A $50 donation scores you a ticket to my 50th (live head-shaving!) birthday party on September 13, 2011.

50-for-50 interview: Keren Taylor, visionary

keren taylor

How does someone look into the very same future the rest of us do and see something entirely different? How does someone coping with the same struggles of the present—personal, financial, political—somehow manage to forge ahead and realize her spectacular vision despite the odds against her? I suppose Keren Taylor is as good a person as anyone to ask. In the days and weeks following 9/11, while many people rose up in anger, she had a different response: what if we saw this as a call to create more meaning, to pour ourselves into creating a future full of love and meaning rather than fear and hatred? Over these past challenging ten years, she has slowly and quietly brought her dream to fruition, teaching hundreds of girls the gift of knowing one’s own voice and believing in one’s ability to speak it, helping them to build a foundation of self-confidence, giving them a chance at higher education, and above all, instilling in them the knowledge that they are loved and valuable human beings with the talent and heart to change the world. Yes, we could ask her to explain how she has done what she has done. But I would suggest that instead, we leave her to do the work she was so clearly born to do, and perhaps take up the challenge to find the work that will allow us to be similarly focused and useful. Because Keren Taylor is busy. And because there is so much more to be done.

When did you decide to become a writer?

In high school, I was asked to join an afterschool group that was tasked with reading all the books on the reading list for the 10th grade. There wasn’t a single female author in the list, and very few female characters worth remembering. I was shocked. I think that was when I decided to be a writer. Since then, I think I’ve had many more moments of re-committing to be a writer – when I wrote that poem about moonlight that I really loved, when I was first published in a literary journal, when I performed my original music at Kenny’s Castaways in the Village and people stopped in the doorway to listen, when I had a profile published in a newspaper and picked it up at a newsstand on 42nd Street in New York.

Who was your favorite teacher?

I’ve had so many fantastic teachers, I can’t just pick one. When I was 22, I took a clowning workshop with a professional contemporary clown (no whiteface or jumbo shoes, just a wonky character). She was free and creative and I learned a lot from her about how to let go and explore the world with intense curiosity and honesty. I learned about “carving” poetry from Carol Celluci. She’s a wonderful poetry teacher – intense, demanding, focused, funny and encouraging – all the qualities a great teacher should have! I learned about abandon from an art course with assemblage artist George Herms, and I still study mosaic assemblage with Carol Machado. She has many techniques for smashing plates and even more for how to glue and anchor them into a tableau. Writing, too, is about taking things apart and putting them back together again, in your own way, in your own words.

What do you love to write about?

Really old people, myself, food, the desert, love, loss, rocks, water, palm trees, strangers, dogs, characters in Russian Folk Tales, small foreign towns, advertising and people who live in Glendale. I shortened the list so you could print it on the blog and not run out of space.

What has writing taught you?

It would be easier to list what writing hasn’t taught me. Most of all, writing has showed me how thoughts can be organized and made real, when you write them down. WriteGirl came into being because I wrote a plan down on paper and took it out of my head and into the world. Writing makes you think about the outcomes of your ideas, not just the ideas themselves, since writing seeks a destination, an end point.

How has writing made you stronger?

Writing has helped me through falling in love, handling a divorce, moving across the country, losing a job, finding my passion, losing myself / finding myself (ongoing), understanding my deepest friendships, learning how to be honest and when not to tell the whole truth, accepting the range of thoughts that come up in the stillness in the middle of a Los Angeles night, forgetting vital details, remembering more than I thought I would, figuring out how to talk to my brother, realizing I do not control my relationship with my brother, and gratefulness for all that I have, amongst many other things. Even now, just these moments of writing these responses is teaching me about myself and my path. Today, I read a poem that one of our teen girls wrote for one of the donors of the 50 for 50 campaign. It was fresh, sensitive and surprising and I was moved by how evocative it was, even though she was writing about a 45-year marriage. It reminded me instantly about the power of words, the power of a writer who has poured herself into the page. A single poem can make us stronger – I was reminded of that today.

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?

Write every day. Write on napkins or newspaper or journals or placemats. Write about what you are feeling, what you see, what you think, what you want, what you hate, what you love, what you are missing. Don’t let anyone tell you that writing has to have a goal or a purpose. Just write, and goals and purpose will reveal itself to you.

What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?

Don’t leap to judgment, but I love the book Women Who Run With The Wolves for wisdom and insights into archetypes. Whenever I read a chapter of that book, I have epiphanies and questions about where I’m headed and where I’ve come from. I read the Philanthropy Chronicle, to learn more about nonprofits and trends in charitable giving. I read The Guardian and the BBC online, to get a different perspective on world news. I read the Daily Ohm for a few paragraphs of calm. I read “Flipboard” on my iPad for a wide variety of eclectic articles and news.

Keren Taylor is the Executive Director of WriteGirl, a nonprofit organization that promotes creativity and self-expression to empower girls. With over fifteen years of experience in arts education, public relations, sales, marketing, event planning, freelance writing and editing, she founded WriteGirl in 2001. Carefully overseeing its expansion for 10 years, Keren has grown WriteGirl into a thriving organization that helps hundreds of Los Angeles girls annually. Passionate about inspiring others to cultivate their creative ideas, she has conducted hundreds of creative writing workshops for youth and adults, and led staff development workshops on literacy programming for the California School-age Consortium, California Department of Education, the Los Angeles County Office of Education, and the New York Partnership for After School Education, among others.

Keren is the recipient of numerous accolades, including the Humanitas Philanthropy Prize, President’s Volunteer Call to Service Award, and Soroptimist International’s Woman of Distinction Award.  An accomplished poet, her work has appeared in many literary journals as well as So Luminous the Wildflowers – An Anthology of California Poetry. Keren has performed her original music nationwide with her a capella vocal group, The Trembles, and as a solo artist.  She has designed the covers of all ten WriteGirl anthologies, which have won more than 33 book awards. Keren holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of British Columbia and a Piano Performance degree from the Royal Conservatory of Toronto.


50-for-50 interview: Mary Sheely, half-mad former spinster

mary sheely

When she began blogging way back in the Wild West days of the 2001 Web, Mary Sheely could not have known that a year or so later, a kindred spirit from halfway across the country would find her writing, become by turns intrigued, enchanted, and absorbed by it, and ultimately, be moved to pick up her own pen after a years-long hiatus. She could not have known when she showcased the work of fellow Ohioan Chris Glass that it introduced this random reader to a new and higher standard of quality to adhere to, or that by sharing her stories of finding community in her city that it would stir in this total stranger the desire to reach out and connect with the citizens of her own adoptive city. And neither one of them could have known that a blog born of frustration with an unsatisfactory love life would, in a roundabout but indisputable way, lead Mary to find her soulmate and the stranger to find herself seated at a random luncheon next to another stranger—one who’d created an extraordinary organization called WriteGirl. And so from now on, when anyone questions the value of what she has to say, or the point in saying it aloud, I will simply point to Mary Sheely and say this: because this woman chose to write aloud, we have helped change the future for hundreds of girls, and maybe the world. Now get writing.

When did you decide to become a writer?

I think it kind of chose me. I was writing lengthy illustrated stories when I was a kid. In sixth grade my friend Shari (still a dear friend) and I used to create “newspapers” about things going on with our friends and families: we’d write the stories, illustrate them, include letters to the editor, make up headlines. Then we’d mail them to the other person—and she lived exactly a block away. It wasn’t serious stories, it was things like, let’s say her mom accidentally left the store without paying for a grocery item, so that would turn into a story about her mom’s new life at the Correctional Facility for the Elderly. (That was one she wrote and the headline still cracks me up: “Prison Life Ain’t So Bad!”)

If there is a moment that sent me down the path toward writing as a career, it would actually be in high school. This is an example of the power of teachers, good and bad: back then I loved making art as much as writing (and if I’d stuck with it I’d probably be a pretty good designer, I think), but the art teacher at my high school was just a hateful, petty person. She was hyper critical but not in a helpful way, in a “This was a waste of paper” kind of way. After two years I decided it wasn’t worth the stress to keep taking her classes. Around the same time, I did that irresponsible-high-schooler thing where I had an essay to write and I literally wrote it in 20 minutes in the hallway before class. I got the essay back with a note from the teacher that said, “You are a very good writer.” That’s when I thought I might be onto something.

Who was your favorite teacher?

Nancy Strapp, who taught me English in both 7th and 8th grades. It was in her class where I really started to appreciate a terrifically good piece of writing. She could read aloud an e.e. cummings poem or a suspenseful Alfred Hitchcock story, and her love for the written word was contagious. I think that’s also where I started to become an annoying grammarian. She brought in a former student specifically to teach our class why using a double negative was wrong. The explanation was really great and easy to get, and I was so very frustrated that there were kids in class still not getting it.

I want to note here that I love and adore the internet: even though we live 2300 miles apart, Nancy is now my friend on Facebook! She just retired this year, and it’s so great to be able to let her know how much I still appreciate everything she taught me and to see that her good humor is still shining through.

What do you love to write about?

This is a hard one, because one of the reasons I enjoy working in advertising is that there’s something different every week. I recently worked on a project where I got to write songs in eight different genres, and that was just amazingly fun and gratifying. So it wasn’t really the subject matter (which I can’t tell you anyway, though I can tell you it’s for a campaign that launches in October); it was the new experience that was so much fun.

I once wrote a video about puberty that I was really proud of; I really went out of my way to remember what it was like to be a mortified fourth-grader and try to write in a very non-mortifying way. I used to write ads for a casket company that were gratifying, because the company had such a deep commitment to really taking care of people experiencing loss—I met a lot of funeral directors and was so impressed by the commitment in the whole industry. So, again, it can be nearly anything; all the experiences bring something valuable. Though maybe I channeled my thwarted artistic ability into my love for interior design, which explains why I ended up writing (and editing for a year) for Shelterrific.

What has writing taught you?

To remember to be grateful. I’ve worked in advertising, I’ve worked in PR, I’ve written on-hold messages (there are actually companies devoted to that), I’ve written for news blogs and magazines. There is not a day in my life that I am not grateful that I get paid to do something that I love. If you are a writer and you are getting paid to work as a writer, remind yourself of that. Your suckiest day is better than the best day of someone who always wanted to write for a living, but hasn’t quite found her way into that niche yet.

How has writing made you stronger?

It’s the one thing about me that I really believe I do well. The other good things about me took a lot more convincing. Once I got convinced that I do this one thing well, it was a lot easier to think maybe I was good in other ways, too.

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?

It’s going to turn out so much better than you could imagine, and don’t forget that. Ninety percent of what you will find incredibly painful and important in the moment will mean absolutely nothing to you a few years down the line. Hang on to those cowboy boots you buy freshman year in high school; you will regret giving those away for 30 years. Be nice to your mother; she will always remain your biggest champion. You have more power than you know. And kindness. Use both wisely.

What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?

Stories by Lorrie Moore. When I first picked up “Like Life,” which I highly recommend, I remember thinking things like, “I can’t believe she dared to say it that way!” I love her descriptions. I also clung to her stories of single women in their 30s trying to make interesting, meaningful lives for themselves in the Midwest, as that describes my life for many, many years.

My daily reads tend to be split between gossip (I admit it!) and politics. Dlisted is the gossip blog I read because, although author Michael K can be awfully mean, he doesn’t stray into the thoughtless racism and sexism of nearly every other gossip blog out there, and his writing makes me laugh out loud every single day. My go-to political blog is Digby’s Hullabaloo. Her writing is always so thoughtful and just so good; I’m in awe of her smarts. I love that there was a minor kerfuffle several years past when she spoke at a conference and people were astounded that she was a woman. Most of us just assumed she was a man—sad, yes?

I don’t read a lot of quote-unquote “mommy blogs” (nothing against them, just not my demographic) but recently I stumbled on Enjoying the Small Things and I really love her voice; she is a beautiful writer (and photographer). The story of how she recognized that her newborn daughter had Down Syndrome is an incredible, honest, moving read.

I also regularly read nancynall.com, the blog of a journalist in Detroit. She shares great, funny stories and links to incredibly interesting and noteworthy pieces of good writing that I would otherwise never find. Great writing in journalism is so undervalued these days; it’s wonderful to know that it’s still out there.

Mary Sheely is a writer, reader, decorator, eater who’s been writing for money since 1989. It galls her to write that. Mary got a degree in broadcast journalism, then a job as an airborne traffic reporter (you read that right: she flew twice a day for five months straight and had to get up at 4 a.m. which is not in her nature, nor should it be in anyone’s nature) from which she got fired. This remains the only job from which she ever got fired for cause (that cause being, not knowing North from South) and she’s okay with that. A native of Cincinnati, Mary ran away from home at an advanced age and now works in Seattle at the most fun job she’s ever had: senior copywriter for Ruth: Edelman Integrated Marketing. A reformed spinster (she met Colleen through her “dating and hating” blog, Half Mad Spinster, in the fledgling days of the internet), she and her adorable and talented resin artist husband Dave Sheely make their home in a tiny house with two giant dogs, a whole lot of indie art, and a view of a thumbnail-sized sliver of Puget Sound. She misses her family greatly and lives in terror of a 9.0 on the Richter scale, but honestly cannot imagine ever living anywhere else. (The Pacific Northwest is the bomb, y’all—and yes, still learning North from South.) Mary has been a writer/editor for Shelterrific.com, a contributor to publications like West Seattle Blog (it is an awesome news blog), Peoplepets.com, and CityDog Magazine, but mostly a cranky advertising copywriter who these days feels lucky every single moment she’s alive. She is in awe of Colleen and hopes to mark her own 50th birthday in half as much inspiration and style.


50-for-50 interview: Erin Kissane, standard-bearer

erin kissane

I have a weakness for precision and an obsession with integrity, which means I pretty much live in awe of Erin Kissane. Perhaps she has closetfuls of dreadful, sprawling first drafts somewhere, but all she shows the world are the finely honed essays, tweets, and articles that describe to us, impeccably, how to handle our outward-facing work. Her delightful volume on content strategy, produced for the similarly elegant entity, A Book Apart, relates everything you need to know about creating digital content in 81 deliciously readable pages; it is the first book which, once I’d devoured it in digital form, I felt compelled to order in print as well. But for all of her thoroughness and exactitude, and despite the rather daunting standards she sets to live up to, in the end, you fall for Erin. How can you not? Her mission—to help us care more about the work and the words we choose, because these are the things that connect us to one another—comes from the heart. And pink hair? Sold.

When did you decide to become a writer?

I didn’t ever make a decision about it. Writing is how I think through complicated things, and how I connect ideas. It’s the other half of reading, for me. I read to learn; I write to think.

That’s the easy way for me to answer this question, and it covers the professional work that people associate with my name. But there’s also something else, which is at least as important: writing is a way of taking every experience I’ve ever had, every bit of skill I’ve gained, and all the loosely connected bits of knowledge rattling around in my head, and making something out of it. It still astonishes me that we can do that.

Who was your favorite teacher?

I’ve had so many good ones. My seventh-grade English teacher, who was a delight, began every class by having us write for ten minutes in notebooks that he kept for us. We could write anything, and we could choose whether or not to have him read what we’d written. All he cared was that we sat down and wrote for the full ten minutes.

I think that’s when I really got into the habit of processing thoughts and problems in writing. It’s such a simple thing, but it made a huge difference in the way the class felt and went. For years after that, I filled up so many spiral notebooks writing, and I still do a lot of longhand writing, even though most of what I write is now on the computer.

What do you love to write about?

Everything I’m interested in. I’m a little bit of a crusader for things like clarity and transparency and the ethical use of language, so I do enjoy writing about those things, but writing is so integrated into my life that it’s not really a topical thing, for me so much as an interface between the world and my brain.

When I’m writing fiction, which I tend not to talk about, I tend to write about the experience of being a kid. We all have this extraordinary experience of being ourselves and yet changing in radical ways as we grow (emotionally, physically, neuro-structurally), and I remember quite vividly being afraid, as a kid, that I’d forget what that was like. Writing about the fundamental weirdness of being a kid has helped me keep a strong connection to my earlier selves.

What has writing taught you?

The importance of going slowly—of returning to drafts and letting things settle and clarify, and of thinking ideas through carefully instead of making a good guess and dashing off. I like to go quickly and write while I’m riled up about something, but the introduction of deliberation and care has been really good for my head.

How has writing made you stronger?

Because I write so much, I’ve finally come to understand that I’m really only effective when my head and brain are both fully engaged. My writing really suffers when I’m only half present—when I’m emotionally disengaged or intellectually bored—and that has forced me to deal with this need to integrate my life. That’s not to say that I only work for environmental charities now, or anything, but it does mean that I have to find the spark in every project: something that fuels the belly-fire and lights up my brain. Without that, my work gets drab and I’m a misery to be around.

Also, during some of the darker spells in my life, I’ve found that the total absorption I experience while writing has been the best way of staying sane.

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?

You’ll find your people. And they’ll be the ones who love you for your hyper brain and weird heart, not despite it.

(Oh, and the internet? You’re going to LOVE IT.)

What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?

Favorites are too hard. Well loved things from a few categories is a list I can make, though.

  1. The Waves, by Virginia Woolf (pre-now-novel
  2. Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson (post-now-novel)
  3. Tekkonkinkreet (Black & White), by Taiyo Matsumoto (manga)
  4. Kill Screen (magazine)—if this doesn’t sound like your thing, just try this
  5. Snarkmarket.com (smartyface blogs)

And I’ll cheat and also say Walter Benjamin! Liz Hand! Christopher Alexander! John Clute! Twitter!

Also: thank you, Colleen, for inviting me over! It’s quite an honor to be in this company.

Erin Kissane is a reader, writer, editor, and web content geek. She’s the author of The Elements of Content Strategy (A Book Apart, 2011) and the co-founder of Contents, a new digital magazine about online communication and publishing, the first issue of which will emerge from the editing mines later this fall. She was formerly editor of A List Apart magazine and editorial director at Happy Cog Studios in New York, as well as a freelance writer and editor.

These days, she leads content projects at Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy made of smart people who like cake. At night, she reads, cooks, and writes blog posts, thesis chapters, love letters, and drafts of novels. She lives in Brooklyn with two cats and a very charming boy.


50-for-50 interview: Pam Slim, fearless leader

pamela slim

Many people know and love Pam Slim as the woman who led them from the grim cattle pens of cubicle nation and a few more know and love her for the rousing, informative talks she gives. But if you are fortunate enough to meet Pam Slim one-on-one, you will know and love her for her greatest gift of all: making you feel really and truly seen. Without fanfare, without hoopla, and most definitely without agenda (except perhaps to change the world), Pam Slim takes you in fully, somehow making you feel just by being in her centered, grounded, loving presence, that things will be okay, that this, too, shall pass, that you can go forth and slay your dragons. Of course, she is also full of sane, practical, road-tested advice, which she serves up with such joy and ease, you can’t wait to learn more. But it is the feeling of hope she instills in the people who meet her that makes her truly irreplaceable. And if you are fortunate enough to make it into Pam’s inner circle? Well, let’s just say that the possibility of collecting a Pam Slim Hug been the impetus for my attendance at more than one far-flung conference.

When did you decide to become a writer?

I decided I was a writer after I wrote my book. Before that, I blogged, but I didn’t consider that “real” writing. When I got the first hard copy of my book, and saw my name on the cover, I gulped, then proudly added “author” to my bio.

I grew up reading and talking about great books. My Dad is a photojournalist and my sister is a writer and editor, so we respect writers like some people respect great scientists or political activists.

Who was your favorite teacher?

Mrs. Betty Jordan. I had her for both fourth and fifth grades. She had a really progressive view of education and had us do all kinds of interesting projects. She created a feeling of team spirit in the classroom, and I was very close with all the other students. What really set her apart, though, is that she had a record collection in the classroom that included the Ohio Players. For people of a certain age, I will just say “Fire” and you will know what I mean.

What do you love to write about?

I love to write about the human side of business. I love to teach and help through my writing, with some straightforward advice for things like setting up a marketing plan or delivering great service to your customers. But I like to hit the subtext for many readers, which is “What if, when I follow these ‘Ten steps to creating a killer website!’ people think I am a sorry loser who should have stayed in my day job?”

Those kinds of normal human fears and anxieties are what really interest me. I also love to write about my clients and readers, because they are my true heroes. It brings me tremendous joy to share their courage with others, and to showcase what they are doing to make the world a better place.

What has writing taught you?

Writing has taught me that we can make change through words without any physical human contact.  I am amazed to get emails from people around the globe that say “Thank you so much for helping me quit my job! I feel so free!” I have never heard of them before, do not know one thing about them; what they look like, where they live, what they care about, or what they do for a living. Yet my words help them in a concrete way. I think that is phenomenal, revolutionary and inspiring. I know I have been deeply touched, and changed, by writers who have no idea who I am.

How has writing made you stronger?

Writing is my amplifier, my protector, my truth. Before I started my blog, I wasn’t even sure what I thought. Now, I will open a new blog post and feel my chest swell with emotion and certainty. I pound my keys like my life depends on it, because it does.

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?

Express yourself. Don’t hold your feelings in. Do not try to pretend to be perfect, because it will eat you alive. Trust yourself, and surround yourself with people who love you as you are. And for goodness sakes, stay away from the stoners at school. Drugs will sap your motivation and take away your power.  If only I had listened!

What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?

  1. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
  2. If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit, by Brenda Ueland
  3. One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  4. Resonate, by Nancy Duarte
  5. Seth Godin’s Blog

Pamela Slim is a seasoned coach and writer who helps frustrated employees in corporate jobs break out and start their own business. Her blog, Escape from Cubicle Nation, is one of the top career and marketing blogs on the web. A former corporate manager and entrepreneur herself for more than a decade, she deeply understands the questions and concerns faced by first-time entrepreneurs. Her experience teaching martial arts for 10 years to thousands of students including former gang members has helped her clients deal with fear head-on. A world traveler, Pam speaks four languages and has lived and worked in Europe and South America. Pam’s book Escape from Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur was released in Spring, 2009 and won Best Small Business/Entrepreneur Book of 2009. Pam is frequently quoted as an expert on entrepreneurship in publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Money Magazine and Psychology Today. Pam is married with three kids and lives in Mesa, Arizona.


50-for-50 interview: Sugar, balm that heals

sugar

Some writers spin tales from thin air that seem realer-than-real, others ferret out true stories that seem impossible. For all her thousands of weekly readers know, Sugar, the famously-anonymous advice columnist at The Rumpus, is a writer who does both— perhaps even in the very books we reluctantly put down to read her columns. (And it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if in her spare time, she writes poems that make the angels weep.) While the details of her CV remain hidden along with her true identity, it is beyond obvious that Sugar is a “real” writer in her real life, and a longtime, lauded one, besides. She has the deft moves of the great fiction writers who know how to hide their seams, and the infallible bullshit meter of the finest nonfiction writers. Each week, I pull up the latest snarl that’s been lobbed Sugar’s way, wondering how the hell she’ll find the thread to worry outwards; each week, she astounds me by slicing through the entire mess in a few swift strokes while I was looking in the wrong place altogether. There’s no showiness to her work, though—just gentleness and compassion for the sufferer, and illumination for all. Her gifts are many, but her heart is Sugar’s secret weapon. Well, that and her use of the judiciously placed swear. Write like a motherf*cker, indeed.

When did you decide to become a writer?

Becoming a writer was not so much a decision as it was a process of becoming myself. My earliest reading experiences pierced me to the core. Words were magic to me. I didn’t know I could be a writer in any official capacity. I knew only that I wanted to make that magic happen and writing was the way to do it. So I did. Or I tried too.

I was essentially left to grow like a weed, any which way I could. My writing and love of literature was neither encouraged nor discouraged in my family. If I got to the library that was fine, but no one was going to worry an awful lot about facilitating that. I had a good mother, who loved me well, but we didn’t have much money and no one around me was educated and certainly no one was an artist, so the idea that writing creatively could be my profession never entered my mind. My plan was to go to college and major in journalism because I knew that could lead to an actual job.

I subscribed to Ms. Magazine as a teenager and they published a story about Joyce Carol Oates a few months before I graduated high school. I was so taken by it, so shocked, really, to see that a living woman was writing stories. I know that doesn’t make sense, but it’s true. I tore the article out of the magazine and kept it in a folder of special papers and read it over and over again, but even then it didn’t quite occur to me it was possible to imagine that future for myself.

A few years later, when I was in college, I took my first creative writing class and it was then that I understood I could do this thing. I could be a writer. I was 19. I never looked back.

Who was your favorite teacher?

I’m rich in teachers. So many have given me so much. I couldn’t name a favorite, but I’ll tell you about one who springs to mind. I’ll call him Mr. C. He was a big fat man with a hank of greasy hair and conservative political beliefs who taught high school social studies to eleventh and twelfth graders in the tiny town where I grew up.

One day at school I learned that my younger brother had been busted for marijuana possession and was being interrogated by the police in the principal’s office. I rushed to the office, but was rebuffed by the school secretary, who told me I was forbidden to see my brother until the police were done questioning him. I sat down in a chair in the little reception area and openly sobbed, too afraid for my brother to care who heard me or saw. A few minutes later, I felt a hand on my shoulder and I glanced up from my tears to see Mr. C, who I only knew from a distance, since I was a sophomore and hadn’t yet been his student.

With great effort, he lowered his big body to crouch beside me, resting painfully on one bended knee. “What’s your name?” he asked and as I told him, he took both of my hands into his. “Okay,” he said quietly just to me. “I want you to trust me on this. I don’t know what’s wrong right now, but I know you will be okay. Time heals our sorrows and you’ll be okay.”

It was so intimate, so tender and human, so outside of the roles we were each meant to play in that school at that place and time. I went on to have a more complex and traditional student-teacher relationship with Mr. C, but that introduction, I never forgot it. He is one of the many people who taught me that kindness and love are more important than anything; that sometimes the most powerful act is to get down on your knees.

What do you love to write about?

My mother, sex, orphans, longing, being bound to the land, the secret self and the public face, the search for connection, people who said they were going one way and went another, desire, how we use language and physical gesture to conceal and reveal ourselves, how we justify our lives, grief, gender, class, power, loneliness, the urban-rural divide (aka stupid city people who assume themselves to be superior to country people), animals, transformation, money, trees, rivers, sorrow, women, doubt, faith, beauty, magnificence, light.

What has writing taught you?

How to be fierce. How to forgive. How to see the world spinning from another perspective. How to build a sacred hut. How to find and hold ten thousand versions of the truth. How to fail. How to work incredibly hard on the smallest, most invisible thing.

How to be quiet and scared and brave.

How has writing made you stronger?

There’s a sense of calm I have when I’ve written that I don’t get from anything else. I think that calm is rooted in the universal hunger to have done one’s work, even when it was hard work to do. To me, that’s when I feel the strongest, not when I’ve attained an external goal, but rather when I’ve done the work I knew I had to do. There’s an honesty in that; an ordinariness that feels spiritual to me. Writing is the lifelong practice of keeping faith with the task. I’ve become stronger by virtue of having kept that faith.

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?

You know who you are, so let yourself be her now. It’s okay to be smart and ambitious and curious and not terribly cool. Don’t waste all those years trying to get the boys to want you and the girls to like you. Don’t starve yourself skinny and play the part of the dumb blonde. Don’t be a pretty cheerleader. Don’t lose your virginity to the captain of the football team. Don’t lose anything to him. Be the captain. You are the captain. Take the ball and run.

What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?

Again, I recoil at the impossible-to-answer “favorite” word, so I’ll just list five contemporary writers whose work I’ve read and been intrigued by recently:

  1. Amitava Kumar’s, “A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb.” Part memoir, part reportage, part poetic master class in the fallout of the US war on terror, Kumar tells a tremendous story in human scale. This book is lyrical and smart, written by a writer with a first-rate mind and a gigantic heart.
  1. Maile Chapman’s novel “Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto.” Set in a convalescent hospital in rural Finland, this book is so haunting and precise in its insight and beauty that it seemed as if I was holding my breath on every page.
  1. James Magruder’s novel “Sugarless.” Of course I had to buy it for the title alone—I mean how could Sugar not? But I came to love it for what’s inside. Magruder’s voice is so smart, so sweet, and so damn funny. He’s one of those writers I’d follow anywhere
  1. John Franc’s out-any-minute novel, “Hooked.” I’m more disturbed by this book than in love with it. John Franc is a pseudonym for an anonymous writer who narrates the seemingly true story of a group of unnamed middle-aged married men who live in an unnamed city and collectively rove all over town cheating on their wives at brothels. The writing is intelligent and compelling; the ideas expressed about male sexuality and the female body are appalling in either their accuracy or inaccuracy or both; the values and justifications are alternately bankrupt or bravely dead on; and the premise is uncomfortably, unfortunately worthy of our consideration. Half the time I wanted to slap John Franc across the face. The other half the time I wanted to invite him over for a long, frank conversation, one anonymous writer to another.
  1. Chloe Caldwell’s essays, which I’ve read online, one on the tiny screen of my phone just because it was too good to stop reading. Caldwell’s first book—a collection of her essays—will be out from Future Tense Books next year and I’m terribly excited to read it. She’s young. She’s talented. She’s not even halfway to where she’s going yet, but she’s got it in her to go. Her prose has a reckless beauty that feels to me like magic.

Sugar is the author of the “Dear Sugar” column on TheRumpus.net.


50-for-50 interview: Leah Reich, vein of gold

leah reich

Leah Reich was what many of us thought the Internet was for when we climbed on board, way back when. She was the writing that took your breath away, the hidden gem you dreamed of uncovering under the piles of dull rock and sand, then proudly shared with your friends when you were good and ready. In one person—one regular (albeit clearly brilliant), ordinary person—she contained breadth of experience, trueness of heart, and a magical way with words, all of which she used in concert just because. Because she could. Because she had to. And not because it was her job, or even because she wanted it to be, but because it was possible and necessary. The people I shared her stories with marveled along with me that someone like Leah was there, just for the reading, quietly putting out piece after piece woven from these threads of her life while somehow managing to live it (and clearly, brilliantly) all at once. My Internet wish for you is someday, you stumble upon your own Leah; in the meantime, feel free to share mine.

When did you decide to become a writer? 

I was never one of those kids who wanted to grow up and be a journalist or be discovered as Jane Austen reincarnated. I’ve always been a wordy person. I talk a lot, I sing, and I like to be in front of a crowd, telling stories and jokes. When I was nine I wrote a play, and then directed it. But even though I’ve worked as an advice columnist and written two Master’s theses and a pretty long dissertation, I occasionally feel funny calling myself a writer. A writer always seems like someone who’s done whatever it is I still haven’t done, whether published an article in The New Yorker or written an award-winning novel or… or… That seems worthwhile to admit, because I bet I’m not the only person out there who’s ever felt that way.

As it turns out, you can discover you are a writer without ever setting out to do so. As it also turns out, you should go right ahead and call yourself a writer even if you don’t feel like you fit whatever definition you hold in your head of what a “writer” should be. There is no “right” kind of “writer.”

I think I just kind of became a writer somewhere along the way. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever fumbled my way into (we won’t discuss the others here).

Who was your favorite teacher?

A professor named Joseph Duggan. When I was an undergrad at Berkeley, I took a course with him in medieval French literature. At the time, if you had asked me “what’s the most boring subject you can think of?” medieval French lit would have been somewhere in a top five list. Then came Joe Duggan, Ph.D. He transformed the subject matter, took medieval literature with its oft-impenetrable language and yanked out the stories for us, helping us realize just how wonderful it all was beneath the surface. Then he made the surface fascinating too. He was passionate about medieval literature, and by being so passionate, he made us excited to hear what he had to say. It turned out medieval literature was more interesting than any of us even imagined. He peppered his lectures with forays into completely off-topic subjects, like where handwriting came from or the myths that surround “why Cinderella wears a glass slipper.” Everything was a story to him, and each story was worth sitting through, completely rapt. He was walking, talking, natty-suit-and-tidy-beard wearing proof that you can take any subject in the world, even something your students might find so boring as to die, and show how wonderful and fascinating it really is. You just have to tell the right story in the right way.

What do you love to write about?

The best stuff are the people in my life and the things about which I have a bubbling-over excitement, whether positive or negative. There’s usually a pretty good overlap there.

I do love to write about things that other people can connect with somehow, that resonate. Being an advice columnist was something I took very seriously, especially since I was giving advice to teenage guys who played videogames. They didn’t have many, if any, female friends and they wanted someone to listen to them, to answer them for real. I wrote about my experiences with my mom’s illness this past year, when I was taking care of her. It was terrifying. Writing helped me sort through my feelings and reach out when I was alone, but it also showed me how many people were going through or had been through similar experiences and had been unable to express themselves. My writing meant a lot to them, because I was able to put into words their own experiences and what they felt. That meant more to me than I have ever been able to express.

Above all, I like to write about things that make people feel, whether a powerful sadness or a good happiness. Nothing is better than making someone laugh or wowing them with something I’ve written, especially a particular a group of friends who are a very good and quick writers.

The whole world offers great material, if you keep your ears open, as my friends have unfortunately learned. “Is this going on the internet or in a story?” they’ll ask sadly after saying something ridiculous.

What has writing taught you?

How much I have to learn – about writing but also about myself and the world – and how there is always room for improvement. Writing has also taught me the power connection, of reaching out and finding there are people who will respond in very unexpected ways. It’s also taught me that you can’t control the way your words will be received, so write them with the best of intentions and then let the world have them. Possibly the biggest thing writing has taught me about myself is that I have way more strength, courage, and determination than I ever imagined.

How has writing made you stronger?

This is the perfect question for me to answer right now. During this past year, writing was sometimes the only thing I had available to me (I love photography but it’s hard to take a photo in the dark, and sometimes your feelings need words). Writing was something I knew I was good at, even when other parts of the dissertation were frustrating me. Writing was my toehold in the craziness. When it was late at night and I felt alone, sometimes the only thing that made sense was to put some words down and send them out into the world, which made me stronger for the day ahead. Or when I was dealing with a lot of revisions and not a lot of time, I knew I had one thing on my side, which was my ability to write well. Finishing my dissertation gave me a huge sense of accomplishment, and few things in life make me feel stronger than knowing that I set my mind to it, worked hard, and got it done.

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?

Oh man. When I was 9, a mean girl moved to town and turned all the other girls against me. I grew up in a pretty small town, so I didn’t have many options. When I was 10, I was in junior high and it was rough. You know what I’d tell her? “As much as this will continue to pain you for years to come, your mom is right. They’re all mean to you because they’re jealous. And you know why they’re jealous? Because you, kid, are going to grow up to be awesome. Know how I know? Because you’re awesome right now.”

What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?

1. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 plus the sequel The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (but not the rest of the books) by Sue Townsend – I can read this over and over and over and laugh every single time. It’s always on my favorites shelf. Yes, I have a special “favorites” shelf.

2. Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir by Joyce Johnson – When’s the last time you read anything about the Beat Generation by a woman? A beautiful memoir, includes stories of her relationship with Kerouac and her experiences in the East Village in the ’50s.

3. I read Slate.com daily.

4. Short stories by H.H. Munro, aka Saki. Especially “Sredni Vashtar.”

5. My friend Michele Humes’ blog, because she is an amazing writer. She is also incredibly smart, sardonic, knows a lot about way too many things, writes brilliantly about food, loves the same ballerina I do (Ulyana Lopatkina), and is fearless in ways I aspire to be on a daily basis. Plus she had a croquembouche as her wedding cake and when I saw photos I wanted to run away with it.

And 6. because I am awful and can always sneak one more than I’m allowed: My boyfriend writes the funniest, most interesting emails I’ve ever gotten in my life. He inspires me to be a better writer, every day.

Leah Reich, Ph.D. is a qualitative researcher, sociologist, writer, and photographer who recently completed her dissertation (like, last week) and lives in California with a surprisingly enormous cat. 


50-for-50 interview: Heather Armstrong, ur-blogger

heather armstrong

Good writers make things readable; great writers dazzle you as they do so. But for my money, the outstanding writer is the one so skilled she makes the words disappear, leaving you to live inside the feeling. Heather Armstrong belongs firmly in that third camp. Certainly, you admire her prose; you can hardly help it (unless she’s making you laugh—something she does frequently, and well—in which case you must wait to catch your breath and regain your bearings to do the admiring.) But quickly, deftly, she pulls you in until the screen disappears and it’s just you and her and her slightly strange, completely normal life as a mom, a wife, a survivor, a woman. For a moment, you forget your own world as you experience hers. Until at some point you come back to yourself with the incredible, indelible feeling that you are not alone—that maybe it’s life that’s crazy, and maybe we’re all here to help each other get through, over, and down with it. Which is why Heather Armstrong is my favorite friend-I-haven’t-met-yet. And why I suspect I’m not alone in that feeling, either.

When did you decide to become a writer?

I dabbled a bit in college, and even using the word “dabble” is giving me too much credit. Stuff like underground student newspapers and music reviews for a local magazine. And then I went to London for the first semester of my senior year, and I’d write my roommates back home five-six page letters about what I was seeing and feeling, and I wanted them to laugh. When I got back they had kept all the letters and gave them to me in a really nice binder, like, do something with this.

Four years later when I started my website I had that same feeling. I wanted my friends around the country to read the stories about my life, see their own experiences in the stories, and laugh. And it’s history from there.

Who was your favorite teacher?

Mary Krause. My seventh-grade English teacher who was the first person to ever notice that I liked to write. She encouraged me. She mentored me. I dedicated my book to her, and it came out the month that she retired from teaching. I didn’t know this when I named my second daughter Marlo that Mrs. Krause’s first child is named Marlo. Awesome coincidence.

What do you love to write about?

I like to write about the things that go on in a hectic life that cause me a lot of stress and hair-pulling while it’s happening. But then at night when I climb into bed with my husband and we think about the chaos, when we think about those hectic moments, we laugh. I like to turn that chaos on its side and examine it in a humorous way so that getting on with life is easier.

In the last couple of years people have criticized me because of my success, they say that my lifestyle is now one they cannot relate to. And this doesn’t make sense to me because if anything, my success has only made the chaos that much more intense. Things go wrong much more spectacularly now. Things break on a much larger scale. And I’m still writing about dealing with it in a way that makes it so that people can laugh at me.

What has writing taught you?

There is always something new to learn.

How has writing made you stronger?

It’s the one thing I have practiced more than anything else. Hours and months and years I’ve dedicated to sitting at the keyboard to craft a sentence, a paragraph, a story. It’s taught me endurance.

It’s also taught me that those who read my words are approaching it with their own perspective, and while their perspective is valid, it usually has nothing to do with me. It’s hard, but I’ve learned not to take people’s reactions personally.

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?

The divorce is not your fault.

What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?

DesignSponge I used to subscribe to six or seven shelter magazines and in the last few years almost all of them have closed shop. Grace Bonney now gives me my fix, daily. She runs one of the tightest ships in the online design community. You can always trust her taste.

Black Hockey Jesus Some of the best writing on the Internet, although, you never know where the truth has been blurred with fascinating fiction.

Maisie Dobbs, an eight-book series about a female detective in post WWI London. I eat that shit up.

Kottke He inspired me to start my blog by showing me that I could publish my own stuff. His blog has remained one of the most consistently interesting places online.

Pitchfork I’m on a constant hunt for good music. I crave it.

Named by Forbes Magazine as the Top 25 Web Celebrities and Top 30 Most Influential Women in media, Heather Armstrong has a Twitter following of 1.56 million people. Regularly featured in the national and international media including December ‘10 issue of Better Homes and Gardens, Glamour Magazine, NY Times, The Today Show, CNN, GMA, Nightline, and Oprah. Heather also authored a NY Times Best Selling book and received Weblog of the Year and Lifetime Achievement Award at SXSW. 


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