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TOP 10: Ending Her “Wild” Ride: Cheryl Strayed Ponders Life After a Bestselling Memoir

Author Cheryl Strayed and Don George, National Geographic Headquarters/Photo: Rebecca Drobis/National Geographic

Ending Her “Wild” Ride”–Cheryl Strayed Ponders Life After a Bestselling Memoir: Jessica Contrera–washingtonpost.com–3/16/15–Photo: Rebecca Drobis/National Geographic

TOP 10: Oprah Winfrey Hits the Road with Her “Life You Want Weekend’ Tour

Oprah Winfrey Hits the Road

Oprah Winfrey Hits the Road with Her “Life You Want Weekend” Tour: Jennifer Conlin–nytimes.com–10/13/14

TOP 10: “Eat,Pray, Love” Author Elizabeth Gilbert on the Challenges of Success

Elizabeth Gilbert at Dominican University/Photo: Laurie King

“Eat, Pray, Love” Author Elizabeth Gilbert on the Challenges of Success: cbsnews.com–6/23/14–Photo: Laurie King

TWE Story: Author Kelly Corrigan on the ‘Glitter and Glue’ of Motherhood

Kelly Corrigan, author,Glitter and Glue

UPDATE 2/20/15; Paperback edition of Glitter and Glue is out!

By Laurie McAndish King (@LaurieKing)/March 18, 2014

Twitter: @corrigankelly

“The coolest thing about the coolest people I knew was that they had made great families. Families with inside jokes and nicknames and dance moves. And that’s the shore I set out for.” Kelly Corrigan

Let me put Kelly Corrigan up on a pedestal for you. She’s on one for me. Kelly survived breast cancer and chemo and an ominous ovarian growth, and braved it through her beloved father’s cancer and her young daughter’s meningitis.

She has a page on Wikipedia and is, in her own somewhat surprised words, a “YouTube sensation”—a video of Kelly reading her essay about women’s friendships over time, Transcending, went viral with nearly five million hits.

Kelly’s “Transcending” video

Kelly co-founded Notes & Words, a charitable organization that features bestselling authors and top recording artists on-stage together, and has raised more than $4,000,000 dollars for Oakland’s Children’s Hospital and Research Center.

Oh, and she has written three New York Times bestselling memoirs. Three memoirs—and she isn’t even fifty yet! I loved Kelly’s coming-of-middle-age story called The Middle Place, so I attended Dominican University’s Leadership Lecture Series with Book Passage recently to hear her speak about her latest book.

The first time I heard Kelly speak it was at this same venue where I covered her interview with another bestselling author, Elizabeth Gilbert, just a few months ago for TWE. Their discussion ranged from science to shoes to spirit, so I was eager to learn what Kelly would choose as a subject.

Kelly Corrigan's Glitter and GlueThe evening began with a video of Kelly saying a few words about her new book, Glitter and Glue, A Memoir (@randomhouse), which explores the emotional intricacies of parenthood and the bond between mothers and daughters. I was surprised to learn that such an accomplished woman was fascinated with the minutia of family life.

“Your father’s the glitter, but I’m the glue,” Kelly’s mother told her years ago, summarizing their roles: father as a fun friend, mother as tactician and disciplinarian. Glitter and Glue is ostensibly about that difference—between adventure and life experience, fathers and mothers, fun and responsibility.

But the truth is that Kelly has reconciled the two with her understanding that everyday family life is the greatest adventure of all.

“The coolest thing about the coolest people I knew,” Kelly said, “was that they had made great families. Families with inside jokes and nicknames and dance moves. And that’s the shore I set out for.” It took Kelly less than five minutes to elevate domesticity to an existential art form.

“This abstract performance art called family life is our one run at the ultimate improv, our chance to be great for someone. It’s happening right now, whether we attend to it or not. This is it. This is the great adventure.”

At the end of the video the audience erupted in applause, and Kelly—not yet officially on-stage—peeked around the curtain, grinned, and waved like an over-eager five-year-old at her first school play.

The audience is immediately captivated with Kelly’s we’re-just-a-bunch-of-girlfriends brand of charm. She shows up in a simple navy blouse and skinny jeans—very skinny jeans—telling us she’s been on tour for twenty-eight days, and is so glad to be back home in the Bay Area, which she swears has the best food, the best people, the best clothes.

Then Kelly starts dishing on her mom.“My mother’s a little like the Maggie Smith character on ‘Downton Abbey.’ She has what my friend Betsy calls a BRF—a Bitchy Resting Face—and she’s fiercely devoted to her family.” Kelly puts on a bitchy resting face, so we can see what she means. A little later: “Mom loves sauerkraut, anchovies, and pearl onions—pearl onions! If you were writing a villain, wouldn’t you have her love them?”

But this is just to set the stage. In the same way that Kelly has reconciled her one-time longing for “a huge odyssey” with a deep appreciation of the grand adventure that is domestic life, she has also reconciled with the mother who battled her for years over blow-dryers and spending money and curfews, over political views and making wedding plans and baptizing babies.

Kelly Corrigan and her mom--Photo: Kelly Corrigan

Kelly and Mary, her mother/Photo: Kelly Corrigan

Most of Glitter and Glue is a flashback to the five months in 1992 when Kelly worked as a nanny. As a twenty-four-year-old she had gone off on a backpacking adventure, a global odyssey that would surely make her an Interesting Person.

But finding herself in need of money, Kelly took a job in a suburb of Sydney, Australia, looking after two young children whose mother had recently passed away. The experience of caring for children—for the first time in her life—brought an appreciation of her mother’s expansive skills and mighty competence.

What about her own family, now? Is Kelly the glitter or the glue? Although she wouldn’t mind glittering, it turns out Kelly is the glue, just as her mother was. She is the one who supervises homework, keeps a watchful eye out when the girls are on the ski slopes, and manages “the unsettling situations that often bubble up right around bedtime.”

“I’m the CEO,” Kelly says. “Edward [her husband] is like the chairman of the board. He only comes in for board meetings, and he gives me some tips, like, ‘I just came up with a few things when I was flying across the country first-class, some ideas that might help.’”

But it’s her mother that Kelly calls on when she needs “tips,” advice, perspective, or encouragement. “I have come to admire [my mother] so much for so many things… She had so much stamina. She had so much fortitude and grit, to stand the constant negotiation.”

“Now,” Kelly says, “give me almost any situation—termites, refinancing, or back pain, allowance, mean girls or sibling rivalry, a child’s despair, a husband’s inattention, or my own spikes of rage and regret—and watch how fast I dial her number.”

Kelly may still be dialing her mom, but she has come into her own as an author, a philanthropist, and an inspiring figure for anyone attending to the Great Adventure.

Photos of Kelly Corrigan courtesy of Betsy Barnes



Authors Elizabeth Gilbert and Kelly Corrigan Talk Science, Spirit and Shoes

Elizabeth Gilbert and Kelly Corrigan, Dominican University Fall 2013

Kelly Corrigan (l) and Elizabeth Gilbert (r) at Dominican University/10-16-13

UPDATE 6/2414: Elizabeth’s paperback of “The Signature of All Things” is published today. Check out her upcoming events.

By Laurie McAndish King/December 29, 2013

“I know that there are very few greater pleasures in life than to … be subsumed by the work that you are obsessed with, and that’s completely who [Alma] is, and that’s totally based on me.” Elizabeth Gilbert

Bestselling authors Elizabeth Gilbert and Kelly Corrigan made me feel as though I’d just spent the evening talking with my two best girlfriends, even though they were sitting onstage at Dominican University in front of hundreds of people as they discussed German Romanticism, the rise of Empiricism, the effect of birth order on family dynamics and Tory Burch shoes.

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All ThingsCorrigan interviewed Gilbert as part of Dominican’s Leadership Lecture Series, in partnership with Book Passage, an independent bookstore in Marin County, California. They were talking about Gilbert’s new novel, The Signature of All Things.

The book is about Alma Whittaker, a botanist born in 1800 to “potent and clever parents.” Alma grows up to study the miniature universe of mosses, and her story is a miniature reflection of the Darwinian Revolution that occurred during her lifetime.

“We now live in this world of scientists who have no divinity, and the faithful who have no reason,” Gilbert said. “You wish the divorced parents would just get together in a cafe at 10 a.m. for a cup of coffee.” She was referring to the 19th century division between science and spirit. “People were starting to suffer.”

Earlier, there had been no division between divinity and science, Gilbert explains. All the great ministers were naturalists; admiring and praising God’s creations was a natural—even organic—part of their work. But the 19th century was a painful moment in history. “It was like an awful divorce, and the parents have been fighting over the kids ever since.” Gilbert, who wrote a book about marriage called Committed, has a lot to say on the subject.

She also has a lot to say about the schism between science and divinity—five hundred pages worth in this new book. And Gilbert says it very well. So well, in fact, that I would happily have read another five hundred pages about evolution and moss biology and taxonomy and botanical illustration, if only she had written a longer tome.

Author Barbara Kingsolver, whom I’ve had the pleasure of writing about for TWE, agrees in her New York Times review: “Gilbert has established herself as a straight-up storyteller who dares us into adventures of worldly discovery, and this novel stands as a winning next act.”

Is this the same Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote Eat, Pray, Love? The book some critics dismissed as self-absorbed and overly emotional? The book that sold ten million copies, spent 200 weeks on New York Times bestseller list, and helped earn its author a spot on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in world? That Elizabeth Gilbert? Yes, it is.

Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love

And the irony is not lost on her. Gilbert’s own spiritual side was on display in Eat Pray Love. “Some people loved it,” she says. (About ten million, I’m guessing.) But it made others feel nauseated and write snarky reviews and say things like, “Just don’t talk to me about that *** ashram,” Gilbert continues.

Readers who are more aligned with the empirical will appreciate The Signature of All Things. “This book is like a pair of sensible shoes,” Gilbert suggests. I respectfully disagree. True, the novel is solid storytelling, historically based, and exhaustively researched. But it is also lyrical, seductive, and addictive. More like the surprise pair of Tory Burch shoes Corrigan gave Gilbert during an onstage moment of female bonding.

Elizabeth Gilbert with shoe Kelly Corrigan gave her/Fall 2013

Elizabeth regards Kelly Corrigan’s gift first with curiosity (above), then with delight.
Photo: Laurie McAndish King

There’s another irony: “This book wouldn’t exist without Eat Pray Love,” Gilbert says.“Eat Pray Love paid for this book. It was a very time-consuming book to write.” Gilbert did a lot of research and planning before she began writing—three years’ worth of interviews, reading, and travel, plus a seventy-page outline, for starters.

The Signature of All Things begins with the story of Alma’s parents, Henry and Beatrix Whittaker. Henry was fun to write about, Elizabeth says. “He was the most muscular writing I’ve ever done. He has no emotion except ambition—searing ambition and cunning.”

Those two qualities made Henry Whittaker into the third richest man in the western hemisphere. “Money followed him around,” Gilbert writes, “like a small, excited dog.”

The exceptionally well-educated Beatrix spoke seven languages and designed her gardens using Euclidian geometry. An austere and daunting Dutch Calvinist, she had the highest standards and expectations for her daughters. At a critically important juncture in Alma’s life, her mother reacts with anger: “As for her final two words, she spat them out like two sharp chips of ice: ‘Improve yourself.’”

Ambrose Pike, who becomes Alma’s soulmate (and, briefly, her husband) wanders into this Whittaker world of education and ambition. The couple—Alma a scientist who studies earth-bound mosses, Ambrose an artist who makes exquisite images of ethereal orchids—represent the opposing forces of rationalism and spiritualism.

Elizabeth Gilbert at Book Passage event/Fall 2013

Elizabeth during one of the lighter moments of the conversation/Photo: Laurie McAndish King

An impressive scholar, Alma is unattractive but sturdy, stubborn but brilliant.  She’s “a woman whose life is saved, over and over again, by her work,” Gilbert explains. Alma’s exhaustive botanical studies insulate her from isolation and boredom, depression and jealousy, loss and loneliness. Gilbert certainly understands loving one’s work. “It’s almost a guilty secret: I enjoy my work so much!” she says.

The Signature of All Things is also a cautionary tale, though, because as much as Alma loves her work, she holds back from publishing. One thing I tell young women, Gilbert says, is: Don’t hold back. With respect to writing, that means including all your big ideas, emptying yourself of content. “When you finish a book you should be empty. Nothing should be held back for the next one. There’s not even any starter yeast. There’s nothing left. Then ideas start to trickle back in, like beach sand or cockroaches—you just can’t keep them out of the house.”

Above is the entire conversation at Dominican University for you to enjoy. I’m already eager for Gilbert’s next book. She’s a terrific storyteller, and, no matter what her next topic is, I know she won’t hold back.

Elizabeth Gilbert's new shoes given her by Kelly Corrigan at Dominican University

Elizabeth wearing her spiffy new shoes after the talk
Photo: Laurie McAndish King



TOP 10: Ann Patchett in Conversation with Elizabeth Gilbert at NYPL

Elizabeth Gilbert and Ann Ptchett at NYPL

Ann Patchett in Conversation with Elizabeth Gilbert at NYPL: youtube.com–12/23/13–VIDEO

TOP 10: Elizabeth Gilbert Finds Inspiration Behind the Garden Gate

Elizabeth Gilbert in NY Times/Damon Winter

Elizabeth Gilbert Finds Inspiration Behind the Garden Gate: Claudia Dreifus–nytimes.com–11/5/13–Photo: Damon Winter

TOP 10: The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert at Book Passage talk/10-17-13

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert: Anna Carey–irishtimes.com–10/17/13–Photo: Laurie King