Finding material to write about is not always easy. One route is the memoir, which is built on revealing material you know well. Or you can write about something you don’t know well but would like to learn about. I combine the two by weaving some – but not all – of my own life story with answers to the question “What’s going on with women?” I have spent most of my professional life chronicling that transformation of women’s lives at different stages, and the experience has, in turn, inspired and empowered my own. Every time over the past forty years that I posed the question “What’s going on with women?” the answers were different.
I first became curious about something “going on” was back in the seventies when I was editor of Ms. magazine. Our readers were high school students and grandmothers, home-makers and rebels but if there was one driving editorial principle behind that breakthrough journalistic adventure, it was that if one woman was experiencing something, it was certain that other women were too, only they were not talking about it; the magazine needed to tell such stories and open up the conversation.
When in my early fifties I began to feel dissatisfied and restless that faith in shared experience led me to suspect that there was “something going on.” I checked it out with other women, and sure enough, they felt it too. Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood was the result of my search for understanding and reassurance that I wasn’t crazy – or under some menopausal spell - and neither were the hundreds of women I talked to. (I have always loved a T-shirt I saw once that said, “This is not a hot flash. It’s a power surge.”) After that book came out, other women who were in the process of navigating that transition came forward, and described their versions of our shared experience. The more we shared, the more I began to see some guiding insights that would be helpful to anyone negotiating the bumpy road to the new stage of life. For me Fifty Is the New Fifty: Ten Life Lessons for Women in Second Adulthood was a kind of personal stock-taking based on what I had learned form other women’s discoveries and disappointments as well as my own.
My newest book (due our next Valentine’s Day) – How We Love Now: Sex and The New Intimacy in Second Adulthood - is a deeper exploration of the new stage of life we are defining as we go along through the all-important lens of love. And sex.
In this case there was another dimension to the “What’s going on?” challenge: Not only was I exploring my own hang-ups and choices, and not only was I gathering experiences from other women, but the women themselves were hearing what they were saying about themselves for the first time. In many cases – especially in the context of sex - they hadn’t dared put into words, even to themselves, why they were doing what they were doing or longing to do.
“I can’t believe I am telling you this. I must be crazy” was a common exclamation. I knew – and they need to hear – that they weren’t crazy or alone, that what they were concerned or curious about was on the minds of countless other women. I write to enter into a supportive conversation among women like them – on the page.
-- Suzanne Braun Levine