Clarissa Ward, ON ALL FRONTS

Clarissa Ward, ON ALL FRONTS

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Clarissa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Clarissa Ward: Thank you so much for having me on.

Zibby: How great, we just made all these personal connections that we should’ve known each other ahead of time. We didn’t, but anyway, here we are.

Clarissa: Now we’re meeting.

Zibby: Now here we go. On All Fronts, your latest — your memoir, not your latest, your memoir, it just came out. It details your incredible experiences as this award-winning, badass journalist. I cannot believe how much you’ve accomplished since graduating after me from Yale. It’s amazing and humbling. I’m just totally impressed. Can you please tell listeners what your book is about? Then what inspired you to sit down and write the story of your life so far?

Clarissa: The book is really about my journey starting from my childhood — it wasn’t necessarily a childhood where it would’ve been an obvious trajectory for me to go on and become a war correspondent — and then through 9/11 which for me was kind of an epiphany moment. I was studying comparative literature at Yale. I thought I wanted to be an actress. Suddenly, my world was turned upside down. I became consumed by this idea that I wanted to go out there and understand how this had happened and why this had happened and what was at the root of it. I really wanted to be at the tip of the spear. Then it basically goes through my career. I think the problem is when you’re watching the news, you’re only getting half of the story. You’re only seeing what’s happening in front of the camera. You’re not seeing what’s happening behind the camera. You’re not seeing these beautiful moments of human connection, moments of laughter, acts of kindness, acts of bravery and sacrifice.

Those are moments, to be honest, that, first of all, make this the best job in the world. They’re also the moments that really shape the way you see and understand the world or a culture or a conflict. I wanted to share that with a wider audience. I wanted people who are not slavishly following every development in Syria to be able to connect to people in Syria and see the conflict through their eyes and feel it, but do it in a way where it’s more approachable. It’s like going on a journey with me to some of these really exciting and interesting and often difficult and dangerous places. I only really decided that I wanted to write a book when I got pregnant with my first son. I was like, I really need to have some kind of a record for him because I’m probably not going to tell him a lot of these stories at the dinner table, but I want him to know about these things and to know who I am other than being Mom.

Zibby: I read your Glamour article about this. It’s called “I work in some of the most dangerous places in the world. Motherhood hasn’t changed that.” You talk, obviously, about having a newborn and a two-year-old and how it feels to still be the one juggling the playdates while you’re at war on the battlefields, essentially, still dealing with playgroup. Your point, of course, in the article was much more complex than that, which is, a lot of people have thought you’re going to give it up now that you have two kids. You must be staying home now. You’re like, would a man in the same position professionally be asked the same thing? I was hoping you could talk about that because I thought it was such a powerful piece.

Clarissa: Thank you. It’s a really tough one. On the one hand, yeah, I get a little bit like, come on, I know so many dads doing this job. I know they’re not being asked every five minutes if they’re going to keep doing this work now that they’re fathers. On the other hand, I do get it. I get why people ask that. I do really take my security very seriously. I take my responsibility for midwifing these two young souls into the world really seriously as well. I think it’s a fair question. I’ve given it a lot of thought. Really, what I come up with at the end of the day is there have to be boundaries and there have to be limits. There are certain assignments that I won’t do if they’re too dangerous. I will actively avoid being in a really kinetic situation on a front line. I won’t be away for longer than two weeks max, but ideally one week. I do my due diligence for months to plan these trips to the best of my ability to be sure to mitigate every single risk. I feel like it’s important to have mothers covering war. I think we bring a different perspective to the table. I think that I have changed a lot since becoming a mother. I know I’ve become more emotionally porous. I feel like my heart is sort of out there beating in the wind sensitive to every small act of suffering I see or a child or a woman who’s pregnant or a mother making sacrifices for her children. I just feel acutely attuned to it and profoundly moved by it. I hope that makes its way into my reporting. Maybe if there were more mothers covering war, we wouldn’t have so many wars, which is not to say that I think all moms should leave their kids and head to the front line, not at all. It’s not for everyone. We need to have a diversity of voices telling these stories. I guess that’s my point.

Zibby: Moms don’t have time to go to war.

Clarissa: Exactly. Definitely not.

Zibby: What do you think it was — I know you spell out so much of this in the book. You take us all the way back to even childhood babysitters and all of it. What do you think made you able to do this job so well? This isn’t something that everybody could just hop into and excel at. I know I couldn’t do it. I have too much fear and anxiety to even fly to visit my grandmother right now. Seriously, is it bravery? Tell me, what do you think it is? What is it?

Clarissa: It’s definitely not bravery because I don’t think I’m exceptionally brave. I’m able to stay calm in incredibly stressful situations, but on the inside, I’m a wreck. I get very scared. It’s not bravery. I think it’s a combination of things. If I’m being generous with myself, it’s — I was an only child. My parents were very busy with their careers, always. I had to be able to perform to get attention. That meant learning to tell stories in a compelling way. It also meant learning to be really adaptable. I went to boarding school at the age of ten years old. I had come from the US. It was miserable. I hated it. It was a sink or swim situation. I needed to fit in. I needed to make friends. I needed to make it work. I did. That has allowed me, that skill in my career, to go into any culture in any place in the world and form human connections with people and just immerse myself. As long as I have a working Wi-Fi connection and maybe air conditioning at a push, I’m okay. I’ll be okay. I also think there’s a level of passion that you have to have because there is a lot of sacrifice that comes with a job like this both in terms of your personal life and trying to make that work and in terms of the emotional toll that obviously this kind of work inevitably takes. You really have to want it deep, deep, deep in your core. I tell that all the time to young journalists who are like, should I do this? I’m like, if you’re even asking yourself that question, it’s not going to happen. You have to want this with every fiber of your being. You have to feel it’s a vocation.

Zibby: Interesting. Tell me more about the 9/11 experience for you and how this became your calling.

Clarissa: I don’t know what your experience was like at Yale. My experience at Yale, it was tremendous. It was so thrilling in terms of the incredible education and campus life and all of it. We were making movies and starting magazines and enjoying French new wave cinema classes. I had pink hair and lots of piercings and was indulging in all sort of more superficial self-exploration, let’s say. Then 9/11 happened. It was like a thunderbolt from the sky. It was like, oh, my goodness, this has been lovely, but let’s face it, there is some really important stuff happening in the world. It’s been happening for a while. I haven’t been engaged. I haven’t been paying attention. Why do these people hate us so much? What do they understand about America versus how America sees itself? How they can be engaged with? How can there be better communication? It felt to me on some level that this mutual process of dehumanization and miscommunication, that it was really fundamentally arising from this failure to understand each other. Keep in mind, I’m twenty-two. There’s a lot of idealism and hubris at work, but I became impassioned by this idea that I wanted to go and act as a communicator between worlds and in the process of going to these places, take something of America with me to share with them, but also take their stories back to America. I have subsequently realized that that’s a hard job because not everybody wants to hear that. Some people think that listening or humanizing the other is tantamount to weakness. It’s been a humbling journey in many ways, but also one that I’m profoundly grateful for.

Zibby: Wow. You’re so articulate. I love listening to people who speak in complete paragraphs. I feel like there are speechwriters who would want to grab what you just said and throw it down on the page and claim it as their own. It’s awesome. I have such appreciation for your language. Anyway, so when you keep going from place to place — I know you’ve worked in Moscow and Syria. You been everywhere, Bin Laden. You have traversed the planet, essentially. I know, yes, okay fine, only child and performance, but how do you literally land on your feet everywhere you go? How do you just pick up and immerse yourself in something totally new? How do you do it?

Clarissa: What drew me to television rather than print is that television is a team sport. It’s collaborative. You work with a cameraman and a producer. That really, for me, is a hugely important part of what I do. I thrive on that collaboration. I really get a lot of energy from just joking around and hanging out. What people never tell you about covering war is ninety-nine percent of it is killing time and waiting for something big to happen. Then one percent of it is totally mental. Everything is going off. You’re just trying to get as much done as you can. Then it’s back to sitting around and waiting for a press conference, waiting for a ride to the front line. Waiting, waiting, waiting is a huge theme. You need to be with people in the field who make you laugh, who keep you grounded, who keep you sane, who look out for you, who feed you, who you feed. That comradery is a huge part of it.

Definitely, that’s what’s allowed me to parachute into all these crazy places and live in Beirut and Baghdad and Beijing and Moscow and all the places that I’ve lived because it is lonely. It is lonely. Definitely, when I’ve been on my own on these trips, and some of them I’ve had to do alone, you have moments where you witness something so beautiful or so profound or so sad or whatever it may be, and it’s tinged with this real sense of loneliness that you can’t share it with other people in that moment, people who you love or people who you work with. It is hard to be away from home for so long. It is hard, as successful as you can be at it, immersing yourself in other people’s lives. They are other people’s lives at the end of the day. One of the most challenging parts of the job is trying to carve out your own real life. What does that look like? Where is that? Who’s a part of that? It’s not possible, really, to do this forever, constantly being in other people’s lives.

Zibby: When you come home and you have your husband, let’s just say even before kids, how do navigate going through intense — you would think you’d come back with PTSD every week. Then you come back and maybe — like your girlfriend who we were talking about earlier who we both know, how do you confront, then, a girlfriend who’s just having relationship problems when you’ve been watching a man be carried in a casket through the streets? How do you keep perspective and relate to everybody else?

Clarissa: I think this is one of the biggest challenges of the job, to be honest, because you are straddling different worlds and shuttling back and forth. It’s polar opposites. How do you acclimatize? I think there’s a lot of guilt as well that comes with leaving the front lines of Aleppo and going to the South of France and sitting with my girlfriends around the pool drinking rosé. It’s like, on what planet is this okay? On what planet does that make any sense? Is there any justice in this world? It’s a lot. What you come to realize as you do the job longer is that if you can’t make that work, if you can’t experience joy and allow yourself to have that joy and love and spiritual nourishment or physical decadence, pampering, whatever it is that you need to fill the tank when you’re at home, you can’t go back out and do the job again. You need to fill the tank. Once you understand that, you’re able to navigate it a little bit better. There have been times, and I talk about this in the book, where I would come back and I didn’t feel like I wanted to be me anymore.

I didn’t feel in love with my life anymore. I would bristle when my husband would try to hug me. I would zone out when I would go out with girlfriends for dinner and catch up with them. They would ask me sincerely about Syria, and I would not be able to engage with them on it. That is not a healthy state to be in. You do need to be proactive if you’re doing this kind of work and you’re witnessing this kind of trauma. You need to be proactive about your mental health. You need to be seeing a therapist. You need to start to recognize the telltale signs of when you’re burning out a little bit or when you are getting too detached and too numb. It’s a little counterintuitive. You see movies and you think, oh, they see something bad and then you feel sad. No. Feeling sad would be great because that means I’m processing. There’s catharsis in grief or sadness. There is not any catharsis in feeling numb, in feeling detached, in feeling irascible. That’s when you know that you really need to do some work to get back to a place where you can feel joy, where you can feel love, and where you can feel connection.

Zibby: You have a great therapist. I need this person’s number instantly. I think I have a lot of people who could benefit from this information. Or you’re just super highly evolved and self-aware, which is also fantastic. It’s a great combination. Tell me about the process of writing this book. When did you find the time to do this? How long did it take and all that?

Clarissa: I wrote it on my maternity leave because masochism comes naturally to me. I was like, what should I do with this time I have off as a first-time mother? I know, I’ll write a book. I started out, the process for me was like, I’m going to write a thousand words a day. Then I quickly realized that didn’t make sense for me. There would be days where I could write a thousand words no problem. There would be other days where I would become too obsessive about this word count thing, and it was impeding the flow. Then I shifted gears. I was like, okay, write as much as you want or as little as you want, but just sit down for two to three hours every day and write. That’s manageable even when you have a baby. I was lucky. I had a maternity nurse. My parents were around, a lot of my husband. I had a lot of support. Two to three hours was manageable. What I think many people who writes memoirs find is that when you’re writing about your own experiences, it’s a lot easier. It does flow, and especially when it comes from a place of truth. It’s an amazing experience. You’re just like, wow, all I’m doing right now is typing out the words that are pouring out of me. That was the first draft. Then I went back to work. The first draft was done in three months. The second draft took almost a year because I was back at work. I was traveling a lot. It was much more difficult to find time to really immerse again in it. The second round, a lot of, flesh out a bit here, what the situation was like in Syria. It’s stuff I know, but it’s more the research, the “let me tell you in three paragraphs, the history of Syria” part. That requires a bit more discipline, I would say. That was harder. The first round flowed. The second round was work.

Zibby: Do you feel like now that you’ve had all this exposure and research and writing about it, you have intense political views? Does it shift how you feel about international relations and all of that on a bigger-picture scale?

Clarissa: It’s interesting you ask that. I think not so much about political issues. I’m pretty passionate about Syria. I have pretty strong views on that. Obviously, I testified at the United Nations Security Council, which is kind of on the edge of, are you a journalist or an activist? I’ve definitely entered that hazy space. For the most part, I think what writing did, actually, was to give me more courage of my convictions in terms of what makes a great journalist, what makes a great story, and what these human moments of connection — I know I keep coming back to that, but it made me understand better why I do this and what it’s all about for me and the privilege that comes not just with witnessing history, which I have had the fortunate of doing on occasion, but of making profound connections with people who live a hundred thousand miles away and every metaphorical sense of that.

Zibby: Then how did you deal with COVID? When the brakes slammed on your life, how did you cope? How was it being back?

Clarissa: I was heavily pregnant. Basically, everyone was on lockdown with me. I was already on lockdown. Listen, it was really challenging because it’s the first war I’ve covered from my living room. It’s a very tough story to cover in terms of the way I like to cover stories, which is usually with more of a human angle. You have to rely a lot on technology and getting people to do video diaries. It’s hard. I definitely learned a lot. Now I’m on maternity leave. It also meant that my book release was delayed by six months, which was a blessing in some ways because I don’t think I realized with how much work releasing a book is. It turns out it’s basically a full-time job. We’re calling this a maternity leave, but basically, it’s a full-time job. It’s a really fun full-time job because you’re out there talking about something that you feel passionate and excited about. I’m definitely thinking now, okay, I’ll be going back to work. I’ll probably go back after the election. I have no idea what the world’s going to look like both in terms of the election and in terms of COVID. What kinds of stories are people going to want to hear? This is one of these things, COVID, much like 9/11, it’s a bolt from the sky again that’s going to profoundly change the way we live and function as a society in ways that we don’t really yet understand. We haven’t quite got our arms around it. It’s going to be tremendously interesting, but it’s definitely going to be challenging as well.

Zibby: Yes, I would agree with that. Knowing how much work is involved in the whole thing, would you ever write another book, or are you like, this was great and now I’ll be more prepared?

Clarissa: I haven’t started therapy for that yet. Yes, at some point I would like to write another book, but not for a while.

Zibby: Do you find time to read yourself?

Clarissa: I really wish that I had more — I used to be a voracious reader of novels. I was a comp lit major. That’s really what I loved.

Zibby: Which two languages?

Clarissa: I did French, Italian, and Russian, but my Russian wasn’t good enough, so I was reading in translation. As you know, hence the name of the podcast, having kids is like, wow, when do you find time? I have this beautiful stack of books by my bedside. Then I get into bed. My husband’s reading Netflix. I’m making sure that I haven’t missed fifty Zoom calls or whatever. I get the book out. Then before I know it, I’m like, . It’s really hard. I’m not going to pretend it’s not. One way that I get to read books is people ask me a lot to write blurbs for their books. That’s great because then you really have to read the book. I do try to read, but man, I really wish I had more time and that I could read more. That’s why I think it’s so awesome what you’re doing because we do need to carve out more time and find these little moments to read. It’s such an important thing. I think social media and everything, we’ve gotten a little bit distracted.

Zibby: I hope by doing the show that I entice people to read. Once they hear somebody’s story like yours, they’re like, oh, my gosh, I have to hear more. I want to read the whole thing. That’s my goal, whet the appetite like having movie trailers. This is the book trailer channel or something.

Clarissa: Believe me, authors are so grateful to you for that. Your sincerity and your curiosity and enthusiasm is just really, really awesome.

Zibby: Thanks. I feel like a child. I really do get so excited. I do. It’s really awesome. My kids just went to school. Now they’re only in school in real life for the mornings, my little guys at least. They come home after three and a half hours. My daughter was just at lunch. She was like, “Wow, I feel like I didn’t even leave.” I was like, “Yeah, I feel like that too except that I had three podcasts this morning and I met the most interesting women ever.” I talked to somebody in Florence. I talked to somebody in Chicago. How else would I ever met all these interesting people? I feel very lucky.

Clarissa: That’s kind of like my job, though. I feel the same way. I think that’s how you know when you’re onto a good thing. It’s not about whatever the trappings of success might — it’s about that, wow, I’m really excited. I’m learning. I’m meeting interesting people. I’m seeing different ideas. That’s the thrill of it. That’s the excitement.

Zibby: Totally. Then once you’re in it, more ideas and more things happen as opposed to when I was home when my twins who are now thirteen. When they were little and every day was like a thousand hours long, I was just like, I can’t even think of a single essay to write right now. I’m so burnt out. Now, like with you, I’m sure, you just throw one more thing in the fire, and you’re already going at warp speed.

Clarissa: Oh, yeah. It’s long days, short years.

Zibby: Yes, exactly. It was so great to talk to you. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for sharing your journey with everybody. I’ll look for you eventually on TV.

Clarissa: Yes, or in person hopefully if we ever find a vaccine.

Zibby: In person would be great. It would be even better. It would be awesome. I’ll talk to you soon. Hopefully, I’ll see you soon.

Clarissa: Take care. Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks, Clarissa. Buh-bye.

Clarissa: Bye.

Clarissa Ward, ON ALL FRONTS