My Circuitous Route to Writing Success

– Posted in: Succulents

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When Designing with Succulents became a bestseller in 2007, few people knew what was really going on with me. I’m sharing it now because it might encourage others to persevere through difficult times. A bit of backstory:

For half my life, I didn’t live up to my potential due to fear of failure. A highly accomplished writer whom I liked, admired and envied told me she reinvented herself about once a decade. I assumed at the time that the courage to embrace new experiences was something she was capable of and I wasn’t. Not true! Yet I spent decades snoozing beneath the comforting-yet-troubling assumption that if an opportunity terrified me, it wasn’t meant to be. To sum up my own decades:

Decade #1, 1952-1962: Oddball Kid. Because I was severely nearsighted, my entertainment mainly had to do with what I could see well: books. I was the only child of older parents who did their best but managed to mess me up due to inexperience and their own issues. I now view them merely as flawed human beings, but for a long time, their haphazard parenting led to me believe that, despite being bright, I was marginally competent and would always need taking care of. Books were my escape when I needed one—such as when my mother disappeared with her friend into another room of his apartment. (She brought me along so my father wouldn’t suspect anything.) It took a lot of therapy to get over that one.

Decade #2, 1962-1972: Oddball Teen. My parents, in a who-knows-why desire to speed up my education, sent me to an all-girls private high school where I didn’t fit in, not being Catholic and two years younger than my classmates. I learned to drive at 13 because back then you didn’t need a learner’s permit, and the Driver’s Ed instructor assumed I was 15. (I’ve always been tall. Wearing glasses helped, too.) I had few friends, hung out in the library during lunch hour, gained a lifelong loathing of anything athletic, and let my inadequacies define me. However, being a bookish child reaped an unexpected reward: I earned top grades, especially in English.

Decade #3, 1972-1982: Frustrated writer. At 20, I graduated magna cum laude with a BA degree in English Literature. My father, an accountant, got me a job where he worked, as assistant to the accounts receivable bookkeeper. Because I no longer wanted to live at home, the escape route seemed obvious: get married. My Vietnam-vet husband and I lived in San Diego and (because everyone knows you can’t get a job with a Lit degree), I worked as a bookkeeper. Even then I “wrote” books; my ledgers were works of calligraphic art. When my husband told me, “I wish I could earn enough so you could stay home and write,” I felt a longing so deep that I purchased a typewriter and scoured back issues of Writer’s Digest, in which I learned that a writer’s best chance of success was nonfiction.

Decade #4, 1982-1992: Underpaid writer. I became a single mom when my son was 7 and continued working as a bookkeeper. I attended a night class on writing nonfiction taught by Peter Jensen, then-editor of San Diego Home/Garden magazine. I casually pitched him an article idea, which he accepted. Uncertainty set in, and I called and told him I couldn’t do it. Patiently, Peter explained how to research an article. More assignments followed, and I learned how to conduct interviews. I answered a want-ad, took a writing test, and ended up moonlighting for a wire service, earning $100 per thousand-word advertorial. (On a good day, I could churn out two. Problem was, I was seldom assigned more than seven or eight a month.) When an attorney I was dating laughed at my desire to write full time, we broke up. I quit my job and admonished my son not to answer the phone, lest a child’s voice on my “office line” diminish my credibility. I freelanced for the San Diego Union-Tribune, covering homes, gardens, architecture and interior design. I was considerably more prolific than salaried reporters but was paid much less. I revered my editors, turned in perfect copy, learned a lot from photographers, never missed a deadline, and got by on what amounted to minimum wage.

DB & Gertie

Decade #5, 1992-2002: Somewhat successful writer. My second husband Jeff and I bought a house on a half acre 45 minutes northeast of downtown San Diego. Love and security came with a garden! I retired at 40 and volunteered at nursing homes as penance for having angrily told my mother, the night before she died, that my life had been adversely affected by her affair. (She replied: “Oh that? That was nothing.”) I wrote and illustrated a diary, but it was like singing to an empty room. A real writer has readers, so I wrote free articles for my community newspaper and then for paying publications. Writing consumed me—perhaps too much. It’s all I wanted to do. I didn’t accompany Jeff on a business trip to Asia because I had a writing deadline. I regret that now; the article could have waited. As the century drew to a close, as a work-for-hire project, I wrote the biography of the founder of major American corporation, whom I met when assigned an article about his produce farm and garden. I discovered that a book is a simply a series of articles on different aspects of the same subject. I wanted validation that I was not just a writer but an outstanding one, so year after year I entered the San Diego Press Club’s Journalism Awards Competition. After winning nine first-place awards (granted, in a category with minimal competition: garden and design), I finally believed it.


Decade #6: 2002-2012: Successful but miserable writer. I battled an anxiety disorder, refusing medication because of its side effects and because I thought taking antidepressants was a sign of weakness. My husband stood by me, and my therapist observed I was “the highest achieving anxiety-depressive patient” she’d ever had. Writing and photography kept me in the present moment, so I wrote constantly and took tons of photos. I became one of the most prolific garden writers in the country and Sunset’s main scout in the San Diego area. In 2004 my Sunset editor said, “You have so many great photos of succulent gardens, you should write a book.” Two years later, when I turned the ms over to my publisher’s freelance copyeditor, I knew it was perfect—the best work I’d ever done. She had no awareness of the music of words, so reading the edited ms was was like hearing a concert played badly. (No doubt she felt obligated to rewrite entire sentences to justify her fee.) By going over the entire ms change by change and suggesting an alternative to each edit that was not the same as my original (but that I could live with), I persuaded my publisher—who easily could have kept the edited version and dismissed me as a prima donna—to fix it. Designing with Succulents came out in 2007 and spent 19 weeks on Amazon’s list of the top ten bestselling gardening books. No one but Jeff knows how often I spiraled down into regret, despair and worry, only to hit a home run a few hours later as a speaker and sell out of books. Succulent Container Gardens came out in 2010. The therapist had told me it takes about half as long to recover from an anxiety disorder as the amount of time a person suffered from it. I’d say that’s about right.


Decade #7: 2012 to 2022: Successful writer, author, speaker and photographer. Succulents Simplified was released in 2013. Prestigious venues, such as Epcot Center and the Honolulu Garden Club, paid my way to come and speak. Australian succulent expert Attila Kapitany, in his address to the Cactus and Succulent Society of America, credited my books with launching the growing interest in succulents in the US. I’m humbled and amazed that all of this resulted from my fundamental need to write, and from the discovery that writing books can be as much of an escape as reading them (at least for me). I’m an author because writers write books; a competent speaker because my presentations are verbal articles; a photographer in order to illustrate text; a designer because I dissect and describe design; a videographer because—let’s face it—it’s the most effective form of communication; and a newsletter editor because I’m a journalist. In fact, I’m never not a writer. Even in casual conversation, I play with words and metaphors. (When bored, I play with my camera.)

As I approach the age at which most people really and truly retire, I’m keenly aware that there’s much still to accomplish and countless opportunities yet to explore. When young, I assumed time was limitless. I now know that, if lucky, I have two productive decades left. Someday I’d like to form a foundation that helps people, but I’ve yet to define its beneficiaries: writers, gardeners, succulent enthusiasts, anxiety-depressants, word lovers or all the above?

How about you? Is there a word or phrase that defines you? Most importantly, are you running from it because you might not achieve it…because you assume failure would be so devastating, you dare not risk it?

I wish someone had told me (or if they did tell me, that I’d believed them) that success comes only after failure, disappointment and all sorts of obstacles (including fear) that seem overwhelming at the time but pay unforeseen dividends. The excellent inspirational blog, Brain Pickings Weekly, sums it up:

“One should want only one thing and want it constantly,” young André Gide half-observed, half-resolved in his journal. “Then one is sure of getting it.” More than a century later, Werner Herzog wrote passionately of the “uninvited duty” that a sense of purpose plants in the heart, leaving one with “no choice but to push on.” That combination of desiring something with inextinguishable intensity – which begins with letting your life speak and daring to listen – and pursuing it with steadfast doggedness is perhaps the single common thread in the lives of those we most admire as luminaries of enduring genius. It is also at the heart of what it means to find your purpose and live it.

Debra Lee Baldwin
Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified, all Timber Press bestsellers. Her goal is to enhance others' enjoyment and awareness of waterwise plants and gardens by showcasing the beauty and design potential of succulents via books, articles, newsletters, photos, videos, social media and more. Debra and husband Jeff live in the foothills north of San Diego. She grew up in Southern California on an avocado ranch, speaks conversational Spanish, and at age 18 graduated magna cum laude from USIU with a degree in English Literature. Her hobbies include thrifting, birding and watercolor painting. Debra's YouTube channel has had over 3,000,000 views.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin
31 comments… add one

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Vera April 20, 2015, 3:45 am

Dear debra, thank you for this article, full of honesty. I am at the end of my fourth decade. I have been a freelance garden journalist for (in the Netherlands) most of this decade and am now in the process of writing my first book (on edible gardening) and full of self-doubt. I also have an anxiety disorder that I manage (more or less successfully) without medication. Gardening, growing food especially, has often been my lifeline.
Your post gives me hope that things might get better, easier – Thank you!

Bonnie Wagner April 20, 2015, 7:22 am

Thank you for sharing. Encourages me to try something myself.

Habiba April 20, 2015, 7:46 am

Great story Debra. We never know the things that others have gone through in life to get where they are. I guess that is why it’s said never to envy people unless you have walked in their shoes. Thank you for sharing and letting us know the real Debra Lee baldwin. I have two of your books. One signed copy. We meet at Succulent gardens extravaganza last summer. God bless you honey. I want to see your garden!!!

Chari April 20, 2015, 8:21 am

I am a new follower to your blog within the last week. I would just like to say what an inspiring post this is! Thank you for sharing your story as I know it was probably not easy. I look forward to seeing what else you accomplish before 2022!

Sandi Fields April 20, 2015, 9:57 am

Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’ve always admired you for your books and presentations but now I like you even more. thank you for sharing. As always, an inspiration

Jennifer Y April 20, 2015, 10:10 am

Thank you for sharing your story. I try to remind myself that I shouldn’t judge my insides on someone else’s outsides, but that’s not always easy to do. YOur story is especially timely as I assess the common inner and outer threads of my life in an effort to discern that one central thread.

Sherry April 20, 2015, 11:19 am

Of all of your articles, blogs, books and presentations I believe this one is the most generous and loving ones you have done. by sharing Your true self you have given all of us inpiration and courage to let go of others expectations of us, pursue our true passions and not be afraid to try. I struggle constanly with feelings of inadequacy. You have no idea how much your post has meant. Thank you!!

Debra Lee Baldwin April 20, 2015, 11:40 am

Sherry, I really debated whether or not to share the “bad” things in my past. Your comment made tears spring to my eyes. I’m so glad the post meant so much to you! Thank YOU.

Steve Mullany April 20, 2015, 11:41 am

Thank you for this very generous sharing of these parts of your life, Debra. persevering through difficult times doesn’t seem so impossible when we see how others did it.

Until you form your foundation You are already helping others with insightful pieces like this.

Debra Lee Baldwin April 20, 2015, 11:44 am

Hi, Jennifer. I’m pretty good at hiding my “insides.” Up until now I’ve thought of “Debra Lee Baldwin” as this amazing brand that I created, someone who WAS bigger than life. But that person was a cardboard prop that the real me strove to keep upright. It’s a relief to no longer be one-dimensional.

Debra Lee Baldwin April 20, 2015, 11:51 am

I’m so glad, Sandi. Every so often someone comes up to me and exclaims, “Your books changed my life!” To which I mentally reply, “You’ve got to be kidding.” If I can inspire even one person to pursue their dreams and use their unique combination of talents and experiences for the greater good (from which we ALL benefit), that seems truly worthwhile…much more so than suggesting how to improve the land around people’s homes. And the cool thing is, ANYONE can be an example to others in that regard.

Debra Lee Baldwin April 20, 2015, 11:52 am

Hi, Chari — Thank you, and you’re right, it wasn’t easy. Just so you know, this was a bit of a diversion from my usual posts ;+)

Debra Lee Baldwin April 20, 2015, 11:59 am

Habiba! I remember you! Re “walking in someone else’s shoes,” I do know how extraordinarily fortunate I am, and that the challenges and losses in my life are minor compared to what so many others have dealt with. The silver lining to adversity is that it gives us compassion and kindness toward others—for all we know, they’re going through a painful divorce, trying to make ends meet, or suffering from an invisible malady.

Debra Lee Baldwin April 20, 2015, 11:59 am


Debra Lee Baldwin April 20, 2015, 12:06 pm

Hi, Vera — Ah! The fourth decade—for many, the most challenging and productive. While you’re building on the past, you’re preparing for the future, sorting out who you really are, and dealing with what the present throws at you. Hang in there, honey!

Nancy April 20, 2015, 12:36 pm

Thank you so much for sharing your journey to success. This article brought me to tears. I have been a behind the scenes support to my husbands business for so long and, once we became empty nesters, I have struggled to find my own way. I am very proud of my husband and of all that we have accomplished together but have longed for something of my own. Your article is so very honest and I appreciate you sharing your imperfections in a day when so many people want to appear “perfect.” I am truly inspired!

Cathy April 20, 2015, 1:30 pm

You have been such an inspiration for so many for so long… your life story makes you even more of a heroine for anyone who suffers from any type of chronic illness. One seldom knows the inner struggles that those who inspire us have had to contend with. It’s hard to imagine someone so talented and successful having to deal with the kind of self-doubt, the lack of self-confidence and self-esteem that you describe and that I see in myself. If you only knew the lives you’ve changed with your writing! Your story was inspiring even before the revelations. Now, by opening up yourself to your devoted fans, you’ve become even more of a role model.
I recall quite clearly when I received my copy of “Designing with Succulents” from Amazon. Living in the Northeast, where we have only a few hardy succulents available to us, I nonetheless was entranced. After “Succulent Container Gardens” was published, I was determined to build one using the few hardy succulents I could get locally and finally did so, using a leaky fountain as the “container”.
Thank you for sharing “you” and your love of succulents. You’ve introduced so many of us to a family of plants that often get overlooked and unappreciated in the typical cottage garden.
Cathy Rose

sue April 20, 2015, 1:34 pm


Joan Carroll, MG retired April 20, 2015, 2:06 pm

Thank you for sharing your life journey. It sure takes a lot of
moxie to keep going even when you feel you will fail.
I come from a scientific family but I only wanted to grow healthy plants.
Now I am able to while taking care of my husband who has had Parkinsons for
over 20 years. My garden is my refuge at times and no weed will be
allowed to thrive in our climate that is suffering a 4-year draught.

Katherine tracey April 20, 2015, 7:57 pm

You are like some of my favorite plants in the garden….late bloomers! Years of experience brings wisdom that youth has not earned yet. Thanks for sharing!

Kelly April 20, 2015, 8:49 pm

what a beautifully written post. it was so nice to read your story. you deserve your success and are an inspiration. Thank you for sharing!

Debra Lee Baldwin April 20, 2015, 10:06 pm

Thanks, Kelly. For years, I didn’t think I deserved to be happy. I don’t know exactly when it snuck up on me, but I can gratefully say that now I am!

Debra Lee Baldwin April 20, 2015, 10:08 pm

Me, a late bloomer? I suppose I am…yet for the first couple of decades, I was continually being told the opposite ;+)

Debra Lee Baldwin April 20, 2015, 10:15 pm

“No weed” indeed. I like your attitude. The biography I wrote in 1999 was about a man who had Parkinson’s—Glen Bell, the founder of Taco Bell. One reason he asked me to be his biographer is that, unlike other reporters, I wasn’t impatient when it took him a while to respond. It was a special year of research, being with him on the lovely produce farm he created, being outdoors and watching the light change in the late afternoon, checking to see if the corn was ripe, and picking fresh artichokes or strawberries. He was able to drive a golf cart, so that’s how we spent much of our time.

Debra Lee Baldwin April 20, 2015, 10:18 pm

Hi, Sue — I’m so happy to hear that your joy in gardening has been rekindled and my books were played a part in it. What a lovely comment—thank you!

Debra Lee Baldwin April 20, 2015, 11:14 pm

Hi, Cathy — I realized at the time that my self-recrimination, inability to feel joy, and dread made no sense. But it wasn’t enough to understand and believe it. The disorder had me in its grip and nothing I could do would shake it loose. It was oppressive, relentless, and held my thoughts captive…except when I was engrossed in work. It was exhausting to maintain the pretense that everything was fine, so I avoided friends and had no energy left for family. Jeff’s greatest joy is making me happy, so you can imagine how hard it was on him that nothing he did helped. Naturally I felt bad about that, and tried to pretend, but he knew something was wrong. He’d never experienced anxiety or depression, couldn’t fathom how I could be so wretched when so many things were right, and by nature is a problem-solver…it’s a wonder he hung in there.

Pat April 20, 2015, 11:26 pm

Thank you for you for sharing your life. Your words are heartfelt and honest. One would never suspect that your childhood was so difficult. I have your Succulent books and have taken your online craftsy class and have watched all of your Youtube videos and have learned so much. You are a wonderful speaker and teacher. Thank you for finding your purpose and Thank you for sharing your expertise with us. I hope to see you in Corona May 2 and would be honored to meet you. Thank you for your story. You are inspirational in many ways.

Debra Lee Baldwin April 20, 2015, 11:29 pm

Hi, Nancy — Absolutely no one is perfect! I suspect that those who strive to maintain the illusion of perfection do so out of insecurity—a belief that being themselves isn’t good enough. Everyone has tremendous potential and talents waiting to be developed. When those are combined with confidence gained by overcoming adversity and the courage to explore new opportunities, the results are amazing: a unique, fulfilling life that’s also enriching to others.

Debra Lee Baldwin April 20, 2015, 11:45 pm

Hi, Steve — Thank you! Overcoming adversity certainly seems impossible if we’re dreading it. Anxiety is fear of the future; depression, regret over the past. Happiness is living fully in the present. Sounds easy, right? It’s not, but the good news is, no matter what your circumstances, there’s always something that offers joy—even when you’re in pain or dying, you can focus on your breath, observe sunlight shining through leaves, or savor a blanket’s softness. Personally, I plan to surf the Internet until I can no longer type. What an incredible universe awaits us with a few keystrokes!

JEFF ADAMS April 21, 2015, 4:10 am


Peter e johnsen May 3, 2015, 2:19 pm

I love your story. I am fond of writers and the written word, be they lyric or prose. Keep it up

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