Tuesday, October 18, 2011

AROHO, Synchronicity, and an Interview with Marlene B. Samuels

Photo by Lisa Rizzo
When I applied to attend a Room of Her Own Foundation’s Summer 2011 Retreat for women writers, I did so because of the conference’s promise of bringing together a group of writers for an uncommon experience: every writer would present as a teacher, every writer would participate as a student. Drawn to this non-hierarchical setting, in which beginning as well as more established writers would mix without pretension, I took a deep breath, and applied.

I set myself the goal of reading work by as many of the attending writers as possible. On my initial working list of 49 authors, I located seven titles at our library. The first one I randomly grabbed to read was The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival, by Sara Tuvel Bernstein with an afterward by her daughter, Marlene B. Samuels.

My relationship to the Holocaust started as a child when I felt empathically drawn, like many young girls, to Anne Frank, The Diary required reading for the“Girl’s Club” I joined with 3 other 10 year olds in Illinois. But the connection felt eerily deep and immediate.

At that time, I began to write poems fixated on the image of butterflies drawn by survivor children on camp walls (the images continued to haunt poems years later in graduate school and beyond). I have had vivid recurring dreams about the Holocaust over the course of my lifetime. Wether those dreams were simply a byproduct of dipping into the field of collective memory or wether they were past life experiences, I have had a connection I can’t explain (and I’m not sure that connection needs a frame).

My night time dream experiences merged with waking life the night I finished The Seamstress. I found the memoir simply and beautifully written, explicit and revelatory (I posted a mini-review here at She Writes). While drifting off to sleep that night, I had the physical sensation of opening in layers like a cocoon; the places on my shoulder blades where wings would be tingled, like wingbuds. A weight lifted out of my body at that moment, and I accepted the cellular metaphor as a gift.

I was not surprised, then, when I arrived at the airport to take a shuttle to Ghost Ranch for the AROHO retreat, and just before the doors closed, in stepped a vibrant, lively, black-haired woman, smartly dressed, who asked if she could sit next to me, did I mind, she was actually booked for the later shuttle, but she thought, what the heck, she’d made it in time and might as well get on this shuttle since there was room.

“I’m Tania,” I said, and “you are?”

“Marlene Samuels,” she replied with a familiar accent...back East? Chicago?, charming, settling in beside me. I was in awe—and our journey as friends began, ignited by a rich conversation about her mother’s book, The Seamstress, her role editing and reshaping it, the twenty plus years bringing it to the publishing table. That set the bar for the remainder of the retreat, and the synchronicities and connections burgeoned over the next ten days of the retreat. I am very honored to repost Marlene’s interview here. Marlene’s interview was conducted by Lisa Rizzo and originally appeared on both Lisa’s blog, Poet Teacher Seeks World and will appear shortly on the AROHO Speaks, Writer to Writer website.

AROHO Speaks, Writer to Writer: Interview with Marlene B. Samuels

Marlene B. Samuels
Thinking back to the 2011 AROHO retreat, can you tell us about an idea, exercise or conversation that had either an identifiable impact upon your writing habits or became a finished piece of writing or one in process?

There were so many incredible moments and conversations it’s really tough for me to isolate a single one but what did make a huge impact on me is the passion with which each woman approached her writing. I was moved by the observation that even the most accomplished participants still expressed some self-doubt. To me that was very refreshing!

It’s noteworthy that we all struggle with the importance of being perceived as serious writers. We each struggle to find that space and consistency for our writing but there’s no precise formula. Kate Gale’s comment – that we schedule the various responsibilities in our lives and meet our commitments yet fail to follow suit with our writing - that was especially poignant. All too often, women put others’ needs ahead of their own writing schedules as though somehow writing isn’t a legitimate use of their time.

Bhanu Kapil’s direct questioning of total strangers really influenced my own work. Her method of querying them as the means by which she could pursue her writing project encouraged me to begin a project I’d been stuck on for about two years. Until hearing Bhanu, I’d been unable to muster the nerve to approach strangers. She was a true inspiration as well!

Is there one specific moment or event at the retreat that sparked an insight or shift in how you perceive either your work or yourself as a writer?

Yes, the evening readings altered my self-perception. Reading my work helped me perceive myself more seriously and hence, as a professional writer instead of someone who’s reluctant to say, “I’m a writer,” in response to the question, “What do you do?” Before the retreat I felt like an imposter if I claimed to be a writer. Somehow, it seems that as women, we have a misperception that unless our writing appears on the New York Times bestseller list or in The New Yorker or is reviewed by Oprah, we can’t claim to be writers. It seems most of us struggle with that but - my gut feeling: it’s a much bigger issue for women.

Is there a specific woman writer who inspires/d you? If so, can you tell us something about why?

Tania Pryputniewicz was amazingly inspirational – the mere fact that she committed to attend in the face of her own doubts, that she demonstrated such a unique approach to her poetry, and that she gave such a unique and creative presentation to the entire group inspired me. She discussed the collaborative process, an approach to writing I’ve never really considered. It’s given me a new view into the creative process, almost like a child being given encouragement to draw outside of the lines.

Bridget Birdsall’s one-on-one spiritual consultation with me – something I was really suspicious of but also curious about – was great fun, not to mention that her insights were exceedingly encouraging. Her strength of character and her intuition are also reflected so honestly in her own writing. There are so many others but I’m guessing the space of this interview wouldn’t accommodate my rave reviews.

How would you describe your typical writing day?

I spend a lot of time in approach-avoidance activities, that time wasting stuff, as I try to get organized. When I was in graduate school we used to refer to that as “pencil sharpening”! I have a terrible time actually getting started on the writing process each day because I tend to take care of all my other responsibilities - phone calls, bills, whatever else distracts me. But if I don’t do that first thing then it’s very tough for me to stay focused.

Afternoon seems the best time for me, when I can spend two to four hours writing. I’ve noticed that just in the few weeks since I got home from the retreat, I’m much more committed to my writing time. It feels really good and that in itself is very reinforcing of my writing commitment. I’m certain it’s the result of embracing the concept that I really am a writer and it’s my legitimate real career.

Can you describe for us what you’re currently working on?

I’m actually working on three things, each in a different genre. I’m completing a short story collection that I’ve been working on for years entitled, The Mental Health Poster Child. It began as my memoir but has evolved as a sequel to my mother’s memoir, The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival. After her death I rewrote and edited when Penguin Berkley agreed to publish it. In addition, I’m co-host of a culinary website and its blog, www.expendableedibles.com . Both are progressing toward an “ethnographic” sort of cookbook. My third project is a sociology book based upon interviews with baby-boom generation women. That project really draws upon my training as a serious research sociologist but incorporates my more recently honed passion for writing creative nonfiction.

Is there a specific question you’d have liked us to ask and if so, could you answer it?

Actually, yes! The question I’m surprised no one asked – one I personally asked many of women during the retreat, “What influenced you to attend the retreat?”

I’ve never been to a writers’ retreat before, only to writing workshops and conferences -courses at University of Iowa Summer Festival or University of Chicago Writers’ Studio, that sort of thing. I’d followed AROHO for many years; read about the retreats, and vacillated between wanting to apply yet worrying I’d be out of my league. After reading the bios of women who attended – a huge diversity, it was obvious that I needed to attend. I decided that, unlike workshops, what I needed most was emotional and spiritual support for my goals. That’s an often neglected component to being a productive and confident writer. At some point, writers need that kind of support and connectedness with other writers more than they need instruction in the writing process.

Marlene B. Samuels: I’m an independent research sociologist, writer, and instructor and teach research methodology and sociology. I earned a Ph.D. and M.A. from University of Chicago. My research focuses upon changing American demographics, adoption issues, and currently, decision-making during life transitions. My writing encompasses three genres: sociology, nonfiction, and food.

I co-authored The Seamstress, my mother’s Holocaust memoir, wrote an academic book about career success plus short stories, essays, and food articles. My writing has been published in Lilith Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, University of Iowa Summer Anthology, Story Circle Journal, Long Story Short and others.


1 comment:

Jeannette said...

Thank you Tania, for sharing the experience and and people from the retreat. I will have t check out Marlene's sites sometime soon too.