50-for-50 interview: Erika Hall, content strategist

erika hall, content strategist and fiddler

Erika Hall is the woman I’d want to be if I could go back in time and be born just a little bit later and smarter and west. Not only is she responsible for some of the best writing and thinking out there on content strategy, her skills are real-life forged in the furnaces of the early web and proven in the mean streets of commerce: for 10 years Erika has co-captained Mule Design Studio, the justly renowned web design studio she started with her fiancé Mike Monteiro (who is, no surprise, a man of similar integrity and accomplishments, not to mention one of the few persons I know whom I feel comfortable calling a true feminist). That Erika is also a smarty-smart math pants and low-key poster child for truly sustainable living borders on the excessive, which I would completely hold against her were she not as genuinely nice as she is. Also, it doesn’t hurt that she is mom to one of San Francisco’s weirdest—and cutest—dogs.

When did you decide to become a writer?

My mom got me a library card in my own name when I was 2 years old, and we always had interesting books around the house.  I’m pretty sure I learned how to read from the party jokes in the back of Playboy (it was the 70’s). So, I became a reader very early on, which gave me a head start on writing. In 7th grade I began (and sadly left unfinished) a roman à clef about my circle of friends.

Who was your favorite teacher?

I was lucky to have several outstanding teachers at every level. There are two who stand out as both terrific educators and humanists. My teacher in fourth and sixth grade was Sats Yasumoto, a native Californian of Japanese descent who had been in the internment camps. Just by sharing his personal story, he gave us a different perspective on history from the standard Texas-approved textbook fare. He was intelligent and funny and believed in challenging students individually. I learned the word “fortitude” when he arranged an extracurricular group bike ride across the San Fernando Valley. “Only sign up for this trip if you have the fortitude to make it.” In sixth grade, he encouraged me to put together a science project involving a tricky exhibit of the effects of air pressure underwater.

I also want to mention Nyunt Maung, my high school Calculus teacher. (When I Googled his name for the spelling, I sadly discovered he passed away in 2007). He fought in the wars in Burma as a youth. Whenever the class started getting unruly, Mr. Maung would threaten to drop trou and show us the shrapnel in his ass. At holiday time he would organize food basket donations for local families. With his instruction, I passed the AP Calculus test, you know, despite being a girl.

Gender discrimination in math and science education is real. It can be subtle, or very overt. A girl who is “good at writing” will easily find encouragement in that direction. But all writers benefit from well-rounded educations. So, I deeply appreciated these guys who placed their work in a larger context and treated each student as an individual.

What do you love to write about?

Interesting and useful ideas.

What has writing taught you?

Don’t expect to get it right the first time. Do expect to get better with a lot of practice and input from other people.

How has writing made you stronger?

Writing clarifies thought. No matter what I am trying to do, writing about it helps. Also, when I am stuck on another task, writing is doing something useful.

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

Don’t be afraid to ask people for help.

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

Twitter

I’ll start with the most honest, least impressive answer. It’s where I get my earthquake confirmations, breaking news, jokes, and all combinations thereof. And, by imposing the 140-character limit, Twitter makes people better writers. As my man William Strunk, Jr. said, “Omit needless words.”

The Elements of Style (1918) – William Strunk Jr.

Still necessary, still good, and now available freely on the Internet. The bound version is small enough to chuck at someone’s head in rebuke without fear of lasting harm (unless we’re talking about the hardcover illustrated by Maira Kalman, which still troubles the purist in me, even though I adore her).

The Economist

Great, clear writing about complex topics, and a nice complement to my liberal media diet. Virtually impossible to read the entire thing each week. And they manage some very dry, witty photos and captions about the most serious subjects, which is a terrific alternative to cable news hysteria mongering.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

I love a fancy prose style and Lolita is my favorite road trip novel—a gorgeous book about terrible people doing horrifying things. I recommend the unabridged audiobook narrated by Jeremy Irons as the ultimate way to experience the story. Nine hours of Humbert Humbert’s sinuous voice in your head.

Modern Mechanix

This is a very awkward time to be contemplating the future. It’s the twenty-first century and we have equal amounts optimism and jetpacks. “American astronaut” seems as viable a career aspiration as “Pony Express rider”. So, it’s diverting to look backwards and check on what hopes and fears came true and which basic human insecurities are still with us.

Erika Hall is co-founder and Director of Strategy at Mule Design Studio. Originator of Unsuck It. Author of Just Enough Research. And will challenge anyone to fisticuffs over a poor choice of words. 

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