50-for-50 interview: Maureen Anderson, career anthropologist

maureen anderson & her daughter

Maureen Anderson is living proof that the Internet is a multiplier, not a decimator. It’s brought her long-running show, The Career Clinic, to people far outside the reach of terrestrial radio—even 45 affiliate stations’ worth of reach—as surely as it’s helped grow the guest list that makes the show a must-listen. It ain’t all digital hoodoo, though: Maureen works incredibly hard at a job she clearly loves and is irrefutably good at. She has a boundless enthusiasm for helping people see what’s possible, and crafts interviews that always bring out the best in her guests. Add to that a sterling character and a glorious sense of humor and it’s easy to understand why she can command such a big empire from a remote outpost like Fargo, ND. 

When did you decide to become a writer?

I didn’t. I just always was.

When I look back on my childhood, I see a deliriously happy eleven-year-old in front of a pile of index cards and magic markers. I was making notes for a speech contest, and I was in heaven. The topic was conserving our natural resources, and I wrote a song for my introduction: “Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly. But they don’t last long if they try…”

It gets worse. I sang those words when I delivered the speech to an assembly of the whole school, because if there was anything I liked better than magic markers it was a microphone–and I was fearless. The judges rewarded my courage with a first-place trophy, and even the cool kids shook my hand afterward.

I was hooked on storytelling, and writing was just always something I knew I could do.

Who was your favorite teacher?

Vince Staten. I took a feature writing class from him when he was a columnist for a newspaper in Louisville, Kentucky. Our task for the semester was to sell an article to a magazine. What a novel idea, if you’ll forgive me–a class where the point was to get a job.

Vince gave me an A- on my first assignment–a piece about telemarketing–and lots of constructive criticism. “The lead is, I’m sure, appropriate for the audience,” he wrote in part, “but it still is kind of dull.” He had to leave early the evening he returned our papers, but told us to stay behind and read what the rest of the class had written. The university choir was practicing down the hall and the music felt like the soundtrack to a movie, my movie. Getting published had been a lifelong dream. To finally be going for it was almost too much happiness to process.

What do you love to write about?

Me! Which sounds like a terrible thing to admit–but maybe this letter to my daughter, Katie, will help. I wrote it seven years ago in anticipation of her reading my journal when our time together winds down. Not necessarily upon my death. Maybe upon her graduation from high school, which will make death (if you’ll forgive me again) pale by comparison.

“Dear Katie, When I was nine years old my mom gave me a blank journal. It was the greatest Christmas gift I had ever received, or would ever receive. I’ve kept it faithfully, and it helps me a lot. The good things are fun to look back on, and the difficult things are easier to understand once they’re in writing. Since I was little, I’ve been conscious of how short life is. It makes me sad. The journal is my way of saving my life. Until I had you, I didn’t know if there was anyone who would want to read what I’ve written. Knowing my bubbly little nine-year-old who’s having trouble falling asleep because she’s so excited for Christmas may someday find this interesting makes it more fun to work on. I hope it’s a good story! I wish I didn’t have to miss any of your story, Kate. I love you so much! Mom.”

What has writing taught you?

Writing helps me make sense of my life. Another favorite teacher once told our high school English class, “You can’t write if you can’t think.” A blank computer screen is where I figure things out.

Writing reminds me what I want most from my life, a good story. I don’t want to know what happens next. Writing also reminds me that what does happen is largely up to me. I aspire to be a journalist in the purest sense of the word. I experiment with my life, and I take notes–lots and lots of notes. My journal is my lab notebook.

A lab notebook is useful for spotting patterns. Like the endless debate I used to have about how many workouts or spinach salads earned me the right to a donut or a cookie. Boring! That’s a waste of a life, and a lot of people never get permanent weight loss off their to-do lists. I had bigger plans. So I experimented until I came up with a diet that lets me eat as much as I want, whenever I want, and never gain weight. It’s the easiest thing I’ve ever done, and it’s difficult to believe no one’s ever thought of it before. But that’s another story. I hope! [Ed.’s note: me, too! And I think we could find a publisher for that one.]

How has writing made you stronger?

My goal in life is to have fun, and learn a lot. Writing reassures me I’m doing that, moment by moment. I don’t live in the past, but I savor it. I love looking back on fascinating conversations, random funny things, and especially the fun we have as a family.

It’s so much fun to look back on the memories we’re making! Now that Katie’s graduation looms large, I’ve been sharing highlights from the journal a few nights a week with her and Dad. Like a December morning several years ago after Katie had been uh, developing for a while. I had a dream my boobs were as firm as hers. “It was a Christmas miracle!” she exclaimed.

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

What Louis L’Amour said: “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.”

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

I’ll take books, please. The Little Prince, The Fountainhead, The War of Art, Ignore Everybody, and my latest book-in-progress.

Maureen Anderson is a civil engineering graduate turned miserable cubicle dweller turned insanely happy radio talk show host. Her nationally-syndicated program, Doing What Works, inspires people to get out of their ruts and into work they love. Maureen is also the author of The Career Clinic: Eight Simple Rules for Finding Work You Love (AMACOM, 2009), and the co-author, with Dick Beardsley, of Staying the Course: A Runner’s Toughest Race (University of Minnesota Press, 2002). She won a 2006 Minnesota book award for Left for Dead: A Second Life after Vietnam, with Jon Hovde (Minnesota, 2005). She also blogs four times a week at maureenanderson.com, and is most proud of an essay that was published in Spirituality & Health about the grief she felt on her daughter’s first day of kindergarten.

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