a Danforth Graduate Fellowship, and I moved my family to Berkeley, California, so I could attend graduate school. I completed my doctoral program in the near-record time of four years even though my husband and I were divorced a week before my oral examinations. I began my teaching career at the University of Texas and within four years had earned tenure and promotion, started a business, and married an architect who was also heavily committed to his career. Ten years after receiving my doctorate, I accepted the vice-presidency of Texas State University.

I had climbed fast and hard and loved the feeling of being accepted, of being chosen, that marked each promotion. More and more, I felt like a member of the inner circle. But I was paying a high price for my career gains. I regularly worked sixty to seventy hours a week, and I had little energy for a personal life. The year I accepted the vice-presidency, my second husband and I divorced. My three children were in their twenties and busy with their lives. My father and I were estranged; I felt uneasy with my mother, who seemed to represent the very feminine passivity that I had rejected. I had visited them only twice in five years. I had seen my brother, who had become a vice-president of a Fortune 100 company and was as committed to his work as I, only once in the same period. Friendships with other women were measured over lunch in crowded restaurants. I had no hobbies and no time for personal reading, movies, or television. The unremitting stress at work brought backaches, headaches, chronic fatigue, and insomnia. I ate too many restaurant meals, drank too much at parties, smoked too much, and spent too much money with too little to show for it. Relationships, begun uneasily, were abruptly broken off. In rare moments of honesty with myself, I admitted that I was lonely, with a deep, disturbing loneliness that I could not bury even in work. I was empty, with no inner life, no spark of meaning to vitalize my actions. What I was suffering, I learned later, was what Jungian psychologist June Singer has called “the sadness of the successful woman.”

Finally, after a great deal of anguished debate with myself, I asked for a year’s unpaid leave of absence. I expected to finish the research for a book I had been planning to write, rest, visit my parents, reconnect with my children, and make some friends. When I returned to the job, I would be re-energized, recommitted, ready to slug it out again. Since vice-presidents rarely take leaves my request was an odd one, but it was granted.

The leave gave me time—the very first extended free time in my entire adult life—to reflect. My reflections were not comfortable ones. Instead of research on eighteenth-century novels, I found myself engaged in a study of quite a different sort: a close and searching study of my self. With the help of a therapist, I began to ask myself how—and more importantly, why—I had chosen to sacrifice so much of my personal life to my work. I began to ask if there might be a different way to work. What would it be like to work in a less cutthroat environment? To be less driven about what I did for a living? To create, rather than to replicate, administer, and maintain? Not only to think in my work, but also to feel?

But feelings hurt. They hurt, especially, because I had never before in my life allowed myself to feel so-called bad feelings for more than a moment. When I stopped intellectualizing and just let myself feel, my deepest feelings were of fear and pain. I was afraid of a formless, structureless future. I felt the pain of having no one with whom to share my fear. Most of all, I felt the fear and the pain of having failed. During the first weeks of my leave, I feared that somebody would ask why I was not at work. I suffered terrible guilt, like a little girl with all Fs on her report card, playing hooky from school. The feeling seemed justified. I had literally and figuratively stopped going to school because I had obviously failed at my school work. Other academics stood up to the unremitting pressure and stress; why had I caved in? Playing politics was part of the job; why couldn’t I simply accept that? Why couldn’t I just tough it out?

Convinced that I had failed—anguished, depressed, and ashamed—I retreated from my previous activities as thoroughly as I could. I resigned from the boards and committees to which I belonged; I looked the other way when I ran into university people in the small college town where I lived; I moved to the anonymity of a nearby city. I stopped using the academic title doctor, which meant nothing at all outside of academia.

Giving up the academic title was a symbolic gesture that made my central question more intense, more agonizing: Who was I? Without external credentials, I felt that my life had no meaning. Without the work that filled up my days, I was empty; I was not real I had no interests beyond work and had little clothing other than the dress-for-success suits I wore to work— my school clothes. I had so fully defined myself in the context of my successful career that I had no other self. How do I say in words how terrified I was, how shattered by these discoveries? How I longed for a new self, one that belonged, truly and deeply, to me—whoever I was?

How do I say how lonely I was in those months, especially for other women? Lacking role models, I had copied my professional behavior and my commitment to work from male faculty and administrators in the male-dominated university. Now I needed to hear how other women made space for personal lives in the midst of their work lives. I needed to know how they had achieved the balance I had failed to find. The women I counted as my friends at the university, however, were too busy with their work to tell me. What pained me even more was their view of me as a traitor to the feminist cause: a woman who had made it but who now wanted out.

I began to understand in a profoundly personal way the term male-identified. I noticed that my female colleagues (not all, but most) were indeed male-identified—so closely allied to the masculine viewpoint that they had abandoned their own perspective. I saw that I, too, had surrendered whatever feminine soul I might once have possessed. My achievements had conferred on me a confident self, certified through degrees, rank, and tenure, but she was the armored Athena that Jean Shinoda Bolen describes in Goddesses in Everywoman, sprung fully formed from the forehead of her godfather, Zeus. That self—that planning, managing, achieving inner Athena—had become enormously hungry for more achievements, more power. It was a hunger that literally could not be satiated, because more accomplishments only heightened the desire, only fed the compulsive need to be approved. Left to her own achievement-seeking devices, Athena had gained the upper hand. She had become the only self I was.

Understanding these things at once terrified me and brought me an odd relief. Through all the pain of giving up the person I had become, I felt I was somehow growing up, growing away from the institution that had granted me, as if handing me a degree, my self-definition, my self-worth, my power. Leaving the career, transforming my Athena self, now seemed to me a sign of my surest, most individual achievement. I felt I had graduated at last.

The self-knowledge I gained during my leave of absence made it possible to walk into the office of the president of the university and hand him my resignation letter. “I knew we were going to lose you.” he said with what seemed like genuine sadness. “But I thought it would be to a college presidency—not to . . . this.”

I knew what he meant by “this.” In his eyes, leaving a promising career because of a trivial discomfort with politics was an act of utter madness, the act of someone who had lost her mind. Yes, I had lost my mind—the old Athena mind, the mind that needed to manage and control and order my world and everyone in it. “This” was an act of glorious madness.

After I resigned my vice-presidency, I was buoyed for weeks by a new sense of being finally and irrevocably responsible only for and to myself. Still, I had to make a living. I knew that if I went back to my tenured position as a full-time faculty member, Athena would be reborn before long. Instead, I turned to freelance writing. It was creative, energizing work that I enjoyed— work I felt I had a talent for, work I hoped would support me without consuming me.

I was right. During the next year, I found enough work to support myself with a moderate effort. I was by no means making seventy thousand dollars a year, but I was able to pay my bills and had a wonderfully flexible schedule. Without a guaranteed income I had to free myself from my dependence on credit and spend my cash more carefully. Instead of looking for outside entertainment, I stayed home and discovered to my surprise that home is a warm, sustaining place to be. I changed my diet and gave up alcohol and tobacco. Free from job stress, I began to feel and look healthy. It was a health that was growing from the inside out, from transforming wholeness, from a deep healing of the rift between the male-oriented identity that I had assumed to meet the world and the feminine self that I truly was.

Indeed, the most transforming aspect of the change involved reconnecting with my feminine self. When I took off the tough, defensive mask I had worn on the job, I saw a soft and vulnerable woman, and being soft and vulnerable felt good. When I stopped being a perennial candidate for the next promotion, I discovered I could be content with who I was at the moment. When I began to honor the part of me that needed to nurture and be nurtured, I rediscovered meaningful connections to my children. My brother and I began to talk regularly on the telephone, trying to understand together the forces that had compelled each of us to give so much of our lives to our work. Most importantly, I began to feel a close connection with my mother. I saw her as a valuable source of wisdom and experience.

Opening to myself and to my family, I found it less frightening to risk opening to another person. I met a man who offered me a healing relationship, and we were married. He was willing to commit his energies to a life we could build together. He was ready to be the full partner I was ready to want.

The year following our marriage, my husband, Bill (by then also a career leaver), and I moved to the Texas Hill Country and began to collaborate as writers. Our earnings during the first year were only 20 percent of our combined former salaries. We earned enough, however, to support the lifestyle we had chosen. We worked six hours a day on our writing, not sixteen. We decided what work we would do, and we shaped our work environment to suit our needs.

We also made time for other work that we felt good about: woodworking, wreath making, gardening, tending chickens and geese, clearing the woods by the creek, volunteering in the local community, teaching adults in informal settings. Our health improved: Bill’s blood pressure dropped twenty points during the first year, and my backaches and headaches vanished. We had found our work, our place, ourselves. We are home to stay.

In the changing combination of the varied tasks I do— writing, working on the land, volunteering, teaching informally—I believe I have found what the Buddhists call right livelihood: work that is an expression of my truest, deepest self; work that not only affirms me but also confirms my care for others in the community and for the planet on which we all live; work done mindfully and joyfully as an expression of love. I have found what Virginia Woolf encouraged women to look for in A Room of One’s Own.

I have found work of my own.

That is what I wrote in 1992, for the first edition of this book. I didn’t know it then, but I was standing at another crossroads in my work and my life. By the time Work of Her Own was published, I had written (alone or with my husband Bill), sixty-some books for young readers, including books in the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series and many mass-market books in popular series.

But in 1992, I took a different path. That year not only saw the publication of Work of Her Own but also of Thyme of Death, the first book in the China Bayles mystery series and the beginning of my work as a writer of adult fiction. During the next twenty years, I have written two other mystery series of my own—eight books in The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter and five books in the still ongoing Darling Dahlias series—and a dozen books with Bill under the pseudonym of Robin Paige. I also wrote a book about writing, two memoirs, and two edited anthologies.

And now, with the advent of the Internet and its many author-publishing opportunities, I have moved out into the publishing world, establishing my own publishing house, Persevero Press. (I chose the name—Persevero, I persist—because it has been my mantra. Success, however you define it, can only come with persistence.) The first book to be published by the press was A Wilder Rose, the story of Rose Wilder Lane, a writer who also persisted in the face of enormous challenges. This book, Work of Her Own (with its new subtitle, A Woman’s Guide to Creating Right Livelihood) will be Persevero’s second book. The third book, a revised edition of Writing From Life: Telling Your Soul’s Story (first published in 1997) will soon follow.

The 1990s also saw the beginnings of the enlargement of our homestead—Meadow Knoll—from three acres to the thirty-one we have now. It’s hard to say how important this place has been in my life. I’ve told that story in Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place, and I won’t repeat it here. It is, simply, the home of my heart. Tending the animals and working in the gardens and woods and fields is—together with writing and blogging about it—another essential part of my own right livelihood.

But there is yet one more essential part: family and community. My family has grown in twenty years, with grandchildren and great-grandchildren joining the tribe. We’re still scattered—Colorado, Nevada, Alaska—but we’re in close touch. We value the precious time we can spend together.

Community. In 1997, with a dozen other women, I founded the Story Circle Network ( , an organization designed to support women who want to write about their lives. From that small seed, Story Circle has grown into an international organization, and its members are at once my community and my inspiration. With other SCN members, I participated in the creation of two books: With Courage and Common Sense (2003) and What Wildness Is This (2007, winner of a Willa Award for creative nonfiction).Via the Internet, I am in daily (often hourly!) touch with this remarkable community, and our many projects and activities keeps me connected with the larger world of women and their work. I am enduringly grateful to all of them.

Now, looking back over the two decades since Work of Her Own was originally published, I find myself deeply satisfied and more than a little astonished. Leaving my academic career and striking out as a freelance fiction writer was the very best thing I could have done, and I have never regretted it for a single moment. It’s been a long journey, and a rewarding one. Thank you—yes, you—for being a part of it, as a reader and friend.

Susan Wittig Albert
Bertram, Texas