McMullen Circle

The Case Against Compartmentalization in Creating Your Writing Life

I’m a writer and a lawyer and a mother and wife and a person of faith. For many years, I believed that the best way to make time for all of these important aspects of my life–especially the writing--was to compartmentalize, setting up rigid mental walls to designate the time and energy I would allot to each area. Especially after I added motherhood to the mix, keeping things separate became increasingly difficult. When sick kid or client emergency or church obligation interfered with my writing time it left me stressed out and frustrated.
Then one July at a party I talked to an old friend, Jim, who had gone to seminary as a second career and been assigned to pastor a very small church. He told me that because the church had no other staff he was effectively on call all the time, to the point that his professional, private and spiritual lives were no longer distinguishable. He said he had never been happier.
Jim doesn’t remember that conversation, but it changed my life. After seeing how joyful he was, I made a decision to take down the walls I had erected and let all parts of my life bleed together.
The first step was to tell people at work and church that I was a writer. I had kept it a secret and never said “I’m a writer” out of fear of the next question: “Oh really? What have you published?” At the time I hadn’t published anything significant. But I began telling people. Putting words to the writing made it real and deserving of priority.
I let my legal work and writing merge. I expanded my law practice to include the representation of other writers, reviewing publishing contracts and handling copyright issues, something I had done for myself and my writer-mother for years but not for other clients. I offered the literary community workshops on copyright, trademark and contracts. At church, where I help teach adult Sunday School, I led the class in a creative writing exercise as part of the Bible study lesson, and read from my fiction at a service focused on the arts. When head lice visited our house (my head is itching just writing this) I took revenge by incorporating the little buggers into the novel I was writing. I learned to write with my child in the same room, even if she made noise and squirmed. As she has aged and become a fine writer herself I’ve enlisted her to help me write believable teenaged characters.
In her book Writing Changes Everything, the late and lovely Deborah Brodie quotes novelist Katherine Paterson as saying:

I was writing–learning and growing along with the children–until eventually I was writing fiction worthy of publication. It might have happened sooner had I had a room of my own and fewer children, but somehow I doubt it. For as I look back on what I have written, I can see that the very persons who have taken away my time and space are those who have given me something to say.

Life is abundant. Don’t try to divide or conserve it. Just let it be one big old beautiful mess.

Copyright 2015 by Heather Newton

Under the Mercy Trees

Praise for Under The Mercy Trees, winner of the 2011 Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award, SIBA Okra Pick, Women's National Book Association Great Group Reads Selection:

UnderMercyTrees pb c catFrom Publishers Weekly

Newton delivers a stirring debut novel told from the perspectives of four central characters embroiled in a family drama that spans generations and is riddled with defensive secrecy and emotional penury in equal measure. After the disappearance of Leon Owenby, his younger brother and central narrator, Martin, returns to the family's Willoby County, N.C., mountain town from his life as a destitute writer in New York City to aid in the search for Leon and support his other siblings. The year is 1986; Martin leaves behind his ex-lover, Dennis, and their many friends sick and dying from AIDS. Back home, he must face his painful past, his extended family to whom he is closeted, and his high school girlfriend (who still carries a torch for him). Many months of searching reveal more about the searchers than about Leon; the secrets and resentments in the Owenby family run deep and bubble to the surface unexpectedly. It's problematic that with so many family issues coming to light, Martin's sexuality is ignored and remains a secret, but Newton's use of multiple viewpoints and distinct voices is adept and lively, and helps to fill in the thin premise of Leon's disappearance. With many novels of this construction, a reader tends to favor one voice over the rest. Not so here; Newton delivers across the board with these characters, who run the gamut from perky to depressive, desperate to schizophrenic. (Jan.) (c) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* A melancholy mood suffuses Newton’s nimble debut about a middle-aged man who returns, reluctantly, to his rural North Carolina hometown. Martin Owenby might have never again set foot in Willoby County if it weren’t for the disappearance of his ornery brother, Leon. Now he finds himself in the company of the same damaged souls he fled decades before. Among them: his sister Ivy, who hears voices and sees ghosts; sister Eugenia, who isn’t happy unless she’s causing someone grief; and sister-in-law Bertie, who’s lumbering through a loveless marriage and lackluster life. Martin, who kept his homosexuality a secret throughout his upbringing (and only became openly gay when he entered the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), also reconnects with his high-school sweetheart, Liza, now married with a handsome husband and children of her own. As time passes, family and friends begin to lose hope that Leon is alive. In his eloquent, sorrowful novel, short-story writer Newton gradually reveals dark (and occasionally scandalous) secrets about each member of the Owenby clan, including Leon, who may have had good reason to disappear. Readers of both Pat Conroy, on one hand, and Carson McCullers, on the other, will relish Newton’s flawed characters and piquant portrayal of small-town life. --Allison Block
More Reviews

Told from these four characters’ points of view, this first novel builds nicely toward many revelations and resolutions. Newton is skilled at revealing a world of hurt, and fans of family dramas will appreciate it.” — Library Journal

“A novel that seamlessly, beautifully, twines past with present to show how we can never escape our histories or the deeds—good and bad—that create those histories. The powerful, swelling conclusion of this book raised gooseflesh on my arms and had me near tears. ” — Tom Franklin, New York Times bestselling author of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter 

Under The Mercy Trees will take your breath away.... A remarkable debut by a writer who captures with her words the beauty in the ugly and forgiveness in the unrepentant.” — Robin Antalek, author of The Summer We Fell Apart

Under the Mercy Trees is an amazing novel, driven by mystery, and weaving past and present stories into an intricate and mesmerizing design.... An extraordinary piece of work.” — Jill McCorkle, author of Going Away Shoes

“A brilliantly crafted novel of a complex family bound by love and hate, hope and regret, a family that must come to terms with each other and in the process, forgive themselves. You’ll find a bit of your own family there and perhaps something of yourself.” — Sandra Dallas, author of Whiter Than Snow and Prayers for Sale

Under the Mercy Trees offers eloquent evidence that nothing is or ever will be as dramatic as family.... [A] stunningly beautiful book…. Newton has rendered her characters’ world with clear-eyed compassion and in so doing delivered one sweet ache of a novel.” — Tommy Hays, author of The Pleasure Was Mine

Listen to the Pullen Memorial Baptist Church choir sing the song that inspired the title, Hugh Stowell's From Every Stormy Wind That Blows:

Legal Lessons for North Carolina Teachers

  For many years, I have represented North Carolina educators as they try to perform their jobs with diminishing resources, at times without the support they deserve from administration and their elected representatives. As we enter a new school year, here are my tips to educators for how to protect their employment while providing high-quality […]

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September Is The Literary-est Month!

Two more literary events I hope you'll join me for in Asheville this month: On September 21st at 3 p.m., I'll be reading with other members of the Great Smokies Writing Program faculty at Malaprop's as part of the Writers At Home Series.  Haven't decided what to read yet. Maybe something from my new novel […]

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Join Me For Back-To-Back Literary Events in the Mountains, September 6-7, 2014

I’ll be reading from and discussing Under The Mercy Trees and new work at two events the weekend of September 6th and 7th. On Saturday the 6th, join me at the Mountain Literary Festival in Burnsville for sessions at 10:45 and 2:00 and a book signing at noon.  While you’re there, enjoy readings, workshops and […]

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Listen to "Things Summoned" Courtesy of The Drum--A Literary Magazine for Your Ears

My short story, "Things Summoned," is featured in the December 2013 issue of The Drum.  You can download and listen to me read it here:  This story is one of a dozen linked stories in a collection I've written, set on the campus of a boarding school in the north Georgia mountains in 1969-70.  […]

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Join Me For a "Such A Character" Workshop Starting February 18, 2014

What if I told you this: When my parents married in 1958, my father was French. He signed his name “Paien”  and gave my mother a set of French conversation records she can still quote from today:  “Je m’appelle Jean LeCarpentier mais je ne suis pas carpentier, ha ha ha.”  One Sunday they drove from […]

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Join Me This Summer for "Sustaining Your Writing Life"

Join me this summer for "Sustaining Your Writing Life," a five-week workshop I'll be teaching for the Great Smokies Writing Program on Monday evenings 6-8:30 starting June 3rd (location TBA). Do you long to write, but just can’t seem to work it into your life? Do your writing resolutions last about as long as your […]

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