Gail Sheehy: Daring

Toward the end of her newest book, Daring: My Passages, Gail Sheehy recounts a conversation she had with a dear friend who was encouraging her to write a memoir. Her thoughts at the time were:

“How could I craft a story with so many disparate experiences into one coherent narrative – the fearing and daring, the writing and mothering, the succeeding and failing, the loving and caregiving and dying and starting over? They were all pieces of my puzzle, and they could not be separated, because that is how women live, always struggling to find the right balance to create harmony.”

Well, Daring is that memoir, and in it Sheehy has succeeded beautifully in piecing the experiences of her life into one coherent and inspiring narrative.

Sheehy book cover

Most of us know Gail Sheehy as the author of the best-selling Passages, her fifth book, published in 1976. (She later went on to publish a dozen more bestsellers, including a biography of Hillary Clinton, titled Hillary’s Choice.) Passages, though, broke records: It remained on the New York Times bestseller list for three straight years; it was published in 28 languages; and it was named “one of the ten most influential books of our time” by the U.S. Library of Congress.

I don’t know anyone my age who didn’t read Passages when it came out. This same cohort (let’s call us “us”) will be similarly enriched and embraced by Daring. It is the book for our age.

I was fortunate to see and hear Gail Sheehy in person when she spoke at the recently held Writers’ Conference and Literary Festival here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Her keynote speech, “Daring: The Key to Success” was held in the grand ballroom of the Hotel Real de Minas, and every seat was filled. Now 78, diminutive (she barely reached the microphone), self-effacing, yet elegant, Sheehy threaded her personal stories through historic events over the last 50 years.

Gail Sheehy speaking at the recent San Miguel Writers' Conference
Gail Sheehy speaking at the recent San Miguel Writers’ Conference

In her poignant, funny, and uplifting talk she dramatized the many dares she has taken in her life — from crossing gender barriers as a “girl journalist” in her early 20s to writing in her 30s the culture-changing book, Passages, to dodging bullets on Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, to her own stirring romance and years of creative caregiving for New York magazine creator Clay Felker.

I tried to take notes in the ballroom’s darkness. All that I can make out from those illegible scribbles now are these words: “We have two choices in life. We can either play it safe or take a risk.”

So I ran to the conference’s bookstore after Sheehy’s talk, bought a copy of her Daring, and have been savoring it ever since. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 41 in which her beloved husband, Clay Felker, is slowly dying of cancer:

“…I step across the threshold into his world. He is a pale giant under a white sheet, his still face dissolved in the white vastness of a hospital bed. This is the mentor who sculpted my career, the lover who haunted me for decades, the husband who shared my life for twenty-four years, a man who never had time to sleep. I bend over him and find the place where the surgeon’s knife cut out the invader. … I kiss that place in his neck. Don’t leave yet. Stay another summer. Another lifetime.”

It’s a good thing Gail Sheehy’s dear friend encouraged her to write her memoir. Like all heartfelt, honest, well crafted true stories that resonate with and uplift readers, Daring is a gift. At the end of it, Sheehy sums up her philosophy:

“As I now reflect on what daring means in my life, I realize it is how I survive. When I feel fear, what I do is dare. Fear immobilizes. Daring is action. It changes the conditions. It startles people into different reactions. It’s a crap shoot, but it can be the catalyst to empowering oneself.”


12 thoughts on “Gail Sheehy: Daring”

  1. Beautiful review, thanks.
    Passages was really influential. Practically gave birth to a genre.

    I am reading your book about Mali while house sitting for Ed & Melissa Bell.
    They are old friends, I used to live here in the 80’s.
    Not to brag, but I am extremely gifted at opening and closing the greenhouse, feeding the cats and providing the Casita guests with a key. However, the wood stove knack seems to have timed out. My hands are getting charred.

    Your book is good, surprising and unfamiliar and brave.
    I live in Hastings, NY and worked at City College as a librarian. There are many West Africans in Harlem now as I am sure you know.

    I am presently laid off from a different college where I went to have more time to write and teach writing. Moving to this other college proved a foolish decision.

    So, I am in Taos with many memories floating by and licking some wounds.

  2. Beautiful blog tonight, Bonnie. Thanks for the heads up. Loved Gail Sheehy’s Passages, as well as Pathfinders and New Passages. All three books are on my shelf. Just thinking they would be good re reads. I’ll be ordering this book tonight from Amazon. Sending love your way, Arti❤️

  3. SO good, dear Bonnie. I’ll be looking for this book, as well as that path-breaking earlier one … which for some reason I never read in the 70s.
    Large hugs from Guanajuato!

    1. Thank you, Ana. The next time you’re in SMA, you’ll probably be able to find the books at the Biblioteca bookstore. Oh! And you must visit me here now too! — Hugs back to you, BB

  4. I think that is why we connected when I met you briefly last year at the Writer’s Conference. I knew you were a woman who dared as I have all my life. Fear is a GREAT motivator….Now i do try to live a life without fear and am motivated more by peace and tranquility…….

  5. Thank you B for this one. I think I need to read it too. Passages was such an influence on so many women. I want to hear the voice of a 78 year old vital woman. A role model to be sure. Xo

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