I am strong because I can lift my own weight. I am smart not just because I get As. I am bold because I am not afraid to stick up for my rights.
If I'd Known Then: An Interview with Ellyn Spragins
Ellyn Spragins is the creator and editor of the What I Know NowTM book series, which most recently includes If I'd Known Then: Women in Their 20s and 30s Write Letters to Their Younger Selves, on sale now. Ellyn launched the series in 2006 with the bestselling What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self, which featured a letter from Girls Inc. President and CEO Joyce Roché.
Ellyn spoke to Girls Inc. about If I'd Known Then, which features letters from such inspiring women as actress Jessica Alba, Olympic skater Sasha Cohen, and author Plum Sykes.
Why did you choose to work with women in their 20s and 30s for this book? What's so important about this age group, as well as the childhood and teenage years upon which they're reflecting?
I was really excited about the reaction that What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self got and the way it seemed to resonate with women. I started looking at my website, where people were writing their own letters to their younger selves and sending them to me. With maybe one exception, every single woman wrote to herself during her teenage or college years. It was very striking.
There's so much transformation and development — physically, emotionally, intellectually — in those years that one year to the next is extremely different. Those young women have a lot to say to their younger selves, or a younger sister, or a younger person.
What was the most surprising thing you learned as you were editing this compilation?
One of the more powerful elements of working on this book was that I included a handful of women who are immigrants and from other cultures. I found it very moving to include them and felt like it was a new way for me to explore a part of the world that I didn't know. It's not only about the emotional territory of a particular woman, but the context of her culture, country, and the way her parents raised her or treated her. It was surprising to me the depth that it added to the book.
These women had such a different set of circumstances to deal with. Think about Vida Zaher Khadem (an Afghani filmmaker and painter) translating her homework [from Arabic into English] and then having to look up the [meaning of the English words], laboring for hours and hours each day. Or Mindy Lam (a jewelry designer from Hong Kong), [who was] considered the unlucky daughter and treated so poorly compared to her brother and sister. It's just so foreign from my American experience.
What common thread do you see running through these letters?
They really reveal a roadmap to the secret lives of women; it's not the public version of their lives that everybody knows. The stories they tell through these letters are the stories we write in our hearts—the ones where we failed or struggled, or when something was hard. You don't advertise that stuff. It's an inner element.
I do believe that there are two or three strong themes in the second book. Number one is that nobody thought they fit in, even the class presidents and the cheerleaders. You think Jessica Alba never had a problem. Well, she had a lot of big problems. That's why she became an actress: she wanted to get out of school because everyone was picking on her all of the time.
What can girls and women learn from this?
Believe it or not, the ideal girl in your high school or your college who you think has it made doesn't think she does. You may not be so different from her in that respect.
You actually have everything you need inside you already to do what you may want to do in life. It's easy to disqualify yourself or negate pieces of yourselfto see your lacks and your failures and not believe that you've been dealt a full set of the characteristics—but everything you need is already in you.
If you were to write a letter to yourself during your teenage years, what would be your message?
I had a friend from boarding school, a young man who was never a boyfriend, but was just super loyal, very emotional, and a giving, wonderful guy. He was hitchhiking the fall of our freshman year of college. He got into a car with whoever picked him up for a ride, that car got into an accident, and he died. I heard about this, and I was devastated. But I decided not to go to the funeral because I thought in sort of a young, misguided way, that I would honor him and mourn him in my own way. I had no experience with funerals, so I didn't really understand their function in terms of bringing people together and helping them form the complete picture of the person they've lost.
So, I would write to myself about going and being there to participate. That's been a wound that's never really quite healed.
The book will be published as many girls and women are graduating from high school and college this spring. What advice do you have for soon-to-be graduates?
People will tell you to dream big, think big, and be bold, and it's easy for that to seem extremely undoable. But actually, I think that you'll never be better in your thinking, your dreams, what you hope to do, and what you can bring to the party than you are now.
You can start to accomplish your biggest dream right away. There's no sense in waiting—just start. A lot of times you can't connect the dots from A to Z, but you can go from A to B. Then, B to C, and C to D, and all the rest will start to reveal itself to you.
What's next in the What I Know NowTM series? What do you hope to accomplish with these books?
One will be What I Know Now About Success and it will be primarily focused on women leaders in business, universities, and not-for-profits.
The other will be What I Know Now About Love. It will be about relationships of all kinds, but mainly romantic relationships.
SAVE THE DATE: WOMEN, WISDOM, AND YOU, coming to NEW YORK, NY in September
Join Ellyn as she hosts this special event featuring the outstanding women who have written letters to their younger selves for the What I Know NowTM series. Stay posted at letterstomyyoungerself.com.
© 2013 Girls Incorporated. 120 Wall Street, New York, NY 10005-3902 | 1-212-509-2000 | firstname.lastname@example.org