An Interview with Rosemary Daniell


They are twin-theme memoirs of becoming a writer and the joys of teaching creative writing. THE WOMAN WHO SPILLED WORDS ALL OVER HERSELF is the prequel to SECRETS OF THE ZONA ROSA; it describes how I started Zona Rosa over 25 years ago, in Savannah, Georgia, and it also contains many of the Secrets of the Zona Rosa.

Both books are stories of how I have enjoyed writing and teaching, especially in my Zona Rosa workshops. They are also full of useful information for both aspiring and accomplished writers, as well as those who simply want to enhance their lives through the art of creative writing.

How did Zona Rosa begin?

"I used to be a frog. Then I became a teacher. I wish I was a frog again," a second grader wrote in one of my classes. And for a long time, that was the way I felt about teaching.

My teaching gigs were simply away to make money to go on writing. But then some things happened that made teaching more important in my life. My mother was a beautiful Southern woman who was also an aspiring writer who thought she didn't have the right to be one.

After she committed suicide, my sister Anne and I discovered that -- afraid of offending, and ladylike to the end -- she had destroyed her best and most personal pieces of writing.

My first book, a controversial collection of feminist poetry, A Sexual Tour of the Deep South, was published the same year that Mother died. But it was only after her death that I realized that in writing that book, I had been her surrogate voice -- that the anger in my poems had been the anger she, as a well-brought-up southern woman, had never been able to express.

Five years later, my memoir Fatal Flowers: On Sin, Sex, and Suicide in the Deep South, was published; in it, I described my view that mother's upbringing as a southern woman, and her adherence to traditional values, had caused her downfall.

But it was during my experiences as poet-in-residence at schools throughout Georgia, South Carolina, and Wyoming; and in the state prisons for women in Georgia and in Wyoming, and in detention centers, mental hospitals, and a school for unwed teenage mothers, that I realized how predominant these problems were, and how many women were blocked in their creativity by a rote adherence to what they had been taught.

It was out of these experiences that I formed my first Zona Rosa group in 1981, when I asked four women if they wanted to meet once a month to talk about creative writing, and as it would turn out, life.

I had decided that the first group should be all women because I had observed how women -- especially traditional women -- changed and became more inhibited when a man entered the room. I wanted this group to be a place where women would be free to be themselves.

What does Zona Rosa mean?

For a couple of years, the group, which was growing like Topsy, had no name. Then my daughter Laura and I visited Mexico City and the section called the Zona Rosa. I was taken with the phrase, which means "the Pink Zone" (originally, the red-light district), or, to me, the feminine zone.

In addition, a certain approach to creativity and creative writing was evolving within the group: a nonlinear, non-goal-oriented method that seemed to me to be feminine by its very nature.

While maintaining standards of excellence, we also functioned as a support group, mining subtext and the psychological blocks to creative writing became as important as advice on where to place a comma, or how to write dialogue. As one Zona Rosan said, "Anybody can teach you how to write a query letter. But to teach somebody how to write is really to teach them how to live.

I think of it as tapping into the upward spiral of human nature, via the path of creative writing. Emotional honesty, and a sense of loving support, whether one is a beginning writer, or someone well on the way to achievement, whatever one's background or one's life experiences may be, are the keys to Zona Rosa's success.

We take people where they are, in writing and life, and help them figure out where to go from there. That's why we call the writing exercises, "exorcises:" they are designed to exorcise our demons, break through blocks, and open us to material we didn't even know we had inside us!

Now, some of the Zona Rosa groups do include men, but we still work from the same psychological, nonlinear approach.

Are the books only for beginning writers? Or others as well?

Secrets of the Zona Rosa and The Woman Who Spilled Words All Over Herself are for writers are all stages of their work, and for anyone involved in the creative process. As the author of six books, I still deal with many of the same blocks and problems, and so do many of my professional peers.

The difference may be that we have more confidence, because we have gone through them before. And it is that confidence that yes, we can move through those blocks, that I wish to impart in this book.

Aside from becoming a published author, what are the benefits of creative writing?

At first, I wondered if it was right to teach people to write creatively, when becoming a published writer is so hard. But after a while, I found out two things: that the people who were only interested in publication quickly dropped out, and that the other benefits of creative writing were many.

First of all, creativity is fun, and adults need to play. There is a sense of community among artists. One Zona Rosan 's life totally changed when he first became a writer, then a painter.

He's still a Vietnam vet who builds racing car motors for a living, but now he's also a poet who reads at open mike readings, has published a collection of his poems, and recently had his first one-man show.

He's having a ball. And it all started at Zona Rosa. More important is creative writing's healing effect. Research among seniors has shown that creative writing actually reduces blood pressure. But the main benefit may be psychological.

My mother committed suicide, my father was an oft-abusive alcoholic; because of the latter, my sister Anne and I wore hand-me-down clothes as children and experienced hard times.

I was a high-school dropout and have been married four times; as an adult, I have experienced the ongoing pain of watching two of my adult children deal with long-term disabilities. Yet during periods of great stress, writing has soothed and healed me.

And a number of people have come into Zona Rosa because they have painful and/or poignant stories to tell -- Maria, a devout Catholic, ran away from her abusive husband after four children and 40 years of marriage.

Teresa was dealing with the disease of multiple personality disorder and an impulse to mutilate herself. Lois's "perfect" husband had been imprisoned for two years for breaking into a house and assaulting the woman with whom he was obsessed.

Both of Melinda's parents had been in the death camps during the Holocaust. Jana's mother had tried to abort her, and her father had jumped out a window, committing suicide. Abbie, a black woman, had seen the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross on her yard as a small child, after her mother, had tried to register to vote in their small Georgia town.

Edna had been locked in her room during each of two teenage pregnancies, then had had her babies taken from her; at age 45, she had only recently found her adult children.

And among the men, one had killed, and seen people killed and worse in Vietnam. Another, a former Green Beret during the same era, had hijacked a United Airlines jet with the intention of assassinating Fidel Castro. A foot doctor who had lost his own feet and lower legs during a terrible ambulance fire before he started medical school, and so on.... The stories are endless.

Some of these Zona Rosans went on to become accomplished -- even -- published writers, some did not. Some even wrote comically about situations that had at first seemed unbearable. But all of them enjoyed the healing aspect of writing their stories and sharing them within the group.

There is something wonderful about telling one's story, and having it be heard; as one Southern woman put it, "Zona Rosa group feels like a prayer meeting." And while these stories may sound dark, raucous laughter is most often the predominant sound at any Zona Rosa meeting. It's hard to stay sad among appreciative people.

What are some of the ways that people block themselves creatively?

I quickly found that fear is the common denominator to all our ways of blocking; in fact, I gave them acronymns: FOP (Fear of People), FOF (Fear of Failure), FOC (Fear of Chaos), and FOS (Fear of Shame, Fear of Significance, and Fear of Success).

In addition to the fears, there are also a number of ways we sabotage ourselves along the way. Bringing those into the light of day, where they can be dealt with, is an important part of the creative process.

Yet I can honestly say that I have never met one person, from second grader to 94-year-old, who could not write creatively, given the proper stimulus and an atmosphere of support. (In fact, I have found that the same exorcises, the same methods, work with every age group, and with people from every socioeconomic strata.)

Contrary to what some think, you don't have to attend a university creative writing program, or even to have special training, to write well. As James Hillman says in his book, The Soul's Code, any people have a sense of calling as a child, but then spend the next 30 or 40 years growing away from it, trying to tamp it down, so they can do "what they're supposed to do."

But what we really need to do is what the great architect, Buckminister Fuller advised: "Do what you were doing before somebody told you had to make a living."

What are the things that hold women back specifically?

For women, brought up to caretake others at their own expense, an adherence to traditional values can be a major drawback.

A fear of breaking the rules, and a mother too nice to rebel against may be the two biggest blocks to a woman's ability to fulfill herself creatively.

Traditional women are brought up with a set of feelings that they are taught are "proper" -- feelings that have to do with parents, boyfriends, husbands, children; when they repress the feelings that don't fall within those parameters, they are also repressing their creativity.

Too, women tend to etherealize sex and the rules around sex; and to castigate themselves if they hasn't followed those rules, or to think they are in love because they have a sexual feeling.

Surprisingly, the women who really have broken the rules, such as the women in prison, cling to these ideas just as much as the junior Leaguers and Garden Club ladies. A woman who tries to please her boyfriend by going along with armed robbery is not that different, really, from a woman who gives up other parts of herself in order to please her man (or family or society).

And men?

For men, it might have to do with wanting to run away to Portugal, ride away on a motorcycle a la James Dean, or do something really crazy, like hijack a plane -- mainly, to chuck everything. And some of the guys in my groups have done such things.

Or have gone through major life threatening illnesses or financial reverses that made them reassess their values, their macho and/or goal-oriented perspectives.

So Zona Rosa and the Pink Zone gives them a chance to get into their nonlinear, or some would say, feminine sides.

Neal, a dentist who is at work on his second novel, and who has recently begun reading his poetry to the group, has an adult son who is a philosophy professor. " Dad, I can't believe that you're in a writing group led by a feminist woman!" his son told him. Yet Neal fits in just fine.

What part does sexuality play in creativity?

Any writer who is honest will admit how sexy creative writing can be. Somebody should write about the connection between sex and creative writing," said my friend, writer Bruce Feiler. "If it" --your manuscript in progress --"doesn't turn you on while you're writing it, it's probably no good," a famous screenwriter had told him.

Yet the reason aspiring writers often fear this knowledge is that they think this means they will have to go wild sexually and break all the rules, when it doesn't mean that at all: it simply means being able to acknowledge all one's feelings, rather than remaining blocked.

While many great writers have led unusual sexual lives, or have even been libertines, many have remained pristine, virginal, and/or traditionally religious.

It's not in the action, but in the freedom of mind -- the ability to look at darkness as well as at light -- that counts. As Carl Jung said, "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious." Or to put it more simply: "Queens of Denial need not apply!"

How do you combine writing and teaching?

At first, I was worried about that. I wanted nothing to interfere with my own creative writing. And true, my own feminine imprints as a nurturer have facilitated me in my teaching. But as time as gone on, I have learned more, so much more, about life and other people than I could have learned in an ivory tower, or even a purely academic setting -- all of that has contributed to my own creativity.

Also, I share my own writing struggles with the Zona Rosans on a regular basis; they have become my support group, too. Since I began Zona Rosa 16 years ago, I've written five books; maybe I would have written more, but I wouldn't have experienced near as much joy!

*For another Interview, read Gayla Crosby's 20 Questions Answered by Rosemary

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