Meet PJ Pierce
Story Circle Network member PJ Pierce is a freelance writer based in Austin TX. Her book, Let Me Tell You What I've Learned: Texas Wisewomen Speak, was published in 2002 by the University of Texas Press. For the book, PJ interviewed 25 well-known Texas women and the result is a distillation of the wisdom of these inspiring women. PJ began her career in journalism at age 10, when she and her friend Candace O'Keefe edited a neighborhood newspaper for three successful years. PJ earned a B.A. in German and journalism and an M.A. in German. Her professional career includes stints in public relations and nearly ten years' teaching in high-school journalism and German. A wife and mother of three adult children, she is an avid long-distance bicyclist, a master swimmer, and has hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim. She is currently at work on two biographies. This interview was conducted by Jane Ross for The Story Circle Journal (Vol. 7, No. 1, March, 2003).
Visit PJ's website.
Interviewed by Jane Ross
Posted on 03/15/2003
Tell us a little about your own background in PR, journalism, and teaching? What were the projects you were involved in that set the stage for your book?
I began my professional career as a PR writer for Santa Rosa Hospital in San Antonio, the largest Catholic hospital in the U.S. I wrote features for the hospital's publications and on occasion for the San Antonio daily newspapers. I was also assistant to the chief PR photographer. Hospital PR was one of the most exciting jobs I have ever had. However, because my husband was in medical school at the time, I needed to find more time in my schedule to be with our two little girls who were preschoolers. So I began teaching high-school journalism—the hardest job I've ever done to this day. I ended up teaching journalism for about 10 years. Being the publications director in four different high schools during those years turned out to be really fulfilling because of my contact with teenagers. I have a rapport with that age-group and I was able to push them to perform beyond what they thought themselves capable of. The publications I advised won awards on the state and national levels and many of my students went on to become highly-regarded journalists as adults. My last teaching assignment before I retired was to create the journalism department at the brand new Bowie High School in Austin in 1988. I advised the newspaper and taught journalism and photojournalism there for two years. One of my former Bowie students is covering the state legislature for the Austin American-Statesman. We had lunch just the other day. Another student became a successful film editor in Hollywood. We are still good friends today.
My freelance writing includes stints writing features for the San Antonio Express News and writing for various magazines such as the Southwest Airlines magazine during the airline's infant years. Interviewing has always been one of my strong suits. I began honing my interviewing skills as a high-school journalism student. Talking to people was something that came easily to me. I think that my years as a teacher helped me even more. So when I began interviewing those well-known women for Texas Wisewomen Speak, it was not too overwhelming an experience. Yes, I was intimidated at first, but that feeling soon passed. Now I can talk to anybody about anything. I have found that people are just people, no matter how well known they are. Those who are the least friendly usually are the ones who are the least secure in themselves. Most of the women I interviewed were extremely friendly and eager to talk.
What inspired you to write this book?
The book came to life on January 17, 1996, the day Barbara Jordan died. [Ed. Barbara Jordan was a legendary U.S. Congresswoman, educator, and civil rights leader, the first African-American to serve in the Texas Senate since Reconstruction.] Like others, I wasn't ready to lose her. Just shy of 60 years old, Barbara contained too much wisdom yet unspoken. It was too late to record her wisdom, so I vowed not to let the chance slip away again with other wise women from Texas.
Traditionally, young people in Native American tribes went to the tribal elders for advice. In today's fast-paced era of computers and advertising, a reverence for age and its wisdom is almost lost. And we are suffering from that void. As a native Texan, I wrote this book to preserve the wisdom and advice of our tribal elders. I wanted each of these 25 well-seasoned women to say, "Having spent many years on this earth, let me tell you what I've learned."
How did you choose the 25 women to interview?
Over a year's period, I gathered the names of about 100 women, each of whom fit my criteria of having passed the half-century mark in her life, being well-known in her field, whether regionally or nationally, and having lived a significant part of her life in Texas. Then I culled the list to a workable group of 25 women who formed a group representing a cross section of career paths, ethnicity, and all geographic areas of Texas.
Why include only women? Why only Texas women?
Let's face it. Few women have made it into history books and women's wisdom hasn't been recorded on paper to the extent that men's wisdom appears in print. Throughout our existence, women have been in the background while the books were being written. What were they doing? Seeing to it that their children and grandchildren were fed and clothed, that they learned how to get along with others, and that they got as good an education as possible. If we were lucky, we got to spend lots of time with our grandmothers, learning from them. But most of the wisdom of our grandmothers was never written down. It's time that omission is corrected.
Why include only Texas women? America is full of wise women. But a perception exists that Texas women are different—feistier perhaps, more likely to think that anything is possible. It is a characteristic that some call "the mystique of the Texas woman." Whether the mystique is true can be debated, but it does seem to be there. Distinctive Texas traits helped us battle the elements on the frontier, and the same traits remain to this day, when Texas women have come onto the national scene as strong politicians, for example.
Naomi Wolf of Washington DC, author of Fire with Fire, put it this way: "Texas women seem to welcome power much more than do some other middle-income women. They aren't afraid that power will defeminize them. Maybe it has something to do with the state's history. Women here seem very solution oriented."
Barbara Jordan was the only woman you included who was no longer living. Why did you include her?
Barbara's spirit set the tone for the book. Shortly before she died, I had planned to interview her to get her answers to questions that, to my knowledge, no one had yet posed to her. Although she had been quoted extensively about government and ethics, I wanted to ask her questions about what she had learned to be most important in life.
Barbara once said, "I get from the soil and spirit of Texas the feeling that I, as an individual, can accomplish whatever I want to, that there are no limits, that you can just keep going, just keep soaring. I like that spirit." This is the kind of attitude I hoped to capture from other Texas wise women, so I used Barbara's life story her words, gathered from various sources, to set the stage for the book.
Did you ask the same questions of every woman? What are some of the questions you asked?
I made a list of 22 core questions to ask of every woman. It was typical for one woman to relate to some questions and another to relate to different ones. During the course of the interviews, impromptu questions would naturally come up as each conversation took its own path. The typical interview lasted two hours or less.
Some of the questions were: If you were a young woman starting out to build your life today, what would you do differently? What is most important to tell generations coming behind you? What new insights have you had since you have gotten older? What are some principles by which you live? Do you have specific advice about nurturing yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually, setting boundaries, balancing your life? What excites you about the future?
How willing were these well-known women to answer such probing questions about their lives?
I was pleasantly surprised at the candor of most of the women. Most talked freely about the ups and downs in their lives—about their failures and disappointments as well as their successes and happy moments. If one was clearly uncomfortable with a particular question, I took the subject as far as she was willing to go and then moved on. Later in the interview, when she felt more at ease, I might raise the uncomfortable question again. That tactic provided a chance for her to reconsider, sometimes opening up a course of discussion that she became willing to pursue. If not, I left it alone.
Do you use the women's own words verbatim in the book?
Each chapter contains the woman's biographical sketch, which I wrote myself, and Author's Notes (my first-hand impressions of the circumstances during the interview, including the woman's surroundings and personality). The bulk of the each chapter is made up of the woman's own words, taken from her interview and edited for clarity and space demands.
Your daughter took many of the photographs for the book. How did that come about? Tell us about that collaboration.
My daughter, Summer, was a senior photojournalism student at the University of Texas when I began interviewing women for the book. I trusted her abilities from the start. As we traveled the state together, she would photograph the women as I interviewed them. She and I have always gotten along well together and we made a good team. I learned to respect her skills and her opinions and insights more and more during the year of travel and interviewing. Today she is a top-notch photojournalist, and I rely on her judgment in photography and in many other areas. Summer is already one of the wisest women I know—and she is only 26 years old. She has lived in Minnesota for the past four years, and I am hoping that she and her husband will move back to Austin when he finishes his veterinary residency. (They are getting married next month in Austin.)
As you worked on the book, what was the most difficult part of the process? And the most rewarding?
The whole process of interviewing and writing was thrilling. I enjoyed the interviewing process the most. I finished all of the 28 interviews within a year, and then the writing began. The writing itself wasn't the hard part. The difficult part was disciplining myself to concentrate on that project and not to get distracted with a myriad of other projects. I suffered from Graves Disease—a severely hyperactive thyroid during that time—and writer's block. (Perhaps they had something to do with one another.) I disappointed myself because it took a year longer to write the book than I had anticipated.
As I look back on the process, I can see that the last year was highly productive and deeply gratifying. I fell into a regular routine of spending two full days alone each week in my writing retreat in the woods about an hour and a half from Austin. My Sunday House, as I call it, was my salvation. I would spend Monday to Wednesday of each week in Austin taking care of domestic chores and tying up the loose ends of my daily life so that I could drive to the country each Thursday morning. By Wednesday I was giddily anticipating my two days alone in the woods. Those 48 hours each week were my creative time and a present to myself as I crafted chapter after chapter. I remember writing that last word in November 2000. A big smile spread over my face and I took some deep breaths and congratulated myself! And I still remember taking the three reams of paper—three copies of the completed manuscript—along with the black and white glossies of each woman, and putting them on my editor's desk. It was quite a feeling.
What kind of responses have you gotten since the book came out?
The response from my readers has been added bonus to my having gotten to know these women and having been privy to their lives and to their wisdom. While I was spending those hours in my little niche office in the loft of my Sunday House, I would say to myself: "This is good stuff!" I wondered at the time if other people would find these women's words as remarkable as I did. And now that the book is being read by a wide audience, I am hearing that, yes, people—both women and men—are loving what they are reading! I get enthusiastic mail every day, thanking me for writing this book. Getting these women's wisdom would have been enough for me, but receiving such great response from readers has reassured me that I was on the right track. I was feeling the pulse of Texas women and their need to hear wisdom from our tribal elders.
What advice would you give to a writer thinking of doing a similar project?
Try a smaller number of women! At first I wanted to do 35 or 40 women because I couldn't bear the thought of cutting out all those wonderful women I wanted to get to know. I'm glad that I talked myself down to 25 women. And then, as I finished about 18 chapters, I thought: 25 may have been a bit too many. The project became unnecessarily involved because of sheer volume. Otherwise, I am proud of the outcome. I believe I went about the interviewing and writing in the right way.