Finding the Words
The Erica Mann Jong ’63 Writing Center has been providing students with a resource for honing their writing skills since 1996, when Jong established the Erica Mann Jong ’63 Writing Fellows Fund and the writing center. About 50 Writing Fellows, who take rigorous training in holding peer-to-peer writing conferences, serve as a resource to help students refine their ideas, create multiple drafts, and compose papers on a range of topics, from history to biology.
This spring, Erica Jong—her breakout 1973 novel, Fear of Flying, redefined a generation of feminists—spoke informally with the Writing Fellows about her career, the heroism involved in writing, and her newest work, Fear of Dying; she also engaged in a Q & A session with students.The recipients of the Erica Mann Jong ’63 Fellowship, awarded to students who demonstrate outstanding leadership and commitment to the program, met privately with Jong to talk about writing and her Barnard experience.
Below are excerpts from the reflections on the event by the Erica Mann Jong Student Fellows—Claire Daniels, Gabrielle Davenport, and Katy Lasell, all Class of 2015. To read their complete essays go to barnard.edu/news/meeting-iconic-writer-erica-mann-jong-63-students-reflect.
Rather than beginning by reading her own work, Jong immediately asked for questions regarding gender, writing, editing, publishing, and speaking. She urged us to be brave and provided anecdotes from her own life to demonstrate how one could write fearlessly. Jong was one of the first women authors to write from a woman’s perspective, and she received an enormous amount of criticism for doing so. She told us that she coped by focusing on the creation and publication of her next book, and has since become one of the most respected and read authors in the world. During her visit, Jong mentioned how women in numerous countries had approached her and said that they related to Isadora Wing, the heroine of Jong’s Fear of Flying. She is—and her books are—undoubtedly inspirational and brave.
To meet with Jong was enriching, not only as a Writing Fellow, but as a creative hoping to find a place in the world through my work. As a senior with not-totally-solidified plans, I took to heart her insistence on being courageous in one’s writing, and her emphasis on the importance of our voices as young women came at a good time. She repeatedly reminded us: “Writing is heroism,” which recalled moments when I’d been lucky enough to hear from two other illustrious Barnard alumnae—Ntozake Shange ’70 and Edwidge Danticat ’90. All three of these women are role models for what Danticat has called “creating dangerously.” Jong’s commentary on feminism and writing into her later years was a welcome perspective shift from that of my fellow 20-somethings. The conversation felt like we could have been sitting in Jong’s living room, listening to the stories that were fodder for some of her fiction, and wondering what we might one day share with expectant Barnard students.
In blue velvet shoes and armed with her trademark wit and candor, Jong shared stories from her own experience at Barnard—about male guests in the dorms (“If a man was in a [first-floor sitting] room, there always had to be one foot on the floor.” I wondered what that could possibly stop from happening.); advice on how to engage with those who proclaim themselves not to be feminists (“Okay, so you want less pay than men? That’s fine.”); and how to remind ourselves that we are “good” and “strong.” We were lucky enough to hear an excerpt from her new novel, in which a woman confronts her fading sexuality and her mortality. I assumed these would be exclusively grim topics, but Jong had us laughing on the first page. One piece of Jong’s advice stuck with me: If you want to write novels, write the story for women that hasn’t been written, but needs to be.