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Marylou Kelly Streznewski

interview by Douglas Eby

Author of the book "Gifted Grownups: The Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential" -- a ten year study of 100 gifted adults, Marylou Kelly Streznewski [strez NEFF skee] is also a Program Specialist in Gifted Education, and a poet and fiction writer.  

Streznewski agrees that finding time for writing or other creative pursuits is one of the biggest challenges. "I taught English in a high school for twenty four years, to pay the bills," she says.

"Now I'm in a financial position where I could retire, and I have been struggling with that very thing: how do you make a life where you have the time for the writing?

"It's almost at the point where I'm going to say, No schedule; we will just find the time when we do. It is a tremendous struggle to find the time, whether you are still working with family responsibilities or not.

"The creative process is so mysterious, and the muse comes and goes when she will. And we as writers all know the process of sitting in front of the piece of paper and nothing is happening, or what is happening is dreck, and you don't really want to deal with it.

"When you combine that with the challenges women face, it can be very difficult. Women often choose to create relationships, and this often means there is a pull, whether it's two single people, or a marriage.

"About a year ago I read an interview of Gloria Steinem, and she said she still suffers from what she called the 'women's malady': the whole idea of knowing so much more about what other people want and need than what you need.

"And she said that was really the impetus that sent her into the women's movement. I thought, if Gloria Steinem has a problem, no wonder I do," she adds with a laugh."

That kind of pull, she notes, is very very difficult to deal with: "I have four children, a husband and an elderly mother, and now grandchildren, and all of that is a pull of things you care about and want to do. You have to constantly pull back and say, My writing is important and I must do something for myself, and the world will have to fend for itself for a couple of hours.

"And the muse may come at a time when it is most inconvenient. One of the ways I have solved that problem over the years is when I'm working on a project, especially a short story, or the novels I've done, I just drag a notebook around with me everywhere.

"I've worked so many years in my laundry room and in my kitchen, and I'm frequently hanging over the sink or the washing machine, scribbling away, because that's when the ideas are flowing."

Streznewski has activities away from writing that help. "I'm also a gardener, and that's a pull, but I do get some of my best ideas digging things. That's a real creative spark for me, to be outside dealing with the natural world.

"And dealing with a lot of challenging, heavy, physical work, which I think is the other component that, literally, gets the juices going. I don't think most people can sit at a desk those long hours without an alternative something that keeps you active."

With respect to issues for women pursuing creative interests in a business context, she emphasizes again that "one of the biggest" ones is being able to schedule time. "One of the things I found helpful, especially when writing the book, was that I was on sabbatical part of that time, so I was at home, at the computer, sitting for long periods of time," she notes.

"And I think what happens in creative mode is that not only is the work you're doing flowing along, but because you're in that mode, a number of things occur to you that you might want to be doing, some other part of the book, an idea for some other chapter, will invade your concentration.

"And I have found that a very helpful thing to do is to keep a large stack of paper next to my computer, and when some idea occurs that doesn't fit with what I'm working on, I stop and get it out of my system.

"It may be just a phrase, or it may be four or five pages before I've gotten rid of what intruded. And I think that can work in a business context, too, if you're engaging in whatever professional work you need to be doing, if you keep something you can put an idea into and leave there, so it can go away and not bother you, and you can come back to it later. Then you haven't lost it.

"One of the biggest and bitterest frustrations is when you have lost something, simply because you did not have the time or opportunity to catch it when it was fresh. That's a very painful kind of experience, which I guess all writers who have other pulls on their time, especially women, know.

"The stories that die. I have had things that I have captured and rescued that way. I am never without something to write on. I have notebooks of all sizes: little tiny ones that go in my purse, and I write anywhere and everywhere that it occurs to me."

She points out that business can involve down times, "especially if you have to travel. That's one of the ways you can snatch some writing time. There are always down times, in airports and on planes when you can snatch a little writing time.

"I always told my students, You do not find time to write, you steal it. Once you have stolen it, it's not like when you steal a car and they can make you give it back. Once you've stolen time, they can't make you give it back. And I think you just say, I'm going to take this time, it's mine, I'm entitled to it."

Streznewski agrees this issue of attitude is extremely important. "That's one of the biggest aspects of it: to convince yourself that you are entitled to do this, that your creativity is important. One of the things that has helped me the most in the last five or six years is belonging to the International Women's Writing Guild, which was organized out of New York twenty five years ago by a woman who decided that women needed to be empowered to do just this, to tell their story.

"It has a conference at Skidmore College in Saratoga every year for a week, at which five hundred women from all over the world gather. It is one of the most supportive groups I could imagine. 

"I teach a workshop at the conference. For one week, you meet the most incredible variety of women, all of whom are interested in writing, some of whom have never written before, some have best sellers to their credit. But it is the encouragement and the empowerment of other women saying, Yes, you can do this because I did it, because you are entitled to do it. That is an affirming experience."

As an example, she had tried for ten years to get her book "Gifted Grownups" published. "People would tell me, Oh, it's beautifully written, but the marketing department won't buy it," she recalls.

"I was ready to put it in the drawer, I really was. I had given up. Then I went to the conference at Skidmore, and a woman there showed me how to do a better book proposal, and when she found out what the book was about, she herself being a gifted adult, she just looked at me and said, You cannot give up on this book. And that was really what got me going again, that kind of encouragement. 

"I think women need to help women. Especially for fiction writing. I published a non-fiction book, but the market for fiction is murderous. I just got in my mail today two rejections. It's very difficult to keep going, with all of what we've talked about: taking the time, feeling the pull, and convincing yourself that you're entitled to it, and then going out into that market where rejection is the name of the game. You need your sisters."

People tease her for being a "missionary" for the IWWG, she admits. "But it has done so much not only for me, but for so many other women.

"Just to give one example: Bari-Ellen Roberts is a member of our group, who wrote the book about Texaco ["Robert Vs. Texaco : A True Story of Race and Corporate America"]. She was the black woman who sued Texaco for racial discrimination several years ago. 

"And people like that receive the encouragement to act on what they want to do. Even you if you are just begining, the affirmation of someone saying, Okay, so maybe you need to learn a lot more, but you are entitled to begin this, to do this."

Streznewski agrees there is value in journal writing, such as the "morning pages" Julia Cameron suggests in her book "The Artist's Way." "Oh, absolutely," Marylou says. "Doing whatever form that takes for you. Again, being a random person, I keep it in about six different forms, and I'm also a poet.

"But putting it down on the paper... in fact that was my lecture to myself this morning as I ended up having to go running around doing errands, instead of doing my writing. Which I will do this afternoon. I was recently at a party with a lot of wealthy people (which I am not) and was fascinated with these people and how their concerns are so different than mine, and I need to go get my thoughts out of my system, get it on paper.

"One of the women was looking for someone to talk with about books, for intellectual companionship, and with all of this wealth, is having trouble finding it."

She thinks the encouragement of girls "cannot begin too early. That's another of my crusades as a teacher. I built a creative writing program in our high school, because no one encouraged me. I wrote poetry in college, and when I was teaching and needed a play, I'd write one. But I was well into my thirties before I gave myself permission to start doing this.

"When I look at what some eighteen year old kids do... if someone had encouraged me at age eighteen, where might I be now? The encouragement of those kids who want to be writers, both boys and girls, absolutely cannot be too early. One of the things the IWWG has done in the last five years is to establish a mentor program for young girls. People volunteer to mentor youngsters by mail.

"But it can't begin too early: to encourage girls who want to be artists, that they are entitled to that."

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Site:  The International Women's Writing Guild  

Book:  Marylou Kelly Streznewski .  Gifted Grownups: The Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential

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