Answer the Question: “What is this About?”

ONCE UPON A TIME there was no sisterhood. This is back when we were new to a school, or grade, the new kid in a neighborhood or a Brownie troop, back when no one seemed to like us. And then one day some kid passed us a pencil, or laughed at our joke, or slipped us a note. And soon there really was an “us,” and nothing seemed more important, or special, or forever.

And then one day someone else was singing a tune in the playground. It sounded like she was singing about the rain falling on a plane in Spain, and that was enough for you to ask her how a plane could get soggy. And she laughed, and said, “No silly, it’s a plain,” and you still didn’t get it, but you nodded like you did, and learned the song anyway.

And then there were three of you who sang the song with your whole little-girl hearts, and were overheard by another girl who knew the song, and next thing you knew, you were a small pack of girls sitting in Sayre Berman’s living room, overlooking Little Neck Parkway, planning to put on a musical. It was My Fair Lady, and you would do this despite the fact that none of you had yet seen the brand new movie, or the production running on Broadway. This was 1965, and all you had was the album, and you hunkered down around its tunes like they were a new faith in a crazy world. You listened to it on Sayre’s parents’ wood-cabinet Victrola, and then someone started doling out the parts.

That would be Gwen. She’s the director. And she is Eliza, and no other Eliza will ever do as long as you live, because she’s the first kid who befriended you and nothing in the brain or heart can ever be as sweet a hook as that. And anyway, no one else in the fourth grade of P.S. 94 in Little Neck Queens in 1965 could belt out a tune like Gwen. No one.

And soon you were meeting weekly, and in that time together more than music was transposed, as Gwedolyn Schneidkraut became Gwen Olicker, as her family circumstances changed, and right before your very eyes Gwen Olicker became an English flower girl, and you became Henry Higgins, and together you stepped through the looking glass for the first time, taking that leap of faith you can only when someone else has your back. She learned her lines, and stayed after school, and directed the play, and did not laugh at your costume that included your father’s Brooks Brother’s hat.

And then one afternoon she and you and Pamela Bacchi, Sayre Berman, Roberta Rubien, Barbara Sender, Ellen Wasserman, Marie Docekal and Renee Steinhagen stepped onto the stage as an all-girl cast of My Fair Lady and nothing would ever be the same.

Other than the biological one into which I was born, this was my first sisterhood, and the promise—and the fulfillment of that promise—continues to suffuse the expectations I have every time I enter into an agreement with other women. My first standard, it is my gold standard, below which I will not slip. Because we pulled it off. And people applauded, and we were a huge hit. Or so I remember it.

And I’ve told this story a million times in the memoir class I teach, using it as an example of a story I have that has never found a place to live. I’ve got a million of them—and so do you: rich, wonderful moments of our lives that just miss the mark of being publishable because we do not yet know what they illustrate, what they are about. And knowing the difference between those life tales that have a reason to be retold, and those that must wait until we know what they are about, is the difference between getting published and getting another rejection letter.

And I loved that little story about the girls with their decidedly New York names, and the production, and the transposition we underwent to make us a sisterhood. But what is the story about? I had no idea, though in the years since the experience, I have picked it up a thousand times and had a look at it, always using it as an illustration of something that must wait until I understand it, until I know what it illustrates, each time after the telling, putting it away again, though always with great tenderness. I couldn’t pitch it to an editor in one word or one sentence. And so it waits—a jewel in need of a setting.

And then about a year ago I got a Facebook friend request from Gwen Olicker. And before I replied, I ran down the stairs screaming to my husband, “Guess who’s on my Facebook page? Gwen Schneidkraut!” (which is how I always think of her), to which he replied, “Eliza?! Not Eliza!” That should give you an idea of how many times I’ve told the story of our all-girl production. Gwen and I had not seen each other, or spoken, in perhaps 40 years. Life can do that.

And guess who still has her program, a mimeographed, two-page, illustrated treasure, kept all these years? Me. And up it went on Facebook. And on the story goes.

But what is this story about? It’s the essential question, and one I deal with in my new book on writing memoir, a topic I discussed on the air on NPR’s Talk of the Nation this week, one I talk about all the time in my memoir classes, and one I’ve written about before.

I waited all these years to know, and then, after being reconnected, I knew. It is about that gold standard, and where, and when, we get it. And after I understood that, I could have danced all night.


  1. Sandra Fiser says

    I listened to and learned from your NPR interview of 7/15/11 as I was in my car. I’ve written a memoir regarding my husband’s 5 heart surgeries followed by a heart transplant and the effect these experiences had on our family economically, physically and spiritually. According to what you had to say about memoirs, I did many things right, and some not so well. My husband and I did publish the book with a house that calls itself a blend of self and traditional publishing. We have recouped our investment and the book has done well locally. It even sold a few copies in Great Britain, much to our delight. We would like to find a traditional publisher for the book and give it a wider audience. Is that possible after doing this self-publishing thing?

    • says

      Hi, Sandra. So sorry for the delay in reply.
      Despite being well published for my previous three books, I self-published my book on writing memoir, recouped the investment, and then took it to traditional NYC publishers. Grand Central issued it with a new title, cover, and some new pages.
      Yes, you are right on with your plan.
      Do let me know how it goes, and I promise not to let the comment linger here for so long.
      Hope to hear from you.

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