Smartists: Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Published on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls

The book begins with this quote on the cover, “I have not survived against all odds. I have not lived to tell. I have not witnessed the extraordinary. This is my story.” Amy proceeds to explore her life in a series of encyclopedic entries, a form which lends itself to a beautiful irony: when you catalogue and pay attention, an ordinary life is made up of extraordinary moments.

AAmy_Krouse_Rosenthalmy was born and raised in Chicago, and is one of four children. There is no moment that meant the birth of her writerly ways: she seems to have always written, or at least collected unique observations and conveyed them with artistry. This is all apparent in her various creations, especially in Encyclopedia, where simple moments like “1970-1974: Gets to stir father’s coffee. Watches cream change the color to light brown…” frame her inquisitive nature, and her ability to find spark in the seemingly mundane.

“I have always loved making things,” Amy said, “I have been making things my whole life.  As a child, most of those things I made involved crayons, paint, and/or popsicle sticks.  As I got older, I discovered words, that I could make things with words!  By my early 20’s, I was hooked.”

Along with writing Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, Amy has written over thirty children’s books, done radio shows and made films. But all along one theme has been consistent: capture the magic in being alive.

In 2008 for instance, Amy began The Beckoning of Lovely projectan experiment in spontaneous collaboration and creation. It started when Amy made the video “17 Things I Made” and posted it to YouTube. At the end of the video, she invited her viewers to come meet her (she would be holding a yellow umbrella) and make an “18th thing” at The Bean sculpture in Chicago on 8/08/08 and 8:08 p.m. When the date rolled around, the response was incredible.  “There are about ten times more people here that I was expecting…”, Amy says in the video, capturing the enthusiasm. Amy rallies everyone together, gives them tasks, and the end result is a video so beautiful it brings tears to your eyes.

Amy makes messy things, pretty things, joyful things, surprising things, but most of all, she makes Amy things. Lo and behold, sharing herself and her ideas with the world has made a difference– she’s brought joy and beauty to those around her. In that way,  she is the embodiment of what we at Smart Girls stand for, and what we encourage everyone to achieve.

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Amy’s eighteen year-old daughter, Paris (another beautiful thing Amy’s made), will take over from here via an interview with her mom. Paris is a budding writer herself, about to start college at Quest University (outside of Vancouver, Canada) in the coming year. She has done a stellar job in asking off-beat questions that illuminate the magic that is Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

Paris: You know when I’m upset, and I know when you are too. You know when I’m feeling not as confident one day, as compared to the day before. You know the touch of my hands, and I know the sound of your feet coming up the steps. I know when it’s you rattling in the kitchen and you know when it’s me rising early in the morning…what’s it like to know your children so well?

Amy: It’s pretty much the best…You know, when you were little, I knew every single thing you ate each day. After all, I was the one feeding you…I could rattle off in my head every single morsel you consumed and decide in a split second if it was okay you to have, say, that cookie. And while that certainly (and fortunately!) has changed, it’s kind of that way with, let’s call it your existential daily diet…being aware and tuned in to the things that you are thinking about and concerned with each day. I absolutely love having that with you. I love how you think and what you think about.

Two of my greatest pet peeves are being asked hypothetical questions, and when someone raises their hand while someone else is speaking. Do you agree? What are some of yours?

I never thought about the hypothetical thing before. That’s really interesting to me, that it’s one of your pet peeves. It seems that hypothetical questions are kind of prevalent actually, woven into life. What would you do if you only had a month to live? Also, I for sure agree about having your hands up the whole time when someone is talking. It pretty much says I’m not so much listening to you as I am just waiting for you to finish so I can talk.

One of my biggest pet peeves is saying one thing and then doing another. For example, if you tell me you’re going to do such and such by a certain time, then that’s how it should shake down. I can’t tell you how many people seem to think it’s okay to say x and do y. 

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I am about to enter a new phase in my life (college) and I am obviously thinking about what my career is going to be. I think about how you say: what is it that you can’t NOT do?…What would your biggest piece of advice be for me [and others my age] insofar as choosing my paths/finding work that I love (like you have)?

1) Pay attention to what you pay attention to.

In other words, make note of the things you are naturally engaged by, where your focus goes. In a class, what topics get you super jazzed, where you kind of feel your mind being blown? On campus, what activities and organizations and cultural events seem to magically pull you in? Even walking down the street, what do you seem to always notice— the landscape? The buildings? The design of the bike racks? The flyers tacked on the trees? The expressions of people’s faces? These answers are little breadcrumbs that lead you to your future you.

2) Amuse the muse.

What I mean is, create routines and habits and “inspiration traps” that bring the muse to your doorstep. For starters, I hope you will always carry around a notebook— its mere presence in your backpack will make you go about your day differently; you’ll always be on the hunt for ideas, even if you don’t realize it consciously. Even just— and this is so small it’s going to sound ridiculous— walking around with a pen in your hand. You may just doodle with it. You may just get ink on your palm. But you also may find, grabbing a quick cup of coffee somewhere, that you suddenly have an idea and there’s a napkin and with your dumb pen you scribble something epic.

3) Reread, recheck, repeat.

With spell check and Google, there’s pretty much zero excuse for a spelling error. Careless typos are like cruddy shoes— no matter how rockin’ the email/the outfit, it’s the thing people spot, remember, and it ruins everything.

4) Don’t focus on being the best at what you do. Be the only one doing what you do.

Someone (I wish I could remember who!) said this to me my senior year of college and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s such an unusual, interesting and powerful piece of advice. I mean, there’s an implicit assumption that you are going to work hard at try to be at the tippy top of your game. But beyond that, what are the angles and nuances and pursuits that distinguish you?

I recently heard Jeff Mauro speak. He was talking about his path to the Food Network. He was working on stand-up early in his career. He loved it, but he wasn’t killing’ it— didn’t look like he had what it took to be a success in that arena. He was also really into cooking and went to culinary school. One day he realized: I am never going to be the best chef. I’m never going to be the best comedian. But I just might have a shot at being the FUNNIEST CHEF!

5) Sponge it up.Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 8.59.52 PM

And by this I don’t mean clean the counter (but you can do that too!) I mean, be a sponge. Keep yourself open and porous to every possible experience, philosophy, and human connection. Each lecture, each issue of the school paper, each conversation with a random person on the subway is an opportunity to enrich and possibly alter the course of your life.

imageParis Rosenthal is a senior at Francis W. Parker in Chicago, and will be starting Quest University Canada in the fall. She loves chewing ice, playing soccer, her family, playing the bass guitar, and organizing anything. Recently Paris talked to Sam Smith, her idol, on the phone, and that constituted one of the best days of her life thus far. Paris is more and more curious about the world with the start of each new day.  

For more information on Amy Krouse Rosenthal and the things she makes, please visit her website.

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