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  Curled Up With a Good Book co-editor interview: Joni B. Cole on *Love & Other Impossible Pursuits*

*This Day in the Life: Diaries from Women Across America* co-editor Joni B. ColeJoni B. Cole, co-editor of This Day in the Life: Diaries from Women Across America

Interviewer Marie D. Jones: How did you go about finding the women to contribute to this book? What was the process?

Putting this book together was so much fun because it gave my partners and I the chance to ask any woman—What is a day in your life really like? We started with our “wish lists,” inviting women to participate whose personal or working lives we were particularly curious about at the moment. I was intrigued by rodeo riders, nursing home residents, and soldiers at war, to name just a small handful. Bindi’s first calls and e-mails were to shoe designers, Muslim organizations, and skydivers; Becky’s were to women in the corporate world, astronauts, and doulas. But of course our wish lists were only the beginning.

For this book to succeed, we knew we needed to reach across socio-economic, experiential, and cultural boundaries. To that end, we enlisted the help of dozens of organizations from the American Association of Zookeepers to the Illinois Migrant Council to Women on Wheels. We networked, cold-called, emailed, and enthusiastically pursued women with lifestyles both similar and vastly different than our own. We also asked visitors to our book’s website—Whose Day Diary Would You Like to Read? From that rich resource, we received the names of hundreds of moms, sisters, mentors, best friends, and of course some celebrity recommendations (Oprah and Hillary Clinton were the top two suggestions, but neither woman participated in the book project).

In the end, 493 women created a day diary for This Day in the Life, including “ordinary” women who are anything but, women with intriguing lifestyles (a brothel manager…a 91-year-old nun… a safari guide!), and a sprinkling of celebrities. The book features the complete day diaries of 34 contributors, plus over 200 excerpts from the remaining wealth of material.

What are some of the common threads running through the lives of these women, based upon these entries?

My favorite theme that emerged is probably the most obvious one: on any given day American women’s lives are incredibly diverse. One woman featured in the book spends her day in dialysis while another spends hours navigating the Los Angeles freeways trying to complete her To-Do list. A soldier in Baghdad huddles next to a sandbag wall with the sound of rockets overhead, while a factory worker at a General Motors plant in Georgia struggles to repair a piece of welding equipment on the hot factory floor (while she herself is having hot flashes). I love being privy to this tremendous variety of daily experiences.

Yet for all the fascinating differences in our lifestyles and perspectives, many commonalities also emerged. Both singer Rosanne Cash and nursing home resident Marie Colwill, 87, communicate with loved ones they have lost—Rosanne reads aloud psalms to her father who died ten months earlier; Marie remembers to tell her husband Eddie, now gone for five years, about the highlights of her day. Other examples: The 29-year-old student in Portland, Oregon and the 43-year-old refugee from Iraq both put in incredibly long hours at work. And the shoe designer living in Rome and the administrator at Columbia University seem to share the same sense of humor, though they couldn’t be more different.

Yet another prominent theme—A lot of women could use more sleep! Many day diarists revealed that they are the masters of multi-tasking, but that doesn’t mean they always like it. Stress, self doubt, worries about their kids, their love life (or lack of love life), their jobs (or lack of jobs), their financial situation, and the state of the world (on the day everyone created her day diary, the United States government had just returned sovereignty to the Iraqis) permeated the day diaries.

But equally prominent was a sense of optimism, appreciation, and humor. So many of these entries are laugh-out-loud funny, unselfconsciously tender, and quietly powerful. The act of creating a day diary—simply writing in the moment as the day unfolds—allows women to capture not only their itineraries, but also those fleeting thoughts and observations that might otherwise be overlooked, and that give any day meaning and value, as well as more than a few reasons to laugh.

Did women seem eager to share their stories, or did you sense they had to be coaxed? Some of these stories are very intimate.

These day diaries are remarkably intimate! For me, that remains one of the most surprising (and gratifying) aspects of this book project—that women were so willing to tell it like it is; to reveal their true feelings about their relationships, jobs, lives, families, and themselves. I want to emphasize that we didn’t coax women to expose themselves; in fact if we sensed any hesitation on a woman’s part, or any discomfort about sharing her personal life or feelings, we gently discouraged her from participating in the book project. The reason being was that we didn’t want any contributor to have regrets when all was said and done and her words appeared in print. I sense the day diarists were candid partly because the day diary format lends itself to honesty, and, more importantly, because they believed in the book’s mission to help readers overcome myths about the reality of women’s lives.

I want to add that we did have to convince many participants that their daily experience, their perspective, and their voice, would be of interest to readers. “Why would you be interested in my day?” so many women asked when we approached them to participate. Many assumed they had to “qualify” for the book project, but of course our premise was and remains—every woman is interesting, not necessarily because of the external events of her day, but because of her unique point of view.

What one profound lesson did you learn about women, and about yourself, from this project?

I took away a lot of lessons from the experience of creating this book and reading hundreds of day diaries. First, I saw that women are real achievers yet, for the most part, we often don’t recognize how much we do at home and at work. We need to give ourselves more credit. I saw how important a good attitude and a sense of humor is in helping us through any given day. Day diary by day diary, you can see how the happiest women are those with a positive outlook, even during trying times. I learned that women are incredibly generous and many of them share my need to feel connected, to feel “normal.” I learned that women are good company and fascinating, and always more complex than meets the eye.

One lesson I learned about myself is that I—like everybody else—constantly make assumptions about other women, often based on superficial factors. I’ll form a perception (misconception) in my head about a person—she’s intimidating or close-minded or too hard to relate to—based on nothing more than her job title or political views, for example. But of course while those labels may be accurate, they are always inadequate.

Here is one example. In the book we invited a NASA astronaut to participate. I was a nervous wreck anticipating my interview with her. How could I possibly relate to a woman with her credentials, particularly given the fact that I am hopeless in math and science. What’s more, this day diarist had also served as a colonel in the Air Force, which I found equally nerve-wracking. I was convinced she’d be a hard interview, and we’d have nothing in common. Of course my assumptions were all wrong. Here was an incredibly warm and funny woman I’d practically written off before I’d even spoken to her, simply because her outward “labels” suggested she is more left-brained than I am.

Do you have a favorite entry, and if so, explain why?

It’s going to sound like I’m hedging, but I don’t have a favorite entry. Or rather, I have a different favorite entry depending on the mood I am in when I pick up the book and browse through it. I read the day diary of the woman who is caring for her dying mother, for example, and I’m blown away by the relentlessness and anguish of her day, but also by the appreciation for life that she captures exquisitely. I read the day diary of the madam at the legal brothel in Nevada and I want her job (at least for a few days) because it sounds rather glamorous and so different from my own. I read the entry from the young mother of four and am inspired by how she maintains her sense of humor and parenting cool, despite the fact she is completely exhausted and has to “hide out” in her Chevy Suburban just to get a moment’s privacy and peace.

To answer your question another way… We received 493 day diaries for consideration. After the first read-through of the potential entries, we still had about 250 real contenders—day diaries of the same quality and power as the ones you see in the actual book. So you better believe that the 34 that did make it into the final mix are all my favorites. They held up to every scrutiny, including the test of time. Even now when I read them privately or aloud at book events, I still feel the power of each and every one.

What do you hope readers will most come away with from reading this book?

I hope they come away feeling like they had a terrific, fun, meaningful, captivating reading experience. I hope they are inspired to create day diaries of their own, as a way to take stock of their lives. I hope they are inclined to swap day diaries with their friends, and family members, and co-workers. I hope the book creates a greater understanding and appreciation among women and about women, allowing readers to see past any reductive labels to the individual behind the circumstances, job title, skin color, or stereotype. I hope readers realize how unique and interesting every woman is, once you see into her head and heart.

Are there plans to do another book, since so many more women have so many more stories to tell? Or perhaps a book on the day in the life of men?

I would love to do another This Day in the Life book. So many voices… so many daily experiences and perspectives left to share… In fact, I’d like to know what a day in your life is like?

Joni B. Cole was having a bad day when she thought up the idea for This Day in the Life. Trying to deal with a serious illness in her family, a huge tax bill, and a child who refused to wear socks, she wondered if anyone else was feeling so low. Surely not. But what were other women doing and feeling and thinking on this very same day? And so a book was born, out of self-pity, curiosity, and a need to connect. In addition to her work as a writer/editor, Joni leads community fiction-writing workshops and is the author of the forthcoming book Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive (University Press of New England, July 2006). She received a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies with a concentration in creative writing from Dartmouth College. She and her husband, Stephen, a psychologist, and their daughters Esme, 9, and Thea, 7, live in Vermont.

Contributing reviewer Marie D. Jones interviewed Joni B. Cole, co-editor of This Day in the Life: Diaries from Women Across America (see accompanying review), about her book via email for Marie D. Jones/2005.

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