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

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, 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, a contributor to publications like West Seattle Blog (it is an awesome news blog),, 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.

Raising $50,000 in 50 days for an amazing group of girls