These Southern California writers and artists found success and fulfillment after other careers – Orange County Register

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DENISE DI NOVI

“Don’t waste any more time.”

Finding and developing material for major Hollywood movies, securing talent to tell the stories, and shepherding the creative process is a highly collaborative endeavor that Denise Di Novi is spectacularly familiar with. She’s produced more than 40 movies, including such screen gems as “Edward Scissorhands,” “Little Women,” “Batman Returns” and “Message In A Bottle.”

In contrast, the painting she has been creating is solitary work, perhaps sometimes only viewed by an audience of one, and not a venture in which millions of dollars are at stake.

Di Novi has been making art pieces for about four years, first picking up a magic marker when her husband died in March 2020.

“Creating art was the only time I felt OK,” she says, adding, “when people say ‘oh wow, you started out of nowhere,’ they’re missing something. I’ve been a filmmaker for over 30 years and it’s a visual art and I’m a creative producer. I could never work in a field that wasn’t creative; it’s the breath of life to me. So whatever form creativity takes, it’s what gives me fulfillment.”

Coinciding with her personal loss was the start of the Covid lockdowns. Her business life slowed, but working on canvas began to increasingly help with her grief. “So, I figured that maybe painting would help even more so. I got a bunch of paints and canvas and became obsessed. Painting after painting. No stopping. It saved my life.”

She wants people who aspire to creative expression to know that they don’t necessarily have to give up what they’re already doing. “There are ways to pivot without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I get up at 5 a.m. and paint, or do it at night instead of going out,” she says. “There are slower days I may have with my ‘regular’ work, so I’ll paint then or on weekends. Doing something new can give you your life back.”

Hollywood producer Denise Di Novi’s abstract paining, “Breaking the Surface,” is part of a collection of her abstract works. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

As she delves ever deeper into her own work, her advice is this: “Do whatever you feel you’re going to regret if you don’t do it. Don’t waste any more time. And, whatever you do, don’t think it will be great unless you’re doing it for yourself first and it will have purity of intention and an authenticity that will attract other people.”

She recently switched from working with acrylics to combining them with oil paints and new, multilayered works are in the offing. “I am going to have a show, and share my story, not because I want to be a famous artist — though that would be nice — but because it could be helpful to people.”

Her latest screen venture, a TV spy thriller series called “The Veil,” starring Elizabeth Moss, will start airing soon on F/X. “I painted in my hotel room during the six months we were on location filming it.”

HELENKAY DIMON

“Before you make the jump, make sure you have a support system.”

HelenKay Dimon, a novelist, poses for a portrait inside her home on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024 in San Diego, California. (Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
HelenKay Dimon, a novelist, poses for a portrait inside her home on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024 in San Diego, California. (Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Becoming a writer wasn’t a childhood dream for Helenkay Dimon. She wanted to be secretary of State. Instead, she became a divorce lawyer in Washington DC — and might have remained one if not for a cohort who advised that dealing with couples battling over custody and finances was not a career to expect happy endings from.

“He handed me three romance novels and they literally changed my life,” she says. “I started toying with writing romance novels because bringing people together sounded so much more appealing.”

She put divorce wars behind her in 2007. “Doing so gave me an opportunity to craft happy endings.” She cites those she’s crafted as the most fulfilling aspect of work that’s produced more than 40 books and novellas. “Creating a world in my head is something I really enjoy doing.”

Leaving her practice to immerse herself in what’s usually a financially unstable profession was less of a worry for her than it is for so many who undertake such a challenge.

“It wasn’t easy to walk away from a career that I had built; I had made partner before I left. But it was easy, in some ways, because my husband has a job with benefits and a steady income, so I didn’t have to worry about such questions as ‘how am I going to pay for insurance, how am I going to put food on the table?’ Before you make the jump, make sure you have a support system.”

Still, she didn’t leave the courtroom for a writing desk in one clean break. “I wrote my first three novels while still at the law firm,” she says, “writing from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.”

When her husband got a job offer in San Diego, prompting them to move from the East Coast, she didn’t take the California bar exam and that threw her, she recalls, “into the deep end of ‘I have an opportunity to try something new that’s really scary.’ Had I taken the bar, I probably would have continued to both lawyer and write and made sure I felt secure. After all, nobody tells you that after you get your publisher’s advance, you may have to wait 700 years before getting royalty checks.”

For those considering switching careers from the stable to one full of creative promise but also of high anxiety, she offers some practical advice. “Sometimes, with these career pivots, some of us who have made them are not as good as we should be about telling people that they have to be practical. Writing is a hard gig whether it’s screenwriting, writing a book, writing magazine articles. It’s constantly moving to get things out there. Nobody is waiting for your work.”

Dimon excels in getting things out. Fans can look to two new titles in 2025: one a rom-com written under her given name, the other a thriller using her nom de plume of Darby Kane. The screen adaptation of her first Kane title, “Pretty Little Wife,” is currently in development at Amazon Studios.

W. BRUCE CAMERON

“The secret to my success is failure.”

W. Bruce Cameron hugs dog
Bestselling author W. Bruce Cameron with Shelby, who plays Bella in the movie “A Dog’s Way Home,” signs autographs at the South County Pet Expo in Lake Forest on Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

He’s not a psychic, but when author W. Bruce Cameron sits down to write he already knows the last word he’s going to spell out. He meticulously outlines and sets up every story he tells. But Cameron’s writing career, which includes more than 30 published books, did not start out so well-planned.

He spent 15 post-college years climbing up the corporate ladder of General Motors. “I quit GM to go off on an entrepreneurial streak, burning and blowing up about seven companies just learning how different life is when you’re not working for the world’s largest corporation but rather for yourself.”

There were partner issues. Of course, no such problems were in his way when, as a middle-aged man, he went to work for himself, putting pen to paper.

It’s not that writing was new for him. As a kid, reading popular books, he announced he would write a New York Times best-seller one day. That utterance was prophetic, but the prophecy would not materialize for decades. “I wrote my first book in college, but I knew it was going to be terrible.” That didn’t stop him nor, during his GM years, did writing eight books that went unpublished. “The secret to my success,” he says, “is failure.”

He became a newspaper columnist after finishing another unpublished book and deciding that no one was ever going to publish him. “I was trying to come up with whatever would sell, and nothing would. Then I decided I would just write for myself; it turned out that I was funny.”

A sample of his humor made it to an editor of The Rocky Mountain News, and it became syndicated as “8 Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.” Its success led to development as a TV series which prompted his move to Los Angeles to work on the show.

His 10th book, “A Dog’s Purpose,” spawned a trilogy that reached best-selling status and two movies. A cascade of other books (adult, young adult, and children’s books) followed.

For those considering leaving their corporate (or other “regular” jobs) to become full-time writers, Cameron has some advice. “Throttle back so you don’t work from 9 to 5, give yourself space to breathe, and then recognize you may never make a dime doing it.”

Fulfillment, he ponders, may well take motivation not reliant on success but on one’s own healthy ego. “If you can find satisfaction and stand back from your work and be able to say I don’t care if anyone buys it, I’m really happy with it — then there you go, that’s the fulfillment. I am forcing myself to recognize that fulfillment comes from having finished a project that I really enjoyed writing.”

His prodigious output is not about to slow down. There’s a new title coming out in August, and another in October. He’s recently finished yet another book, about zombies, and is well on the way to doing something his agent isn’t advising: “I am trying to reinvent the monster genre for YA readers.”

MARY CAMARILLO

“Be an energetic networker.”

Local novelist and retired postal worker, Mary Camarillo, writes about life in Southern neighborhoods. She is pictured in Huntington Beach on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Local novelist and retired postal worker, Mary Camarillo, writes about life in Southern neighborhoods. She is pictured in Huntington Beach on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

With her high school years marked by writing poetry, editing the school’s literary magazine and contemplating publishing an underground newspaper, one might think that Huntington Beach’s Mary Camarillo would have gone off to college with pencils sharpened, a bit of a revolutionary’s fire in her heart, and the dream of a writing career firmly affixed in her mind. “But I was more concerned about security at the time,” she says.

She waited decades, until she retired at 60, before dedicating herself to fiction writing.

The author of two novels — 2021’s “The Lockhart Women” and “Those People Behind Us,” which was published this past October — went to work at the post office instead of going to college. “I didn’t plan on making a career there, but I stayed for many reasons. The benefits are generous, there were 10 paid holidays and, eventually, five weeks of vacation.”

She married a coworker, went to night school, got a degree in business administration, a CPA license, and a certificate in Internal Auditing while moving up the ladder at the mail service’s Office of the Inspector General.

“I did a lot of writing and editing of audit reports, and that weirdly gave me the idea to try my hand at fiction. I noticed similarities. Audit reports concern a problem and require identifying cause and effect, as in why the bad thing happened and who the heck cares?”

Camarillo is currently at work on her third novel, with about 40,000 words written so far. Realizing that a lot of them will get cut, she says, “I can’t add much more about it yet other than it will be about people who have a problem. The fiction I like to read and write is about people who make bad decisions and have problems.”

Considering what brings her fulfillment, Camarillo harks back to her childhood which is when she realized she was in awe of creative people. “Actors, poets, designers, people who make things that are beautiful, especially people who make music. So, discovering that I can write stories makes me feel that I am at least a tiny part of a bigger world. And that is very fulfilling; it’s thrilling to me.”

For those looking to switch careers that will take them from the steadfastness of a secure job to what sometimes feels like the freefall (or ascent) that is the writer’s life, Camarillo advises to be “a good literary citizen. And what I mean by that is you need to read, you need to write reviews, show up at readings, support your local bookstore, be a champion for your library, start a book club. Be an energetic networker.”

All of that has worked for her in terms of the business of writing. As for what advice she can offer about what’s needed to write a book, “It’s all about perseverance. And stubbornness. When I get stuck, I go for a walk. It always seems to help.”

MONICA EDWARDS

“You’ve got to try it, or you’ll never know.”

Plein Air artist Monica Edwards finds inspiration in nearby Black Star Canyon. She holds “Evening Glow at Blackstar Trailhead,” on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, a print from a piece she painted there. Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

This summer, when Monica Edwards gets into the driver’s seat of her Sprinter van, she’ll truly be taking destiny into her own hands. Customized into a mobile art studio, it will be headed around the country on a trip that gives deep meaning to the term “joy ride.” When her hands are not on the steering wheel, they’ll be grasping paints and wielding brushes as she gazes out of the parked van’s slid-back door, taking in the color and light which this much-honored plein air (outdoor) painter thrives on.

Edwards, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer about a year and a half ago, is not fixated on her illness but is excited to embark on an ultimate road trip. “My days always start with meditation and a prayer,” she says. And then they’re spent in a fervor of inspiration and creativity.

Segueing from a 14-year career in info-graphic design with the Orange County Register to that of a full-time artist included some unusual stops. The advent of the internet changed the nature of her newspaper job, prompting her to get as far from computers as she could. Follow-up work included animal caretaking at Disneyland, goat wrangling at the OC Zoo, tour guiding in Alaska and even, briefly, that of a flight attendant. “But I finally made it back to my first love, art.”

Commercial art had been her calling. While pursuing a BFA at Cal State Long Beach, she supported herself with freelance medical filmstrip, children’s book, and courtroom graphics gigs as well as a job at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. Her passion for plein air painting began in 2000, when after leaving her newspaper job, a friend gifted her with an easel and a book about the genre.

“I dabbled. I loved it, but to get good, you really need to dedicate time. About six years ago, I decided I would give myself 100% to this passion. In the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of many noteworthy ‘wins’ and exhibitions, and the passion for painting only increases every day.”

The question of what constitutes fulfillment for her turns her cheerily philosophical. The artist, whose work can be seen at Laguna Beach’s Art-A-Fair and Festival of the Arts, as well as at the Forest and Ocean Gallery, says “that just putting two colors together makes my head spin in a way that makes me giddy. It can be the simplest aesthetic values that bring me complete joy. And what’s to say that that has lesser value than trying to express some conceptual, real truism?”

She advises those considering making art a full-time pursuit to get their overhead down.

“Know why you want to do it; is it going to serve you in the long run or is it just a whim. On the other hand, you’ve got to try it, or you’ll never know. Give yourself a deadline, perhaps. And if you like living indoors, you better have a Plan B,” she says with a mischievous but sweet laugh.

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