A Book Apart

Get to know Elizabeth McGuane

Aug 30, 2023

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Black and white photo of author Elizabeth McGuane, a white woman with dark hair.

Up next in our Meet the Author series, we’re getting to know Elizabeth McGuane—author of Design by Definition. She gives us a glimpse into her beautiful workspace in Nova Scotia, lets us in on the favorite book she loves to share, and offers up what she most admires about creative people.

A Book Apart: What is your favorite thing about your workspace?

Elizabeth McGuane: My workspace looks out over the LaHave River in Nova Scotia/Mi’kma’ki, Canada, so the view is absolutely my favorite thing about it. After moving to Canada when I was five years old, my family settled in the LaHave area and thanks to remote work, coming back to it as an adult has been pretty magical. The light floods in all day, no matter the season. I do have to wear sunscreen at my desk, though!

ABA: In moments of self-doubt, how do you recharge and rally to keep going?

EM: I experience micro moments of self-doubt every day in what I hope is just a normal, regular part of consciousness. Sometimes I go for a walk, ideally on the beach. The sound of the waves really helps (a white noise recording helps too). I wish I could say I read or write when I’m feeling self-doubt, but it can be hard to get back into my own head enough to enjoy those things, especially when I’m feeling self-doubt about writing. Sometimes I’ll work with a writing prompt, just something to mechanically start the process of creativity, and hope that my brain wakes up and decides to follow along. It works more often than not.

ABA: What characteristic do you most admire in other creative people?

EM: The characteristics I most admire in others—whether they self-style themselves as “creative” or not—are diligence and truthfulness. I never feel I’m diligent enough or work hard enough, no matter how hard I work. There’s some perfect execution of routine and productiveness that I believe must be possible: the people who can get up early and go for a run and drink enough water and write ten pages a day, and then do it all again the next day. I’m not sure if this quality actually exists outside of short-form social media, though. In terms of true admiration and respect, I admire people who do work that feels truthful to them, work that’s meaningful to them beyond it being an achievement or something that might win them accolades or success. Writing or doing any creative thing, particularly in long form, is hard; I think it’s impossible to come through it without some compromise, which means you must start out with some store of conviction that what you’re doing is worthwhile and true. Otherwise, how would you ever finish it?

ABA: What is a piece of professional or life advice you’ve gotten that has always stuck with you?

EM: To take a job in design leadership and to not let myself be limited or defined by my past job titles. This advice isn’t without its pros and cons, but it’s probably the piece of advice that’s molded my career the most, and I’m thankful for it.

ABA: What are you reading right now?

EM: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. It’s a big orange doorstopper, but actually the last 150 pages are footnotes, which is great both because I love footnotes and because it makes reading it a more manageable mountain to climb. The book challenges assumptions about the broad scale of human history and especially about the pathways of ideas, notably from Indigenous societies into European ones. It also makes the case that humans are fully human when we’re debating and analyzing things, which resonated with me and with the theme of Design by Definition. “Humans are only fully self-conscious when arguing with one another; trying to sway each other’s views, or working out a common problem.” Not that we don’t have our own self-consciousness, but conversation is a way of sustaining our ideas and reflections. Even, I suppose, if that conversation happens by writing things down and working through them with an editor. It’s a wonderful, beautifully written book so far; it’s such a pleasure to read, ornate and humane and surprising and even funny.

ABA: What’s the last book you read that you wanted to share with others?

EM: Not the last book I read, but the one I have gifted the most often: The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick. I love this book so much. Reading Vivian Gornick always makes me feel awed and energized. It’s subtitled: The Art of Personal Narrative, which makes it seem like it’s all about writing a memoir, but it’s really about how to find a writerly voice in a way that I think is important in any form of writing, and it’s something that’s very important to understand as a reader—who is the “I” in a writer’s work, what is the truth of what they’re telling you. It talks about how hard it is to zoom in on and sustain. It’s about self-consciousness too, I suppose. Just go and read everything by Vivian Gornick, her writing is like a beam of light. She’s so acerbic and precise and spiky. You will absolutely be better off than you were before reading her.

ABA: What’s in your To Be Read pile?

EM: You Deserve a Tech Union by Ethan Marcotte. Having come from an industry that was unionized (print media) into one that is so far decidedly not, and now becoming a published writer which gives me access to unions and industry support should I choose to use them—I’m really looking forward to diving into Ethan’s book. I’m interested in why there’s a lot of fear inherent in discussing the history of labor. Especially working for a company that supports entrepreneurs, I think there’s a responsibility to understand how labor and entrepreneurship and industry at large work together. Alongside the pressing needs that unions support in terms of wages and so forth, I feel that the industries that have embraced unions—whether they’re factory workers, tradespeople, journalists, or actors and writers—have a lot to tell us about how businesses stay sustainable for all participants over the long term.

Learn more about all our authors—check out the rest of our Meet the Author series!


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