The Making of "All Things Grinnell"

Ben Binversie ’17, content specialist fellow with the Grinnell College Office of Communications, is producer of the new All Things Grinnell podcast. We asked him about it: 

Why a Grinnell podcast and why now?

When I started here last summer I brought my experience working at Milwaukee’s NPR station. Coming in, I thought that Grinnell would be an opportune place for a podcast because there is so much happening here in such a concentrated area. We’re already capturing a lot of stories in other formats, but there was no one doing what we’re doing with the podcast.

In your view, what advantages do podcasts offer over other media formats? 

It makes interviewees’ work more approachable and engaging, I think. For example, people might not read a book titled Shakespeare in the Afterlife without a prior interest in Shakespeare. A conversation with the author brings the topic to an audience that might still be interested in questions about life and death and how we make sense of any of it. 

How do you choose your topics and interviewees?

It’s kind of overwhelming at times because there is so much going on here. I try to latch on to things that are already happening on campus because I can cover people or events through a whole different lens for the podcast. Narrative stories like the one on the College garden (episode 6) are fun to make, but the process of interviewing and editing a dozen people and crafting a narrative is really involved. I try to focus on stories that are more easily achievable, but I would like to start digging into things like myths and legends at Grinnell and interesting figures from the past.

Is there a guiding approach or format to your interviews?

It’s very much a touch-and-feel thing. Generally, I try to make the content and the questions interesting to any alumni, from the class of 1937 to current students. I want the entire audience to understand and be engaged with an interview without necessarily having to know the ins and outs of current campus life, even though the interview should help them get a glimpse of that. The main thrust is that if you are connected to Grinnell, you will be interested in what I’m talking about. 

What are you learning about the people that comprise the Grinnell community? 

The first thing that comes to mind is just how different they all are. The wide range of ideas and experiences that people have to share is really tremendous. Being a part of that is what I enjoy the most.  

What about long-term sustainability of the podcast?

We are having those conversations, and listeners who are concerned should know it will go at least until my term runs out here at the College next year. I’m starting to work with students who are interested, and a lot of classes are incorporating podcasts and audio into their work, so by the time I leave Grinnell there is a chance that interested people will continue it. If people really value the podcast, then I think it will find a way. 

How do I find the podcast?

On a mobile device, search “All Things Grinnell” on an app like Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, or Stitcher. Or you can go to and find links to all the episodes. For the hearing impaired, there’s a link to the transcript at the bottom of each episode. 

Artistically Adventurous

When Brian Cavanagh-Strong ’09 landed himself in the New York University Tisch School of the Arts graduate program for musical theatre writing, it was, he says, “like a dream.” And why not? To be among a handful of elite candidates in the mecca of musical arts is heady stuff for a kid who started out plinking on a Sesame Street piano at the age of 4.  

Today, Cavanagh-Strong is busy honing his craft in New York City, pursuing what would seem to those with similar hopes to be the dream life of the ascending professional artist.  On a practical level, he is also learning to finesse his creative aspirations into avenues for making a living.

Cavanagh-Strong’s circuitous route to New York City — from hometown Ann Arbor, Michigan, through Grinnell — might seem a pedestrian detail except that the classically-trained student of jazz piano  “was decidedly not looking for music programs” when seeking out a liberal arts experience. A “magical” campus tour and the energy of the Grinnell campus sold him on coming to Iowa.

“I didn’t take a music class my first semester; I didn’t even plan on studying music at Grinnell, necessarily,” Cavanagh-Strong says. “I didn’t do very well in a philosophy class my first semester, and I think that was an impetus to study music theory in the spring of my freshman year. After that I was hooked.” 

The decision to major in music produced artistically fruitful relationships for Cavanagh-Strong. He cites Grinnell music faculty members Eric McIntyre and John Rommereim as “primary mentors” in his studies. His participation in the Grinnell Singers and a cappella group Con Brio were also key in his development, and it was on a Grinnell Singers tour that he first became aware of the Tisch School.

“I think I applied to NYU/Tisch out of curiosity,” Cavanagh-Strong says. “I didn’t know that I wanted to write musicals for a living. I just thought it would be an exciting adventure.” 

Cavanagh-Strong is now in the midst of that adventure — writing musicals, music for plays, opera, a film score, and “music-directing the work of other writers in theatre and other media.” He returned to Grinnell twice recently for two “amazing opportunities”— the first as music director for the film Saints Rest, and another built around the premiere performance, by the Grinnell Symphony Orchestra, of the orchestral version of Cavanagh-Strong’s short opera, A Gardener

Cavanagh-Strong says the breadth of his current projects speaks not only to his diversity of interests and capabilities but also to “how I have to survive.”

“The journey of the musical theatre writer from conception to production is perilous,” Cavanagh-Strong says. “The responsibility to develop patronage support is on the writer for a very long time, and that patronage is not immediately available for even the most deserving creators.” 

After nine years in the New York scene, Cavanagh-Strong says he’s only just starting to see the benefits of building a network of relationships that can provide a solid professional grounding.

“In creative work there are no guarantees,” Cavanagh-Strong says. “Saying ‘yes’ to all kinds of opportunities allows me to meet new people, to experience music and storytelling in different ways, and to clarify my aspirations for the future. 

“Pursuing a master’s degree in musical theatre writing is exactly what I needed to do, though it represents a great cost to enter into a field with few clear lines upward. Finding a way to support yourself in a city with a high cost of living and still pursue your greatest passions means taking a wide look at all kinds of storytelling and continuing to explore them.”

Fight Club

Next time you’re challenged to a sword fight, call Ricki G. Ravitts ’70, a fight director who has taught stage actors around the world how to parry, thrust, and stab for almost 25 years.

Certified through the Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD), Ravitts is qualified to teach in eight different weapons styles, including broadsword, knife, rapier/dagger, and quarterstaff. In her class Found Weapons, she shows that anything you can wave at someone can be used as a weapon.

“Stage combat is very exciting; it’s a physical discipline that runs the gamut of triumph and tragedy — or even comedy,” says Ravitts, a member of the stage combat faculty at American Musical and Dramatic Academy, a performing arts conservatory in New York City. “It’s telling a story with a fight, while keeping the actors safe.”

As a youngster growing up in Illinois, Ravitts played pirates and Zorro with neighborhood kids and, later, acted in high school productions. At Grinnell she majored in English “to gain insights into different ways of thinking and problem-solving,” she says, and performed in plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Brecht, among others. 

“I chose Grinnell because I wanted to study in a small liberal arts college, and I enjoyed being around so many smart, passionate students who were involved in theatre, writing, music, and political movements.

“Plus, Iowa is such a friendly state,” she adds with a laugh. “My grandfather was a country doctor in Montezuma, Iowa. I walked into a Grinnell drugstore once and when someone introduced me, the druggist asked, ‘Are you related to Doc Ravitts?’”

She credits her adviser James Kissane ’52, professor emeritus of English, guest artist Robert E. Ingham, and Pirkko Roecker, who taught folk dancing from 1966–74, with deepening her understanding of excellence and performance: “Pirkko had a gift for getting the best out of each student,” she says. “And Dr. Kissane was a role model in many ways; so when he encouraged me to pursue my passion for the theatre, it meant a lot. Or maybe he just didn’t want to read any more of my term papers,” she adds with a laugh.

In her junior year, with guidance from Ingham, Ravitts won an internship with the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, her first chance to work with a professional company.  (Today, Grinnell continues to help fund students so they can accept unpaid or underpaid internships.)

Ravitts earned an MFA in acting at New York University. But it wasn’t until later, when a friend of hers broke his nose in a summer stock production of Picnic, that Ravitts found her way to stage combat. 

“The play has a fight scene, and during rehearsals, the director said, ‘Have a little tussle.’ But no one knew what they were doing,” she says. “On opening night, my friend broke his nose on stage and spent the rest of the performance trying not to bleed on the leading lady. Immediately after the show, he was off to the emergency room.”

Later that year, back in New York City, she took her first stage combat class, prompted by the realization that safety was needed onstage — and because fighting with swords just sounded like fun. “And it was!” she says. Ravitts continued taking stage combat courses from the SAFD and in 1995 became the third woman in the United States certified as an SAFD teacher of stage combat. Even now, she continues taking classes to learn new techniques.

All this combat knowledge has given her a keen eye — and when she watches a movie, she can’t help but to critique the action: “I’ll sit there and say, ‘Aw, you really don’t know how to use a sword, do you?’”

I Think, Therefore I Draw

As a young copywriter working at a New York City ad agency, Ken Krimstein ’80 had a routine. Each Wednesday he would walk around the corner to the offices of The New Yorker, drop off a batch of his cartoons, and hope that the editor would like one enough to publish it. Ten years and 400 cartoons later, his first one was accepted by the magazine. 

“In those days and even now, that’s what it took to get in,” says Krimstein, a longtime ad agency copywriter and creative director who’s since had more than 30 of his cartoons appear in the magazine, as well as in several New Yorker anthologies. At the time, however, “I could have wallpapered my bathroom with the rejection slips. But I had this incredible desire and belief that my work should be in there and I knew this was part of the process. Of course the minute I got the OK, I called everyone — and it didn’t run for another year.”

The son of an art director, Krimstein grew up in a home packed with art supplies. And like lots of kids, he loved cartoons, from “Peanuts” to “Archie” to the stuff that ran in the National Lampoon and The New Yorker

“I really love the combination of words and pictures,” he says. “In cartooning it’s one plus one equals three. You have something that’s more than the sum of the parts; and even without words, the picture should convey an idea.” 

He drew for his high school newspaper in suburban Chicago; once he arrived at Grinnell, he wrote features — “weird and strange human interest stories” — and drew cartoons for the Scarlet & Black. “I’d come in the day they were putting the paper to bed and see what was in the news – registration or graduation, for example. Then I’d improvise on the spot. The nice thing about cartooning is all you need is a blank piece of paper and a felt-tip pen.” 

A history major who also focused on English and philosophy, Krimstein doodled in class and spent hours drawing in the Forum. It was his First-Year Tutorial, “Plato’s Republic … and Ours,” along with a lifelong thirst for learning, that culminated in a recent obsession with philosophy and his first graphic novel, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt (Bloomsbury, September 2018). The book’s structure was inspired by a copy of Aristotle’s Poetics (translated by Grinnell professors H.G. Apostle, Elizabeth Dobbs, and Morris Parslow) that Krimstein bought in Grinnell’s Pioneer Bookshop during his last reunion.

After several decades in New York City, Krimstein now teaches at DePaul University and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he shares his knowledge of design, writing, strategy, and storytelling with students. He’s also begun work on his next graphic novel. “I was visiting Grinnell and having coffee at Saints Rest with (Professor) Harold Kasimow, and we talked about the recent discovery in Lithuania of pre-World War II autobiographies of teenagers.” Like his Arendt novel, he’ll take their words and add pictures to describe the emotions of that place and time. 

When asked which of his cartoons is his favorite, Krimstein pauses. “I love them all, even the ones that haven’t sold,” he says. “One of my first cartoons that was published and that I really liked ran in The Wall Street Journal. It showed a statue in a park of a very pompous guy and it said, ‘Statesman, Scholar, Bore.’ 

“You always have that little twist in cartoons. I love the fact you can be a little subversive and tell the truth in a way you can’t in real life.”

Getting to the Meat of the Matter

If you drive to Grinnell on Interstate 80, you might be inclined to think Iowa’s economy is heavily agriculture-based. Your eyes might deceive you, says Jack Mutti, professor emeritus of economics. 

In terms of actual production, the agricultural sector accounts for about five percent of Iowa’s GDP. Yet, agriculture is connected intimately with many other industries, including manufacturing. So, the impact of recent tariffs is bigger than some of the numbers might lead you to believe, especially because the tariffs most directly affect exports.

When the United States fired the first volley of the recent trade disputes by placing tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum, Canada, Mexico, and China responded with different strategies. With respect to relevant sectors here in Iowa, China employed a tit-for-tat strategy; multiple rounds of tariffs have resulted in a 50 percent increase in tariffs on pork, an additional 15 percent on ethanol (on top of the previous year’s 30 percent), and 25 percent on soybeans. Mexico responded in a slightly different manner; rather than raise tariffs on soy and corn, Mexico increased pork tariffs, eventually by 20 percent. 

Mutti suggests this tactic was part of a concerted effort by Mexico to protect its economy by increasing production of livestock, which relies on corn and soy from the U.S. Meanwhile, Canada’s response was heavily motivated by political pressure, as it targeted specific regions and states for political reasons.

The impact of these tariffs is difficult to assess in the short run, but there is already some evidence we can point to, says Mutti. Because the soybean harvest is up from last year, the impact of reduced prices will be somewhat mitigated for soy farmers. Still, China imports about 60 percent of U.S. soybean exports, so the 25 percent tariff will surely be felt by farmers, with a projected loss of income to Iowa producers of over half a billion dollars. Corn is not as heavily impacted by the Chinese tariffs, because China doesn’t import nearly as much corn as it does soybeans. 

But it is also important to look at ethanol and animal exports as proxies for corn, says Mutti. Approximately 40 percent of U.S. corn is used for ethanol production. As such, the full impact of corn prices ripples through other sectors. Mutti cites a study by Iowa State University assessing the impact on pork, which estimates the value of a hog this year will decrease by about $18 per hog. Over the course of a year, that could mean over $700 million of lost revenue for Iowa’s pork industry.

In August, the USDA announced the Market Facilitation Program as a compensation mechanism for farmers impacted by tariffs. The program set different rates of compensation for various crops, including a first stage measure of $1.65 per bushel for half of soybean farmers’ crop. Corn, meanwhile, is only reimbursed at a rate of 1 cent per bushel, even though corn prices have decreased significantly. Mutti says the rationale behind the crops and amounts included in the program has been less than transparent, and possibly motivated more by politics than economic impact. 

Although every dollar, or penny, helps, the program will not completely appease farmers, many of whom have lost significant earnings because of these tariffs. It’s something, Mutti says, but it won’t make them entirely whole. For example, in 2017 Poweshiek County produced 6.2 million bushels of soybeans. If they lose about a dollar a bushel on this year’s crop, as it currently stands, that could mean approximately $6 million in losses, which can have ripple effects on local economic spending. Anecdotally, Mutti notes that there have been significantly fewer purchases of combines in Poweshiek County this year, a sign that farmers are responding to lower prices and greater uncertainty. 

Her Perfect Advice

“From the minute I was first introduced to Japanese in elementary school, my life changed,” says Anneke Walker Nagao ’87. “My whole life revolves around that moment.”

Nagao grew up in the town of Grinnell, and her mother encouraged her to attend the College. “My family has always taken advantage of what Grinnell has to offer for town people,” she says. “My mother took a position in the Office of Development, and we hosted several Japanese students during College breaks.”

When Nagao was 13, she went to Japan to stay with a local family for the summer. In preparation for that trip, her mother searched for someone at Grinnell to teach her a few Japanese phrases. The College was not formally offering any Japanese language classes at that time, so Nagao took a private class with Donna Solis Yount, then the spouse of a music professor at the College. 

After returning from her first trip abroad, Nagao looked for every opportunity to learn more Japanese. While she was in high school, Nagao took Yount’s private, beginning Japanese class “over and over again,” and “I started going to the Japan table [at the College] and having dinner with the students,” she says. 

When Nagao enrolled at Grinnell in 1983, Japanese was not yet part of the regular curriculum but it was available as an Alternative Language Study Option class. “It was very easy for me, but I was always eager for any Japan connection,” she says.

In the summer before her third year, Nagao, an anthropology major, went to Japan again. As graduation neared, Nagao says, “I was wondering what the heck to do with the rest of my life, like so many recent grads do. I went in to talk with my adviser, Kathy Kamp, [professor of anthropology]. I knew I wanted to travel and not live in the U.S. Her perfect advice was to continue down the road I’d started and specialize instead of dabbling in other things.” Immediately following graduation, Nagao moved back to Japan, where she’s been living ever since.

For the past 30 years, Nagao has been using Japanese almost exclusively. She began with teaching jobs and then worked for several years as a translator with an interior design company, where she met her husband Masanori Nagao. He is Japanese and does not speak much English. She now works as a kindergarten teacher in Yokohama. “Technically, I teach English, but they are four years old, so obviously most of the communication is done in Japanese,” she says. “I think in Japanese often and dream in Japanese sometimes.”

Yet, when she and her husband are out together, store clerks often address only her husband. And several times a day Nagao is asked if she can speak Japanese. “It can be used to one’s advantage, too, though,” she says. “A singer I like came to Japan and I went to his autograph session. They were announcing ‘No pictures,’ so I pretended not to understand and asked him for a picture. I was the only person in the group to get a picture!”

Nagao credits the College for nurturing her interest in travel and her sense of adventure. “The time spent with the Japanese people I met through the College created a strong interest in traveling and learning about other cultures for me,” she says. “Grinnell shaped me and my future in every way possible. There is no better education than travel.”

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“My whole life I said to myself, ‘I will not teach,’” says Kaydi-Ann Newsome ’14, an economics major from Jamaica. “I remember my chemistry teacher in year nine saying to me, ‘You know, one day you’re going to be a teacher.’ I was just like, ‘No, sir. It’s not going to happen. It’s just not going to happen.’”

But in her second year at Grinnell, Newsome took Comparative and International Education with Deborah Michaels, associate professor of education. “That’s when I realized I’ve been thinking all wrong,” Newsome says. “I love education. I want to be a part of this whole movement and get into studying education a lot deeper.” 

She dove into a summer research project with Michaels, studying the Teach for All movement. At the time Newsome was doing her Mentored Advanced Project, Teach for All had just started programs, or was looking to start programs, in several countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, including Jamaica. 

Newsome’s deep research was a discipline for discovery: What does it take to bring this organization, which is rooted in the United States, into less economically developed countries? How are they going to attract graduates from a less economically developed country? How are they going to fund this? 

“That was the point where everything started to come together,” she says. Her economics background in social development, her global development studies concentration, “and then of course, this education as the tool that’s supposed to lift you all out of this.”

Yet teaching was still not on her radar. Three weeks after she graduated from Grinnell in 2014, Newsome moved to London where she knew she had the support of her extended family. Because her dad was born in Britain, Newsome has dual citizenship, so she was able to start looking for work right away.

She found a job tutoring in math and English for a private company. On her first day she recalls thinking, “Man, this feels so natural.” 

A colleague at her new workplace suggested she apply for Teach First, the U.K.’s sister organization to Teach for America. Newsome did “loads and loads of research” on the organization, which only accepts applications once a year. 

She landed the job, and in June 2015 she started six weeks of summer training with the organization. She learned about the pedagogy of teaching math and how to manage herself and students. “It was just intense,” she says. 

In September 2015 Newsome started her new job teaching 11- to 16-year-olds at Trinity Secondary School in Lewisham, South East London. 

During her first year of teaching, Newsome was, herself, a full-time student. “Every six weeks, I was either writing a research paper or writing a paper based on a class that I had taught,” she says. 

In addition, she was doing all the things a teacher regularly does. “Assessments don’t mark themselves. Lessons don’t plan themselves. Assignments don’t write themselves. Things like following up with parents at the end of the day, that definitely doesn’t do itself either.”

Grinnell prepared her well for that intensity, Newsome says. “We went through the fire, went through the ice, and I learned how to come out stronger. I’m a resilient Grinnellian.”

In fall 2018, she started a master’s program in education planning, economics, and international education while continuing to teach at Trinity, both part time. “I have been challenged to steer my career in a direction that can tie my experiences from growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, my Grinnell years, and my own lessons from teaching in London to broaden my impact in the field of education.”

White Coats

Separated by 35 years of education and experience, what could Miranda Thomas ’17 and Sara Mathews ’82 possibly have in common? Dedication to animal care, white coats, mutual admiration, and Grinnell’s externship program.

Thomas, a biology graduate now attending the College of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State University, was matched with Mathews, a Vero Beach, Florida, veterinarian, during the spring of 2015. Mathews and her husband own and operate a small animal hospital, in addition to her pro bono work for trap/neuter/release animals. 

Thomas, who had veterinary medicine in mind since seventh grade, says her externship with 

Mathews “showed that my skill set and interests aligned with vet med but maybe not in a clinical setting. When I shadowed with Sara, we were with animals and clients all day, every day.” Now in her second year of veterinary training she is leaning toward research and possibly nongovernmental organization work in an international practice.

“Grinnell was such an amazing experience for me that I feel I have a lot to give back,” Mathews says about her commitment to four externships she has hosted to date. “I learn as much from the students as I give. I continue to be impressed by the quality and well-rounded nature of the students I see. I’m always a little sad when they leave.”

The connection forged between these two Grinnellians — both raised in Iowa, biology majors at Grinnell, and Iowa State vet students — led to Thomas asking Mathews to participate in her white coat ceremony, the rite-of-passage entry into the profession.

White coat ceremony with Miranda Thomas ’17 and Sara Mathews ’82

“It was an incredible honor to be asked,” Mathews said. “I respect Miranda and will continue to encourage young men and women in the profession, just as my own parents were encouraging to me.”

Thomas says, “I chose Sara for my white coat ceremony because I value her opinion and the symbolism of both of us choosing Grinnell and Iowa State. She’s so successful and loves what she does. I hope it’s good karma. Grinnell alumni are so amazing with keeping strong relationships and making sure others have opportunities. I want to do this in a few years when I can offer experience too.”  

What’s an Externship?

The externship program in the Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS) matches current students seeking to clarify their career path with alumni in their chosen career fields. Open to all students, the externship program is primarily geared toward first- and second-year students who are still exploring majors and career options. 

The three-to-five day externship experiences occur during spring break and involve shadowing an alumni professional through a normal day’s activities, including a homestay. Registration for 2019 externship hosts runs through Oct. 25.


Alumni interested in offering a spring break externship with homestay should contact Brooke Vonderheide, assistant director of alumni and donor relations, career programs, at 641-269-3196, vonderhe[at]grinnell[dot]edu. For general questions about the externship program, contact Stephanie Burrows, assistant director of advising and exploration, at 641-269-4940, burrowss[at]grinnell[dot]edu.

2018 Athletic Hall of Fame Inductees

Grinnell College celebrated the accomplishments of nine athletes who were inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame during the biennial ceremony Sept. 1, 2018.

Abe H. Rosenbloom ’34 (deceased) dominated as an undersized lineman for the Pioneers. He became president of Behr Machinery Corp. and stayed connected to Grinnell, contributing significantly to the football program. The current football stadium is dedicated in his honor.

Edward M. Hirsch ’72 was a two-sport athlete, playing both football and baseball. He was an NCAA First-Team All-American in football, recording nearly 100 receptions for over 1,000 yards. Later, he gained national recognition for his poetry, earning awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment of the Arts, and the Guggenheim Fellowship. 

As a soccer player, Chad Stewart ’97 was the all-time leader in assists (33), assists in a season (12), and assists per game (.67). A two-year captain and Most Valuable Player award winner, Stewart has stayed connected with the men’s soccer program while working as a lawyer after graduation from the University of Minnesota Law School.

John Aerni-Flessner ’01 is one of the most decorated and consistent Pioneer runners of all time. Still holding the school record in the steeplechase, he finished fifth at the NCAA Championships his senior season. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa, he earned his Ph.D. in history from Washington University in St. Louis and wrote a book on the history of the Midwest Conference.

Tai L. Duncan ’04 had unmatched passion for both of her sports — volleyball and basketball. She earned the Freshman of the Year Award and became a captain and an academic and athletic all-conference selection. She graduated with honors from the University of Iowa College of Law and shares her passion for athletics with younger athletes as a coach and mentor.

Stephen F. Wood ’04 was a versatile and key contributor to the men’s basketball program for four straight years. He was named the Midwest Conference Player of the Year in 2003, led the team in scoring and assists, and is the all-time leader in steals. He graduated from the University of Illinois College of Law and works in private practice.

As a diver for the Pioneers, Sarah Stayer Mills ’06 qualified for the NCAA National Championships three years in a row. Mills finished seventh in the 1-meter competition, earning All-American status. She earned a master’s of public health and M.D. from the University of Texas and now works as a fellow in palliative care.

Liz Carrier ’07 was the single most dominant defensive force in the women’s soccer program, particularly at the goalkeeper position. With 37.5 shutouts in her career, she also tops the record books in minutes played, shutouts in a season (14), and goals against average with an amazing 0.37. Carrier works as a CrossFit coach and trainer.

Juan C. Perez Borja ’11 was a tennis standout — an All-American, three-time NCAA national qualifier and 12-time Midwest Conference champion. Following Grinnell, he returned to Ecuador and founded Enseña Ecuador, a foundation committed to giving everyone an opportunity to education, regardless of their background.

Derriere in chair

Grant Faulkner ’87 says the best way to learn how to write a novel is to just sit down and write it. 

“Everyone has a story to tell and everyone’s story matters,” he explains. 

Encouraging people to put pen to paper and helping them find creative inspiration is his daily mission in his role as executive director for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which challenges participants to write 50,000 words — the length of a short novel — in 30 days. 

The 30-day writing challenge, which takes place during the month of November, provides a community of like-minded individuals a variety of ways to collaborate, support, and encourage one another in person and online during the brief, but highly intensive writing period. The program has grown every year since its inception in 2000 when 150 people participated; last year, more than 300,000 writers signed up. Though NaNoWriMo targets neophyte writers, it is also designed to help seasoned pros and has yielded thousands of published novels and multiple bestsellers.

“What makes the program really effective is that we’re very inclusive. We make writing accessible and inviting, and that’s important because it can sometimes be intimidating,” says Faulkner, who has led the nonprofit since 2012. “Many people are blocked when it comes to writing because they hear their inner editor’s judgments, or they don’t believe in the value of their story. We emphasize the imaginative exploration and the creative journey of writing a novel.”

NaNoWriMo provides several other writing programs throughout the year to more than 500,000 people — including 100,000 kids and teens who participate in its Young Writers Program — but Faulkner says the 30-day writing challenge is a particularly galvanizing recipe. “The pressure of a constraint often holds creative benefits. It’s important to bang out that first draft and just get the words on the page, because you can’t edit a blank page.” 

Giving writers advice on how to keep that momentum going is the motivation for his recently published book, Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo.

“I’ve talked to so many writers who want to write year-round, who want to finish their novels after National Novel Writing Month, but it can be challenging to keep writing,” he explains. “I want people to prioritize creativity and develop a creative mindset so that they’re not just creative in November, but every day of their lives.”

Studying abroad in France as a Grinnell College student — and spending many hours reading novels in cafes — is what convinced Faulkner to eschew becoming an economics major and to focus instead on English literature.

“My English degree equipped me to think critically about art and aesthetics, so I’ve brought Grinnell’s intellectual intensity to my reading and writing in many ways,” he says. 

Though Faulkner has been writing since his mother gave him a journal on his seventh birthday, leading an organization like NaNoWriMo has taught him that no writer’s process is perfect.

“Writing is just so challenging, and every story holds new mysteries and problems to solve, so I’m always learning, always fighting the same inner battles, always experimenting with my approach.”