The minute you meet Deborah Burns you can tell she is a powerhouse. After having a successful career as the Chief Innovation Officer for some of our favorite magazines she is on to her next thing…actually things. She just published a wonderful memoir about her mother called “Saturday’s Child” a must read with Mother’s Day around the corner. She also started a company called Skirting the Rules which is helping women with reinvention. As she would say, she is helping women move from an old story to a new story. Brava!!!
I loved learning more about Deborah and her journey.
Name, Age, where do you live?
Deborah Burns, 63, Long Island, New York.
Give us an overview of your career.
I’ve spent my career in women’s magazine and digital media. I’m a former chief innovation officer and brand leader for ELLEgirl, Metropolitan Home, ELLE Décor, and ELLE Global Marketing, and now, as an industry consultant, I help brands and executives reinvent.
But beneath my business career, a writer’s heart was always beating. As the digital age changed the face of my industry, I found myself yearning for some changes of my own. I began a creative journey to write my unconventional mother’s story, and I founded Skirting the Rules® to help women 50+ reinvent authentic futures full of meaning.
In addition to writing a beautiful memoir about being the only child of a beautiful and charismatic woman, you have achieved so much in your other workaday life. Is slowing down ever on the agenda? Tell us a bit about what you are doing now?
Definitely not a slowing down, but a shifting. I’m working differently, yet often feel as if I’m working harder than ever. The creative process of writing the memoir and getting it published was a long one, and completely transforming emotionally—it’s as if I had to look back in order to move forward in my life; to take everything that had come before and reshape it into a new whole.
Giving birth to something that wasn’t there before is always challenging, and like any mother of a newborn, all my attention had to refocus. With a book, the writing of it is arduous and, surprisingly, what comes after the writing of it is almost as intense. Suddenly it’s 4:00 and you haven’t showered, even though you haven’t stopped since you rolled out of bed. Now, the essays surrounding the memoir’s themes, the social marketing, and the book tour events fill my days entirely.
It seems you have grown from an outwardly focused business life to a more introspective life. Do you think they are mutually exclusive?
I do now. My career was a fabulous one, but it was all-consuming. Couple that with an all-consuming family and you’re …well … totally consumed. You can pat yourself on the back by reading a thoughtful article or two a week, or by pursuing something new that intrigues you every once in a while, but full devotion is another matter.
I got to a point where I just knew that to fulfill this dream, I had to move the book beyond the in-and-out of a drawer stage. I had to step into the unknown, and separate myself from the heady and heavily populated corporate world I knew. So, for the first time in my life, I just stopped. I gave myself a year in a solitary world—just me and my computer and my thoughts.
As we have gathered from your inspiring moments for founding “Skirting the Rules” your inspiration is drawn from a whole host(ess) of women in history. Can you name the top three women you would invite for tea and why?
Rule-breaking women from the eighteenth century inspired me to write and, in an abstract way, helped me to reconcile aspects of my mother’s outside-the-lines mothering and life through their own unconventionality.
My three favorite tea-mates would be: Mary Wollstonecraft for her vision and emotional sensitivity; Fanny Burney for changing hearts and minds through her plays (and for inspiring Jane Austen); and Germaine de Stael for her brilliance and innate capacity to influence people and events.
Your book “Saturday’s Child” is such a personal journey. Was it hard to spill the quite intimate details of your life? Which chapter was the hardest to write?
I’m half Sicilian, so YES! I definitely do not naturally fall into the over-sharing, social-spiller category at all. At the outset, though, I was naïve; I didn’t imagine that it would be as hard as it actually was. My mother had been gone for over twenty years at that point and, as her only child, a tribute to her seemed like such a snap.
Well, it wasn’t! Although the memoir started as a love letter to her, I realized shortly after I began writing that the story was actually mine—the memoir was my perspective of our relationship. And that shift changed everything. I had to unfold the story differently by showing how I emerged from the shadow of this larger-than-life, other-worldly beautiful woman. The scenes about her were my sweet spot; the hardest were the chapters about myself—there’s so much more about me in there than I ever intended!
Did the details of your memoir impact the way you relate to your own children?
I have two sons and a daughter and the only real impact has been with the female in my brood. Now an adult with a career of her own, she is integral to the mother-daughter bond and continuum. The inspiration to write in the first place hit me on a trip that she conceived, and throughout the process she became my litmus test for scenes—for everything, actually.
All the conversations the book were a gift to our own relationship, and they helped us to recognize fine points within our own dynamic that we hadn’t seen before. As close as we have always been, we’re even closer now.
What was it like writing a book?
I am so happy I did it now that it is published, but writing the book was truly torturous. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done in a career filled with hard work. Writing is lonely and tedious and seemingly endless. You’re often desolate and unsure—did I mention that every writer, no matter how skilled, is filled with self-doubt more than half the time?
And yet, when you finesse that line, when you perfect the expression of what it is you are trying to convey, when you look at what has been holding you back square in the eye, there is nothing quite like it. All the reflection and editing ultimately liberates authors from whatever it is that they’re wrestling with, and that’s what happened to me.
Culturally, aging is viewed as this sad thing. In reality, I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t feel bad or sad. I feel better than ever. What’s the key to changing the conversation about aging? Any ideas?
I feel the same. I have never been wiser, more whole or more confident than I am now. Earlier in life I didn’t have the perspective to write this book; it only came with a certain wisdom and experience that was beyond my grasp even ten years ago.
The key to changing the conversation is in the doing. As professionals and executives, we are part of a generation of women that already has accomplished more than any other in history. We’ve had careers, we control 70% of household wealth, and we make or influence 90% of all purchases. Midlife entrepreneurial ventures and creative debuts are making history as well—there’s a sequel ahead for us that could be full of new meaning and purpose. So, if we all just do our own things, the cultural conversation will naturally shift.
What’s the best book you’ve read lately? Podcast you’ve listened to?
“Inheritance” by Dani Shapiro. And my daughter turned me onto the “Dear Joan and Jericha” podcast from the UK. We listen together in hysterics.
Who would play you in a movie in the story of your life?
The ones I hear most often are Sandra Bullock or Mary Steenburgen.
What was the last thing you bought online?
Tiny toy musical instruments for my three-month old granddaughter. I will buy her anything.
What would you put on the menopause registry?
ADVICE: Think of a hot flash as an energy surge. You are at your most powerful and compelling when one is coursing through you. Anything can be yours in that moment. It worked for me:)
Craziest thing you learned this year?
Some beliefs I held as true my whole life were not true at all.
If you could have one superpower what would it be?
I was bewitched by “Bewitched” when I was young, so without hesitation, it would be the nose wiggle that makes anything happen.
If you had a warning label what would it say?
Take with food.