Q & A with Sara Eckel
Sara Eckel is a personal hero for those of us here at WWWB. All you have to do is read the title of her book, which stemmed from her “Modern Love” column in The New York Times, and you’ll understand why: IT’S NOT YOU: 27 (WRONG) REASONS YOU’RE SINGLE (Perigree Books). In it, she uses the latest psychological and sociological research to challenge the explanations and advice that singletons hear all the time as to why they’re single, especially if they’re women. She encourages us to stop picking ourselves apart and to tap into our own wisdom about who we are and what is right for us. It has been published in six languages and has an average Amazon rating of 4.8 stars. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The BBC, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Salon, Forbes, Cosmopolitan, and many more.
Thank you, Sara, for joining us here at WomenWritersWomen[‘s]Books. We’re thrilled to have you!
Let’s start from the beginning, your beginning.
Where did you grow up? What brought you to New York?
When I was in grade school my family lived in Cincinnati, Ohio. Then we moved to a small town outside Syracuse, New York, called Cazenovia when I was in the 6th grade and my parents still live there. I went to New York for college—Fordham University. I had a vague idea that I wanted to do something in publishing or the arts, so New York seemed like the right place to be. When I was in college, I found a great writing professor, Verlyn Klinkenborg, and he encouraged me to become a writer. Then after I graduated, I got a job as an editor at a wire service called United Media in New York. So I guess that’s how it all started.
What were you like as a kid? A teen?
I was a fairly solitary child. My brother is six years younger then I am, so when I was very young it was just me and my parents. So I was shy and quiet, spent a lot of time reading or having conversations with my stuffed animals (wow, that sounds a little sad!), but I always had one or two close friends and really, really adored them.
I remember being in 4th grade and some adult mentioned that I was shy—in that really condescending way that adults can when they talk to kids: “Ooooooh, Sara’s shy.” It really pissed me off. So then I decided I was tired of being shy and started making an effort to be more outgoing—I can’t remember what I did. I think volunteering to speak before class, doing performances, something like that. So by the time I was a teen I could fake being a not-shy person pretty well.
I was a fairly happy teenager—the usual teen aungst of course, but I had nice friends and had a pretty good time. But I also felt out of step with my peers. It was the 1980s and everyone around me was crazy for Reagan. I was not.
Linguni with red clam sauce.
I’m a fairly good mimic. I don’t do impersonations or anything like that, but if I’m quoting someone I’ll do it in their voice and people often say, “You sound just like her!”
Book on your nightstand right now?
The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders.
IT’S NOT YOU came out in 2014. What led you to write it? What has the response been?
I met my husband, Mark, when I was 39. Before that, I had spent the previous twenty or so years wondering what was wrong with me that I couldn’t find a relationship that lasted. I was also writing a lot of self-improvement and relationship articles for women’s magazines and sort of used myself as a test-case. For example, I’d write an article on how to develop confidence so I could learn how to be more confident, etc. I viewed myself as a self-improvement project, and trying to figure out my fatal flaw—the reason WHY I was single—so that I could fix myself.
But at a certain point I gave up. I realized I was who I was. I still wanted to meet someone, but I decided they would have to take me “as is.” And that’s just what my husband Mark did. He loves me even though I still break a lot of the “rules”: I tell dumb jokes, I’m frequently very cranky and pessimistic, and my clothes are usually at least five years out of date.
I published an essay about this in the New York Times “Modern Love” column, and after that the world cracked open. I received hundreds of letters from around the world, and the essay was one of the most viral in the column’s 10-year history. After that, I spoke with some very cool editors at Perigee Penguin, and they asked me to write a book of inspirational essays for single women. So that’s how the book happened.
The response has been tremendous. So far, it has been published in seven languages, and I receive letters from readers every week. Readers tell me that the book has made them feel seen and understood about a problem that they felt a lot shame about. That’s what has been interesting to me. A lot of people feel the way that I did, but very little had been written about it. Or at least very little written from this approach. Usually books geared to single women are How to Fix Yourself So You Can Get a Boyfriend or Being Single is AWESOME. Who Wants a Dumb Old Boyfriend? There was nothing for a grown-up, well-adjusted woman who liked her life just fine but still wanted to find a relationship, have kids, etc. So I wanted to write that.
One of the notions that you challenge in IT’S NOT YOU is the perception that men are single by choice and women are single because no one wants them. Why is that the prevailing view and how should women deal with it? What if she struggles with believing it herself?
I’d say take a look at your real life and see how it compares with those dated cultural stereotypes. Are all the single guys you know living some glamorous James Bond-ian bachelor life? Are all the single women you know lonely and miserable? I think for most single people, men and women, there are good times and bad times—you know, just like married people! No one’s life is one thing.
If you struggle with believing it yourself, that is a useful thing to work with. Fact-check yourself. Is it true that no one is interested in you? Have you never turned anyone down? What about your single women friends? Have they never had offers or opportunities to be with someone? Do you think they are single because no one wants them? A lot of these toxic cultural attitudes really don’t stand up to scrutiny.
The premise of your book – that there’s no one reason why you’re single and that a woman’s value is not tied to her marital status - is supported by numerous facts, interviews, and studies, yet there is an inspirational angle as well. How did that come to be? Where do you find your inspiration?
My first proposal was much more journalistic. It had interviews with lots of women and personal anecdotes from me, but it was advancing a particular argument and it had a lot of facts and figures. The note I received several times, including from my publisher, was “inspiration not journalism.” At first, I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant—the idea of “inspirational book” sounded like something drippy, like with a picture of a sunset or soft-focus rose. So I decided to write a book that would inspire ME—one that was a little tougher and no-nonsense and even had a few f-bombs. I didn’t know if Perigee would go for it, but I just gave it a shot and they liked it.
In another interview, I read that there was a moment when you were single and miserable about it. Your friend told you that you weren’t going to find anyone until you “got right with yourself.” So many of us have heard the same thing from well-intentioned friends and family. Would you share with WWWB readers your thoughts on that advice?
My friend meant it in the kindest possible way—of course it’s a good idea to “get right with yourself.” The problem is it’s often presented as sort of a pre-requisite for a relationship: You become confident in yourself and thus become attractive to others. But that’s still playing this people-pleasing game. You don’t develop self-esteem be to be more appealing to others; you develop it so that you feel fine regardless of what others think.
And if you don’t become wildly confident, that’s okay too. I’ve always thought confidence was over-rated—Donald Trump has a lot of confidence. There are plenty of people in great relationships who have low self-esteem.
You talk a lot about self-compassion. What is that? How does a woman achieve it and what is getting in her way?
I’ll quote Kristin Neff here—she’s a University of Texas psychologist and one of the pioneering researchers on this subject: “Self-esteem thinking highly of yourself. Self-compassion is being kind to yourself, and they’re very different things.”
In other words, the person who has high self-esteem says, “I’m great. I’m the best.” (Trump). The person with self-compassion says, “I’m about average, and that’s fine.” (Many, many very nice people you know.)
The great thing about self-compassion is there really is nothing to “achieve.” You just have to be nice to yourself. For most people, that means treating yourself the way you would a good friend. Most of us are much kinder to our friends than we are to ourselves. So if, for example, one of my coaching clients is upset because a relationship ended, I’ll often ask what she’d say to a good friend in that situation and invariably it’s very kind—“Don’t worry about that guy. You deserve to be with someone who appreciates you, etc.” We instantly get it when we’re thinking about our friends, so the trick is to end that same kindness and clear-headedness to ourselves.
Women are often told (and worry) that professional success and personal happiness or success in their personal relationships aren’t sandbox buddies, that they are, in fact, mutually exclusive. What do you think about that?
Women are told that professional ambition and success will somehow work against them in the romance department. And several decades ago you could make that case—it used to be true that women with advance degrees and high-level positions were less likely to marry. But it’s not true anymore. In fact women with college degrees and high salaries are actually more likely to be married than their less ambitious peers.
So I think it’s another one of those dated concepts that the culture at large just hasn’t questioned because the “haha how do you like your feminism, now” line is one that fits a lot of people’s political agendas. But it doesn’t fit reality.
Is there an interesting fact or observation that didn’t make the cut for IT’S NOT YOU that you’d like to share?
Well, this isn’t in the book because I just hadn’t thought of it yet. But since IT’S NOT YOU came out, I have received many letters from readers who are confused about why they’re not in a relationship. And a lot of them sound like this: “I have a great job and lots of friends. I travel, volunteer, work out regularly and frankly look pretty damn good for my age. I have the goods. So what’s the deal?” I understand this impulse—I used to mentally tick off my fine qualities when I was single. But now these lists bum me out. People make these lists because they feel like it will elevate them, but I think actually they diminish us. We’re not cars or houses—we’re human beings, so instead of trying to wedge ourselves into an appealing package, I’d like to see more people celebrate the fact that they are complicated and messy. This goes for married people, too.
IT’S NOT YOU speaks to singlehood versus being in a committed relationship. What about women who have children and women who don’t? Do you see angst there? Flawed perceptions? Is that something you’d be interested in pursuing in a future book? What other issues interest you?
My friend Meghan Daum covered this topic beautifully in a wonderful anthology called SELFISH, SHALLOW AND SELF-ABSORBED, so I don’t feel like I have a much more to add to this conversation. But I do see that tension—and have certainly felt that suspicion that there is something off about me because my husband and I don’t have kids. But for whatever reason, it doesn’t bother me the way the public scrutiny about being single did. Maybe working through the single stuff cured me of worrying about that kind of societal judgment (I can hope!) or maybe it’s just that I don’t see my childlessness as either a choice or a tragedy. It’s just what happened—I don’t take my inability to procreate in my 40s personally, and I honestly don’t feel upset about it in the way that the culture tells me I should.
My interest for a future book is more about why we have these divisions in the first place. We do we all feel so compelled to justify our choices and show the world that we measure up? Why do we constantly divide ourselves into winners and losers? Why, in 2015, we are still working with such a narrow definition of what a “winner” is? I don’t really have answers here, but it’s what interests me.
NY Bagel or NY Pizza?
Both so good! And mostly depends on the time of day (coffee time or wine time), but if pressed I’ll have to go bagel.
Mets or Yankees?
Mets. I don’t want baseball, and if I go to a game my primary pre-occupation will be getting a beer and those fake nachos.
Night Owl or Early Bird?
Coffee or Tea?
Facial or Massage?
We can’t thank you enough, Sara, for dropping in. Welcome to the WWWB family! We will be supporting and rooting for you forever more.
For a prettier post with social media and buy links - http://booksbywomen.org/qa-with-sara-eckel-by-mm-finck/.
“In this comforting love letter to single women, journalist Eckel tackles 27 common criticisms trotted out to unmarried ladies of a certain age—and sets each of those chestnuts on its ear. … A must for any single woman’s personal library.” —PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
“Any woman who’s tired of relatives, friends and co-workers who ask, “Why are you still single?” will appreciate Sara Eckel’s It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. The author—who writes the New York Times “Modern Love” column—has penned a smart, I’ve-got-your-back debunking of the most common remarks made to unmarried women, especially those 30ish and older.” —LINDA M. CASTELLITTO, BOOKPAGE
“’I’m not an expert,’ writes Sara Eckel. ‘I don’t have a PhD or a reality show.’ What Eckel brings to this slight but disarmingly honest book is her own experience as a single woman fielding (unsolicited) advice about her situation…By turns silly and serious (with an occasionally heavy dose of Buddhist thought thrown in), “It’s Not You” provides a cheering reminder that life is complicated, and so are people. Instead of torturing yourself with a self-improvement checklist, she asks, why not see yourself ‘as a flawed but basically lovable human being?’” —KATE TUTTLE, THE BOSTON GLOBE
“At first glance, the concept of a now-married woman writing a book geared towards single women sounds absolutely awful. The idea of a married person saying, “Look! I did it! So obviously you can, too!” in an attempt to be an inspiring “success” story to all the miserable singles in the world makes me want to gag. However, Eckel–a journalist based in Kingston, NY–breaks the norm in the self-help-for-singles genre and provides a feminist answer (or rather, 27 feminist answers) to all the bullshit “advice” and analyses that friends, family, and “experts” alike love to give to single people (especially women) to help them cure the disease of singledom.” —WAGATWE WANJUKI, FEMINISTING
Interviewed by –
MM Finck is a writer, essayist, and book reviewer. Her women’s fiction is represented by Katie Shea Boutillier of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. She is a regular contributor WWWB as well as overseeing the Author, Agent, & Editor Interview segment. She is the contest chair for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association 2016 Rising Star writing contest for unpublished authors.
Her work has appeared in national and regional publications. When she isn’t working on her novel-in-progress, #LOVEIN140, she can be found belting out Broadway tunes (offkey and with the wrong words), cheering herself hoarse over a soccer match (USWNT! – 2015 WORLD CUP CHAMPIONS!!!!), learning to play piano (truly pitifully), repairing or building something around her house, and trying to squeeze more than twenty-four hours out of every day.
She is active on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. All findable with a search for “mmfinck.” [Grammar rules are forcing her to put the period within the quotes, but don’t in your search field. :)) Say hi! http://www.mmfinck.com