By Stephanie Schaefer
Many writers have trouble embracing their voice from time to time—a challenge that literary organization Women Reading Aloud (WRA) aims to overcome. The group, which empowers female writers through workshops and retreats, was founded in 2003. More than a decade later, the organization has expanded while holding true to its values of authenticity, creativity, and equality among “the writer, the reader, and the listener.”
In honor of Women’s History Month (although I think we should celebrate kick-ass female writers 12 months a year), I chatted with Julie Maloney, founder and director of WRA.
Stephanie Schaefer: Women Reading Aloud sounds like a great project. Where did the idea come from?
Julie Maloney: Eleven years ago, I was sitting with a friend, another writer, and we were talking about the “gaps” in the industry. All of a sudden, I said “I’m starting something called Women Reading Aloud.” Honestly, it just fell from my lips! I knew that I wanted to create a place where women writers felt supported in their creative lives. I had no idea that we would grow to hosting international writing retreats from what began around my dining room table.
SS: Who are some of your favorite authors?
JM: I love so many. I’m a huge fan of Joyce Carol Oates. My copy of We Were The Mulvaneys is sitting on my desk right now. I constantly open it and read a passage to remind myself of what’s working on the page. Also, there’s Elizabeth Strout. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, is the only book I’ve read more than twice. It’s a gem. The Irish writer, Anne Enright, moves me every time I read her work; Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, a lean but powerful book, continues to enchant. Only recently, I discovered and read the amazing novel, Stoner, by John Williams. Breathtaking! Of course, I fell in love with D.H. Lawrence in college. Over and over, I’ve read Nikolai Gogol’s short story, “The Overcoat.” Ahhh…and then there’s May Sarton! There are so many beauties out there and I haven’t even begun to name poets like Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Ted Kooser, and Linda Pastan.
SS: I’ve noticed on your website that the writer’s weekend retreats have been very popular! What role does atmosphere and location play in your creative process? Do you have a favorite writing spot?
JM: I like quiet places but this doesn’t mean that I must have them to write. I can write in the middle of a coffee shop or café, unaware that someone might be sitting naked wearing only a baseball cap at another table! I’m always writing in my head, especially when I’m driving which I do not recommend. I have a room at home that I call my “writing room.” It’s bright with neatly stacked books in every corner, on shelves, in piles. My desk is messy no matter how hard I try to be tidy. When I select a place for a retreat, I pay careful attention to the atmosphere – to the surrounding noise level. Our Writer’s Weekend Retreat is held annually at the New Jersey Shore. We’re one block from the ocean. Writers can slip away and walk and think and be alone or else they can choose to chat up another writer while sitting on a bench facing the water. It’s perfect. We’ve been selling out to 20 writers every year for six years. Our international retreat, held on the magical island of Alonnisos in Greece, also combines solitude with community. Although, it’s interesting how some writers note that the beauty of the Aegean Sea distracts them from writing! One of my favorite places to write in the world is in the New York City Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 41st Street. You can feel the creative energy as soon as you push through the doors.
SS: Can you tell me more about the “Writing and Yoga Program”? It sounds very zen!
JM: I guess you could say it’s “very zen!”
I work with an amazing yoga teacher who has taught me so much—not only about the physical part of yoga but also about the chakras and how our life force, our prana, guides us. We spend time coordinating programs that fill the full day, alternating between yoga and writing in accordance with the chakras. Writers leave glowing after spending time exploring what lies within by moving to the page. It’s quite exhilarating.
SS: What is one thing you want women who participate in WRA to take away from the experience?
JM: I want women to know that they have a voice that either is waiting for discovery or for further refinement. We must keep on working on it. I always say this in my workshops: It is not as important that the world hear our voice, as it is that we hear our own voice. This requires deep listening to ourselves. The journey is worth the commitment. I have seen women who have never written before attend a WRA workshop series and end up hooked on writing. They write, publish and give readings! The transformation is the reward as is the process of engagement.
SS: Have you faced any obstacles as a female writer? How does WRA aim to overcome those challenges and break gender stereotypes?
JM: I’ve been fortunate to create a creative life that works for me. Of course, the publishing industry is a difficult one and although I’ve read and heard about women facing obstacles, I’ve shaped my world to be kinder. Right now, I’m fighting for a novel of mine to find a home and it is a hard, hard journey, but I’m a warrior. Check back with me in a year! What WRA does is provide a supportive space where women writers can take chances in their work without the distraction of competition. It’s a place intended for discovery without fear of the inner critic.
SS: What advice would you give to young females who want to pursue a career in writing?
JM: Believe you can do it! Surround yourself with people who support your dreams. Sit down and write. Read every genre. Sit down and write. Breathe. Sit down and write. Read. Write. Dream. Connect. Support other writers by buying their books! Attend readings, book launches, learn about the business without forgetting why you write. Do it because you love it!
SS: What is one random fact about yourself?
JM: I am a former dancer/choreographer and artistic director of my own modern dance company in New York City.
To learn more, visit Women Reading Aloud’s official website.