Letters to Your Younger Self: A Talk With Ellyn Spragins, Lisa Stone ... And You

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BlogHer's Letter to My Body project, launched by Suzanne Reisman in 2008, drove home to me how much we women have to offer in terms of advice, even when we don't listen to it ourselves at the time. I'm fascinated by the idea of talking to my younger self, because boy, was she confused.

I had the chance to talk recently with Ellyn Spragins, author of What I Know Now About Success: Letters From Extraordinary Women to Their Younger Selves. Before I go into our conversation, I want to insert one of the letters in this book from someone we all know very well -- BlogHer's Lisa Stone.



Leaving the traditional newsroom and your husband in the same year blew everyone's minds. Yours included. You knew you couldn't stay. But now, where to go?

You've done the right thing. Today is the beginning of the end of trying to please people by saying everything is just fine even when you know it isn't so (as your tweenage son will say in 2008). Today, his influence is just beginning. Look into his beautiful baby face to see who gave you the strength to do what was right, for him and for you. You finally got angry about the way you were allowing yourself to be treated. For him you stood up for what you think is right. It won't be the last time.

You don't know it yet, but motherhood just jettisoned your ability to sit on the sidelines and wait for someone else to rescue you -- with ideas, income or inspiration. You'll never again be able to act against your own good opinions to keep the peace at home or at work.

The result? You'll love new-media start-ups, where your tolerance for tension and stress can be a good thing. By leaving reporting and unchaining yourself from a desk, you'll not only become the mother you want to be, but you'll be forced to experiment. You'll develop new business models to support Web writers. You'll help raise millions of dollars to fund a company to create opportunities for other women (and men!) to write the kind of news missing from today's journalism. You'll love your work.

But there's one thing I wish I could save you from: the loneliness and self-imposed isolation that will send you into a major depression in five years. Single motherhood is hard, but you're using it to build a deflector shield for human emotion. No dice. Ultimately your success will be rooted in your heart, not your brain. You'll fight that at first, and try to turn yourself into a binary automaton who only works and mothers, rather than feels. As if.

The price? As you blossom creatively, you will also bottom out emotionally because you're so lonely. The result will be a yearlong writer's block and a real crisis. On day, your sisters and your best friends will tell you it's time to stop that and go talk to the professionals. Listen to them. Get help. Stop isolating yourself and start sharing what's really on your mind with your family and friends. That way, when a hot computer nerd and single father comes along, you'll be ready to start living again.

Go get 'em.


From the book What I Know Now About Success: Letters from Extraordinary Women to Their Younger Selves, edited by Ellyn Spagins. Available now from Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2010.


I asked Ellyn why she decided to do this book, the third in a series of letters to my younger self books. She said she'd started out speaking at large companies, working with female leaders on their own letters and asking them to read them aloud at events for other women. "We tend to look at these women and think they are where they are because they're just oozing talent and never put a foot wrong. And of course that's not true. Sharing these letters is very bonding; the writers find it really cathartic and the listeners find it really inspiring."

The part of the concept I found most interesting? Ellyn asked the women to write letters to themselves at a time in which they'd really needed advice -- when they'd been going through a hard time. She said, "I asked them to talk about themselves not at a shining moment but at a very vulnerable time." Doing so gives the reader a peek behind the curtain -- Kate Spade's boho apartment, Paula Deen's agoraphobia and Ann Curry's certainty she was "weird looking" when she was growing up.

I got sort of inspired. So I wrote my own letter to my younger self. Here it is.

Dear Rita,

At 18, you are in the throes of an eating disorder. You take in 600 calories a day and make endless lists of what you eat. At 35, your psychologist will tell you only 20 percent of eating disorder patients make a full recovery. The rest die or relapse until they die.

At 36, you will view the obituary of a girl from your hometown who never won the battle, who died at 30 after wasting away before the frightened and discouraged eyes of an entire small town in Iowa, and you will realize how lucky you were to escape. You will spend an entire day paralyzed with the knowledge that could've been you.

It will not be you. You will escape with your life and your mental health, but it will be hard. That same will power you're focusing on your diet now will rescue you, because when you decide to recover, you will fight every day for ten years to resist that voice that tells you that you are nothing, you are not normal, you can never be normal.

You can and will be normal.

Pregnancy at 29 will right your metabolism. Your mind will heal shortly thereafter, after a ten-year period of slow recovery, psychologists, good friends, loving family and the man who will become your husband.

Someday, you will embrace the anxiety and perfectionism you once channeled into hating yourself, and you will write. You will write, and people will e-mail you and thank you for being honest about the edge you fight against. The anxiety you have as a new mother will drive you to edit a book for other anxious new parents. The voice in your head that once told you not to eat will someday not let you stop trying to get published until it actually happens. It will demand you get a job in your chosen field. It will demand you be happy as it is now demanding you be unhappy.

The difference between you now and you at 36 is where you're focusing. Stop looking inward. Look up and look out. It's a big world, and you're going to make a difference in it. Leave yourself alone or you're going to kill yourself. And I want you to know as soon as possible what it feels like to be happy.


The Older You

What would you say to your younger self? Have you had a female career mentor? What did she tell you about her path?

Rita Arens authors Surrender Dorothy and is the editor of Sleep is for the Weak. She is BlogHer's assignment and syndication editor.


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