Two Lessons Learned

Years ago, I decided to write a book about women living or working in all-female groups. So I wrote a proposal and found an agent, who sold it to a publisher. Then I spent a year researching and spending time with assorted women's groups, including the ladies’ pro golf tour, students at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, and some doughty temperance activists in Evanston, Illinois. At the end of that year and after months of negotiation, I received permission to attend basic training with the Women’s Army Corps at Fort McClellan, Alabama. 

Full of excitement, I arrived just at the moment that the WAC was disbanded. The training cycle I attended was the first in America’s newly integrated Army and, inevitably, it disconcerted everyone on base: the scared recruits just getting off the bus, the commanding officers who had to figure out the logistics of co-training and cohabitation and, in particular, the male drill sergeants charged with inventing new ways to express themselves! 

It was a thrilling opportunity. After two months with the young men and women of Alpha C company, I came home bursting with stories and opinions, too many for one chapter, too varied for my theme. This made me depressed. Incapable of figuring out what to do, I anguished over the problem for weeks, trying to find a way to knit everything into a cohesive whole. Then a writer friend, listening to my lamentations, said, “Why not throw out your original idea and just write a book about women in the Army?” Tough advice, but brilliant. I turned some of my former reporting into articles that I sold to magazines. First lesson: Never throw anything away.

I created a fresh proposal, and had my agent send it to my original publisher, who loved the idea. Two years later, after I’d done a daunting amount of additional reporting and research, Putnam published Mixed Company: Women in the Modern Army. The reviews were excellent; I did quite a bit of publicity on TV and on the road; the book went into a second printing and then into paperback. I was proud, and very grateful for my friend’s insight. Which brings me to my second lesson: Never be too shy or defensive to take advice from someone you trust.