Writing With Rosemary, An Article in Southern Living Magazine, February 2002

RosemaryIn the Zona Rosa, women gather to nurture creativity.

Rosemary Daniell plays the perfect hostess. In her long velvet dress and silver bangle bracelets, her auburn hair just brushes her shoulders; her pink-tipped nails appear flawless. She holds court in her Savannah home, sitting center stage in a large wicker chair, the picture of Southern womanhood and charm.

Fifteen women gather in Rosemary's living room, catching up since their last meeting. This monthly assemblage of females could be a tea party or a garden club brunch. There are customary offerings of wine and cheese and stuffed celery.

Then you see the framed poster on the wall titled "Being a Succulent Wild Woman." You hear Rosemary's throaty laugh and see her mischievous smile, and you realize you're not at Tara, not even close. You're at a meeting of the Zona Rosa (meaning the "Pink Zone," or the "Women's Zone" in Spanish). This is author Rosemary Daniell's women's writing group, one she started and has been leading for more than 21 years. And it ain't your grandmother's tea party.

Georgia Born and Read

The Zona Rosa group meets in Rosemary's Savannah homeRosemary Daniell tried hard to fit the Southern woman stereotype. She grew up with her mother, father, and sister in Atlanta. She minded her manners, went to church, was a high school cheerleader, and learned the gentle arts of cooking and sewing in home economics. She was also a voracious reader. "The years I spent contentedly scribbling away in my five-year diary or happily ensconced in one of the big stuffed green chairs in the children's room of Atlanta's Carnegie Library was a dreamily prescient period," Rosemary says.

But as adolescence--combined with an alcoholic father and a depressed mother--rolled in, other dreams took precedence. "Some of my girlfriends had already married, at 14 and 15," recalls Rosemary. "I, too, had begun dreaming of an escape via Octagon Soap and Electroluxes, a kind of nunnery à la Donna Reed. Marriage was obviously the way out."

Rosemary married very early, had a son, and kept aspiring to perfect Southern womanhood. After that marriage failed, she tried it again, this time gaining two daughters, a house in the suburbs, and a yearning she couldn't quell. Rosemary discovered that when she wrote in journals, she didn't feel quite as frustrated. She enrolled in a modern poetry class at Emory University. "When I sat down in that dingy, fluorescent-lit classroom, I didn't know my life was about to change forever," says Rosemary.

For the next 12 years she devoted herself to learning to write poetry. "A new world had opened to me," she remembers. "A world in which everyday events of my life--finding a dead bluebird in the backyard, watching the kids on their swing set, or even folding laundry or baking a lemon meringue pie--took on new and mysterious meanings that revealed themselves in the poems that had begun bursting into my head like bubbles."

At a workshop she met poet and writer James Dickey who told her, "The woman has never truly been known in poetry. She either says too little or too much." Dickey was a writing mentor and more to Rosemary for several years--until she grew into her own distinctive voice.

Rosemary's first published book of poetry, A Sexual Tour of the Deep South, marked the beginning of acceptance--the public's and her own--as a writer. And her teaching career began, including schools in Appalachia, juvenile detention centers, the Georgia state mental hospital, and Wyoming and Georgia state prisons for women.

Some women have been in the group for yearsThe Beginnings of Zona Rosa

After Rosemary's second book, Fatal Flowers, was published in 1981, she taught a creative writing course in her newly adopted hometown of Savannah. Rosemary noticed that many of the same women signed up again and again for the same once-a-week, six-week-long course. She asked if they would like to meet once a month in an intensive workshop setting.

"We began casually, even carelessly," Rosemary remembers. "Just five women, meeting in my tiny Victorian upstairs apartment; I didn't expect it to last long." But soon there were additions, and a core group formed. After they had been meeting for two years, Rosemary found a perfect name for the group while on a trip to Mexico City with her daughter Laura. "I labeled it Zona Rosa, the Pink Zone, after what was once the brothel district, but was now a tourist area full of shops and nightclubs. The name would serve as a reminder that this was the feminine zone," Rosemary explains.

The Woman Who Spilled Words All Over HerselfShe limited the group to women only. "I wanted these women to feel free to be themselves, something I knew was hard for some Southern women in a mixed group, trained as we are to put men and social familiar requirements first," says Rosemary. Pat Conroy, a favorite Y-chromosome author, has been a guest at Zona Rosa meetings in the past, although he's not allowed in until after the women's readings are done.

So this sisterhood of writers persevered and grew. The sharing of ideas was encouraged, writing and creativity were nurtured, judgments were held in check. "I've worked hard to keep negative comments out, to keep the atmosphere positive," Rosemary notes.

The women, ranging in age form 16 to 87, talked and wrote of all that affected them. "We congratulated one another on writing acceptances and consoled one another at rejections. No triumph, no disappointment, no problem was too small for our attention," Rosemary says. Her book The Woman Who Spilled Words All Over Herself: Writing and Living the Zona Rosa Way grew from her teaching and writing experiences.

Today's Zona Rosa

More than 20 years later, the women still gather in Rosemary's Savannah home. A comfortable house she shares with her husband now replaces the cramped apartment where the journey began.

Women, wine, and wordsThe women, of varied ages, mingle amiably as the meeting gets under way. Rosemary sits in her chair and calls roll as her husband, Zane, takes his leave. He smiles and greets the women. Rosemary has presided over Zona Rosa longer than they have been married, and he is accustomed to the women, their voices, and their writing.

The writers, papers in hand, sit on the bright yellow sofa and cover the chairs and floor. Rosemary introduces her sister, Anne Webster, also a writer, who has a book in progress.

Rosemary passes around handouts dealing with such questions as who the idea reader is and whether a book is character, plot, or idea driven. She also asks that the women not throw any of their writing away. "Keep all your drafts," encourages Rosemary. "A book of James Dickey's letters are out now. When you write an e-mail, print it out. They are letters too."

Anne then reads from her book. "I didn't know she had a life too," jokes Rosemary, who says Anne has been working on the book for a year.

Another woman of Zona RosaAsked if Zona Rosa takes to much time from her endeavors, she replies, "For years I had a fear this was taking time from my work. I finally began to accept its importance in my own life and to enjoy it."

But she does adhere to rules to ensure her own writing time. "I don't answer the phone until 3 p.m. The women slide manuscripts through the mail slot or send them by mail, and the group and I don't have any contact during the month," she says. Rosemary's latest book, Confessions of a (Female) Chauvinist, includes an essay on James Dickey.

Shadows grow long as the meeting draws to a close. Muted light filters through the live oaks, casting a decidedly pink hue on Rosemary and the writing women of Zona Rosa.

- From an article by Wanda Butler in Southern Living Magazine, February 2002

Photographs on this page by Meryl Truett.
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