Early last year, two bloggers — Jessica Smock (who writes the School of Smock blog) and Stephanie Sprenger (who pens Mommy, For Real) — bonded over the memoir She Matters: A Life in Friendships by Susanna Sonnenberg. From there, an idea to start their own blog series on women’s friendships grew. Within a few short months, the blog series became an anthology with some 50 contributors — including Carlin Flora, author of Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are; Shasta Nelson, founder of the online community GirlfriendCircles; and all things Scary Mommy creator Jill Smokler, who wrote the foreword. Together, the many voices collected in this anthology reflect the myriad facets of women’s friendships — from the bonds forged in childhood and across race, through trauma and in the chaos of new motherhood to the sadness and grief when some of those friendships inevitably break apart.
Jessica Smock and Stephanie Sprenger, blogging partners and friends, chatted with us about how their self-published book of essays, The HerStories Project: Women Explore the Joy, Pain and Power of Female Friendship, came to be.
SOP: Jessica and Stephanie, the two of you have never actually met face to face. How do two women who barely know each other, come together to do a blog series and ultimately an anthology about … friendship?
Stephanie Sprenger [laughing]: We’ve been talking with some of our blogging friends over the past few months about this very thing, about how never having met someone is really no longer an indication of connectedness or closeness. Many of the bloggers I’ve met in person, I’d emailed with or messaged with or we were in Google Plus groups together. When I met them, I felt like I already knew them. Our blogging friends connect on a level that not everyone can. It’s like a work friendship. Many of us in the blogging and writing world feel like our “real life” friends don’t always understand the writing/blogging process, and their eyes start to glaze over a little bit when we talk about that. Jessica and I have that bond, and I think for us, it was a jumping off point. In the afterword of our book we include actual emails between Jessica and I, and you can see the progression of our online interaction, from excitement about our project, to, as we started complaining about our kids and our bad days, an actual friendship.
SOP: We loved that that part was at the end of the book, so that we get to watch the evolution of your friendship after the final section, which is about friendships that end. It’s nice that your book ends on an up note. So how did the two of you happen to find each other, given that Jessica, you live in Buffalo; and Stephanie, you live in Denver?
Stephanie Sprenger: Jessica, didn’t you comment on a post I had up on BlogHer about how blogging made me feel awkward? I think through your comment I found your website. And then we left comments on each other’s sites about the books we were reading. And then you showed up in a Facebook group for bloggers and I said, Oh, there’s Jessica!
Jessica Smock: Stephanie had a section on her blog where she was posting what she was reading, and I saw that we were reading a lot of the same books. She started reading this memoir, She Matters: A Life in Friendships. We’d both read the same New York Times book review of it. And we started emailing each other about the book.
SOP: So, what was it about Susanna Sonnenberg’s book that drew you two together?
Jessica Smock: I think, initially, recommending books to each other was just a way of building an online friendship/blogging camaraderie. But I remember that Stephanie told me that she had read the New York Times review of She Matters. I was intrigued by the structure of the book and wanted to check it out, since it was something that Stephanie wanted to read too. Then we emailed a bunch about how unusual the book was, how each friendship story was like an individual short story or even blog post. We liked how the book was so raw and honest. Sonnenberg is an edgy memoirist, and we both were impressed by the complexities of her characters.
Stephanie Sprenger: And we each felt so inspired by the idea of writing one’s friendship memoir. Both of us mentioned that it made us think about who we would write about if we were writing our own friendship memoirs.
Jessica Smock: We’d both been so affected by this book, thinking about all the ways that different friendships at different stages of our lives have impacted our lives. And I think I was the one who said, Why don’t we ask our blogging friends to write about it and start our own series? We started hosting the series on each other’s blogs. Then it took off, so we made a separate website for it, The HerStories Project. We got so many stories, and they were so good, we decided to produce an anthology. We thought it would really be something for women to read them all as a body of work, together, in a book.
SOP: The essays on interracial friendships were very surprising. For instance in “How to Ask Ignorant Questions of a Black Person,” race plays a huge role in writer Jessica Null Vealitzek’s friendship with her friend Melanie — and both women are very aware of it. Race becomes this added lens through which they view each other and their friendship. There could be a whole book about friendships across cultures. What other themes surprised you?
Stephanie Sprenger: Reading the book — and it’s been fun for me to read the book as a reader now that the pressure is off, and I can read it cover-to-cover in a relaxed way — the universal themes just jump out at you. You realize that all women have had those uncomfortable, awkward experiences with friendships that people don’t like to talk about. We’ve all had our hearts broken by friends. We’ve felt rejected or humiliated or been in the position of This person isn’t really working for me. So in addition to thinking how essential friendships are, it’s been interesting for me to focus on those dark friendship histories that everyone has. This isn’t a cheerleading “go women’s friendships!” book. Certainly there are beautiful, inspiring stories. But there are also squirmy, you-stopped-calling-me breakup stories and stories about how depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts contributed to the deterioration of some friendships. Our book shows different parts of friendship.
SOP: It seems that loneliness or being bereft of friends, particularly for new mothers, is another strong theme.
Jessica Smock: While writing my dissertation for my PhD, I moved from Boston to Buffalo. For the first time, I didn’t have the structure of the workplace or university or my doctoral program to help me form connections with people. I’d just had a baby. And I was so lonely. I didn’t have any girlfriends in Buffalo. I felt like no one wanted to make friends with me. I felt there must be something wrong with me that I couldn’t make friends. And the whole process of reading these essays and getting to know these women bloggers and writers was really validating for me. I realized, there’s nothing wrong with me. It is harder to find new friends as you get older. It’s even harder when you move in your thirties because most people are already pretty established with couple friends, work friends, and family friends.
Stephanie Sprenger: It’s clear that friendship — making new friends, staying close with old friends — is not something to take for granted as an adult. We heard about the loneliness and the difficulty in putting yourself out there over and over again in the essays on new motherhood. That’s that’s where I enjoyed having the light shed. Many of the women who wrote essays about friendship and new motherhood experienced a deep sense of isolation after their first child was born and felt tremendous relief when they connected with other women who were in their same boat. It illustrates the point that we need more than just a supportive spouse or partner to help survive the transition to motherhood. We need other women who are experiencing the same thing. It provides comfort and validation that is absolutely essential. The women who recounted friendships during this time did so with a certain sense of reverence. Even if those friends are not in their lives anymore, the gratitude they felt for them was enormous, and came through clearly in their essays.
Jessica Smock: We really learned how critical a time the transition to parenthood is in women’s friendship histories. It’s a period when most circles of friendships shift; some lost and different ones gained. Others — particularly with friends who aren’t parents — change a great deal.
SOP: You two became good friends working on this project but has the book spurred other friendships among the contributors?
Jessica Smock: We knew most of our contributors through other blogging communities. Like Nina Badzin. She’s been my blogging mentor. Through getting to know her, especially through this project, I’ve gotten to know a lot of her online friends and formed connections with them. We also started a private Facebook group for all of the contributors to share their ideas and get support for promoting the book. The most surprising aspects of this project for me is that this supportive online community of women formed so quickly. It’s awesome.
SOP: You chose to publish your book yourself. How did you choose to go that route?
Stephanie Sprenger Smith: We’d talked about all sorts of publishing options, but after the BlogHer conference in July, that’s when we decided to pull the trigger and said Yes, we’re going to self-publish this anthology. By August we were pursuing it heavily. It took us, what? Not even five months.
Jessica Smock: It feels like ages.
Stephanie Sprenger: We’d been talking about it for longer than that. We just weren’t sure which direction to go. We’ve had a couple of different ideas in the works and this was just one of them. This book seemed like a logical jumping off point because we already had some essays in our blog series and people seemed to be interested in this topic. Doing the anthology seemed a really good first publishing move.
The HerStories Project: Women Explore the Joy, Pain and Power of Female Friendship is available at Amazon.
Jessica and Stephanie are working on their next book project — My Other Ex: Women Write about Friendship Burnouts, Betrayals, and Breakups. If you’ve experienced a friendship breakup, please take a moment to fill out their quick, anonymous survey.