Interview with Leah Olson: Q1 2021 Creative Nonfiction Third-Place Winner and Runner Up

Sunday, February 21, 2021
Leah’s Bio:
Leah Olson is an aspiring writer (mostly by night) and an attorney currently working as in-house counsel for a nonprofit network of charter schools (by day). After graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in journalism in 2007, she put her passion for writing on hold as she entered the professional abyss otherwise known as “being a Millennial in her twenties.” She spent two years working as a third grade teacher in Las Vegas with Teach For America before going to law school. She graduated from Harvard Law in 2012 and then spent four years working at two different corporate law firms in New York and San Francisco before moving on to the education sector. While she greatly enjoys her work, she has also recently rekindled her writing flame, primarily in the form of personal essays. She is currently working on a memoir about growing up as a biracial girl and transracial adoptee in white America. Her writing has appeared in HuffPost Personal, on the popular blog Scary Mommy, and in many publications on the platform Medium. She is a Maryland native but thoroughly enjoys living in Southern California with her husband and two young sons. 

If you haven't done so already, check out Leah's third-place story "I Want Dark Brown Skin Like You, Mommy!" and "Bushroot in the Flesh," which won runner up, and then return here for a chat with the author. 

WOW: Congratulations on placing both third and as a runner up in the Q1 2021 Creative Nonfiction Contest! How did you begin writing your third-place winning story “I Want Dark Brown Skin Like You, Mommy!”, and how did it and your writing processes evolve as you wrote? 

Leah: The second part of this question really speaks to me as an emerging writer in that I am still learning to accept that evolution is indeed a part of the writing process! My first iteration of this essay was so different and for a while I was almost embarrassed of that. But the more I write, the more I appreciate that writing is like peeling an onion. At first, I was writing about this experience with my son in comparison to my own memories of growing up with a mother who had a different skin color. As I touch on in the essay, I was adopted at birth by white parents. I didn't exactly expect to have that experience in reverse when I became a mom to biological children! But as I wrote, I realized that there is so much more to this. It's not just about comparing skin colors with a parent; it's about racial hierarchy and societal prejudice and my own identity issues. I went a lot deeper than I had originally expected – and yes, just like when I peel an actual onion, I may have shed a few tears in the process! 

WOW: I love to hear how writers’ stories evolve, so thank you for sharing your process. It sounds like it was a powerful experience for you. I have the same question for your story “Bushroot in the Flesh.” How did you begin writing it, and how did your process evolve? 

Leah: At the risk of coming across as over-the-top cheesy (or lazy!), I can extend the onion analogy to this piece too, but in a different way! This one STUNG when I first put it on paper. I seriously did not tell a soul about this incident until this year. This year! I'm a 35-year-old married mother of two and I still felt humiliated by something that happened to me as a teenager. So at first, I just wanted to get this story out and take a moment to see it on paper. At that point, it was basically a narrative recount of the incident in the dorms along with a lot of details about the psychological downward spiral that happened to me afterwards. As I wrote, though, I found my emotions about this starting to level out. The sting lost some of its power. I began to see it as something that I could learn from. I began to see this as something that not only can, but probably should, be shared. Writing has healing powers! 

WOW: Yes, writing can do such amazing things! It’s wonderful that it can give and take power away from memories and experiences. We are so fortunate that you shared your story with us! What else did you learn about yourself or your writing by creating these essays? 

Leah: I learned that it's okay to share your feelings even if you don't consider them to be final, or smooth, or pretty. I've spent so much of my life trying to come across as polished and put together and the explosion of social media during my formative coming-of-age years only exacerbated these tendencies. But there was something empowering about disarming that mindset through writing. 

WOW: Both of your award-winning stories have themes of race and privilege. In what ways have you written on these themes before? Or if you haven’t written on these themes, what prompted you to write and publish them now? 

Leah: I have written a lot about this on my Medium account. I've really appreciated that platform as a way to write and to connect with others who want to explore these topics (among many others). That platform has the option for reader comments and while I have encountered my fair share of trolls, most of the feedback has been constructive and I appreciate that. I have also been working on my memoir. That's maybe what prompted this whole essay writing pursuit in the first place. 

WOW: Can you tell us more about the memoir you’re writing? 

Leah: Thanks for asking! Writing can sometimes feel lonely, and talking about the work is motivation to keep going, right? My memoir weaves back and forth throughout my entire life in the form of stories. In these stories, I attempt to bring to life some of the biggest issues/struggles/conflicts that have been a constant part of my life as a biracial transracial adoptee growing up in predominantly-white, privileged America. These issues include: dating and making friends; appearance (in particular, styling my hair); fitting in with and getting ahead in elite, cutthroat competitive schools and then professional white worlds; my disconnect with various Black communities around me; choosing places to live; my perceived role and my identity challenges growing up in my multiracial family of eight; raising my own multiracial kids with my white husband. My first draft was linear – more like a life story on the theme of race. That was the only way it made sense to me. But as it has evolved, I've realized that there are issues that have grown up with me and by grouping them together more by topic, I - and hopefully my readers - can track my identity development (and, in some cases, lack thereof). It's also just fun to switch back and forth with my voice and my memories - sometimes writing as I feel right now, sometimes as my twentysomething early adult self, sometimes as a younger child. It has been a fun challenge and I am trying to make it become something that exists outside of my own computer hard drive! 

WOW: That sounds like such a fun process! And you’re touching on so many important issues. I would love to read this, so I hope it does find a way out of your own computer. Which creative nonfiction essays or writers have inspired you most, and in what ways did they inspire you? 

Leah: Oh gosh, it would be the total honest truth to say "so many" because I have read so many raw, vulnerable, powerful stories that bring a complete stranger to life and make me feel a full spectrum of emotions while sitting in my office, or car, or bedroom. I've read essays on subjects that I didn't think people were able or allowed to put on paper. I've read stories that make me weep or literally laugh out loud or think in my head, OMG I swore I was the only one who did/thought/noticed that!! All of that inspires me. But to call out a couple of these incredible pieces by name: 
  • "Who Gets to be Afraid in America?" by Ibram X. Kendi: A personal essay plus commentary centered on the fear of a Black man who wants to go out for a run, written in the aftermath of the Ahmaud Arbery murder. As a runner and the sister to four Black brothers and a woman of color, this gave me chills. It forced me to take a hard look at my own attitude as a person who has lived in comfortable worlds, largely "passing" as white. It did not sugarcoat and I felt like I needed to see this. 
  • "I'm on the bus to go see my son Henry at the hospital" by Rob Delaney, published on Medium. This is the harrowing account of a dad losing his two-year-old to a brain tumor. My son was two at the time I read this and I did not want to read it at first. I thought, I am going to spiral into anxiety about my absolute nightmare. And then I thought, tough sh*t, it's not always about you! I came across this essay and now I have the chance to meet a person who is surviving what used to be his nightmare, too, and he has the strength to share his story with us. Human to human. I really appreciate that bravery. 
  • "Moving On" by Nora Ephron, published in The New Yorker. I am inspired by Nora Ephron's ability to insert humor into an emotional, sensitive, heavy subject (starting over with her two young kids after a divorce). Sometimes it just feels good to laugh, even about the things that hurt. 

WOW: Thank you so much for those vivid descriptions of those inspiring essays. You’ve talked me into putting each one on my to-read list! If you could tell your younger-writing-self anything, what would it be? 

Leah: Don't be embarrassed! Be willing to learn and revise and revisit things but don't assign so much judgment against yourself if you end up changing something. If everyone waited to write until they felt like they had everything completely sorted out, we'd have nothing to read! 

WOW: So true! Anything else you’d like to add? 

Leah: A sincere thank you to all writers who take the bold move of sharing their personal stories and all of the readers who take the bold move of reading them. So many experiences can be triggering in so many different ways. But the deeper that we go as writers and readers, the more we learn about ourselves and each other. 

WOW: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughtful responses! We’re so glad you took the chance and submitted your writing to us. Keep it up, and happy writing! 

Interviewed by Anne Greenawalt, who keeps a blog of journal entries, memoir snippets, interviews, training logs, book reviews, and profiles of writers and competitive sportswomen. She is actively building her writing community on Twitter and would love to connect with other writers there!



Sioux Roslawski said...

Leah--Congrats. A 3rd place winner and a runner-up in the same contest? Wow, that's impresssive.

I enjoyed reading both. I have a friend who has two kids, and she--like you--has a clone of herself, and her husband has his own clone. It's crazy how genetics works.

Keep working on your memoir. We need stories from different voices. Good luck, and congratulations again.

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