Is This the Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?

March 29, 2023 § 23 Comments

By Abby Alten Schwartz

Imagine you own a property. You sketch plans for a house, consult experts, allow yourself six months to build a solid foundation and ensure you’re up for the challenge. You reach that milestone and keep going, learning new tools and discovering which tasks you have a knack for and which are more cost-effective to outsource. Then one day, you look around and realize you’re living in this home you made and it’s lovely, comfortable, and secure.

That’s how it felt to build my own business from a thought I had in mid-2000 (what if I quit this job and worked for myself?) to a major part of my identity. Originally a graphic design company, I expanded to include copywriting and marketing consultation, and sharpened my focus to hospitals and healthcare organizations. The work was gratifying and provided the steady income and flexible hours I needed raising a daughter with a demanding chronic illness.

But here’s what happens when you’ve lived in the same house for 20 years. You start watching too much HGTV, envisioning what you’d choose if you ever decided to move. You still love your current house—this is just fantasy.

For years leading up to the pandemic, I’d felt a restless creative urge, a sense there was something more I was meant to do. My gut told me there was a collaborative element to it but the rest remained elusive.

Then, in the summer of 2019, Cheryl Strayed posted on Instagram that she was teaching a memoir writing course the following spring at Kripalu Center, a five-hour drive from my home. Terrified, yet powerless to resist, I registered.

Of course we all know what happened in the spring of 2020. And while there would be no weekend workshop with Cheryl Strayed, fate stepped in to usher me onto my new writing path, quarantine-be-damned.

On the day I would have arrived at Kripalu, I discovered The Isolation Journals (TIJ), a pandemic-borne online journaling project founded by Suleika Jaoaud. I began writing daily in response to Jaoaud’s prompts and sharing my mini essays with the private Facebook group. I found my voice and realized it was time to build an addition onto my creative house.

These last three years have been transformative—Dorothy stepping into a Technicolor world. A friend from TIJ introduced me to an expansive and generous community of writers. I took online courses where I met more writers, learned to pitch editors, got my first byline and my second and my twentieth. I found a coach and started my memoir, wrote essays, satire, reported stories, prose, formed critique groups, ventured to HippoCamp.

Every day I gazed in wonder at the new structure rising from the earth around me. This was no mere addition. This was my aspirational dream home, right out of a Nancy Meyers film.

Every day I’d trudge back to my other home, knowing my fantasy house wasn’t sturdy enough to live in or sustain a family.

Then one day I thought, if I can’t live in my new house, maybe I can borrow some of the furniture and accessories and spruce up my old place. And I started integrating bits of my personal writing life with my professional one.

I added journalism to my LinkedIn profile and posted links to my bylines, explaining them as writing I did to keep my creativity sharp. I’d previously separated these halves of my identity, wary of crossing professional boundaries and revealing too much of my personal life. I also worried my clients would mistakenly think I had one foot out the door. My clients not only liked my pieces, they asked about them in meetings.

The truth is my corporate writing makes my personal writing more enjoyable. Sure, I’d love more time to devote to the latter, but because it’s not my primary source of income, I can take a more playful, curiosity-driven approach. When the stakes are lower, there’s greater freedom to aim high. The worst that can happen is I get a rejection.

Still, writing essays and memoir has unleashed in me a greater desire for authenticity and genuine connection. So, brick by brick, I’m lowering the walls dividing my two halves.

I’ve been thinking about the word integrity—a core value of mine and an ideal I try to live by. The word means more than honesty and morality. Integrity is the state of being whole and undivided.

I’m now taking further steps to bring my creative identities into better alignment and give each the attention and respect they deserve.

I’m writing a proposal for my memoir-in-progress, with the goal of landing an agent and publishing deal in 2023. I’ll continue to pitch stories that interest and excite me, including pieces about chronic illness, wellness, and mental health, informed by my expertise in healthcare communications. I’ll continue to work with hospital systems but will also develop content for major healthcare brands. And I’m preparing to launch a design service for writers, offering book cover consultation and art direction as well as creation of promotional materials.

An old client I reconnected with a few weeks ago asked me, “What kind of work do you really have fun doing?”

It’s a question I hope I never stop pondering.


Abby Alten Schwartz is a Philadelphia-based writer whose work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, WIRED, Salon, The Belladonna Comedy and elsewhere. She also works as a healthcare copywriter, designer and marketing consultant and is writing a memoir titled Hypervigilant. Follow her on Twitter @abbys480, visit and subscribe to her free newsletter, Name Three Things.

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