Community of Writers: Gwen McNamara

Gwen McNamara serves as the Communications Specialist at the John H. Pace, Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement at Princeton University. She got her start as a writer with a local community newspaper. Along the way, she has used her storytelling skills to promote sustainable design and environmental protection, and now seeks to inspire the next generation to follow their passions and be civically engaged. Here, she speaks with Princeton Writes about finding meaning in writing and making time for writing, especially amidst the new obligations of life during COVID-19. She also shares a recent writing/sketch project, entitled “Out Here.”

What draws you to writing?

When I was in college, I had no idea what I wanted to study or focus on. My first year at the College of New Jersey, I met another student in my geology class, and he was really passionate about sports writing [and] he said, “You should check out journalism!” [And] I really loved the idea of diving into a new topic, figuring it out, putting all these facts together, and sharing this knowledge… so I did a Journalism 101 intro class and it was like a light opened in the clouds, this “Aha!” moment. [So] I fell in love with this notion that by putting words on a page, you could be elevating someone’s voice that didn’t get a say, or that you could, you know, really hold people accountable for the decisions and things that were being put out there. To me, that’s so amazing, a huge responsibility. Some of my first reporting assignments were around 9/11, things that happened around that time [and] you learn how important some of those words are when you’re talking about people who have lost loved ones, or when you’re putting this last record on a piece of paper about real people, real humans who have loved and lost.

So that’s how I got started in writing [and] then from there, realized that even though I didn’t think of myself as a creative writer, I kind of was! Because it is fun, to put words to paper, and so I started to think about ways in which I wouldn’t just do that for work, necessarily.

Who is your audience?

Professionally, my audience at the Pace Center is students, really, helping and preparing all students to lead lives of meaning and service after they graduate, to carry on that legacy of civic engagement [with] whatever job they have in the future. [But] we’re also communicating to the entire campus and the amazing donors who help us do what we do.

When I think about my own writing, most of the writing that I do outside of work is really for myself or for my family. I think about family members or experiences that I’ve had, more on a personal level. In my day-to-day at my job, I’m sharing a lot outward, but on a personal level, I feel that writing is more inward, to get out emotions or things that I’m feeling, or experiences that I’ve had, or experiences of people in my family.

What is your writing process?

I am more of a fluid person. I don’t have a very specific schedule — well, I have a very organized life schedule, because I’m a mom, I have two kids, I’m a grad student, I’m pursuing a master’s degree in public interest communications, I’m a wife, I’m a daughter, I’ve got all these responsibilities. When it comes to writing, I think it’s more that it squeezes itself in when it can, and honestly, Princeton Writes plays a huge role in me being able to continue to do writing that does not relate to graduate school or those other commitments. I find the prompts they share online or in-person, if you come to a group, hugely helpful in providing a pocket of space and time where I can extricate myself from those other roles and responsibilities and just think about writing for half an hour or 45 minutes, or if I’m really lucky, an hour! I try to keep a running tab in the back of my mind: “That would be cool to write about!” Like a jot, you know, or a post-it note, a mental post-it note, about the kind of things I’d like to do, and then it’s about finding those small pockets, particularly now.

That’s a good segue to right now [COVID-19]. Right now, I’m a third-grade teacher, I’m a preschool teacher, I’m a full-time employee. There’s a lot going on when your kids are trying to learn at home and you’re working from home, so quite honestly, I feel no pressure to write the next great American novel by any means! I think what’s helpful is to remember [the] things that bring us joy right now. What are the things that we are still trying to find those little pockets of time for, that make us smile, make us happy? [Because] it can be so easy to get mired in the idea that everyone has cabin fever, everyone is going stir-crazy. Trying to find those little pockets of joy, still putting down words on paper that turn into little pieces of art. Even just the phrase “Be Well” [because] honestly, I have less free time now than in any other time of my life!

What is it about the world you want to capture or change through writing?

I try to put down on a piece of paper things that have had an impact on me. So I’ll share an example: this past Christmas, not this Christmas but the one before, I [saw] this one family photo and it was of this little boy, and I thought, “Man, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that picture before!” I was really intrigued by this funny kid with a grin on his face, and I looked over at my grandpa and asked who it was, and he said, “Oh, that’s me.” What? Get out of town! [And] so I thought to myself that my grandpa wasn’t getting any younger, and so over the summer, we talked about the picture and we had this great conversation about him as a little kid. He had just turned 95, and that was him at age 5. [It] was such a great conversation and I thought to myself that I couldn’t let this go to waste, that I’d put pen to paper and try to capture some kind of essence of that. And I’m really glad I did, because he ended up passing away in January, and I was so glad to be able to share the story with him before he did pass away, and also have some level of legacy, something that could go into the family record, so to speak. That’s a good example [because] a picture is sometimes really worth 1,000 words. In my grand scheme, I’ll write more than one of these.

Who are your favorite writers?

It’s a simple question, but incredibly hard at the same time. Because I have kids, some of the things I really enjoy [involve] Shel Silverstein — I have always loved him, ever since I was a kid. I’ve seen the joy that my son gets from reading all of those poems, silly and serious, and that makes me smile. And J.K. Rowling, with Harry Potter, that came out after my time, but now I’m reading that with my son, together, and it’s amazing! To be on this literary journey together, going to Hogwarts and meeting these characters and having conversations about good and evil, and the grey between good and evil, and people’s motivations.

Interview: Elizabeth Durham

Photo: Courtesy of Gwen McNamara


Out Here

(Original sketchbook title: Not a way to say hello)

You are in there.

I am out here.

 

The kitchen door might as well be as thick as the door to a bank’s vault.

It’s white window trim as cold as prison bars.

 

You are in there.

I am out here.

 

I smile and wave.

You lift your arm with effort and wave back slowly.

 

You are in there.

I am out here.

 

I wrap my arms around myself and blow you a kiss.

 

You are in there.

I am out here.

 

I should be able to be more than a human emoji.

I want to hear your voice, to stroke you hand, to rest my head on your shoulder as we embrace.

But we can’t.

 

You are in there.

I am out here.

 

When you are stronger, when this is over, just wait I tell myself.

But it brings no comfort. Until then …

 

I’ll be out here.

You’ll be in there.