The majority of published authors are men. Guardian books editor Claire Armitstead suggests that this is partly due to a lack of confidence among women writers. Sadly, peer reviewed research and publications support this view. Women are encouraged to speak up, write their views, and take leadership positions, but when they do, they are often interrupted by their male peers, told they are too aggressive, or are simply ignored. In our society, it’s easier for a woman to stay silent than to face this sort of culturally-supported discrimination.
Donna Masini has faced this discrimination yet she has carved a successful career as an author. She has shared her voice with readers in two collections of poems — Turning to Fiction (W.W. Norton and Co. 2004), and That Kind of Danger (Beacon Press, 1994), which was selected by Mona Van Duyn for the Barnard Women Poet’s Prize. She has also written two novels, About Yvonne, (WW Norton and Co. 1998), and The Good Enough Mother (forthcoming).
Donna got her start as a writer as an English major at Hunter College. Despite being an avid reader and writer of poetry, she didn’t consider herself a writer. She left Hunter without a degree but returned eight years later after meeting Audre Lorde, who told her that she ought to return to study with her. Audre told Donna, “I need you to remember this: Everything I’ve done in my life, was done not without fear, but in spite of it.” Donna recently finished a new novel, The Good Enough Mother, which is largely concerned with facing fear, and focuses on the idea of being smart enough and good enough.
Of her poems Adrienne Rich has said: “Donna Masini’s poems are on the wavelength of Whitman and Rukeyser but are inimitable her own: urban, sexual, working-class, passionate, marked by great moral intelligence and generosity. She is one of the marvelous new poets this country is generating in a terrible time.”
Donna’s poems have appeared in journals and anthologies including American Poetry Review, Open City, TriQuarterly, the Paris Review, KGB BAR Book of Poems, Parnassus, Boulevard, and Lyric, she has a poem forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2015.
A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, New York Foundation for the Arts Grant, a Pushcart Prize, et al, Donna lives in New York and is a Professor of English at Hunter College where she teaches in the MFA Creative Writing program. She has mentored teen girls at Still Waters in a Storm, a literacy program in the underserved neighborhood of Bushwick (Brooklyn, New York).
Below is a letter Donna wrote to her teenage self for the Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self anthology. Just as she tells all of her students that they are important and that anything is possible, she tells her younger self to “work hard” and “believe that your vision for yourself is possible.”
Melissa Banigan Founder and Managing Editor Advice Project Media ___________________________________________________
There’s so much I want to say to you, and I’ve been putting it off for so long that now you’re nearly fourteen! So my first bit of advice: procrastination never makes things easier. Fear, like a bit of snow rolling downhill, gathers more fear around it and before you know it you’re snow-blind and frozen. You’ll never do anything perfectly, but do it anyway. You can make it better later.
What you do in your life you will often do in spite of your fear. Try not to feel anxious. There are ways around it, and if you can’t figure it out on your own, there’s medication. You get all A’s because you love to read and learn and you’re curious and hard-working, not because you’re an anxious mess.
Above my desk I keep these words from Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “What is now proved was once only imagined.” This is important. You must believe that your vision for yourself (you know what it is) is possible. Nurture it. Work toward it. This isn’t about magic. It’s faith and hard work.
In five years you’ll be standing on an uptown corner in Manhattan, staring into the stars and lit-up buildings – like Scarlett O’Hara raising a fist of dirt to heaven –saying: I am going to live here. It will feel a bit dramatic. No matter. Two years later you will live three blocks away. And that thing you’re dreaming of (you know what I mean) will happen. Be patient. And do the work.
You love books. Someday you’ll be able to read whenever you want to and no one will criticize you. You will have so many books that you’ll spend inordinate amounts of time trying to figure out where to put them. Also, you know you want to write. So do it. It isn’t easy, but just because it’s difficult it doesn’t mean you can’t do it.
Also, learn to drive. Now. It will not be easy after forty. Or fifty. If you have fantasies of pulling up in a car in a blue miniskirt, picking up that guy and driving off, know that it’s not the guy you should focus on, but rather the driving. You are not even going to want to answer that guy’s email thirty years from now. Here’s the thing, many of those boys you’re agonizing over now will eventually want to be with you – but by that time you will not be interested. Ponder this, and for now, forget about that guy and just learn how to drive. Later in life there will be boys. There will be men. Maybe even women. There will be time.
One last thing about boys: the paperboy is going to be killed in Vietnam. Be nice to him even if you don’t want to go out with him.
About your appearance: maybe you don’t want to wear that navy knee-length skirt and navy tights. If something looks good on your friend consider whether this is because she is seven inches taller than you and does not look like a prison warden in the outfit. And while I am on it: you will someday long for the straight and shiny hair you have now. Leave it alone (but try a side part).
Also, that black eyeliner looks terrible. Your mother is right about some things (the white lipstick, too). She is wrong about other things. She does not read you like a book (no one can). She cannot “see right through you.” Besides, what is inside you, despite what the nuns say, is not bad or evil. Thoughts are never bad. It’s your choice whether or not to act on them. This is called becoming an ethical person.
OK, about your body. You will lose the weight. But nothing should make you hate yourself. In a few years your self-hatred will lead to anorexia. You will never feel thin enough. You will starve and suffer unnecessarily. Later in life you will realize that you wasted precious time worrying about how you look. For now, think about how you’re going to want that enamel on your teeth in thirty years.
When someone praises you, take it in. It’s not conceited, and it’s not wrong to like something about yourself or to think well of yourself. You’re funny, too. That humor will save you. Depression is not a badge of honor and does not make you any more of an intense person. Yes, you are depressed, but teach yourself not to nurture it. And get help.
Quit living in darkness. Sun and light are important. Get your mother to open the curtains. How can it be called a living room if it’s as dark as death? Speaking of Death – just so you know, it’s a ways off. That horrible disease you think you have? Well, despite thinking you have all the symptoms, you don’t. By the way, your breasts get tender just before your period every month. This fact will save you several years of worry. It is not cancer. You are normal.
At times, you will encounter mean girls. Ignore them. Don’t try to compete or worse, try to out-mean them. It’s not in your nature. Some of them are troubled, some will change, and some are at their peak. This is their time. This is as good as it will get for them. The letter to their thirteen-year-old selves might read: “Stop being mean. Examine what it is that makes you want to hurt people. At some point in your life you will regret it.” You are fortunate in that you will always have close, intimate friends. These friendships are every bit as important as any of your romantic relationships. Really.
Today I read this in the New York Times: “The actual event, of course, took place 26,000 years ago.” Though it doesn’t seem so while you’re waiting for that phone call or math class to end, time goes quickly, and life is surprising. One day you will be at a reunion dinner with many girls you went to high school with. You will recite a poem. Someone will say (not unkindly): “Well, that’s not going to save lives.” You will respond (not unkindly): “It saved my life.” And it will be true.
Oh, and about advice – if it doesn’t feel right to you, skip it. You know better than anyone else what’s good for you. (Although please, please don’t skip the advice to not write the secret or most intimate parts of your diary in pencil. In a few decades you’ll want to read it – if you don’t write in pen, your words will have faded.) You are going to have a big life. You will meet people who will change you and you will do things beyond what you could have imagined.
What’s now proved was once only imagined.
Your Older Self
P.S. Tell someone. You know what I am talking about. _______________________________________
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