The story behind “Where’s Bobbi Fischer?”

In Where’s Bobbi Fischer? I dig around to try to understand why there are so few top-ranked chess players.  This article evolved in a really interesting way.  Last fall I wrote about board games for the Atlantic.  While researching that article I met a woman who runs a board game lab (Mary Flanagan – she’s a total rock star and I want to be her when I grow up).  After that article came out we stayed in touch, and she told me about a board game she was designing that was meant to be the world’s first “pro-girl” board game.  I’d never really thought about it before, but many board games are pretty male-oriented, and in looking back over my own board game playing habits as a kid, I realized that I’d always hid my board game skills (I’m good.  Pick a game and the odds are strong that I will crush you.) because they felt unfeminine.

So I pitched an article on how girls don’t play board games to an editor at Aeon, but after lots of digging around I wasn’t able to find much research on board games at all, and only anecdotal evidence to show that board games skewed male.  Instead, I kept coming up with all this chess research.  So I emailed my editor to tell him how annoyed I was by all the chess research that was dwarfing the board game research, and he, being a wise editor, suggested I switch the focus of the article to chess.

I’d had my own sordid history with chess, so as soon as I made the switch the article started coming together quickly.  I had the chance to interview several women who have made their way through the chess world, and also started seeing parallels everywhere I went.  I work in tech, and I’m often the only woman in a meeting, but I’d never really thought about WHY or HOW this had happened.  I’d just always figured, well, women don’t do tech.  Just as girls don’t do chess.  So having the opportunity to look at the history of chess and speak with chess coaches and really understand what it means for girls and women to be excluded from different fields was a fascinating opportunity.

I hope you’ll read the piece and share it around, because until we recognize the places where society discriminates or stereotypes, we don’t have much hope of changing things.

My new e-book: The Edge of Normal

Happy pub day!  My e-book THE EDGE OF NORMAL is now available from Amazon.  Writing this was a writing experience unlike any other I’ve had to date.  When my daughter was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition I furiously took notes and wrote down what I was feeling every minute of every day.  It was the only way I knew how to process what was going on around me, and also I needed to write about it because I was sick of talking about it.  I didn’t think I’d ever do anything with all of that writing, I just needed to get it out.

Then, this fall I pitched Amazon on a Kindle Single about my experience battling the NYC Department of Ed to get accommodations for my daughter.  That essay was eight thousand words, so I didn’t think it had much hope of finding a publisher.  An editor contacted me after reading that piece (which is forthcoming this summer from The Big Roundtable) and said that while that topic wasn’t quite right for them, they’d be interested in a broader essay on the topic of raising a visually impaired child.

So at that point I went back to find all the notes I’d taken on the subject, only to discover that I’d accidentally overwritten the file.  The notes were gone.  Funny thing, though, was that because I’d already written about all of those experiences, my thoughts on them were embedded into my brain.  And because I was now writing form the vantage point of someone six years down the road, I had a perspective on the events that went deeper than why is this happening to me?

I knew from the start that I didn’t want to write an exposé on my daughter.  If I was going to write on the topic I wanted it to be about me – my journey and my story.  So I began from there.

But writing something without any word limits is tricky.  Kindle Singles are longer than an article but shorter than a book.  That put the word range between 8000 and 80,000.  That’s a big word range.  But as I got into it, I found that I relished the challenge of writing do a new and different length.  I found that I did in fact have a story to tell that was in between those two word lengths. It was scary at first to just have this wide open structural word playground – there are no norms in storytelling when it comes to e-books – but by the end I felt I’d done the new medium justice.  I hope you feel that way too.

Here’s the description of the book from Amazon:

The Edge of Normal

What is normal? Everything in Hana Schank’s life is going according to plan — career, marriage and a growing family. But when her second child is born with albinism, a rare genetic condition whose most striking characteristics are white blonde hair, pale skin and impaired vision, she discovers that the very definition of normal is up for grabs. A moving memoir with flashes of humor, this essay tells one mother’s story of navigating a world filled with a vast spectrum of ability and disability, filled with both heartbreak and joy. And how ultimately she and her daughter learn to balance together on the edge of normal.

The Ambition Interviews

About a year and a half ago I was in spin class, where I think all my great thoughts, and I began reflecting back on my life.  I’d turned 41 earlier that year, which prompted a wave of self-reflection, some mild panic, appreciation for all I have in my life, and resentment and self-loathing for all the things I thought I would have accomplished by now and haven’t.

As I thought back over my 20-ish years of adulthood, I realized that I’d been utterly unprepared to make the decisions that confronted me along the way.  I’d chosen a spouse, decided to have children, picked a few different careers, all without any real, true knowledge about what the likely outcomes would be.  I had no idea, for example, that wanting to be a full time writer and wanting to live in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country wouldn’t make for a harmonious result.  I didn’t realize how much having children would impact my career and how I defined success.  And most of all it never occurred to me the simple act of being an ambitious female would make my road infinitely more complex.

Was it just me who had been blindsided by … just how hard it all feels sometimes?  I decided to reach out to some of my college friends to find out if they felt the same way.  I wasn’t in touch with that many of them, but I contacted two whom I’d been closest to in college, and asked them about their stories.  Those conversations led to more conversations, and the end result was that one of those friends (journalist Elizabeth Wallace) decided to team up with me to collect interviews with everyone who had been in our sorority’s graduating class (Northwestern ’93).  We decided to limit our subjects this way for a range of reasons – we wanted to limit our interviews to a specific demographic, we didn’t want to interview all women everywhere, we were particularly interested in women who were high-achieving and ambitious enough to go to an elite university, and we also found that interviewing women whom we’d known when they were 18 years old provided an excellent context for what they told us about their lives.

Which brings me to this: today, those first few tentative conversations are The Ambition Interviews.  The site launched today, and will document our process as we continue to interview our subjects and gather data.  We’re recording audio for the interviews, and our first step will be to create short animated clips on topics that have had an impact on many of our subjects.  After that, we’ll be writing articles that look at these topics in depth.

The Ambition Interviews are the stories behind the endless news headlines about the lack of women CEOs, lack of women in tech, lack of women in politics.  They capture what women really feel about work life balance, childcare, motherhood, their spouses, their careers, and, ultimately, their ambitions.