LIFE LESSONS FROM DAD: An Interview With Honors College Alumna '10 Joanna Guest

Oct. 14, 2019


Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash.

An interview with Honors Alumna '10 Joanna Guest


You graduated in 2010 from the University of Arizona with a degree in Family Studies and Human Development (with minors in Communications and Sociology). You then went on to receive your Master’s in Public Policy from Georgetown University in 2016. What part of your Honors College experience most prepared you for life after graduation?

The Honors College gave me the confidence to go to the U of A in the first place, for which I’m tremendously grateful. I had to write a thesis to graduate with Honors. That experience was incredible. Laborious and a little daunting, sure, but I had an amazing professor to work with, Kate Kenski from the Communications Department. That effort, from start to finish, made me realize I could focus tirelessly on one particular subject for a long period of time, and not get sick of it. That made doing a similar process in grad school a whole lot easier and prepared me for the process of writing Folded Wisdom as well.

What advice do you have for freshmen about making the most of their Honors College journey?

Arizona is a big enough school where there’s one of everything you could ever want. That’s true for the courses you can take, professors you can find to mentor you, clubs you can join, and friends you can find. I’d encourage people in the Honors College to embrace that opportunity. Take a class about a topic that’s completely new to you. Be willing to give up being the top student in a class if it means expanding your realm of knowledge.

What prompted you to step away from politics and become an author?

Haha, politics made me want to step away from politics – I guess that’s the quippy answer! I lived and worked in D.C. for over six years, and I loved my time there. But after the 2016 election, I craved a change. I wanted to work on something centered on goodness. Something that made me happy on a day-to-day basis. Something that produced a tangible result I could possibly touch, hold, and have. I didn’t think to myself that I was going to leave politics for good and become a writer. I simply knew I wanted to leave for the moment, and I really wanted a note from dad that told me everything was going to be O.K.

This is your first book. Where did you get the idea to do a collection of your father’s notes?

I love it when people refer to this as my “first book” because it makes it seem like there are a lot more to come! I don’t exactly have plans for anything beyond this project. In 2009, when I was in college, the notes were featured in a magazine called Esopus. I remember my dad asking Theo and me if we were comfortable with the idea of sharing the notes. I was fine with it, just confused as to whether anyone would actually care to read them. After the magazine came out, I flipped through the 19 featured notes and was equally as shocked to see notes from 1995 as I was to re-read messages that felt as timely as ever. For nearly the next decade, I talked about “someday” moving back home to figure out just how many notes my mom had saved. I figured it would happen eventually, but who knew when the time would be right. I didn’t realize the notes would – or could – become something more until my agent, Gail Hochman, told me to start writing.

Were you surprised to find out your mother had saved all those notes over the years?

When I moved home, I assumed my mom had saved about 500 notes. That was a guess based on the fact she told me there were “a lot,” and that number felt like a lot. I was way off. As the story goes, by the time I finished sifting through the piles and piles of paper she collected, we had amassed more than 3,500 little letters. I still don’t understand how she did it. It’s not like Theo and I came home to an outstretched hand asking us for our daily note. We didn’t plop them into a fishbowl on the counter. We left them in pockets, backpacks, lunchboxes. And then she found them. So yes, surprised is definitely a word for it!

Did you have any goals for this collection when you wrote it — to get published, or solely to honor your father?

My primary goal was to digitize and organize the notes so that someday Theo and I could look back on them. The idea of somehow losing them all to a fire began to haunt me as I started re-reading them, and realizing how many we had. In general, I thought I could put together a collection of notes that, at the least, could be shared with my family and friends. If something actually reached a wider audience, well that felt like a cherry on top of an already very, very delicious sundae.

How many hours a day do you devote to writing? And, like your father, do you write every day?

That’s a funny question because, now that the book is published, I haven’t really found a way to commit myself to writing for personal pleasure. I am one of those kids that had about 17 journals growing up, and not because I filled one after another. But rather because I’d start one, write a page or two, and then forget about it. I’ve never thought about Folded Wisdom being a guidebook for parents, or anyone, to start writing every morning. And I don’t have an illusion that I could actually do something like this, or at least not this exact routine. But I do think there’s value in slowing down, however you choose to do that. So often, whether we like it or not, we hurry through life. There’s something really wonderful about slowing down to reveal yourself, and admit that you’re not only fallible as an adult, but that you’re learning and growing too. We are all trying to find our own paths through life. As individuals. As citizens. As siblings. As daughters. As sons. As parents. As partners. So much of my dad’s day to day was expressed in his notes and, because of the duration of his commitment, so was his evolution along with our growth. I think the universality of what it means to live and learn – understanding that there will be stumbles and spelling errors along the way – is one of the things that makes the notes so beautiful to revisit, and share.

Your father gave you and your brother the gift of himself in his writings. How did you view these notes when you were growing up? How did they impact your daily life?

When we were younger, the notes were built into our day in a way that I never viewed as special, but rather expected. They were all we knew. I started getting them in my lunchbox when I was in 2nd grade and Theo was in preschool. My dad wrote to us because he wanted to tell us who he was. He wanted to show us that it was okay to make mistakes. He wanted to wish us good luck in a game or on a spelling test. He wanted to give us a puzzle to solve that might make lunchtime fun or tell us about the score of last night’s Yankees game. He wanted to think through what was going on in the world around us and, knowing that we weren’t picking up the paper in the morning, let us know that news, too. He wanted to tell us he loved us. Again and again. This impacted me, surely. But it also was just a normal part of my relationship with my dad. I didn’t consider them something special I needed to save, which is funny because my dad also didn’t consider them anything special enough to save. It was my mom that made this whole thing a reality by secretly saving these folded up pieces of paper knowing that someday, somewhere, we might just want to revisit them.

Anything else you would like to share about yourself, your book, or your experience with UA and the Honors College?

I guess I view this book in some ways as a note back to my dad. I’ve been so grateful to re-receive the wisdom that he passed down so beautifully and honestly during the years when I perhaps internalized, but didn’t verbally acknowledge, the lessons he was imparting. My hope, ultimately, is that other people find this book and appreciate it as a story about love, relationships, and communication. My general appeal is that Folded Wisdom is truly for anyone. For new parents. For old parents. For friends. For kids going off to college. It’s a story made for those working on love and relationships in their own lives. No one is always perfect and wise, in talk or in deed. No one always spells right and so many of us can’t draw expressively. But that doesn’t mean we don’t express, we just express differently. And I think there is true reward in understanding that the process of expressing and grappling with who we are, together, is a gift that we should all try to pass on.