When people used to ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d often say I wanted to be a journalist, a novelist, an activist, and an educator. Obviously, that seems like way too many awesome gigs for one person to squeeze into one lifetime. That is, unless you’re Anna Clark. Clark calls herself “a progressive person interested in creative approaches to art and to justice work,” and she’s done a solid job of achieving just that.
Working as is an independent journalist, Clark manages to live professionally at the intersection of writing, activism, social justice, and education. Currently, Clark writes about “the stories tangled up with prisons, detention, and the criminal justice system.”
Perhaps one of the most interesting ways Clark uses writing is as a tool to engage inmates in prisons and detention centers. Through the Prison Creative Arts Project, she facilitates weekly writing and theater workshops for the incarcerated. Furthermore, she worked on the development of The Portfolio Project, a project that pairs incarcerated artists and writers with mentors so that they can build portfolios and access creative opportunities.
From a Fulbright fellowship in Kenya to being anthologized in Best American Sports Writing 2012, Clark has already accomplished enough for two lifetimes. I caught up with about what she does and how she got there.
Bridget Todd: How did you come to do what you do? Is it always what you wanted to do?
Anna Clark: I've had a mind for stories as long as I can remember. Reading is a rich part of my life. As a kid, it was an easy dance from taking in the tales of Katherine Paterson and E.B. White to aspiring to write my own.
When I was 10, I wrote three "novels" in a mystery series that was rather obviously modeled on the Nancy Drew books — I wrote about 80 notebook pages in pencil for the first "book" (The Secret in the Satin Gown .... Spoiler: The secret is that the stitches are in Morse Code!). My dad typed those pages up in extra hours at work and, at my pleading, my mom mailed them to a Random House publisher whose address I found in one of my books. She helped me write a cover letter, too. They did this without the slightest hint that a fourth grader had exactly zero chance of getting published by Random House. My teacher at the time, too, encouraged me to copy out the stories in blank books and donate them to the elementary school library. They pasted a little checkout card in them and everything.
This had a huge influence on my ability to articulate myself as a writer in the world, to open my heart to the possibility of connecting with others through stories, and to simply revel in the unbounded joy that comes with making art.
I still have a heart for fiction, but I began orienting myself toward journalism in high school, and then more rigorously in college. The real world's awfully interesting too. Journalism is my means of connection, curiosity, questioning, reflection, imagination, participation, and, in ways I'm only just beginning to realize, it is also a way for me to be vulnerable. There is so much that is difficult and hurtful out there; the world sometimes seems to encourage us to seal ourselves off from it.
Journalism opens me up: I look, I listen, I ask, I think. I experience the world as a verb. There's alchemy in fusing the power of language with tangible facts, and the act of trying to tell stories changes me, too. The classic reporter questions are really quite profound, when you think about them: Who? Where? What? When? How? Why?
BT: You’re shockingly successful despite being a young person. What was life like in your 20s? Did you feel like you were on the right path to having it all figured out?
AC: Here's the one thing I've been lucky enough to have figured out for nearly my entire life: I want to tell stories. And I want to absorb the stories others tell. But I certainly had no idea how to enact that, or how to balance that with other ways I might participate in the world.
I flailed, especially in the year after I graduated college. I was working as a groundskeeper in Ann Arbor on the University of Michigan's campus, tentatively sending out my first pitches to magazines, and giving tours at a natural history museum. My student loans ominously loomed before me. Within the span of a few months, I applied to graduate school in social work, took the LSAT, interviewed for a yearlong volunteer program, applied for a job working with teens in Chicago, and whole bunch of other random things. I came close to accepting a position in Teach for America, and declined mainly because I didn't want to live in Las Vegas for two years. I cast myself out in the world like confetti, and had no idea where I'd land.
Happily, one of the applications I sent out was a single bid for a position in an MFA program in fiction. When I got in, I knew I wanted to pursue it. Warren Wilson College has an amazing low-residency program in Asheville, North Carolina, which also gave me the chance to explore other realms — so I moved into an intentional community called Haley House in Boston. Haley House is a lot of things, but part of it involves the live-in community commiting to voluntary simplicity, creative nonviolence, and, as it describes it, "food with purpose."
Haley House is all about making the political personal — taking our beliefs and making them day-to-day practicalities. We had, for example, a radical soup kitchen in our home, ran an open-door food pantry, farmed with guys who were homeless who became part of our community, offered cooking classes to neighborhood teens, ran a bakery, and all sorts of other things that emerge when you fuse your living, working, and "volunteering" worlds, bringing them into the same space — it can't be summarized like a program blurb. I was very much transformed by it all, which is to say, it was hard. And exciting.
I lived there for several years, writing fiction, exploring the East Coast, and beginning to push myself further into the journalism world — I connected to the Women, Action, and the Media community, edited a street magazine, and wrote occasional articles for places like Bitch Magazine and ColorLines. I lingered in Boston for awhile after leaving Haley House, working as a live-in aide to a woman with multiple sclerosis, and then finally, shortly after turning 27, I moved to Detroit. For the next couple years, I freelanced as a sort of second full-time job while working in a nonprofit. It was until I was 29 that I began a wholly self-employed life.
This is a meandering way to say that I certainly did not have it all figured out! I tried a lot of things, sometimes out of practical need rather than want. I connected with an extraordinary range of people, in a lot of different realms. It was scary sometimes, and excruciatingly difficult on other days. I was starved for models for how to live a creative life with a life of conscience, which seemed like separate things to me — as if focusing on creative projects was a selfish and indulgent act that ceded my responsibility as a human being to help create a more just and peaceful world. This is dizzying stuff.
But here's something that is true: Not-knowing is an essential ingredient in growth. Transformation does not co-exist with a predictable conclusion. We tend to flare up with all kinds of resistances when faced with uncertainty, but that vulnerability is where the power is.
And it so happens that growing more familiar with the experience of not-knowing is awfully good training for journalism. Any story worth telling should begin with questions. If you know how your article will end before you begin reporting and writing, you've truncated yourself as a storyteller, and diminished the prickly and nuanced and utterly fascinating world we're all navigating together. It's certainly uncomfortable, but writers need to get used to not-knowingness, the blank page, if we are to do what's worth doing.
BT: What is your advice for someone in their 20s who wants to be an educator/ writer?
AC: Read deeply and joyfully. Read across genres, and eras, and borders, and demographics, and language. Make it a practice to think, write, and talk seriously about your reading. How did it work? If the revelation in Chapter 10 was surprising, how did the writer, textually, make it happen so it didn't come across as a non sequitur? If you don't like a story, what was it in the text that broke for you? Don't just skim by with something like "I didn't like the characters" or "the ending was underwhelming." Put on a detective hat and figure out what, in the language or structure or content, works or doesn't work, and why. This craft-oriented way of reading might sound like a lot of effort, and it is, but it starts to ingrain itself in you and strengthens the narratives you write yourself, revealing choices you would not have realized you had as a writer. And maybe more importantly: it's really fun! It's sort of a game, with meaningful stakes.
I'd also suggest getting out beyond your comfort zone, guided by your instinct and the spirit of not-knowing. Find ways to connect with people that appear to be very different than you. Experience the awkwardness and richness of reaching across realms. At Haley House, we used the excuse of community meals to subversively bring people together in ways that cross a lot of borders we've built up ... so, for example, the bright-eyed Boston College student volunteering with us would find herself eating grits with a chess-playing guru who sleeps in shelters. There are other ways of leaning into worlds you don't know well. For me these days, it's been about leaping into creative realms I don't know well: I've been taking singing lessons, and doing an improv theater workshop. And it's scary!
But it's no use avoiding things because we don't see ourselves as "good" at them, it gets back at the idea of how no story worth telling has a readymade conclusion to aim for. before you begin. Whether it's other art forms, or neighborhoods, or cities, or social communities, making a practice of pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone is a practice that cultivates the uncertainty that is so key for journalists ... and educators, too. The practice also deepens understanding of the world: we collect facts and nuances, we gain knowledge of substance. For educators, this brings a rich well to tap into when imagining what might be worth putting before students (and in connecting with students of different backgrounds.) For journalists, this shapes our ability to write stories that are real, and that matter — to even recognize where a story is in the first place.
A final note on that last piece: I see a lot of newbie writers wanting to stick with the stuff they know, turning out pieces expressing their opinion on the television shows they already watch, or the school they attend. Nothing wrong with that, but it's limiting as a longtime practice. Many talented writers are afraid of shifting into the act of discovery that is reporting. (There's that uncertainty again!) Reporting — calling people, interviewing, researching, following-up, fact-checking, showing up on the ground in spaces you don't know well and paying attention until you understand some of them — can be unnerving. But it's crucial. Making a practice of intentionally moving out of your comfort zone, whatever realm that is, will strengthen your abilities as a reporter, and build confidence in your capacity to understand what you do not yet know.
BT: Your work with the Prison Creative Arts Project is amazing. What others ways have you been able to use writing as a tool to promote social justice?
AC: For the sake of my own heart, it's important to balance the time I spend alone writing with time writing, and creating art of other sorts, in communities. So, in addition to writing and theater workshops through PCAP, I am a writer-in-residence in two Detroit high schools through the InsideOut Literary Arts Project. That means that I have a total of six classes that I visit weekly, teaching poetry workshops (and laughing a lot; teenagers are amazing.) Also, this past winter, a group of us came together to found Literary Detroit, an organization that's cultivating the city's literary culture. Detroit's deep with stories — and there are a lot of amazing writers from here — but the ciy's literary scene is just not as tangible and visible as the music and visual art communities. Lit-Detroit's intervening by staging distinctive and reader-centric events — a poetry reading mashed up with an improv comedy performance, for example, and seasonal book swaps at locations around the city, and hopefully soon, a "ghost library" set up on the site of Detroit's closed or demolished branch libraries.
A few threads that bring these projects all together. Most of all, they are joyful and meaningful to me: they make my life better, and my writing better. They also give me a chance to participate in stories in different ways. Often, I'm the teller of stories, but I'm also trying to be an honest and good reader, editor, champion, and challenger of the stories others are telling. There's an analogy there for those of us interested in a sturdier movement toward social justice: a lot of roles are necessary. We needn't pick just one. We're capable of more than just one.
BT: You write a lot about Detroit. What’s it like to be a writer and all around progressive person there?
AC: It's interesting! This is a city that is actively re-creating itself — not just at the top level, but in all corners. People are finding incredible ways of transforming space and buildings, of developing clever informal economies, of becoming their own source of food on urban farms, and altogether reimagining what's possible, and what's desirable, in an urban environment. This is not to say that it's some kind of blank utopia in Detroit — the problems here are complicated and serious — but more than anywhere else I've lived, there is room for people to try things, to experiment, to take risks. The barrier for entry is low. As someone who aspires to bring risk and imagination into her writing life, this is inspiring ground to be in.
I also feel that stories in Detroit — and, more broadly, in Michigan and the Midwest — are desperately under-told in national media. They matter, and their absence leaves a real void; we're all at a loss for it. I find purpose in trying to fill some of that void with stories I write about Detroit. I hope to elevate different sorts of voices and ideas and narratives into a public conversation that is skewed heavily to the coasts. If I can reflect back those who excite and challenge me here in Detroit, I'll feel that I'm doing good work.
BT: English majors and folks who study the humanities have been getting a lot of media flack lately. What’s your take on all that?
AC: Well, I suppose I took a stance on this back in college, where I piled on the humanities with great vigor: I double majored in creative writing/literature and art history, and minored in crime and justice. And I was part of the Residential College at Michigan, which emphasized foreign languages and arts, and gave you written evaluations instead of grades. I remember once fretting about what I was going to do after college, and my mother tried to assure me by saying, "Don't worry, Anna — employers recruit at Michigan." But alas! Nobody recruits creative writing majors!
The fact that there isn't a job narrowly tagged to the study of humanities may give the impression that people who choose that realm — the realm of reading, writing, philosophy, language, culture, music, art, a realm invested in thought, feeling, and how people live — are not wanted in the "real world." The fact that art curriculums are being cut in many schools, and museums, orchestras, and indie booksellers are often battling for support, seems to confirm the impression that the humanities are nice, if you have the time, but are not actually that important. In our culture, the humanities seem to be diminished into nothing more than a hobby.
That makes no sense to me. And it's not just because the humanities are a home to me. I'm weary of business, political, and nonprofit worlds that presume bad writing is professional writing. All that jargon, throat-clearing, and, as George Orwell would put it, verbal false limbs — it stifles, and it's not honest. I'm tired of meeting people who have brilliant, important ideas, and aren't able to communicate them in a way that excite others to rally around them. In practical ways, the humanities unlock us, and put us in conversation with the world — present, past, future.
What's more, I come back to the understanding that true things aren't only found in true stories. Art and literature orient us to that other space, giving us a way to see what is real, whether we are paying attention to it or not. Here, then, is how we are made and how we are in the making.