The Ambition Interviews

I’m so pleased to announce that The Ambition Interviews, a seven-essay series on women, work and ambition is live on The Atlantic. This was a labor of love, undertaken with my college friend and fellow writer Elizabeth Wallace. It took us two years and countless smoothies, coffees and hours to interview nearly 40 extremely busy women, categorize the content and write up our findings. Here’s hoping the result provokes some interesting conversations.

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Yes, I’m the Person Who Wrote The Hillary Article

Last week I published an essay in Salon on how I’d come around to casting my vote for Hillary Clinton because in her journey I recognized my own. I’ve had pieces go viral before, but nothing like this.  My best friend from third grade emailed to say she’d seen the piece. People started emailing my parents. The article so far has received thousands of comments and hundreds of thousands of shares. Two people who are not US citizens, who don’t live in this country, emailed me about the essay.  Out of this overwhelming response I’ve realized two things.

  • Women who work in technology read this essay as a story about what it’s like to be a woman in an industry that, frankly, makes it difficult to be a woman. I hadn’t thought of the essay that way when I wrote it – I saw it more as my personal journey from someone who believed we lived in a post-sexist world to one who understands that of course sexism is alive and well, it just looks different. I haven’t worked in an industry other than tech so i can’t speak to other industries, but I will say that the emails from the other women (and a few men) in tech are especially meaningful. They make me realize that I’m not alone, which I knew on some level but now I understand the scope and breadth of the problem, and I see that not only am I not alone, I’m surrounded by a tidal wave of women who have also felt devalued, overlooked, and occasionally stomped on.  And while I love knowing that it’s not just me, obviously that knowledge is also gut-wrenchingly depressing.
  • Personal essay is a powerful medium. This might sound obvious, but essayists are constantly being criticized for being self-involved navel-gazers. I don’t think I’ve ever published an essay where someone didn’t comment something like “This author needs to worry about more important things,” or “This is a bunch of worthless nonsense.” But the truth is that I write personal essays because I want to give voice to the issues I see around me. These essays may have the aura of a diary entry, but the hope is that I can use the lens of my life to help make sense of the world, and that by extension that will help others to make sense of their own lives, or their own worlds. That may sound grandiose, but I don’t think too many people write essays simply because they want to hear themselves type. The ultimate hope is to get people talking, thinking, and ultimately to elicit change. I don’t know if my essay will change anyone’s vote — and my intention wasn’t to change votes, because I understand that different things are important to different people — but I do hope it will let other women know they’re not alone, that we’re not living in some kind of post-sexist utopia, and that it’s okay to stand up and scream loudly.

What It’s Like to Be Legally Blind Around the World

For a recent article for GOOD’s Project Literacy section, I got the chance to speak with people around the world who are working to help educate visually impaired kids.  As the mother of a child who is visually impaired, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as grateful to live in the United States as I did after speaking with two incredible women in Senegal.  The cultural expectation there is that if you have a child who is legally blind, that child will not leave the house.  Ever.  It’s shameful, that you’ve produced such a child, and as a courtesy to others you don’t let them look on your offspring.  Eventually, the child will go on to beg in the street.

This was aid so matter-of-factly by the two women I interviewed who work with visually impaired kids in Senegal that I had to ask them to repeat it.  “The kids grow up to do what?” I asked.  And then when one of them said it again and the other confirmed it, I needed a moment to collect myself.  How lucky I am to be spending my days reminding my daughter’s teachers that she needs to use her iPad (which incidentally, is paid for by the city of New York) instead of concealing her from the world.

After I processed this information, I felt like an asshole asking about what kinds of technology the kids, who are now attending school only after their parents have been convinced that they can do more than panhandle, are using in school.  But, hey, journalism.

“They sit in the front of the class,” one of the women told me.  They also use extra dark pencils.  Sometimes they get glasses to help improve their vision.  I’ve never been to Africa (unless you count a few touristy parts of northern Africa) but I got the sense that these children are not only going to school in a different country, they’re going to school in a different time.  How lucky I am, and how lucky my daughter is, to live in a place where we are aware enough to know that she can grow up to do nearly anything.  Except become a fighter pilot or a sharpshooter.  How ungrateful I am to ever feel one ounce of pity for her or her situation.  And how unfair the world is, that my daughter and a six year old half way around the world with the same disability can lead such radically different lives.

“The Edge of Normal” Featured on Longreads

A few weeks ago Longreads picked up my story on the lack of women in chess, which led to the article appearing in the New York Times Now app.  Since this was my first foray into combining personal essay with heavy reporting, this was pretty exciting.

So I was thrilled when they also ran an excerpt of my Kindle Single, THE EDGE OF NORMAL, last week.  I’ve been a fan of Longreads for a while now (and if you haven’t read them you should check them out – they find terrific stories from all corners of the web) so it was a mini dream come true to see my e-book on there.

The excerpt is titled In the Grand Scheme of Things.

Behind “Twice Exceptional”

Today The Big Roundtable published Twice Exceptional, my magnum opus (sort of) about my battle to get accommodations for my legally blind daughter on the New York City gifted test.  When my daughter was first diagnosed I spoke with other parents of kids with the same condition, and everyone said that the big problem would come in school.  My daughter would be doing fine, they said, and everyone would say she didn’t need any accommodations.  But what teachers and administrators wouldn’t realize is that with accommodations she could do even better.

This battle ate six months of my life.  There were some days when I barely had time for my day job because I was so busy researching accommodations and talking to people.  And the whole time I kept thinking, what about people who don’t have the resources I do?  What about people who can’t just shove their job aside temporarily?  What about people who don’t know that they can stand up and scream loudly on behalf of their child?  So I knew I would tell the story in some way.

I originally pitched it as an Op Ed to the New York Times, and while they expressed interest, I quickly realized that I needed to tell the story at length.  A short 1000 word piece wasn’t going to do it for me.  So I started writing, and when I was finished I had a piece that was 8K words, which is considered to be pretty unpublishable.  A few places said they’d take it at 2000 words, but I kept sending it out and researching outlets.  Eventually I found The Big Roundtable, a site that publishes fantastic longform journalism.  They never once suggested I cut the piece down because readers wouldn’t be interested.  They sent me email after email telling me how much they loved the essay.  Really, it was a match made in digital heaven.

So I guess the moral of the story is, stand up and scream for your children, and stand up and scream for your writing.

The story behind “Where’s Bobbi Fischer?”

In Where’s Bobbi Fischer? I dig around to try to understand why there are so few top-ranked chess players.  This article evolved in a really interesting way.  Last fall I wrote about board games for the Atlantic.  While researching that article I met a woman who runs a board game lab (Mary Flanagan – she’s a total rock star and I want to be her when I grow up).  After that article came out we stayed in touch, and she told me about a board game she was designing that was meant to be the world’s first “pro-girl” board game.  I’d never really thought about it before, but many board games are pretty male-oriented, and in looking back over my own board game playing habits as a kid, I realized that I’d always hid my board game skills (I’m good.  Pick a game and the odds are strong that I will crush you.) because they felt unfeminine.

So I pitched an article on how girls don’t play board games to an editor at Aeon, but after lots of digging around I wasn’t able to find much research on board games at all, and only anecdotal evidence to show that board games skewed male.  Instead, I kept coming up with all this chess research.  So I emailed my editor to tell him how annoyed I was by all the chess research that was dwarfing the board game research, and he, being a wise editor, suggested I switch the focus of the article to chess.

I’d had my own sordid history with chess, so as soon as I made the switch the article started coming together quickly.  I had the chance to interview several women who have made their way through the chess world, and also started seeing parallels everywhere I went.  I work in tech, and I’m often the only woman in a meeting, but I’d never really thought about WHY or HOW this had happened.  I’d just always figured, well, women don’t do tech.  Just as girls don’t do chess.  So having the opportunity to look at the history of chess and speak with chess coaches and really understand what it means for girls and women to be excluded from different fields was a fascinating opportunity.

I hope you’ll read the piece and share it around, because until we recognize the places where society discriminates or stereotypes, we don’t have much hope of changing things.

My new e-book: The Edge of Normal

Happy pub day!  My e-book THE EDGE OF NORMAL is now available from Amazon.  Writing this was a writing experience unlike any other I’ve had to date.  When my daughter was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition I furiously took notes and wrote down what I was feeling every minute of every day.  It was the only way I knew how to process what was going on around me, and also I needed to write about it because I was sick of talking about it.  I didn’t think I’d ever do anything with all of that writing, I just needed to get it out.

Then, this fall I pitched Amazon on a Kindle Single about my experience battling the NYC Department of Ed to get accommodations for my daughter.  That essay was eight thousand words, so I didn’t think it had much hope of finding a publisher.  An editor contacted me after reading that piece (which is forthcoming this summer from The Big Roundtable) and said that while that topic wasn’t quite right for them, they’d be interested in a broader essay on the topic of raising a visually impaired child.

So at that point I went back to find all the notes I’d taken on the subject, only to discover that I’d accidentally overwritten the file.  The notes were gone.  Funny thing, though, was that because I’d already written about all of those experiences, my thoughts on them were embedded into my brain.  And because I was now writing form the vantage point of someone six years down the road, I had a perspective on the events that went deeper than why is this happening to me?

I knew from the start that I didn’t want to write an exposé on my daughter.  If I was going to write on the topic I wanted it to be about me – my journey and my story.  So I began from there.

But writing something without any word limits is tricky.  Kindle Singles are longer than an article but shorter than a book.  That put the word range between 8000 and 80,000.  That’s a big word range.  But as I got into it, I found that I relished the challenge of writing do a new and different length.  I found that I did in fact have a story to tell that was in between those two word lengths. It was scary at first to just have this wide open structural word playground – there are no norms in storytelling when it comes to e-books – but by the end I felt I’d done the new medium justice.  I hope you feel that way too.

Here’s the description of the book from Amazon:

The Edge of Normal

What is normal? Everything in Hana Schank’s life is going according to plan — career, marriage and a growing family. But when her second child is born with albinism, a rare genetic condition whose most striking characteristics are white blonde hair, pale skin and impaired vision, she discovers that the very definition of normal is up for grabs. A moving memoir with flashes of humor, this essay tells one mother’s story of navigating a world filled with a vast spectrum of ability and disability, filled with both heartbreak and joy. And how ultimately she and her daughter learn to balance together on the edge of normal.

The Ambition Interviews

About a year and a half ago I was in spin class, where I think all my great thoughts, and I began reflecting back on my life.  I’d turned 41 earlier that year, which prompted a wave of self-reflection, some mild panic, appreciation for all I have in my life, and resentment and self-loathing for all the things I thought I would have accomplished by now and haven’t.

As I thought back over my 20-ish years of adulthood, I realized that I’d been utterly unprepared to make the decisions that confronted me along the way.  I’d chosen a spouse, decided to have children, picked a few different careers, all without any real, true knowledge about what the likely outcomes would be.  I had no idea, for example, that wanting to be a full time writer and wanting to live in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country wouldn’t make for a harmonious result.  I didn’t realize how much having children would impact my career and how I defined success.  And most of all it never occurred to me the simple act of being an ambitious female would make my road infinitely more complex.

Was it just me who had been blindsided by … just how hard it all feels sometimes?  I decided to reach out to some of my college friends to find out if they felt the same way.  I wasn’t in touch with that many of them, but I contacted two whom I’d been closest to in college, and asked them about their stories.  Those conversations led to more conversations, and the end result was that one of those friends (journalist Elizabeth Wallace) decided to team up with me to collect interviews with everyone who had been in our sorority’s graduating class (Northwestern ’93).  We decided to limit our subjects this way for a range of reasons – we wanted to limit our interviews to a specific demographic, we didn’t want to interview all women everywhere, we were particularly interested in women who were high-achieving and ambitious enough to go to an elite university, and we also found that interviewing women whom we’d known when they were 18 years old provided an excellent context for what they told us about their lives.

Which brings me to this: today, those first few tentative conversations are The Ambition Interviews.  The site launched today, and will document our process as we continue to interview our subjects and gather data.  We’re recording audio for the interviews, and our first step will be to create short animated clips on topics that have had an impact on many of our subjects.  After that, we’ll be writing articles that look at these topics in depth.

The Ambition Interviews are the stories behind the endless news headlines about the lack of women CEOs, lack of women in tech, lack of women in politics.  They capture what women really feel about work life balance, childcare, motherhood, their spouses, their careers, and, ultimately, their ambitions.