Tag Archives: writing

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.


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.



Lee Montgomery: “My mother and my friends’ mothers were the miserable housewives of the fifties and sixties.” | Q&A

Award-winning author Lee Montgomery talks with Shebooks about how she developed her latest novella, New Englanders, out of a combination of memory, history and imagination.


What prompted you to write New Englanders?

New Englanders is part of a novel based on a story that floated around my hometown. Three men disappeared on a sailboat while sailing to Bermuda, leaving their families to forever wonder what became of them. I know that this happened, but I’ve never talked to anyone who was actually associated with the tragedy. I knew the children of one of the men, went to school with his daughter, had a brief and wonderful affair with his son, but never talked to them about what happened. When I started writing this, I asked friends from town, talked to the historical society, and researched in newspapers and so forth, but never found any record, so I don’t know the true story. Yet it still persists in my imagination. I have imagined and reimagined the story so many times that I’m actually no longer sure what is true and what is not. The people and places I write about in this novel don’t represent any real part of my life, but one I’ve dreamed up based on pieces of people and places I have known.

Are there any themes that you find recurring in your writing? What’s their origin?

I often write about disenfranchised women, New England, and class because these issues surrounded me as a young woman coming of age during the feminist and civil rights movements, the Vietnam War, and the cultural revolution of drugs, free love, and rock and roll. The world was quite literally exploding for women of my generation. This was the “anything-is-possible” seventies, the era that spun out new and brilliant career possibilities for women. My mother and my friends’ mothers were the miserable housewives of the fifties and sixties. They were smart, had gone to Smith and Yale, but wanted more in life than volunteering as a docent at the local museum. On the outside, they drank too much, had nervous breakdowns, slept with each other’s husbands, and so forth. On the inside they were fluent in French, poets, writers, actresses, and artists. I remember being taken with this predicament at a very young age. My mother was a world-class alcoholic. My best friend’s mother had bipolar disease and was often out of her mind. The woman next door hung herself. Another friend’s mother was having an affair. There were the men, too. By the age of 34, I’d known 12 people who had killed themselves, many of whom I knew from our neighborhood, many of whom were considered “privileged.” As an adult, I knew I had to do something to tell these stories.

I am also interested in class, partly because I don’t have any and was often thrown into circles who did. This had something to do with my parents’ backgrounds. My mother, having come from a line of successful family members during the boom in upper Michigan, including a governor and a mayor, considered herself fancy. My father’s family, coming from a long line of New England farmers, carpenters, and fisherman, was not. (My father was the first of his family to go to college.) And as a family we were not wealthy but my mother’s upbringing had her aspiring to those circles. This is why my brother, sister, and I all went to prep schools. That threw us all into a world that was a bit foreign and would forever provide an interesting conflict to write about.

How did you create the setting for this novella?

Millwood, Massachusetts, is a fictional town located in a spot similar to Hingham, Massachusetts, or Braintree, in the southern part of Boston Harbor. Boston, its harbor, and its islands have always fascinated me. The old warehouses, which now have become the fancy Rowes Wharf, were once old docks with local businesses; the North End and the Haymarket were places of my youth. I became even more obsessed with the old world of Boston Harbor after finding a book called King’s Handbook of Boston Harbor (1882) in a secondhand store in, of all places, Carson, Washington, not too far from Portland, Oregon. Reading through the histories of the Boston Harbor Islands and the small towns, seeing the amazing woodcuts and illustrations, I became enchanted with the islands, the towns on the harbor, their histories and stories. The actual layout of the town of Millwood has been lifted from old Framingham Center, the town where I grew up, and combined with sections of Westport Point, where my brother and his wife have lived for 40 years. A lot of the characters of Millwood are based on characters I have known and given family histories based on what I learned from this fabulous book.

What writing projects are you working on next?

Besides this novella, I’ve been working on some short stories and a group of essays for a book-length project called My Brilliant Career. The book’s title is based on an essay I wrote about working as a book editor in Beverly Hills, where I worked with O.J. Simpson jurors, movie producers, pornographers, and Heidi Fleiss whores. Before this job and getting an MFA, my professional life was varied, often sketchy, and unbelievably strange. I have driven ice cream trucks, castrated 300 pigs, worked the graveyard shift at a nursing home, been a room service waitress at the Parker House in Boston, done aversion therapy for fat people, delivered cows, worked as an abortion counselor, did experiments on placentas and blood cells and in drug studies at Harvard, Tufts, and OHSU. I’ve also worked for coffee heiresses and very rich men and as the editor for a small-town newspaper in Malibu. For the past 20 years I’ve worked as an editor for literary journals and book companies, all work that I love, though not half as exciting.

Do you have thought that you’d like to end with?

It takes many years of biting the dust to hit pay dirt.


Read New Englanders, Lee Montgomery’s darkly humorous tale of 1970’s New England, only from Shebooks.


Mary Jo McConahay: “Write every day. Not every other day, not when the spirit hits. Every day.” | Q&A

Award-winning journalist and author of the Shebook, Ricochet, Mary Jo McConahay gives us a peek at her storytelling process.

How do you think your religious identity has influenced your writing?

Not only did our parents tell us stories in the family and read to us, but at Catholic school and at church on Sundays issues of faith, moral dilemmas, history, the miraculous, and far-off places were presented through stories I practically memorized over the years. I think that kind of upbringing influenced my point of view that such themes naturally might weave themselves through a good yarn.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

I never thought of myself as anything but a writer of one sort or another—journalist, playwright, travel writer, short story writer. My first published piece appeared in my grammar school “newspaper,” a story in which I took on myself the character of a young raindrop who fell away from her family onto Earth, experienced adventures, and eventually ended up in a river from which Louis Pasteur took her as a sample for his experiments in germ theory so she was responsible for saving millions of lives. Not too self-centered, is it? I was young.

Do you have an imaginary reader you write for? Who is it?

I keep in mind the reader who is smart and curious but hasn’t necessarily been to the places I am writing about, so I am careful to create the landscape throughout, describe appearance and history, smell and light.  Everything I write, I hope, starts with a sense of place.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?

Write every day. Not every other day, not when the spirit hits. Every day.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m writing a book with the working title Tango War about the struggle between Fascism and the Allies for South America during World War II. Research has already taken me to Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and recently to Italy where—a fact not generally known but well remembered by Italians—South American units fought bravely.

Do you have any secret talents?

No secret talents, but some of my friends think I should not mention certain jobs I’ve had—as a model, a flight attendant—because they suggest a past incongruent with being a serious writer. I loved those jobs.


Read Ricochet: Two women war reporters and a friendship under fire only at Shebooks

Sonya Huber: “I don’t actually know what you should do. I just know what I did wrong.” | Q&A

Sonya Huber, author of the Shebook Two Eyes Are Never Enough, shares her thoughts about memoir, the Common Core, and her past life as a trash collector.

Is there anything that you consider too personal to write about? How do you find that edge?

I generally try to avoid writing about my son’s life in any great detail, although I’ll mention anecdotes that include him as a way to get into a topic about myself that I’m investigating. I avoid writing about my relationship with my husband because it’s not troubling, and I generally write about trouble.

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?

I had someone close to me get upset because I didn’t put her in a memoir—when I thought people hated to be written about. I thought I was doing her a favor, but it turns out there’s no “perfect” in memoir. I shy away from a few (OK, maybe hundreds of) topics that I know would hurt people, but I’ve still hurt people I loved by writing about them, even if I hid their identity and agonized and did it with the utmost of care. It’s just weird to be written about, and it’s great for a memoir writer to have someone else write about them. I’ve had that opportunity, and it’s instructive. I only write about something that might be hard for someone else if I can’t not write about it. And then I worry about it for three to five years first.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?

Apply for writers’ residencies before you have kids. Shoot big with your applications and your submissions. Study the places that you’d die of joy to be published in, and then hound them with your submissions, and don’t give up. (Those are a list of my mistakes flipped around into advice, so I don’t actually know much of what you should do. I just know what I did wrong. I didn’t think of myself as having the potential to be a “real” literary writer until I was 30, so I missed some time rubbing elbows with people, getting my work out there, and going to writerly places.)

And here are a few things I did right: develop a second skill related to writing, like copyediting, proofreading, digital design, Web stuff, reporting, and so on. You can get paying work that way, and you never know when it will come in handy for creative projects.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?

I’m an associate professor at Fairfield University, but I was once a trash collector, a failed environmental canvasser, and a nude model for an art class.

What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?

I make a mean stuffed cabbage, but most cooking stresses me out.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on two books simultaneously, which is how I like to do things. One is an essayistic memoir about what it means to be a witness to substance abuse, and the other is a book for teachers about how the literary essay might find a home in the Common Core (the revised national curriculum adopted by most states).


Read about Sonya Huber’s experience working in Direct Care in Two Eyes Are Never Enough.

Teresa Wiltz: “I was in elementary school and my playmates kept asking, ‘What’s are you?’” | Q&A

Journalist Teresa Wiltz, author of The Real America, chats with Shebooks about the challenges she’s faced as a woman of color in the newsroom and beyond.

What prompted you to write The Real America?

I’ve been obsessed with the topic ever since I was in elementary school and my playmates kept asking me, “What’s your nationality?”

How do you think your gender/racial/ethnic/religious identity has influenced your writing?

They’re inseparable. How I’m perceived in the world as a woman of color impacts the way I am treated and, as a result, the experiences that I’ve had.

Have you ever experienced sexism as a woman writer? How so?

Certainly in the newsroom. There seems to be this unconscious thinking that men are there to think (and write about) deep thoughts, while women are there to do the lighter stuff. It’s not everyone, and it’s often unconscious, but it’s there.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

When I was in the sixth grade and we had to write weekly compositions for English class. My baby sister was a toddler then and she was quite the handful. So I started writing fiction about her—short stories where I would send her to the moon for NASA. I got A+++s.

What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your writing?

Writing about myself, rather than reporting about the lives of other people. That’s terrifying.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?

Read everything. Write all the time. (Old school newspaper training is invaluable for that.) Learn the rules of grammar and style. Know them cold before you start getting all experimental with the written word.

Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?

Yes. But I’m working on that.


Want to get real about race? Read Teresa Wiltz’s journalistic memoir, The Real America, only at Shebooks!

Caroline Leavitt: ‘If you didn’t want to be written about, then you should have been kinder’

Best-selling novelist Caroline Leavitt—author of Pictures of You, Is This Tommorow, and the Shebook The Wrong Sistershares stories about her pet tortoise, her past failures, and her day job as a professional namer.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

When I was seven years old and couldn’t go out to play because I had terrible asthma. So I lost myself in the library, always begging librarians to find me books about “little Jewish girls who had asthma.” They never could, but they did give me books about people with TB and consumption, and I learned to wield those words to keep bullies away! I didn’t want to just read stories, I wanted to write them. I got hooked early. All through school, I made up the books that I would have to write book reports on. I wasn’t caught until I was a senior in high school, when the teacher was so enamored of the book, she tried to find it and couldn’t.

Do you have an imaginary reader you write for? Who is it?

When I am writing, I write for myself. I don’t think of readers at that point, because I think that kills your art. I write the book that haunts me, that obsesses me, that I am driven to write.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?

Do. Not. Give. Up. I had eight failed novels, and my novel Pictures of You was rejected by my then publisher as “not special enough.” I was sure my career was over, and I started crying before I hung up the phone. But then a writer friend got me to Algonquin, and they took that “unspecial book” and turned it, and the novel following that, Is This Tomorrow, into New York Times best-sellers. I’m the poster girl for second chances, and if I can do it, so can anyone else.

Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?

I tend to go by the Annie Lamott quote, “if you didn’t want to be written about, then you should have been kinder.”

What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?

I shared my life and home with a tortoise for 20 years. I bought him at a pet shop as a way to fix a very toxic relationship. We broke up, but I got custody of the tortoise, and he became my litmus test for future relationships. If a guy was kind to the tortoise, then he was a keeper. Part of why I adore my husband is that he ate spaghetti dinner with me at my table, while close by, the tortoise was eating worms.

Another fun fact is that I have a growing collection of cowboy boots.



What is your favorite word right now?


What writing projects are you working on now?

My next novel, Cruel Beautiful World—about murder, about a high school teacher and his very young student, about responsibility and love—will be published by Algonquin Books in 2015 or 2016. (I have to finish it!)

Aside from writing, do you have any other secret talents?

I am a professional namer! I have named kids’ dressing rooms (Presto Chango), phones, snacks, more.



Read Caroline Leavitt’s Shebook, The Wrong Sister, plus learn more about Leavitt and her writing at her website.

Susan Ito: “Truth IS stranger than fiction.”

Susan Ito is the author of the Shebook The Mouse Room, a short memoir about a time Ito spent working as a “mouse girl” at a laboratory, while, at the same time, searching for her birth mother. Bizarre, right? Here are some of Ito’s latest musings on synchronicity, adoption, DNA, and the warm glow of her e-reader.  


What prompted you to write this piece?

For many years, I tried to write this strange job as a setting in fiction. It never really worked because it just seemed too bizarre. Nude mice? But then once I began writing memoir, I remembered that I had this job during the first year of reuniting with my birth mother. It all fell together in a weird synchronicity of genetics, caregiving, and identity, and it taught me once again that truth is stranger than fiction.

Are there any themes, characters, or imagery that you find recurring in your writing? What are they, and what is their origin?

I always seem to be writing about questions of identity, belonging, longing, and displacement. For a while, I was very preoccupied with writing stories and poems about organ transplants. As an adopted person, I’m interested in themes of transplantation—of originating in one family or body but then ending up elsewhere.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

In first grade. It was later solidified when I was ten and first read Harriet the Spy. She was my idol. I filled many a marbled composition book because of her. She really showed me how to pay attention to the amazing things around me: people, the color of their socks, how they lived, etc.  She was my earliest writing mentor.

Is there anything that you consider too personal to write about? How do you find that edge?

Absolutely, there are plenty of things that I consider too personal! But there’s no clear-cut way of defining them. I’ve written about many things (late-term abortion, musings about my child’s future sex life, various bodily functions) that would be considered “too personal” by many. Sometimes I find myself thinking, What a great piece this could be, but I could never publish it. Then I write it just for myself or a select one or two readers. Nothing is too personal to write about, but some things are too personal to publish.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?

I currently also work as a physical therapist (in spite of nearly flunking out of PT school!). I think the most interesting day job I’ve ever had by far was working in the mouse room, although I’ve also been a family camp director, a leader of health workers delegations to Nicaragua, and a waitress in a Japanese restaurant.

Are you, or have you ever been, a member of a book club? What does/did that experience offer you?

I once belonged to a book club that had been going on for twenty years when I joined in. They were passionate, deep readers and also incredibly good cooks. They would rotate homes and serve themed meals that somehow connected, in strange and clever ways, with the books we were reading. I’ll never forget the Mediterranean feast we enjoyed after reading The Balkan Trilogy. Later on, I was in a mother-daughter book club with my daughter. That was a wonderful experience, going back and reading old favorites (Harriet the Spy!) and discovering new authors I never knew.

Which e-reader do you have? What book are you reading on it now? When do you like to read on a device?

I have a Kindle, but I also read on my iPad or even my iPhone, when I’m standing on line at the bank. I do love books and have thousands, but with e-readers, it’s great to have a book no matter where you are. My husband reads our favorite book, Gilead, during halftime at basketball games. I love that he’d rather read Marilynne Robinson than watch the Warrior Girls! I like to read in bed at night. It reminds me of reading by flashlight under the covers when I was a child. There’s something wonderful about combining a book with a night-light!


Read Susan Ito’s smart, strange, heartbreaking memoir The Mouse Room, only at Shebooks!

Ann Pearlman: on taking dictation from the universe

Best-selling author Ann Pearlman is out with a new mini memoir, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, about a biracial couple’s “coming out (to her family and his) in the early 1960s. Here are some of Pearlman’s thoughts on luck, and death.

Are there any themes that you find recurring in your writing?

Two themes recur in my writing, though neither one is apparent in His Eye Is on the Sparrow, except as harbingers of things to come. The first one is death. Many of my books, especially my fiction and memoirs, have a death as a significant turning point. The origin is in my life. About six weeks after the events of His Eye Is on the Sparrow occurred, my father died at 44 from a heart attack. I was with him when he died. Within the next decade, my grandmother and mother died. As well as two best friends: one from an allergic reaction to an anesthetic, and another was murdered. I was impacted by the knowledge that death strikes anywhere, at any time, without respect for age, or health.

The second is the sister of death, and that’s luck. Since I was a child, as soon as I understood the basics of reproduction, I wondered at the miraculous event of my existence. If my parents had made love a different day, if a different sperm fought its way to the ovum that was my other half, I would have been a different person. Maybe a boy. Maybe not loving art so much, or writing or dancing. I’ve always been grateful for the luck of my existence and my parents, who were able to nourish and encourage me.

But luck is a two-edged sword. Life is full of serendipitous events spinning into new directions. Some of the eventual outcomes cannot be predicted from the incident itself. For example, my divorce was a watershed event that I struggled to survive. But survive I did and later realized that my ex-husband had done me a huge favor.

How do you think your racial/ethnic/religious identity has influenced your writing?

My family is Jewish. But not only Jewish as my grandmother was German and had a sister who was pro-Nazi in the ’30s. As if containing these diverse elements in a family was not already complex enough, my Jewish grandfather supported my grandmother’s German parents who were visited in his house by their pro-Nazi daughter. As a child, I was chilled by the knowledge that in Europe during the ’40s, some of my relatives could have killed other relatives, unaware they were distantly related to each other. History impacts individuals, but individuals impact history by their personal decisions.

I am a woman who married a black man during the civil rights movement, and I’m the mother of biracial children; the effect of straddling two different worlds is visible in my work. W.E. B. Du Bois writes about the double-consciousness black people carry as they deal with the white attitudes toward them, along with a sense of themselves as African. I, too, straddle these worlds, but in a peculiar way. My family and grandchildren are black. Yet, when away from my family, I’m treated as “white.” And yes, even today, that treatment is different. Yes, even today, after the wonder of a biracial president and the subsequent billowing vitriol prove the intransigence of our racism.

Although the biography Inside the Crips was a collaboration with Colton Simpson, I could not have written it without an intimate knowledge of black people and sharing life with them. Both of my novels, The Christmas Cookie Club and A Gift for My Sister, deal with the formation of a biracial family and the continued racism the two sisters witness. I suspect that my grandmother’s straddling of her own German and Jewish identity, though not as visible, taught me comfort and skills without my realizing it.

His Eye Is on the Sparrow examines that point in my life when this dual identity was forged.

Have you ever experienced sexism as a woman writer? How so?

Of course. Women writers outnumber men writers, just like women readers outnumber male readers. Maybe our great numbers make us less seriously considered. This is similar to social work, where men have more cache, garner more attention, and are promoted more often than women. Yet, it is not just the rarity that we struggle against. Men’s thoughts, words, attitudes, very bodies, are taken more seriously. As a result, we try to get our work on a level playing field. Many women write under gender-nonspecific names or pen names ( George Sand, J.K. Rowling, E.L. James, etc.).

For women, there’s another issue: If we’re mothers, and working to financially support our children, the pressure of time and attention delays our writing. Yes, I wrote four books while I was still raising children, but dreamt of a time when I would no longer write while I was waiting for a child to finish soccer, football, rehearsals, saxophone lessons, etc., or would have to wake up so disgustingly early. I dreamt of a far-off “future” when my children were raised (or at least in high school). But there’s another discrimination that hits women harder than men: ageism. I have been told by an editor that they’d publish my novel, except that I’m now “too old” to build a career. Several others suggested that my characters were “too old.” I have even received a few snarky reviews about the age of my characters. Apparently publishers think readers are interested in young, fertile women; their lives still have significance. This seems to be more prevalent in the U.S. than in the U.K., where mature women are often the heroines of novels.

So women have two strikes against them, and it’s the same that we deal with throughout our lives: We’re women. And then we become postmenopausal women, and I guess, if we’re lucky, we’re supposed to simply drift away into grandmotherville.

Ironically, after The Christmas Cookie Club, I received a fan letter from a woman in her 20s who profusely thanked me. My book gave her hope for the future because she assumed her life would be boring by the time she was 40. My characters taught her life could be exciting and fun, even as you get older.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

I didn’t “decide” to be a writer. When I was in eighth grade, we were asked to write thank-you notes for a painting our school received. The painting was of two girls sitting on a beach; behind them the sea stretched to the horizon. While writing about the sea, I was transported into a sensation of taking dictation from the universe. The piece I wrote became a published poem. Re-experiencing that sensation propels my writing. I write because I love it; I write because I want that feeling again. I write to make sense of the world. Weeks later, when I’m editing, I cannot tell which prose was awe-inspired and which was written prosaically.

How do you define truth in memoir?

Truth when writing memoir is your truth. We now know memory distorts and shuffles things, especially for children who can be easily led into beliefs simply by the questions of adults. Yet, what we believe becomes our history, the narrative of our lives, establishing our worldview and propelling our actions.

When I write memoir, I try to check what I can. For example, in Infidelity, I related an incident that took place while my mother was giving a speech. I found supporting evidence on the Internet in a report of the speech, the venue, and her order in the program, all of which corroborated my teenage memory. Sometimes our memory is right on. However, during family discussions, it’s clear we each witness different aspects of events as a collage of stories that are created from our unique memories. All are right. All are pieces of the truth.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?

I have been a psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist in a private practice for several decades. I continue to see a few long-term patients.

As a social worker, I’ve had a number of fabulous, fascinating jobs: working with gangs, protective services, the poverty program, in schools, in a women’s prison, a child-guidance clinic. The craziest job I had was working in a science lab under a grant from NASA to ascertain if animals could grow in space conditions. When we started on the chameleons, I collected flies from the farms around Iowa City. Nonplussed and not curious, the farmers graciously escorted me to their pigpens, assuring me I could take all I wanted.

But it was not until I was a therapist in a women’s prison that I understood much about America. There you see the underbelly of our country and witness the failure of every institution in our society: justice system, schools, churches, families, and our economy. But in spite of the enormous trauma of many of [these women’s] lives, I was awestruck by the resilience, fortitude, hope, and desire to change. Prisons and our justice system are present in Inside the Crips, but also in Christmas Cookie Club and Gift for My Sister. Currently I’m working on a novel set in prison.

Are you or have you ever been a member of a book club? What does/did that experience offer you?

I resisted joining a book club because I didn’t want to “have to” read books others chose. A few friends wanted to start one and pestered me to join. Joining was a great decision. It’s scads of fun. I’m reminded how varied opinions and reactions are. My book club has helped me understand the reviews/comments I get from readers. How words are interpreted is only partly the writing, the other part is what the reader brings. Listening to fierce discussions and opposite opinions about the same book highlights the immense difference in tastes and interests.

My book club has also read my books and discussed them. The first time it was anxiety provoking. There was nothing anonymous about this discussion. Would my friends spare their criticism because of our friendships? But they didn’t, and I learned from that, too. They are intensely curious about how I develop my ideas to weave a story together, and they notice things about me or our city in the book.

Do you have a quote, mantra, or thought that you’d like to end with?

Follow your bliss, but consider others.


Read Ann Pearlman’s nail-biting short memoir, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, only at Shebooks!

Jeannie Ralston: “Don’t be afraid to be seen as crazy. People thought we were nuts.”

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.

TheMother ofAllFieldTrips

Looking for adventure? Read Jeannie Ralston’s mini-memoir The Mother of All Field Trips, only at Shebooks!