By day, Catapult Writing Program alumna Amanda Woytus is a writer in New York City. At night (and on her lunch breaks and over the weekend), Woytus is the creator and host of the podcast Life TK, on which she asks her favorite women writers over twenty about their twenties. They talk about the weird jobs they had, the times when they felt like their love for writing was something that would always stay in their journal, and more. This year, the Journalism and Women Symposium honored Amanda as their 2017 Entrepreneurial Fellow for her work on Life TK. On her website, you can read her writing about sweat, Target, rosé, the Baby-Sitters Club, and more.
Life TK arose out of the desire to reach women in the twenty-something grind: the ones that haven’t figured it out yet, the ones that need a guiding voice of encouragement and reassurance. In Life TK’s first episode, Amanda talks with Catapult Instructor Leigh Stein about her journey to a successful writing career. I was lucky to interview Amanda about her experience with the podcast, writing, and more.
What inspired this project?
I've always been interested in reading about what women writers, and people in general, were doing before they found success. But I had taken it to the perhaps unhealthy point where I was calculating what they were doing at my exact age. If Gloria Steinem was born in 1934, that means she wrote "I Was a Playboy Bunny" when she was X number years old. Then I’d decide if that meant I was a failure for not having achieved anything similar at that same age.
My aha moment came when I was listening to David Remnick interview Sarah Koenig on the New Yorker Radio Hour. Koenig had worked in newspapers before going into radio—in fact, she and Remnick both reported in Moscow at the same time—and she said she was a bad fit for newspaper writing because she liked collecting all the little details that make a scene. Those are the first things to get slashed for fit. And one day Koenig heard This American Life on the radio and thought, “That’s what I want to do.”
Listening to that, I thought, “Wow, here is someone who set the world on fire, but for part of her career, she admits she was bad at what she was doing.” Then I thought about how bios always state how a person got his or her start, skip over all the not-so-interesting jobs she held in her twenties, and then talk about her more remarkable achievements. It makes sense—who wants to hear about all the dud jobs someone did before breaking through? I decided I wanted to.
I guess you could say I selfishly created this project so women I admire could give me career and writing advice, but judging from the feedback I’ve received, a lot of other people out there are floundering the same way I am. The kicker is that about a month before I was ready to launch, I got laid off, so my life seriously was—and still is—TK.
How do you choose who you interview? Is there something they’ve done that has impacted you?
There are two ways I’ve lined up interviews. First, when I started conceptualizing Life TK, I made a list of dream interviewees. These were women whose books or articles or poetry I’ve read and loved, and whose careers I’ve followed for a while. Second, I posted Life TK in some social media groups, and I was floored when women emailed me to say: “Hey, this is a cool project. I volunteer to be interviewed.” Both groups’ writing and generosity have changed me as a person. I can’t get some people I work with to answer my emails; I’m a stranger to these women, yet they’re trusting me to share their stories.
Interviewing journalist Linda Ellerbee was a huge deal. I remember watching Nick News when I was seven—I think that was the first time I was exposed to current events. If Leigh Stein, who was the first interview I released, hadn’t started the Binders group, I never would have won the Journalism and Women Symposium fellowship, because that’s how I found out about the call for entries. And I love Leigh’s writing and Emily Gould’s, too—I can’t wait to see what each of them does next. Laurie Notaro is the OG humor essayist queen. Talking to her was a pinch-me moment as well.
What’s been some of the best advice you’ve received from your interviews? Anything you weren’t expecting?
I love it when I get a mix of practical advice and nuggets that could have only come from deep introspection. Each woman has said something that stopped me in my tracks—like, oh, I've never thought about that before.
Leigh told me a story about how one of her friends was taking a screenwriting class because she thought she might like to try her hand at that. She realized, looking around the class, that everyone in it was a woman. Do women feel as if they have to learn everything they can about something new they want to try before they attempt it? Men just go for it. They don’t care if they don’t know what they’re doing. I wasted a year doing the same thing—thinking over and researching this project. “That's me!” I thought. Now the flip side is, you want to do some research. But I think we over-prepare, and in the process, we psych ourselves out. When I released that episode, that was the part I got the most feedback on. I had all these friends who were stunned, pinging me, “That’s so true and I didn’t even realize it.”
Laurie was someone who tried year after year to get her first book published and didn’t stop until it finally happened. I asked her what she did when she felt like giving up, and without missing a beat, she told me, “I never felt like giving up.” That made me pause. I thought, “Does the fact that I even thought to ask that mean I don’t have the same fire?”
What’s it like to juggle a project like this with a regular full-time position and your own writing?
My plants are dying, and the last time I went to the gym was July 30—I'm trying to figure out how I can stop juggling because I’m bad at it. I also edit for a few different freelance clients, so I have a lot to do right now. If I could make Life TK my full-time, paid gig, I would be ecstatic. Until then, I’d love to raise enough funds to hire an intern and a consultant who can help me with social media. When I launched the project, women emailed me to ask if I was hiring, or if they could job shadow me. At that point, I had been laid off, so I was like, “I’m not hiring because this isn’t a real job, but if you have a real job and are hiring, give me a shout.” It’s all very humbling.
In my interview with Leigh, she talks about wanting to lose the reputation of being indefatigable, and I think that's wise. The burden figuring out how to do it all and have it all is so gendered. Even the word "juggle"—do you ever hear of a man juggling it all? No, he's "leading." So I have do that.
I also use this app called Any.do. It's the devil's tool. It makes me feel like crap when I don't accomplish the things on it because it will alert me: "You have 25 tasks today and you’re eating a cupcake? Is that your SECOND cupcake?"
Has Life TK influenced your own writing and what you choose to write about?
Life TK has given me a lot of clarity about the kinds of things I want to write about. Essay collections are my favorite books to read. I’ve known for a long time I want to write one. I’ve always been intrigued by people’s professional lives, but I thought if I wrote about that, it wouldn’t be sexy enough. It won’t sell. This summer, I took Chloe Caldwell’s Nailing Your Narrative class at Catapult. In a pre-class survey, she asked what our writing goals are, and mine was to define my work—what is my writing saying about the world at large?
For class, I wrote an essay about how I used to work at this group of home decorating magazines, and I was so miserable, I applied to be a NASA test subject. The only job requirement was to lie down on this special space mattress, probably in an adult diaper, and not move for six months. At the time, I thought letting my muscles atrophy in the name of space exploration felt more worthwhile than spell-checking the names of Benjamin Moore paint colors. Actually, it still is. But NASA rejected me, and I just had to keep working there until I found a new magazine job. I’ve had that experience floating around in my head for a long time, and with Life TK, I was able to say, “Oh, this is why the NASA story is staying with you: It's all about persistence at work.” I feel like I found my voice through that class and Life TK.
So now my goal is to turn Life TK into a book of essays about my professional life, focusing on what it’s been like to create this project in light of losing my job. So far I have about 15,000 loosely related words I'm calling a draft.
What is your advice to those twentysomething femme writers out there trying to stay the course?
First, cultivate the persona of someone with extreme, but well-founded, confidence and endless options. There’s that whole fake it until you make it thing, and it will also ward off anyone who might be intimidated by working with someone really talented who knows she is really talented. In a recent job interview, a man asked me where all my confidence came from. Later he did not give me the job because he said I was an "inelegant" fit. I think I scared him. This has nothing to do with writing, sorry. I just think you’ll get a lot further in whatever you’re doing if you believe in yourself and don't apologize for it.
Following that same line of thinking, you also have to find the most talented people doing the thing you want to be doing, study how they're doing it, try to be their friend, and then just go and do the thing you want to be doing your own way. Don't be jealous of someone else's success. Champion other women. When you surround yourself with the best, you elevate yourself to their level.