Veronica Chambers knows how to tell a story. Whether it’s her own books about Michelle Obama and Beyoncé, or a whole company’s, Veronica’s stories are always infused with a passion that’s palpable and personal. She shares insights on creativity, collaboration, and inspiration — that are sure to ignite a spark in fellow creatives.
What was the initial spark that led to writing?
This is always a hard question because I feel like I’ve had two lives: one as a reader and one as a writer. My spark as a reader came from my mom’s side of the family. In Panama, my grandmother taught herself how to read by looking at illustrated books. While in England, my mom fell in love with Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes. I grew up in a house where reading was a part of how we became English speakers and Americans. The written part grew out of that. In college, I tutored a girl in Spanish who wrote for YM, a teen magazine. She noticed that I was writing all the time and encouraged me to get an internship at a magazine. I sat with a New York City phonebook and called every magazine. Everyone told me no in some clipped and brutal way. When I got to “S”, I called Sassy magazine and they said to come on in. Being a teenager at a teen magazine automatically gave me a voice.
You’re involved in things beyond just writing, you’re editing, teaching, consulting, etc. Tell us a bit about Light Bulb Ink.
Light Bulb Ink started as a consulting company working with people on the stories they wanted to put forward. We’ve worked with architects on telling a story in a space. We’ve worked with corporations to answer “what is the story of this product?” What people often want to do is figure out how the story of their journey and the company coincide. Storytelling makes the process of distinguishing your brand easier. I’ve found if you write the beginning and the middle (up to where you are right now) it gives you a strong idea for the future. Our own stories often surprise us in exciting ways. We all think we’re experts on ourselves, but if we take a moment to look at our story as a storyteller, we discover amazing things.
You’ve worked on a number of collaborative projects with names like Michael Strahan, Eric Ripert, Timbaland, Marcus Samuelsson, Robin Roberts, and more. What is the collaborative writing process like? How is it different from solo writing projects?
It’s a balance. Collaboration is something I do well. It’s something intrinsic. Being first-generation makes you naturally collaborative because you’re constantly going back and forth between cultures, countries, languages, etc. This feeling came into my work. But I also I spend a lot of time by myself. I feel that in order to have something of value to bring to collaboration you have to spend time filling the well, reading, exploring, being quiet, reflecting.
How do you balance your creative work as a writer and the business of being a working writer and consulting brand?
I started out as a journalist, and when print magazines started falling out in 2008, what helped me find my center was realizing that the venue didn’t matter as much as the power of the story. We are always telling stories. Stories are essential units of communication. In my work with others, I want them to find the story they were meant to tell and tell their own stories better. As a creative, I follow the stories that excite me.
What advice do you have for fellow creatives, especially new and emerging writers?
You want to find something and master it. Choose one thing that you want to do and do it until you master it. Some people can sit down and write a whole book, they have that in them, but most need to start with something smaller: a newsletter, a blog post, a poem, anything. Find a space where you feel confident. Master that one thing because writing, like many things, is architectural. Sentences become paragraphs that become chapters that become books. It’s that simple and that complicated. There is no app or shortcut to get you from page one to page three hundred. We all have to walk the walk. So the question is how do we make that walk easier for ourselves and fun?
How do you incorporate fun into your writing life?
You know the carrot and the stick? I’m all carrot. Very short stick, very big carrot. There’s enough coming at you that makes life hard. I don’t want to be the person that kicks my own ass and makes myself miserable. Iris Murdoch said, “One of the secrets to a happy life is continuous small treats.” Some of my continuous small treats are expensive workouts like Rumble and Soul Cycle. I do a lot of artist dates from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I love taking myself to a last-minute Broadway show or an exhibit at a museum. That to me feels like a great treat.
You regularly post on your newsletter, Good & Plenty. What motivated you to start the newsletter and why should readers subscribe?
I actually didn’t want to write a newsletter at all. Stacy-Marie Ishmael, a fellow with me at Stanford, said I should write a newsletter. I told her what people often say to me when I encourage them to write: “Why would people care?” She replied, “If they don’t like it, they can unsubscribe!” At first, I thought it would be about gifts, restaurants, and travel but it’s turned into a letter about living a creative life. We are all trying to make something. That thing could be money, could be a book, could be anything. If you’re trying to make something, it’s not that different than the process of writing. Making something means you’re going to put yourself out there. People connect to that.
Just for fun, complete this sentence: “Other than my phone, I never leave home without ___ .”
A notebook. I always have a notebook with me. I have some of the world’s tiniest purses so I have some of the world’s tiniest notebooks. I don’t have a particular brand that I buy but I find most of them at the Kinokuniya bookstore across the street from Bryant Park. The main floor is all books, the top floor is a cafe that overlooks the park, and the bottom floor is all paper.
Editor’s Note: it was just announced that Veronica will lead The New York Times’ Archival Storytelling Team a new initiative devoted to publishing articles based on photographs recently discovered in The New York Times’ archive. Veronica and her team will be providing much-needed storytelling weight to our image-driven culture. -JW