Jane Fonda began writing her book "My Life So Far" right before she turned 62. Fonda certainly has led an amazing life to put down on paper.
The daughter of Henry Fonda, she is a huge movie star in her own right, not to mention a workout guru. She is also the ex-wife of billionaire Ted Turner. Despite all this, Fonda calls the third and final section of her book, "The Beginning."
Below is an excerpt from the paperback edition of the book.
Foreword to Paperback
It all began as I very intentionally prepared for my sixtieth birthday. Whether we care to admit it or not, (and I'm a strong advocate for admitting) sixty marks the start of our third and final act—unless we live into our hundreds, God forbid! I felt this milestone warranted a review of acts one and two and this is when I discovered there were clear, broad, even universal themes that ran through my life, a coherent arc to my journey that, if I could be truthful in the telling, might provide a roadmap for other women as they face the challenges of relationship, self image and forgiveness. What I did not anticipate was how the story of my journey would also resonate with men.
I was sixty-two years old and five months into my separation from Ted Turner when I began the actual writing, and, for the five years it took me to complete My Life So Far, I was sucked into a vortex of emotion and self-exploration.
I love to hear about other peoples' creative processes. I read how Hemingway always wrote standing up; how Virginia Woolf felt the presence of an "angel in the house" looking over her shoulder as she wrote, warning her to censor herself, telling her it wasn't ladylike to say this or that (ie to tell the truth). Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott's quirky, accessible book about writing, gave me the courage to finally sit at my lap top and discover my own processes.
I'd usually get up before sunrise and plunk myself down at my lap top as early as possible just to get something written while my brain is clearest. I was three years into the writing when I had to face a hard fact: even a few glasses of wine or a martini (or two) the night before meant my mornings weren't 100%. I thought to myself, I don't have any mornings to waste. I need all the clarity I can muster to do a good third act. So I stopped drinking. It was as simple and complicated as that (and damn hard!).
I wrote in layers. First I'd write, "I did this and then I did that." Then, maybe an hour or a day later, after I'd thought more about it, I'd go a little deeper and write what I really did. Often, after a few days of marinating, I'd realize that I'd avoided the important part: what I felt about it. And so I'd go back and try to excavate the feelings. At such times I would feel myself becoming unusually vulnerable, the same vulnerability I'd felt right before starting a new film, where the edges of me became porous as I morphed into a new persona. Sometimes I'd come right to the edge of capturing in words what my intellect struggled to comprehend, only to find the center of it slither away from me, leaving me frustrated at my limitations as a writer. My only solace was to immerse myself in mundane physical labor, such as weeding, chopping trees or moving rocks. Having my hands in the dirt and my guard down allowed the hidden-away things to surface -- the uncomfortable, sometimes unattractive but truthful feelings. Writing, like acting, I was discovering, requires that I stay raw and available.
I remember mornings when I'd be headed to the kitchen in the dark to make coffee when I'd stop and think, "Maybe I'll just take a peek at what I wrote yesterday" and before I knew it, twelve hours had elapsed, the sun was going down, I was still in pajamas, coffee-less, hunched, dry-mouthed, at my lap top, totally in the zone, crazed. Coming back to the present after 10-12 hours was like pushing up from the bottom of the sea -- I'd feel numb and slimy. At such times, rolling around with my dog proved to be a good antidote.
I didn't know about the "zone" until I was being interviewed by Diane Rehm for NPR. She asked me about my writing process and when I described what I have just written, she exclaimed, "You were in the Zone!" and went on to explain that was what her husband (a writer) calls the state of total absorption that writers descend into where they lose all awareness of what's going on around them.
There were the emotional times, especially when I was writing about my mother, when I'd be barefoot with a down parka over my pajamas, hair akimbo, shivering with cold, teeth chattering, tears running down my face as I typed. Without a doubt, writing, when I was in the zone, was a total, somatic experience.
After four and a half years I turned the book in to my editor. I think it hovered around one thousand pages -- longer, in other words, than President Clinton's autobiography! Editing one's own life, even with the help of a talented and diplomatic editor like Kate Medina, is a complicated process that challenges every part of one's ego. "What! Cut that story about the little boy whose father abandoned him on our porch! The one all my friends think is brilliant!" Or the time Kate said I should cut the miraculous story about how I rediscovered my childhood friends Sue Sally and Diana Dunn, and take out most of what I'd written about the Black Panthers. Arghhhhhhh! She's destroying my book!
But then, about a month before my deadline, something just clicked into place. Suddenly, it wasn't my life I was reading. I became a dispassionate outsider (well…almost). Instead of reading the manuscript like a defensive mother hen protecting her brood, I went through it like an anonymous reader, becoming aware of when my attention began to lag and I'd want the writer (me) to just get on with it. Yes, some good stories fell by the wayside but I soon realized that they didn't really feed the main through-line.
And what is that through-line? In a sentence, it is the story of a girl who grew up feeling she wasn't good enough and this made her especially vulnerable to contracting the Disease to Please; how this affected her adult life (specifically in relation to men) and how she managed -- in her third act -- to see that she didn't need to be perfect, that good enough is good enough.
When the editing was done and all my photos lovingly gathered and placed alongside the text, the five-year process was complete, the book was out of my hands and in the care of strangers. I felt bereft and wandered about my home wondering what to do with myself, anxiously waiting to see how people would react.
As reviews and letters began to flood in, I saw that I'd been correct in feeling that people would have a personal, visceral response to my story. One letter said, "Page after page of my life is written as I read…your book finally gave me words to articulate and see things as I never knew them…I never expected the journey to be so personal, painful and healing all at one time."
Another said, "It has touched me so deeply that I have had to go slowly and take time to let it all percolate. In the process, I have made some decisions about my own 'third act.'"
A woman from Michigan wrote, "I have never contacted an author to share my feelings and thoughts after reading his/her book. I read the last chapter out loud to honor the last pages and I cried openly as I choked out the last few sentences…Grief in knowing you will not be a daily part of my life any longer."
At a book signing in Missouri, a woman leaned across the table and whispered to me that the book had saved her marriage. I asked her to explain but she was reticent and moved on. At the end of the signing she was waiting, wanting me to know. "I read your book first and then I gave it to my husband. I wanted him to read it," she whispered. "He got to the part in act one where you write that you never told your husband how it made you angry when he'd have other women in your bed with you. That's when my husband slammed the book down and said, 'Why didn't she just tell him she was angry, for chrissake?' And I said, 'For the same reason I haven't told you that I was angry.' And for the first time in our marriage, he actually listened to me."
As we looked into each other's eyes, our differences dropped away. We were broken open, as women are when we speak our truth.
Another woman wrote that her first husband had brought other men into their home and expected her to have sex with them. "I didn't want to do this, (I really, really didn't) but at the time I felt like I had to….reading your book, my god -- I'm not the only one! Just knowing that there is one other person out there who might understand and not think bad about me helps." I wrote her back telling her lots of people out there would understand.
These are the things I hold close when other people ask, "How could you have been so honest?" There is a way of doing healing that starts with shared experience. It is in the deeply personal that the universal appears.
During my month and a half on the road doing book signings, I was surprised at how much the book resonated with men as well as women. At my book signing in Atlanta a man came up and said, "Your book has changed my life." A number of men admitted to me that they identified with the feeling of never being good enough -- not "manly" enough perhaps, or ambitious enough, or too emotional. And so I discovered that men, too, were vulnerable to the Disease to Please!
I've given you a taste of how my book has affected others, now let me give you a sense of how writing it affected me. It transformed me in the sense that, for the first time, I assumed ownership of my life. It made me stronger. As a controversial celebrity, I've been constantly defined and redefined by strangers -- often very hostile. I've been ridiculed ("Who does she think she is?), marginalized ("elite college drop out who doesn't know what she's talking about"), accused of being on an ego trip ("aging actress who wants to keep her name in the news"), and on it goes. Over the five years of writing, I have come to see who I am quite clearly. If I had to sum it up, I would say that I'm a woman, born with an abundance of resilience, who has spent her life improvising on the theme of self transcendence. I know my strengths and weaknesses and have named them. I know my truth. The name calling can no longer hurt me.
And finally, because of what I discovered about my mother during the writing (she died when I was twelve), I was able to forgive her and, thus, myself.
I wish everyone would write her or his life. Not necessarily to be published, but to force yourself to dig deeply into who you are and -- perhaps most importantly -- who your parents were. Committing it to paper helps you to be intentional about how you use your remaining time. It's like becoming an archeologist, sifting through the sand and dirt to find yourself. It can also be an invaluable gift for your children and other relatives.
In the end, when I am asked what I learned by writing this book and what I want to do with the rest of my third act, the answer is this: help women claim their voices and men reclaim their hearts.