TreeHouse bloggers recently had the opportunity to interview Linda Leinen about her writings, the readers of her successful blog The Task At Hand, and the fascinating life she’s led.
TreeHouse: Your work life seems to have taken a few turns throughout the years. You started out as a medical social worker at The University of Texas’s Department of Surgery and are now varnishing the woodwork of sailing vessels. That seems like a big change in careers. Was it as large a stretch as it sounds?
Linda Leinen: I suppose it would have been, except for the fact that, during the years between social work and wood work, I did a good bit more stretching, in a variety of ways.
For example, after moving to Liberia, I discovered fairly quickly that living and working in an environment where needs are great and resources are limited demands creativity and the development of problem-solving skills. Sometimes I solved problems and sometimes, as when a teacher was needed at a nearby school, I was judged to be the solution to a problem. In that case, I ended up teaching, and enjoyed every bit of it.
Of course I learned as much — or more — than my students, primarily because I also had to learn how to teach. Later, I transferred those skills to a variety of contexts, including work as a sailing instructor.
It would be easy to say that sailing was the reason for my taking up brightwork (the formal term for varnishing boats), but of course it was more complicated than that. Still, there’s no question that my time in Liberia, my work as a pastor and my time on the water all nurtured both my confidence and my willingness to take on risks: prerequisites for any entrepreneur.
TH: You spend a lot of time near water, open-ocean sailing and varnishing boats on the Texas Gulf Coast. What is it that draws you to the water? Do you feel the combination of sea and air helps you creatively?
LL: I didn’t begin sailing until 1987. Until that time, my only experience with boats was a trip or two in a fishing boat on a Minnesota lake during family vacations, some canoeing, and trips to barrier islands on various Texas ferries. When a friend invited me to come along for a sail on her 40th birthday, I was entranced by the experience. The next week, I started sailing lessons.
I’m far less fond of lakes than I am of open water, perhaps because I love to travel and I equate sailing with travel. I love the sense of possibility, of freedom, that comes with stepping on board a boat and loosening the lines – I even love not knowing what challenges will arise along the way.
As for any relationship between the sea and creativity, I’m not sure that water is the critical element. Rather, the combination of an outdoor life, manual labor, solitude, and freedom is what I find pleasing. If someone offered me equivalent work on the prairie or in the mountains, I’d happily go, particularly if I could work and think during the day, and write at night.
TH: Is The Task At Hand your first blog? What initially made you want to start blogging?
LL: I didn’t set out to blog. When I joined Weather Underground in 2005, my primary interest lay in tracking hurricanes. Somewhat later, I decided to use my space in their blog section as a practice page for learning to post photos, untangling the mysteries of HTML, and so on.
My first entry was a recipe for pecan pie. My second entry, more substantial, was about a trip to the Texas Hill Country. People seemed to enjoy it, and I began to receive compliments on my writing. A friend suggested I needed to begin a “real blog,” both to gain some flexibility and to increase readership. Six months later, I began The Task at Hand on WordPress, and I’ve maintained a more-or-less weekly posting schedule since 2008.
From the beginning, I said that I intended to use WordPress’s blogging platform in order to learn to write. Blessed with a mysterious but absolute conviction that the way to learn how to write is to write, I disregarded much of the wisdom being bandied about at the time: particularly that blogging success required daily posting, short pieces of fewer than three hundred words, and plenty of polls, memes, and quizzes. So far, I’ve been pleased with the result.
TH: Who are your readers? Do they comment/interact with you often?
LL: I love that you ask the question that way. When it comes to readers, the “who” is much more important to me than the “how many.” Certainly I take pleasure in seeing my readership increase, and in watching page views increase when I publish something new. But it’s far more pleasurable to know so many of the people behind the numbers.
They certainly are a varied lot. I’ve had a reader as young as thirteen, and one well into his nineties. They’re scattered around the world, of course, and have a variety of interests. Many do comment, and I respond personally to everyone. My view is that each post isn’t an end in itself, but the beginning of a conversation and it’s that conversation I hope to nourish. The interaction with (and among) readers helps to make blogs unique, and the sense of shared history can be marvelous.
TH: Where do you see your blog headed?
LL: Honestly? I can’t say. While The Task at Hand has led to the publication of essays and articles in the “real world” and the anthologizing of some of my poetry, I don’t see moving away from my blog to other forms of publication as either necessary or desirable.
I have a draft file crammed with essays and stories that I’m looking forward to working with and publishing on my blog. Some people say that writing isn’t “real” unless it brings home a paycheck, but I haven’t been able to convince myself of that particular truth. So, for the time being, I’ll keep writing, and those who enjoy what I have to say can keep reading.
TH: Do you have any bloggers or writers that you turn to for inspiration? Favorite sites you read regularly?
LL: Now and then, I’ll skim the selection of writing quotations on Goodreads. Usually, I start on a random page near the middle, since there are roughly six thousand quotations. Gems like this, from Chekov, could take a lifetime to unpack: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
I tend not to read how-to-write blogs, although I cherish sites like “Brain Pickings” and “The Paris Review” for their musings on creativity and their ability to open unfamiliar worlds. Certain photographers, artists and musicians are must-reads because they provide commentary about their process along with their work.
As for writers, the list is smaller, stable, and always dependable: Flannery O’Connor, Annie Dillard, William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Lawrence Durrell. And, yes — Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, those guilty pleasures of the literary life.
My first post at “The Task at Hand” was titled, “Dazed and Confused.” Near the end, I wrote, “The question no longer is: do you want to write? For good or for ill, read or unread, poorly scribed or passionately sung, I will write.”
Years later, I read this, from the estimable Mr. Thompson: “As things stand now, I am going to be a writer. I’m not sure that I’m going to be a good one or even a self-supporting one, but until the dark thumb of fate presses me to the dust and says ‘you are nothing’, I will be a writer.”
There’s a lot I never understood about Hunter S. Thompson, but that, I understand.
About Linda Leinen:
Sharing stories, trading secrets, weaving new realities with threads pulled from discarded memories or long-forgotten dreams – those are the tasks I’ve set myself, here on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Living a quiet life, a hidden life — anchored to my dock like a barnacle to a piling — I varnish boats for a living. My dock provides both things Virginia Woolf recommended for a woman who writes: money, from the labor, and a room of my own — space and solitude for thought, remembrance, and creative reflection on the truths and mysteries of life.
Years of life and experience lie behind me. A child of the American Midwest and the only child of striving parents, I was expected to attend college, but I rejected teaching in favor of a degree in medical social work. It was a good occupation, leading first to Houston’s Texas Medical Center, then on to Phebe Hospital in Bong County, Liberia, where I served under the auspices of the Lutheran Church in America.
As so often happens in countries like Liberia, changing needs dictated a change in responsibilities, and my initial involvement in maternal-child health clinics was exchanged for oversight of the hospital chaplaincy. Then, in a delicious bit of irony, I was asked to begin classroom teaching in an inter-denominational seminary not far from the hospital, while supervising students in a clinical setting.
I enjoyed it tremendously: so much so that I decided against a Master’s degree in social work, choosing instead to pursue theology. For a variety of reasons, I settled on Berkeley, California for my schooling, and spent four years studying at the Graduate Theological Union and Pacific Lutheran Seminary. Offered a chance to continue on toward a PhD, I chose instead to serve Lutheran congregations in Texas for the next decade, before a series of mostly serendipitous events and inexplicable impulses led me to strike out on my own, beginning the business that still brings me delight.
Today, as I write, images and words tumble along the edge of memory’s winds like so many scudding clouds. Living and working in West Africa, studying in Berkeley, open-ocean sailing and the joys of teaching have all shaped my life and influenced my convictions.
With a sense of yet one more sea-change arriving, I remember the words of Georgia O’Keeffe, quoted in Joan Didion’s White Album. O’Keeffe says, “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant… It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”