Cedar Burnett has three tattoos. She acquired the first, the Winnie the Pooh that adorns her ankle, at the ripe old age of 15 – the same age at which she committed to being a writer.
Her early interest in writing isn’t surprising, since she grew up in the Bryant/Ravenna neighborhood of Seattle in a house full of books, with a mom who was an English teacher and an older sister who, according to Burnett, is a better writer than she is. Her parents met in a Christian commune in Switzerland. They named their daughter after the Cedar trees of Lebanon, which are known for their deep roots, in hopes that she would grow up grounded. She spent her childhood in Seattle’s damp weather and coffeehouse culture, and by the time she was in high school, she was hanging out at Bauhaus on Capital Hill, sporting a beret and smoking clove cigarettes as she penned plays. Then she won the National Council of Teachers of English essay contest, and a vision of herself as an essayist began to take shape.
When she went off to college at Evergreen, though, she studied everything but writing. Following some advice she’d heard, she instead set out to explore the subjects she thought she might be interested in writing about, including History, American Studies, and Russian Literature. After graduation she moved to Minneapolis, where she worked in the music industry and had the dubious distinction of having Hank Williams III grab her ass on a tour bus. From there it was back to Seattle for a stint in fundraising at KPLU, until, finally, she began her career as a freelancer willing to write about anything that someone will pay her to write about.
Burnett wears her second tattoo, the Neverending Story image on her back, as a proud badge of her self-professed status as a nerd who relishes composing articles, essays, and posts about pop culture. The topics she covers don’t end there, though, as she’s the first to admit that she’s “freakishly curious” and refuses to specialize. She has written on such diverse subjects as travel, home and garden, politics, and health for outlets ranging from parentmap.com to Fox News to the Wall Street Journal – and, most recently, the New York Times.
Her accomplishments are even more amazing when you factor in the fact that she has a two-year-old daughter and a maximum of just two full days per week to devote to writing. Motherhood has forced her to be efficient; she has no time for writer’s block. It has also, according to her, destroyed her ego – which, in terms of her freelance career, is a good thing. She maintains that freelancing requires “no ego and 100% tenacity” because you have to deal with constant rejection and editing of your precious work, yet still maintain the strength to keep going. Part of the reason she’s successful, she believes, is that she uses humiliation to spur herself on.
Burnett’s third tattoo, the whipworm on her abdomen, is the emblem of a more personal challenge, her quest to heal her ulcerative colitis, a form of Irritable Bowel Disease that she struggles with on a daily basis. Unlike its more benign cousin, IBS, which can be controlled with diet, IBD is a lifelong condition with no easy cure. But in typical Cedar Burnett style, rather than letting the disease stop her, she has used it to fuel her writing
In addition to writing blog posts about her disease, Burnett has penned a book on being a mother with ulcerative colitis titled Does This Diaper Make Me Look Fat? In it, she writes candidly about the challenges of taking care of someone else when you can barely take care of yourself. The book also details her attempts to heal herself through any means, including swallowing parasitic worms – thus the whipworm tattoo. Although Salon.com published an excerpt from Does This Diaper Make Me Look Fat, Burnett wonders whether the traditional publishing world “is…ready for a book about crapping your pants.”
Publishing her book, either traditionally or indie-style, is only one of Cedar Burnett’s goals. Her other two are to be heard on public radio’s “This American Life” and to have an essay published in the “Modern Love” section of the New York Times. With her track record, she’ll most likely accomplish all three. And if she does, maybe she’ll add a fourth tattoo.