Those are the words my daughter volleyed back when I asked if we might want to cut down on her theatre (yes, passive-aggressively) and what I learned prompted my latest article for Your Teen for Parents. It was so reassuring to see the hearts, shares and "Yes!"s on...
In honor of Mother's Day on Sunday, May 12th, I turn this week's post to novelist Janet Benton, author of Lilli de Jong, a work of historical fiction I recommend. I ran an interview with Janet for my series upholding women who carve brave paths that light the way for...
If you ask many a writing coach, they will usually steer scribblers far away from writing about their dreams in any final published form. And, it's true that it can be dangerous to slip into a self-referential blur of abstract prose. That said, there are some good...
A teacher of mine used to look over my shoulder while I was doing my homework and ask with a grin: “Working hard or hardly working?” Haha, I’d laugh (kinda sorta). But is working hard--alone--enough? For me, sometimes the fuel-key-ignition of idea and inspiration...
In continuing my coverage of Women's History month, my muse this week is a family picture. My great grandmother on my mother’s side, Frances Nelson Tillman (1880-1957), with whom I share my August birthday, was an ardent suffragette. And like me, she was a writer....
“Our archives are treasure troves - a testament to many lives lived and the complexity of the way we move forward. They contain clues to the real concerns of day-to-day life that bring the past alive.” ― Sara Sheridan I now think of my great grandmother every time I...
“I definitely have a thing for character development” whispered my 15-year old daughter, who has been performing on (or watching) various stages since she was five. We were both drying our eyes on a Sunday afternoon in a post-theatre trance where we didn’t want to...
This week my muse is a question. Will a woman ever be elected president in the U.S.? Is it true that the same assertiveness we applaud in men, we often cringe at in women as political journalist Maggie Astor suggested last week in “A Woman, Just Not That Woman”...
“I see the Sankofa Collaborative growing to be the “go to” resource for educators, museums, historic sites, historic societies, libraries and other institutions who not only want to improve awareness of African American history but to learn how to discuss difficult...
This week is all about watching If These Stones Could Talk reach new audiences through the hard work of authors Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck. They were recently invited to bring If These Stones Could Talk to present to Dr. Henry Louis Gates at The Lawrenceville School.
As their publisher and friend, I can’t help but think back to sitting with the authors around Elaine’s table every week, gathered next to overflowing boxes of research files, taking notes, writing and revising If These Stones Could Talk. Then, last November we got to the finish line. Throughout our three year journey to publication and beyond, Bev and Elaine have worked tirelessly to bring their messages to schools as well as the Sankofa Collaborative among other services through their Friday Truehart Consulting work.
A couple of years ago when I suggested Facebook as a place to reach their audience, grow their supportive community and tell the stories we couldn’t fit in the book, they were excited to connect their stories to headlines because we all knew the present was directly connected to the past. Now, we are six months after their book’s publication–and their work and their story continues—as their visibility continues to grow.
Here’s the photo as well as an excerpt from the authors themselves. You’ll really want to join their 3500 followers on Facebook if you haven’t already!
From Bev and Elaine: So what does this have to do with us having the pleasure of meeting Henry Louis Gates? Along with his acclaimed specials on PBS and being one of the world’s leading experts in African American studies, his latest book entitled, Stony the Road – Reconstruction, White Supremacy and the Rise of Jim Crow is already a best seller and delves into what reconstruction was really all about—to divide, overwhelm and resist. Recently Dr. Gates wrote and narrated a two-part documentary film for PBS “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War.” So when we were invited to attend his final lecture at the Lawrenceville School for their 2019 Senior Capstone Series on “Race” and to bring our book to present to him we were ecstatic! That evening Gates literally “took us to school” about the years following the Civil War and how the nation initially tried to do the right thing by being inclusive and transformative between 1865 and 1877.
Those are the words my daughter volleyed back when I asked if we might want to cut down on her theatre (yes, passive-aggressively) and what I learned prompted my latest article for Your Teen for Parents.
It was so reassuring to see the hearts, shares and “Yes!”s on the Your Teen Facebook page underneath my article, “The Importance of Doing What You Love.” The kind comments–and tags to other families–reminded me that so many others know that the juggle of stoking our kids creative lives is all worth it.
Here’s the article link from Your Teen for Parents, too. It’s an incredible resource for parents raising teens you’ll want to check out.
[otw_shortcode_button href=”https://yourteenmag.com/health/teenager-mental-health/importance-of-doing-what-you-love” size=”large” icon_position=”center” shape=”square”]My article in Your Teen for Parents[/otw_shortcode_button]
Ninety-two years ago, in May of 1927, Virginia Woolf created a memorable middle-aged female character (and a bohemian artist to boot!). I always return to Lily Briscoe for inspiration in Woolf’s classic novel To The Lighthouse published by Hogarth Press.
Both TIME Magazine and Modern Library named To the Lighthouse as one of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th century.
The character Lily Briscoe (a painter) experienced an epiphany at the age of 44. It happened as she stood before her canvas, and layers of memories accumulated inside her mind. She imagined those who had died. She remembered younger versions of those who had grown. The paths of so many lives, stumbled into her own, unfolded in fragments in her mind as she painted, and Lily thought to herself:
“Like a work of art,” she repeated, looking from her canvas to the drawing room and back again. She must rest for a moment. And resting, looking from one to the other vaguely, the old question which traversed the sky of the soul perpetually, the vast, the general question which was apt to particularize itself at such moments as these…paused over her, darkened over her. What is the meaning of life?
A simple question–one that tended to close in on one with the years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. This, that and the other.…In the midst of chaos, there was shape.”
She would come, yes. But it was with difficulty that she took her eyes off the picture…struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say; ‘But this is what I see; this is what I see, and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.”
These seem like good words for writers in the midst of complex projects, I think of Lily doing her best to stick to her vision in front of her easel–and remember: “In the midst of chaos, there was shape.”
In honor of Mother’s Day on Sunday, May 12th, I turn this week’s post to novelist Janet Benton, author of Lilli de Jong, a work of historical fiction I recommend.
I ran an interview with Janet for my series upholding women who carve brave paths that light the way for other women: Women on a Quest.
But first, I dedicate this post to all of the mothers out there (biological and otherwise) who feel the energy of caring in their bones. Here is the excerpt from the preface of Lilli de Jong.
This work of fiction began in the long days and nights of nursing and nurturing my baby. As I held her in my arms and listened to the ticking of a clock, a voice came now and then into my mind. It was the voice of an unwed mother from long ago.
Sometimes she railed against being cast out, with her life derailed for good, while her lover walked freely among respected persons. Sometimes my own moments merged with hers, as when I marveled at the calm that descended while nursing or felt a fatigue I could never before have imagined. After placing my sleeping infant down, I walked to my desk and jotted those words onto scraps of paper.
While pregnant, I was inclined to study. I followed the stages of a growing human. I looked into practices of labor and delivery and armed myself with all manner of ideas and stuff. I considered these acts to be preparatory, even protective. Yet for my own specific labor, and for the actuality of caring for the infant who emerged, I was utterly unprepared.So perhaps this was when the door to Lilli’s story opened: when I was stunned at being the basis of a newborn’s survival and awed by how my body and heart changed in service of her. Becoming a mother was no small shift in identity. I would never see any aspect of living in the same way again.
Oh and be sure to read about Janet’s journey and check out her theme song for her quest to uphold long forgotten mothers.
If you ask many a writing coach, they will usually steer scribblers far away from writing about their dreams in any final published form. And, it’s true that it can be dangerous to slip into a self-referential blur of abstract prose. That said, there are some good reasons that famous authors of enduring literature (e.g., Shakespeare—“to sleep, perchance to dream” or a “Midsummer Night’s … Dream”)—have embraced the mysterious and emotional depths of dreaming.
It might have everything to do with science and how our brains are wired.
For instance, some neuroscientists have suggested that the amygdala (I should say amygdalae, since we all have two) and the hippocampus (hippocampi) are activated when you dream.
You might want to call your amygdala fear and bliss central. Shaped like an almond and located near the hippocampus (the learning and memory HQ of your brain) without your amygdala you cannot process your feelings. Those deep sensations might lasso up all sorts of emotion-blends– everything from traffic-induced frustration or fear of a snake’s coil to extreme happiness.
Thinking about dreams and writing has led me to two muses this week. One is a clip featuring Dr. Matthew Walker, author of Why We Dream and Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at UC Berkley. In it Walker calls dreaming “emotional first aid” and connects dreams with creativity.
My other muse is an expert named Dr. Aiden Josey, who can help you decipher your dreams–and learn how they can lead you to new insights about yourself and about the world.
Take a look at the forthcoming workshop at my favorite bed and breakfast in New Jersey. June 7-9, Jungian analyst Dr. Alden Josey will be leading an exploration that can deepen your understanding of your dreams. (You can read more about the owner here.)
“In our weekend together,” promises workshop leader, Alden Josey, “we will develop a contemporary model of the psyche and its dynamics with special attention to the relationship between ego consciousness and the unconscious. We’ll look at the dream process as a very important part of the interaction between ego life, its supporting psychic depths, and our creative energies. Our explorations will take us into some of the extraordinary architecture of our psychic ‘house.'”
Alden Josey, PhD spent a career in organic chemistry research and research management–including more than two dozen published technical papers, and 7 patents. Then he retired in 1985, entered the C.G. Jung Institute for Analytical Psychology in Zürich, as a Training Candidate in clinical Jungian Psychoanalysis. With his degree in hand, he returned to the U.S. and opened a private practice in Wilmington, Delaware, from which he has continued to practice, to teach in Jungian Institutes in Philadelphia and New York, and to lecture widely the U.S and abroad. The first weekend in June, he’s coming to Minerva’s by the Sea (a weekend that just happens to coincide with Long Beach Island’s international film festival!)
A teacher of mine used to look over my shoulder while I was doing my homework and ask with a grin: “Working hard or hardly working?”
Haha, I’d laugh (kinda sorta).
But is working hard–alone–enough? For me, sometimes the fuel-key-ignition of idea and inspiration (plus keep-butt-in-chair research) takes a while to turn over.
A recent report, “Incentivizing the Creative Process” out of Texas looked like a creative formula worth noting for writers. That the study was first published in an academic accounting journal seemed like a good muse for tax day!
The study found that idea generation was maximized when the participants were incentivized (with money) for the quantity of ideas they came up (not necessarily quality) followed by an “incubation period.” As the summary states:
There is an effective formula for unlocking employees’ creative potential, according to new research. Employers should incentivize workers to produce an abundance of ideas — even mediocre ones — and then have them step away from the project for an ‘incubation period.’
For my purposes, the study held a lot of parallels for writers. In short: It’s good to write a whole lot of words down–and then walk away to let it simmer. But don’t forget discipline and elbow grease first. Did you take good notes and collect details or organize your research? Maybe even take a photo of something you want to describe more fully later.
But, then, by all means, go ahead and walk away.
Besides, you never know when the muse will strike. For instance, aha’s don’t usually appear when I’m overusing adjectives and then deleting them to describe the cherry blossom tree that took my breath away. You may picture me cursing my inability to position the tree branches in the view of one of my characters.
Creativity is not always as pretty as that cherry blossom tree that inspired me. There are in-between phases. There are before-”I’ll never get there” walls and almost done-grrrr blockades.
The light-cracked-door in a project, the just-right details to bring a character’s body alive in a scene or the overall chronological structure for 27-jumbled-shorter narratives, tends to come for me exactly when I am biting into my peanut butter and jelly sandwich every time I don’t have my notebook right next to me at lunch.
Or when I am sleeping.
In fact, for one book project, the writing plan for a client woke me up as though someone had yelled straight in my ear at 4 a.m. I knew better than to go back asleep. So, I pulled myself up from the comfy pillows and got to my desk fast. I didn’t dare let my eyelids close until I wrote every single thought (complete with google link) and by that point there was no going back to sleep. It was 11:30 a.m.
No matter what break we need for ideas to coalesce, and we do need them, as this study reminds us, walking away is imperative–but so is being rewarded for cranking ideas out in an open and productive forum first.
So, make sure to reward yourself for each step of your journey, those five-figure-word days or the research puzzles you took fastidious notes on. Keep making concrete goals and generating ideas. But then walk away and chances are, more–even better– ideas will come.
BTW: Need an incentive to write that very first draft pre-pitch? Award-winning author of Naked, Drunk and Writing (a must-have-book on craft for memoir writers) Adair Lara suggests that writers pay themselves per word to maximize their daily output with only a hint of sarcasm.
As she says,”Whatever works.”
All I know is the next time I hear my teacher’s voice in my ear while I’m at my keyboard, I’ll just tell him straight up.
In my scroll through birthdays this week I landed on bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver, an author who participated in a different kind of book exhibit which I covered in 2014 at Christie’s Auction House.
At 20 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan, I took my notebook out not to gaze at diamonds or rare art but (nerd alert…) to look inside glass-tinted cases at books for a partnership between PEN American Center, one of the oldest human rights organization in the U.S. and Christie’s with the support of countless writers and artists who all played a part in the fundraising event that raised a million dollars for freedom of expression.
It was as large as a concert hall inside the famous auction house–310,000 square feet of bright lights and plush carpeted floors when I walked into the exhibit room of First Editions/ Second Thoughts displaying books.
But back to Barbara Kingsolver, who in her reflections, led the reader back to her first sentence in The Poisonwood Bible, the bestselling novel that depicted missionary-fueled imperialism and its troubled legacy in the Congo. Kingsolver had a compelling annotation on her first page after the first sentence of her book.
“Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.”
Kingsolver writes: “The first sentence of a novel should make a promise that the book will keep. The ruin that Europe and the US brought on the Congo. The difficulty of inheriting this history — as captive witness to our nation’s past. The impossible search for redemption. The temptation of denial.”
I think it’s important to note that Kingsolver used funds she made from The Poisonwood Bible to establish the PEN/ Bellwether Prize, an award given to support socially-engaged fiction. “Established by Barbara Kingsolver in 2000 and funded entirely by her, it is awarded biennially to the author of a previously unpublished novel of high literary caliber that exemplifies the prize’s founding principles.”
I landed on Kingsolver’s sentence that began with the word “imagine” because it linked with a part of the article I wrote–and so many other famous socially-engaged writers involved in First Editions/ Second Thoughts–Angela Davis, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison to name but a few.
As I reflected on my 2014 piece for Wild River Review, I gravitated to the role of writing and writers: Imagining a transformed world — or more critically, examining the “real” world — is perhaps the most important role of the writer, the group PEN International Center worked to protect since it was founded by Catharine Amy Dawson-Scott and John Galsworthy in 1921.
So, my question of the week: How can we reimagine and transform the world through our writing?
What do myths, muses and my basement have in common? Myths have secret messages that live in the basements (aka dumping grounds) of our heads, mine anyway. I don’t know about you but I usually stay well out of my basement unless the humidifier needs emptying or a fuse blows in the kitchen. But then, I realize how important it is and vow to pay more attention (again). That’s after I have to trudge down the musty steps in a panic and play with the switches and figure out what power source is connected to which room (which either requires me yelling up to my daughter or me running up and down the stairs to check what actually works), etc. because I wrote down the answers in an ancient code years ago (on top of what the previous owners wrote) and that isn’t quite working anymore.
Myths are codes that connect the wires of our minds to the stories we believe (sometimes unconsciously)–interspersed with cloudy habits and conditioning of what we should and shouldn’t do or think. Nevertheless, we make urgent “stress” decisions there right in the jaws of what mythology reveals about that conditioning–and we also begin to descend the depths of ancient mysteries for which we will perhaps never know answers.
How do we untangle myths in our minds?
I’ve always wanted to ask one of the leading female popularizers of mythology, Edith Hamilton (1867-1963), author of the classic work Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (1942) why no-one (certainly not her who called Pandora a “beautiful disaster”) ever had Pandora’s or say, Medusa’s back. To bad, I can’t time travel to request an interview. After all, Edith Hamilton was headmistress of a girls school who radiated lines like this in her retirement speech from the school.“This only bears out what I have been trying to teach you, and that is to look a plain fact in the face.”
It seems important to continue to talk back to the ancient poets. Here’s a snippet from an older piece I wrote called “Me and Medusa.”
“Perhaps you are wondering why Ceto shivered at the name her unborn child whispered in wild vague dreams. After all, the root of the name “Medusa” connotes profound wisdom (sometimes interpreted as feminine wisdom); in Sanskrit (medha) Greek (metis) and Egyptian (met or mat).
First worshipped as a Serpent Goddess in Libya, Medusa’s lineage spread (and of course, constantly changed) across the Mediterranean through the coasts of Africa to Greece to Turkey for thousands of years, so her name collected the cumulative human interpretation of many ancient languages.”
In my view, as fluid as gender might be right now–as much progress as we’ve made by and for women (and hopefully men too)–there is a lot about ancient mythology we still refer to in backed-up-against-the-wall-straight-jacket terms that aren’t really exactly, ummm, factual.
When you read classical literature you are stepping into peoples’ minds (their epiphanies but also their log jams and steel traps) and if you are not exposed to the psychological nuances and realities of diverse viewpoints, you are cut off from a vital power source.
In continuing my coverage of Women’s History month, my muse this week is a family picture. My great grandmother on my mother’s side, Frances Nelson Tillman (1880-1957), with whom I share my August birthday, was an ardent suffragette. And like me, she was a writer. From the time she was a teenager, Frances was a journalist who covered women’s issues. She began her journalistic career working on The Salt City Voice, a Manistee, Michigan weekly paper, one of the first papers totally published and edited by women. She was an assistant editor in 1900. She wrote a front page piece for the Detroit News Tribune in 1901 sharing her experiences at the American Pan Am exposition.
Frances Nelson, about 1900
When she later married and had four sons, she stayed engaged in the suffrage movement. She sent her photograph of her four young sons reading The Woman Citizen in 1918 to the magazine, and it was published. See the letter from the editor-in-chief Rose Young. The Woman Citizen was the official organ of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
Letter from Woman Citizen editor in chief Rose Young to Frances Nelson Tillman (my Great Grandmother) in 1918.
“The record company didn’t want a hymn on the album,” explains keyboardist Rick Wakeman (of the progressive rock band Yes). He was talking about the song, Morning Has Brokenrecorded by Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Cat Stevens). Brevity was but one of the problems/ challenges they encountered when they started recording at a London studio infused with Stevens’ gentle acoustic guitar chords and Wakeman’s cascading piano riffs arranged for the album “Teaser and the Firecat” in the early seventies.
“It’s one of the most beautiful pieces ever written, but it’s just a verse,” Wakeman said in the same video, as he describes the creative process behind the song. It was Wakeman who helped Stevens stretch the sparse 44 seconds to the full-pop-radio requirement of three minutes. They added a choir and even a harmonium, among other touches to expand the sound.
As is so often the case in creative pursuits, Stevens and Wakeman needed to create new material out of the old for a new purpose. Given the producers resistance, you have to wonder at the pull the song with gentle lyrics like, “Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning,” exacted on Stevens, who, despite all protests, made sure the song was included on his album by the time of its release.
The hymn appeared at just the right time when Stevens recalls feeling “dry” and “looking for inspiration.” He entered the religious section of a bookstore and picked up a hymnbook. As he flipped through the pages, there it was: Morning Has Broken.
Written (happy women’s history month!) by an English woman named Eleanor Fajeon, Morning Has Broken was commissioned by a vicar who was looking for a song of universal praise, one that would speak to everyone, no matter their background. In fact, Farjeon was not a musician. She was an author who had earned the Hans Christen Anderson award in 1956.
My personal connection to Morning Has Broken takes me back to a room of eight people or so, all different kinds of people, all ages, who looked around at one another at a creativity workshop at Barnegat Light in Long Beach Island, New Jersey, at Minerva’s Bed and Breakfast.
I remember my heart was in my mouth the whole weekend. It was my first creativity workshop. I didn’t know what to expect but from there on out I was hooked on the very word, creativity. My non-dictionary definition of creativity is any pull inside your stomach where that morning light starts to get in. It’s not always positive or negative. In fact, that hard morning light might start with a feeling of emptiness, but don’t let that fool or scare you. Keep looking.
That weekend, we all cleared the space for each other by listening and “catching” the goals and vision of each other’s work. This is the circle quality I love about the finest workshops. One of the participants talked about the lyrics to Morning Has Broken. I can still picture the quiet awe of the room.
The humble Morning Has Broken conjures up a Cinderella song-fairy-tale. The record company never even planned to release it on the airwaves. But one day, the single was finally allowed to dress up and go to the ball, according to Wakeman. (They’d run out of options and wanted a last-ditch effort to squeeze out more cash! ) The rest is history. The song topped the charts for nine weeks, more than any other single on the album. As for Farjoun’s adapted hymn? It has now been listened to over a million times in the above YouTube clip alone.
“Many women spoke and wrote and changed laws. Together, women from many races and backgrounds pioneered feminism.” from Gloria Takes a Stand: How Gloria Steinem Listened, Wrote and Changed the World, Written by Jess Rinker & Illustrated by Daria Peoples Riley (Bloomsbury Children’s Books)
My mom took me to my first women’s rights conference in Pittsburgh in the early seventies when I was about five years old. I confess I don’t remember much about the conference except for the train ride back because I got to sit in the caboose, houses and yards and factories and farms whooshing by me all the way back to central New Jersey. But the conversations that ensued in my house from the experience—and my mom’s locally oriented activism– stuck. Around that time, my mom brought home a colorful game called Herstory with flimsy cards and plastic pieces, in which the names of women countered the typically male-centric versions of history, a game that got me thinking.
During that time, I didn’t know it, but activist Gloria Steinem (who turns 85 on March 25th) was rising in the ranks of second-wave feminist leaders–and as a writer of influence. “In 1971, Gloria started Ms. magazine with her friend Dorothy Pitman Hughes. Ms. was the first magazine owned and written by women,” notes author Jess Rinker in fluid prose accompanied by rich illustrations by Daria Peoples-Riley in their newly published Gloria Takes a Stand: How Gloria Steinem Listened, Wrote and Changed the World, a picture book created for children to learn more about the life and impact of Gloria Steinem.
Ms Magazine was founded a year after The National Organization for Women (NOW) led a vigorous campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. It’s hard to imagine that at the time, women couldn’t apply for their own credit cards or mortgages. Though that has changed and though the ERA passed in the House in 1970, and its passage was close, it was never ratified by enough states to become the law of the land.
Gloria Takes a Stand launches today from Bloomsbury Press (with a publishing mission to change the conversation) during National Women’s History month. Jess Rinker and Daria Peoples-Riley, the author and illustrator team, both found themselves drawn to Gloria’s capacity for listening–and taking a stand.
“I loved what Gloria had to say and how she said it. She’s an amazing writer,”explains Jess who poured over the feminist icon’s writings, events and accomplishments–and wanted to capture everything (in her words she needed to “overwrite” first) before crafting the final poetic words in a writing process she likens to sculpture.
“I was drawn to Ms. Steinem’s commitment to include women of color in her activism, and create space for them in the bigger picture of the feminist movement, says Illustrator Daria Peoples-Riley, who studied everything from Steinem’s nail polish choice to her expressions in photographs. “She was a partner in the liberation of all women, and someone I wanted to learn more about.”
Gloria Takes a Stand celebrates the same liberating qualities which many children, female and male, might push aside–reading, dreaming, speaking up…” For instance, Gloria Takes a Stand reminds us in Gloria’s words that: “Dreaming is a form of planning.”
Moreover, tapping into pivotal moments in Gloria’s early childhood, we learn that Gloria’s parents didn’t punish her for speaking her views. Rather, they told their daughter when they thought she was right and that she was a smart kid.
But how did the book evolve? And what should children know about what the iconic Gloria stood for? I had a chance to go behind the scenes and ask both the writer and the illustrator a few questions about the book Foreword Reviews acknowledged as a “story [that] will inspire a new generation to follow their dreams and fight for equality.”
What drew each of you to the Gloria project?
Jess: Back in 2015, I read about Gloria’s then-new memoir My Life on the Road in an NPR article. I’d always been interested in her, but hadn’t learned a lot about her, despite my social welfare degree. I was in a somewhat fundamental Christian circle at that age and feminism was a bad word. Regardless, Gloria had always been interesting to me, if from afar, so the book sparked a lot of interest in her life. I’d had no idea she essentially lived on the road for most of her childhood. That way of life has always been fascinating to me and that was the main reason I picked up her book! But once engrossed in her life, I then picked up several of her books. And then one day my agent, who often puts out ideas to her client list, mentioned a “Gloria Steinem picture book might be cool”…I raised my hand, claimed it, and the rest is history. (herstory?)
Daria: First and foremost, I have to say it was Jess’ text. It was fluid, and easy to move through. I like when texts flow like a song. It’s hard to describe exactly, but I enjoyed reading it over and over. I’d heard of Gloria Steinem, but I didn’t know much about her, and much of what is in the book was my first introduction. I was drawn to Ms. Steinem’s commitment to include women of color in her activism, and create space for them in the bigger picture of the feminist movement. She was a partner in the liberation of all women, and someone I wanted to learn more about. The text also came at a time when I began to experience loneliness as an illustrator. I was often the only female in the room, more than often the only black female. In a way, I was probably drawn to it because I was wondering how I was going to occupy and navigate a space I didn’t seem to fit in, and desired some freedom from the burden.
What surprised you most as you worked on the project in terms of what you found in the research?
Jess: Gloria listened. She mostly has (or had) a reputation for being a loud angry speaker. But that’s not who she actually is. Originally the title for the book was “What Gloria Heard” because I was so taken with how this woman listens. Truly listens to people. I found myself wanting to be like her, to learn how to listen to what people are telling us they need. Learning this about her was incredibly timely as well. I kept thinking about Black Lives Matter in particular and how so many (white) people were arguing All Lives Matter, and I wanted to pull my hair out and yell: “You’re not getting the point! You’re not listening!” Listening isn’t simply being a shoulder, it’s a method of empathy and understanding and most importantly education–learning what people need by listening to what they say they need. It’s a simple concept and yet we all struggle to do it. Gloria organized talking circles to encourage women listening to women. This was the foundation of the women’s movement–organizing a safe space to speak and listen. I wish we did this more!
Daria: I think when I first began my research, I defined Ms. Steinem solely as an women’s rights activist, but by the end of my research, I would also define her as a cultural icon, and an extraordinarily loving friend and daughter. She was also strategic. I was surprised to find out Gloria Steinem, in many ways, rewrote her mother’s story through the life she chose to live. The other thing that surprised me was her glasses weren’t for fashion purposes. (Haha.) She hated public speaking and the glasses helped her hide. She was a huge fan of Wonder Woman so maybe they were her secret superpower. She also taught me liberation looks different for every woman. The feminist movement gave women the voice to ask for what they needed as individuals, and the movement demanded those needs on their behalf.
I loved the phrasing, the poetic progression. “Gloria watched/ She learned/ And helped… to….Gloria still writes/ She still speaks/ And still listens. These stanzas as wonderful ways to affirm the best impulses children have while you tell Gloria’s story. How did you decide on them? How would you describe your writing process?
Jess: I don’t remember exactly when in the process the stanzas emerged, although because my initial idea was What Gloria Heard, I had repetitions of “Gloria heard…” and they gradually evolved to what’s in the book now. Picture books take so long to publish. My agent sold this in 2016, so it’s hard for me to remember details! My process with biographies now–I’m on my 5th–is to write, write, write everything that I love in the person’s life. I overwrite it on purpose so I can see what stands out, what kids might relate to or be drawn to, and see what kind of arc there is in the narrative. I treat it like fiction, with the same elements of writing a novel. The story needs tension, a problem to solve, obstacles, etc. but all true and pulled from the subject’s life. Then I work (like sculpting) to find the single thread that will become the kid friendly version. Once I think I have my story arc, I work on the language, word by word, to make it a fun read-out-loud book, because that’s primarily what picture books are. They’re meant to be listened to. It’s a challenging process. And I say I’m on my 5th, but only 2 have sold, so that gives you an idea of how challenging. 🙂
Daria, you wrote: “Ms. Steinem listened when others ignored, so in many illustrations I drew her standing to the side, as observers do. She spoke out when others were silent—even at the cost of not being admired. So I made sure her expressions were strong and confident, but her eyes revealed hints of concern.” I loved these subtle ways of describing a person’s way through their mannerisms. What are some other things you thought about as you illustrated—and can you describe your illustration process for the project?
Daria: Perhaps much like an actor prepares for a role, I tried to do that by watching her interviews, documentaries, etc. I paid attention to everything—from nail polish choices to clothing options. I listened to the music she might’ve listened to during different time periods of her life. I thought about the fact she deeply cared for people. She learned about what people needed because she listened. I began listening more. I’m on the road often, so I started “playing Gloria Steinem” by asking my drivers about their lives, and even noticed how my perspective shifted when I listened.
As far as the process, I researched throughout. Every time I got stuck, I went back to research. This wasn’t an easy project for me. It stretched me and grew me.
My art director, Donna Mark, was wonderful to work with, and the first thing she did was give me a text dummy since there was more text than I was used to working with.
Then we worked on rendering Steinem in her likeness, but not realistically, which proves more challenging than I ever thought it would be.
Next, I sketched each spread until we felt each page conveyed key elements of the text. I’m not one for drawing the text verbatim. I think I would fall short of my responsibility to tell a visual story that expands the reader’s experience or provides space for children to imagine on their own.
I chose to illustrate the entire book in full spreads partly because I’m also a photographer and it’s the way I see. But also because almost every page of this book is a decade of her life. I considered it would be a book children would read over time, so each page turn invited a new experience which can’t really be done with spot illustrations or half-spreads.
As far as the color, I chose soft colors probably because I was influenced by photographs that felt vintage.
About Jess Rinker: Jess Rinker’s next picture book biography is Send a Girl: The Brenda Berkman Story also published by Bloomsbury. Jessica’s middle grade novel debut duology, The Dare Sisters, will be published in Fall 2020 and 2021 by Imprint/Macmillan. Jess has a BA in Social Welfare and received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in a tiny river town with her husband who is also a children’s author.
About Daria Peoples-Riley: Daria Peoples-Riley’s debut picture book THIS IS IT was published with Greenwillow/HarperCollins (February 2018). I GOT NEXT, a companion book will follow in July of 2019. Daria holds a BA in English and a Masters in Education. She lives with her family in Las Vegas, Nevada.
"Kimberly’s writing is like a breeze filled with ancient fragrances – like incense in Carl Jung’s study. Yet, her work also strikes me as an emerging kind of feminism – rooted in primordial wisdom and myth not trapped in a modern battle with frenzied materialism – though Kimberly is clearly armed and dangerous." – Michael Carroll, author of Awake at Work, The Mindful Leader and Fearless at Work