The Writing Life

Travels with Lilly

Posted in The Writing Life on March 12th, 2012 by Lanier Isom – Comments Off on Travels with Lilly

Lilly on the eve of receiving her award for courage from Momentum.

Lilly on the eve of receiving her award for courage from Momentum.

Grace and Grit was published last week on February 28, 2012. The following evening Lilly was one of several remarkable women receiving awards at a conference hosted by Momentum here in Birmingham. Lilly received the Courage Award. The next day we signed books at the conference where Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, also from Alabama, was one of the keynote speakers.

Friday night was supposed to be our big launch: a signing at Alabama Booksmith followed by an evening at Altamont School. Fatal tornadoes once again ripped across our state, and the reception was cancelled. However, with dark clouds skittering across the sky and sirens keening, we held the book signing. A few intrepid souls came out to see us. Those who didn’t venture out ordered books anyway, and this week Grace and Grit is the #1 bestseller at Alabama Booksmith.

I headed to New York Sunday morning to meet Lilly for a whirlwind media day on Monday. It was the first time since my son was born almost fourteen years ago, I’d travelled alone. I savored the smallest moments: reading an entire New York Times without interruption in one sitting

on the plane, waking up to a real alarm clock, not Bear, barking at 5:00 am before I want to even think about getting out of bed.

On Monday morning after a visit to the good folks at Random House, we were whisked off to CBS where we pulled up in our fancy black car. A side door opened and several people with headphones escorted us inside down a long hallway into the studio. It was a moment! I settled in the green room, which was really all glass, looking into the newly renovated studio, while Lilly went to make-up—being a southern woman she really didn’t need to since she’d already done her own. When Charlie Rose came in for a snack, I couldn’t contain myself and blurted out my name like a schoolgirl. He was gracious. The next thing I knew Lilly was behind the desk being interviewed. Once the taping was finished, we got ready to leave, and another Alabama native came in the green room with his entourage. Of course, I had to point out we were also from Alabama. “I’m from Cullman,” Channing said. “And my family is from Wetumpka, down near Montgomery.” I know where that is I replied, adding, “Lilly’s from Possum Trot.” Now at this point, all the uber cool youngsters straight from LA, and we certainly don’t mean lower Alabama like you were thinking, were wondering what in the world we were talking about. Then Gayle King came in to greet Channing and out the door we went.

Lilly was then interviewed by the astute Leonard Lopate at the NPR station, which will air on March 13, followed by a satellite interview with the delightful Tavis Smiley of PBS. The last interview of the night was with Rachel Maddow. Now Rachel, we all know, is something else. You might not agree with her politics, but regardless, she is smart, passionate and a decent person. She’s also quite petite behind that desk despite her large intellect. She was thrilled to see Lilly, and as she talked about the book on live TV, I had to keep from shouting out in happiness from behind the camera when she read a part from the book, the part where Lilly finds the note. My mind flashed back to my sitting alone at my computer with the entire book still unwritten, struggling with the words to convey the right sensations, to make sure the reader felt Lilly’s despair upon this discovery of pay inequity. But no time to dwell. After the interview, we were out on the cold New York streets hailing a cab back to the Warwick. Poof. The day was over and my media darling moment was gone. It was if our chariot had turned back into a pumpkin, but not really. The effect was immediate: within hours after the interview Lilly was one of the top ten topics trending on Twitter, and the sales ranking on Amazon went from the thousands to the hundreds. Most importantly, people are hearing her story, a story that is every woman’s story until women are not paid 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.

Writing a Memoir

Posted in The Writing Life on February 28th, 2012 by Lanier Isom – Comments Off on Writing a Memoir

“A memoir is neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription. A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom.”

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick

Today is the big day for Lilly and me. Grace and Grit: How I Won My Fight for Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond hits bookstores! When my agent Linda first told me what she expected Lilly’s life story to look like, I was surprised. I had imagined a third person narrative, a journalistic account of her life, looking at her story from the outside in. What Linda envisioned was the story told from Lilly’s point of view, a factual rendering of her of life, but told from the heart in Lilly’s unique voice. I was challenged to render both the actual account and the emotional truth of Lilly’s life, to see the world through Lilly’s eyes, to understand her visceral experience and translate this to the reader. I understood how to research and interview. What I grappled with was how to hone in on the overarching theme of her life, how to find those key moments, how to tell her story in her authentic voice, how to portray her journey in a compelling manner. As Lilly and I talked for endless hours, I began to see patterns in her life. When I pointed them out, it was often a revelation for her as well.

During the process of writing, I read many memoirs—the gold standard, of course, being Mary Karr and one of my favorite memoirs being The Glass Castle— and many books about how to write a memoir. Essentially, I had to teach myself how to write a memoir while I was writing one. The greatest practical insights I gained were from a slim, yet powerful book, Writing What You Know: Realia by Marion Roach Smith. Smith emphasized taking the small moments to illustrate the larger meaning of a person’s life. Ultimately, you have to ask and determine what the memoir is about and illustrate this through events and an understanding of these moments.

What was Lilly’s life about? Hard work and determination. How despite grinding away year after year to help provide for her family, she was dismissed as a woman, dismissed as worth less than the men at Goodyear. In the end, though, she never stopped working even though she endured hideous mistreatment on the job; she kept fighting as she had done all along to prove herself and keep her job. To this very day, Lilly is still working, speaking to groups across the country about pay equity. In the end, her hard work has paid off, not for her personally, but thankfully, for future generations of women and families in our country.

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