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One Book, Two Authors, Many Storiesby Stephanie Pierson
This was a mixed marriage. Phyllis is a CSW who has successfully treated body image problems of teenage girls for more than twenty-five years. I am a writer and the mother of a daughter now a junior at Columbia University who has successfully recovered from an eating disorder. My idea, after Phoebe recovered and I finally got a full night's sleep for the first time in five years, was to write a book for mothers like me. Essentially, the book that I never found when Phoebe was thirteen and was alternately throwing up in the school bathroom and starving herself at home and I was desperate to figure out what was going on, what it meant and what I could do. What was out there on the topic of teenage body image issues which includes everything from diets to depression to piercing to eating disorders was a kind of Goldilocks choice: This book was too breezy and glib. This one was too complex and theoretical. This one was too overwrought and terrifying. This one was too personal and shallow.
When I started working on my own proposal, I realized that I could write a helpful book about teenage body image issues one that would be informed by my own experience; by interviews with adolescent doctors, nutritionists, psychotherapists, counselors and mothers; by researching the best articles, books, and internet sites. Then I met Phyllis, who understands from both experience and instinct all the most important things: why girls hate their bodies, why their mothers feel baffled and often helpless, why it's so hard for mothers and daughters to connect and why it's crucial that they do. And I realized that with Phyllis as a co-author (I call her The Horse Whisperer for Teens), we could write a totally helpful, completely comprehensive, really smart book that would benefit from a synthesis of clinical experience and life experience.
And so, two authors, one book. Although we came from two different backgrounds and totally different life experiences, Phyllis and I shared the same concerns and the same goal: to write a lucid book that had principles and practical advice. A book so straightforward that a mother wouldn't just read it she could use it as a road map to understand her own daughter. A book that would offer information, advice, perspective and hope as well as answers to the very real questions all mothers have: "What do I do now?" and "What do I say?" A book that would acknowledge that the mother of a teenage daughter has a hard time saying anything right and how would a mother know if she had since her daughter can't hear it anyway? And together we came up with a title that summed it up neatly: You Have to Say I'm Pretty, You're My Mother.
Writing a book is hard. Co-writing is harder. It's also, if you're lucky and get good at it, more rewarding. In my experience (I've written three books on my own, ghost-written three others and co-authored this one), while co-authorship means a more problematic, cumbersome and challenging writing experience, it can result in a far richer, far more multi-dimensional book. And in our case, a book that neither of us could have written as well on our own. So for us, this wasn't just a Fred and Ginger experience, with one partner making the other look even more dazzling, it was far more Chang and Eng. Like Siamese twins, we were joined at the hip and at the computer.
Besides sharing the same oxygen source, what else did we share? We both had had our hearts touched by girls who could not look in a mirror without wincing. We both knew that their mothers suffered along with them. We both wanted our book to be a million worthy things at once: clear, lucid, serious without taking itself too seriously, funny, savvy, straightforward, and accessible. We both knew how hard it was to do this and so we admired the same gifted authors in this area: Steven Levenkron, Anthony Wolfe, Mary Pipher, Martha Dudman, Naomi Wolf, Joan Jacobs Bromberg and we hoped our book would have even a little bit of their incredible insight, wisdom, immediacy, energy, and individuality. Our goal harder for us than for any of those solo authors was to find a voice for our book that spoke, in just the right tone and attitude, to smart, perplexed, loving mothers of smart, beautiful body-obsessed daughters.
People said, "is it fun to write with someone else?" We probably would have answered that question differently on different days. Let's put it this way: picture a marriage with a deadline and no possibility of divorce and you start to get it.
When it was good it was very, very good: The fun part of a co-authorship (a girl one) is you have someone to go out to lunch with the day you sign the contract. And then you get to go to Saks and blow some of your advance on designer shoes and Bobbi Brown makeup for when you are on The View. You have someone to fantasize with about the book party: (The Four Seasons? The Rainbow Room? My house in Westchester?) You have someone to agonize with when you get close to that totally unrealistic deadline you somehow agreed on a year ago. You have someone to blame when your editor asks you where the corrections on Chapter Six are. You have someone to tell you immediately how brilliant you are when you come up with a great thought or theory or spot-on anecdote. You have someone to laugh out loud with when you are coming up with lists, like we did, to make our book more human and less clinical. You try not to laugh when you are working on "Ten Things Never to Say to Your Daughter about Sex." And is there a bonding experience stronger than sharing (cleverly disguised) some of your very own humiliating personal stories for these lists? And finally, you have someone to complain with you that the publisher isn't doing more for such an Important Book and why aren't you on that cross-country author's tour that gets you a suite facing the ocean at Shutters in Santa Monica? After all, look what Simon & Schuster (we share the same publisher) did for Hillary!
What's hard about working with someone else, aside from having to split the advance? The work. You actually have to work with someone, concentrate, think hard, sweat it out, wrestle it into submission in a small room, with a legal pad on your lap, taking notes on an incredibly complex subject, trying hard to both get it down on paper and understand it (that's me); trying to explain something theoretical in a way that makes it concrete and clear, putting your own smart spin on it to make it relevant for the book, coming up with examples to prove and illustrate every point (that's Phyllis). Then doing all the research you need to make sure you have the best thinking and the most current information (Phyllis). Putting everything together, writing it down and making it make sense (mostly me). Then adding, subtracting, ripping it all apart and starting from scratch, putting half of Chapter 3 into Chapter 4 and eliminating most of Chapter 11, then saying (this is me), "Phyllis, there are six different things we're talking about here and shouldn't there be one main thing a mother needs to know and by the way, I still don't really understand what you mean by 'process'?" Then (this is Phyllis) explaining to me, once again with infinite patience, what exactly "process" is and why it's so important for a mother and daughter and what it has to do with slammed doors and separation and your daughter hating you but not really hating you....
Fade out, fade in. Six months into it, Phyllis learns to think like a writer. I learn to think like a shrink. And, over the legal pads, over the phone, over the computer, over the fax, over Chicken Caesar salads, we get into the rhythm of writing a book together.
Two years into it and 270 pages later. May, 2003, and the book is out. Our co-authorship, co-dependency, co-education takes a new turn. We (yay!) got on the Today show and we had to make sure that a) we sounded really compelling and convincing and b) we didn't wear the same exact outfit (I wore pale gray and Phyllis wore black). We had to make sure we didn't step on each other's lines or ramble on forever or forget the name of our book (joint media training). We got interviewed for newspaper articles together. We did about a hundred short remote radio interviews and got really great at choreographing our answers and observations in smart, succinct sound bytes before the host had to cut to the local weather report. We shared the joy of going to a New York bookstore together and witnessing people not related to us buying our book, at getting rave reviews from newspapers and major web sites, at looking and sounding wide awake for 6:30 a.m. weekend talk shows, at figuring out how to apply our Bobbi Brown makeup, at having mothers (and their daughters) tell us how much our book meant to them and how much it helped. And we shared the annoyance at the dozens of otherwise bright, well-meaning people who came up and said to us in an excited tone: "Have the two of you ever thought of being on Oprah? Your book is a natural!" when we've spent half of our waking hours in the last year trying to get on Oprah. (Oprah, are you listening?!)
Of course, we've already planned what we'll say and what we'll wear. Phyllis is planning to wear a white shell with her navy pants suit and I'm going for the beige silk blouse and black pants. Co-authors should never clash.