I’m so delighted today to be back at the 1st Books business of inspiring writers to keep on writing. And what better way to kick off the post-The Race for Paris publication chaos than with a post by Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan Brown–writing about writing their new book, The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship, together. It’s just out yesterday, and getting terrific attention. Marilyn is a former professor of French and presently a senior scholar the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, and the author of widely acclaimed social histories including How the French Invented Love–which is fabulous. Theresa is an award-winning author of both fiction and nonfiction. Welcome back, and enjoy their post! And if you aren’t in Healdsburg tasting wine with me, join them tomorrow night at Keplers.- Meg
Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan Brown: Friendship on Friendship
The best female friends offer the peaceful and affirming presence of someone who knows and cares for us just as we are. Such friends may also occasionally urge us out beyond the breakwater, blow wind in our sails, bid us adieu, and promise to listen to our tales when we return. And sometimes our girlfriends grab our hand and jump with us into the scary, beckoning unknown. As friends for nearly twenty years, we took that friendly leap into the adventure of writing together.
Two-and-a-half years ago, we found ourselves walking through gardens at Stanford University amid colors and scents of a California spring evening. Marilyn, incisive and persuasive, had an agenda. She invited Theresa to join her as co-writer for her next book — for which she already had a contract — on female friendship.
The twilight fairly shimmered with all the layers of our connection. We had met years ago as professional colleagues on the board of a literary magazine. Our relationship blossomed, based first in mentoring and then segueing into long-term personal respect and caring. And now we were launching ourselves into the open water of a collaboration as friends writing about female friendship: Uncharted territory, unpredictable weather.
We differ in temperament, working habits, writing style, and to a certain extent, world view. In the case of The Social Sex (which spans 2500 years), rather than marching in lock-step, we complemented one another in a way that strengthened the final product.
For starters, our authorial voices for creative nonfiction differ significantly. Some of the variation can be chalked up to a generational split — there are twenty-some years between us. Other differences arose from our professional biases. Marilyn is first and foremost a quintessential scholar. Her expertise runs deep in Western classics, French literary history, and feminist scholarship. Academia grounds her best-selling social histories, such as A History of the Wife and How the French Invented Love. Theresa, conversely, started her professional writing career in the rough-and-tumble of the business world, where you tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. Boom. (And never mind the footnotes.) In the years since she exited corporate communications, Theresa has written fiction, with a style that involves a deal of word play, metaphor, and syntactical license.
Remarkably to us, our differences as writers did not push us apart, but actually melded into a cornerstone of The Social Sex. Co-writing creative nonfiction demands complementary collaboration, as opposed to egotistical one-upmanship. Our egos did not clash, but we often challenged one another, strengthening the book’s arguments along the way: the good, old “thesis —> antithesis —> synthesis.” As we struggled for the best final document possible, our differences and their resolutions honed our narrative.
The meta-icing on our collaborative cake was that we are friends, and our subject was friendship. Our struggles to make our book the best it could be generated a good deal of interpersonal intensity. Our relationship, at once professional and personal, was thereby tempered, and so we have more reason than ever to expect our friendship to last for the rest of our lives.
While writing together has deepened our friendship, being friends as we wrote deepened our understanding of our subject. This complicated process has, we believe, made The Social Sex a stronger, more interesting social history than it would have been if either of us had attempted it alone. Collaboration is good. Collaboration between friends is better. – Marilyn and Theresa