Marianne Schnall's interviews with powerful women have appeared in Glamour and In Style magazines, on numerous blogs, and on the website she founded fifteen years ago, feminist.com. Schnall's new book, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice, is a beautiful collection of wisdom gleaned from years of interviews. She's been kind enough to switch roles and answer some questions for SheWrites readers.
The title of the book comes from Cambodian activist Loung Ung’s quote, “Courage is when you dare to be yourself.” Yet the very concept of the book suggests that in order for women to be ourselves, we need to know what other women have experienced. How have the words and wisdom of other women impacted your life and, specifically, your decision to write this book?
It was really such a blessing to be in the position to interview such a diversity of women – actresses, activists, recording artists, comediennes, authors, Nobel laureates – and have them share their personal stories, challenges, and life lessons. It showed me how similar our experiences are, and how much we have to learn from sharing our truths, even our messy truths – in fact, especially our messy truths - because we then realize we are not alone in some of our struggles, and we learn approaches and tools that can possibly assist us and others. I think that by asking the questions I personally wanted to know myself, whether it was about how these women create balance in their lives, what is their life philosophy, what is the source of their energy, what is the message they most wanted to instill in girls and women - I learned so much that fed my own development. The “decision” to do this book came as a result of a publisher emailing me with a request to use a quote from my Melissa Etheridge interview for a collection they were doing, and then asking me if I would be interested in putting together my own book, and it seemed like such a natural idea. And in the process of putting the book together, it only further reinforced the fact that there are so many common themes and experiences affecting women in our lives, so much that is universal that connects and unites us.
You’ve said that you asked a lot of the same questions in your interviews over the years that elicited many of the responses that are included in Daring to Be Ourselves. What were the questions you feel got the best responses?
Before approaching any interview, I always thoroughly research my interview subjects and think deeply about the heart and soul of the person, what they are passionate about and what messages or wisdom they uniquely can offer that they would most want to get out into the world, so that I can act as a conduit. So it is always those customized questions that really allow them to speak about whatever project, cause, charity or issues most inspire them, that get great responses. Beyond that, I love asking questions that might create further understanding on issues that often divide us, for example, about what their personal definition of feminism is and what they think the biggest misconceptions are. And I often seem to elicit the best responses to my more personal questions by sharing my own truth and stories, so for example, I might share the challenges I faced as a teenager with eating disorders and low self esteem, or about how hard it is to balance my own life, so that it creates a space that makes it feel more like a conversation than an “interview” and allows for more personal, candid answers. And I always try to ask people what is their wish for the children of the future, since I think the more people we have dreaming up positive visions for humanity, the closer we get to making it a reality!
Your book challenges us to be “daring” in our authenticity. How are you “daring” at this point in your life? What other women do you admire for daring to be themselves?
I have become much more “daring” as I get older – when I was younger I think I was more caught up with playing it safe, fitting in, doing what was expected of me. These days, I think I am “daring” myself to live my life authentically, challenging myself to keep learning and growing, and also working to help create positive change in the world. That is the heart and essence of the book. As for other women, honestly, I admire all the women in this book who I think all dare to be themselves, as well as all the women in the world who may not be well known names, but are boldly doing that in their own lives.
However, if I had to give one powerful example, it would have to be my longtime friend and colleague Eve Ensler, founder of the global anti-violence movement V-Day. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse herself, I was there when she first had the vision to use her groundbreaking play The Vagina Monologues to raise awareness and funding for programs to stop violence against women, which has gone on to raise over $80 million dollars for programs all over the world. I think one of the keys to Eve’s unique ability to reach people and create change has always been how she courageously shares her stories and innermost truth, and inspires others to honor and share theirs. Whether writing or speaking about women’s relationships with their bodies, the atrocities happening to women and girls in places like the Congo, or her recent experience with uterine cancer which inspired some of her most beautiful and profound writing, she has always lived her life and communicated with such heart, compassion and authenticity - she is a constant inspiration.
You pioneered online feminism, populating feminist.com with inspiring, original content before there was almost anything else about women’s liberation on the internet. What’s most surprising to you about the evolution of online feminism?
When we first launched the site back in 1995, only 15% of Internet users were women and one of Feminist.com’s first functions was to help encourage women to go online, help them network with each other and offer the first web presence for organizations such as V-Day, Equality Now and the Ms. Foundation. Now the estimates are that approximately 51% of Internet users are women, and most organizations have very informative and dynamic web sites and social networking extensions - and the explosion of women’s blogs is truly amazing. That is the development I think I am most happily surprised about, is the ability now for any woman to have an outlet for her voice and contribute her perspective, whether through developing a web site or blog (or even commenting on one), as well as through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. It has transformed the media in ways that allows everyone to feel a part of it, which is most important for women whose voices and stories have been largely underrepresented in traditional media. And in my opinion the Internet has become the next wave of “feminism” – which is wonderful because it helps better represent and promote its true face, which is one of diversity, because there is no centralized movement or figureheads anymore, but instead a melting pot of perspectives and experiences. The Internet reinforces our sense of being one global family and is such a powerful tool to inform, connect and inspire, and arms us with so much information and so many resources we can use to help us, both in our personal and professional lives (like She Writes!) and also to get involved in working towards positive change in the world. And Shelby, let me just say that yours is one the online voices I most respect and admire – you are doing such wonderful work!
You’ve said you always wanted to write a book but not this one. What’s on the horizon for you now?
Daring to Be Ourselves has opened up so many doors for me, and I am busily enjoying the many new mediums in which I have been invited to share the book and the themes I care so much about, whether through my new monthly radio commentary on the show “51% The Women’s Perspective” (which airs on WAMC and NPR), or through speaking engagements at places that have recently ranged from IBM, TEDx and my alma mater Cornell University. It has also been interesting to switch roles – lately I have been the one being interviewed, as I am right now, which has been a new experience that I am thoroughly enjoying and learning from. I have also been invited to write for many new outlets which has been great. As for my next book project, though this first one did happen in an unexpected way, I now have an agent and am thoughtfully considering and conceiving my next project, which looks like it might be a combination of personal memoir interwoven with lessons and insights I have learned (and continue to learn!) through my interviews and interactions with the incredible people I have had the privilege of interviewing and working with along the way. And I always leave room for opportunities or developments that I can’t predict, which is always the way my life has seemed to work!