The day Monica Duncan’s younger son started kindergarten, she found herself “on the couch with a box of Kleenex on one side and a box of chocolates on the other. It felt like a transition. Suddenly I had no kids hanging off of me, and there was a freedom of thought and movement I hadn’t experienced in 10 years.”
Not that the Newburyport resident was exactly a slouch up to this moment four years ago. She has worked as a professional musician ever since her 20s, playing the clarinet in regional ensembles including the Lexington Symphony, the Cape Ann Symphony, the Hillyer Festival Orchestra, and the Salem Philharmonic, and is a music instructor at Pingree School, the River Valley Charter School, and in the Hamilton-Wenham School District.
But as a freelance musician, she still had free time during the day. “After a couple of weeks of indulging in Lifetime movies, my laptop was calling to me like a siren, and I became obsessed with writing,” she said. “In retrospect, I think I was a latent writer all along. I’ve noticed that during times of transition in my life, I’d always sit down and write. The difference was that this time I didn’t stop.”
Fueled by a newfound sense of passion, Duncan began attending local author events to learn more about the writing process. When a published novelist at one such event described embarking upon her first book when her child started kindergarten, “It was just what I needed to hear,” recalled Duncan, who is now 46. “It meant I wasn’t too old. I hadn’t missed the boat.”
Duncan sought out that author’s advice, and the discussion that followed led her over the course of about a year to a developmental editor, a writers’ conference, agent pitches, and eventually a publishing contract. Duncan’s first novel, “Twine,” was published last September by Crowsnest Books, with a blurb from novelist Elinor Lipman and a recommendation from Parade Magazine.
“It’s a social commentary on the places I call subrural, characterized by strip malls and Walmarts, not unlike where I grew up,” Duncan said. Like its author, the main character comes from Michigan, though she is an artist rather than a musician.
In the four months since her novel’s publication, Duncan has discovered something unexpected about how being a writer is different from being a musician.
“Readers connect with my writing in a way that I feel like I’ve been fighting for my whole life for as a classical musician,” she mused. “People are coming up to me in the grocery store to say, ‘I want to talk to you about this scene or that scene.’ ”
Almost never does an audience member wish to discuss a particular passage of music with a performer, Duncan pointed out. “As a writer, my relevance feels immediate.”
Hard at work now on her next novel, which is based on the real-life escape of two inmates from prison in upstate New York in 2015, Duncan is facing a full schedule of literary events in the upcoming months, with an author reading at the Peabody Barnes & Noble on Feb. 29; a panel talk at the Newburyport Literary Festival in April; and an appearance as a featured writer at London’s ReadFest in September.
Nor has her commitment to the regional symphony circuit lessened. “I’m toggling both identities and feeling fulfilled and overjoyed.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org