Foreword from Something That Matters
by Elizabeth Fishel
Fifteen years ago when the Wednesday Writers first gathered in my Oakland, California living room, we wrote for our own private pleasure. From ten to twelve every Wednesday morning, fueled by strong coffee and soothed by lemongrass tea, we sank into soft sofas and sturdy rockers and wrote to ferret out what we knew. Then we strung the glassy beads of our separate truths into jeweled strands of overlapping stories. Part writing class, part support group, part literary salon, we became a writers’ community that midwifed first-person essays about every stage around the life cycle. From the cozy safety of our weekly circle burst fervent stories of lives in transition when relationships redefined, families regrouped, jobs shifted, and moves, both inner and outer, scattered us into second acts.
Then four years ago our first anthology catapulted us from privacy into fifteen minutes of unexpected fame.
This is how it happened.
For several years the shadow of breast cancer had darkened our intimate circle, mirroring the national epidemic. Mothers, sisters, friends, and a sobering handful of the Wednesday Writers coped with it, wrote about it, and did their best to carry on. During the decade-plus we’d been meeting, twice the group attended memorial services for our writers whose lives had been cut short by cancer.
When my own mother also died after a valiant struggle with breast cancer, I needed to respond the best way I knew: with words. I wanted to do something that might make a difference in the lives of other breast cancer patients and raise money and awareness to battle this devastating disease that takes too many precious lives.
The Wednesday Writers mobilized with me in a two-step fund-raising plan. We hosted a literary event at the University of California San Francisco, “Healing Words,” and brought together breast cancer survivors with acclaimed writers, headlined by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen whose bestselling Kitchen Table Wisdom had inspired our own stories.
The event also turned out to be a publication party for our first anthology, Wednesday Writers: Ten Years of Writing Women’s Lives, a heartfelt collection of first-person writing on the pleasures, pitfalls, and surprises of everyday life.
All of our contributing writers—30 for Wednesday Writers and 42 this time for Something That Matters—agreed to donate our entire proceeds to Bay Area breast care centers. Our first beneficiary was the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center at the University of California San Francisco, and our second anthology will benefit the brand-new, state-of-the-art Carol Ann Read Breast Health Center at the Alta Bates/Summit Hospital in Oakland, California.
Our collective spirit—multiple writers rallying multiple networks—has energized our project from the get-go. The combination of passionate personal writing by a group of ordinary women, many never before published, and the book’s fund-raising goal touched a nerve in the San Francisco Bay Area with ripples nationwide. Terrific media attention greeted our first book, including a feature in The San Francisco Chronicle and many other publications. Spring, summer, fall, we were booked with readings and events and attracted such a following that we added another group we dubbed the Friday Writers.
And I was thrilled, as we all were, when our efforts paid off well—for two weeks running, a month after publication, Wednesday Writers hit the San Francisco Chronicle’s Bay Area paperback bestseller list, galloping right behind Seabiscuit.
As our group became higher profile, many of our writers grew more prolific and public as well. My coffee table overflowed with our members’ writing published around the Bay Area and beyond. “40 articles published by 40!” vowed one of our writers who joined our circle in her late thirties; her fanny-on-chair perseverance, polished voice, and the group’s faith helped her reach her goal by her 40th birthday. Suddenly we were all going to readings for Wednesday and Friday writers who were publishing their own books and contributing to other anthologies.
Four years and three printings later, Wednesday Writers has created a substantial gift to benefit breast health care in the Bay Area. We joke that like the British “Calendar Girls” we’re women of a certain age who’ve raised money and attention for our cause. And we did it without even shedding our clothes.
The Wednesday Writers are mostly at life’s midpoint now, still weaving youthful memories and dreams into stories, yet also imagining the path ahead with our words. Every decade provides more fodder, more cause for reflection. At midlife we strive more than ever to be the people on whom nothing is lost, as Henry James famously portrayed the writer’s purpose. Our ordinary moments become exceptional in the retelling—a backyard barbecue on fall’s first evening, a teenage son’s cross-country meet, a father’s wordless birthday appearance, a group of schoolchildren magpie-chattering in Monet’s garden.
Our essays help us redesign the balance of our lives. We scribble our plans out for size in our group journal, make pleasures sweeter by recalling them, help each other find the right words to repair what’s broken and move on. Our writing is the way we reorder what’s most important, transform relationships, refashion work lives to release more time and space for new pursuits. Separately and together, we strive, in the poet Audre Lorde’s words, “to touch something that matters.”
Our territory is the moving target of the middle years, which our opening chapter, “Seasons of Our Lives,” sets out to hold still. “autumn wind/ I pull another gray hair/ from my jacket sleeve,” observes haiku poet Sue Antolin in “Artichoke Season.” Heralding 40, celebrating 50, embracing 60, we counter whispers of mortality with writing’s reinventions of self. Meanwhile, we grab “Tools of the Maintenance Trade,” in Lori Rosenthal’s phrase, to stave off time’s damages.
In the chapter, “Our Parents, Ourselves,” our mothers’ and fathers’ aging inspires a second look at the direction of our own lives. Watching parents grow frailer bonds us closer to them, prompting Mary Ford’s reassessment in “Petite Madame” and Melanie Johnston’s role-reversal in “Mothering Mother.” It’s now or never to put our passions at the center, as Christine Parsons’s dreamer/father prods her in “Malt-o-Matic.”
We explore the deepening intimacy of our liaisons in “Couples.” If some marriages have ended sadly, as Swathi Desai’s haunting “Loneliness” bares, others are given a second chance. Leah Fisher recounts her month-long time-out from a 25-year marriage in “Moving Out” and then her return home, feisty, unapologetic, but still pledged to her mate. Ronnie Caplane’s column, “The Shoe,” reports how unexpected widowhood sidelines her with grief, until she’s spurred by a brief encounter into surprise resilience.
As “Our Children Move Through Us,” our stories freeze-frame their growth spurts, the passages that require new roles and responses from us. Diana Divecha’s “The Puja” documents her 13-year-old daughter’s Hindu coming-of-age ceremony, celebrated by 16 bags of rose petals and blended relatives from Minnesota to Bombay. Risa Nye bakes and depicts one last “Enchanted Castle Cake” for her departing child, and Laura Shumaker stands aside so that her autistic son, now a teenager, can become “A Regular Guy.” Cuddling fewer babies and more beloved grandbabies, we’re proud to become 21st-century grandmothers, as Kathleen Faraday confides in her Contra Costa Sun column, “A Normal Grandma.”
Meanwhile we declutter the corners of our lives and fill them with the “Pleasures and Pastimes” that matter most—family, friendship, music, cooking exotic meals and hand-me-down recipes, collecting, dog-walking, reading, day-dreaming, and discovering the distant corners of the world. “Travels” recounts journeys from Marienbad to Bahia, from painting in Giverny to making tiramisu in Tuscany, or globe-trotting with college friends turned “Traveling Grannies.”
Above all we dedicate ourselves to “The Writing Life,” knowing that “The Perfect Moment,” as Kate Ruddle names it, may never quite come, but sandwiching time for writing into an already layered life. We are beyond excuses (in-laws arriving, children sick, dog-ate-my-homework) and have learned to just do it, jotting brainstorms on deposit slips, rough drafts between appointments, writing our dreams by flashlight in bedside journals. We may fantasize about the month-long writing retreat to the mountain cabin. But these essays, simmered in the stewpot of daily life, record our reality now and will, we hope, inspire others to do the same.
Our work nourishes and renews us so we close with a chapter called “Healing Words” to reflect our shared dedication to the recuperative power of writing our way through uncertainty, illness, and loss. “After my cancer diagnosis I believe it was writing as much as medical treatment that enabled me to heal,” explained one of the Wednesday writers, speaking for us all.
Two days before she died, our dear friend, admired community member, and fellow writer Marian Magid called to ask that I help find an audience for her last essay, “How to Help a Stubborn Sick Friend.” “I’m on a mission,” is how she phrased it. We are honored to include her essay here and dedicate this book to Marian’s memory. Her call reminded me how much it matters to each of us that our words are read and heard. We write to touch each other’s lives and to teach each other to treat the world more kindly. That was Marian’s message and ours in Something That Matters.
The Wednesday Writers
A Brief History
The Wednesday Writers
* front: Sue Antolin,