Mary Ladd on Holding Found Items at Arms Length

An interview with Mary Ladd from The Write Stuff series:

Mary Ladd’s The Wig Diaries is an irreverent cancer book that pokes fun at diagnosis, treatment, medical bills and beyond. It is illustrated by San Francisco Chronicle “Bad Reporter” cartoonist Don Asmussen. In 2020 she authored Write it Down: Pandemic Writing Prompts. Her writing has appeared in PlayboyTime Magazine’s Extra CrispyHealth, the San Francisco Chronicle and in five anthologies, including Lit Starts and the best-selling 642 Things series. Mary is a Writers Grotto member and has read at Community of Writers, Litquake, Breast Cancer Action, and Bay Area Young Survivors (BAYS) events. She eats too much pizza and digs hanging out with her editor husband, Oscar Villalon and son, Cipriano.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…? 

I’m a writer with a focus on food, humor and health. In recent years I would mumble the word “writer,” because for nearly fifteen years, I split my time doing writing gigs and event gigs to pay the bills. Broadly speaking, my freelance work entailed work as a personal chef, caterer, cook, event manager, volunteer manager, and helping Anthony Bourdain with some Bay Area projects. I’ve seen a table cloth set on fire for a five a.m. breakfast event, found parking spots to store equipment for a giant tradeshow, and made sure NO ONE touched the plastic wrap covering a famous band’s food backstage. Awesomely rich material for stories, right?

The event work brought in more money than writing, and I kept waiting for publications that I read and adore to pay me to write for them. Pitching my writing work remains terribly tough, and it took a cancer diagnosis for me to realize I need to ditch the on-site stresses of event work and take a stab at writing full-time. I have two close food writer pals who gently pointed out the obvious: that event work was taking a serious toll. While I knew that was true, it took two years for me to fully back out of my event gigs. I was scared and did not trust that I could write full-time. Once I started better listening to other writers, I was able to get help finding more contacts and more steady work.

What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise? 

The obvious one would be the physical, emotional, mental and sexual changes that come from a cancer diagnosis. I am not as strong, smart or fast as I used to be, and often don’t want to look at myself in the shower. Learning to slow down and take care is tough.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

Take online classes at The Writers Grotto.

Become a part of the writing community. If it doesn’t exist, create it.

Find accountability buddies to read your work. Relatives and friends will be your cheerleaders, which is important (writing gifts a ton of rejection) but you also need readers who can offer criticism and ways to improve.

Sign up for a monthly newsletter system and send it out without fail. I’m currently using Substack and know others who love that platform. I have gotten enough assignments and long-term gigs from marketing myself this way.

Write every day.

Get used to ditching 80% to 95% or more of the words you write.

Where do you go to find sanctuary?

Twelve-step meetings help me breathe and take better care. I have been doing the twelve-step thing for ten years. It helps me feel sane, understood, supported. My first meeting happened because I was a feral angry and sad cat. Since then, I have morphed into something a bit calmer, and I am able to let go of my bossy and perfectionistic tendencies. Some of the time.

What’s your relationship to clothes? Or: describe the shoes you’re currently wearing.

I grew up wearing beautiful clothes that my grandmother made for me to wear to church and church school. Often that meant I looked and felt constricted and like a living doll. Today, if you offered me a slip, pantyhose and patent black shoes to wear, I would scream or run away. Full stop. I rebel against traditional norms yet also like to say, “every day is a costume party.” Yes, I have had my sweatpants wearing days, when the costume of the day equals this mommy is post-partum or cancer depressed and tired.

I can’t remember ever paying full price for any clothing item and love the thrill of the hunt at a thrift store. I also am a street scavenger, and pick up the soft, cuddly, and bright items that beckon. The process is hold the item at arm’s length to see if it smells sour, rank, or overly cologned or smoky. Check for stains. A certain thrill bubbles up when the item is pristine or even new – January in the Mission equals a TON of party duds, me first!

One bright blue satin cocktail dress left on Castro Street with the tags remains my favorite street find. There was an entire brown shopping bag with tall person clothes, and I stepped back and said, “Really?! Really?!” as I danced around, stepping into the dress and zipping myself in. No one was around to shake their head or help zip me up. I like pondering who had the item before me. Where did they go? Who were they with? For this blue dress, I wore it to a SFJAZZ party. When I told my mom about finding the dress, she was concerned that terrorists had left the dress out. Was I sure there wasn’t sarin on it. That it had been somehow contaminated. Cue the eye roll and guffaws from me – the bag was clearly from someone far more fabulous, mom!

What are you working on right now? Or: what kind of work would you like to do?

I am doing a fiction project with Los Angeles writer Cat Gwynn involving DNA, hair, crime and fascinating characters. We met at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and within minutes started debating where wigs are from, where they are made, and asking big questions of each other. We quickly realized we have a lot in common, and even were diagnosed with triple-negative cancer around the same time.

I am also writing the true story of a kiteboarding woman, Dr. Evangeline Amores, who was in the chilly Bay waters for a record amount of time in February 2020. She is in her fifties and the twists and turns for this tale are fascinating.

I also teach at the Writers Grotto and do writing workshops for various cancer communities.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

Better care for all, which means access to food and nutrition, medicine, housing, jobs and technology. Sometimes I share food treats with people who are in tents or seem interested. For one gentleman camped out by a Safeway parking lot, we chatted for a while and I gave him cash and food. Then said, “When I was little, people would always say, ‘Jesus Loves You.’ I don’t believe in Jesus anymore, but I care about you.”

Maybe that was TMI for him. Awkward. Weird. Yet it was an attempt to show care. What I didn’t say was, “I wish you did not have to sit here. That I wasn’t worried about the last time you went to the bathroom, had a shower, or got something to eat. You seem like you may be, what, seventy-five? Deserving of a warm and comfortable place.”

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?

Up until January 2020, it meant going to a literary or cultural event in San Francisco with my husband, Oscar. It’s especially exhilarating to hear the written word live, and a great example of this is the Litquake festival, which to me feels like a birthday plus trick or treating and Santa all in one.

Have you ever seen a ghost? Or: what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?

A ghost visited me one morning at the Jerome Grand Hotel while my family snored and slept and I did some stretches and breathing exercises on the floor. The windows were all closed. There was no breeze or air conditioner. Yet suddenly and with a big racket, a bottle of lotion moved across the dresser in front of me and flipped itself over, end to end. My mind raced as I remembered our check in the night before, where I browsed a thick old ledger of ghost stories: smells, coughing, children giggling, etc. I kept staring at the lotion, whispering, “Do it again!”

Ghosts have fascinated me since 1980, when I somehow managed at age seven to get my hands on a copy of The Haunted Planet by DJ Arneson and Tony Tallarico.

What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned? Or: what was your last moment of awe?

Birds were dancing in the branches above me when I walked my dog this morning. I am glad that I have learned how to routinely observe and have stillness and gratitude.

What are some of your favorite smells?

Eucalyptus (on a hike), fresh coffee, pizza.

What are you unable to live without?

Books, which have always helped me.

If you got an all-expenses-paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

Travel the world for a year, stopping at beaches, bookstores and farm stands at every chance.

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