Author Archives: Laura_F

On women writing well

Suzanne Paola, writing guru, offers some thoughts on how male vs. female writing, and offers some tips for warming up.

Suzanne Antonetta Paola

I conceived of Stolen Moments after several things happened: one, I read several interviews with V.S. Naipaul, who dismissed all of women’s writing—including Jane Austen’s—as “sentimental” and nowhere equal to his own books, and those of other men. Two, I did in fact buy a pocketbook at a consignment store, as does my character, that still had two lipsticks in a zippered compartment that resembled mine so much that I used them. It was, at first, a challenge to myself: could I create a world out of two accidentally found lipsticks? What if even such a subtle change to one’s outward self could change how we fundamentally think of ourselves and therefore, act?

I just returned home from Hong Kong, where I heard several writers—male—argue that fiction should be political to matter, by which they meant, should include as a major plot point the actions of governments or those who act on behalf of governments. This approach of course can result in terrific fiction. But I think women may be more instinctively aware that life is a series of small moments, every one of which burns outward, into the world: whether I hug my child tonight, and help create a child who is secure, or not; whether I take time to be with a distraught student, or not.  Those who repeat small tasks every day, perhaps, learn to look for the soul in them.

The word sentiment in its Latin root simply means to hold feeling. Human feelings underlie everything in this world, including wars.

One thing I love about the women in my world is that, unlike someone like Naipaul, who dismisses women utterly but pursues numerous and noisy feuds with the occasional male writer as well, the women writers I know are remarkably generous people. This is true of Laura Fraser, editorial director and cofounder of Shebooks.  In the spirit of Shebooks and its generosity, I offer a few writing prompts for you out there. Feel free to contact me at susantonetta@gmail.com to continue the dialogue.

Prompt one: Think about a very small change that made an enormous difference in the way you felt about yourself. Imagine a character who makes a similarly small change, and imagine, in the end, the circumstances of her life change drastically as a result.

Prompt two: Actually make a large change in yourself—clothing, appearance—for one day. Take notes on how you behave differently. Think about how much of self is defined through these sorts of daily decisions on how we present ourselves, and write about it.

 

Marigolds, skulls, and altars to departed dogs

DOD SMiguel 026

Carol Merchasin, author of How It Goes in Mexico, reflects on how she came to celebrate the Day of the Dead.

I remember when my housekeeper suggested that I might want to create an altar to celebrate death.
“Death?” I thought. “What’s to celebrate?” But since I was living in Mexico where Day of the Dead is a national tradition, I went with the flow. After all, what harm could come from participating in what I saw as a “quaint” ritual of my adopted country?
First I created an altar filled with marigolds. There are so many marigolds used for Day of the Dead that I was convinced there must be a Hallmark-like conspiracy of marigold farmers driving this so-called death celebration.
“Now, you must add alcohol and food and things that the spirits of the dead will be happy to see when they return,” my housekeeper advised. So I added photos, alcohol and candles, worried about the likely danger of an explosion and placed food and objects into the tableau. I prepared an altar for the animals now gone: Chloe and the many cats, Max, the dog.
It was colorful and unique, but I cried every time I passed to see so much death right there in front of me. After a week, I packed the mementos and photos away in a small blue cardboard box and placed it on a high closet shelf in the unlikely event I would want to bring such sadness down on myself again.
The next year, I took down the blue box once more. I noticed that the communal marking of death, so wonderfully Mexican, made me less sad, or maybe sad but also joyful. I went about remembering my absent loved ones, not in the privacy of my own sorrow, but in the company of a whole community, an entire nation. Just the physical ritual of making the altar—choosing the photos, thinking about what mementos to use, going to the market for flowers and tiny sugar animals brought me a flood of unexpected pleasure and solace.
That year the blue box got a label: Celebrating Day of the Dead.
Every year now, it seems we add someone new to our altar, a sharp remembrance of the passage of time and our own mortality. This year, we add Robert’s mother, Dorothy. We welcome her presence there—for at 102 years of age, hers was a death worth celebrating. We add Penny and Big Brown, dogs who have passed into the Heaven where only such loyal friends can go.
I still cry. But the humor of the display takes over as I put out spaghetti and whiskey for my father, catnip for the cats, a book on how to train a dog for dogs who were always so poorly trained and I smile. Es la vida, I say. That is life.
Day of the Dead may be “quaint” to our US eyes, but its sophistication is in putting death into its rightful place as part of la vida. The truth is inescapable. As the years march by, we will surely need yet another blue box to hold our celebration.

Shebooks/Latina essay contest: Gringa No More, by Lourdes Rosario

logo_1_0

In her essay, Lourdes Rosario writes about how discovering Latino literature helped her feel proud of her roots as a Latina.

“I excelled in reading and writing and read many of our great authors, such as Jose Luis Borges and Mario Vargas Llosa, in the original. But I couldn’t roll my “r”s without feeling a little fake. My inability to speak Spanish with what I thought of as a genuine accent often made me feel as if I was in imposter in my own culture.”

Read it in Latina.

Shebooks/Latina essay contest: Yo Soy Latina, by Sonia Lopez

Sonia Lopez, a runner-up in our Shebooks/Latina essay contest, writes about straddling the identities of American Girl and Mexican Daughter

“I began my life barefoot, my body aching the ageless ache of knowing I had a lot against me. Latina women intimately learn the untruths that name and maim them, that judge, categorize, and criticize them into the size of their heads and breasts, that carve out their hips and dig out their depth.”

Read it in Latina.

Shebooks/Latina essay contest: Themselves on the Page, by Jessica Garcia

In this essay by Shebooks/Latina contest runner-up Jessica Garcia, a young woman who never considered herself Latina explores her Mexican roots.

“Spanish changed from ‘foreign language’ to language of my ancestors, one that I sought to learn not only because it sounded nice, but because it was a part of my identity.”

Read more in Latina.

 

Shebooks/Latina essay contest: That Which Is Shared, by Gabriela Yareli

 

In this essay about working with immigrants, Gabriele Yareli, a runner-up in our Latina/Shebooks contest, reflects on the struggles of other Latinas who are new immigrants.

“Though I am Puerto Rican and a U.S. citizen, all of my life, through church and family friends, I was surrounded by Latinos who had gone through a lot to be in this country; some who still lived in fear.”

Read the rest in Latina.

Michele Weldon on privacy, memoir, and finding time to write

 

 

Michele Weldon on privacy, memoir, and finding time to write

Michele Weldon

 

Memoir is such a crowded genre these days. What makes your book stand out?

MW: In order for a solid piece of nonfiction to resonate it has to move far beyond the self-indulgent navel-gazing of some memoirs that capitalize on celebrity or calamity. That is why I am so proud to be included in the stable of great writers I respect at SheBooks. The goal is to have masterful writing that bears broader meaning for the writer as well as for readers—moving beyond a simple regurgitation of events into territory that is universal and compelling.

How do your sons react to you writing about them in such a public way?

The quick answer is they are used to it. I have been a newspaper and magazine columnist since before they were born. So for all of their lives—and they are 25,23 and 20– I have been writing about my life and theirs as well. But I have some deliberate rules and boundaries. I write about my reactions, not theirs and I do not assign them any emotions or feelings. I am not a mind reader. I will ask them what they think about something and write that. I do not write anything that will embarrass or hurt them or that they want to keep private. I do feel that this piece of their lives is a tender minefield—the abandonment of their father. I asked each his permission, and each one of them has read this ebook, as well as the larger work. I write about my family, my emotions and what I know. They each have different reactions to what I write and how transparent I am. Still, there are things I will never write about that are to kept private forever. It is my story, not theirs.

Why is this book relevant to the conversation about parenting today?

I am weary of the narrative of mother as a crazy, harried buffoon. Work-life is presented as this perilous trap where you risk falling off the edge at every moment. Yes, it is hard, but so is putting blacktop on the driveway. I feel that an honest, uplifting approach to the precarious nature of raising good humans is edifying. I also feel that presenting a type of woman who can handle what is thrown in her path with humility and a call for help, is encouraging to those who handle much deeper crises. It is possible to do what you dream and also successfully parent, laughing and crying when the need presents itself.

When do you find the time to write?

I do a lot of different things professionally. I work full time, travel to lead seminars and deliver keynotes, but writing is always at the core. If I don’t write for a day or two—whether that is an essay or for a larger work like a book–I honestly don’t feel well. It feels as if my head is too big for my body, or that I am out of register. Writing is my cure. Because I have so many demands and responsibilities, I block out chunks of time—at least 3-4 hours—to write. It could be early morning, it could be late at night, or even midday. And I look forward to that like a dip in a pool on a hot day or a glass of pinot grigio with ice with a marvelous friend. It is my reward as well as my sustenance and a way to pay the mortgage.

Do you have a community of support for your writing?

I have been in a writing group of amazing authors for 13 years. Last count, between the six of us we had published or written in that time more than 28 books. Never mind that one of my writing group friends herself has published 19. We meet every week, Thursdays, from 6:30-9 at the local library. We each aim to bring 10 pages of double spaced writing with copies for everyone. We draw numbers, then each writer reads her work aloud, then we discuss it, line by line if we need to. We are never mean. We applaud, encourage and suggest. It is many times the absolute best part of my week. I love these women and how talented and creative they are. For about 8 years we met at each other’s houses, but then it got to be about the wine and the food and we would go long into the night, wrapping up after 10 or near 11. We get thrown out of the library at 9, so we have to set a timer for each person. We are starting to meet before group for dinner now. So I guess we are back to our old ways.

If you could make a bumper sticker about this book, what would it say?

Do your best. You will be OK.

 

 

EDITOR’S BLOG – “Something to Cry About,” indeed

Laura Fraser

By Laura Fraser, Shebooks editorial director

 

I was so proud yesterday when a friend—and Shebooks author—Jenny Boylan went to the White House to meet the President. She went as co-chair of GLAAD, there to witness Obama signing an executive order protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination at work. I was excited about the legislation—which is long overdue, and big praise to Obama for signing it—but also just thrilled that a friend was being recognized for her work.

It was a big week for Jenny: In addition to going to the White House, she had an op-ed piece in the New York Times, writing about her boyhood from the perspective of a transgender adult, and was on Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air” program on NPR, talking about “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves.” In between all that, she managed to write a blog for the Huffington Post to let people know about her recent Shebook, a sweet and comic novella, “I’ll Give You Something to Cry About.” And it’s been a big summer: Jenny was named a Professor of English at Barnard College, and that’s enough of an honor without having to add that she’s the first woman not born a woman to achieve that kind of post.

All of this speaks to the fabulousness of Jenny, and all she has achieved in making the world more normal and accepting for transgender people. But to her friends who remember her as Jim, it is especially affecting and gratifying to know that she is doing all this as Jenny, in the full flower of herself.

I’ll be honest, when my old roommate Jim, whom I knew in college and shared an apartment with in New York, called to tell me that he was having a sex change, I was shocked. I didn’t know anyone who had done such a thing, and Jim didn’t seem like a good candidate. He was such a cool guy—funny, cerebral, and, well, boyish. But the longer I thought about it—and Jenny was there to talk about it—the more it all made sense. Jim had never felt that comfortable in his skin. There always seemed to be a ghostly presence of another self hovering nearby. When I saw Jenny during her transition, it felt like she was finally herself. She looked great with long hair and highlights. She seemed relaxed in her body the way it takes most people born women in this culture decades to achieve.

One of the things Jenny has done is made us realize that transgender people are not so different than the rest of us. They are our friends; their challenges with who they are and where they’re going in their lives are like ours. As she wrote in her recent NYT piece, “The world is full of souls who struggle to find the younger person they once were within the body of the older person they have become. Struggling to make that connection is not the unique territory of transgender people.”

I have kind of forgotten that Jenny used to be Jim. The important stuff—the humor, the good writing, the heart—are the same, only more so. She’s grown into herself the way we all do, with luck, and with more than a little soul-searching and effort. She’s had a much harder time doing that that than most of us, and she’s done it with spectacular results.

It’s wonderful that an old college friend can call with a start-up venture and ask the best-selling author of 13 books to write a piece for something called Shebooks, and even more wonderful that she not only agreed, she insisted on doing it for free. That’s a friend; that’s a classy lady. I hope you all will read her novella, which did, in fact, give me something to cry about.

So did seeing her meet Obama.