I met Eileen through our shared writing community She Writes. She is a graduate of both Duke and Yale, writes for a wide range of national publications and speaks at conferences, colleges, and religious gatherings. She is the author of the forthcoming memoir Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope. Her previous book, The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change–and When to Let Go, was endorsed by the Dalai Lama and won the Silver Nautilus Book Award. A leader of Earth Quaker Action Team, she lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two children. Learn more about her work here: About Eileen Flanagan
I recently asked Eileen to share with me the inspiration and process behind her newest release, Renewable, and this is the conversation that transpired.
Shelah: What inspired you to write Renewable?
Eileen: When I started questioning my whole life at 49, I felt very alone. I had a nice husband, two great kids, and a beautiful, new house—everything I was supposed to want. I had so much, I felt guilty for feeling something was still missing. I also felt alone in my worries about global warming and my children’s futures. So at first, I probably started writing to make sense of my own experience because I find writing very clarifying. But as I told people what I was writing about, I saw recognition in their faces. I said, “My life has not turned out as I expected,” and one woman said, “Yes!” so enthusiastically, I knew that telling my own story would be helpful to people who had similar feelings.
S: You embarked on a process of self-rediscovery at age 49. What was the most surprising, unexpected thing you’ve learned about yourself through this process of re-invention?
E: I was surprised to realize how far I had been pulled off my own path by other people’s priorities. I had joined the Peace Corps at 21 and hitchiked around Africa. I thought of myself as someone who charted her own course. But after marriage and motherhood, I started doing a lot of things I didn’t really want to do—from buying more stuff than I thought we needed to spending my time boiling hot dogs for the school fundraiser. At 49 I realized that if I wanted to fulfill my own calling, I was going to have to learn to say, “No,” to other people more often. I was surprised by how hard that was.
S: What advice do you have for younger generations for ways to hold the ideals of their youth?
E: Find other people who share your values, especially if you become a parent. Having a community who supports you is really important. And keep a journal when you’re young. One of the things I did at 49 was go back and read through thirty years worth of journals and letters. It was so interesting to remember what used to be important to
me and decide anew whether that was a value I still wanted to hold onto. Lastly, do something scary once in awhile. Often we lose our boldness as we get older, and that holds us back as much as anything. Even if it’s something little, like speaking up in a meeting or taking a hike alone, if you stretch yourself from time to time, it’s easier to do something scary when you get to the big decisions.
S: What was your fondest memory while living in Africa?
E: Most of my memories from the Peace Corps are about how peaceful it was in my village, without electricity, looking up at the night sky full of stars. Simple things kept us entertained. There’s one story that actually got cut from the book because it didn’t really fit the theme, but it still makes me laugh. I was in Botswana, in southern African, in a rural village during the country’s twentieth anniversary of independence. Just for fun, one of my African colleagues organized a donkey race, which was unheard of there, and recruited me to be in it. No adults rode donkeys, let alone raced them. Certainly not women, and most definitely not white women. When people saw me get on the donkey, they started falling over laughing. But I had the last laugh because I won the race!
S: What are you hoping readers will take away from your book?
E: First, I hope readers feel less alone after reading my story. Many people wonder what they are doing with their lives or how they got there, but people don’t talk about those deep questions standing around the water cooler. Sometimes it helps to know that other people have similar questions, and that can help us face our own questions more boldly.
Part of my story is that I joined a group that was doing bold and creative activism around climate change, and that work has really changed my life. I feel more myself and my hopeful than when I was just staring at the celing at 3 a.m. wondering what kind of world my children would inherit. Although I don’t expect everyone who reads my book will become an environmental activist, I hope those with those impulses will follow them. I really have become convinced that small groups of people working together can make a big difference, but we need as many people as possible.
S: Are you working on anything new right now?
E: I’m doing two things. I’m on speaking tour, promoting this book and writing articles based on it. At the same time, I’m also promoting my group Earth Quaker Action Team, which is part of the story of the memoir. Last week we had a major victory in our campaign. Our little grassroots group convinced the nation’s seventh largest bank to stop financing mountaintop removal coal mining, a horrible practice that involves blowing up mountaintops to get coal. My book is partly about finding hope that people working together can make a difference, and here the day before the book comes out, PNC Bank announces a change in their policy after five years of our pressure! It’s exactly the kind of synchronicity that I believe happens when you are living in sync with your purpose, so it’s an exciting moment.
S: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing/publishing process?
E: I actually enjoy revising. When you have the beginning of an idea and take some time to polish it till it shines, that’s really satisfying. Copyediting, though—figuring out when to use a hyphen—that part is tedious. Many writers dread book publicity, but I love public speaking, so this phase is mostly fun for me. I’ll be on the road a lot during the next few months and enjoy connecting with readers. Check out my public speaking event schedule!
S: Any writing advice you have for other aspiring authors?
E: After my last book came out, I heard from so many aspiring authors asking for advice that I actually wrote a blog post for them, which I’m happy to share again: If you want to write. My one-liner on it is, just write, write, write!
S: Thank you so much Eileen for taking the time to share your insights, wisdom, and experiences with us! Wishing you the very best for your book and beyond!
E: Thanks, Shelah. You, too!
Renewable by Eileen Flanagan can be purchased here.