Q&A: You Don’t Have to Be Everything

By Daisy Florin

Inspired by the memory of her own tumultuous adolescence, poet Diana Whitney set out to create a collection of poetry for teenage girls she hoped would speak to their struggles and desires. The result is You Don’t Have to Be Everything: Poems for Girls Becoming Themselves. Featuring the work of 68 poets including luminaries like Mary Oliver and Maya Angelou, as well as up-and-coming poets like Amanda Gorman and Blythe Baird, Whitney’s collection features the voices she wished she’d heard when she was a teenager and struggling with depression and her sexuality.

When you and I first met, you were at the tail end of the adolescence you describe so beautifully in the introduction to the book. What was it about your adolescence that made you want to create this collection?

I feel like my adolescence continued through my first or second year of college. It was so strange — senior year of high school, you’re a girl, and then you walk onto a college campus and they’re calling you a woman. I didn’t feel like a grown woman at 18. I was still carrying a lot of shame about my body, my depression, my sexuality. I went through this really dark period in seventh grade where I had a secret love relationship with my best friend, and my parents found out and forbade me to see her. It was the 80s and the word “queer” wasn’t in our vocabulary, so all I could do was bury it and become manically boy-crazy. I was still in that reckless phase when I met you, I think. I didn’t come out as bi until I was 20, so all of those years I was hiding from myself. With this anthology, I wanted to offer teen girls a message of self-acceptance and strength, to shine light on emotions like shame and sadness and let girls know they are not alone.

You and I are both Gen X raising Gen Z daughters. I think there’s a lot that’s harder for girls today, but there’s also a lot that’s easier. 

There’s much more acceptance today of difference and self-exploration in ways I find extraordinary. And yet it’s a double-edged sword. I remember hiding in my bedroom with Seventeen Magazine’s “prom issue” when I was 15, feeling a deep longing for a life I thought other girls were living. But that was one magazine. Now, there’s a 24-7 feed of messaging about what you’re supposed to look like and be like.That constant comparison to others was a great source of pain for me, and it’s really magnified for girls in the digital world. But at the same time, there’s this amazingly diverse content online, which can be an avenue of discovery and affirmation.

I really love the title. What did you hope to convey with it?

The original title was “You Do Not Have to Be Good,” which is the first line of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.” When I read that poem to my daughter Carmen, her eyes lit up and she asked, “Does that mean I can be bad?” I think that girls are raised, even now, to be good, to be nice, not to make people uncomfortable, to follow the rules. “You Don’t Have to Be Everything” rose out of that message of permission. 

The book includes the voices of younger poets along with those of older, more established poets. Was it important to you that the collection have that range?

Absolutely. I wanted luminaries like Sharon Olds, Maya Angelou, Lucille Clifton and Mary Oliver, but I also wanted the voices of young emerging poets you can find on Instagram or YouTube. Like Blythe Baird — her poem “When The Fat Girl Gets Skinny” went viral in 2015. Over 4 million people have watched her perform it! Within the literary world, there can be a disparagement of “Instagram poets,” but I wanted teens to see that the voices they were hearing online mattered.

The collection includes poems that explore the darker side of adolescence: sexual violence, body image, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation. Why was it important to you to talk about those issues?

These are the issues that girls and young people are dealing with everyday. Today’s teens have higher levels of anxiety than any generation before them, and by mid-adolescence, teen girls are twice as likely to develop mood disorders as boys. 1 in 4 girls experience sexual violence by the time they’re 18. So this isn’t just me being negative. I wanted to offer readers poetry that acknowledges this reality while also sharing a message of resilience and hope. When I was 13 and depressed, my parents sent me to a therapist and I told no one, not even my best friends. So going back to what’s improved now, I think there’s a more normalized conversation around mental health. I’ve seen this with my own kids and their friends, how people talk about mental health challenges and it isn’t a shameful thing.

But the collection isn’t all gloomy. 

Not at all! I included positive and upbeat poems as well in the section called “Attitude.” Attitude can sometimes be derogatory, especially when it’s a teacher or a parent saying, “Don’t give me attitude.” But attitude can actually be a grounded self-confidence. Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” is in there, and I included it for those of us who were taught not to be boastful, not to admire ourselves. I wanted the poems in that section to inspire girls and show them what was possible.

I imagine girls reciting those poems as they make their way through the halls of high school.

Oh my gosh. For me, this whole book was an antidote to the halls of high school!

How do your daughters feel about the book? 

You know, they haven’t read it! And that’s okay. I created this collection for teen girls and for the teen I was, but I have no expectation that my girls are going to read it now and connect to it. I gave them each a signed copy and said, “This is for you, but there’s no pressure to read it.” But they gave me lots of feedback along the way. They would tell me if they thought something was stupid or “cheesy.” 

Not to make sweeping gender generalizations, but do you think it’s harder for mothers to raise daughters?

I don’t know, because I don’t have sons! I do know that my own mother created a wonderful space for me where I could go to her with pretty much anything and be received with love. But when I first found out I was pregnant, I said to my husband, “I hope it’s a boy, because I just don’t know how to raise a girl!” In that moment, I was thinking specifically of how mean I was to my mom, how much hell I gave her when I was 13 and 14. I don’t think it’s too much of a gender stereotype to say that teen daughters are harder on their mothers than anyone else in their lives. Sometimes I wonder if it’s a sense of competition or that necessary individuation that needs to happen in adolescence.

You wrote to me recently about the irony of publishing this book while your girls were really struggling, especially this past year. Can you talk about how this year has affected you and your family?

Our family has been so fortunate not to have lost loved ones or jobs — yet the isolation, stress and loss affected both of my girls profoundly. In the past year, my kids have gone through major challenges, including depression, anxiety, cyber-bullying, sexual violence, and suicidal ideation. That’s some heavy stuff, magnified by us being essentially isolated within the four walls of our house. So it felt ironic when the book was #1 in the category of “Teen Self-Esteem.” I don’t have it all figured out as a mother. I’m just trying to do the best I can, day by day.

Looking back at my adolescence, poetry definitely saved me, but so did my therapist and athletics and other tools that build confidence and self-awareness. Poetry was vital for me and that’s what I wanted to offer. But as parents, we need many mental health resources for our kids, in addition to a Mary Oliver poem.

What are you reading or watching right now that you recommend?

I’m re-reading Jennifer Finney Boylan’s amazing memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders. I loved it back in 2003 when I didn’t know what being transgender meant, and I love it now for the humor, insights and tenderness of the writing. I confess I’ve been watching GLOW on Netflix, which steeps me in 80s music and nostalgia along with fun storytelling and a cast of strong women characters. 

Diana Whitney writes across genres, with a focus on feminism, motherhood and sexuality. She is the author of the poetry collection Wanting It and works as an editor and yoga teacher in Southern Vermont, where she lives with her family, including two teenage daughters.

Like what you are reading at Motherwell? Please consider supporting us here

Keep up with Motherwell on FacebookTwitterInstagram and via our newsletter.