by Kate Stringer
UP English major (class of ’84) and Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte will be speaking in the Bauccio Commons Wednesday, April 9, 7:30, about her new book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. Driving between interviews for her book, Schulte spoke with us about her relationship with writing from English major, to award-winning journalist, to author.
When was the moment you realized you wanted to be a writer?
It’s just one of those things that I think I’ve known my whole life. For a moment I wanted to be a lawyer because that’s what smart people did, that was in eighth grade. Then I wanted to be a professional ice skater… I always wanted to be different things. You get caught up in the moment and want to know more. I was just always being drawn by stories, completely getting lost in them. Maybe that was the product of growing up in rainy Oregon where I read a lot as a kid. Writing can take you into a completely different world.
Is there one story you’ve told that you’re most proud of or that you learned the most from writing?
There is one goofy story that comes to mind. I wouldn’t say it’s my best or my favorite but there’s something about it that I love. I was with my daughter at an ice cream store and one of the things I always do is look at bulletin boards. I’m so curious; notes on bulletin boards are like missives from our desperate lives. I find it so fascinating what people are looking for. I saw a weird notice for a lost jar of marbles, reward $10,000. I called the person and found out it was a story about love gone wrong, a terrible breakup, nostalgia for the past. One person was a collector and the way to hurt the other one was to get rid of the stuff they’d collected. There was a moment of remorse, a realization that it was too late because they had already put their stuff on the side of the road. Love, rage, misunderstanding: it was kind of like the whole human drama right there on the bulletin board. That’s what I love, that you can find a good story anywhere.
How has your view of the role of editing in the writing process changed from your time as an English major to Washington Post reporter to author?
I have huge respect for the editing process. A good writing-editing collaboration – there’s really nothing like it. I’ve had all types of editors: great editors, terrible editors, mediocre ones. It really comes down to relationships: trust and communication. I’ve had relationships that started out crummy and got better. What I have come to appreciate is how editors can push you to think more clearly. When I was writing this book, a lot was initially written from a working mother point of view, but I wanted it to be more universal. I hired a guy because I wanted him to push me. I didn’t want that automatic head-nodding. He really pushed me, told me “I don’t get this, I don’t understand,” and I’d respond, “What do you mean you don’t understand?” I felt sorry for his wife frankly, but it made the final draft much better.
I only did a few select pieces. There’s no way in the world I could have written a book and been a full-time reporter. One of the things I’ve tried to take back with me is taking time to think. Newspaper [writing] is under that fast turnaround. What was important is recognizing to just walk around the block and let your thoughts kind of go. At the very end of the book I was totally stuck. I didn’t know how to end this book. I had learned about the power of break and inspiration, and so what I did was I took a break. Our brains are wired for inspiration at times when we’re not sitting there with our nose to the grindstone. I was walking behind these elementary school girls. One girl said to other girl “What time is it?” The other girl laughed and said “It’s 200 o’clock!” And that makes perfect sense on a day when you’re seven and it’s beautiful out and you don’t know what time it is because it doesn’t matter what time it is: the time is now. It hit me that that was what the book was about, how do you live your life not on the sidelines of it.
You’ve covered national politics, the environment, education, public health. What’s your favorite topic to write on and why?
I’m an enterprise narrative reporter. It’s a great way to never stop going to school. How fantastic that my job is that I get to learn stuff every day. People tell me stories about their lives and they don’t have to. It’s a sacred trust to be a storyteller, to tell stories and get it right, especially for the people not in the public eye. Sometimes all we have are our stories. At our funerals we tell eulogies, we tell stories about our lives. What a privilege that that’s my calling in life.
What can we expect from your Wednesday talk?
What I really want to talk about is the good life. The Greek philosophers and psychologists said to have the good life, you have to have three arenas of life: work, love, and play. I want to show why in this modern era, that’s so hard to do. Social structures need to change, work place policies have not caught up with reality, gender roles have not shifted, biases are still in play, society uses ‘busy’ as a status symbol. Leisure time is how civilization is created. [I’ll talk about] why we’re overwhelmed, what the consequences of it are, bright spots, and companies and individuals that have moved beyond that.