by Rachel Slaiman and Linda Rosen
On October 5th, WNBA members gathered in the Willa Cather Room of the Jefferson Market Library for conversation with actor and director Estelle Parsons and authors Lynne Sharon Schwartz and Hilma Wolitzer. Our own Rosalind Reisner moderated the lively, informative and very humorous panel as the women discussed living the creative life.
Rosalind posed questions to all three very talented women and they seemed to enjoy themselves travelling down memory lane answering each. As they passed the microphone from one to the other it seemed that we, the audience, were eavesdropping on three women chatting about their long careers, their mothers and their plans for the future in relation to their craft.
What was your FIRST ambition or desire, in the arts? Do you remember when it happened or where it came from? Was it something that was expected in your family or did it set you apart? Were your parents in the arts? Did they support your choices?
Although Lynn Sharon Schwartz began to write at an early age she was distracted by other pursuits. She took acting classes until she realized her life was not going to be on the stage and she needed to return to her childhood dream of becoming a writer. Her parents, whose Brooklyn home was filled with books, supported her decision though neither was in the arts.
Estelle Parsons let us know that “the norm for a Massachusetts woman was to write” and follow in the footsteps of Louisa May Alcott and other female authors from the state. Coming from a musical family, her parents expected her to become a concert pianist but at fifteen she realized she “knew how to make people cry and how to make them laugh” and switched her talents to the stage.
Though Hilma Wolitzer did not grow up in a literary household, reading inspired Hilma to write. She remembers writing in those black and white composition notebooks as a child but didn’t get around to publishing until she was in her thirties.
Is there a difference between what you were taught and what you learned and how did that affect your career? How did you learn?
“I was taught nothing,” Lynne answered with a chuckle. The irony is that she never saw the benefit of taking writing classes or participating in workshops and now she makes a living teaching one at Bennington College, yet she never wanted to be an academic.
Without missing a beat, Estelle answered, “You learn from what you do” in addition to learning from others “without dwelling on rejection.”
“I did not attend college, but did attend a writing workshop.” When Hilma was called to the front of the room to read her story, she was so scared she “read it like a grocery list.” When she was finished, a man in the front row called out “That was the most boring thing I ever heard.” At that moment, Hilma decided to remain a housewife and go back to making jello molds claiming hers were the best around with diagonal stripes running through the colors. Thankfully, the teacher did not agree with the gentleman and encouraged Hilma to continue writing.’
Many artists talk about the struggle they have with their art. Vivian Gornick has written: “writing has been a torture for me (but) I’ve always felt life wouldn’t be worth living if I stopped writing… Every now and then I’d think, Join the Peace Corps. But clearly I’ve been attached both to the suffering and to the work.” Does that describe your relationship to your work?
“I found time to write while the kids were at school or sleeping.” Lynne saw writing as a job and was very serious about it.
Speaking of the struggle of being an actor, Estelle quipped, “A typical parent’s response to the acting is uh oh, no money to support us in our twilight years with that profession.” The audience laughed when she told of her mother’s reaction to her winning the Oscar for her role in Bonnie and Clyde. “I was riding home in a taxi with my mother and she looked over at me and said, ‘I always wished you’d become a writer.'” Recently, Estelle says she has “dealt with terrible stage fright that I’m finally getting over… Stage fright is so painful it’s like giving birth.”
Writing is a “love hate relationship” for Hilma because she loves to “write and get to know my characters but I hate it because once I’m done I have that feeling of loss and I know I have to start all over and write a new story.” She was really encouraged when her first short story was published in The Saturday Evening Post. “I used the $1200 to buy a Dodge Rambler that day.” And her father was thrilled since he read that magazine at the dentist’s office. “Writing is a solitary occupation, but I’m never alone because I always have my characters with me.”
Have editors been helpful to you in your craft?
“My editor went over my work page by page and was very encouraging. He was not the most diplomatic, but was always aware of how good something was.” Lynne had written a novella and several short stories that her editor told her to combine into one novel. “He gave me one night and I worked really hard to combine and write transitions. He was right. It was a great novel.”
“I have found editors to be wonderful,” Hilma said, then added that sometimes they have asked for changes that she didn’t want to make. She told the story of the time she called an editor from the gynecologist’s office to say she refused to make the change he wanted. Ultimately, he agreed that she was correct. As she stated, “You have to write your story.”
What advice would you give to your twenty year old self?
Lynne: “Don’t be so afraid to do things.”
Estelle: “I love my life and all my experiences. I have done it all…I’m very happy with my life. I would tell myself to get out of the way!”
Hilda: “Teach yourself the value of all that you have.”
Click on the picture to learn more about our panelists: