Celebrating women: Author Sheila Grinell on starting life’s second act

Celebrating Women is all about women breaking the mould in their midlife. Sheila Grinell has been doing that all her life.

At a time when science was considered to be “for the men”, she was forging a career making it accessible for all. Over a 40-year career, she led interactive science museums such as including the New York Hall of Science in Queens in New York City and the Exploratorium in San Francisco before builidng and becoming the chief executive of the Arizona Science Center in Pheonix.

But, of course, even the most glittering-looking lives have their shadows. Towards the end of her working life, Sheila’s mother had a stroke and then declined over the next 11 months.

Seeing her beloved mum decline – forgetting words, memories and then a sense of who she was – inspired Sheila to start writing, to put down her mother’s story.

And so, at the age of 63, Sheila began her “second act”, starting a new career as a writer.

While the two parts of her working life may seem unconnected, Sheila sees one feeding into the other.

 “I use skills and work habits learned in my first act to express thoughts and feelings – the fruit of decades – that I hadn’t articulated before,” she says. “I’m still engaged with the world, but I’m exploring in a different dimension.”

(This is why I love Sheila’s story. Too often, as we get older, we see our world becoming smaller. For a long while I thought I was “just” a journalist and I’d dismiss applying for positions or taking up opportunities because “I have no other skills”.  She shows that you can adapt and build on your past experiences to shape your future.)

Fast-forward 11 years and Sheila is looking forward to the launch of her second book, The Contract. Based around the creation of a children’s museum, it’s about the contracts of our life: work, relationships, friends… Very interesting.

Now aged 74 – yoga means her body is really 54, she says – Sheila is juggling her writing with looking after her husband Tom Johnson, who has Parkinson’s disease, and their dog.

She took time out to tell me more about her second act, being a woman in a man’s world and why her birth made a taxi driver very happy…

Your life sounds stressful. How do you cope?

Like everyone else, I experience good stress and bad stress. The bad stress comes from dealing with my husband’s Parkinson’s disease as he continues to decline. Two things help me summon the patience required: a support group of other Parkinson’s spouses – a dozen women and men who “get it” – and my writing.

In the mornings when I write, I enter a separate world populated by whole people. I love that world, even though it’s a source of stress – good, stimulating stress. I feel challenged to write better and to share my writing more broadly every day.

Tell us about your at the Arizona Science Center. Was it difficult being a woman in a man’s world?

One of the men on the search committee that hired me used to call me “that New York broad” as a sign of his affection. I got along with him, as well as the other 45 trustees, because, it being Arizona and still the Wild West in some respects, the board was more interested in getting a new museum started than in questioning my credentials. I doubt I would have been able to lead as effectively in parts of the country where the old guard rules.

My staff respected me because I appeared to know what I was doing (and I did know!) Of course, there were donors who doubted my ability to handle technical content. I’d smile at them and proceed with the business at hand and eventually they’d come around.

What brought you to writing fiction?

After 40 years in the museum field, I felt I’d done all I could. It was time for a change. Just as I began contemplating my options, my mother had a stroke.  She declined over a period of 11 months, losing memories, then words and then sense of herself. I felt compelled to write her story down – in an act of mourning that I didn’t recognize as such at the time – and I condensed her life into 20 pages.

Then I realised I wanted to write more. Not analytic stuff about museums, but something looser and evocative. So I turned to fiction at the age of 63.

How much of The Contract is is drawn from your own life?

The Contract is fiction, but it’s set in the real world of science museums. It’s also set in Saudi Arabia, where I worked as a consultant on a complicated science museum project for several years. My former colleagues may recognize exhibits, work situations and locations in various scenes, but the novel’s characters and their circumstances are all products of my imagination.

The protagonist runs a small business and is seeking fame and fortune. I think working women, especially freelancers and entrepreneurs, will relate to her struggles.

Do you think your age has helped your writing?

When I was young, I couldn’t sit quietly at a desk. I wanted to get out there and explore. My decades of exploration taught me lessons that turned out to be useful in my writing life.

First of all, I didn’t worry about appearing foolish because I’d already had success. I wasn’t afraid to undertake a five-year project with uncertain outcome, like a novel, because I’d done so before.

I’d also learnt not to second-guess myself and to seek expert advice when out of my element and I knew how to stick to a schedule and budget.

And I had tons of material. I felt like a champagne bottle and writing fiction popped the cork.

What advice would you give other women wanting a “second act”?

I like to tell experienced women contemplating something completely new that although they think about all the reasons not to proceed, there may be benefit in forging straight ahead. They won’t feel like freshmen all over again when they move in a new direction. They’ll use their hard-won skills and wisdom in a different context and the results will be invigorating.

When women ask me specifically about writing, I recommend picking just one idea and writing about it every day for 21 days, even if only for an hour. Research shows it takes 21 days to form a habit and you need to make writing a habit if you are going to learn your craft.

Is it true you were born in a taxi in Manhattan?

My mother was pregnant for the first time and when she said the baby was coming, my grandfather got into a taxi with her. They were expecting to wait out the birth. By the time they reached the hospital yard, though, my head had emerged and my mother pinched my nose closed to prevent me from breathing too soon.

Grandpa ran into the hospital. A nurse ran out with him and delivered me in the back seat. When I asked my grandpa what he’d done to get me born, he said: “I gave the driver a big tip.”

 My poor mother wasn’t allowed near me for days in case I’d been “contaminated.”  But we were both fine and got discharged at week’s end.

Finally, what made you smile today?

My dog, Sally, is a 30lb rescue with an attitude. She doesn’t like strange dogs or strange people and she lets them know it. Five years ago, I took up agility training (a dog sport where they run courses of hurdles and tunnels, etc., as fast as possible without error) to help civilise her. Last night, we ran a course perfectly, which is rare. I’ve been visualizing the run and smiling to myself about it all day. Sally’s attitude doesn’t get in the way on the field.


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