Writer Jeannie Ralston risked everything to give her two sons the education of a lifetime. Three years and several continents later, The Mother of All Field Trips is Ralston’s inspirational account of one truly epic homeschooling adventure. Here’s what Jeannie Ralston has to say about family, education and why money is a taboo topic in her writing.
Are there any themes that you find recurring in your writing? What are they and what is their origin?
I suppose I keep coming back to the idea that your attitude in life is everything. It’s not what circumstances you find yourself in so much, but how you deal with the circumstances you’re given. That was the theme of my first memoir, The Unlikely Lavender Queen. How I hated being in rural Texas when I first moved there, but eventually realized I had two choices: make it work or whine forever. That’s when I started embracing the lavender business my husband had started and my teensy little town. I hope I can hold on to this concept. It’s a hard one.
Another theme, which is reflected in my Shebook The Mother of All Field Trips: don’t be afraid to do the thing that other people say is crazy. People thought we were nuts for taking our sons to Mexico to live. They couldn’t understand the homeschooling step. Both turned out to be the best moves we’ve made as a family. I try to remember when I’m getting resistance that sometimes people react strangely because your actions are making them question the decisions they’ve made.
Have you ever written anything personal that upset people who were close to you? Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?
My poor husband should have known when he married a magazine writer that his life was going to be end up in print over and over. For most of our life together he’s been good-natured about it, but that changed after the publication of The Unlikely Lavender Queen. Some readers didn’t like him, and people sometimes wrote unflattering comments on Amazon or other places. I think that hurt him a lot. It concerned me, to be honest. I thought it would be tragically ironic if the book I wrote about how we grew together over our years on our lavender farm was the thing that caused us to split up. Even though he’s got a tough skin, he did ask me to not write a book about the family again.
My Shebook The Mother of All Field Trips is an exception. He was agreeable to this book because we’d written blogs about our experience. Plus, he thought it might inspire other parents to try something unconventional with their kids’ education. I hope that’s true.
Is there anything that you consider *too* personal to write about? How do you find that edge?
I find it hard to write about money—mainly because my husband hates having anything about finances made public. He’s very adamant about that. I’ve had to turn down story assignments before because of this. Recently a women’s magazine wanted me to write about the money-power equation in marriage. I have a lot to say about that, but absolutely couldn’t do it and expect to keep my marriage happy. It just wasn’t worth it.
How do you define “truth” in your memoir?
I’m fairly strict about what I consider “truth” in memoir. I might compress events or experiences for space or understanding, but that’s it. For instance, in The Unlikely Lavender Queen: the decision to sell our house was more convoluted than I portray in the book. We actually had the house on the market; then I got cold feet and asked my husband to take it off. It was off for a while; then he got angry and put it back on with another realtor. It would have been too messy and hard to follow if I’d gone into all of that. So in the book, the whole decision- making process is condensed down.
I’m really against enhancing details and experiences to ratchet up the drama. I think if something is worth writing about it should have its own inherent drama or tension and a good writer should be able to pull that out without resorting to making things up. There are so many amazing true stories out there that don’t need enhancing. Those are the kind of memoirs I want to read.
Do you have a day job?
I have started teaching creative writing to high school students, and I’ve been surprised at how satisfying this is. I love bringing together all these free-floating, disconnected things I’ve learned over the years in my career and coming up with ways for students to understand them.
For instance, when I wanted to explain the fundamental structure of an essay, I told them to forget all the rules they learned in “regular” writing (you know, the basic five-paragraph essay that every English class teaches). I cut out a picture of a fishing hook, a vertebrae and a cowboy boot and taped them on a page, making copies for everyone. The fishing hook came first—for writing a first paragraph that hooks the reader; the vertebrae was the spine of the essay in which all the thoughts have to support the central idea; the cowboy boot came last—symbolizing the kicker, some way of tying up the ideas and getting out of the essay in a way readers will find satisfying. (I’ve also come up with lessons like 22 Ways to Start an Essay and SIx Ways to End it.) Last year, one of the seniors told me he was bringing my funky hook, spine and kicker diagram with him to college. That made my day.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’ve been writing quite a lot of travel stories; I’ve been lucky to have great material from the trips we did with our kids, which are covered in The Mother of All Field Trips. I also have begun working with Prevention magazine, since I have a lot of ideas that fit what they do. My husband and I are more focused on exercise, diet, and health than ever, so that often leads to articles for them. It seems the magazines I write for have followed my life stages. I used to be a contributing editor at Allure—back in my twenties and thirties, when my life was much more “alluring.” Then when I was a new mom, I became a contributing editor at Parenting and it seemed every day my kids would do something that would make me think of a story idea. Now that I’m older and battling aging like crazy, Prevention makes perfect sense.
Other than that, I’m working on a novel that I’m really excited about. It’s based on some experiences we’ve had as a family—trying to find the perfect town to move to in the States after we lived in Mexico for four years. But for several reasons I wanted to write it as a novel rather than as a memoir (one of them being my husband’s reluctance to go that memoir route again). I’m having a great time with it and feel liberated not having to stick to the truth. It’s the truth, but better.
Looking for adventure? Read Jeannie Ralston’s mini-memoir The Mother of All Field Trips, only at Shebooks!