The Woman Who Spilled Words All Over Herself:
Writing and Living the Zona Rosa Way

by Rosemary Daniell

Faber & Faber, Inc., 1997. ISBN 0571199356.
Reviewed by Linda Wisniewski
Posted on 05/10/2001

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Creative Life

Within her long chapters with titles like "How I Wrote My Heart Out and How You Can Too", Rosemary Daniell tells us the story of her writing life, in a style so conversational and intimate that it feels like she has just pulled up a chair at your kitchen table. She generously shares the details of her unhappy love affairs, her mother's suicide, and her children's addictions and mental illness, while amazingly maintaining a sense of humor. I cheered when I read that she turned down a scholarship to cosmetology school, although she probably would have made a good story out of that experience, too.

The book covers the time before and after she started Zona Rosa, an ongoing group for writers which she named after an old brothel district in Mexico City, poking gentle fun at the first group of women who were very "proper", but also paying homage to their femininity. The Zona Rosans talk about their writing and their lives, and read to each other from their work. In telling about these women and herself as their teacher, Daniell encourages all women to write from their hearts.

Here are some of my favorite tips from the book:

  • "Don't limit yourself too early in the game...Write a lot and see what happens." Some Zona Rosans started writing funny essays and ended up with literary novels, memoirs, or even poetry.
  • "Let the chaos flow...By writing a great deal, we uncover our basic themes, and usually the forms they should take." She recommends going through your writing regularly, looking for themes. Then work on the parts that follow your theme and make them better.
  • "Writing is a spiritual journey, paralleling the journey of life, and as in life...we only finish individual pieces, never the journey itself."

Daniell has also written a collection of poems called A Sexual Tour of the Deep South, the novel Hurricane Season, and two memoirs: Fatal Flowers: On Sin,Sex and Suicide in the Deep South, which is about growing up female in the South and her mother's life and death, and Sleeping With Soldiers: In Search of the Macho Man. In The Woman Who Spilled Words, Daniell opens up new avenues to what we can do with writing—from teaching children to understanding our own lives. She has taught poetry in prisons and inner city schools, opening up the world of healthy self-expression to hundreds of students. One of them called her "The Lady Who Spilled Poetry All Over Herself" because of her zaniness in class. I loved reading about 14-year old Sandra, mother of a 2-year old, who turned out to be the best poet in her class, and 70-year old Ruby, who wrote about her years in a tuberculosis sanitarium during her teens. The chapter I read first was "Self-Sabotage, or The Anna Quindlen Syndrome." I've long been a reader of Anna Quindlen, from her column for the New York Times to her novels One True Thing and Black and Blue, which she wrote after quitting full-time reporting to be a full-time mother. Daniells warns that comparing yourself to Quindlen can make you think that if you can't have the perfect career, family and success, you might as well not write at all. She calls this "Paralysis By Envy", and "Pursuit of the Perfect Lifestyle". She warns us, too, not to pursue perfect mental health as defined in New Age books, but rather to look at all the drunken and defective men who have written books that were called great. "Would Van Gogh have painted more or better if he had lived in California and belonged to the right support group?" she asks. There goes that excuse for procrastinating on your writing project!

Daniell early on wanted to distance herself from Southern Belles, like her mother, because she saw how trapped they were in their narrow roles. She calls romance novels "feminine pornography", and suggests that many of us are "Women Who Don't Read Well Enough," buying magazines with articles on what is wrong with us. That explains the low-level anxiety I sometimes feel after reading articles on how to improve my marriage, sex life, dinner menu, and home decor! Like Daniell, I grew up during the 1950s, but in New York State, and I recall the heavy emphasis placed on femininity and a woman's narrow role in American society. I also recall women who felt threatened by the feminist movement of the 1970s. A survey taken during the 70s, says Daniell, reported that women feared feminism because they feared a life without limits. Yet she has included recipes the Zona Rosa women have made for each other and they don't seem at all out of place here, simply adding to the feeling that we are there with her, at the kitchen table.

The Zona Rosans had been meeting for fifteen years at the publication of this book. I'd like to join them someday, perhaps in a chapter for Yankee women.

(You might also be interested in our
Story Circle book discussion questions)

Check out our interview with the author of The Woman Who Spilled Words All Over Herself.

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