Donna Ward is an Australian scribe whose first bible, She I Dare Not Name, has just been published in the US. She’s founded a literary journal, a small press, and succeeded as an editor. As someone who has been a traditional publisher and is now a traditionally published author, Donna raises a fresh perspective to the business of publishing.
VIRGINIA LLOYD: In She I Dare Not Name “youve had” explored a theme that could be considered one of the last nonfiction literary taboos: the reflections of a woman ripening older unattached to a partner or children. Why did you write this work?
DONNA WARD: I never “ve thought about” writing from a spinster’s perspective as taboo. For me it is a forgotten perspective, a way of life that was inadvertently cast to the margins in the nineteen-sixties when the Sexual Revolution hurtled into the Feminist Second Wave. During those tectonic transformations these two paradigms came upon the word spinster, noticed it abhorrent, and opted the word single to describe anyone not living a traditional family life.
The intention was admirable–to purged spinsters of the stigma inherent in the word. Even though beings prefer single live in droves, discussions about being single became a conversation about women. The alternative not to marry, or to leave a marriage, requires a woman to provide for herself and any children she has been possible to. This pressured, quite rightly, extended overhauls of legislation concerning marriage and divorce, finance and banking, employment and social security, to support families as they rapidly transformed into myriad forms.
Little wonder then, when, in my forties, I scoured for a conference on my single living and knew little literature on it. And taken due note, back then, I was single , not spinster. I, very, had given that message to the horizon.
My single animation was a hard and fierce conversation to have with friends and with my therapist, since we were all woven in the idea that a woman beyond a certain age, still uncoupled and without children, is required to be psychologically shattered, sexually deviant, intemperate and socially defiant. My friends expected I choose my life, despite their own families troubles of which they talked being the result of falling in love, or a momentous roll in the hay.
Nevertheless, when I acknowledged I hadn’t chosen this, my friends, healer, even I, conceived my situation the result of an instinctive blunder to which I must attend. No recognition of my ardent decision against having children without a partner. My fault, then. Not, as I is well known, the outcome of innocent mismatches and unreasonable volunteers. Fate, if you like.
Life, I discovered, unfolds into spinsterhood the lane it unfolds into clas realizing. Sometimes it is chosen, more often, like coupling and having children, it is the outcome of a mix of accidents and decisions.
Back in the nineteen-nineties the literature I did find was overwhelmingly American. Although I felt a certain simpatico when reading Bachelorhood: Tales of the Metropolis, by Philip Lopate, a rain freezing slunk through the gaps between our cultures. It was then I discovered that the life into which I unwittingly stumbled was, in fact, invisible.
I embarked on writing “peoples lives” to make it noticeable, so we will never forget what it is to be a woman without a partner and children living in a word inhabited by a multiplicity of families.
Why did you choose to write creative nonfiction rather than fiction?
It was never a preference. I can’t write fiction to save my life. I did write a short story once, but it was so close to the life of a friend of mine I had to get permission when it came to be published. Of track this may change, everything does, after all. But this work was never going to be fiction.
It began as an touchy pop-sociology textbook. An attempt to prove spinsters exist, are socially marginalized, economically vulnerable, and misjudged psychologically. In the process I stumbled across a very real prejudice against spinsters exposed in research questions and methodologies. A bias toward traditional marriage, marrying and parenting was prevalent in research outcomes, psychological philosophy and tradition. I speculated I was not academic fairly, for the enterprise, and the assignment compelled academic rigor. I gave up.
I was about as far as anyone can get from the centre of civilization when the daylight strike me. Albany, on the southern coast of Western Australia. I was calling a friend who took me to see Helen Morse performing the monologue of Joan Didion’s book, Its first year of Magical Thinking. A consider slipped down the shaft of light–I could write it like that.
Didion engendered me to write a book that tells life as it is , not underpinned by creed or theoretical frames , not through a lens which decodes living and shapes it palatable, but with a clear lens. She induced me to tell the unflinching truth.
I set out to write a book that divulged me as a woman whose marital status, or absence thereof, is not the sine qua non of her normality, though the absence of children does say something about the obstacles she must climb to be included in society. I set out to explore the web of sexism against women living “peoples lives”. I wanted to grab the reader by the collar and say: “Peoples lives” exists. This is what it is like. If your friend, colleague, or daughter beings this life, include her in yours. And, retain, she’s doing it on a single income in a dual income economy without the benefits of family backup or financial assistance.
What were the key structural questions you faced when striving with your material? What was your biggest challenge in writing the book–and how long did it make you to write it?
I always say the book took me two years and all my life to write. But, apart from having to live my life to write about it, I had to learn how to write the channel Joan Didion wrote A Time of Magical Thinking.
I read everything Didion ever wrote. I wrote personal essays of my own, over and over. I went to writing world-class, I had my work edited, some of these were published. And, to be honest, I forgot about writing the book and be concentrated on the artistry of essay writing. I developed my own style of entwine personal stories to unpack a beautiful idea.
When my friend, Susan Wyndham, the former literary writer of the Sydney Morning Herald, spurred me to write a book, I met I had a stack of raw material with which to craft a bible that, by its very sort, mimics the patchiness of living life, same to an enormous portrait comprised of a thousand thousand tiny descriptions of the same person.
So, with beginner’s naivete, I wove the linear story of “peoples lives” through a mount of essays that consider symbolize and role, the puzzle of life, the myth of woo, dating and adoration, the pulverize of exclusion and discrimination, the tenacity and ecstasy of emptines, living in the time of catastrophic forecast, through the gape of a spinster. I’m sure you accompany the folly of my paths. There were daylights and nights when my see blurred and my intelligence hurt.
My biggest challenge came once I’d attained my step. The original essays were different in voice and design. I applied an writer to help. They were much improved, but not yet perfect. We agreed that if the book should ever come into the light, the publisher’s editor would advise. And that is what happened. My editor simply said, Some papers are memoir and this is overwhelmingly a diary of meditations.
I slapped my forehead with the palm of my hands. Obvious. Brilliant. Solved. I sat down, re-wrote and re-threaded the book. That component was easy.
Congratulations on being a first-time author over persons below the age of 60. What publishing admonition would you give to other aspiring generators of a certain age?
The first thing I ever wrote was the story of Dad pouring hot water into my pale blue plastic cup. I told him hot water melts plastic. He roared. The cup, of course, caved in and disfigured with the heat. I was furious and grief stricken. My love for that beaker was visceral.
I was about twelve, relationships were taut. Instead than tackle Dad, I wrote the history of it. I sat with the floor until I fell into it and could describe every inch and second of it, got the feelings just right. Engrossed in writing I became aware of my imaginary public. I was obligated to tell the story so they understood what happened, understood the revelation I had that day–fathers can dismiss their daughters even when the parent is a scientist and the social sciences of the situation is undeniable.
When I sat back and looked at the floor “theres only” one sheet long. Compact, contained. Passable resentment. But did it get the message across? I was unsure.
A few days later I walked into the kitchen. Mum was there.
I read your tale. It’s silly what Dad did. I will buy you another beaker, she said.
My passion took wings.
I don’t remember the permutation jug. I lost the story somewhere down the years. What remains is the writing of it.
Last year, during lockdown in Melbourne, I speak Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha again. At the end of his life, Siddhartha satisfies the Sadhu who invites him to sit by the river. All these years I thought that representation was about giving the river carry me through life–twirling in whirlpools, surfing rapids, slipping over cataracts, loose as a water serpent. Last-place year I realized the send is to sit beside the river until the river spurts through you.
This is what it is to live, and this is what it is to write. It takes a lifetime to live a life, it can take a lifetime to write a book. The writer must sit beside the floor until the narration spurts through them. Exclusively then will it carry the writer to the end.
As the founder and writer of a literary store, and then as an independent publisher, you have obligated the uncommon transition from publisher to scribe. What did you learn from being on the other side of the publishing fence–and what could publishers learn from your experience?
Nothing focuses the mind like editing another person’s messages. To climb inside their voice and rhythms, examine their grammar, even if eccentric, to ensure the writer’s meaning flows off the sheet into the reader’s soul, is the art of editing.
There’s a story that Michelangelo said he saw the angel in the marble and make it free. I think that’s apocryphal. Nevertheless, it perfectly captures the artistry of the writer. The editor receives the startling idea in the manuscript and shows the writer how to set it free.
So often I don’t know what I am used to describe. I have a sense of it, and a convict conducting me into it. As I depart words and mottoes come about like Hansel and Gretel’s smidgens. These hint at where I’m becoming. I write and write until I stop. I’m cutting the stone from the quarry. When I have the stone I begin to set the angel free. Editing taught me this.
Nothing focuses the mind like being a publisher. The publisher must feel the ears of readers awaiting these texts. No concern how beautiful a manuscript, how exquisite, if a publisher can’t taste the readers’ breath, they are not the publisher for the book.
The writer must find the publisher who intimately knows the audience for their book.
When I write I listen for the book until I can sense their rustles, their eyebrows cock, their sharp-worded surprise. If they melt I stop. I wrap everything in a file and tuck it away.
I return to begin again. Being a publisher teach me this.
Originally published in Australia, your notebook has just been released after the US. Why does US publication remain a cherished objective for columnists who live outside The americas?
To be honest I never studied my record would captivate an American audience. My book was released in Australia in March last year, as the pandemic spread around the world. Globally publishers drew back, and many simply closed for business. I felt luck to have an Australian audience.
And then there was Zoom.
To my deliver surprise, Jody Day who established Gateway Women, the international network for childless and childfree maids, discovered my volume. She did a wonderful Zoom interview with me and bingo! I had an American readership. It’s taken a while to liberate it into American bookshops, and we’re releasing into the UK in November this year.
But to your question about US publication being a cherished aim for columnists outside The americas. Apart from the considerably larger market, and the consequent ability to earn fairly from diary marketings to support the writing living, I believe there is something in American sprays that multiplies outstanding novelists. I do have European and Australian writers who I admire and whose work influences me, but something in America births brilliance. Publication in America originates me feel that for a moment I standing in a room beside genius. And, if I stand calmly enough, still enough, a flake of genius might slip into my own art–if I’m lucky.
Read more: janefriedman.com