If you could send a letter back through time to your younger self, what would the letter say?
In this moving collection, forty-one famous women write letters to the women they once were, filled with advice and insights they wish they had had when they were younger.
Today show correspondent Ann Curry writes to herself as a rookie reporter in her first job, telling herself not to change so much to fit in, urging her young self, “It is time to be bold about who you really are.” Country music superstar Lee Ann Womack reflects on the stressed-out year spent recording her first album and encourages her younger self to enjoy the moment, not just the end result. And Maya Angelou, leaving home at seventeen with a newborn baby in her arms, assures herself she will succeed on her own, even if she does return home every now and then.
These remarkable women are joined by Madeleine Albright, Queen Noor of Jordan, Cokie Roberts, Naomi Wolf, Eileen Fisher, Jane Kaczmarek, Olympia Dukakis, Macy Gray, and many others. Their letters contain rare glimpses into the personal lives of extraordinary women and powerful wisdom that readers will treasure.
Wisdom from What I Know Now
“Don’t let anybody raise you. You’ve been raised.” —Maya Angelou
“Try more things. Cross more lines.” —Breena Clarke
“Learn how to celebrate.” —Olympia Dukakis
“You don’t have to be afraid of living alone.” —Eileen Fisher
“Please yourself first . . . everything else follows.” —Macy Gray
“Don’t be so quick to dismiss another human being.” —Barbara Boxer
“Work should not be work.” —Mary Matalin
“You can leave the work world—and come back on your own terms.” —Cokie
“Laundry will wait very patiently.” —Nora Roberts
“Your hair matters far, far less than you think” —Lisa Scottoline
“Speak the truth but ride a fast horse.” —Kitty Kelley
Excerpted from What I Know Now by Edited and with a new afterword by Ellyn Spragins. Copyright © 2006 by Ellyn Spragins. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Why did you want to create this book?
A number of reasons, really. First, I felt the lack of my mother very keenly during some of the hardest passages in my life. I wanted her help and her perspective on my struggles--getting pregnant, balancing work and family, raising kids. I also became more curious about key junctures in her life as I matured. Somehow that desire for her wisdom inspired the idea of asking other women to look back at their lives.
The format of a letter sent back in time was very meaningful to me, also. It’s an invention, sort of a new genre, which satisfies my creative imagination. Too, the difference between asking someone for their advice and asking a woman to write a letter to herself at a specific age and time in her life is enormous. Advice is generic and inevitably trite. But give it the context of detail--of family background, key relationships, beliefs–and the guidance becomes very charged.
What is your favorite letter in the book?
Argh. That’s no fair! Truly, it’s hard to choose but let me mention a few that struck me most forcibly. Ann Curry, of Today, wrote to herself in her first job but I found her message–to get on with life and “be bold about who you really are”–resonated with me at age 52. I feel I’m often not as bold as I should be, so I suppose I need that reminder.
I think often of singer/songwriter Macy Gray’s letter and activist Heather Mills McCartney’s message because they both contain advice that is particularly hard for women to follow. A difficult marriage, two small children and a pregnancy had buried Macy’s musical identity so deep that she felt very lost. So she says, “Please yourself first. Everything else will follow.” This goes against the grain. Most women put husbands and children and neighbors and employers first, ahead of their own deepest desires.
Heather’s letter says, “Learn to say no.” It’s a similar message, but different because it is about understanding the toll of giving, giving, giving–even when the cause is just.
I love Mary Matalin’s letter because it upends the notion so many of us start out with, that there is a “golden” career path we must follow to be successful. Jane Kaczmarek’s hilarious letter describes some huge belly flops she executed, which redefined the way she looked at success.
Who was the most fun to interview?
Gee, who did I not have fun interviewing? Trish McEvoy, the gorgeous founder of a cosmetic company, knocked my socks off with her generosity. We sat in her enormous, beautiful apartment overlooking Central Park in Manhattan, had coffee and talked for hours. Literally. Eileen Fisher, as tranquil and thoughtful a CEO as you will ever meet, invited me into her home in Irvington, NY, showed me her journal and fed me scrumptious Asian food prepared by her chef. I flew to San Francisco to meet Queen Noor in her hotel suite. She was completely approachable, yet at the same time had experienced so many dimensions of the world that are beyond me. That blend of friendliness and depth was tantalizing.
Which messages surprised you?
It was hard to imagine Madeleine Albright feeling like a failure. I didn’t expect Olympia Dukakis to be so hard on herself; She felt she had absented herself emotionally from her children during one very challenging period in her life. And who knew that Rachel Ashwell, founder of the very successful Shabby Chic lines of furniture and bedding, dropped out of school at 15?
What is your goal for What I Know Now: Letters To My Younger Self?
I want women to be comforted and encouraged, and maybe even inspired, by knowing that even some of the most accomplished women in our country suffered doubt and uncertainty at times. I’d like readers to learn from the letters so that their own lives are improved.
And I’d love it if the book spurred women to share their wealth and wisdom with other women–one reason that I’m donating a chunk of the book’s proceeds to Girls Inc.
From the Hardcover edition.
“What these letters offer . . . is hope—hope that those who read them will understand that there is a future where the road not taken is no longer regretted, and, in the end, the choices we make, make us who we are.” —Boston Globe
1. If you had the chance to send a letter to a younger version of yourself, how would you approach the task? What moment would you choose, and why?
2. If you discovered that an older version of yourself had sent you a letter, what would you expect it to say?
3. In the introduction, Ellyn Spragins explains her motivation for this project as filling part of the gap left by the loss of her own mother. What do you think of the task itself? Did the motivation strike a chord with you? What other reasons can you see for such an undertaking? What benefit is there to the editor of an anthology like this? How is it similar to what the reader or the letter-writer herself gains from the experience? How does it differ?
4. What do you think motivates the advice in the book? Is there any commonality about how the modern-day women see their younger selves?
5. What themes in the book do you find most striking? Is this the type of advice you expected that accomplished women would want to impart to their younger selves?
6. How do the writers use the letters to themselves--i.e., are they trying to change history, improve their lot, show love? What other ways could a letter such as these be used?
7. Many of the letters in the book encourage the younger selves simply to pay attention to instinct–whether passing up a photo shoot that doesn’t feel right or backing out of an engagement that’s progressing for all the wrong reasons. Is this good advice for all women? Are there any times in your own life when instinct has led you wrong? Any notable times when instinct has saved you from trouble?
8. One theme that ties together many of the letters in What I Know Now is the struggle of busy, successful women to balance work and family. In this book, the women seem to overwhelmingly resolve that focusing on family is a critical priority, and deserves all the attention it can get. Do you think this resolution is consistent in the book only because these are such driven and ambitious women, or is this a universal truth? Reflecting on your own life, do you have any regrets about having chosen life over work or vice versa?
9. Some of the letter writers, such as Jane Kaczmarek and Macy Gray, use the opportunity of the letter to point out to their younger selves the low point of their life or career so far. Others, such as Picabo Street, encourage their younger selves to simply enjoy the highest points. What do you think of this concept of a life lived between peaks and nadirs? Is it possible to see and recognize these points as they’re happening, or only in retrospect?
10. Discuss the trouble the younger selves seem to have enjoying and appreciating life. Do you think giving up some of life’s joy is a necessary compromise for ambitious people, and women in particular? Why or why not?
11. Since the featured women are writing to their younger selves, the letters are necessarily addressed back in time–sometimes by several decades. Do you think any of the advice in the book is outdated or ahead of the time it’s addressed to? What, if anything, can it teach us about the evolution of women’s place in society and the workplace?
12. The author’s realization is that all women have something to teach all other women, that we are all mothers to each other, led her to seek out the women in this book. Do you think this concept can be expanded to include all people, not just women? Is there anyone not included in this book, male or female, whose letter you would like to see? What is it about the female experience in particular that is unique and lends itself to this kind of exercise?