Friday, March 20, 2009

DAY SEVEN: Victoria Zackheim

This is my last day on the blog and I’ve loved every minute of it. Thank you for visiting, posting, encouraging…you are greatly appreciated!

If anyone’s interested in writing personal essays, I’ll be teaching an introductory course online, for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Just click on that link and you’re there!

Today, I’d like to tell you about the second anthology, For Keeps: Women Tell the Truth About Their Bodies, Growing Older, And Acceptance.

Have you ever had a medical test and the doctor tells you, “I’m sure it’s nothing, we’re just making certain,” and you want to believe, were it not for that nagging voice? When I had the first ideas for this book, I called it Body and Soul. I wanted to bring together women writers who had faced, and then overcome, all kinds of personal obstacles related to physical and mental health. Truly, had I put out a universal call, this could have been an anthology of 500 essays. The question wasn’t Who has experienced this? It was more…who hasn’t? In the introduction, I wrote that to believe that I am healthy, to wish that I am healthy, and to live with the expectation that I will be healthy, in no way guarantees my good health. I’ve always known this at some superficial level, but this past year has driven it home. Ten days before my son’s wedding, I fell down a flight of stairs and suffered a head injury. I had the amazing luck to have hit my head against stairs that were carpeted. I remember riding in the ambulance and thinking that, unless I died, I was going to that wedding...thankfully, I walked my son down the aisle. Around that time, I read For Keeps again and had a very different take on my long-held (and foolish) belief that I had full control over everything in my life. This is also from the introduction, which I wrote. It has even greater meaning now. While many of us are able to regain that control, we cannot ignore the message that hovers out there, just beyond the coast of consciousness: Our bodies are for keeps. No matter what life brings us, we must forge ahead and celebrate life.

The approach taken by the 27 authors in this anthology is as different as the women themselves. For example, this from Abby Fruct’s essay, Holes:
Except that it costs me my whole deductible, I enjoy my hysterectomy. I find hospitals stimulating. I like the funk of anesthesia, and I’m amused by the bright blue nun, like on the wine bottle label, who stops by at pre-op to pray. I’m proud of the tumor they get out of me, and I love that my friends bring me lavender oil and that my son serves me dinner when I come home to heal.

Louisa Ermelino is funny, poignant, heartbreaking in Death Becomes Her:
My mother is dying in her bed across the street. My husband is in the hospital, defying the medical prediction that he had six months to live. It’s been ten and we’re still counting. Me, I’m going back and forth from the hospital to my mother’s bedside to my job at a celebrity fashion magazine. Is Nicole Kidman wearing Zac Posen and did she really buy her lasagna pan at Williams Sonoma? Can you fax that information please? It’s a very high-end magazine and we care about the veracity of what we print.

Susan Ito’s The Puzzle of My Body is about finally meeting her biological mother. In this passage, she writes about her daughter’s birth:

The first time my body really astonished me was when it gave birth to a fascinating, very other-looking creature known as my second daughter. Unlike myself, her father and older sister, who all have hair the color of dark chocolate, my younger girl was born blonde. With startling blue eyes. I was stunned. Here, finally, was the Other Side, emerging. I stared at her for hours, feeling so completely disoriented. I had never expected it; the surprise of my body producing such a fair child. Blue: The color of my younger daughter's eyes. Her eyes matched the fake denim on her car seat. Blue eyes like holes that went all the way through, same as the color surrounding her head. Since the day she was born, I obsessed about her eyes, thought they must be the same color as my father's. Blue eyes against the Iowa sky.

Sally Terrell was tired of feeling powerless and entered the world of competitive weightlifting. This is her take, from Heavy Lifting:
As I lifted more weight, my wrists, knees, and legs hurt the way children’s bones do from growing pains. I learned how to measure weights in kilos and was soon squatting well over my body weight. My wrists became thicker and stronger; I no longer tried to be graceful when I was lifting the bar. This new brand of grit and power paid dividends as I learned to live alone for the first time in my life. I was earning a living by part-time teaching and waitressing at a high-end Hartford restaurant. I had started to sleep through the night, with all lights off and no need for the soothing voices in the television. I even started dating a slick attorney, a regular at the restaurant who thought I needed to be better fed.

As my closing recommendations, I’m going to offer these two anthologies:

Barbara Graham has an anthology due out the first week of April. Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being A Grandmother (HarperCollins) is a collection of gifted writers exploding the myths about being a grandmother. Authors include Molly Giles, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Abigail Thomas, Judith Viorst, Anne Roiphe, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Beverly Donofrio, Bharati Mukherjee, Elizabeth Berg, and Susan Griffin.

Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open Up About Moving On (Seal, June 2009), edited by Candace Walsh. A collection of 29 essays on the subject, humorous and bleak—though never bleak for long. Required for anyone considering a change, or in that state of flux that can be so unsettling.

Of course, I couldn’t say goodbye without introducing my own new anthology, which will be available in September. The Face in the Mirror: Writers Reflect on Their Dreams of Youth and the Reality of Age (Prometheus Books). I’m happy to say that I’m beyond the nail-biting stage. The final draft was sent last month and the editor was delighted with the essays. How could she not love it, with this list of authors: Alan Dershowitz, Barbara Abercrombie, Beverly Donofrio, Jane Ganahl, Sandra Gulland, Eileen Goudge, Malachy McCourt, Joyce Maynard, Leon Whiteson, Margot Duxler, Michael Bader, Lee Chamberlin, Laurie Stone, Richard Toon, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, Aviva Layton, Aimee Liu, Christine O’Hagan, and Nancy Weber.

I do admit to struggling with the need to “vet” each word, in order to avoid lawsuits. When you refer to a cousin as that rotten cheat, you really DO leave yourself open to all sorts of problems. Sure, you can use a pseudonym, but that cousin can still sue. You’ll probably win, but the legal fees could wipe you out and the publisher will probably cancel shipment. It’s a lose/lose situation, so care is needed. Do the authors enjoy having vital information removed or softened? Nope. Do I enjoy having to do it? Nope. It’s about either bending to the will of the publisher or having essays cut from the collection. Luckily for me, I was working with rational, mature authors. Few were happy with the changes, but everyone agreed to them.

You might be interested to know that one of the most time-consuming (and enjoyable) tasks around an anthology is deciding the order in which the essays appear in the book. You don’t want a side-splitting-funny piece coming just before or after someone’s heartbreaking story, nor do you want authors clustered together by viewpoint or similar backgrounds. An anthology is fluid, one essay carrying the reader along to the next, a journey of emotions and circumstances. I think we achieved this in Face in the Mirror. Now, I’m excited with the anticipation of seeing the cover art!

In closing, let me say again that anthologies are more than collections of works…they are living, breathing representations of nearly every facet of the human condition. Looking back, I certainly did not want to be labeled the anthologist, as opposed to the writer, but I have to tell you: after three anthologies and two more in the works, there are worse things you could call me. For now, anthologist is just fine.

Again, thank you so much for reading my posts, commenting, and contacting me with observations and suggestions. And thanks to Aggie for inviting me, for your enthusiasm, and for guiding me so patiently through the labyrinthine beginner’s course, Blogology IA.

Keep your eyes open for a possible reading from The Face in the Mirror around September or October. Six of the authors live in the Bay Area and four are in Los Angeles, so it could be a wonderfully crowded podium!


  1. Hi Victoria, Thanks for mentioning 'Eye of My Heart', due out in two weeks from Harper. I just want to let your readers know that three of the contributors--Susan Griffin, Bharati Mukherjee and I--will be reading from our essays and discussing the unexpected perils as well as the pleasures of grandmotherhood at Kepler's on Sunday, May 3 at 2 pm.

    Wonderful blog, great book selections, brava!

    Barbara Graham

  2. Wonderful week, Victoria. Loved it.

  3. I'd like to add two more anthologies to this list:

    Literature from the Axis of Evil, Mason et al., (New Press)

    Words without Borders: The World through the Eyes of Writers

  4. Barbara and Sandra...thanks for the visit!