Philadelphia writer Janet Benton can tell you what it feels like when lightning strikes—as long as you understand that installing the lightning rod was incredibly hard work. This fall, the New York Times came knocking, and Janet’s essay, “A Feminist’s Daughter Finds Love in the Kitchen,” appeared in the Modern Love column of the Times on October 6th.
An author, editor and teacher whose award-winning work spans books, documentary films and national magazines, Janet tackled a question at the heart of the feminist revolution. As her mother fought for women’s rights in her studio and on the street, Janet suffered painful neglect as a child at home. Today, she tries to reconcile her career commitment with providing a loving home for her own daughter.
Janet, my friend and Philly colleague, stopped by the blog to talk about the art of writing and the process of getting published in one of the world’s premier essay markets. Here are excerpts of our conversation.
Alaina Mabaso: Tell us mortals what it feels like when you know your essay’s been accepted to run in Modern Love.
Janet Benton: It was kind of a gradual process… When I got the e-mail, it wasn’t like, “This piece was accepted,” it was, “Wow, really like the first third of this, very important premise, would you consider revising and making it into more of a narrative?”
It was kind of like someone was carrying a 700-pound carrot about 70 miles away, and saying, “Can you get here and take this carrot?” And I thought, God, I don’t know, but I sure am going to do every single thing I can to try to get to that carrot. So I was thrilled when I got the e-mail, but it was also kind of like a big gulp. That’s a challenge. And how can I be sure [the editor] will like what I come up with?
It just so happened I had a writing retreat planned which I do a couple times a year, and I was supposed to be working on my novel, but obviously I decided to work on my essay. I literally sat for 14 or 15 hours two days in a row and just kept going over it and over it and over it and over it…[until] I felt that I actually had finished.
And then we drove to Montreal for vacation…I was checking my e-mail obsessively, and then we went off the grid for three days…When we got back, [the editor’s message] said, “Thirty hours well spent, let’s talk on the phone, and I’ll let you know when this will probably run.”
I didn’t understand quite what he was telling me…so I still didn’t feel like he had actually said yes. But then as we kept e-mailing back and forth, I realized he had said yes.
AM: So it sounds like even after you got the acceptance, there was still a voice in your head telling you this isn’t for real.
JB: Well, he said “might,” or “probably…” Something like that, and so I thought it might be dependent on something I didn’t know about. He started telling me that everything in the piece has to be 100% accurate: you can’t make anything up to make the story more engaging; the people mentioned in this piece have to fine with being mentioned in it, and that made me realize, we’re doing it.
And even then, I didn’t understand how many people love that column…
I got in touch with [Modern Love essayist and author Laura Munson], and she said that her essay literally transformed her life. That actually got me really, really nervous. She said in the morning she was just plain old Laura Munson, and in the afternoon she was being invited on TV shows and people wanted her book.
AM: Has having this essay accepted and then seeing it in the New York Times changed how you see yourself and your work, or not?
JB: It makes me understand that if I work extremely hard on something, I actually can get into the markets that I would like to be in, and that’s a great feeling.
AM: Do you feel like a lot of aspiring writers aren’t working as hard as they ought to work?
JB: I could never speak for anybody else. I have no idea how hard it is for other people, and I also know that sometimes things come easily, and they’re really good. Because the subject [of this essay] was so complex, and I was really digesting a lot of material from my life in order to be able to write it…it took a very long time.
AM: There’s a lot of really raw stuff in there, so was there fallout for you emotionally as you’re working through this and putting it into words?
JB: Honestly it was just a relief. I’ve been carrying this material for my whole life, and to understand that I could actually share it was a really wonderful thing. And my daughter was the one who gave me the freedom to do that. It wasn’t enough to say I didn’t get what I needed in my childhood. I needed to say, that’s why I’m doing this differently with child. It’s a much more affirming and mature stance.
AM: What does your husband think of the essay?
JB: He told me that it brought tears to his eyes to read what I experienced as a child, and I think he had a great appreciation for the home that we have together.
AM: In your experience as a writer and a writing teacher, are there one or two main tips that you would tell an aspiring writer about what separates a good essay from a crappy one?
JB: What are the stories that only you can tell? To me that’s the first step. What do you know because of what life gave you?…If you can tap into that material, and you can explore it bravely, and put it into words, you will be giving other people a gift, and it’s a gift for you too, because exploring that kind of stuff is a very rewarding feeling.
AM: But sometimes in memoir, it’s a very fine line between stuff that’s emotionally vulnerable in a compelling way, and stuff that’s emotionally vulnerable in a self-indulgent way.
JB: So maybe it requires working through it as you write it. Maybe it requires being middle aged [laughs].
AM: Thanks a lot!
JB: I think you’re right. We don’t want to read diatribes and we don’t want to read…
If you’re not at the edge of what you can tolerate while you’re writing, you haven’t found your material, as a fiction writer and a memoirist. And I have found that to be true.
There are certain things I’ve realized over the last decade that have happened in my life, and I certainly knew about them before, but now I know that there’s something of value in telling them, more than “look at poor me” or “look at my poor parents.”
Writing is always partial, too…You can’t ever get everything on the page. We can’t dip our brain in ink and press the page up against it.
AM: What are the biggest misconceptions that readers have about the essay-writing process?
JB: I know that before I was a writer, when I read anything, I had absolutely no idea how hard it would have been to put that together. When I read novels, I thought, [authors] sat down, they wrote the words on the page, and then they sent it to the publisher. So probably people make the same assumption about essays. And if it has a strong voice that seems very natural, that would only increase that sense, I think.
AM: Do you want to say a couple words about the novel you’re working on?
JB: it’s about an unwed Quaker mother [in 1880’s Philadelphia] who’s nineteen at the beginning of the novel, and who decides to keep her baby.
AM: Is there anything else that you would want readers or fans to know about the writing process?
JB: Write for yourself. Write what’s meaningful to you. And do the best you can. And if you’re published, wonderful, and if you’re not published, wow, you have had a meaningful life!
Want more author interview action? Check out these chats with the bestselling Mary Roach, Sex at Dawn’s Christopher Ryan, Mastering the Mommy Track maven Erin Flynn Jay, or Laura Ingalls Wilder biographer Pamela Smith Hill.
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