Writers on Writers

Jenny Zenner: A Wake of Happiness

jzheadshotA profile of Jenny Zenner

by Roselle Kovitz




A Wake of Happiness

Despite coming from an unexpectedly long meeting, getting caught in heavy traffic from Bellevue, and arriving late for our interview, Jenny walked into The Scoop @ Walter’s without a hint of stress. As soon as she sat down, she calmly, directly told me she was ready.

I’d met Jenny at several BWC events before we crossed paths earlier this year at Wisdom 2.0 in San Francisco, a conference focused on mindfulness and technology. In each conversation with her, I noticed she had a calm presence and clear vision of what’s important in her life.

Raised on a fourth generation farm in Idaho devoted to sustainability, it’s not surprising that she finds connection and meaning in nature. “I really like those primitive truths–those that once you realize them you cannot deny,” she explained. “For example, eating actual food allows our bodies to do better.”

A 400-meter hurdler at Washington State University, Jenny headed back east to earn an MBA and M.Ed. in sport and exercise psychology at the University of Virginia. It was on a stopover in Seattle during a trip home to Idaho from grad school that brought her to Seattle. “When I listened to people talk,” she said of the brief layover, “I felt like I had arrived home. It felt like where I was connected and where my roots were.” After nearly nine years on the east coast, she moved to Seattle in 2005.

In 2008, she wove together her love of nature, exercise, nutrition, psychology, and eastern spiritual traditions into SEEDS, what she calls “a self-check mnemonic (sleep, eat, engage, dance, smile) to bring you positively into the present in as many moments as you can muster.”

Using this combination of practices, Jenny herself has found a way to live a full, yet healthy life. She has structured her work so she can spend time with her family, especially her two young sons. “When the boys’ great grandmother was ailing, I was able to take them to see her,” she told me. “The boys ran past the oxygen carts and down the hall, leaving a wake of happiness. I want my family to be able to do that whenever we can.”

In addition to nature and family, Jenny’s other passion is helping people. “Helping has been a key theme for me lately—and giving myself permission to serve.” A senior recruiter at Expedia and a part time yoga teacher, Jenny loves connecting people—to work, to resources, like yoga, and to each other. She also loves challenging them to be and to do their best. “I have lots of ways I can do that,” she notes.

One of the most recent ways she is doing that is by writing a book. It’s a combination of self-help and memoir, she says, weaving together themes of mindfulness, yoga, nutrition, and positive psychology. Writing it, she tells me, Is actually helping her to be a better person. “In learning memoir I found out you have to wait until the story is over [to write it].” With that in mind, she regularly asks herself how she wants to look in a particular “scene.” “I don’t want to have to edit it to make me look better,” she confides.

As we finish up the interview, Jenny gathers her things to head home to her husband and twin boys. “My boys,” she tells me, make me incredibly happy.” She then disappears out the door, back to that wake of happiness.

Don Kentop: Brooklyn to Ballard

Don Kentop has been reading his work in progress at the It’s About Time Writers’ Reading Series at the Ballard Library for the last few years. It’s a stunning work, highlighting an infamous chapter in American labor history.



Brooklyn to Ballard by Peggy Sturdivant

from Ballard News-Tribune. February 12, 2014

While many in Seattle were focused on what would become a historic moment first in a New York stadium on New Jersey soil and then in downtown Seattle there was another historic moment taking place. Janet Yellen was sworn in as the first woman to be Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. This interested me as a woman, as the daughter of an economist, but it actually came closest to home for me sitting across from Donald Kentop.

Like Yellen, Don Kentop was born and raised in Brooklyn. He graduated from Thomas Jefferson H.S. in 1952; Yellen graduated Valedictorian from Fort Hood H.S. in 1963. They were both educated in public high schools in Brooklyn, New York; neither of them at the legendary magnet Stuyvesant High School. Yellen couldn’t attend Stuyvesant because she was female.

Even before Yellen’s high school years Kentop was studying history at New York University. One day he happened to read a plaque on an academic building in Washington Square. That’s how he learned that NYU’s campus included the building formerly known as the Asch Building, the site of what was the deadliest fire in American labor history: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911.

Although the fire that led to the death of 147 workers, almost all young immigrant workers, mostly female, had been a scandal and a rallying cause for unions and worker safety in the early 1900s, it had been mostly forgotten by the late 50s, eclipsed by the sinking of the Titanic, the Stock Market Crash, and two World Wars. There were just three plaques. But with the 50th anniversary, just when Kentop had been recalled to the Army Reserves during the 1961 Berlin Crisis, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire regained its role in labor history, even as it continues to serve as grim counterpoint to ongoing conditions in factories overseas.

Kentop went on to live a full life, one that eventually brought his family to Seattle, and to Ballard. However the memory of that relatively inconspicuous plaque stayed with Kentop, from his years writing song lyrics for a friend’s music in Brooklyn, through the teaching degree he never used, the time in the Army, his marriage to a Canadian nurse he met at Columbia, years in sales for 3M and then a second act after traveling with his family in a VW Camper Van through Europe for a year in the 70s. An adventure that proved to him, “There were choices in life.”

After retirement as a Drug & Alcohol counselor at Ballard Hospital and later Ballard Swedish, Kentop returned to writing, which had mostly been a youthful pursuit. He was interested in poetry, at first thinking that it looked easy, so he could do it too. As he became more interested in the craft, completing a poetry program through the UW’s certificate program, he became less and less confident. “It’s very hard,” he realized.

For the last 10-12 years he has been involved in poetry groups and coordinated poetry readings in Fremont. He’s had a chapbook published through Rose Alley Press and used mostly free verse to explore social issues. Perhaps unconsciously triggered by a return to student days the subject of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire drew his attention. He began reading the newspaper accounts, oral histories from survivors recorded in their later years, trial transcripts, obituary notices.

The result is a book length collection of poems, “Frozen by Fire” that is in its final writing stages, and will be accompanied by archival photographs from Cornell University’s collection. Kentop has been reading selections at various literary events, including the monthly “It’s About Time Writers’ Reading” series at the Ballard Library. Once published Kentop hopes to be able to present his work at schools and organizations. Although there are excellent books and studies on the subject Kentop doesn’t know of any other poetry collections that are dedicated to the subject of the fire.

From the time that I first heard Kentop read from “Frozen by Fire” to when we sat down for an interview I was struck by how I would never have taken the tall, deep-voiced man with Brooklyn still in his voice for a poet. A stalwart attendee at the second Thursday of the month library event, but a self-described introvert, Kentop credits his wife Carol for getting him to interact as much with the world as he does.

Kentop always knew that facts and lives of that infamous day could not be reduced to a plaque on a building. The conditions that included so many immigrants, locked doors, underage workers and inhumane labor practices must not be forgotten, and they still exist. In less than half an hour the lives surrounding those of 500 people working on the upper floors of the Asch Building were tragically altered; 147 victims, and not a survivor, witness or victim’s family left unscarred. Over half of the fatalities were teenagers for whom education was not even a choice.

This collection has become the life work that Kentop is meant to share. First indicted but later acquitted the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory owners ultimately had to pay out just $75 for each life lost. Fifty years later a girl in Brooklyn still couldn’t attend the best high school. But now, 113 years later there can perhaps be some reckoning in history, as far from Brooklyn Kentop gives voice to the lives of young women who jumped rather than be burned alive, and a girl from Brooklyn becomes Chair of the Federal Reserve.

Sheila Kelly on Collin Tong

Collin TongOne Journalist’s Journey

I walked into a Sunset Hill coffee shop in north Ballard one crisp autumn Saturday morning and went directly to the counter to order my double short latte (it was early and it was cold and I was about to interview someone I had never met but had read about).  A man from a group at a nearby table stepped forward and said, “Are you looking for Collin?  He’s over there” and pointed me to a man sitting alone with his tablet at a sunlit table in the northeast corner.  I took my latte and joined him and learned that Collin Tong visits the cafe most every morning and joins the group of friends he had been meeting with for years.  He was clearly at home in the space, this piece of the Ballard neighborhood where he has lived for twenty-six years.

Collin knows about roots in a place. He was born and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  His grandfather and father, both immigrants from China, arrived there in 1920 and started a Chinese candy and grocery store, the Wing Hop Company.  Collin’s mother was a seamstress. Their family life revolved around friends in the Chinatown community, “especially our Tong Family Association and church.”

As a youth, Collin didn’t really think about being a writer, but he took note when two of his English teachers at Lowell High School “both recognized and encouraged my writing”.  At his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Redlands, still asserting that “journalism was never my chosen profession”, he wrote for the college weekly.  He admits that at some level he thought about being a journalist, but “wasn’t sure I could make a living at it.” He majored in history and then taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand following graduation.

In the summer of 1976, after doctoral studies in East Asian history at University of California, Berkeley and a brief stint teaching at Lone Mountain College in San Francisco, Collin was a Michele Clark Fellow at the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.  Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large was also a graduate of the same program, which trained promising minority journalists for full-time reporting positions at daily newspapers.  But Collin says he was “not ready for journalism” at the time because he hadn’t yet developed the requisite “fire in the belly.”

In 1971, his heart found a home even more satisfying than being a college lecturer.  He met Linda Young. Three weeks after their first date, he proposed. They married Sept 19, 1971. He was 25, she 24.  They moved to Seattle in 1977 and settled in Ballard in 1987. Collin worked a variety of jobs including public affairs director for the Alliance for Education, and senior director of communications for Washington State University.

In 2005, Linda was diagnosed with Younger Onset Alzheimer’s at age 57.   Two years later Collin took early retirement to care for her.  He knew little about caretaking but he knew how to research.  He learned that few books were available at that time.  To describe his state of mind, he used the words of Dante “In the midway of my life, I woke to find myself in a wood so dark that straight and honest ways were gone, and light was lost.”  He joined a caregiver support group and kept his own journal.   After Linda died in 2011, his friend Jerry Large encouraged him to write about what it was like to be a caregiver.

Collin took on the assignment as a new kind of journalistic challenge because it touched deeply into his own life. The project resulted in a book, Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s (January 2014), an anthology of stories told in the first person by twenty-three caregivers, Collin among them.  Finding caregivers willing to write down their experiences took almost four years.  He coached his contributors so they tell authentic stories that are not airbrushed. He believes that “stories are powerful — they help us navigate some of life’s complex problems and provide self-understanding.”

Collin chose the title Into the Storm because “it describes being swept into the maelstrom, where life is upended, and the bottom pulled out from under you.”  His hope for the book is to connect caregivers because he knows “you cannot get through the Alzheimer’s caregiving journey alone.” He is committed to doing outreach to foster greater public awareness of Alzheimer’s as a major health challenge.

After his wife’s health required him to take early retirement, Collin left behind his roles as communications director and began doing freelance writing.  As he describes it, he “drifted back into journalism.”  Glancing over his cumulative output of articles and features, he is no longer drifting but firmly anchored in journalism. He is a contributing writer for Crosscut News and University Outlook magazine.  At Crosscut, he writes prolifically on community and global health, education, environment, politics, diversity, and travel.  His writing weaves together his life and his work.  Completing his book, Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s, honors the memory of his wife and it has helped in his own healing.

Despite the protestations and disclaimers of his early years, the reluctant journalist revels in his work.  As we say goodbye in the still sunlit cafe, Collin underlines that truth, “I am now living my dream.”

Shin Yu Pai profiled by Peggy Sturdivant

shin yu paiA place to call home

Shin Yu Pai’s most recent poetry collection was partly inspired by not belonging to a place. She already feels that will not be the case as a Ballard Writer.

Originally from California, Pai’s past moves have been for purposes of study or jobs. While working in Texas she met her future husband; they moved here in 2007 for her intended Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Washington. After two years they moved instead to Arkansas, returning to Seattle in 2012, this time to Ballard, fittingly for her Texas-born Swedish-American husband.

Pai’s vita, which includes teaching, several poetry collections, commissioned works, artist-in-residence at Seattle Art Museum, an MFA from the School of Art Institute of Chicago, curatorial experience and her own visual art and photography, is daunting. Friend and BWC writer and poet Carol Levin puts it simply, “Shin Yu’s brilliant.”

As an example of this I had to have Shin Yu explain the title of her new book to me, “Aux Arcs.” Even though this would be pronounced in French at “o-zarks” I had not made the connection to Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains. She explained the etymology, probably derived from the French term for the region that cartographers drew as the largest bend or arc in the lower Arkansas River and a starting point for exploring the Ozark Mountains. More personally Pai sees her time in Arkansas as its own arc, possibly a detour that put her off uncomfortably off-track.

“I came to this place as a professional. I’d framed my life around work,” she said of her position with a philanthropic organization based near Little Rock. While there Pai traveled almost monthly for work and welcomed the opportunity to be away from Arkansas and how it informed her poetry. As a partner in a bi-racial marriage she experienced race and gender issues that ultimately made her reconsider choosing location as a function of work. Pai and her husband decided to return to Seattle, initially without jobs, making “a leap of faith.”

As they were literally crossing the state lines leaving Arkansas Pai realized how much she longed to belong to a place, as though it became most obvious when Arkansas was in the rear view mirror. Yet she still needed to explore her relation to the place where she had been living. This is a different twist on place-based writing, more akin to the way an artist might use negative space, allowing what’s unfilled to illuminate.  Paul Constant, writing in The Stranger said of this collection, “Cut as they are from sheets of pure red rage, Pai stitches her words into something undeniably beautiful.”

In “Aux Arcs” many of the poems dissect what made Arkansas a place that Pai didn’t belong, concluding with a sense of coming to terms with her relation to that place. In “Ozarks” she writes of the mountains and ends with these lines:

I am one w/the summits

when decamping.

Like so many of us, either by luck of birth or by some instinct, Pai has chosen Ballard as her place to settle. Our meeting was in part an announcement to the Ballard community that she wants to make this place home.


Cedar Burnett profiled by Helen Landalf

Tattoo 1cedar head shotCedar 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.

Tattoo 2Burnett 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 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.

Tattoo 3Burnett’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 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.

Roselle Kovitz – A profile by Angie McCullagh

It was in the sunny college town of Claremont, California that Roselle Kovitz, daughter of a radio man and an artist-teacher mom, discovered her love for writing. She says that Claremont, designed to echo ivy league schools, along with her parents’ high regard for education, contributed to her curiosity and interest in learning. 

An imaginative kid, she found it easy to submerge herself in stories and ideas.
Ironically, a love for reading never bit her as hard as the writing bug. “My mother was puzzled by the fact that, at an early age, I excelled at writing even though I didn’t have the same appetite for reading.”
Although Roselle gravitates toward nonfiction, she was drawn to Willa Cather’s description of the prairie years before moving to Nebraska, enjoys Maya Angelou and John O’Donohue, among others, and paging through one of her favorites, The Sun Magazine.
“When I read something lyrical, beautiful or stunning, either in the way it’s written or the message it conveys, it can shift or open something in me. I want my writing to connect with people in that way.”
Nowadays, Roselle pens essays and poetry. She writes, she says, as a process of discovery and a way to connect with herself and others. She also writes web content professionally and co-authored the book A History of Public Broadcasting (
Ballard is a great place for her writerly existence. “I love the combination of the water and evergreens. Ballard is small enough to feel quite comfortable, with all the benefits of the city. I’ve gotten to know some wonderful and talented people here whom I treasure and who teach me about writing and life.”
Though she isn’t married, she claims a wonderful step-daughter and enjoys walks, yoga, lingering conversations with friends and, occasionally collage.
Her dreams for the future are varied and, yes, imaginative. She occasionally fantasizes about designing shoes for vegetarians (she went to shoe school in Port Townsend years ago) and creating a television series about a healing center in the San Juan Islands. Mostly though, she says she wants to become more present, loving, compassionate, and creative. As far as writing goes, if those qualities were to spill into other’s lives through Roselle’s words, “that,” she says,  ”would be wonderful.”

A Profile of Carol Levin

By Carl Deuker

Carol among her books

Carol Levin

Sing! That’s what Carol Levin’s mother—blessed with an operatic voice– commanded. “Sing, Daughter, Sing. Sing like me.”

Music was in Carol’s house as she grew up. Music and a mother, but an absent father. Carol would come home from school and lose herself in scarves and blankets, as she twirled about her room, an only child dancing before thousands in her imagination. The love of music was in her blood, but she did not inherit the voice, much to her mother’s disappointment. “Sing, Daughter.” Read more →

Rita Bresnahan – Rich In Words

By Roselle Kovitz

On a wet fall morning, Rita Bresnahan welcomed me into her condo overlooking Shilshole Bay. Both of us stood for a few minutes, captivated by the view of masts set against the deep blue of the Puget Sound, trailing off into the horizon. Like the water that reached out in front of us, behind her smiling eyes, Rita seems vast, deep, playful and mysterious. She giggles at her good fortune to wake to this view every day, especially so, since she grew up in the Midwest on the edge of the Great Depression.

She was the second oldest of six in a devout Catholic family. “Our family was very poor, but oh so rich in the ways that count the most, what brings life meaning: love, spirit, values.”

Education was also important in her family, and all her siblings went on to finish college. Rita herself earned a BA in education and theology, an MSW, and a Ph.D. in psychology and spirituality. She taught for nearly 50 years, across subjects and grades, from elementary to high school, college and graduate school. For 35 years, she was a psychotherapist and for 25, a spiritual director, something she continues on a part time basis.

Rita loves to travel, and has spent extended time in South America, Africa and Europe. She also has a passion for being in nature, especially for the mountains. She even scaled sixteen of the14,000 foot peaks in Colorado!

In 1981, when the waters of the Northwest beckoned, she made her way to Seattle. She walks with friends or family along those waters nearly every day. Shortly after arriving here, she began teaching in the grad psych department at Antioch University, and at the Institute for Theological Studies at Seattle University.

“My work has always held deep meaning for me,” she says. And it has been quite diverse: as a social worker in the poverty areas of Illinois; also with special needs children, with troubled teens in a residential setting, and with elders at Foss Home. Through the years Rita has found ways to help people make sense of life by listening, and letting their own truth reveal itself—whether with a toddler examining a leaf, or with her mother when her mind was slipping away.

In Walking One Another Home: Moments of Grace and Possibility in the Midst of Alzheimer’s, published in 2003, Rita documents her extended visits with her mother as she succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Rita has heard from hundreds of readers who were inspired and helped by her story. To honor Alzheimer’s Day in 2009, BBC Mondo featured Rita responding to questions from readers of the Spanish version of her book on their BBC Latin American Service.

Rita writes what she calls “real-life narrative” and has “some 200 stories, poems and other material in its rawest form, just waiting to be called upon…or not,” she says. She is ever on the alert for “everyday kinds of poems.” “There is so much to marvel at, every day. I write when I’m touched by something or surprised…These days, I write mostly about times with the three children I play with nearly every day.” Whether talking about her nieces and nephews or her contemporaries, there is a sense of play in her eyes and in the way she speaks—sometimes with a bit of a lilt.

She’s an alumna of Hedgebrook, on the staff of Crone: Women Coming of Age, a frequent keynote speaker for conferences. She has offered hundreds of workshops, such as “With a Laughing Spirit,” “Aging as a Spiritual Journey,” “Creating Joy in Caregiving,” and “Leaving a Spiritual Legacy.” She also coaches aspiring writers.
Rita’s stories, poems and reflections have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul, and also in A Time to Weep, A Time to Sing: Faith Journeys of Women Scholars of Religion.

As I left, Rita’s joy followed me, reminding me that it is available anywhere along the journey for us to take. She revels in the contentment of her “crone” years and time with her peers, as much as that she spends with her young nieces and nephews, hiking in the mountains, or meditating. In talking with her and reading her writing, it appears that when life’s winds kick up, she goes deep into the stillness where she finds an abiding sense of calm.

“Remember who you are,” her parents regularly reminded her, meaning that being in the Bresnahan family was a mark of honor. Now, Rita’s family is a vast one—like the Sound outside her window. Whether she’s writing about 3 year old Emma’s latest discovery, or her mother’s last days, her parents’ words seem to echo forward. Through her writing and her life, she seems to remember not only who she is, but who we all are.

Read Ballard Writers on other Ballard Writers every couple of weeks. If you join our group, you may enter your name on a slip of paper and put it in Bob Dalrymple’s hat. We’ll draw the name of someone for you to profile and someone else to profile you. Who will it be? The surprise is all part of the fun. Today, Roselle Kovitz profiles Rita Bresnahan.

A brief account of the whole Ingrid Ricks

by Carol Levin


A photo montage showing a variety of subjects in profile.


No, Ingrid Ricks’ photo is not here. I invited her to talk about herself in order to gather more than a side view for her profile. She is, happily, very fluent. What follows, of course, is through the filter of my own perception, some of which may be inaccurate. I did not record it besides fragments of notes in pencil in a notebook.

I suggested she begin by recalling objects as touchstones for prompts, sort of an animated object autobiography.  But Ingrid vibrates with what she wants to communicate so the conversation slopped over the edges of objects and flowed along unaided. There is a celebration of life and self within.

If you haven’t already met Ingrid, she’s a not very tall bundle of energy that not only vibrates as she speaks, but even exudes ebullience when she’s listening.

If you have read (and I hope you have) her book, Hippie Boy, you know what she has chosen for you to know about herself up to age sixteen. And, wow, that is a compelling, dynamic story.  So as she described the first object she thought of, it was connected to the journey she writes about in Hippie Boy. At least I could easily envision her reaction as she described the drawing she saw, when at age 23, on an assignment as a reporter for a small Burien, WA newspaper she interviewed a fellow named Byron Fish. On his wall was a drawing of a naked man running on a beach with a caption “Free at last.” Now she owns this object and it continues to reverberate for her in various ways. One way, signifies to her, her “escaped childhood.” Another, the lessons her father taught by instilling in her a sense of freedom. Her motto, probably her father’s too: You go out and create the life you want for you self.

While still at the Burien newspaper she remembers the moment she first met the feisty outspoken artist, William Cumming, (a member of the Northwest School of art) a motivator in a way, for her. Cumming had a reputation, he did things his way. But at that time he told her he had stopped painting, worked construction and Ingrid asked “how could you abandon your work?”– she vowed never to do that. Of course his path changed. Maybe “paths” are an object in this story.

As she thought about objects she said she is not a collector. Actually, I had not expected her to be. It wouldn’t be compatible with her dedication to freedom. But she described how she enjoys her collection of cards of mottos and aphorisms. These particular objects support her belief, “You don’t have to live in the box others create for you,” “No boundaries” and so on.

Illustrating, not being stuck, she told how she leveraged her little reporter job by taking a flying leap to interview for a job at the Seattle Times and without much experience was hired as a freelance writer for three of the paper’s bureaus!

Well, she married and moved with her husband, John, to Pittsburgh working jobs to help him through law school. Free-lancing at an alternative paper until she went to work at an ad agency. The object representing this time of her life is the notation she made on her calendar the very moment she was hired at the agency– She marked the exact number of days until she could quit the job.

She describes how, after returning to Seattle and having two daughters she felt (and I paraphrase) she’d dropped out. “Lost a part of herself.” She felt stuck in PR and Marketing. How she’d kept planning to write her book, and even though she was repeatedly encouraged by her husband, she kept putting it off, in some way, abandoning herself, her work. An object precipitated a shift in this state of being. It came from her daughter who wrote thanking Ingrid for “teaching me to get my dreams.” Invigorated, Ingrid launched into getting her dream. Wrote Hippie Boy and sent it into the world swept along by her momentum to do the job. She utilizes the skills she has honed throughout her career in promotion to promote her own work. Employing print on demand, e-books and all alternative avenues to get her work seen and heard. Many objects.

She worries about not being able to stay on her “path” to continue the in freedom that is so precious to her. She has good reason to be concerned and is actually discovering her path is deviating from the original plan. This is where I mention how often I had noticed her use of the word, focus. I noticed it before I knew the weight this word represents. Now we know that about eight years ago she was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a rare degenerative eye disease. She hid this information and as she says “It’s exhausting to make up excuses for not seeing.”  She has discovered how freeing it is to reveal yourself to others. In other interviews Ingrid tells of her trip to Africa after the shock of her diagnosis, how the impact of being with a community of destitute people dying AIDES propelled her to find a perspective, a relativity, in regard to what was happening to her own self.

I myself, think of life as ongoing random encounters that tumble and twirl to lead you where you never expected to be. In the context of unexpected, Ingrid’s participation working with students came about when English teacher, Marjie Bowker, invited her to use Hippie Boy to inspire the students at Scriber Lake High School to tell their own stories. (this is the short version of this event) In the end “We are Absolutely Not Okay” came into being, expanding the lives of the students, future students and a path for Ingrid herself. Now Ingrid has recently published “Focus” her memoir devoted to her current journey. Learning to see in new ways and demonstrating her ingenuity to live in an altered world.

As our conversation came close to ending we went back to the subject of objects. I love it when suddenly we remember significant information after we think we are done looking for it.

She remembered that she keeps an old battered spiral bound notebook with bubble lettering, the notebook filled with the “accounts” she kept for her father’s business those long ago days they were on the road together.  She remembered, when she was thirteen, in her locker at school she kept a silkscreen calendar of a picture her father. She remembers objects of her life.

I asked if she’d discovered anything she hadn’t expected to as she was writing “Focus.”  First she said no. Then she made a reference to how she’s come to realize that her evolving skills, that she has been fine-tuning, in speaking with groups is a path she will continue to employ. In addition to her own writing, of course. Building bridges to understanding by telling her stories in service of encouraging everyone to tell theirs. That everyone has something they are dealing with in their life, how, mostly we think we need to hide it because we will appear weak if people know. Ingrid has discovered that what frees people  – us  — is to tell our story. She knows she is absolutely free when she is teaching, supporting and invigorating people do this very potent act. When we understand that, as I say it in my own words, we have so much we can learn from each other in order to discover more than just a side view.


Read Ballard Writers on other Ballard Writers every couple of weeks. If you join our group, you may enter your name on a slip of paper and put it in Bob Dalrymple’s hat. We’ll draw the name of someone for you to profile and someone else to profile you. Who will it be? The surprise is all part of the fun. Today, Carol Levin profiled Ingrid Ricks.


Nina Laden: The Whole Package

By Peggy Sturdivant

Nina Laden

Nina Laden admits, “Ever since I was born I’ve been trying to do the whole package.” Although referring to writing and illustrating books the statement could apply to all aspects of her life.

She is so creative she can barely hear a word without realizing its story potential, gather shells without creating jewelry, or pick berries without making her own liqueur (and labels).

Nina credits her creativity in part to genetics; her parents were both artists. From the time she could hold a crayon she was drawing. At three she was folding paper into books and dictating stories to her mother. She completed her first book, “The Unbearable Bird,” at nine years old; including a dedication to her 4th grade teacher and handwritten copyright. With every single school assignment she included full-page color illustrations.

A framed illustration from her 4th grade book hangs on the wall of her Ballard home office, next to the bookshelf with first editions of some of her 13 books in print, above the oak file drawer that belonged to her mother and holds every sketchbook journal she’s kept since a teenager.

The journals hold ideas for projects already realized and still to come. Hence a notebook is always close by, because that way no idea is ever lost. When Nina visits schools or speaks to groups about inspiring creativity she passes on her most important lesson, “Never tear out any pages.” In the journal drawer there’s a gift from a high school friend who must have been wise beyond her years. The journal was one continuous page so Nina couldn’t tear anything out.

These journals and notebooks contain sketches as well as ideas, including one of her teacher Tobias Wolff at Syracuse University who was surprised to learn she was a Fine Arts major rather than one in Creative Writing. The writing was intuitive, she wanted to master illustration so she could create that full package. Nina also wanted to have her first book published by the time she was 30 years old. The Night I Followed the Dog was in bookstores when she was thirty-two.

In the 18 years since that children’s book Nina has had 12 more books published, illustrated three others, won numerous national awards and has a book she authored due out in December 2013, through Little, Brown. She also has a young adult novel being “shopped” by her agent and several other projects in various stages. Her picture book Peek-A-Who was on Scholastic’s 100 Greatest Books for Kids list that was released in 2012.

Since her youthful desire for publishing Nina has acquired more patience, realizing that even time not spent illustrating in her studio or writing in her office is creative time. However she wishes she did have more time to devote to work. Along with her husband Booth she raised three stepsons and the last years have had more than their share of challenges, Booth’s father’s death, her father’s mental illness. Nina’s mother died when she was in her mid-twenties; Nina hopes she somehow knows of her success in creating award-winning children’s books.

“The story is what matters to me the most,” Nina said. “I can draw in any style but the story is what brings a child back over and over.” Even though for the first time she won’t be illustrating the forthcoming Once Upon A Memory it is her story and rhyme. “I’ve never been accused of warm and fuzzy,” she said referring to the publisher’s concept for this book, “but the collaboration has been a great symbiosis.”

Although raised in Queens and then New York State Nina came to Seattle by way of Atlanta.

She met her future husband Booth Buckley in Atlanta. On a subsequent visit to him in Seattle, “The coffee blew my mind.” After all she was a child raised by New York artists, with her mother stirring a teaspoon of espresso into her milk. Now she stirs a teaspoon of milk into her Kenyan coffee, her mother’s stovetop espresso makers still very much part of her spotless kitchen. What could she do but move here and buy a house in Ballard?

The 1903 Ballard Farmhouse is another one of Nina’s artistic creations, along with her husband Booth. “The history of the house is written on the walls.” It’s true, the original owner did write on the walls. In the backyard she has a studio and Booth has a garage and storage for their kayaks. Just as in her speech everything but the exterior of the house speaks to the creativity percolating inside night and day. Nina had the idea to use aluminum diamond plate in the kitchen, usually seen only on semi-trucks. From cooking to jewelry making to book projects, “I have never ever been without ideas,” Nina says.

Just as in her illustrations Nina Laden doesn’t get described as warm and fuzzy. Her mind is too sharp, her past too dark. Possibly her contradictions create the tension at the root of all compelling stories. She’s anti-social by nature and yet appears to open her life to others in words and photos on-line, through website, blog and Facebook. Her energy is incredible yet she claims to know that rest is essential. On the eve of what life has most recently put across her tracks, her husband’s need for triple bypass surgery, she’s as fierce and yet nurturing as a mother bear. When Nina Laden says, “No one will get between me and my husband’s life,” know that she means every word, with or without illustrations.

Read Ballard Writers on other Ballard Writers every couple of weeks. If you join our group, you may enter your name on a slip of paper and put it in Bob Dalrymple’s hat. We’ll draw the name of someone for you to profile and someone else to profile you. Who will it be? The surprise is all part of the fun. Today, Peggy Sturdivant profiled Nina Laden.

You can read more about Nina Laden at her website,

And thanks Ballard News Tribune, for letting Peggy reprint her article here.