On a quiet Thursday night in the Villard room, Vassar was graced with the presence of two feminist forces of nature. Extraordinarily creative and remarkably funny, Vassar alumnae Alanna Okun ’12 and Kelly Stout ’10 sat down on April 5 to talk about everything from Okun’s new book to their careers as writers and editors to how Vassar helped shaped their interest in journalism.
But first, who are these strong, independent ladies? Okun is a Senior Editor at Racked, a website centered on shopping culture. Before Racked, she worked at BuzzFeed, Brooklyn Magazine, Apartment Therapy and The Hairpin. She recently came out with her first book, “The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater,” a collection of personal essays about how knitting and crafting has helped her deal with her anxiety. Stout is the Features Editor at Jezebel, a popular blog that centers the voices of women and other marginalized genders and discusses topics including politics, fashion and celebrity gossip. Stout has also worked for Gawker and has written for the Shouts and Murmurs section of the New Yorker, where she began her career in journalism. Helen D. Lockwood Professor of English Amitava Kumar, who had the chance to develop relationships with the two while they were at Vassar, praised the two via email, writing, “Kelly is a humorist of high caliber, such fine excess. And in Alanna’s writing I’m rediscovering a beautiful ease of expression, weaving stuff from life with a light touch.”
Stout started the conversation with an insight about Okun, “You write a lot about small things. I know at the end of your time [at Vassar], you wanted to move on to big things, but this seems to be a collection about small things.” While Okun’s book on the surface extensively discusses knitting, the craft is really used as a means to unpack her personal world and inner turmoils. For instance, one chapter discusses Okun’s feelings about her sister’s bipolar disorder and her desire to fix something that cannot be fixed. In other words, the book uniquely interweaves crafting details with larger life conflicts. Okun commented on what the book meant to her: “It made all these things like anxiety and grief have a shape. It’s not a cure-all, it’s not a Gwyneth Paltrow holy secret, but it’s something that was helpful.”
Nevertheless, the writing process wasn’t always easy. Okun found that she had a lot of anxiety about the permanence of the book. She commented, “I would wake up straight in the middle of the night and be like, ‘Am I sure of this?’” Okun also questioned her confidence in releasing something so personal and subtle in such a politically tumultuous time. “I had this moment in which I felt that I was writing this book about anxiety and grief and I felt like the conversation had changed and had become so much more gristlier,” she remarked. “But then I realized that I didn’t want to check a box; I wanted to write something that was true to myself.” That said, the author did find comfort in a practice she humorously called, “shutting the hell up and just sitting down and writing,” and when she met uncertainties or writing blocks, she used the calm, consistent practice of her knitting to break through them.
In addition to discussing Okun’s book, the two women talked about their careers as editors and what makes editing meaningful to them. Stout commented, “Helping a writer through the process of writing a long piece that takes weeks and months is really sustaining for me.” Stout’s job as a features editor means that she edits pieces that are part of continual reporting done on specific topics. The topics are varied and nuanced. For example, she recently edited a piece about the colonialist and appropriative consumerism of jewelry in New Mexico. Okun, who mostly edits first-person pieces for Racked, had a similar view to Stout: “I love helping other people tell their stories and have their voices heard.” Stout added more generally, “For me, I really hate it when people lie, so I love that the editing process is about the artfulness of triaging the truth. It’s about seeing the world in a way that is meaningful instead of in an artificial way.”
The alumnae also talked about their time at Vassar and where their interests in writing and editing began. Stout commented, “I realized that writing was a career that people could have in high school. This sounds stupid, but I had this idea that books would just appear and that authors were otherworldly beings…But I had [writing] in the back of my mind. I knew it was career that is hard to make happen for yourself.” When she came to Vassar, Stout cultivated her passion for writing and editing through various English classes, her meaningful relationships with her professors, the tedious process of working on her thesis, and writing for the Misc. She recalls her bond with one professor in particular: “One of my most meaningful relationships I had at Vassar was with Professor Kumar. He challenged me to write with my head and taught me how to be a logical writer. He was also good at pointing out holes in my knowledge base…I remember him saying, ‘Don’t just write about yourself—go out into the world. The world is full. Figure out what literary theory is so you can deploy it in a meaningful way.’” Stout emphasized that it was mostly the process of writing—the deep thinking and collaborative relationships involved—that drew her to the field. She added, “If I could combine the feeling of working on the Misc with the feeling of working on my thesis and the feeling of working with Professor Kumar, I would be the happiest woman in America… I feel that I have done that.”
Similarly, Okun feels that the environment fostered by Vassar’s English Department along with the connections she made with her many English teachers, including Kumar, were some of the most informative aspects in her development as a writer. Particularly, she loved the way that English classes were incredibly collaborative and not high-strung. “Vassar is the best place for nurturing the secret best part of yourself,” she said. “In the classroom, I never felt that I had to put on literary flourishes to prove myself. The department gave you this nurturing feeling that you can always do better, but also not worry so much.”
Through it all, the two women were able to build careers in the fast-paced writing world with their own flairs while still maintaining a wonderful friendship. “Something that I think is so cool about her is that she made her career utterly hers,” Stout remarked on Okun. “Writing about yourself is one of the hardest things to do because it entails such high exposure. I occasionally write about myself, but I have nowhere near the comfort level in doing so as Alanna does. Her ability to write about herself and her family has added up to this capstone in this book and it’s so genuine.”