Kate Walter has been writing professionally since her college days. She is an op-ed columnist and also writes personal essays. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in the New York Times, Newsday, the Daily News, and many other publications, including several anthologies. She is currently a columnist for amNewYork. Walter describes her writing as creative nonfiction, in which “you blend journalism and personal essay writing.” Her subject matter includes the breakup of her 26-year gay partnership, online dating, and her spiritual quest leading to New Age practices and a return to church. She has also written movingly about her stint on the West Side Highway holding up signs to thank 9/11 rescue workers. Walter is completing a memoir, Looking for a Kiss: Downtown Heartbreak and Healing, to be published by Heliotrope Books in June 2015.
Terry Stoller spoke with Kate Walter in June 2014 about her early years in music journalism, the issues that arise in personal essay writing, the development of her book, her love for teaching, the aftereffects of 9/11, her Hurricane Sandy experiences, and the upside and downside of living at Westbeth.
Terry Stoller: In a piece for the New York Times, you wrote that trips to the library during childhood summers at the Jersey Shore led to the idea of your becoming a writer.
Kate Walter: I guess that’s fair to say. The piece was really about reading. I was trying to stretch it and make a bit of a leap, as we writers do, trying to find meaning. It seemed that I had to add to it and not just say, Oh, I love reading. As I said in the piece, I was looking for Nancy Drew books, but since they didn’t have any in that small summer library, I ended up taking out books about famous women like Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt and Madame Curie. And then I started thinking, Oh, this is interesting to read—nonfiction. They weren’t really memoirs; they were biographies. I think that had a lot to do with my gravitating toward nonfiction.
I know you write different types of articles. What drew you to personal essays?
I need to go back. I was a music journalist for about twenty years. I started writing music reviews when I was in college. I first got published in the sixties, in this paper called the Aquarian. I had a boyfriend at the time, who was the music editor. I was writing for the school paper, and he was like, You should publish this stuff. We need some more chick writers. So I starting writing music reviews for the Aquarian, and I was like, Oh, my god, I can get this in the paper, and I can get paid for it—this is fantastic. So I continued with the music writing in the seventies and eighties. I stopped doing that when I felt I was getting a little too old. I feel like music writing is a young person’s game.
I did a lot of music writing. I wrote for the Village Voice; I wrote for Spin; I was the jazz critic at Ms. magazine. That’s expressing your opinion, but of course it’s in a different kind of way. I’m trying to remember when I really switched over. I think it happened in the eighties. When I was living in the East Village, I was very active in the block association. There were a lot of terrible things going on there. The neighborhood was completely out of control. And I wrote an op-ed for the Times—I think it was my first piece in the Times. It was called “The East Village Flea Market Swamp.” I remember I was so excited to see my name in the Times that I thought, Ooh, this is really cool. I can write opinion pieces on things other than music. So that got me writing opinion pieces. Then I had a piece about Tompkins Square Park in the Times. That led to the column in New York Press. That column led to another column in Manhattan Spirit. Then I was writing for Newsday. So I was always writing these opinion pieces about New York. I still am—now I’m writing for amNewYork—and then at some point along the line, I got into personal essay. But it was music reviews, opinion pieces, where I injected a lot of myself, and then I thought, Let’s try and do more personal essays. That’s what I do now—personal essays, opinion pieces, and the memoir is coming out.
At first you were writing about things like trouble getting a credit card or insurance problems with extending therapy.
The other thing is that I realized you can make things happen when you get these things published. Because guess what? Within a week, I had a credit card. Guess what? They decided to pay for my therapy. It was unbelievable.
You mean somebody read your piece and—
I think I took the piece to the bank, and I said, Look. And they gave me a credit card right there on the spot. And I think Blue Cross decided to change the policy. I remember I got a lot of action on that—my therapist told me it was published in therapy journals. So I was like, wow, you can really make things change, for you and for other people.
As you go on to talk more about yourself, you reveal quite a bit. At some point, you come out and say that you’re a lesbian. When did you feel comfortable to do that?
Whenever it seemed appropriate. I never had a problem with it. It’s just that if it’s not appropriate, if I’m writing about street fairs, I’m not going to put that in. It depends on the piece.
Did you hesitate at all? I didn’t see any references to your being gay in the eighties pieces I read.
Probably not. It wasn’t like I was in the closet or anything. It was just that I was really focused on music writing in the eighties. What I did do was write about a lot of artists who were gay. I wrote for the Advocate—that was another big market. I did a lot of pieces on lesbian and gay artists.
Your website says that you wrote a column called “Queer City” for Manhattan Spirit.
That was all about my relationship with my ex. That was in the nineties. The New York Press column was in the late eighties, early nineties, and then “Queer City” came after. That was super, super personal because that was what they wanted—relationship stuff.
You’ve written about the psychic who gave you candles and instructions for spells. In one piece, you say you met her when you did a profile about her for the Advocate. Was that an assignment?
I approached them, and I got an assignment. What happened was, I was at a party, and I was introduced to her, and I think at the time my ex said, That would be a good story. You should write that. You should interview her. Editors always want to have a product, and she had a book coming out. So I interviewed her, and after that I had a few readings with her.
In his book To Show and To Tell, Phillip Lopate devotes a section to turning yourself into a character in personal essays. Do you do that in your work?
I do that. I teach personal essay at NYU, and I assign the Lopate essay on how to turn yourself into a character, and that’s the one piece I make my students read. It’s pretty much what he says. You highlight certain things; you play down certain things. You can exaggerate. You can make yourself a little funny or a little crazier than you really are. You create a character, and the character has to serve the piece. So the persona that I’m creating for one piece is not necessarily the same as the persona in another piece. It’s all me. But in one piece, I’ll emphasize my Catholic background; in another piece, I’ll emphasize something else. So that’s how you develop the character. That’s probably one of the most useful essays I’ve ever read.
Another issue Lopate addresses is writing about the people in your life. You write about your former partner, your family, your therapist. (You call your therapist Dr. R.) Do you have any rules that you follow?
When I was with my ex, she basically saw everything, and she pretty much gave me carte blanche to write whatever I wanted. There are probably some things I’ve written that I haven’t shown—my father’s dead; my mother’s alive—maybe my parents didn’t see. If they did, it would be OK, but there was no reason for them to see it. The rule is just that I want to be honest and truthful, and I’m not doing it for revenge or to be spiteful or for anything like that. I’m doing it because it’s part of the story. And I try to be fair. If I say negative stuff about someone, I also try and show the positive too. I’ll give you an example. The book is about my relationship and how it ended and how I healed myself. If you’re writing about something like that, you have to be positive too. You can’t be bashing someone all the time and saying how terrible it was because it’s like you’re a jerk if you were with that person for so many years. There had to be a lot of good stuff too. I try and balance it, is what I’m saying. It’s never all negative or all positive. It’s real. It’s just the way it is.
You’re pretty frank about your therapy in your columns. Generally one thinks about therapy as something private.
I know of other people who write about therapy. I think it’s interesting, and if you’re writing personal essays, how can you not write about therapy if you’re in it. And the other thing is, Dr. R. is such a great character because she’s this voice of reason who tells me, You’re being a jerk. She’s read everything that I’ve had her in. I use her in a very creative way, as the voice of wisdom who’s telling me, Kate, check out what you’re doing here.
Has anybody ever complained to you? Anybody from your family?
Not that much. When I wrote the Westbeth piece about Hurricane Sandy, I said something about how my crazy niece Kelly stayed at the Jersey Shore. She got mad that I called her crazy. Well, I’m sorry, but when you were told by all the police and everyone to evacuate, and you deliberately decide to stay because you think it’ll be fun and exciting, I think that’s crazy. I don’t think she’s crazy, but she was pissed. I wasn’t saying my niece was crazy. I meant staying there was crazy. That’s all I can come up with.
Was that the niece you wrote about taking on a tour of “the real New York City”?
No, that’s her sister, Shannon. OK, in the piece about Shannon, I said my brother looks suburban. And he was like, What did I have on? He got defensive. He lives in suburbia. He looks suburban compared to the people in the East Village. Nothing bad. Just stuff like that.
How would that affect you the next time you wrote about your brother? Do you think you would be more careful?
It’s funny you’re asking these questions as I’m doing the rewrite of the book right now. And it’s weird rewriting it knowing that people are actually going to read it. Because when I wrote it, I didn’t know if I was going to get a publisher. I realize people are going to read this, and they’re going to have reactions. But I can’t really let myself be too controlled by what they’re going to think because that’s not right. I don’t want to be hurtful or spiteful or anything. I’m going through it with a lot of care because I know people are going to read this.
This comes up all the time in the class that I teach. And I think you really can’t think about it this much. Because if you do, you’ll never write anything. You’ll paralyze yourself. In class, the students at this point, we don’t know if they’re going to sell. I tell them, Right now, just write the best piece you can. Don’t worry about your mother. If we actually get to that point, we’ll worry about that then. People worry about that way too soon all the time.
But as you have demonstrated, people’s feelings can get hurt by very little things.
I’ve always been outspoken, I guess. You must have figured that out.
You started as a critic, and a critic necessarily criticizes and evaluates and could say something that might hurt people’s feelings.
Well, you have to criticize them. You have to say something. Otherwise it’s not good work. I don’t mean it has to be bad. I guess you could give a totally positive review, but that rarely happens. I don’t have any problem with that as a critic. First of all, I don’t know these people, and second of all, that’s part of their job, to be reviewed. It’s been a while since I’ve done that kind of stuff.
I’m just suggesting that perhaps that experience made it easier for you to take a critical stance in your essay writing.
Absolutely. And the other thing is, I criticize myself too. I mock myself. I’m trying to be self-deprecating when I’m doing all this crazy stuff running around my apartment, lighting candles. I realize it’s a little silly. I have to step back. As Lopate says in his essay, you really need to see yourself from above and below and how other people see you, and if you can see how ridiculous you are, that’s funny. I think if you’re self-deprecating too, you can get away with saying negative things about other people. Because it’s like, that’s my style—look, I do it to myself. Don’t be upset. I do it to me too.
How do you pick your topics?
In terms of op-ed, it’s stuff that pisses me off. Like the High Line was a good thing, and then it became a bad thing. And I hate those street fairs. Most of the op-eds I do are kind of rants. I’m mad. Like I couldn’t get a credit card. I couldn’t get insurance to pay for therapy. So those just fall right in my lap because I’m angry. The personal essay topics—and they’re much harder to write—it’s what I feel passionate about, what I feel strongly about. I’m working on a big piece about getting older. I haven’t figured it out yet. It’s six pages—it will probably be three different essays. Whatever I feel passionate about and whatever is going on in my life. Like the piece in the Villager about getting the bed, buying the bed to attract love. I just put stuff together. As the New Age people say, you have to have your place ready. So I got the bed because I was getting the bed; then I could add the New Age aspects to it, giving the piece another layer.
The other thing I did want to say—I’m in a writing group that meets once a week. I have been in this writing group for a very long time, from before I moved to Westbeth. I’ve been in Westbeth seventeen years this summer, and I was in the group when I lived in the East Village, so I’d say I’ve been in this group off and on for twenty years, once a week. That’s really how the work gets better. Anything you read, especially the personal essays, has probably been rewritten five or six times. The op-eds I can knock out fast because they’re short. I don’t usually workshop them. But the personal essays and the book, everything has been workshopped a zillion times and rewritten and rewritten. It just looks smooth because it’s been rewritten so much.
With the online journalism, there’s a space for readers’ comments, and you get comments. Do you read them?
Sure. I have never had any negative comments that bothered me, but I’ve seen other people I know get really trashed by comments. I think the idea that people can comment without using their name opens up a lot of doors to ridiculous stuff. I think it’s fine if people use their names, but I don’t like the idea of anonymous comments. I don’t pay much attention to them.
When you lived in the East Village, you were very political. You mentioned the block association, which you cofounded, and you were on a community board. However, it doesn’t look as though you’ve continued with that kind of activity.
No, I didn’t. The pieces I’m writing for amNewYork are political. But being an activist was very time consuming; it was very draining. And I felt I had to do it at the time because I felt it was essential. I don’t feel any need to do that at this point. I’m not saying I’ll never do it again.
So your political impulses are being channeled into your writing.
It was always an intersection. I would use some of the activism to write, and the writing would inspire the activism, and the activism would inspire the writing. I have a recent piece in amNewYork about gay kids, which is political [“NYC Gay Youth Still Struggle to Come Out”].
I saw a first reference to your manuscript in 2003. Is the memoir you’re writing now the same book?
The book that’s being published is probably the third attempt.
What are some of the changes it went through?
It’s not a question of making changes. It’s a question of figuring out what the book was about. It had to have an arc. The first two drafts didn’t have a believable arc. The first draft had way too much about my childhood. I think that unless you’re famous, people are not really that interested in your childhood. It’s only of interest to you and your family. That was the very first one. The second one was about the relationship, but it had a completely different arc and a completely different ending. So the book that’s getting published begins with the breakup, and then it’s all about my life post the breakup, which is actually much more interesting than the other two books that didn’t get published. I’m writing about the breakup and how I cured myself from the heartbreak.
Was writing the book part of that cure?
Absolutely. Writing the book was completely cathartic. I felt even if it hadn’t gotten a publisher, it was worth writing. A lot of the pieces that you’ve read are in the book: the speed shrinking, dating in the cyberspace age.
You’re on the faculty of Borough of Manhattan Community College.
I’m the head of the Critical Thinking committee, and I’ve done a lot developing the program. Since I started being the head of the committee, the amount of sections has grown from ten to over thirty. We have a tremendous amount of classes. I teach a writing intensive section of Critical Thinking, which puts a huge emphasis on producing writing. So they have to do a certain amount of pages that go through rewrites. I’ve had fun. I’ve developed a lot of cool writing assignments. It’s a very hard class to teach because you’re actually teaching people how to think. The subject matter is becoming a better thinker. I love teaching Critical Thinking because I feel I’m helping the students in a real-life way, with problem solving, making decisions. I also help a lot of my students at NYU get published. They’re writing personal essays. They’re adults in the continuing studies school. I also teach remedial reading at BMCC.
How has teaching fed you as a writer?
I don’t write too much about teaching except the piece about students voting.
And a story about your class after 9/11.
“The College at Ground Zero.” 9/11 really affected me, as you must have gathered, not just because of living in the West Village, but because my job was affected. And we lost a building that was destroyed—which has since been replaced, and it’s beautiful. I just felt like I couldn’t escape it. Other people, maybe they could go to work. I went to work, and I was thrown right into it. It was very traumatizing going back to the campus after 9/11. And I felt I had to really keep it together because I was on the verge of cracking a few times. And I thought, If I crack, the whole class is going to fall apart, and I cannot do that. That was really tough.
We haven’t talked about your urban gardening.
That’s something I never thought I would write about. After I became a gardener at Westbeth, I realized it’s so much fun because there’s this whole interaction on the sidewalk with people who come by, whether it’s Westbeth neighbors or whether it’s tourists. And people ask me directions. You’re sort of an ambassador when you’re out there on the sidewalk. I’ve really enjoyed doing that, and I was able to write about it a few times.
How is your garden growing?
It’s great. I have two boxes, one on Bethune Street and one on Bank Street.
You’ve done a number of pieces about Westbeth.
One of the best pieces that I’ve written in recent years is the Sandy piece about Westbeth. First of all, I decided to stay so I could write about it. I knew this was going to be amazing. I didn’t realize it was going to go on as long as it did and be as awful as it was. I said to myself, If I can stand this, this is going to be a really good piece. I was writing it by hand, by candlelight. Once I got my electricity back on, I was able to use the computer and put everything into the computer. But I still didn’t have the Internet, not until December, because I was one of those Verizon people. Once I had something—maybe I phoned the editor at the Villager—I think I sent one version from my neighbor Suzen’s apartment. My neighbor Jayne Holsinger sent the next version. They both had Time Warner, so they had the Internet.
The one thing that was so gratifying is that everybody told me, I sent this piece on. Samantha Hall told me she sent it to her father in Scotland. One of the security guards said he sent it to his cousin in Chicago. And then I was at an opening of Pat Hacker’s show at the Westbeth gallery, and she introduced me to her son, who had come up for the show. And she said, This is the woman who wrote that piece I sent you. I kept getting a lot of introductions: She’s the one who wrote that Sandy piece. So I kind of felt I captured this experience for the whole building. I was very happy to do that, and I was thrilled that so many people told me they sent it. It literally went around the country and around the world.
Honestly, that was one of those pieces where I didn’t know how it was going to come out, and I didn’t know where it was going to end. But I figured it’s gotta end, so let’s end it with we all get the electricity back. That seemed like the right place, although I knew there was going to be way more to the story. Lopate talks about finding a container for the piece. So the container for me was, OK, once the lights come back on. It was two weeks, and now it’s over. I was really happy to be able to write that.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about Westbeth?
It’s a privilege to live in Westbeth. Living in Westbeth (especially before I had the full-time job at BMCC) really gave me the opportunity to work on stuff that was more creative. There are people today who make a living as a writer, and they’re content producers. That is not for me. I always wanted to write what I wanted to write. I was never one of those people who did it for the money. Sure, I took some assignments for trade magazines, but even they weren’t that bad. If I can’t write what I want to write, then why be a writer. That’s my attitude.
I love living in Westbeth. It’s fun because there are so many things going on. There are openings and concerts. It’s great living in a community of artists. Obviously it has its downside. Everybody knows too much about everybody else. As I said in the Westbeth piece, it’s kind of like living in an insular small village.
Except that your life is an open book anyway.
That’s true. That’s my art form. That’s what I do. That’s the trade-off when you write that kind of stuff. If people read it, then they know a lot about you.
For more about Kate Walter and to read a selection of her opinion pieces and essays, go to katewalter.com.
Credits: Photograph courtesy of Kate Walter. The display quotations are taken from the following articles by Walter: “Secrets of Surviving an Art Commune: Westbeth at 40,” Villager, Sept. 30-
Oct. 6, 2010 (2); “Flavor of the Week: Slim to None,” nypress.com, Feb. 11, 2009; “Cheering the Rescue Workers: My Month on the Median,” Villager, Sept. 8-14, 2011.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2013-14 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council