Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Joanna Guest who’s the author of Folded Wisdom: Notes from Dad on Life, Love, and Growing Up. A graduate of the University of Arizona with a master’s in public policy from Georgetown University, Joanna left her career in politics to write this book. She currently lives in New York.

Welcome, Joanna. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Joanna Guest: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: This is so much fun.

Joanna: I know.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what Folded Wisdom is about?

Joanna: Of course. Folded Wisdom is an illustrated story. I like to throw in the word illustrated to give people a sense of how much color is in the book.

Zibby: Did everybody get that? There’s a lot of color in this book.

Joanna: It’s illustrated. It’s colorful. It’s the story of the morning notes my dad wrote to my brother Theo and me every morning before we went to school. The notes started in ’95, not to give away our ages or anything, but they started in 1995 when my brother was in preschool and I was in the second grade.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I feel so old right now.

Joanna: I’m so sorry. They continued every school morning from then until we both graduated from high school. The book is obviously centered around my dad and the story of how he managed to write these notes and what the lessons were inside. I would be remiss if I didn’t shout out the unsung hero of the whole thing who’s truly my mother who managed to, after all these years, save them somewhere in the house. You send kids off to school with a piece of paper and if it’s for the teacher, you still don’t think that they’re going to get it them. You certainly don’t think that a piece of paper folded up in a lunchbox is going to make it home, but make it home they did. They were in our backpacks and our pockets. My mom sifted them all out and somehow — I think my back-of-the-envelope math says that he probably wrote us like 4,800 notes. We have a little more than 3,500. It’s very wild.

Zibby: It’s amazing. Tell me how you decided to make this into a book.

Joanna: It all started actually in 2009. My dad’s best friend from college, Scott, is an artist. He’s an illustrator. He has a good friend who writes or publishes this art magazine called Esopus. Esopus is very cool. It’s not editorializing. There’s no ads or anything like that. It’s just presenting creative expression. Scott was talking to Todd one day and was like, “Hey, I’ve got this friend Bob who writes these morning notes to his kid.” God bless Scott because I don’t think he had ever seen our notes. It’s not like my dad was like, “Hey Scott, check out this note I wrote to Joanna.” This was not a thing that he knew, but he believed in my dad and knew my dad and knew that he was committed to this process and was like, “I think that they would be really cool.” Scott asked my dad if we could get a collection of them. My dad then of course had to go through and ask Theo and ask me and ask my mom if we were all okay with it. I was in Australia at the time. I was studying abroad. My dad called and was like, “So what would you think if a couple of your notes were published?” I was like, “My notes?” He was like, “Yeah.” I was like, “Sure, but do we have any? Are they around? Do you know where they are? Would anybody want to read my notes?” He was like, “I don’t know. Scott has this idea about it.”

One thing led to another. We started talking to Theo about it. Theo was still receiving the notes. For him, it was definitely more of a hurdle to get over. He talked to my mom. He was like, “Do you have some?” The signoff happened, obviously. Next thing I knew, I got this copy of this magazine when I was in college. I opened it up. There were notes from 1995 in it. I was like, where did these notes come from? My parents live in an old house in Brooklyn still with a very precarious basement. I was like, “Mom, are these safe? You have these somewhere?” We don’t have safes in the basement that she’s storing them in, so I was like, “Where are all these pieces of paper?” She was like, “Oh, you know, I have them.” Okay. It was a really surprising moment that we had these notes going back. I think that was what sparked the fire of hopefully doing something with them someday. I truthfully thought that I would just digitize them and organize them, and that would kind of be it. Then I would have peace of mind that they weren’t going to get lost in a fire.

Then fast forward to 2016, I took a leave of absence from my job. I went out to Nevada. I worked on the presidential election. As people may remember, there was a big election in 2016. November 2016 came about. The morning after the election happened, I met my mom. Actually, it was the evening after the election. I met my mom for like three bottles of wine at the local bar. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next and trying to figure out what I felt was good still in the world. I was just trying to understand what was happening around me. I was drinking. I was like, “Mom, I just want a note from Dad. I need some reassurance that everything’s going to be okay.” I’d kind of say that’s what pushed the idea over the edge to be like, you know what? If now’s not the time, when? I decided to pack up my life in DC, move back from Nevada to DC, pack up my life in DC. I moved into my parent’s house. I was thirty, so it was a move. I moved back in. I started organizing the notes. I started reading them and realizing how much of them had these ideas that were universal and important and comforting and felt like they were worth sharing. The book became something that went from a digitizing project and organizing project to something more.

Zibby: Did you talk to your dad in the aftermath of the election? Did he end up giving you any good advice at the time?

Joanna: It’s funny, actually. He’s big on Instagram, not like he has a big following, but he’s really into it. He did a series of drawings after the election of him processing his thoughts, sort of like seven stages of grief in a way, almost. His classic drawings, as opposed to the colorful drawings in the book, are very black and white, crosshatch style, pen and ink. He did a bunch of those. He has an unshakable sense of optimism which comes across throughout the book. Yes, of course I talked to him after the election. He was scared. He was nervous. He was sharing his love with me and telling me that we were going to get through it. That was the message that permeates throughout the book as well.

Zibby: The part about the book being illustrated, I know you mentioned it right away because it is so important. Even with us saying it, I feel like it isn’t conveying how beautiful the book is. When you were describing, even in the book, I didn’t realize that the cover, at first, was the folded-up versions of the notes. I thought it was like, oh, this is a pretty cover. Your dad’s notes, not only do they have lovely insights, and you categorize them by events and by emotions and advice and all these other ways that you have found to organize, structure the book, which I found very interesting too, but just the visual element alone was so unique. Describe his artist background and how he folded up the notes to make them so visually arresting and how a pile became such a beautiful work of art.

Joanna: The notes actually, they started for a number of reasons. I can go into the many theories I have as to why this was a perfect storm that worked for my dad. One of the main reasons, I think, is my parents met at Pratt, which is an art school in Brooklyn. After college, they did a lot of different things. Ultimately, they ended up opening this exhibit production business. They’re still doing it to this day. What they do is they build exhibits that focus on other people’s art. It pulled both of them away from focusing on their own art. I think there’s a part of him that was at the time, especially, feeling a little disconnected from his own art. He’s always been someone who drew in sketchbooks and expressed himself that way. I think he was looking for that.

The notes ended up getting folded because they started off when we were young and we brought lunches to school. They were just folded in half or a couple times and put in our lunchboxes. Then when we started fifth grade, we moved into a new building. There was a cafeteria at school. I no longer had a lunchbox to bring with me. My dad had to figure out a way to give me this piece of paper, which again is a very scary thing to send your kid off to school with. You don’t really necessarily think that they’ll read it, that they’ll keep it, that it’ll survive. He figured out this way of folding it so that I could just throw it in my pocket or put it somewhere and that it would be this process of unfolding it. It was prepackaging it. It couldn’t be in the lunchbox anymore, so here it is. It was a clever way to do it because it actually preserved a lot of the notes in many ways because they weren’t open to the outside elements. I would fold them back up after I finished reading them.

Zibby: It’s basically like origami.

Joanna: It’s very origami-ish.

Zibby: The way it’s folded is a work of art in and of itself, plus the colors that he used and everything.

Joanna: In the back of the book, there’s actually a section that teaches you how to fold the notes.

Zibby: I know. I was thinking, should I try this? I could try it now.

Joanna: It’s not with, necessarily, any piece of paper. You can pretty much do it.

Zibby: It has to be a certain size. You have various specific guidelines.

Joanna: It’s a certain size that works very well.

Zibby: Meanwhile, I scrawl a note to my daughter on the only notepad I could find this morning, rip it off and shove it in. I’m thinking, oh, my gosh, Joanna’s dad is making works of art and it’s all I can do to say “Have a good day” and shove it in a lunchbox.

Joanna: He definitely kept these CVS tablets in business for a while because he was buying them nonstop. We have tons of these CVS tablets. Anyway, getting back to the color and the illustrations of it, one of the other reasons the notes actually started was because my brother was in preschool. We went to Montessori school for preschool through kindergarten. Montessori school is so funky and different. My brother was really obsessed with the metal table, which is this table where you basically use various protractors and different shapes. You outline them and you color in the layers and stuff. What he was not interested in was going into the reading corner. They were trying to figure out ways to push him into this corner and get him interested in reading.

Ann Prescott, who was my brother’s teacher at the time, said, “Bob, I know you’re an artist. What would you think about just every once in a while, writing a little note to Theo and putting it in his lunchbox? Maybe we could use that as the, ‘Hey Theo, let’s read the note from your dad today,’ and that would start to push him toward reading.” Theo, at the time, it would push him towards reading, but it was also because Theo couldn’t read yet. He was so young. He was learning how to read, and so many of those notes are just filled with drawings, and drawings sometimes that have a few words on the page, and drawings sometimes that are centered around — there’s the classic note that says “Go Theo Go.” It’s like a secret code that he actually did at school. There are all different ways that he was trying to put words on the page but also make it interesting because he was five or whatever. Then as he started writing to me — because he was like, “Well, if I’m writing to Theo, I have to write to Joanna. This is ridiculous. I can’t just send Theo with something.” I think I probably found one note and was like, Dad, I need these.

Zibby: What about me?

Joanna: What about me? And so he started writing to me too. I was only in second grade, and I wanted pictures too. I wanted drawings. Then it just evolved. You can tell as the notes get older that they’re much more word heavy, but he never stopped also including illustrations. Every once in a while, there are notes without illustrations. For the most part, it was just part of the expression, was drawing a heart somewhere on the page. He drew a lot of owls. There’s a lot of faces of his and Theo’s and stuff.

Zibby: You dad should really sell these as templates. Sometimes I buy these little lunchbox notes for each day. It’s a little different. He should take the drawings and X out the note so you can write your own note and then sell Monday through Friday notecards. He should do that.

Joanna: I have a friend that was like, maybe you could find the best lines from every note and you could put them down on a little piece of paper so I can just take them out every morning and give them to my kid. I was like, great idea.

Zibby: You could have a little quote at the bottom. Then you say “A heart from the mom” or something.

Joanna: Yeah. Then the parents are, “Love you.”

Zibby: Let’s just make things easier for moms, please. That would be cool. We should do that.

Joanna: The book is so colorful and fun that I think there are a lot of places to go with it. One of the bigger hurdles to get over when we started this was that nobody knows who I am and nobody knows who my dad is. He’s not somebody that has a persona out there. It was about getting people to care about who we are and why they should give a crap that this guy wrote his kids notes. There was a level of, as I was pulling the notes together, realizing that I had to do a little explaining so that there was a person behind there, and there was a story behind it that made it compelling. From here, who knows? We’ll see.

Zibby: Did you get pushback from the publishing world about the fact that nobody knew who you and your dad were? I feel like there’s all this focus on having a platform and all the rest.

Joanna: I know. I was like, I don’t have twenty thousand Instagram followers. Am I going to be able to make this work? No, nobody really pushed back too much. The notes speak for themselves, so it’s really about being able to just get them in front of someone. Once they see it, I think they’re like, oh, this is incredibly interesting. For being such an extraordinary task, it’s almost made more human and possible by it being someone who’s just your average, everyday guy. He’s above average in my eyes, but he’s just a guy. I think that there’s something compelling to me about that. I think it was a factor. It’s probably a reason that it maybe took a little longer for it all to come about. But no, there wasn’t incredible —

Zibby: — But here it is.

Joanna: But here it is.

Zibby: Which is great. I just wanted to read one of my favorites from 1998 from your dad. “Every day, I try to be the kind of guy worthy to be called Dad. And when I sometimes fail, I stumble and flail. You know I’m feeling sad. We’re only human, you and me, with all our problems here to see. So no use getting mad. I’ll try to understand you. If you try too, we’ll both be really glad.”

Joanna: So cute.

Zibby: That’s so sweet. I love it. I love sometimes he rhymes, sometimes he doesn’t, and how he mixes it up, and just so honest. There’s all this focus, I feel like now, on parents being able to say, “Hey, I messed up this morning. Parents mess up too. It’s okay. I’m sorry.”

Joanna: Right. We’re only human.

Zibby: We’re only human. This is perfect. I would put this on my little —

Joanna: — On your little card?

Zibby: On my little card.

Joanna: There are a lot of notes that, again, were part of the reason why I ended up deciding that this was actually something I could share because they felt so universally appropriate and applicable and important to think about. I think that we live in a time where we all look for the differences among each other. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. You learn something about someone and then you’re blocked off from them or you don’t think about what you could possibly have in common. So many of his notes were grappling with and talking through the idea that there are so many human qualities that are very universal and are very much things that we all are struggling with or thinking about or working through. I think we were pretty young when that note — usually, some of the cuter rhyme ones, we were pretty young. I think there was a little bit of a hope that we understood that he was going to make mistakes too and that we were — just like you said, “I screwed up this morning,” there are a lot of notes that talk about stuff like that. But that he was putting his best foot forward, so he would hope that we would too and that it could kind of push us along. That’s a perfect example of a note that is at the core, the heart of the whole thing. It’s just this guy who was trying to express himself, trying to say I love you, and trying to be like, listen, I’m a human. I’m doing the best I can. Thank you for doing the best you can. I love you.

Zibby: There’s also something nice, and I don’t know why, but there’s just something particularly nice about it being from a dad versus a mom. I don’t know why. Not that this book wouldn’t also be great had your mom illustrated them. I don’t know. There’s something so special about that.

Joanna: I don’t think you always see men as often being so vulnerable. I think about a lot, when we started this process and the Esopusconversation, getting the notes published in general. That was like, do we want to share them at all? Then this became sharing even more. Am I sharing too much by sharing all of these notes? My dad, he had no plan for writing these with any thematic organization. He had no plan that they were going to come home. He had no plan that they were going to be saved and shared. I think that is one of the many reasons why he was so open every time he started writing. He was very vulnerable. He was very top of mind. He was very willing to express himself in a way that maybe you wouldn’t if you knew that they were going to be shared someday with the public. You think of women journaling maybe more than you think of young guys journaling. That also probably really stemmed from art school and from the fact that at Pratt, he was always carrying around a little notebook with him. He was drawing. He was writing about, “I don’t know if this is going to work out for me. I’m in love. What do I do now?” He was writing those things down in a very diary-esque form, and so he was comfortable with that in a way that I think that I’m not even comfortable with often.

Zibby: There’s also something — I know so much of our communication these days is electronic. We have all these emails. I don’t know about you, for the people who I’ve loved and who I’ve lost in my life, the first thing I feel like I do is an inventory of what notes or letters or cards? I frantically stockpile them and make, not a shrine, but you know, what do I have? What’s left? What’s evidence? There’s something about these notes in particular that speaks to that longing for the connection that you can only get with something like — I don’t go and print out emails from people who have passed away. It’s not the same. I don’t even know where to find them. I don’t understand.

Joanna: It’s in the cloud.

Zibby: I don’t know. Where are the emails from 1997? I have no idea where they are. A birthday card that a dear friend wrote or my grandmother’s letter when she told me I was gaining too much weight or all these things, I love having them.

Joanna: You want to have them.

Zibby: I want to have them. It’s so special he did this. It’s such a good point of encouragement for us all to take the extra few minutes and do something with our hands and not with a text. I cherish — not even people who’ve passed away. My own parents are alive, and I love finding postcards my dad wrote me when I was at summer camp. It’s just so nice.

Joanna: There’s something very sincere about writing on paper. I was talking to a friend about how in high school, we all knew each other’s handwriting.

Zibby: Totally, yes.

Joanna: You were changing notes with each other or whatever. You were writing notes to each other in class or anything. I could tell you, spot on the lineup, all of my best friends from growing up handwriting. My friends today, I don’t necessarily know all of their handwritings. I think I know some of them, but not all of them. It’s because we don’t write as much. We don’t put that down on paper. There’s something very sweet about — even an email, they’re edited. You can edit it. The written word, you can’t always. Every once in a while, I’m sure he started writing and crumpled up a piece of paper and threw it away. Most of the time, there’s misspellings. Words are crossed out. Things are changed around. Thoughts change mid-sentence. It’s because you can’t go back and change things. You’re just putting it down on paper. Sometimes that means it’s very stream of conscious. Sometimes they’re a little bit more put together. It’s a really sincere form of expression that I do think is maybe making a comeback, but definitely an important one to cherish.

Zibby: It’s so crazy to think that all literature was written by hand until so recently.

Joanna: I know.

Zibby: Even a typewriter is different because even that you couldn’t make as many mistakes and whatever. It’s just recently. I wonder if there’ll be some essay in the future, “The effect of modern-day computing on literature output.”

Joanna: I can’t imagine writing this book without a computer and a process like that.

Zibby: You said you had to involve this whole complicated software system to categorize all the notes and everything.

Joanna: Yeah, it was crazy. One of my dad’s friends actually built us a software program that was very specific. It’s not for sale anywhere. It was just us. It was very simple, but it allowed me to scan the notes, transcribe them, and then tag them in different ways.

Zibby: Wait, why is that not a business?

Joanna: It should be.

Zibby: I have bags of letters from camp in my closet on the floor.

Joanna: We should probably be doing it with other things in my life, but for now I just have the notes in this system. It’s true, it’s a very good organizational thing. Now I can open up this program on my computer, and I can type in “weather.” I can type in “tough loss.” I can type in “Joanna, 1995-1999” because they’re all dated. It’s this really amazing way to sort through the collection. It was super helpful as I was writing because it allowed me to sift through these 3,500 notes in a way that was plausible.

Zibby: Do you feel that having a dad like this has made you have really high expectations for the type of dad, if you want to have kids — I know you don’t have kids yet. Do you have, now, escalated expectations that anybody you’re with could pull this off?

Joanna: Yes, everyone has to be my dad. No. A lot of times when I would show the book to someone or if I’m talking to someone about it, they’re very focused on the idea that they could never do that. Sometimes parents are like, I should’ve done this. Why didn’t I do this? Again, there’s a very specific set of circumstances that led my dad to writing these notes. He is artist by training. He was comfortable writing on the page. He grew up in a family where he had one conversation he remembered having one on one with his own father. My grandfather died when my dad was twenty-three. He had a deep desire to have a relationship with us that was more than that. He loves morning. He loves being up before everyone else. He loves having that time to himself and thinking and just being by himself. He would wake up at five AM when the rest of us were still asleep. He had this time where he was able to reflect.

Zibby: With an alarm clock, or that’s when he wakes up? Just wondering.

Joanna: I feel like my parents had one of those old alarm clocks that turn on NPR in the morning. I would sleep through that today, but I think that that’s what works for him. He would wake up like that. Although now, I think he pretty much — he’s a routined guy, wakes up when he wakes up. Whereas, I could sleep. If nobody woke me up, I would wake up at noon. I could sleep the whole day. It really worked for him. It was something that was important for him and became a part of his life and an outlet for him. It was as important for him to write as it was for us to read them. He felt like it was such a big part of his day. I don’t necessarily have any illusions that anyone I meet is going to be able to do this. My partner currently does not plan on writing notes to our future children. That said, I value creative communication. I value the willingness to be open and vulnerable. Whether or not that means that you have a tough conversation or you write really amazing birthday notes or you are good at going on long walks and expressing yourself, whatever it takes, I think that’s it’s really important.

I’m better, for instance, I’m more vulnerable if I write myself. If I’m typing or if I’m writing down things, that is how I’m better at expressing my feelings about any given situation. If I get in a fight, I do way better if I text things down on a note on my phone or something and then have that as a resource to look at. Otherwise, I feel like sometimes my thoughts get jumbled. That’s better for me. But other people, they can’t do that at all. They’re much better at just talking and flowing through their ideas. I never shied away from introducing significant others to my parents. It was always something that happened early on because it mattered to me that whoever I was with had a good relationship with them. I was like, check out my cool parents. They’re not embarrassing. They’re fun. You should meet them. Don’t be intimidated by them because they’re great. No, I don’t have any expectation that notes are in my future or my husband’s future or anything like that.

Zibby: What’s coming next for you? Are you inspired to write another book after doing this? Is this a one and done type of thing? Are you going back on the campaign trail?

Joanna: I am not heading a campaign trail currently. I work in the city. I work for a company called GLG which is a business-to-business platform that connects professionals who have questions with experts who have the answers. I do comms for them. It’s been a really nice return to just a normal job life. For two years of my prime age of working, I was at home with my parents writing. I’m happy to have health insurance and a 401(k) again. I have so much hope for this book. I feel like it’s an evergreen, as they say in the industry — I believe that’s the term — type of book. It’s not about a specific time in — I mean, it is about a specific time in history, but it’s not only applicable to a specific time in history. I think it can grow. I look forward to watching it grow. Actually, I just finished yesterday, editing the galley for Folded Wisdom in German, which was a fun process because I don’t speak German. It was really like some details here and there. Every once in a while, I’d see something that was still in English. I texted my cousins who live in Iowa, or who are from Iowa, that they kept in English, “Farm in Iowa.” I was like, no, no. There’s not a specific place called Farm in Iowa. My cousins grew up on a farm in Iowa, so you can lowercase that F and probably translate it. Anyway, I edited it. It’s going to come out in German in April. It’s going to be called , I think is the name of the book.

Zibby: Rolls right off the tongue.

Joanna: Just rolls right off the tongue. I’m looking forward to watching it grow and seeing what’s next. I think that if you asked me five years ago, ten years ago, if I would be on a podcast talking about the notes that my dad wrote, I would say, not a chance. Life has been unpredictable and exciting. I have no idea what’s to come.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Joanna: As someone who never expected to be an author, I remember I was talking when I first met with the publisher who runs Celadon, which is the publishing house that did the book. She was like, “Have you ever written anything before?” I was like, “Well, in college I had to write a thesis. In grad school, I also had to write a thesis. They were pretty long. They were like fifty pages or something.” That was kind of it. I feel like I’m in no place to really give advice to anyone because I didn’t go to school for this. I don’t have any background in it. I remember when I was writing my thesis in grad school, thinking that, after having remembered my experience in undergrad, that the most important thing was to write something that I wasn’t going to be bored by. If I got bored with the topic, then I was going to be totally screwed. There was going to be no way to get through the process.

I remember thinking, I just have to come up with something that will keep my interest because there’s going to inevitably be parts of this process that really suck. There’s going to be red lines and edits that are really difficult to handle. There are going to be parts where I’m like, oh, my god, am I still talking about this? I have to, at my core, really like what I’m doing. Otherwise, it’s never going to work out. I’d say that that’s what happened with this book. This book was natural to write. It flowed very easily because it was something that I cared so much about. In the beginning, I had friends who were like, “You have to think about –” that same question — “why was anybody going to care about Bob Guest writing his kids?” I had to have faith that it was interesting to me and maybe that would make a book that became surprisingly interesting to someone else. I wasn’t going to tailor it to be the type of book that someone else wanted to read. I was going to make it the book that I knew that me and my family wanted to read, my family and I wanted to read , and go from there.

Zibby: It’s great. It’s a gift. It’s beautiful in and of itself, but also a great reminder to all of us parents that something so little we do can have so much meaning in your kids’ lives. Thank you so much for coming on.

Joanna: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a joy.

Zibby: My pleasure.