By Cara Meiselman
WORK AND LIFE
It’s been almost a year since the book has come out. What’s been your favorite or most surprising response to the book so far?
The most surprising response was from a woman who read my book while IN LABOR. My favorite response has been from young people who write to say they felt seen and that they’re trying to look up more, and also the readers who describe the book as a love letter to the Obama administration.
Although the book was about your time as a stenographer in the White House, it was clear while reading that you were always a writer first and a stenographer second. Where did you passion for writing come from?
Writing is the way I synthesize information and self-soothe. I don’t even know if it’s really a passion so much as a necessary exercise that helps me move through the world with more intention and less Tasmanian-Devil gusto. When I don’t write for an extended period of time, I get cranky with ingrown thoughts – it’s been this way since middle school.
In many ways your writing became your calling card at the White House – for example, gifting short stories about other staffers to them as going away presents or writing to work out complicated feelings. Of all these pieces were there any that stand out in your mind today (that either made it into the book or not!)?
Oh man, so much didn’t make it into the book! I wish I could have included the entire David Plouffe piece because I’m proud of that writing. I wrote my friend Hope a little ode for her birthday called Beet Mountain Pie. Another time I wrote my friend Shilpa a story about us growing old together in matching pink sneakers on adjacent front porches. I guess the ones that stand out now are the ones that elicited real emotion.
When asked about how you were able to live in the moment while observing the moment in a previous interview you were quoted saying, “I ingest the world around me through narrating it for myself.” What advice would you have for aspiring writers feeling challenged to do both?
I love bathroom stalls and the “Notes” section on my phone for this reason. When I’m in the middle of an adventure, I write a few lines during any free second I can find so I can remember a bit of the magic after the moment ends. Freshest content makes invaluable content. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be raw detail you can contextualize later. In order to write, you need to live life and gather material, but you also need to actually write.
In an Opinion piece for the New York Times, you discuss the importance of stenographers at the White House and the challenges that arise when they’re not being utilized. How do you think we can still preserve the truth?
Citizens and journalists alike can utilize the First Amendment to hold those in power accountable. I also happen to believe that the truth tends to wriggle free – it’s only a matter of time and investigative reporting.
Now for the hard hitting questions… the fans need to know – what ever happened to the Santa Claus lawn ornament?!
That is so kind of you to ask! He’s right here in my apartment with me – I got him a three-foot-tall penguin friend so now I have a mini South Pole situation happening in the corner of my living room. And yes, his bulb still burns brightly.
How has this experience changed your views on politics?
Over the course of my time at the White House, my commitment to understanding the nuances of politics increased dramatically. Before being forced to listen to press briefings and policy interviews, I was content voting for the big national politicians who seemed to represent my values. After spending five years following around President Obama, however, I now understand the importance of politics on a local level and try to keep a close eye on what representatives and candidates do rather than on how they package themselves.
How has it changed your views on writing?
Before getting published, I didn’t consider myself a real writer because I wasn’t published. Now, looking back, I was so much more of a real writer back then because I was the only one holding myself accountable. I used to write at my kitchen table before heading to work – sometimes for 15 minutes, sometimes for two hours – and no one ever asked how my writing was going. It was the loneliest part of being a writer, but also the truest. Now I have a literary agent and an editor and an entire publishing house keeping tabs on me. It’s basically being in an independent study with a team of great professors – I feel buoyed by their support. You’re a writer if you write, and you’re even more of a writer if the only person compelling you to write is yourself.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on a second book, which will be a novel set far away from both DC and my personal life. It’s been liberating, daunting, and fun. Additionally, I am a mediocre but devoted ceramics student. My friend Kerry and I started a joke clay company called Not Great Pots in which we pay you to buy our ceramic wares. Most afternoons, I’m trying to make my not-great pots a little more great. I’m also trying to convince myself that I’m responsible enough to get a dog because I want one so badly.
At Girls’ Night In, we’re all about self-care. What does self-care mean to you?
Self-care, to me, means self-advocacy. In the last few years, I’ve made strides in asking for things big and small that I wouldn’t have before. I’ll ask for clarification if I don’t understand something on a work call and I’ll ask the hostess if I can have the cozy back corner table instead of this awkward one in the middle of the room. I try to get more sleep, hydrate, stretch, create, and exercise daily. None of these things are difficult, but when someone or something pops up with lots of urgency and exclamation points, it’s easy to skip or neglect the simple things that quietly demonstrate self-worth.
How do you incorporate self-care routines while writing or working?
Self-care routines feed into writing, which I’m lucky enough to call my work at present. In the morning, I like to wake early, go for a run or to yoga, and then jump into writing while I still have endorphins coursing through my veins. In the afternoons, I try to make something out of clay or go to the woods with James and Billy (my parents’ and neighbor’s dogs) – just to do something constructive that isn’t writing, which doesn’t always go my way. Nights can be the hardest because I love taking an Epsom-salt bath at 8 and then reading in bed, and then lights out by 10. That’s right, your grandmother and I fantasize about the same evening. And yes, I get made fun of a lot for my geriatric proclivities, but the less I succumb to peer pressure about staying at the bar for “one more”, the happier I am.
What tips do you have for adapting your self-care routines when you’re on the road or traveling a lot?
You always have your morning. Regardless of how hectic the travel schedule, you can always set your alarm a little earlier to guarantee some time to accomplish something before other people begin making demands. This saves me. If a day on the road is draining and/or disappointing, I can think to myself, “Well, at least I got a run in before this dumpster fire ignited itself.”
What woman or women are currently inspiring you right now?
On a regular basis, it’s my mom, my sister, my friends – you know, the boots on the ground. What’s so cool about growing up is that we build up and refine our arsenal of female powerhouses, bedrock Bettys. Remember that old Apple slogan, “There’s an app for that?” At this point, when I’m facing a challenge, I take a deep breath and remind myself, there’s a friend for that. I flip through my mental Rolodex and consider how my trusted advisors would handle the situation.
Out in the world, I am definitely on the AOC train – I watched her cook dinner the other night on an Instagram live video and her eloquence, knowledge and humility is beyond refreshing – she used boiling water for rice to discuss infrastructure (or the lack thereof) in an accessible and inclusive way. It felt like the Millennial version of a fireside chat.
On TV, I love the women behind Hulu’s Shrill, including but not limited to Lindy West, Samantha Irby and Aidy Bryant. They’ve done something so special, overdue and game-changing, from addressing the stigma around fatness (Lindy West’s preferred word) to celebrating size through Aidy’s bangin’ wardrobe.
I recently wrote a piece for Denver’s Westword about going to a Maggie Rogers concert by myself because I love her songs and admire her thoughtful approach to both the creative and production side of making music. Lizzo is not only who I listen to when I want to feel 100% more alive and more empowered, but she is also who I’ll search on YouTube when I need a punch of joy. She lifts us up and cracks us up – she’s an international national treasure.
Sally Rooney makes me feel sheepish in the best ways possible – I read both of her books this past Fall and pieces of her dialogue still find me as I walk home at night.
The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling and I cannot recommend it enough, especially if you or anyone you’ve ever known is a mother. Also, Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, which are very short essays that celebrate – you guessed it, delights – with the lyrical genius, insight and humor of an award-winning poet.
Favorite trip on Air Force One?
Midway Atoll. We went after President Obama quadrupled the size of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in order to protect more than half a million square miles of ocean. Today, Midway is a national wildlife preserve, but it holds historic significance as well. During WWII, the Japanese attacked Midway the same day they attacked Pearl Harbor. Located halfway between Hawaii and Japan, Midway became the site of an important battle and victory for the Allied Powers. When we visited, our motorcade was comprised of golf carts, and we visited the monument honoring those who fought in the Battle of Midway in 1942. We also saw some gigantic sea turtles.
Ebook or physical book?
Physical book at night, audiobook during the day when walking or driving.
Second best thing you found on Craigslist (assuming your job at the White House was the first!)?
Meeta Prakash – Shilpa’s and my third housemate during a particularly golden age on Swann Street. Meeta was fresh out of college and kept us young with her enthusiasm for trying new things, including baking eggs in a muffin pan! Meeta, you wild.
Most frequently used emoji?
Sparkly pink heart paired with the high-ten.
The last amazing book you read?
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai