Baby Boomer Woman: Roberta Allen

by Anne Holmes on November 2, 2010

Welcome to NABBW member, Roberta Allen. Roberta is a self-taught artist and writer, who was born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but left home at twenty to live and work in Europe. Since then, she’s traveled the world and written many stories about her experiences. Her stories have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. Some have been translated into German and Japanese.

She has had residence fellowships at Yaddo and was a Tennessee Williams Fellow in Fiction. Thousands have been helped by her writing guide, Fast Fiction, and by her latest workbooks, The Playful Way To Serious Writing, and The Playful Way To Knowing Yourself. The latter two, enhanced with Roberta’s photographs and drawings, are published by Houghton Mifflin.

Beyond that, she is known for her story collections, The Traveling Woman, The Daughter and Certain People.

Roberta reports that she is finishing a story collection called Every Man’s Nightmare and has recently completed a memoir called Dirty Girl. We caught up with her recently in New York, where she currently lives and holds private writing workshops.

Using one paragraph, tell us a bit about yourself.

Roberta AllenI am the author of eight books, a creative writing teacher with private workshops, and a visual artist who exhibited worldwide, with work in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I turned to writing later.

  • My first book of short short stories, praised and excerpted by The New York Times Book Review, was published when I was 40.
  • I’ve published 5 literary books and 3 writing guides.
  • I taught creative writing at The New School from 1992-2011.
  • I’ve had private workshops since 1991 which I’m expanding. I’ve also taught in the Writing Program at Columbia University.
  • At 20, I began traveling alone, first to Europe where I lived, later to Mexico where I also lived, then to many third world countries.
  • My travels inspired many stories and a book about my trip alone in the Amazon.

Tell us about your family; married, divorced, children, grands, boomerangs or parents living with you, etc.

I’m an only child from an extremely dysfunctional family. I’ve recently completed a memoir about it called Dirty Girl. My father, a gambler, hounded by Mafia goons, has been dead for many years. My grandmother and my mother, who is 98, and dying in a nursing home, kept me helpless and dependent when I was a child. My father was my only ally but he abandoned me when I was 17. I am divorced.

What is your favorite childhood memory that is reminiscent of growing up in the 50s, 60s or 70s?

The excitement and freedom I felt on rides with my father at Coney Island.

What qualities do you have that speak of our generation of women?

I’m an independent self-starter, a risk-taker.

What inspires you?

My personal experience, especially my trips alone which inspired many of the stories in my collections. Also the absurdity and paradoxes I’ve seen in this world.

What brings you the most pleasure in midlife?

My work–writing books, teaching, making art. Seeing friends. Laughing.

Do you have a favorite book or movie? If so, tell us why it’s your favorite.

I have many favorite books. Among them:

  • Marguerite Duras’ books – The Lover, The  North China Lover, War
  • Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H.
  • Miranda July’s story collection,  No One Belongs Here More Than You
  • Jamaica Kincaid’s memoir, My Brother
  • Helen Garner’s novel, The Spare Room

I also have also many favorite movies:

  • Woody Allen’s Crimes And Misdemeanors (because it tackles ethics), Vicki Christina Barcelona, and the new one, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger.
  • Thelma And Louise
  • The Grifters
  • The Last Seduction
  • The Hurt Locker
  • The recent documentary about Joan Rivers, and others

Do you travel and if so, who are your favorite travel partners and where do you like to go?

I’ve traveled to many countries, including Peru, Indonesia, Turkey, all over Central America, Mali, where I wrote a feature for The New York Times Magazine. Recently, I’ve stayed closer to home.

Do you practice preventive medicine? Please elaborate.

I’ve been a vegetarian and exercised regularly for my entire adult life. I race walk 5 days a week. I also do weights.

What do you stress about?

Money. But I’ve never let lack of it stop me from doing what I want.

Is it important for you to retain your youthful looks, and if so, to what degree are you willing to go?

I want to look good for my age. I don’t believe in plastic surgery for myself.

Have you re-invented yourself, and if so, how?

That’s the story of my life. While I was making art, for example, I was also the free lance Art Director for the biggest French food firm in the U.S.

When I starting writing, I also started a jewelry business, hand-painting earrings and pins with realistic fruits and vegetables which I began with one of the Pressman’s who owned Barney’s New York. I sold them across the country to high-end and museum stores until I started teaching.Certain People

Are you doing anything to GO Green?

Since my trip alone to the Amazon, I’ve been involved with the environment. I’ve written about the howler monkey preserve in Belize for Wildlife International. That was the first conservation project in the world where the local people became custodians of the monkeys instead of being kicked off their land.

Can you pinpoint major turning points in your life that led to your life’s work/play at midlife?

Years ago, a friend thought I’d make a good teacher and spoke to the head of Parson’s School of Design where I taught my first creative writing class to art students. It was a great success and a great surprise to me, especially since I’m self-taught, both as an artist and a writer. But I created a writing method that thousands of people still use.

Do you still have unfulfilled dreams, and are you doing anything to accomplish them?

I am expanding my writing workshops and one-to-one workshops with women around the country and want to start a tele-workshop. I am always amazed at the talent I find among women who want to write but have been afraid. The latest information about my workshops is always posted on my website.

How do you make a difference in the lives of others, your community, your world?

The Playful Way to Knowing YourselfMany women are afraid to do what they really want. I show them, especially through writing, how to freely express themselves and be creative. This makes a difference in their lives.

My Energy Method has been used with success, not only with professional women in other fields, but with former students who have gone on to teach the homeless, the mentally ill, the sick. There is a satisfaction in free creative expression that is unlike any other.

Who has had the biggest influence on your life and why?

My family. I was drawing from the time I could hold a pencil. My creativity saved me.

If you were to have a personal mission statement, what would it be? Feel free to be as serious or fun as you choose.

My mission is to help people express themselves creatively, especially through writing.

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