Clarrisa Pinkola Estes

Her Turn to Howl

The call was simple, but the path was long. "If I'd known in advance, I don't know if I'd have done it," she says. After Clarissa moved to Denver thirty years ago, she and two other women banded together, starting the state's first shelter for battered women in 1970, watching out for other women and one another. And people watched out for them. Clarissa remembers churches that would donate canned goods, grocery-store clerks who would leave out cases of lettuce or barely bruised produce, and "some of the sweethearts would leave perfect little strawberries, blueberries."

All told, it took seventeen years for Clarissa to become a Jungian psychoanalyst.

But even once that was settled, Clarissa was not. She would see her clients, but she would also write and write and write. She wrote a big book--a book of stories, fairy tales, really--and started sending it out to publishers. And they started rejecting it. She was in her nineteenth year of rejections--42 of them at that point--when she decided to enter Westword's fiction contest. The short-short story category. She remembers carving words out to meet the limit--"It's not just getting words out, it's preserving the story"--and then, at the eleventh hour, driving her unreliable Corvair, belching black smoke, its muffler attached with a coat hanger, down the highway to lower downtown, where she couldn't find a parking place, so she double-parked and went inside with the envelope and turned in her story at the very last minute. She won, and a story by Clarissa Pinkola Estes was published for the first time.

But not the last. The next year, after 47 rejections, her book was published. It was Women Who Run With the Wolves, which at last count had spent 145 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Hollywood came calling, trying to buy rights to the surprise hit; actresses said they kept it by their bedsides like a Bible, the female equivalent of Iron John. The book was so popular that it was parodied--in New Yorker cartoons, in Women Who Shop With Poodles spoofs. Its author was asked to join august panels discussing the State of Things, to keynote seminars, to write and write and write. "I was lucky," she says. "Tons of people deserve this. But when the window opens, it opens."

Today, when she leaves the Washington Park restaurant that is just down the street from her home, she will write an article for George, on "some things I have learned in five decades of social justice work," a partner piece for a new book (not hers) called 500 Ways to Change America. She will think about her teaching--in prisons, in a local high school. Later, she may work on her next book, A Dangerous Old Woman, a work in progress for five years (but then, Wolves evolved over twenty). In myths and fairy tales, old women frequently are called on to solve problems, to step out at the last minute, as Clarissa says, and "settle their hash."

And this woman still has some hash to settle. Her "social-justice work" recently has ranged from complaining about Channel 7's use of a phony priest to promote its news to supporting King Soopers and Safeway strikers to fighting welfare changes. She worries about a city, this city, that can build new sports stadiums, "but no longer has art teachers in the schools five days a week, no longer has music teachers in school five days a week." There is the illusion of prosperity, but in many ways, we are still poor.

"The excitement about things like building stadiums completely overshadows that you have to teach art and music and poetry to little souls," she says. "You have to have it. Otherwise, there you will be, out in the salt flats, with nothing but a world of silence.

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