“I was amazed by it, really,” says the locally-based best-selling author and nationally-renowned writing teacher. “It’s odd, because my early books were so controversial. This is more like a mainstream thing.”
Indeed, when Daniell burst onto the Southern writing scene in the early ‘80s with her confessional memoir Fatal Flowers, her brand of graphically sexual yet poignantly introspective writing was comparatively new — shocking, even.
A quarter century later, in a world made immune from shock by reality TV, YouTube, and the continuing travesty that is 24-hour cable news, Daniell’s writing seems — well, certainly not quaint, but very nearly mainstream.
“Oh, I despise reality TV,” laughs Daniell. “Mostly because of the negativity and competitiveness of it. Most of it is purely sensationalistic rather than having a subtext.”
That’s the difference between Daniell’s work and the modern variety — though often dealing with the darkest and most raw of human desires, her writing never revels in the misery of others.
This innately sensitive sense of inclusiveness — combined with a little tough love — has served her well in the 26 years she’s led the seminal Zona Rosa women’s writing groups, which continue to this day and which contributed to her Governor’s Award, which will be awarded to Daniell and ten other honorees in a ceremony May 8 in Atlanta.
Even more than her writing, it’s perhaps Daniell’s work with Zona Rosa — in which she wears various hats, from teacher to cheerleader to psychologist — that sets her apart.
“In 1981 I started Zona Rosa with four women in my apartment on Habersham Street,” she recalls. “At the time I thought it would go on about six months (laughs).”
For Daniell, Zona Rosa began as a continuation of the same search for self that drew her to writing in the first place.
“Looking back, I see that I was largely inspired by my mother — a beautiful Southern woman, and a talented writer herself,” she says. “I can see now that when I was looking at her unconscious after she took an overdose of pills, at that moment I had a sort of unconscious desire not to lead a life of frustration.”
That drive stayed with her after the writing of Fatal Flowers. “My first imperative after writing that was to resolve my own issues about my mother’s death, and my father’s life.”
This was still in a time when Southern women were “not speaking openly about anger and sexuality,” Daniell remembers. She subsequently asked four women she knew from the Cultural Arts Center on Waters Avenue to come to her house once a month to “just talk about life,” Daniell says. “That was 26 years ago — now literally thousands of people have been in Zona Rosa.”
Indeed, over 50 Zona Rosa alumni have become published authors. “A lot of well-known people have come through here — Pat Conroy, of course, and John Berendt read from his book with us before it was published.”
Daniell says she’s learned as much from people in Zona Rosa groups as she’s taught.
“We’ve had all kinds of people in the group with all kinds of life situations. Everyone is welcome — if someone feels they don’t fit in, they usually just leave,” she says.
After an initial wary period, group members tend to warm quickly. “People sometimes feel intimidated by the quality of writing around them, but I always tell them, everybody started somewhere. We have total beginners and we have people working on second or third books.”
As for books, Daniell herself is traveling the country speaking in the wake of her popular Secrets of the Zona Rosa: How Writing (and Sisterhood) Can Change Women’s Lives.
“That book has taken off like wildfire, which is interesting because it didn’t even get that much national press,” she says. “It’s more or less been word of mouth.”
She says the only downside of the growing Zona Rosa presence is the time it takes away from her writing. In some ways, the side project has become essentially the main project, and often the teacher becomes the student.
“When I first started the group, like most young writers I was narcissistic and more concerned with getting my own work out there. I had a certain amount of attitude. I was the published author, they were the students,” Daniell says. “But as things happened in my life and I needed support, they started being there for me.”
The key to Daniell’s ability to shepherd such a diverse group of often high-maintenance creative types for so long is her innate comfort level with all different kinds of people, something about herself she first realized while growing up in the Atlanta area.
“In seventh grade, I had a grammar school teacher who was an incredibly unusual person, which I didn’t realize until years later,” Daniell recalls. “She and her husband had come to the South after he had been questioned in the McCarthy hearings. He was sort of this broken person.
“After school my friends and I would go skating at a local skating rink. One time an older boy who worked at the rink asked me to skate with him, and my teacher took me aside,” she remembers.
“She said, ‘See how that older boy likes you? Don’t get married too young. You’re a very flexible person, you’ll be able to be with all kinds of people.’ It’s amazing looking back on that how right she was. Of course I thought she was old fogie, and I got married anyway when I was 16,” Daniell laughs.
Later on, while dealing with family issues, Daniell says a therapist gave her the same advice.
“The therapist told me I have a special ability, that I’m very flexible and can be with all kinds of people. And of course I’m totally not shockable (laughs).”
Daniell has simple advice for the would-be writer: Don’t worry about schooling, unless it’s the school of hard knocks.
“Publishers these days actually prefer somebody who’s had a life. It’s not an advantage to be a college professor. The best thing for a writer is to have experiences in life and honor those experiences. I mean, I’m a high school dropout,” she laughs.
The annual Zona Rosa “Writing and Living” Summer Retreat happens June 14-21. As for future writing projects, Daniell says she hopes to start a Zona Rosa book imprint soon, opening with an anthology called Women on the Verge.
“It’s happening slowly,” she says. “But just because something is happening slowly doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”
7th Annual Zona Rosa ‘Writing and Living’ Summer RetreatWhen: June 14-21
Where: Tybee Island
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