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Published Essays By Anna Quindlen Lots

Anna Quindlen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer whose new memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, explores her past, present and future. Courtesy of the author hide caption

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Courtesy of the author

As a little girl, Anna Quindlen wasn't afraid of a whole lot. She frequently got into trouble and occasionally shot off her mouth. But as she grew older, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer became what she calls a "girl imitation."

"[I became] nicer, sweeter, less outspoken [and] less combative," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "All of the qualities that you need to be a good opinion columnist tend to be qualities that aren't valued in women. And I think that was a bit of a challenge for me when I became an op-ed columnist [for The New York Times] and has been a challenge for many of us who do that as a living."

It wasn't until she turned 50, Quindlen says, that she realized she didn't care any longer about what people thought about her.

"After all those years as a woman hearing 'not thin enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, not this enough, not that enough,' almost overnight I woke up one morning and thought, 'I'm enough,' " she says.

Quindlen's new memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, explores her past, present and future — her relationships with her parents and children, her faith, her career and her feelings about herself over the past five decades.

Many of Quindlen's essays over the years have documented the time she's spent raising her children. But having children wasn't something she initially wanted to do. While in college, Quindlen's mother died of ovarian cancer. Almost overnight, she became a surrogate mother for her four younger siblings. She tells Terry Gross that the experience initially turned her off from wanting to be a mother herself.

"I just thought, 'I never want to do this. This is too hard,' " she says. "And I went into my 20s thinking that this was something I never wanted to do.'"

A decade later, Quindlen changed her mind. She says she's not sure what changed.

"My husband is still asking that question because he spent all those years with a woman who said she never wanted to have kids and who literally woke up one morning when she was 30 and said, 'Let's have a baby,' " she says. "And I honestly can't explain to you how that happened. It was as if the on-off switch got thrown. I'm still a little puzzled by the progression, but so happy about it."

After she had her three children, Quindlen says she continually compared her own child-rearing skills with her mother's parenting style.

"She just had that gift for making you feel as if you'd hung the moon. Each of us felt like we were her favorite," she says. "And certainly, it's true that when I had my own kids, I would feel like if I got anywhere close to being Prudence Quindlen on any day, I was doing a good job."

A Sign Of The Times

But Quindlen says she knew being a stay-at-home like her mother was never an option for her. After taking care of her siblings, she returned to Barnard, where her professors repeatedly emphasized to her and her classmates that they were going to go on to do great things.

"And that was when second-wave feminism was just crashing on the shores of the country," she says. "Many of my professors were feminists, there was so much going on in the world of journalism — there was a sit-in at Newsweek, there was a class-action suit against The New York Times. I just threw my lot in."

Quindlen was hired by The Times, she says, in part because of the class-action lawsuit filed by seven women against The Times in 1974.

"I am an affirmative action hire," she says. "And that is only a problem if you don't cut the mustard. These [seven] women brought the suit. The Times settled it and said they would be hiring more women, promoting more women, and hiring women in parity with men. And there were a whole group of us who were hired in very short order, many of us quite young, and it was entirely because those [seven] women went out on that limb."

Quindlen stayed at The Times for more than two decades. In 1992, she won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Three years later, she left to become a full-time novelist and then joined Newsweek in 1999, where she wrote a biweekly column until 2009. She continues to write stories and personal essays.

I still walk around some mornings and look at the world and think, 'Oh my God. This is so fantastic, and there's so many opportunities to do good and to be happy.' And I think that comes from some deep-faith place that started in religion and now transcends it.

Anna Quindlen

Leaving The Catholic Church

In Lots of Cake, she frankly describes her decision to give up alcohol as well as her reasoning for recently leaving the Catholic Church.

"The pedophilia scandals, the church's reaction to them, and their constant obsession with gynecology — taken together at a certain point, it was probably two or three years ago, I said, 'Enough,' " she says. "Every time I sit in the pew I ratify this behavior, and I'm not going to ratify it anymore."

Quindlen says she realizes that she doesn't need a service or Mass to get what she needs out of her faith.

"I think not going anymore made me realize how much of the good had been imprinted deep inside me, and how much of the rest I didn't need," she says. "I don't have to listen to the Gospel on Sunday to know the stories of the New Testament. They inform so much of what I write that they're practically like a news scrim that goes through my brain 24/7. And I don't have to listen to a sermon to know what to think or feel about them. It's almost as if I absorbed completely what mattered most to me, and the rest could go."

But Quindlen says she still relies on her faith.

"I still walk around some mornings and look at the world and think, 'Oh my God. This is so fantastic, and there's so many opportunities to do good and to be happy,' " she says. "And I think that comes from some deep-faith place that started in religion and now transcends it."

Interview Highlights

On religion and faith

"I haven't lost my faith, but I've lost my religion. I still believe in something so deeply. ... I've never really gotten past that quote from Anne Frank in her diary, where she says that people are really good at heart. But I feel like the Catholic Church — no — the Catholic hierarchy has been disinviting people like me, and especially women like me, for so many years that I finally took the hint."

On 'uber-momism'

"The problem with the 'uber-momism' is that you convince yourself that you can never make mistakes. Second, if you do, it will be tragic and traumatic. And third, that you have control over the entire situation, which is what's led to this 'helicopter parenting' we talk about all the time. I was the best mother when I stood back, provided appropriate oversight, but basically got out of their way so they could be themselves. And that's kind of the opposite of 'uber-momism.' "

On relating to her classmates at Barnard after caring for her mother and siblings

When you're saying to your boys, 'OK, there's a certain kind of privilege that comes along with being a white man and you should not take that' — that's a kind of craziness. That's asking them to be different from people — certainly different from the macho men who they might see on TV or hear around them. I just felt like the payoff ultimately was going to be so great.

Anna Quindlen

"Having looked after someone who's dying, having given [my mother] morphine, having made school lunches for your siblings — and then going back to a place where the biggest concern is, 'Am I going to ace this gut course?' It makes you feel like you've been taken out of one world and thrown back into it again. And I think, when I was in my 20s, I had a hard time adjusting to the prevailing concerns and speed of life for my peers."

On caring for her siblings after her mother's death

"In retrospect, it's probably the single biggest thing that made me what I am today. There's no question that you're either going to fold in a situation like that, or you're going to develop reservoirs of strength you didn't even know you had."

On raising feminist boys

"Society is opposing you at every turn. One of our sons said to me later, 'It was a little bit like having your skin stripped off.' When you have a daughter and you say to her, 'Look, things are not going to be fair for you. People might treat you in a certain way because you're female — might say this thing or that thing' — that's kind of easy. When you're saying to your boys, 'OK, there's a certain kind of privilege that comes along with being a white man and you should not take that' — that's a kind of craziness. That's asking them to be different from people — certainly different from the macho men who they might see on TV or hear around them. I just felt like the payoff ultimately was going to be so great. And as my one son says, about being a feminist boy, 'Chicks dig it.' And that's been his guiding principle."

On contraception

"Hello! What is this, 1962? It's being debated — it has no traction in the world. None of us are out there saying, 'Gee, should you be able to buy the pill or should you not be able to buy the pill?' All of this is an attempt in a rapidly changing age to put the genie of freedom back in the bottle, and guess what? It does not work. We are accustomed to living a certain way. Our daughters take certain things as bedrock. And a couple of guys in Washington arguing about this? Or presidential debates? They're not going to change that."

Here’s the thing about being a brand name: What people want most from you is a kind of comforting predictability. Variations on a theme, sure, but when we pop open a can of Coke, it had bloody well better taste like Coke. (Remember New Coke? No? There’s a reason.) And so it is with Anna Quindlen, who’s as close to a brand name as a writer can be. Her twinkling aphorisms, her gentle homespun humor, her mulling over what might be termed White People Problems: this is what her fans expect from her. And this is what she serves to them in generous portions in “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.”

Quindlen’s latest collection of essays deals with crossing the Rubicon from late middle age to early old age. Each chapter muses on a different aspect of the way her life (and, by inference, ours) has changed as she moves from her 50s toward her 60s. With headings like “Faith,” “Expectations” and “Mirror, Mirror,” Quindlen leads us to examine what we already know — and makes us feel good for being so clever as to know it.

News flash: Solitude can be wonderful. Our girlfriends are incredibly important to us. Society has an unacceptable view of women’s bodies. Fear is the great enemy. Having stuff is not that important. Even though our butts have fallen, most of us would not want to be 20 again. Life is unpredictable — or, as Quindlen puts it, in lines that could easily be sewn into one of the samplers she loves: “I thought I had a handle on my future. But the future, it turns out, is not a tote bag.” Huh. I’ve also heard that life is like a box of chocolates. But in any case, Quindlen’s readers don’t love her for giving them news. They love her for being the person they’d like to have a cup of coffee with. So would I. Just don’t drown it in cream and sugar.

Do I sound a little churlish? I suppose I am. I was with her through the ’80s and early ’90s, when Quindlen was one of the first, and certainly the best, to write about family and balance outside the confines of women’s magazines. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning columns for The New York Times, she showed that domestic issues were worthy of serious examination, and she was a bold yet nuanced voice on topics ranging from spousal abuse to abortion. She can still be wryly funny, as when she tells us, in a chapter called “Push” — a perfect title for both having kids and today’s helicopter parenting — that “keeping up with the ­Joneses turned into keeping up with the ­Joneses’ kids.” But today she seems much more interested in holding our hands than pulling our hands away from our eyes. “You’re like a cake when you’re young,” she says. “Rising takes patience, and heat.” Does it? Really? Tell that to Mark Zuckerberg. Rising takes impatience, and the occasional ability to be as cold as dry ice. In fact, rising is more like — O.K., I don’t know what it’s like, but I sure as hell know it’s not like a cake.

And therein lies the problem for those of us who have loved Quindlen but at this point are a bit exasperated: her verities, while deeply soothing, aren’t always entirely believable. The underlying premise of “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake” is that we change profoundly as we get older, and in all sorts of wonderful ways. We worry less about what others think of us. We’re kinder, more thoughtful, wiser, easier on ourselves, more willing to stop and smell the roses. (Or, as I imagine Quindlen’s house, the freshly baked cookies.)

And of course there’s some truth to this. Some. Five percent? Maybe 10? But in fact most of us (and by “us,” I mean me) are more or less the same idiots we were when we were 25, with perhaps a few more useful limitations. After all, the average 80-year-old, if he wants to hit 81, might be well served by dialing it back with the hookers and blow. But, anyway, please don’t try to convince me that the march toward the hereafter is like a skip down the Yellow Brick Road. Quindlen has a great line about how women now practice “the science of embalming disguised as grooming.” Quite so, but I’ll take Botox and cheerful fatalism over false promises.

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