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Lee Woodruff on Grief, Secrets, and Resilience

"In just minutes, everything can change."

Veteran journalist Lee Woodruff, a correspondant for "CBS This Morning," drew on her own marriage and life experiences to write her first novel, Those We Love Most. Here's more from Lee:

Jennifer Haupt: What prompted you to try fiction after writing nonfiction for more than two decades?

Lee Woodruff: I’ve always loved writing short stories, particularly when I was a teenager, and dreamed of being a novelist. But it never seemed like a practical career where I could actually make a living, so after college I pursued writing essays and feature stories for magazines. There’s a lot of creativity involved in that too, but it’s not the same as devoting three years, off and on, and hundreds of thousands of words to developing a single story.

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I do wish someone had encouraged me to follow this particular dream sooner, but I’m also very proud to have published my first novel after age 50. I think a lot of women feel like, at a certain point, it’s too late to go after what they want. I’m living proof that’s just not true. When this book finally came together, I had—and still do have—a huge sense of accomplishment.

JH: Did writing memoir first make you more comfortable with trying your hand at long-form fiction?

LW: It was actually the memoir genre that was totally out of my comfort zone. Writing two books that were, in essence, about my life—my family—was far stranger for me than making up the heartbreak and challenges of fictional characters. While I was writing my memoir, Perfectly Imperfect, I wondered who would really find my life that interesting. And then writing In an Instant with my husband Bob, we both struggled with how much to share. Yes, people do want to know about your life but you also run the risk of over-sharing. Do people really want to know the intimate details of your marriage? My marker was: Would my mother want to read this?

JH: This novel was truly hard to put down, partly because it reads like nonfiction. Are there parts that come from your own life?

LW: Every fiction writer draws from what they know to write. And certainly in the book the characters grapple with emotions I am familiar with—loss, grief, fear, anger. There are little bits of me in some of the scenes for sure, but the characters themselves are composites.

What does come from my own life is the concept that, in just minutes, everything can change. I experienced that when Bob was nearly killed by an IED in Iraq and spent more than a year recovering from a brain injury. Our happy, hectic family with four children aged 14 to 5 was turned upside down. About three years ago, a friend of mine called and told me that a friend of her son’s had accidentally struck another teenage boy with his car. The driver wasn’t drunk or speeding; the sun was in his eyes and he simply made a bad decision. When I got that call it stopped me in my tracks as the driver was the same age as my son was at the time. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the members of those two families, the 360 on the event. All of the different angles.

JH: At the core of this family drama are the secrets that both Maura and Pete have kept from each other during their long, happy marriage. Is it always best to tell your loved ones everything? Is this a question you’ve explored in your own life or in your nonfiction writing?

LW: I’m at a place in my life where I’ve seen a lot of marriages work and not work. I think for different people the formula varies but I am fascinated with the idea of secrets and how much you really do need to tell or reveal to keep a relationship healthy. Obviously some secrets are more toxic than other and a tragedy or “in an instant” moment can break a family open. I think the interesting part is the back end, the resilience and the putting it back together again with a different perspective. Secrets make that harder, however.

JH: Was there ever a time when you lost faith in this book, and what kept you going?

LW: After about a year of writing, I started wondering where all of the secrets in these relationships—Maura and her husband, as well as her parents faltering marriage—were leading to. So, I put the novel aside for months and really let things settle and gel.

What kept me going was my fascination with the human spirit. As I travel and speak for The Bob Woodruff Foundation (ReMIND.org) I meet so many veterans and their family members, all of whom are struggling with the psychological and physical wounds of war. I’m continually struck that everyone has tragedy in their life, and the immense power it takes to keep moving forward. I’m fascinated with that resilience. This books isn’t about the loss, it’s about the resilience—how much we can go through.

JH: What books are on your bedside table? And what books are on Bob’s side of the bed?

LW: Oh my goodness—you need to ask how many PILES of books do we each have waiting. I read everything, fiction, non-fiction, biography and I love them all. I’m also a huge audio book fan as I do a lot of driving and so does Bob. I just finished the new Bruce Springsteen galley that is coming out this fall and Bob is reading it now. Bob tends to read much more non-fiction and biography. He also gets sent every single book about war that is our there.

JH: What’s the One True Thing you learned from writing a novel?

LW: I learned that I with fiction I needed much more time to get into the writing. I couldn’t; just stop and make a waffle for my kids and go back to the computer—I needed to really get into the story since I was the one making it up.

As co-author of the best-selling In an Instant, Lee Woodruff garnered critical acclaim for the compelling and humorous chronicle of her family’s journey to recovery following her husband Bob’s roadside bomb injury in Iraq. Together, Lee and Bob founded the Bob Woodruff Foundation (ReMind.org) to assist wounded service members and their families in receiving the long-term care that they need and help them successfully reintegrate into their communities. Lee, a correspondent at CBS’s "This Morning," also published a collection of essays, Perfectly Imperfect – A Life in Progress. Those We Love Most is her first novel.

 

Jennifer Haupt is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Readers Digest, and The Christian Science Monitor.

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