Conversations: Gail Sheehy’s Daring PassagesFrom “girl reporter” to literary icon

“Conversations” is an ongoing series of talks with thinkers, leaders and supporters of the MDC Community.

World-renowned author, journalist, and popular lecturer, Gail Sheehy is the author of 17 books and has changed the way millions of women and men around the world look at the stages of their lives. She is one of the original contributors to New York magazine and has been a contributing editor to Vanity Fair since 1984. Overcoming the label of “girl reporter,” she has spent decades blazing a trail in a man’s world, interviewing everyone from world leaders to pop stars. Her earliest revolutionary book, “Passages,” was named one of the ten most influential books of our times by a Library of Congress survey. Her latest book is “Daring: My Passages: A Memoir.”

Sheehy will be at the Miami Book Fair on Sunday, November 22 at 10:00 am in a program called “Lessons from Two Lives.” She will appear with author Rabbi Harold S. Kushner. Together they will share insights and wisdom gained from their separate lives.

Gabriel Riera: Your latest book Daring, a memoir, is described as the story of the unconventional life of a writer who dared.

Gail Sheehy: I didn’t know that “daring” was the theme of my life until I was almost finished writing the memoir. I guess I’ve always been daring. Here’s why: my girlhood predated Title IX*, so I wasn’t allowed to compete in sports with boys. However, my father had wanted a boy, so I had to be a girl/boy. I was allowed to be a girl and dress in ruffles, and so on, but he also wanted me to be a competitor.

He taught me how to swim from age three and entered me in my first swimming race when I was five years old, I was the only girl and about half the size of the boys. It was a breaststroke race and I could hold my breath under water a long time, and…I won! I can still remember how astounding it was to me that you didn’t have to be big (like the boys) to win, you could have other advantages.

Then I became a competitive diver and my coach had to walk me to the end of the board to get me to do a Half-Gaynor, which is a backward dive.  I was terrified! But, it always made me feel worse to back off something I had agreed to do than to try it, even if I fell on my face; which I did, sometimes.

One other thing your question stimulated is the thought that I was always an explorer. I would sneak on to the commuter trains on Saturdays when I was ten years old (with my Grandmother’s permission) to go to Grand Central Station.

We used to listen to a radio show called Grand Central Station — The Crossroads of a Million Private Lives!  I thought I had to find these really interesting lives to write about because there was nothing interesting that happened in the suburbs. I would get off the train and climb up to the top of the balustrade around Grand Central and look down at all these live crossing each other, and I would see some man in a slouched hat and a woman in dark glasses, and they would come together and move apart and I’d say to myself — they must be Communists! Because this was sixth grade and we were in the McCarthy era.

“Stand on the edge of the abyss and look down and you’ll see the culture turned inside out.”

GR: And those were the bad guys.

GS: Yes, and now I had some bad guys to write about, much more fun than suburban daddies. Doing those things and having them pay off allowed me to be daring as I went along. Later, in graduate school I was lucky enough to have Margaret Mead as a mentor and she gave me some great advice. She said, you don’t have to go to far off islands to take an anthropological approach. You can compare cultures in the United States because we have so many sub cultures. But here’s what you have to do. Whenever there’s a big national event, drop everything and go there. Stand on the edge of the abyss and look down and you’ll see the culture turned inside out. I’ve been living that advice ever since.

GR: Is that what you were thinking about when you wanted to cover MLK’s march on Washington. You write in your book, that you were pregnant at the time so you sat at home and watched it on TV, feeling frustrated and determining from that moment on, that you would not spend your life watching events on TV. You were going to be part of them.

GS: Yes, that was really a peak moment. I decided that having a baby wasn’t going to confine me or slow me down. Actually, I did go to the very first march on Washington when I wasn’t pregnant and later many other marches and events.

GR: You’ve produced an astounding amount of work. How do you get through those moments when you’re not necessarily feeling inspired or interested? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

GS: What I do is I just go some place strange and exciting. I just push myself out of my comfort zone. Even at this age, I like to expose myself to a new environment, even one that might be uncomfortable. For instance, this fall I was following a tribe of young social entrepreneurs and I found out that they got a lot of their ideas from going to Burning Man. We’ll, I had never even heard of Burning Man, I felt like a jerk not to know. And they said you’ve got to come! And I looked into it and I thought, why not?  So I went to Burning Man…in my mid-70s.

We were at a camp called Camp Disorient where we all dressed in pink and orange–men and women. And the men mostly wore tutus and the women mostly wore pasties. It was a totally different, radical self-expression week. I made some really good friends; some of them very accomplished artists. It was a total turn on! If I can do that in my early 70s, anyone who wants to be a writer or a journalist, or to live as an outlier can start doing it when they’re young.

GR: Sounds like a perfect way to press the reset button.

GS: Yes, seek out those opportunities and they will make you so much more interested and interesting a person.

GR: In our culture we seem to lack a formal initiation process where young people are led into adulthood. We are rarely bestowed the gift of a vision of adulthood or elderhood as an experience that is inherently awesome and can lead to a sense of mastery. So many of us stumble from one bewildering emotional situation to another trying to make sense of things. Can we ever resurrect the process of initiation that has been lost in the west?

GS: The book that I’m best known for is Passages and the subtitle was “predictable” crises of adult life. My thesis–a fairly new one in the mid 70s–was that there are times in our lives that happen at relatively similar ages were we go through a period of disequilibrium. Maybe it’s dissatisfaction with where we’ve been recently. We want to bust out, be more. But, we’re a little afraid of it. Those people who stay with that uncertainty and allow themselves to get out of their comfort zone and explore change in themselves, move on into the next stage and ultimately do move into the “Passage” of mastery in their 40s and early 50s.

That concept was another way to look at adult life which meant you weren’t the only one, you weren’t crazy, you weren’t out of step. You were going through something normal and going with it was going to lead you to more growth and a larger outlook on life. People, especially women, really went with it and did much more with their lives. So even though the ages at which we go through those passages are different now, because of so many societal changes, they still exist. If you know that what’s coming up and that it’s normal and that it’s a passageway to growing and being more, you’re much more likely to put your shoulder to the wind, rather than back away. Don’t you think?

GR: I think so. You’re talking about being able to anticipate these various stages and, as you said, stay with it – to cultivate a certain awareness that this is where you are.

“…women’s lives are very long and they have many seasons… it may not be possible to have it all at once… But, you can have it all — over a period of time.”

GS: Right. And for women in particular I think there’s a feeling of time running out around being able to have a child and a career, and a decent marriage and friends and a social life. But actually, women’s lives are very long and they have many seasons. I think it’s very helpful to get the perspective that it may not be possible to have it all at once, very few people do. But, you can have it all — over a period of time.

Maybe you have it all in your 40s — that seems to be when a lot things come together — but then staring in your 50s you begin losing some. Maybe you lose your parents, or you lose a best friend, or you lose a career because it just no longer exists and now you have to invent something else. Maybe it’s seven or eight times you have to reinvent yourself.  Knowing that these “Passages” are meant to be there as periods of stretching and growth and reinventing yourself is normal, and it’s an opportunity.

GR: Would you say that the essence of life is that it’s a voyage of discovery, no matter where you are in life?

GS: Absolutely. And towards the end of life, it’s more of a journey of consolidation of acceptance of who you are, who you have been, of who you will be as you leave your legacy. I think seeing life in those terms makes it much easier to live through the changes that you’re going to go through anyway.

*Title IX is a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. The President signed Title IX into law in 1972.