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A Lifelong Dream Comes True

Local author Jonell Kirby Cash opens up about her life and career.

A lot has been written lately about Watkinsville author Jonell Kirby Cash.  She has been breaking down barriers her entire life, and has never let anything stand in her way of achieving her goals.  

As most of her peers were choosing the role of housewife and mother, she blended those choices with higher education and career success.  

And now as her peers relax into retirement and grandparenting, she has blended those roles with published author.

Lately, Kirby has been busy promoting her novel A Ring, A Dance, A Second Chance.

 

Patch:  When did you start thinking that you'd like to write a novel?   Were there occurrences, as you progressed in your profession that nudged you to write a novel? 

Jonell: I remember in the third grade I wrote a “story” about my first pet (a captured rabbit) and what happened to it that made me sad.  My teacher said she really liked my story, and I learned a story didn’t have to be “made up” –because my story was all-true.  

That could have been the beginning of my odyssey as a novelist; nevertheless, around the tenth grade I definitely remember wishing I could be a playwright.  But I thought I would need to be a student of the liberal arts because I didn’t have the economic luxury to give serious thought to writing as a career. I made a practical choice to major in Home Economics because that would come in handy as a homemaker, wife and mother.

The first money I ever earned was a writing competition award of  $100 offered to the student body at Reinhardt Jr. College for the best essay on “The Story of Insurance.”   I enjoyed writing the essay but was totally surprised to be the winner because I was competing with several recognized writers attending college at that time.

In my early thirties I wrote an Easter Play (the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ) that was staged in one of the churches in the small town where I worked. For several years this drama played to a full house for several consecutive nights preceding Easter Sunday.  Writing the play brought me considerable local attention and applause.

I worked for a number of years as a classroom teacher (various subjects; several different schools) The first year I taught school I did something that was so meaningful to me in so many ways, that writing became a habit.  When I observed a child’s behavior that concerned me, at the end of the day I’d type up a description of the child and disclose any bits of information that I had about his/her home life, etc.  I tossed my note pages into a box thinking that I’d likely find help understanding the child’s behavior when I took advanced courses in education or psychology or sociology. I enjoyed writing my thumbnail sketches and learned that I clarified my thoughts when I wrote; also, I think the exercise alone helped me become a more effective teacher.

Later when I was a full-time student on campus for a year as a graduate fellow, I had the luxury of taking electives.  My teacher certification test scores qualified me for free tuition …so the world of drama and writing opened up again when I was invited to take a class in drama—as an elective!  What fun.  And I think it was the drama professor who latter suggested I might want to participate in a “writer’s workshop” being held at UGA. I was told that I should bring something I’d written to the workshop; something that agents and publishers and writers would read to evaluate our writing potential.  I could feel my panic, but then I thought about my box of questions, the thumbnail sketches; I bundled up a few and submitted them.

During the writer’s workshop a publisher for a major publishing told me that I had a “knack” at expressing my thoughts and offered me a position with his publishing house. The following week I went to Atlanta for an interview with an agent with his firm. While we were discussing the position with the publishing house I realized I was not ready to be a full-time writer; however, that offer and that experience gave me confidence to believe that sharing my thoughts in my way had value and I could continue writing and experience life and any time I wanted to examine what I didn’t know, I’d keep writing! 

That was a good choice at that time.  And I kept writing about what I needed to know or clarify. My first book, written with my major professor, looks like what it was--a first effort, but I learned about preparing a manuscript for publication. MUST (Manual for Use of Standardized Tests) was my next book. After teaching the graduate level course in tests and measurements a few times, I, with the invited assistance of my teaching assistant and my husband, compiled the class presentations to submit to Scholastic Testing Services, Inc. After the publication of MUST, STS appointed my husband and me to their Board of Directors.

Marriage and Family issues became my top priority early in my academic career, and an area of specialization. Later, I was certified as a Marriage and Family Therapist. When I married Joe Kirby we were both parents—so we created a merged family. At that time in our culture no one dared talk about stepfamilies or second marriages. I noticed that parents who were in merged families felt sure they would get only criticism if they dared to admit that their marriages were troubled or that they were having difficulties with their “step” children.  Before long, a variety of helpers, including ministers, asked for courses they could use to help those who were ignored or pushed aside as “wrong” or “damaged” because theirs was not a traditional marriage or family unit. A family is made up of a group of individuals whose repetitive interactions influence all of its members and create the “rules” that are then observed by the members.  I think it would be helpful to everyone if we would accept a family as the individuals who identify themselves as a family.”   In order to capture my philosophy and offer a few techniques that could be used to break the taboo about recognizing and working with remarried couples and merged families, I wrote Second Marriage.

My last book, Consultation, grew out of my awareness of the need to help psychological service providers differentiate between their work roles such as guidance, advising, education, counseling, consultation.  I began developing teaching modules to help students understand the consultant’s role and strategies to work with individuals and groups while focused on the work role of the individual and/or group they were helping.  When I had the materials compiled for my book, the college granted me a six-month sabbatical to edit my materials and work with a publisher.  I believe Consultation is still being listed.

I suspect the above description will lead one to believe that I enjoy writing; I think more clearly when I write and I’ve been successful writing.  I find few things more enjoyable than writing.

Patch: When you decided that you wanted to write fiction, what were some of the other subjects you considered before settling on the "second chance at love" theme?  Just curious!

Jonell: You will note that my professional books might be labeled developmental…they evolved from my searching for ways to explain/teach a subject.  Looking back, I remember over time—based on my age and experiences—I had all sorts of what I thought were important subjects that would make a great novel…but as I moved through a transitional phase I would forget what I had thought was so important because those subjects were replaced by other subjects that were pressing because of age and/or experiences.  Frankly, when I began writing my novel I tried to remember some of those earlier subjects—but they just were not there anymore.  But I found it easy to come up with a topic that was still present in my awareness—I guess I’d call that a slice of life…and with fiction I could make the story go into any number of directions.

As I look back at the earlier question, I realize that once I wrote a book I moved on to something else…I guess that’s true with this book…It’s here and now and I had a broad scope to pick and choose from to make a story.

Patch: Do you remember the earliest days of writing your novel? Expound on that a bit if you don't mind!  It's so exciting to think of your planning "the day" you would start, how you began, your very first page...  I'm sure many would like to hear how it progressed, especially those who entertain the idea of novel writing them.

Jonell: Obviously, I quit teaching (retired) but I didn’t quit being interested in writing nor lose my interest in families.  Actually I worked with CASA, as a volunteer, and that meant writing numerous reports and making recommendations to the courts. Later, as a consultant to FCS, I worked with troubled families and again I wrote comprehensive reports for the agency.  This reasoning isn’t very sexy but it’s true: I found myself debating the pros and cons of continuing my volunteer work and consultation or thinking that if I was going to write a novel, I probably should decide to do that now.  “Write the novel now” was the decision. I actually “retired” from the volunteer/consultant work, telling the agencies that I would be leaving to take a fifteen-day cruise-vacation to China and I had other projects I wanted to pursue when I returned.  (Tom and I, and my brother and sister-in-law, took the Viking Cruise to China (a bit of this is in my novel).  I came home with the resolve to write—or try to write a novel. 

What was the first page like?  Really there were many first pages (cluttering the floor) and what turned out to be the opening of the story was pulled from another part of the novel and adapted as an opening shortly before I completed the manuscript--about five years later! 

Patch: Your background is in the incredibly interesting and complex field of psychology and counseling.  Tell us how that background helped you through the trials of blending two families together and accepting unexpected changes that came your way later in life.

Jonell: I grew up in a time when women didn’t have or couldn’t see their choices very easily. I suspect the greatest belief I had as a child was that I was responsible for my choices.  As a child I felt I was loved unconditionally, so I didn’t have to compete for love, and I didn’t have to pretend or worry about being/doing any one thing…so that left me with a great latitude to do or not do, I guess.  I seemed to see or find the next step even when I didn’t know what the ultimate goal would be…but I always thought that the path would lead somewhere.  I did believe that I had to be prepared (education, skills, interests/ professional attitudes, etc.) to step into roles and perform to the best of my ability, learn what I could where I happened to be and be ready to take another step if an opportunity presented itself.  I enjoyed both my family (families) and my career—and I did have considerable energy and curiosity.  We never do more than we can do but the fact that I’m a planner from day one was a plus…when I worked I planned in family time…I planned family time with the family, also ..I planned short moments and long projects for myself, etc.  My use of planning allowed me to focus on what I was doing at the moment...that included other things seldom slipped into my mind when I was talking with a child, or whatever.  Once, my daughter, Sylvia, who was attending classes at the college (and in my field also) where I worked, came into my office building in a rush--I was in a rush to go somewhere already planned.  Sylvia said, "Mom, I need to talk with you."  Without even reconsidering my commitment, I quickly said, "Syl, go in and ask Ina Ruth (my secretary) to make an appointment ASAP."  That didn't please my daughter at the moment but later she said, "Mom, I was angry when you didn't stop and see me, but I have never stopped to talk with you when you appeared to have your mind on something else."  I felt validated! 

Patch:  You have been breaking down barriers since early on, obtaining an advanced education during an era when most women chose to be housewives and mothers only.  Where did you get the stamina and fortitude to move forward with that path while also being a wife and mother, and did you encounter a lot of ostracism during that time in your life, or were you surprised by the support you received instead?

Jonell: Like all women, I was aware of role expectations, but I also found I could modify expectations (for me anyway) and still achieve my goals—goals that were always evolving because I really couldn’t see very far into the future.  I had a father who was non-critical and proud of his children and a mother who knew how to guide behavior without punishment or criticism.  I think I picked up some points from my parents and found ways to accept cultural expectations for what they were; to be a mindful of what I wanted but recognize that I wasn’t special—that other’s had their wants also…I learned to fit in and eventually to recognize my strengths and focus on education and sharing through writing and teaching.  I think I succeeded partly because I avoided accepting administrative positions except where expertise was the major component of the job. I guess getting ahead in what was a man’s world when I was growing up was challenging but not a dream killer.

Patch: Tell us a bit about the whirlwind of activity that came after your novel was completed and submitted.  It's just thrilling that your first submission was accepted!   Were you able to just mail it off and sit back and relax?  Or were you, as Mama would say, "nervous as a cat"?

Jonell:  Actually Tate was my first submission after my last rewrite…and for some reason everything just came together and I felt the book was finished—and I’d done my homework via computer, etc., and picked Tate out as probably a publisher who would most likely be interested in my story—and might even consider a first novelist—and given the economic situation I decided it was probably best to go directly to a publisher.  My academic books were done without agents so I was comfortable with that.

Note: At some point I’d tested my writing by sending to a few agents—and was encouraged that I received notes from almost all of them—only one form letter—which encouraged me.  Also I sent to one other publisher when it was written first person present tense…this publisher liked the novel but said readers wanted third person past tense.  That was a pretty convincing “hint” that I needed to rewrite in third person before submitting again.

Patch: Are you enjoying promoting your novel?  I see you have several other area book signings scheduled.  I think all that interaction would wear me out...but I suppose as a college professor you are used to dealing with large crowds.

Jonell: It’s exciting and I meet new people (all walks of life) and have found new friends/supporters and have had the opportunity to add occasionally to someone’s life who is needing whatever I’m offering.  I’ve enjoyed the involvement with those people who have been with me all the way, the writing community, finding the generosity of people as they applaud my accomplishment.  I’ve been blessed to have Andrea involved in PR (she’s made that easy for me) and Bob Gaubert (a retired businessman) who has really helped me with the nitty-gritty of the business.  All the people who have enjoyed the various occasions and benefited also have delighted me.  And it’s always fun to have people open up about themselves because they read something that touched them.

Patch:  I'm sure you have been asked this question frequently:  What advice would you give to someone, in particular someone past retirement age, who wants to embark on such an arduous task of a lifelong dream?

Jonell: When we start on a task we don’t know how long it will take to complete it or if we will continue to feel up to the task or if some more important demand will confront us.  In other words, I really don’t see embarking on a dream having an age appropriate limitation. If the dream is completed, it was the “getting there” that was important…If it is not completed, I don’t see what’s lost.

 

Thanks, Jonell, for being so open!

You can find out more about Jonell Kirby Cash at her website.

Andrea Williams January 11, 2012 at 08:33 PM
I am honored to work with Jonell and to have her consider me one of her kudzu kids!
Jonell Cash January 11, 2012 at 11:42 PM
During the months I worked on my first novel, published authors and novice writers, teachers of writing, my family and friends helped with their suggestions and encouragements, and after publication Andrea Williams and Bob Gaubert became my conduits to marketing as they created interest in my writing and my story. Writing this novel has been a dream fulfilled and the wonderful part has been the people, in all walks of life, who share their own exciting stories and appreciate those who live life fully.

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