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50-for-50 interview: Patti Digh, human rights advocate

Patti Digh came late to writing and I came late to Patti Digh. We have both agreed to make up for lost time, with Patti writing more and better than I have seen anyone write out of the gate and me devouring every last morsel. Patti’s writing voice is clear and and sly and joyful and pierces like arrows of love and truth through your heart. That her following is massive and loyal is understandable—she doesn’t “invite” people to “join the conversation”; she plops herself down on whatever figurative sitting thing is handy and talks to people—on Facebook, on Twitter, or, if you’re lucky enough to be in the same town at the same time, in person. What she doesn’t talk about is that she has been a lifelong activist for universal human rights, out there working the front lines from day one. Because when you truly are a thing, you have neither the time nor need to: you’re too busy doing it. Or, in Patti’s case, doing the hell out of it.  

When did you decide to become a writer?

I became a writer in 2005. I was 46 years old. I’m not sure I decided to become a writer as much as I decided to (finally) start writing. It is the writing that matters–the verb–and not the noun. Writers write. Do I wish I had started sooner? Yes. That’s why organizations like WriteGirl are so damn important. Vital. Necessary.

I had written before then, for sure. I wrote a story once that my much-beloved undergraduate professor Lee Johnson told me reminded him of Djuna Barnes’ “Nightwood.” I think that meant it was c-r-a-z-y. I wrote a paper on T.S. Eliot in graduate school at the venerable University of Virginia on which my uber-brilliant professor Daniel Albright wrote, “If you had planned to write a Fifth Quartet, then you’ve succeeded.” I think that meant it was a failure as an academic paper, and a success as a p-o-e-m. I had published over 100 articles and had written two books (three if you count my best-selling “Teacher Education in the Arab Gulf States” from my early work career. A REAL PAGE-TURNER, that one.) But I didn’t consider myself a writer until I started writing the essays in 2005 that would become my blog, 37days, and then my book, Life is a Verb.

Then I knew what it is to write for the urgency of writing, not for publication. Then I knew what it is to write in a vulnerable, real voice and not an academic one or a professional one. Then I knew what voice is, what it means, how it saves us, why it is vital. Writing in my real voice, the true one, my honest and full one, saved my life. At a time when it needed saving.

Who was your favorite teacher?

My favorite teacher of all time was Mrs Louise Smith, my fourth grade teacher. Mrs Smith was 65 when I was in the fourth grade, and more alive than any other person I’ve ever met, no matter their age. At the end of the year, she wrote a handwritten letter to each student and gave them out with a pack of candy cigarettes for each of us: “I hope these are the only cigarettes you will ever smoke,” she said. The year was 1968, long before all the anti-smoking campaigns. She challenged each child that year to do better than we ever imagined possible. And so we did. She made us laugh and she held us accountable. That’s important when you’re nine. You need to know someone cares if you show up. That need never leaves us. We need to start showing up for kids in more significant ways.

What do you love to write about?

I like to write about small things. Tiny, wee things. Little engagements and interactions, a glance, a gesture, a small girl carrying her favorite grape around. I like to write about these things because I think they hold the meaning to our lives, these small talismans of humanity. We skip over them, disregard them, ignore them, don’t see them. But if we could, we would know how much meaning they hold. Each moment, precious.

I also write about injustice and hate and isms of all kinds. Because they need writing about. Because people still get killed or excluded because of the color of their skin or because they are gay or because of their gender or religion or disability, and much more. Because not writing about them is to collude, to silently participate, to allow.

What has writing taught you?

To pay attention. I carry 3×5 cards in my back pocket. Always. And a pen. Yes. And I signed on to get your fabulous Colleen Wainwright Field Books as part of your 50for50 project because I have a wee tiny addiction to notebooks. Yes. And admitting it is the first step to recovery.

Writing has also taught me to recognize that I am telling a story every moment of every day. And that I can choose what kind of story to tell. I can tell a story of woe and unhappiness or I can tell a story of joy and exuberance. It has taught me that I may not control my circumstance, but I am always, ALWAYS in choice within that circumstance. Choosing words carefully to convey the exact shade of the light coming in through the window is an act of power, of choice.

It has also taught me that I am my most potent at my most ordinary, and that I need to put down my clever and pick up my ordinary in order to write. And it has taught me that the shortest distance between two people is a story.

All my books are illustrated by my readers. This extraordinary process of opening space for others to create has taught me how powerful it is to open space like that for others. Which is all the more reason your raising money for WriteGirl is vital.

How has writing made you stronger?

Imagine you are living a life in which you feel like you are moving your mouth but someone else’s words are coming out. For good reasons, perhaps: to make a living, to fit in, to be successful, to be “professional.” And then, suddenly, you wake up. You start embodying the words, speaking for the sake of speaking, for telling, for leaving a part of you behind, for telling something that might connect to another human being’s experience. You are speaking in your own voice, just like you did when you were 10 and started writing letters to the editor of the Morganton News-Herald telling the Nestle Company to stop selling infant formula in developing countries and telling the high school to get its priorities straight and stop cutting arts programs for the sake of football. Yeah, that’s how. Speaking in my own voice again. Powerful.

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

Not a thing. There is no living but the living. There is no telling, no preparing, no anticipation of knowing. Living is incremental and the wisdom of perspective I have now only comes through the living. Nothing I say could make sense to a 10-year-old. I would be better served to listen to them for a year, to ask them questions for a year, to sit down with them in a park for a year with a pen and paper and write down what they say. My 10-year-old self possessed a wisdom and an innocence and a beauty I have spent a lifetime trying to reclaim. She was Pippi Longstocking, and I am but a shadow of Pippi. The telling is backward—let her tell me.

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

The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers and The Recognitionsby William Gaddis are tied for Great American Novel in my book. Each brilliant in its own way, both are remarkable works of fiction. Remarkable. Complex and deeply textured and brilliant, I would take both to a desert island. Better yet, to a dessert island.

3x3x365: Three friends, three states, a photo every day in 2011 – How much do I love this project? More than I can say. A simple concept, a year of stories. Started this year with two friends of mine, it is a testament to simple storytelling, to showing up for each other, to the power of images and words in creating relationship and meaning.

The History of Ideas blog (Ptak Science Books)  My husband, John Ptak, is called Mr. Brilliant, and by golly, there’s a good reason for that. He writes like a maniac at this blog, typing heavily with two gigantic fingers like his brain will pop right open if he doesn’t get it all down. I’m particularly enamored of his History of Holes and History of Lines posts. And I wonder every single day how he knows all that.

Mildly Creative blog – I love this post. Things I’d rather be than an expert: I’d rather be a friend, a collaborator, an advocate, an explorer, an artist, a human being. I re-read this every so often.

Art & Fearby David Bayles and Ted Orland is a small, indispensable  book about what keeps us from making art. Yes. Read this.

In addition to writing books like Life is a Verb, Creative is a Verb, and What I Wish for You, Patti Digh teaches individuals and groups about writing, about living (and working) more mindfully and creatively, and about tapping into our “ordinary,” that place where we are our most potent. She can be reached at 37days,on Twitter at @pattidigh, on Google+ at Patti Digh, and on Facebook at Her next book, The Geography of Loss, will be published in 2012. She has a slight obsession with Johnny Depp and lavender cake.

Photo by Jeremy Madea.

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