As a journalism teacher for six years, I started my new job in January with an ingrained habit of remaining objective in my writing. But I realized during last Thursday’s Celebrate Women Writers event, a reception sponsored by the Women’s Center to honor writers at the Virginia Festival of the Book, that this kind of objectivity has become my comfort zone.
Rules to live by in my former life:
1) Use third person perspective unless writing an opinion piece.
2) Allow the interviews or sources to tell the stories.
3) Present a balance of opinions so both sides are represented.
Ultimately, I had to let some of this go, as I have an inherent bias when writing press releases and blog posts on events that the Women’s Center sponsors, although it’s been hard to forget #1 and #2…
In the past three months, I have heard incredible stories from students at the Women’s Center, ranging from overcoming struggles with body image to leaving an impact on middle school girls through years of mentoring. These stories are better told through the eyes of those who experienced such change.
During the writers’ reception at Alumni Hall, the director of the Women’s Center, Sharon Davie, invited me to the table – literally and figuratively – by asking a simple question to everyone in attendance, “What are you working on right now?”
Of course, I gave obvious answers: I’m writing an article on this event and other events this week that the Women’s Center is hosting.
But after hearing other responses that related to writing very personal memoir and non-fiction, like one woman’s story as a breast cancer survivor, I somehow felt compelled to share more.
“I wanted to write in my unique voice because I think a lot of times you read memoirs of people going through something, and they’re heroic and inspiring, but I was the girl in the fuzzy pajamas,” said Joanna Chapman, author of Divine Secrets of the Ta-Ta Sisterhood. “I wasn’t out training for a marathon after chemo […or] running a Fortune 500 company. I thought it was important to have that voice because when you read about people who are heroic, you feel inspired. When you can read about somebody who is flawed and imperfect, then you feel like you’re not alone.”
I used to blog in high school and in my early undergrad years but didn’t pick it back up again until last semester as a 28-year-old when I made a big change by moving from the Midwest to Charlottesville as my husband began his MBA. As a “Darden Partner,” a significant other of a Darden student, I had the opportunity to join a group at Darden who blogs about their respective new lives in Charlottesville.
I described this life transition to my fellow writers around the table, all much more accomplished and prolific in their writing than me, who listened with so much curiosity that I felt a sense of camaraderie. I was comfortable enough to ponder another idea: Writing a book on my life as the younger sibling of a brother with autism.
Where that came from, I’m not exactly sure, as I haven’t talked about writing on that topic since I was a journalism and education student at Michigan State University. And then when I began advising publications at a high school in the Chicago suburbs, I tucked it away in my memory as a pipe dream. I felt the need to compartmentalize my private life as a public figure in my community.
Author Daryl Dance, who most often works in African-American and Caribbean literature and folklore, suggested this topic become a future session at the book festival. As others in the room shared stories about friends who are mothers of children with autism, it felt like a relatable (yet perhaps cliché) story.
Some writers discussed concerns about writing a story on family members who have struggles that they may not want others to know, or memories they would rather forget. Davie described how there is always that lingering question of, “How will your family react?” It was cathartic to even just talk about our ideas for stories and consider the results or consequences.
In the end, I got the best advice from writer Gail South at this event.
“[…In a family,] you remember different things and you remember [memories] differently,” South said. “There’s no way that you can get it exact […] Just tell the truest story you can tell.”
By Agnes Filipowski