Women of Wisdom

A writer’s home

By Katherine Pioli

The story of how I became a writer starts with Greta deJong and the first time I walked through the door of a big pink house and into her editor’s office.

But before I start there I should explain that, when I graduated from college with a bachelor’s in English literature I left the school with a diploma and a 50-page senior thesis, an exploration of English as a language of colonization viewed through the works of two Native American poets. It was a document that I had worked on for seven months and which was, I felt, one of my greatest achievements as a writer and thinker to that point in my life. I did not want that thesis to be my last great writing achievement; I wanted my writing life to continue.

But there was one problem: The job I’d been able to land after graduation was with a trail crew for the US Forest Service. Digging trails and hauling heavy tools was clearly in my future. I did not know if writing would be.

The process of extracting story from every day life; the shaping of words, the digging deep into questions, revealing truths; the thrill of seeing one’s name in print. There are so many reasons to write. All of them appealed to me. And, for a long time, I thought that my dream was unique. But years spent at CATALYST—first as an intern, then staff writer and finally assistant editor—side-by-side at a table with Greta or cozied up on a sofa with story printouts in my hand, taught me otherwise.

So many of us want to tell stories. For every person who is too nervous to send their story to an editor, there are a dozen who are bold enough to try. College students, retirees, therapists, doctors, librarians, gardeners, yoga instructors, stay-at-home moms, there is no type when it comes to a person who dreams of writing and, over the last 15 year I have seen all of these eager writers fill Greta’s inbox with ideas. Dutifully she considers them all without prejudice—sometimes she would pass the pitches on to me when the load became too great, trusting my Gladiator’s thumb, up or down.

One thing I learned from Greta, in the course of all this sifting and weighing, was that, at CATALYST, pedigree didn’t matter. Greta never asked where the writer had been previously published—an obstacle set in place by many publications—or where they had gone to school. Greta only wanted to know one thing: is this a “CATALYST” story?

And so we published articles that may have not found life anywhere else, at least not with the same approach, about raccoon poop, traumatic brain injury, riding the public bus; about passive solar houses, how to weatherize a swamp cooler, how to catch a fish; about breast implants, yoga poses, music festivals, mushrooms; about clean energy and dirty air and Bears Ears.

Greta and CATALYST came to my attention some time shortly after returning home from college, thanks to two friends of mine from high school. The friends, red-headed twins who had run both the school yearbook and the newspaper our senior year (I ran the literary magazine), had interned at CATALYST and had subsequently been hired. Eventually, they left CATALYST, but not without stories to tell of late nights scrambling to get the paper in order to send off in time to the printer. It sounded, to me, like the Wild West of print writing: chaotic, intense, perfect. They said they would mention my name to Greta.

Within a week, with the help of my friends, I had arranged a meeting with the editor herself. It was a big event, on par with a job interview. I was nervous. The morning of the meeting I put on a nice outfit. I printed out an essay from my college writing. I may have even brought along a resumé. I showed up at the office right on time, knocked on the door. Waited.

A spritely woman answered. Her blond and silver hair sprung around her face in bright ringlets. Her blue eyes sparkled. Her smile was warm and welcoming. She was wearing a furry zebra-striped, zip-up adult pajama onesie. Greta invited me in.

That day we talked and talked. She wanted to know everything about me. What had I done in school? Where was I working? What was I reading? What was I interested in?

I left at the end of our conversation with two story assignments. One became a personal essay about the year I submitted to the task of eating only with chopsticks—a practice in mindfulness. To this day, that is the only story I’ve ever had published that was picked up and re-published—by a New York City magazine. Beginner’s luck.

It’s been nearly 15 years since that first meeting when Greta, dressed in her zebra-striped jammies, took me, a young aspiring writer, in and let me follow my dream, nurtured that piece of myself which, but for CATALYST, would not exist today. And I have seen that happen over and over again, for so many people. One need not be a capital “w” writer to fit into the pages of this magazine. CATALYST launches people’s words, their ideas, their stories, whether they are experts in their field or simply people with a passion, And our readers, our community, are better for it.

It’s easy to have a story. It’s hard to find someone who wants to read it and help you tell it better, let alone publish it. I got lucky. I hope there will always be a home like CATALYST. There will surely continue to be young writers who need it.

In addition to having been one of the CATALYST crew since 2007, Katherine Pioli teaches middle school at the Salt Lake Arts Academy.

This article was originally published on November 30, 2020.