I’d been a clinical psychologist for more than a quarter-century when I began a regular writing discipline. Because I’d completed my psychoanalysis, I used the time that I’d previously spent driving three times a week to Cambridge and back. My second child was leaving for college and I found more brain space than I’d had in many years. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write, so I let myself generate words about anything—sort of like psychoanalysis.
At first, I sat with a composition book and a pen. I wrote personal essays (which yielded early publication success), but I didn’t immediately find a larger focus. I began to take writing classes.
I returned to a short story I’d written before my first child was born. It was basically a description of one perfect summer day when my mother came to visit my siblings and me at the orphanage where we lived. Against the backdrop of loneliness, that day stood out with bright clarity and strong sensory memory. I began to develop a memoir around the story of that day.
Early on, I heard the advice that writers should regard their work as their secret lover, not their job. That was the case for me. I wrote during any pockets and corners of time I could find. I applied for an intensive, year-long writing program (the Nonfiction Career Lab at GrubStreet in Boston). I kept writing my story and it began to grow into a book. The following year I entered another intensive program (the Memoir Incubator). By the end of that year, with the help of a brilliant teacher and a strong class, I’d completed a full draft of a childhood memoir. By then, it had acquired a title, The Temporary Orphan: A Tale of Invisible Wounds and Unexpected Grace.
I was deeply devoted to this book. I spent the next four years writing six complete revisions. I cut scenes, rearranged sections on bulletin boards, submitted stories from it to literary magazines, developed elevator pitches, and reached out to many, many potential agents. One agent tried to sell it and forwarded me several truly lovely rejections from publishers. I wasn’t sure where to go next.
All along, I’d been writing shorter pieces, and some appeared in print. A longstanding interest of mine, initially drawn from my clinical practice with couples, was the making of amends—what it takes to make good apologies. Clarity about the necessary steps grew with time. I submitted several op-eds and short essays on the subject, but, until 2018, none of them were published. At least in part, that’s because I was trying to cram too much material into each one.
Meanwhile, after Trayvon Martin was killed, the massive racial inequities in the Unite States began to slam into my awareness. Despite having been a lifelong liberal, I’d been blind to the extent to which racism influenced every aspect of American life. I committed myself to read and to listen. I absorbed workshops, museums, movies, and classes. I began to write notes about my racial education experiences. My friends began to ask me for reading recommendations. This work seemed to me more important than anything I’d ever done. It also seemed to me that maybe this chronicle I was writing, a sort of memoir of one white liberal’s entry into learning about racism in the United States, might be of value. So, I worked on it. At a residency, I challenged myself to draft a chapter each day. I was tired, but also on fire.
At some point, these two interests—American racism and apologies—began to overlap. I realized that the biggest overdue apology of my time is the one white Americans owe to Americans of color. Perhaps the steps needed for an apology between people could also, on a completely different scale, apply to the enormous amends required to build racial justice.
Beginning in 2015, I began to pitch such a book, which had become more strongly a passion project even than my childhood memoir had been. I couldn’t get any traction with white gatekeepers of the publishing industry.
However, my apology model appealed to teachers and at least one editor. Eventually I was offered the opportunity to submit a proposal for a nonfiction book about apologies with the help of a wonderful agent. The thing is, I thought the apology steps model was the less juicy, clinical side of what I wanted to write. I had hoped to write something that would contribute to a great cause, the dismantling of racism. I’d never been interested in writing a psychologist’s self-help book.
I considered turning down the offer, but I didn’t.
And there began a fascinating journey toward making the book that just came out in July 2020—A Good Apology: Four Steps to Make Things Right.
I came to love A Good Apology. Forced by my editor to explain how my model came about, I dug in and researched it. In that process, I revisited the most influential books in my early career as a psychologist; I explored fascinating history and philosophy; I drew from many stories I’d collected, and they became richer and more interesting. I found a voice I’d never known on paper, more like my therapist self. I grew into the role, roaming more widely through all kinds of ideas and wisdom I’d accumulated in my decades (now approaching four) as a therapist. This book became a compendium of lessons and values about relationships and living an honorable life. Launching it into the world, I’m proud of it and I believe it can contribute to making the world a better place. I’m grateful to everyone who encouraged me to proceed with this project.
I’m also excited to have room—soon, I hope, after launch promotions—to return to writing about how white people can approach and maintain antiracist work, because the need has decidedly not lessened in the past few years. After that, who knows—maybe I’ll go back to my memoir.
Molly Howes is a clinical psychologist and writer living near Boston. Sitting with brave people who share their stories with her has taught her more about life than her formal education did, and family life has continued to teach her. Her writing has appeared in the NYTimes’ “Modern Love,” the Boston Globe Magazine’s “Coupling” (now called “Connections”), and WBUR’s “Cognoscenti.” She’s also published in literary magazines such as Bellingham Review, Passages North and The Tampa Review, and her work was a Notable Listing in Best American Essays 2015. She’s been the grateful recipient of fellowships to Ragdale, VCCA and MacDowell.