Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, HUNGRY HEARTS: Essays on Courage, Desire, and Belonging

Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, HUNGRY HEARTS: Essays on Courage, Desire, and Belonging

“The truth is that the details of your story are your superpower.” Zibby meets fellow anthology editor Jennifer Rudolph Walsh to talk about the connections we make through the most painful parts of our narratives, and what it means to go from a human doing to a human being.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jennifer, again. Sorry for the tech slip-up. Anyway, welcome back to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” It’s great to have you here to discuss your anthology, Hungry Hearts: Essays on Courage, Desire, and Belonging. Welcome.

Jennifer Rudolph Walsh: Thank you so much for having me. I love being in the presence of a fellow book lover and a fellow anthology author. I feel like I’m right at home here, so I’m grateful.

Zibby: I can’t believe we haven’t met until now. I was reading your introduction and I was like, oh, my gosh, I have to meet this woman. How do I not know her? It’s amazing. You were just starting to tell me about how this got started and how the pandemic sliced into your plans as well. Tell me about starting your whole enterprise and your intersectional love affair.

Jennifer: I spent the last thirty years as a literary agent and loved every minute of amplifying voices, particularly those of less celebrated, potentially more marginalized voices because I believe in my core that when you hear somebody’s authentic story, you could never see them as other again. You’ll find yourself in a story of somebody who you maybe have no shared lived experience with. Yet you find that, oh, wow, they’re telling my exact story. I have always been somebody who believes it’s part of my mission on life to build the largest platform and the biggest megaphone to amplify stories. Five years ago, that dream evolved. People write in solitude. People read in solitude. There was something about the digital-connected world that made me feel more literally disconnected than I had ever felt before. Even though I was in constant contact with everybody all the time, I felt an absence of that intimate, insides-to-insides connection. From that space, we created something called Together Live which was an intergenerational, intersectional traveling love rally. We set sail in 2016. A bunch of intergenerational, intersectional wisdom keepers would go from town to town and basically set people’s souls on fire. I loved it so much. I never wanted it to end. In fact, I left my full-time job in December of 2019 to focus exclusively on this. Then the universe had its way. COVID hit just as we were launching our first-ever spring 2020 tour. We thought, how can we take some of the magic from those rooms and manifest them in a book? That’s how Hungry Hearts was born.

Zibby: Interesting. Aside from this book, what else did you decide to do when you had to pivot?

Jennifer: For me personally, it had been thirty years of moving at a thousand miles per hour. When you’re in the representation business, it’s a very specific kind of stress in that you are responsible for people’s careers. In a weird way, it’s almost more stress than your own career. If you’re somebody like me who takes this sacred honor and responsibility very, very seriously, it’s like an amplified kind of responsibility. Once COVID hit and I had to just take a deep breath and what I call the sacred pause, I realized I needed to just actually do nothing. I’m very privileged to be able to have that opportunity to do nothing. Rather than pivot and try to make something happen, the book felt like service through joy, like an opportunity to do something that I know how to do really well. I’ve been the midwife to over two thousand books. I thought, this is something I can do. I can do this with joy. Trying to recreate the live events experience in some virtual way, it felt like work to me. My soul told me that it was time for me to take a deep exhale and what I called my sacred pause, which I’m still on, and really just worry about communing with nature, hearing my own voice for the first time in thirty years, waking up in the middle of the night and not worrying about somebody’s else royalty check from Japan, but instead, just hearing my own breath.

It’s been an incredible year. I moved to San Francisco, which nobody saw coming. As a friend of mine said when I said I was moving from New York, she said, “But you are New York.” The beauty of this is, I’m a lot of things. Right now, I’m in the Redwoods in San Francisco. I’m spending every day playing with my dogs, spending time with my last child who’s a senior in high school, and just being. I say I’ve finally become a human being instead of a human doing. It’s just been transformational for me. These stories inside these pages really are emblematic of everything that I know to be true. Whether you’re a trans woman from the Philippines or a disabled Muslim woman from New Jersey or somebody who perceives himself as overweight, former military guy who sings like an angel, once you get inside of these stories, you realize, oh, that’s me. Oh, that’s my brother. Oh, that’s my sister. Then you could really never view that person as other again. More than that, you see the beauty in your own story.

Zibby: That is so great. How did you pick the people you included?

Jennifer: These were the people that were meant to be on the spring tour, so it was very easy. We’d all circled around. Nobody wanted to let go of the sisterhood and brotherhood that we had created on the tour. We called ourselves a road family. We would do these incredible shows. Then every night, we would have dinner together. The table would just grow and grow because everybody was welcome to bring whoever was in the audience for them. It was magic, just magic.

Zibby: That sounds amazing, wow. Are you going to go back to it, do you think, when things go back to normal?

Jennifer: I don’t see myself moving backwards.

Zibby: No? That’s it?

Jennifer: No. I don’t know what forward’s going to look like. Right now, I’m just luxuriating in the moment. I turned fifty-four on Valentine’s Day three days after this book was published. I’m luxuriating in the fact that I could be fifty-four and have a joyful first. Being the author or more like the curator — I don’t like to call myself the editor because the amazing Katy Nishimoto really edited this book. It was extraordinary. I love that because she started as a college graduate as my assistant. Then I watched her grow into the incredible powerhouse that she is. Then several years ago, she was recruited to go over to Random House and Dial Press. To have her be the editor of this book was just so full circle for me and part of all these beautiful children I have in the world that I have loved to death through the workplace and helped them find their own magic, honestly, largely through authentic storytelling.

Zibby: I love that. It’s so great. First of all, I say the same thing, that it shouldn’t say edited. My anthology shouldn’t say edited. It should say curated or even hosted by. I assembled it all. I pulled it all together, but I had an editor for my book too. I feel like it’s a misnomer.

Jennifer: Totally. I had Katy who’s extraordinary. Then the publisher, Whitney Frick, was also davening over every single solitary piece of this. There was so much love in this. We said from the beginning the only flavor we want on this is delicious. That’s the only flavor we got.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Are you from New York originally? Did you grow up there?

Jennifer: Born and raised, honey.

Zibby: In the city?

Jennifer: Yep, 68th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. Went to Riverdale High School.

Zibby: I went to Trinity. I was on 68th and Park. We were right across the park.

Jennifer: We were right across the park from each other.

Zibby: That’s so funny. Oh, my gosh, wow. I read in your introduction — which by the way was so great because your whole focus on storytelling, you could not find a more receptive audience for what you’re saying. I’m like, this is what I try to preach day in and day out. Somebody’s just said it better than me. It’s perfect. You said, “If I told you that my parents got divorced when I was nine years old, it would communicate a fact, but it wouldn’t help you know me better. What if instead, I told this?” Then you go on about exactly what happened. You tell a story about it. Of course, immediately, you’re engaged because you’ve proven your point. It’s awesome. It’s just a brilliant way to start that.

Jennifer: Thank you so much. It’s interesting because I think people feel like the details of your story are unimportant. The truth is that the details of your story are your superpower. In other words, we could both say, oh, yeah, our parents got divorced. Then if you said to me, we had a family meeting too, now suddenly we’re both leaning in. We’re both going, what else do we have in common? Frankly, what else do we have that didn’t go the same way? How can I learn from what was different from you? How could you learn from what I’m saying to you? Not in the advice way. Advice has a very powerful role in the world, but I think storytelling is almost more profound because it’s the old show, not tell. I can tell you, but if I show you, then both of us are served because you see me, and in the seeing of me, I can see you. It’s interesting. I was watching Jane Fonda’s speech at the Golden Globes. I felt like I could’ve written that speech.

Zibby: Me too!

Jennifer: My son was there. He’s like, “Mom, that speech is so you.” I agree with her completely. I learned about being a Muslim, twenty-something man from watching Ramy. I learned what it means to be a sexual assault victim from watching I May Destroy You. I felt the exact same way. That’s the power of storytelling. It kind of takes the judgement out of it. It just puts us firmly into the seat of our humanity.

Zibby: I could not agree with you any more. This is so great, this whole thing. It’s music to my ears. Then of course, in your book, you have all these great stories. I had Sue Monk Kidd and Luvvie, by the way, on my podcast. I think that was it. Sue Monk Kidd’s essay was so beautiful. Didn’t you just flip out when you read it?

Jennifer: First of all, Sue writing that essay was really one of the reasons I wanted to do this anthology. She wrote that essay as a gift to me, literally, an homage to Together Live. When I read that essay, I was like, I don’t want to put this on some website. I want to publish an anthology around this. Sue is such an inspiration to me on every level. First of all, she was fifty-four when she wrote The Secret Life of Bees. At the time that I represented that book, fifty-four seemed really way in the future, but hello, today. Not that I have any interest in writing a novel, by the way, just to be perfectly clear, but she’s been such an inspiration for me in terms of how a creative life unfolds over time. I think that there’s a lot of focus on early out of the gate. In my own way, I was early out of the gate, but I’m really resistant to the idea that I have to compete with my past self in any way. I’m sort of new gen or, as my son calls me, next gen. It’s really very much about integrating all the pieces of who I’ve been but being a lot less certain and a lot more curious. Sue really personifies that for me with such grace and such beauty.

Zibby: It’s amazing, and not just the inspiration for writers, which is here, but the inspiration for women. She said, “Every day, I would pause –” she had this sign — “and read the words and try to take them in.” The words were from Émile Zola. “If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you, I am here to live out loud.” Then she said, “What if I substitute the word woman instead?” Then she said how she had to get through her fear. She had to “face down insidious voices in my head that told me I shouldn’t write because it was too big a risk. I didn’t have an MFA. The sinister twins don’t and can’t…” It’s just amazing, the whole thing.

Jennifer: So good. I know.

Zibby: Genius. Did you read Janice Kaplan’s The Genius of Women, by the way, that book?

Jennifer: No.

Zibby: She wrote a whole book on this theory of why women geniuses aren’t called out. Why does it have to be a woman genius? Why isn’t it just a genius?

Jennifer: As opposed to just genius. Alice Munro wrote a collection that I represented many years ago called Who Do You Think You Are? I always thought that that question is like a kryptonite to women. If somebody says to you, who do you think you are? it automatically flattens you because we don’t know how to authorize ourselves. We don’t know how to give ourselves permission to be…whatever we are. Sue writes so brilliantly to that sort of giving of one’s permission and, in her case, to have a voice. It seems like that should just be the entry level. All of our girls should believe that they have a voice and that voice matters critically, necessary.

Zibby: It’s so funny. I mentioned to somebody this morning, even, I was on talking about how on Instagram I tend to write — I live an experience, and then I immediately write about it to capture it, A, so I remember it, and B, out of this compulsion now to share it and connect over it knowing that other people are having the same experience. I literally was saying to someone, “I just read this essay. They talked about living out loud. That’s exactly what I feel like I’m doing in a way, everything that’s inside.” You have this whole notion of hungry hearts and the hunger that lives within and the love that needs to come out. I feel like I’m in that moment. We’re all come bubbling out. This is the articulation of it. It was great.

Jennifer: I love that, sweetheart. You know what? I think we’re all in that moment. I think that one of the blessings — again, I don’t have small children. I’m not dealing with Zoom school. I’m not worried about putting food on my table. Let me just put all of that in the blessing category. I am, therefore, able to see from a distance, all the positives that are coming out of the fact that everybody has been forced to just sit down and actually stop making themselves busy, busy, busy, but instead, to actually hear that hungry heart and the voice of that heart. What that heart wants is always good. I think we’ve almost been as if, if you trust it, you’re going to lose everything. I think that for me personally, there’s scarcity thinking and then there’s abundant thinking. Scarcity thinking is, if I speak my truth, I’m going to lose what I have or I’m not going to get what I need. Abundance thinking is, if I speak my truth, there’ll be more than enough for everybody. It’s collaborative. It’s . It’s validating. I love to see people step into that abundant love mindset and away from that fear, scarcity mindset. I think that stories are the perfect platform for that because we all have them. We all have stories. I think literally pretty much every single person you know is carrying a burden that would bring you to your knees. It just would. It’s very, very easy to compare what’s in your heart to this perfect picture on Instagram, to Zibby’s gorgeous bookshelves that are color coordinated and your gorgeous children, and imagine that your heart is not filled with, first of all, pain and heartache, but also dreams and longing. Our authentic stories gives me the opportunity to have an X-ray so I don’t have to compare my insides to your outsides. I can just go right directly from my heart to your heart.

Zibby: Yes. PS, I did those bookshelves after being sick in bed with COVID for nine straight days and finally getting out of my bed and realizing I was so glad to be healthy and alive and myself that I took all this energy and did it.

Jennifer: They’re gorgeous.

Zibby: People can make all sorts of assumptions. That doesn’t mean that on the other side of that shelf I wasn’t sick in bed.

Jennifer: That’s exactly what I’m saying. It’s very easy to look at you and think you belong on that show Home Edit. You’re perfect.

Zibby: No. I am not perfect. I am the first one to say that.

Jennifer: Of course you’re not. Nor am I, and not even close.

Zibby: I think there should be a line of T-shirts or a line of things where you could check the box, like, narcissistic mother and recovering from abusive relationship or make it up, eating disorder.

Jennifer: Have you ever seen In & Of Itself on Hulu? It’s an incredible show.

Zibby: No.

Jennifer: You’ve got to watch it. You will freaking love it. I saw it as a magic show in Union Square four or five years ago. I actually took an idea from there. You will love this. You’re going to text me and be like, oh, god, it blew my freaking mind.

Zibby: I’m so excited. Oh, my god, I can’t wait.

Jennifer: You walk into the theater. There was “Am I…” It was just a million cards. It was, “I am a priestess. I am a survivor.” Everybody took a card. I did that one year at Together Live. It was incredible. People got stickers that said, “I am a survivor. I am a healer.” I agree. I am recovering from these things, but also, these things do not define me. My story is a piece of who I am, but it’s an ongoing, dynamic, living story. It’s a living history. For many years, I used to think I was sort of like the oak tree in everybody’s life, the unmovable object. I loved that, but guess what? I moved. I’m no longer an unmovable object. That’s good too. It doesn’t mean that I wasn’t one for fifty-two years, fifty-three years, but it means I don’t have to be for the next. When you can be a little bit free and easy with the way that you identify yourself, then I think that’s where the real opportunity for connection and transformation and healing comes in.

Zibby: I feel like a broken record saying it again. I totally agree.

Jennifer: I love it.

Zibby: I just totally agree. I feel like holding secrets inside, that’s what most writing is. It’s finally getting the secrets out. Everybody has a story. Everyone has a secret. It’s in a lot of fiction. It makes up almost all of memoir, all these things that you’re just holding back.

Jennifer: Our mutual friend, Dani Shapiro who we both adore, shout-out to Dani Shapiro, she does something in her writing class. She told me that it’s an exercise she does when she’s doing a writing workshop where she says to people, I want you to write down the thing that you think is the most unlovable, your biggest secret, the thing that you’re most ashamed by. People start writing right away. Nobody needs one second to think about it. Then she says, now if I were to play a dirty trick on you, which I’m not going to do, but if I were and told you that you had to read that out loud, you would imagine that that would be the end of your possibilities. Yet the truth of the matter is if you did do that, it would actually make you closer to every single person in this room. It’s hard to make people believe that, but it’s really very true.

Zibby: Wow. The only thing I think stopping people — not the only thing. One thing is the effect on other people because it’s rare to have a secret that’s just yours. You went through it together. It involved your family. It involved this person. I feel like there’s something where people can keep things under wraps. Maybe that’s an excuse. I don’t know.

Jennifer: That’s what I’m thinking. Not an excuse, but it’s a created obstacle. I think that if what you say, you say with love, without judgement, then I think people can always hear the truth. I heard this story. I think it was Maxine Hong Kingston that told this story at a reading I went to once. When she wrote her memoir, she said to her family, “You guys can change anything you want.” She gave it to her family and said, “Just change anything.” Because she had written it with so much love and compassion, nobody changed anything. I think that a lot of times, people have an axe to grind or they haven’t fully digested what’s happened. I don’t enjoy writing that comes from the bloody, pussy wound, but I like writing that comes from the scar, the scar that’s healed but still visible and that says, this happened. This is what happened. The idea of instead of saying, what’s wrong with you? we should start saying to people, what happened to you?

Zibby: I love that. Do you teach your own writing classes? You have to put that on the docket.

Jennifer: No.

Zibby: You should.

Jennifer: No, thank you.

Zibby: You can just get up and say that.

Jennifer: I am busy walking in the Redwoods. I’m too busy being free.

Zibby: Okay, all right. You be free. If you want to come back to not being free, you could even just do a video of yourself and put that on some class. People would sign up and just start writing. I’ll just give you this YouTube. I’ll give you the clip. You can see. You’ll inspire people.

Jennifer: Thank you. Something that I do want to say, though, because all of these essays are so amazing — MILCK talking about her own path to finding her voice; Luvvie talking about a platonic breakup, which I think is incredible; Boz talking about love after love, Bozoma Saint John; they’re all so brilliant and beautiful. One of the distinctions I like to make, these people are incredible and they are published authors, but I don’t think that telling your story and getting published should always be conflated. In other words, everybody has a story and their story matters, but that doesn’t mean that everybody’s story should be published.

Zibby: Interesting. I started this thing called Moms Don’t Have Time to Write. In my anthologies, I only had the published authors. I was like, what about everybody else? That’s where, for me at least, I’m trying to get everybody else. Here, go. Just put your stuff out.

Jennifer: I agree. I would have to say that if the measurement is publication, then I think a lot of people are going to be frustrated with the process. I would like the measure of success of having shared your story to be judged by connection and healing. If you tell your story in a way to somebody who’s willing to witness you in your full humanity and then you encourage them to bravely share theirs, that’s a success for me. This is how, in my mind, we write tattoos on each other’s hearts. There are people whose names I can’t remember, but their stories, I will never forget.

Zibby: It’s so true. I said something so similar. I was like, the point of writing, and even the point of writing a book, is not to necessarily be a best seller. That doesn’t have to be your goal just because it’s other people’s goals. If you change one person’s life with your book, that’s amazing. That’s a whole life. Think about the power of that.

Jennifer: Totally. Actually, that’s funny. That’s in my newsletter today. It said, be the one person. That’s all. You change one person’s life, could you imagine that?

Zibby: I know.

Jennifer: That’s incredible. The truth is that through this whole process, as much as I’ve loved every minute of it, I have no interest in the sale side of this. I’ve never once looked at Amazon. I do the heart math. This is a little gift. It’s a little offering with a heart on it. I love it so much. People have reached out to me to tell me they bought ten copies and they gave it to their daughters, their sisters, their mothers, their best friends, their bosses. I love that. That is success to me. I do the heart math. I don’t need some outside measure to tell me that this has been successful. The fact that you loved it, that suffices for me.

Zibby: Amazing. You can just show me all your work, and then we could just be done.

Jennifer: I love it.

Zibby: Do you have any advice? That was all kind of advice for aspiring authors, but I always ask as a last question. Parting advice, one little soundbite aside from doing the heart math. Although, maybe I should just use that, but if there’s anything left.

Jennifer: I’ll tell you, I do have one piece of advice. My grandfather told me this many, many, many decades ago. It really has helped me mid-transition or mid-mistake or mid-fall. It’s not what happens, it’s what happens next. I know that sounds really basic. Actually, as somebody who got kicked out of eleventh grade for failing to live up to my potential, I was like, oh, my god, I would gladly live up to my potential if I only knew how. I felt like I’d already been, to use today’s vernacular, I’d already been canceled. I was seventeen years old. I was already being thrown out for failing to distinguish myself. You can step into your power after a bad thing has already happened and realize that what happens next is actually where the opportunity is. What’s behind you, you have no power over. What happens in the moment and your next foot forward is where all the beauty and all the delicious marrow of life exists. That’s my advice to anybody who’s listening. Forget about yesterday. That’s the place you can’t have power. You can create a change narrative by doing what’s next.

Zibby: So great. Oh, my gosh, I’ve loved this. This is amazing. I’m so glad I met you.

Jennifer: Me too. Thank you so much for having me. Thank you for creating this incredible space for book lovers to commune.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I hope I meet you in person someday. I know you’re communing with the trees and whatever, but I want to stay abreast of what you’re doing because I’m just such a fan now. I don’t know how I didn’t know you before. My bad, if you will.

Jennifer: Oh, please. It’s divine timing. It’s absolutely perfect. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks for Hungry Hearts. It’s absolutely gorgeous. I’m so glad I got to read it.

Jennifer: Thank you.

Zibby: Bye.

Jennifer: Bye.

HUNGRY HEARTS: Essays on Courage, Desire, and Belonging by Jennifer Rudolph Walsh

Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts