It’s not always easy to write about the people in your life, but as a memoirist, it’s part of my job. When I first began to write, I struggled to get accurate portrayals of my family members onto the page. I worried what my mom and dad will say when they read certain essays or chapters in my memoir. And later, I wondered about the ethics of writing about my children.
Carol Smallwood’s and Suzann Holland’s new anthology, Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing, will help any woman writer, whether she is a poet, fiction writer, essayist, or memoirist, navigate the joys and challenges of writing about family. It contains a wide range of essays—from how to craft family stories to finding your writer’s voice to exploring publishing options—that will speak to writers at all stages of their careers.
I’m honored to have Carol Smallwood, one of the editors of Women Writing on Family, here at Motherhood & Words today. Welcome, Carol!
KH: Tell me a little bit about how you and Suzann Holland conceived of this anthology. Why did you feel there was a need for it?
CS: When working on Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching (recently out from McFarland,) I thought of another anthology because it was just as easy to do the time-consuming calls for two anthologies as one. I thought of the topic of women writing on family because my first novel, Lily’s Odyssey published in 2010, was about family. It was a challenge to know what to include, if people in my life would recognize themselves, and if so how much would they object. I hired editorial help, and though he (perhaps I should’ve chosen a she) provided objective help with sequence, time, and structure, he didn’t provide much help with the questions I was trying to sort out.
KH: Can you talk about the way the book is structured? Did the pieces you receive dictate the different sections of the book, or did you specifically seek out essays to address different topics that come up when women write about their families?
CS: The responses determined the eight sections. I was very pleased that several contributors clarified the questions I ran into when writing Lily’s Odyssey, such as how to make family universal and of interest to those in other families, and how to make the fictional believable.
KH: What pieces in the anthology particularly resonate with you? Why?
CS: Part I: Personal and Legal Issues about Family Topics really resonates with me. It has eight chapters on the particular problems at the heart of writing about family. As Supriya Bhatnagar, Director of Publications, editor of The Writer’s Chronicle said in the Foreword: “Writing about family is easier said than done.” The problem of what to reveal and not to reveal is a huge concern—one that must be struggled with whether one’s work is poetry, creative nonfiction, or fiction.
KH: Was there anything that was particularly challenging or surprising that you and Suzann encountered as you compiled and sought a publisher for Women Writing on Family?
CS: I’d about given up finding a publisher after looking since 2009 when a male librarian colleague living in Canada sent me a website of Canadian publishers. I’d even offered the anthology to some women’s groups/publishers without the expectation of any compensation. But then I found the Key Publishing House, located in Toronto, and they were enthusiastic about the manuscript. They are not a women’s publisher, but the editor I dealt, a male, was very supportive.
I’m not sure why it was so difficult to get published—I know it was/still is recession time but there still seems to be a disregard for women’s writing, as noted by Vida: Women in Literary Arts. (Their website, vidaweb.org, has statistics on the publishing disparities regarding women.)
I’ve actually had contributors object to not being paid for contributions, that I was exploiting women writers. But anthologies are often the way for women to get in hard copy print. I agreed with their asking for compensation but the economic realities of publishing are a different matter. I believe online publishing is leveling the playing field for women.
KH: What are some of the challenges facing women who are writing about family and other “domestic” subjects?
CS: It is hard going. I don’t think Women on Poetry would have been a go unless I’d previously published several library books with them. Talented women writers have so much to say that needs to be heard. But I think many of us do not believe we have things of value to write because we’ve internalized unequal standards. The television series, Mad Men, is one I am again watching, and the treatment of women in the 60’s is so subtle, so much a part of the culture, it was taken for granted that the sexism was the natural order of things. I grew out of this culture and it amazes me when my daughter’s husband helps with the family in ways husbands never considered doing in my time when patriarchy ruled.
KH: Carol, you are an accomplished poet. How is writing about family in a poem different than writing about family in prose? Is there a difference?
CS: It takes a different mindset for me. It takes me a few days to switch over, so to speak, to thinking in poetry rather than nonfiction. It is less a switch from fiction to poetry because they both deal with what isn’t strictly factual. I didn’t write poetry until retirement and it was fun auditing creative writing classes and doing formal poetry on my own. I thought poetry was too difficult, beyond me. When my first poetry collection, Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity, and Other Realms, was nominated for the Pushcart in 2011, it was very gratifying. Women really need recognition and I wish there were more prizes and awards out there especially for them.
KH: What advice would you give to women who are just starting to explore family as a subject matter in their writing?
CS: In my Introduction to Women Writing on Family I noted:
In the often quoted Proust passage from, The Remembrance of Things Past: “When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.” I believe many women substitute family for “smell and taste,” their memory is essentially through family; “We think back through our mothers if we are women,” Virginia Woolf noted.
I really commend Literary Mama for helping women writers obtain the satisfaction of being published. More women writers like you, Kate, need to actively support other women writers–we really should. I think some of us still regard other women as rivals for the approval of men and are our worst enemy. Thank you, Kate!
KH: Thank you, Carol, for taking the time to be at Motherhood & Words today.
Carol has graciously offered a copy of Women Writing on Family to one of you, my dear readers. If you’d like to be entered into the drawing, please leave a comment below by Saturday, March 10th!