A storyteller who has had her byline in The Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and Teen Vogue, Jamie Beth COHEN Schindler ’93 is an Ellis lifer, political activist, and writer in the process of penning her first Young Adult novel, WASTED PRETTY. This past year, Jamie co-founded the Lancaster Action Now Coalition (LANC) to support, protect, and empower marginalized communities following the 2016 election. Propelled into action like a true Ellis girl, Jamie’s desire to stand up, speak out, and get involved has led to educational opportunities and meaningful conversations across communities, class levels, and party lines in rural Pennsylvania. When she’s not planning her next LANC event or working on her upcoming book, Jamie is a dedicated mother of two and works in higher education admissions.
|Years at Ellis:||Kindergarten to Grade 12|
|Education:||B.A. English George Mason University; M.S.Ed. Baruch College|
How did you start writing for publication?
I had been doing live storytelling in my town for about a year when a friend placed a personal essay in The New York Times. I asked her about her process, and she told me that she thought any of the stories I told on stage would make good essays for her editor. Storytelling and essay writing are not the same things, but I enjoy both. With the help of a few wise friends, I pitched a piece to The New York Times. It wasn’t accepted there, but it ended up running in The Washington Post.
Your first book is going to be published in April 2019, what can you tell us about it?
WASTED PRETTY is a coming-of-age story about what happens when someone stops blending in and starts to stick out. It focuses on 16-year-old Alice Burton—who plays lacrosse at a private all-girls school in Pittsburgh in the 1990s—and touches on issues of family secrets, sexual assault, and what Alice is willing to give up in order to protect her future, her body, and her heart.
What was the process of getting a book deal like?
Exhausting. The short story that became the novel was written ten years ago, but I put it aside when I had my first child. I worked on the novel itself for more than seven years and had really great support and advice from my friend and fellow Ellis alumna Jamie LEVINE '92. I attempted to go the traditional route, which would have meant getting an agent to take me on as a client and then trying to get a publishing deal with one of the major publishing houses. That would have been great, but it didn't work out for me, so I started looking at smaller presses. Two writers I know have been published by Black Rose Writing in the past year, and they've both had good experiences, so I was thrilled when I got an offer from Black Rose.
What inspired you to become a writer? How did Ellis support your writing efforts?
I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. The family lore is that I wrote my first play in second grade because I had a Strawberry Shortcake boardgame that no one would play with me. I wrote at home, but Mrs. Mauch, my second grade teacher was very supportive of my writing. At every step of the way, I had teachers who supported and encouraged me. I’m lucky to still be in touch with some of them now. My Ellis friends also supported my writing and still do.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a writer?
At this point, I’m not making a living writing, and I may never make a living writing. Becoming okay with that and still calling myself a writer was hard. It’s still a struggle. I made a decision early on not to go into journalism, and there are days that I regret that decision. But what I’ve done recently is take a step off my career path in education to make more time for my family and my writing. If ultimately I’m able to write full-time, that would be amazing, but right now it’s a side-project that’s taking off, and it feels great. As a friend recently said when I placed a piece in The Washington Post, “They paid you for something you made up in your head. That’s great!”
Do you have a mentor? How has that relationship benefited you professionally? Can you tell me about him or her?
I’m lucky to be connected with a lot of great writers all over the world through a very intentional online community. The women and non-gender conforming members of the group are eager to share advice and contacts, which is huge when you’re trying to place things in major publications. There are also a lot of people in my personal life who have extended their time and expertise to me. A good friend from New York is a magazine editor who used to look at all my pieces and pitches before I sent them out. A friend in Boston who is a former journalist and current professor of nonfiction writing has been my first-read (after my husband) on everything I’ve placed. And Jaime LEVINE ’92 who works in the publishing industry in New York has been instrumental in shaping my Young Adult novel (which is back in revisions for the umpteenth time at the moment). In all of these cases, I just asked for help. These are some of the people who said yes, others said no, but I never feel bad asking.
What advice would you give to young women who want to succeed in the workplace?
I would tell them how much compromise is involved with being a professional woman. Balance is incredibly important as well as knowing that not all things will be able to happen all the time. The choices you make one day may have far-reaching implications that you would have no way of predicting. My two children were born in different states while I was working at different jobs. I was committed to breastfeeding both of them and met different challenges at each place where I was employed. I did not expect becoming a mom to activate my feminism, but it did. And I was lucky that many of my Ellis friends were on that same journey and were able to offer great advice.
How did the all-girls environment at Ellis shape you?
Ellis provided a wonderful opportunity for us to be our best selves, but in an all-girls environment, you can lose sight that the world is not post-gender. It is because of Ellis that I am a well-educated, critical thinker who is able to communicate my thoughts and ideas verbally and on paper. I didn’t realize how intimidating that would be to many of the men and women I’ve worked with and for. I believe strongly in all-girls education, but an understanding that it is special cuts both ways: I felt completely prepared to take on the world when I graduated from Ellis, but I’m not sure the rest of the world was prepared for me!
What is your best Ellis memory?
Naps on the top bunk in Kindergarten. Our Habitat for Humanity service trip during mini-courses was amazing because I was doing things outside my comfort zone like putting a roof on a house or installing ductwork or preparing and serving meals at a soup kitchen. There was also a moment during graduation I will never forget. By June of 1993, I was really excited to leave Ellis, not because I was unhappy, but because I felt ready for the next thing. Some girls were crying before or during the ceremony, but I was just excited. As we left the “stage” and were walking back towards the Benjamin R. Fisher Gallery to turn in our brims, I ran into Mrs. Gray, my Lower School music teacher, and we both burst into tears. I was not a good music student. I cannot carry a tune and Mrs. Gray used to make us sing solos in class. She’s also the only teacher ever to give me detention in my 13 years at Ellis. And still, I loved her. I think I realized at that moment that I would never again be in a place where people knew me as well as the people at Ellis did. They had watched me grow up. They appreciated my strengths and didn’t condemn me for my weaknesses. That moment was huge.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you?
My daughter Nora and my son Jozy have had the biggest influence on my life. Although having kids is something I always wanted, I had no idea what that would actually be like in practice. They’ve taught me, just by virtue of being born and being themselves, that we can’t always plan for things and sometimes we have to do things we’re bad at. It’s sort of the same lesson I learned in AP Calculus from Ms. George, but on a much larger scale with greater consequences. Math did not come easily to me and neither does being a parent. Ms. George didn’t let me quit on AP Calculus, and I’m not going to quit on my kids. Every day is an exercise in negotiation, compromise, balance and the search for quiet time (something we don’t have enough of in our house). There’s also a lot of joy and not enough sleep!
What is an instance where you have acted brave and bold?
People tell me that I'm brave and bold, but what they really mean is "Wow, you're loud!" And I am. Ellis taught me to speak my mind and back it up with logic and reason. A lot of the things I do that people think are brave or bold (like telling a story on stage or speaking out against injustice at a city-wide NAACP rally or meeting with my local congressperson who doesn't share my views on anything) come naturally to me. I think the bold-er, brave-er things are the things we do quietly every day. When we suffer losses, when we don't get the thing we really wanted, when we face everyday sexism, when life zigs left when we were hoping it would zag right, sometimes the boldest, bravest thing to do is to take a deep breath and put one foot in front of the other. I'm in awe of the quiet bravery all around me.