Author Q&A: Barbara Kelley and Shannon Kelley, “Undecided”
Barbara, who teaches journalism and directs the journalism emphasis at Santa Clara University, is a freelance journalist who has written for daily newspapers, their Sunday magazine sections, and a variety of regional and national magazines. Shannon Kelley is a columnist at the Santa Barbara Independent, a freelance writer and photographer, and a corporate consultant.
The two talk about Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career-and Life-That’s Right for You, their writing collaborative processes, and more. Write on!
What led you to first start writing?
BK: I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but it wasn’t until I got to Journalism school that I realized that talent will only get you so far. It’s not about writing, per se. It’s about the information. No matter how fabulous your writing is, you have to have something to write about. That’s where the reporting comes in. And I think I learned that lesson the hard way when I hit the real world. What I also learned was that the reporting—getting a great interview, finding out something you never thought you could—is more exciting than your byline. Well, most of the time.
SK: Well, I always enjoyed it, but I kind of made a point of NOT going into it professionally until I could no longer deny that it was what I wanted to do. (Being that my mom was a writer, I wanted to do something different.) But writing always wormed its way in—I majored in Religious Studies and Anthropology, which is to say I was always writing papers; then I worked in PR, which is to say I was always writing pitches and press releases—and, when it came down to it, the writing part of whatever I was doing was always my favorite part. So, while still doing PR full-time, I took on a part-time job at the weekly paper, and got started that way.
Why did you write Undecided?
BK: Ha ha. As we say in the prologue, it was born of booze and sweat. As backstory: I had noticed something in my students, my kids (ahem), my friends’ kids, and my kids’ friends—girls who were blessed to have all kinds of opportunity—the kind of opportunity their mothers never had: And yet, they were dissatisfied, overwhelmed, and unhappy. The kicker was a friend’s daughter—bright, engaging, talented—who once said she wished she was born into a culture where everything—from spouse to career—ere chosen for her. So I wrote an op-ed about this for the Christian Science Monitor, and it got a tremendous response.
SK: A few months later, after a hike up and down Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County —and some cocktails—I convinced my mom that the topic was much too juicy to be contained in an 800-word piece. We should write a book, and we should do it together. We wanted to get to the root of it. To talk to these women. To explore the psychology of choice. To look at how feminism plays into it all. To talk to experts, academics, researchers, therapists, and coaches. To go deep into the trenches!
The topics we explore are analysis paralysis in the face of too many options, grass is greener syndrome, the lure of the road not traveled, what it means to be happy, how to discover your passion, how to get to know yourself, and how we—women—got to this point … and where we should go from here. We want women to take away the idea that the choices you make to determine your life should be based on what feels right to YOU. Don’t worry about chasing down anyone else’s definition of success. Don’t be afraid to take chances, to go out on a limb. Failure is recoverable, regret is much tougher. Dispense with the word “should.”
What was your process for writing it? Getting it published?
Everything fell into place pretty easily. Relatively speaking, of course. After that initial brainstorming session, we contacted a literary agent in New York that Barbara had worked with very briefly. She liked our concept right off the bat. We had a few conference calls, then a month or so later, Shannon was in New York for a book reading for an anthology to which she’d contributed an essay, and met her for coffee; she arrived with the contract in her hand. We spent the next several months working on an extensive proposal, with our agent’s help, and about a year to the day from that infamous hike, we had a contract with Seal Press. Exactly a year later, we met our deadline. With almost five full minutes to spare!
As for the actual writing, the short answer is this: we divided up the writing and the reporting, brainstormed on what would go where, and then sent drafts flying back and forth, editing each other’s work so that, despite who actually wrote what, we both had feedback on every chapter in the book, and we worked on having a consistent voice.
What was it like working with your mother/daughter?
BK: It was a gift. We hear all the time about father-son businesses, but how often do you hear about a mother-daughter venture, where the two work together? As equals? It’s pretty amazing to collaborate on a project with a colleague—and have that colleague be your daughter. The brainstorming was clearly the most fun part. Logistically, too, it was a great working together. We have different work-styles—I am more linear, Shannon is more organic—which seemed to complement each other. And coming at our topic from different generational perspectives—the exchange of ideas—really added a lot to the book. The other thing—if you eliminate the (um, frequent?) freak-outs—we had a lot of fun. We both have a rather irreverent sense of humor, which clearly helped see us through the rough spots. And we both have respect for each other’s work. We’re pretty proud of what we accomplished. Together.
SK: I’ll plead the fifth. Just kidding. It was mostly great. But it certainly had its moments. The nice thing about doing something like this with your mom is you can have your meltdown, and know that she’ll still love you tomorrow, because she has to. (And vice versa.) We learned a lot about each other, too: for instance, I learned that, when she’s freaked out, the best course of action is to suggest that she make a list. That usually calms her down quite well. (On the other hand: suggesting I make a list is a guaranteed way to instigate a low-grade freak-out.)
You have a very developed blog: What is your secret to keeping it going? Why is it so important for authors to have a blog?
Thanks! But there is no secret. You just have to do it, whether you feel like writing a post or not. Google alerts help. And if you’re a news junkie, as we both are, it’s not hard to find something worth writing about. We were told from the start by our agent that a blog was essential to developing our concept (and building our brand), and she was right. I believe her exact words were: “Blog. Tweet.” And speaking of tweeting, a blog provides you with a good means to leverage your presence via social media. For a project like Undecided, the blog was a really indispensable part of the process—the comments and conversations that were sparked by posts we’d written were truly invaluable. At its best, a blog is a means to a conversation. (At its worst: an evil time-suck.)
What are the top three thing you hope people learn from your book?
1. Women are in a state of transition, and we’re experiencing growing pains, which can be exciting and terrifying at the same time. There haven’t been women living lives like ours until very recently—we don’t have much in the way of a roadmap. We are lucky to have all of these options—but that doesn’t change the fact that dealing with them can be a bitch.
2. Empowering though they were meant to be, no matter how well-intentioned, the messages we were raised on—you can do anything, you can have it all—have a dark side. Pressure, expectations, fear of settling for less than perfect. We learn best when we let go of all that; we learn from taking risks and allowing ourselves to fail.
3.It’s okay to be undecided: we’re all in this together, trying to figure it out. The most important work is getting to know ourselves.
What are the biggest mistakes new writers make and how can they best correct them?
BK: I think a big mistake is being caught up in the romance of being a “writer”. Writers write—but first, we have to have something to write about. I think beginning writers tend to forget that.
SK: I agree, and I’d also add that hoping to produce The Great American Novel or a Pulitzer-winning piece of journalism right out of the gate is counterproductive. Writing, like most things, is a practice. Yes, you may have a gift, but you have to work at it. A med student might be gifted and have spent her childhood with Gray’s Anatomy as her bedtime story every night; I still wouldn’t want her cutting me open until she’s been doing it for a while.
Advice for non-fiction writers?
BK: Read the work of good writers—and analyze both the writing, in terms of technique and structure—and the content two. My three favorite anthologies – oldies, but goodies: The New Journalism (Tom Wolfe); Literary Journalism (Sims and Kramer); Intimate Journalism (Harrington). And maybe take a reporting class.
SK: Yeah, I’d say reading a lot of non-fiction is pretty key. And learn to enjoy the reporting process. If you do the reporting well enough, often times stories will write themselves—and write themselves pretty darn well.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started your career?
BK: I suppose it would have been helpful to know how difficult it is to break into magazine writing. Along those lines, I wish I learned a lot more about how to market myself and my work—apart from writing query letters.
SK: Um, that I did want to be a writer, and not a PR flack? Coulda saved myself a couple of years. On the other hand, I was in that biz during the dotcom boom years, and I can’t say I regret the stock options…