As I started my to-do list for April 2, my husband, at his laptop, commented, “Look how pretty the Google doodle is today.” Both writers, we often find ourselves working from home in the same room. I glanced over at the swirl of vines, decked with moths and a lizard, and recognized it as an homage to Maria Sibylla Merian, a rather obscure 17th-century artist and naturalist, about whom I had written a biography. The doodle celebrated her 366th birthday and now, thanks to Google, everyone would know who she was.
Ordinarily I would be stymied, wanting to dash something off, not quite knowing how to frame it. My computer is a junkyard of opinion pieces that never got off the ground.
But this time I knew exactly what I wanted to say. A few weeks before, urged by a friend, I attended The OpEd Project all-day seminar in New York. Through the discussions and practice exercises, I could see how much of my reluctance to finish those earlier essays had to do with roadblocks of my own making: the unwillingness to simplify an argument to fit into 700 words, the reluctance to take a strong position for fear of being criticized.
Inspired by teachers Katherine Lanpher and Jennifer Block and the enthusiasm of the seminar participants, I got out of my own way, and wrote a piece for Women’s History Month suggesting that current debates about motherhood/work conflict would gain from looking at how women in history, including Merian, had handled it. Of course, after much tinkering, then a whole-scale revision prompted by my mentor-editor, I was only able to send it out once and receive one rejection before March and Women’s History Month were over. It joined the folder of my other failed attempts.
But suddenly, it was incredibly timely. So timely, it had to be published that day. Recasting it to mention the doodle, I sent it off to Salon.com, which was West Coast and online. If all worked out, the story would arrive in the editor’s in-box at 6 a.m. An hour and a half later, I had a response from the editor-in-chief saying he would take it, and less than an hour after that, it was up. I turned the screen to show my husband the Salon site: “Google honors a feminist original.”
He looked surprised. “Is that the piece you were just working on?”
The seminar leaders insisted they were not giving us a template, but their concrete suggestions for what makes an op/ed effective and publishable helped at least one essay escape the junkyard and find its purpose.
New York public seminar participants cheering after a full-day of thought-provoking dialogue.
Kim Todd is the author of Chrysalis, Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis; Sparrow; and Tinkering with Eden, a Natural History of Exotics in America. She is an assistant professor at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College.