50-for-50 interview: Leah Reich, vein of gold

leah reich

Leah Reich was what many of us thought the Internet was for when we climbed on board, way back when. She was the writing that took your breath away, the hidden gem you dreamed of uncovering under the piles of dull rock and sand, then proudly shared with your friends when you were good and ready. In one person—one regular (albeit clearly brilliant), ordinary person—she contained breadth of experience, trueness of heart, and a magical way with words, all of which she used in concert just because. Because she could. Because she had to. And not because it was her job, or even because she wanted it to be, but because it was possible and necessary. The people I shared her stories with marveled along with me that someone like Leah was there, just for the reading, quietly putting out piece after piece woven from these threads of her life while somehow managing to live it (and clearly, brilliantly) all at once. My Internet wish for you is someday, you stumble upon your own Leah; in the meantime, feel free to share mine.

When did you decide to become a writer? 

I was never one of those kids who wanted to grow up and be a journalist or be discovered as Jane Austen reincarnated. I’ve always been a wordy person. I talk a lot, I sing, and I like to be in front of a crowd, telling stories and jokes. When I was nine I wrote a play, and then directed it. But even though I’ve worked as an advice columnist and written two Master’s theses and a pretty long dissertation, I occasionally feel funny calling myself a writer. A writer always seems like someone who’s done whatever it is I still haven’t done, whether published an article in The New Yorker or written an award-winning novel or… or… That seems worthwhile to admit, because I bet I’m not the only person out there who’s ever felt that way.

As it turns out, you can discover you are a writer without ever setting out to do so. As it also turns out, you should go right ahead and call yourself a writer even if you don’t feel like you fit whatever definition you hold in your head of what a “writer” should be. There is no “right” kind of “writer.”

I think I just kind of became a writer somewhere along the way. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever fumbled my way into (we won’t discuss the others here).

Who was your favorite teacher?

A professor named Joseph Duggan. When I was an undergrad at Berkeley, I took a course with him in medieval French literature. At the time, if you had asked me “what’s the most boring subject you can think of?” medieval French lit would have been somewhere in a top five list. Then came Joe Duggan, Ph.D. He transformed the subject matter, took medieval literature with its oft-impenetrable language and yanked out the stories for us, helping us realize just how wonderful it all was beneath the surface. Then he made the surface fascinating too. He was passionate about medieval literature, and by being so passionate, he made us excited to hear what he had to say. It turned out medieval literature was more interesting than any of us even imagined. He peppered his lectures with forays into completely off-topic subjects, like where handwriting came from or the myths that surround “why Cinderella wears a glass slipper.” Everything was a story to him, and each story was worth sitting through, completely rapt. He was walking, talking, natty-suit-and-tidy-beard wearing proof that you can take any subject in the world, even something your students might find so boring as to die, and show how wonderful and fascinating it really is. You just have to tell the right story in the right way.

What do you love to write about?

The best stuff are the people in my life and the things about which I have a bubbling-over excitement, whether positive or negative. There’s usually a pretty good overlap there.

I do love to write about things that other people can connect with somehow, that resonate. Being an advice columnist was something I took very seriously, especially since I was giving advice to teenage guys who played videogames. They didn’t have many, if any, female friends and they wanted someone to listen to them, to answer them for real. I wrote about my experiences with my mom’s illness this past year, when I was taking care of her. It was terrifying. Writing helped me sort through my feelings and reach out when I was alone, but it also showed me how many people were going through or had been through similar experiences and had been unable to express themselves. My writing meant a lot to them, because I was able to put into words their own experiences and what they felt. That meant more to me than I have ever been able to express.

Above all, I like to write about things that make people feel, whether a powerful sadness or a good happiness. Nothing is better than making someone laugh or wowing them with something I’ve written, especially a particular a group of friends who are a very good and quick writers.

The whole world offers great material, if you keep your ears open, as my friends have unfortunately learned. “Is this going on the internet or in a story?” they’ll ask sadly after saying something ridiculous.

What has writing taught you?

How much I have to learn – about writing but also about myself and the world – and how there is always room for improvement. Writing has also taught me the power connection, of reaching out and finding there are people who will respond in very unexpected ways. It’s also taught me that you can’t control the way your words will be received, so write them with the best of intentions and then let the world have them. Possibly the biggest thing writing has taught me about myself is that I have way more strength, courage, and determination than I ever imagined.

How has writing made you stronger?

This is the perfect question for me to answer right now. During this past year, writing was sometimes the only thing I had available to me (I love photography but it’s hard to take a photo in the dark, and sometimes your feelings need words). Writing was something I knew I was good at, even when other parts of the dissertation were frustrating me. Writing was my toehold in the craziness. When it was late at night and I felt alone, sometimes the only thing that made sense was to put some words down and send them out into the world, which made me stronger for the day ahead. Or when I was dealing with a lot of revisions and not a lot of time, I knew I had one thing on my side, which was my ability to write well. Finishing my dissertation gave me a huge sense of accomplishment, and few things in life make me feel stronger than knowing that I set my mind to it, worked hard, and got it done.

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

Oh man. When I was 9, a mean girl moved to town and turned all the other girls against me. I grew up in a pretty small town, so I didn’t have many options. When I was 10, I was in junior high and it was rough. You know what I’d tell her? “As much as this will continue to pain you for years to come, your mom is right. They’re all mean to you because they’re jealous. And you know why they’re jealous? Because you, kid, are going to grow up to be awesome. Know how I know? Because you’re awesome right now.”

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

1. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 plus the sequel The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (but not the rest of the books) by Sue Townsend – I can read this over and over and over and laugh every single time. It’s always on my favorites shelf. Yes, I have a special “favorites” shelf.

2. Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir by Joyce Johnson – When’s the last time you read anything about the Beat Generation by a woman? A beautiful memoir, includes stories of her relationship with Kerouac and her experiences in the East Village in the ’50s.

3. I read Slate.com daily.

4. Short stories by H.H. Munro, aka Saki. Especially “Sredni Vashtar.”

5. My friend Michele Humes’ blog, because she is an amazing writer. She is also incredibly smart, sardonic, knows a lot about way too many things, writes brilliantly about food, loves the same ballerina I do (Ulyana Lopatkina), and is fearless in ways I aspire to be on a daily basis. Plus she had a croquembouche as her wedding cake and when I saw photos I wanted to run away with it.

And 6. because I am awful and can always sneak one more than I’m allowed: My boyfriend writes the funniest, most interesting emails I’ve ever gotten in my life. He inspires me to be a better writer, every day.

Leah Reich, Ph.D. is a qualitative researcher, sociologist, writer, and photographer who recently completed her dissertation (like, last week) and lives in California with a surprisingly enormous cat. 

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