by Estelle Erasmus
New World Library (2023); 352 pp.; $18.55 (Paperback)Buy Book
Estelle Erasmus’s debut writing craft book, Writing that Gets Noticed: Find Your Voice, Become a Better Storyteller, Get Published, (New World Library, July 2023), is a delicate combination of memoir and top-notch professional advice.
Before becoming a mother, Erasmus had a successful career as the editor-in-chief of five national women’s magazines, such as Woman’s Own, W.I.T. Women in Touch, Hachette’s Body by Jake, and The American Breast Cancer Guide. Then, she got married, had difficulty conceiving, navigated fertility treatments, pivoted into working in medical education while dealing with infertility, and in midlife gave birth to a daughter, and became Crystal’s full-time parent.
A creative person, who had studied opera as a teenager, Erasmus found that after becoming a new mom, she could no longer write. She felt incomplete and could not exercise her creative muscle because she was caught up in the demanding work of early motherhood. Erasmus’s days were consumed, leaving little space to develop her own voice. When her daughter was a year and a half, seeing her child in a touching moment caused Erasmus to find her voice again, and she has held steadfast ever since.
I met Erasmus at the American Society of Journalists and Authors Annual Conference in 2016, an event she chaired. She had re-entered the industry, and her expertise as editor-in-chief and mother made her an excellent parenting writing role model. Estelle was approachable and generous about sharing her knowledge. These traits enticed me to join her NYU class, Writing Parenting, in 2020. As luck would have it, we went into lockdown that March, the class went virtual, and I missed the first half of the semester. When I showed up, Erasmus was as gentle as she was inspiring. She coached me through writing an essay for the New York Daily News, “My 6-year-old has Calmed Me During Quarantine,” based on my lockdown experience.
A prolific freelancer, Eramus’s work has appeared in the Washington Post and The New York Times, as well as in 150 other publications. She hosts the popular podcast, Freelance Writing Direct, and is an adjunct professor of writing at NYU where she received the 2023 Teaching Excellence Award.
I zoomed in with Erasmus, and we spoke about her book, the aspects of motherhood that inspired her to write, and what it takes to be a good mother. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Holly Rizzuto Palker: You were a professional wordsmith, which makes it shocking that early motherhood hindered your writing abilities. Looking back, what about the experience rendered you unable to write? How did you get out of the rut?
Estelle Erasmus: Childbirth and becoming a mother, especially in midlife, took a lot of energy. And for me, writing is creative energy. All my creative energy was put into learning about being a parent. So, it took a while for me to be able to write.
I was interested in writing about parenting because I was a parent. I learned what I needed to know regarding childproofing my home and traveling with the baby. I found parenting experts and used my journalistic training when I started writing a “Mom’s Talk” column for AOL/Patch, which was great. But it wasn’t creative.
When my daughter was 18 months old, we went to a meet-up group at the library and we sat in a circle. Instead of sitting next to me, my daughter moved into the center of the circle and began to dance. I didn’t know anybody, so I watched to see if the other mothers would be mad at my daughter. They weren’t. Instead, they enjoyed seeing her dance joyfully, and be present in the moment. And I thought, Can I be like that again? Can I be like a child with her whole life ahead of her? Ready and willing to be the star of her own production? I was ready. I went home and I started writing an essay using those words.
HRP: You talk about being a mom blogger and joining the mom influencer community around 2011. How did that group help you get to where you are today, both in your career and mothering journey?
EE: Somebody told me there was a Moth-like show called Listen To Your Mother. They were auditioning in New York City for the inaugural performance. I hadn’t done any kind of performing in public for years, though I had once regularly been on TV as a spokesperson for the magazines I edited, but the essay I wrote that day after the library meet-up was my most personal piece yet. [It spoke] about being a mother, my hopes, my fears, and my dreams. I felt intimidated about auditioning with it despite my experience. Being a mom and writing creatively about motherhood was a whole new world for me. At the audition, when the director, Amy Wilson, asked me about my background, I couldn’t even say I had been a magazine editor because it felt so in the past. I just said, “I’m a communications professional.” I thought nobody would care that I was once a magazine editor. Being part of Listen To Your Mother was a pivotal moment for me.
HRP: Mom first or writer first? Why?
EE: Writer first, and I’ll tell you why. It goes back to my participation in Mothers and More, a now-defunct, non-profit, advocacy organization. Their premise was that a mother is more than just a mother and the invisible work mothers do is valuable. [This philosophy resonated with me] because there is tremendous value in mothers exploring and developing all parts of their identities.
I can’t just identify as a mother because I’m creative and resourceful. I put these qualities into being a mother, but “mother” isn’t the only definition of myself. I think that helps my daughter because she sees a woman who can have many roles. I believe that because before motherhood I had a full life that made me a better mother.
Some women disappear into motherhood; they lose themselves and the essence of who they are. They make the children the focal point of the family, and they risk losing their connection to their partners. And guess what? Their kids grow up and they are left with themselves and the disconnected state of their now less-child-focused relationship.
Motherhood is very important to me. I have a responsibility to be Crystal’s mother and to set her up in a way that will give her a lot of strength and resilience in life. But I don’t think it would be fair to say, “I’m a mom first.” That’s not who I am. Some people will call me selfish when I’m fulfilling my purpose and the creative needs of the self. But that’s what fills me up. I don’t like the word selfish. I think the word should be self-full.
HRP: How did your daughter help to inspire your voice?
EE: Before Crystal, I wrote about dating, romance, and being single. I taught power dating classes and I wrote about health and beauty. My first job in publishing was as associate beauty editor for Woman’s World Magazine. I practiced service journalism, which is providing information, tips, tricks, and advice to help improve people’s lives. Writing about being a mother, what that meant, and being vulnerable through my writing was new. Having a daughter and becoming a mother and writing about it becomes another tool in my kit.
HRP: Is there a line between revealing just enough about your daughter, when being vulnerable on the page, and not betraying Crystal’s trust by sharing too much personal information? Do you still write about her?
EE: When I started blogging, I concentrated more on my transformative journey from a magazine editor to a midlife mother. My daughter was my muse but I wasn’t saying that she sucked, even when parenting was hard. I wasn’t going to denigrate her in that way. I didn’t share her photos and I wrote about her in a way that wasn’t insulting but was relatable to other mothers and parents. Now, my daughter is 14, and she doesn’t want me to write about her. That’s ok with me because she needs to go through her journey without media scrutiny like she did when I wrote viral articles focused around her, such as How to Bullyproof Your Child for The New York Times, and My Child is Out of Control for The Washington Post.
HRP: What’s one question you wish you were asked about yourself that you haven’t been asked?
EE: What are you doing to raise a girl who values herself? Crystal is a teenager now. My hard work has been done. It’s really not done completely, but a mother’s influence starts dissipating when they’re teens. You’ve made your impact on them, whether it’s good or bad. I can still share information and education. She’s still going to come to me. I’m still setting rules and boundaries. But I feel the early work of mothering gets kids to realize that their bodies [and ideas] have value. [For example,] I used to tell my babysitter when she was diapering my daughter, to walk her through every step, and say, “Now I’m lifting up your legs.” This way, my daughter was part of [the process.] The sitter wasn’t just doing something to her.
HRP: How has your training as an actress and opera singer informed your writing and teaching?
EE: When I was getting blurbs for my book, Tony Award-winning producer of Dear Evan Hansen, Funny Girl, Some Like it Hot, and Parade Ken Fakler, said, “Writing That Gets Noticed is a tour de force in storytelling. Estelle Erasmus is a generous teacher with the spark that comes from having her own time on the stage. Readers will give this book a standing ovation.” I enjoy being on the stage; it’s the actress part of me. So for the opera part, singing is very individual, and I discuss it in the book and equate it to how words are also like music. Each singer’s voice has its own [quality.] You can tell that it’s Barbara Streisand from the first note, or Kelly Clarkson, or Rihanna. My voice comes through particularly in essays or when I put myself in the beginning or the end of a piece. Listening to the flow and cadence of your writing is also why I recommend reading your work aloud before you submit it.
HRP: What do you hope to achieve by putting Writing that Gets Noticed out in the world?
EE: I feel like I’ve lived several lives. I lived the high-flying single life in New York; I was a magazine editor in the nineties through the mid-aughts when it was glamorous to be in glossy magazine publishing; I segued into medical education and then I went back into the publishing world in a different way with blogging and performing in Listen to Your Mother, while dealing with the fulfilling but pedantic days of early motherhood, a far cry from my earlier lifestyle. Since 2019; I’ve been teaching at NYU again (I originally taught there in the early aughts). Since I’ve lived many lives, I’ve accrued a lot of wisdom about publishing, writing, and editing. The author Malcolm Gladwell says something like, “You need ten thousand hours.” Well, I’ve had those ten thousand hours, and I understand writing, pitching, and crafting my work. Because I’m a natural teacher, I’ve been able to [combine] lessons that I taught, pieces I’d written, and I’ve pulled them together for the book. I’ve added new information and added my students’ work and it was also important for me to create a memoir aspect to the book. I didn’t want to just write a how-to manual. I like to inspire my students to be positive in a grounded way because I believe your thoughts create your reality. In Writing that Gets Noticed, I wanted to show my philosophy on life. It is the book I wished I had when I returned to the publishing field after a long hiatus. This book not only offers practical advice and “Estelle’s Edge” sprinkled throughout, but it also addresses my writing evolution and the evolution of me as a creative person. I hope it inspires and guides other writers or would-be-writers, or mothers facing a creative crisis to their own evolution.