February 23, 2011

Writer Spotlight: Carrie Swearingen

Carrie Swearingen, journalist, wife, mother

Today, I have a very special woman to introduce to Peace Garden Writer. But before I get into the interview and reveal more about this lovely woman, I want to ask for your prayers as Carrie battles an aggressive, stage four cancer she's determined to beat. Although this illness is far from what defines Carrie, I believe in the power of prayer and am counting on yours. With that, grab your cup of coffee and enjoy reading about an amazing woman I'm privileged to know. 

In her successful career, Chicago writer and marketing consultant Carrie Swearingen has dipped her toes into a wide array of communications gigs, from NPR radio announcer to assistant at the Emmy Awards. She has contributed articles to over 65 publications––many award-winning ––and garnered a sizable pile of interviews with both low- and high-profile folks. Currently founder of Swearingen Media, Carrie also works diligently in her roles as wife to Stefano, and mother to Matteo, 7, and Francesca, 5.

Q: Let’s go back to the very first realizations that you might have what it takes to be a writer. What were the indications your life could lead in this direction?

A:  I always enjoyed being able to communicate my thoughts.  I was 11 or 12 when I had my first short story published in a book called “Running Blue Jean Things,” a 1975 anthology of creative writing published by the Chicago Public School system.  I also used to write poems to God, as an elementary student, and hide them under my bed in a box.  Sadly, I threw them out when I was a teenager.  I thought they were foolish and I was terrified that someone might find them.  It’s one of my regrets.  Now, of course, I’d go to great lengths to see what I had written all those years ago.

Q: What steps did you take to get there, and what are some of the most colorful communications jobs you’ve had through the years?

A:  I must say, there were many steps.  Some baby steps and some grand leaps.  Still, I was always on a “communications” path.  Mass communication was my college focus, with an emphasis in broadcasting.  That career unfolded quite beautifully for me, and I worked endlessly in those early days.  If I wasn't at work, I was networking.  I was an announcer for a nightly jazz show on an NPR affiliate and hosted a Sunday evening blues show as well.  I assisted the publicist of the Blues and Jazz Fests in Chicago, and later jobs included working for a radio research company, as an associate producer at a TV ad production company, and eventually as the Midwest Coordinator of Affiliate Relations for the Fox Broadcasting Company.  I spent a lot of time shuffling Fox network programming around professional baseball or basketball games at 41 affiliate stations, and I'd often manage talent at affiliate parties or during Chicago area interviews.  Those were the days of 21 Jump Street and In Living Color.  It was common to get Johnny Depp, Holly Robinson, Jim Carey, Damon Wayons, Christina Applegate or other celebrities to and from an event or radio interview.  They were trying to make names for themselves back then and I appreciated having been with so many of them before fame hit.  Just young, nice people––and we all had a lot of fun.

Things started to change for me in the early 1990s.  I decided to get out of broadcasting when Fox moved our office to Washington D.C.  Cable was just starting to boom and the D.C. location was needed for visibility with the FCC and in lobbying for channel position in major markets.  I loved Chicago and opted to stay here, though I helped Fox establish the D.C. office and I remember living at a hotel in the Chevy Case Pavilion for a while.  I think I was at a point where I was drawn more toward managing communication and broadcast efforts for a company or organization. I liked the idea of being the marketing pro within company, rather than one of a hundred pros working within a communications or entertainment company.  I hope that makes some sense.  

I ended up working as a marketing director at the YMCA for seven years, and had been asked regularly to write for local publications.  Somewhere during that stint, I ended up on a mission trip to Medjugorje––a village located smack dab between Sarajevo and Mostar.  It was 1994, at the height of the war in Bosnia.  There I met a captivating Franciscan priest, Fr. Jozo Zovko, and I was asked to write a feature story about him for a U.S. magazine a year later.  He must have liked the article, once translated.  Months after the article ran I received a fax at my office, asking if I would fly to Bosnia-Herzegovina to speak with him.  I flew over in October of 1995, and I was surprised to learn that he wanted me to write a book for him. 

In 1998 I left the Y and accepted the position of Director of Communications for Catholic Extension, the organization that funds Catholic missionary work in the U.S. and its territories.  I was diagnosed with breast cancer my first day on the job.  It all seemed very surreal.  Monsignor Ken Velo, well known as the homilist at Cardinal Berardin's funeral mass, was president of CE at the time.  I assured him that he was under no obligation to keep me on and that I didn't want to hold up his marketing efforts.  The next day, my house was filled with flowers and Velo’s message was clear.  I was going nowhere.  I loved my years there.  Aside from a radio show, ads and the usual marketing agenda, I began traveling the country and telling stories––of a missionary who drives a 40-foot Winnebago up and down the Appalachian Mountains while bringing medical care to the poor, of priests who fly single-engine Cesnas into remote Alaskan islands to bring Mass to isolated Catholics, or of a Minnesota couple that had fostered over 400 special needs children and adopted six of them.  Those stories were changing my life, and editors wanted to hear more. I realized how often I was being asked to write for newspapers, magazines and news services.  That's when I finally realized that I was a journalist, not only a marketing professional.

Q: Of those, can you name one or two that made the most impact in your life?

A:  As I just mentioned, the stories I covered while at Catholic Extension left a great impression.  But I would say that the book for Father Jozo had a tremendous impact on my life. I worked with Irish journalist Geraldine Hemmings––who now resides in New York.  The book, “As She Asks,” is a hard-covered coffee table book that reveals Mary's messages to the visionaries of Medjugorje with reflections from Father Jozo and moving photography by Joe Mixan.  I spent three years transcribing scripts from Father Jozo's speaking engagements and then Geraldine and I worked in tandem, poetically scripting Father Jozo's words into English passages.  Much to our surprise, the book became a European bestseller in seven languages. I recently read an Internet post from a Sister Emmanuel who toured the Vatican in 2002, and she mentions Pope John Paul II heading to his room with the book under his arm.  That made me smile.  The book was a long, grueling process with translators and nightly 3 a.m. faxes jolting me from deep sleep.  I often say that book was my ticket to heaven.  We donated all proceeds to the 3700 orphans of the war in Bosnia who have been cared for by the Godparenting Program that Father Jozo initiated.  I’m glad we were able to do something small for these children.  They lost everything.

Q: As mentioned earlier, you’ve interviewed some prominent people in your work as a journalist. Tell us about one that has left the greatest impression:

A:  I've been fortunate.  I’ve interviewed Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, former Hewlett Packard VP Bob Wayman, and even Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.  (Laughing) I've even chased jazz legend Sarah Vaughn down a Chicago street with a microphone!  Crazy.  But there is one interview that stands out above all.  Her name was Marie Wilkinson, a civil rights leader who was the first to refuse to give up her seat in an Illinois diner.  She was 91 years old when I interviewed her for a St. Anthony Messenger cover story.  She helped thousands get on their feet, launched schools, built food pantries, and stood up for fair housing laws.  During our interview, Marie took several calls––managing a considerable number of volunteer projects at once.  Remember, she was 91.  But that wasn't what stood out.  As I talked with her––my recorder running, my Nikon snapping––she sat confidently in her rocker while stroking a slave owner's whip.  That was a photo, and a moment.  I'll never forget her.  She died at the age of 101 last August.

Marie Wilkinson, Civil Rights Leader
Q: What is the best part, to you, about being a journalist? The worst?

A:  The best: Showing the world how extraordinary ordinary people can be.  Every person has a gripping tale, and I enjoy bringing that out––painting the picture, placing the reader in the room with me.  I want the reader to know the color of the walls, whether or not rain is weaving a path on the window at my left, and the history I find in my subject's eyes.  The worst––well, it's not the deadlines.  I always meet those.  It's the word count.  It's when an editor tells you 1,500 words and you find yourself at 2,500.  Having to cut away at my work is often painful.  It took me a while to learn to let go.  Humility is a hard thing.

Q: You entered motherhood after you’d experienced a vivacious career. In what ways did your career change when your children entered the picture?

A:  Well, there’s a deeper story here.  As I mentioned, cancer came the first time in 1998 when I was in my mid 30's.  Having hit the legal limit on chemo and radiation, I was told that I would never conceive.  The diagnosis came just days after my now husband and I had decided we wanted to be married. 

We postponed the wedding so that I could get back on my feet and have a head of hair while walking down the aisle of Assisi’s San Damiano.  We were married in 2000.  After a year, we began the adoption process but quickly found out that we were pregnant––much to everyone's shock.  I had several miscarriages along the way, but I carried Matteo to term in 2003 and Francesca in 2005.  My husband, Stefano Mereu, is an engineer from Rome.  My mother is also full Italian.  These beautiful brown-eyed children with mile-long lashes came from me.  No one believes it.  I look like my father, who was of Dutch and English heritage.  And these wondrous, creative, passionate children changed everything about my life.  I couldn't stand to be away from them.  I was 38 when my son was born, and I wanted to be home.  I launched Swearingen Media three months after he arrived.  I couldn't have done that at 22.  But at 38 it was different.  I was fortunate enough to have worked with hundreds of professionals who knew me and understood my strengths and my work ethic.  I panicked a bit at first but the calls eventually came in, and so did the contracts.  I continue to write for publications but I have taken on many university and corporate clients over the last seven years––and I enjoy it.  I find that I can design a media kit in InDesign or write a marketing plan easily from a home office, and I’m here for the kids when they get home from school.  The world has changed.  Meetings can be held via Skype these days. Honestly, I'm in sweats and slippers right now.

Q: What have been the most surprising aspects of your vocation of wife and mother?

A:  As a wife, I am amazed at the level of calm and compromise my husband always brings to the table.  He is a very wise person, methodical in his approach to people, and exceptionally patient.  I've learned a lot from Stefano and I'm grateful that our journeys brought us together. 

As a mother, I was surprised that I had that much love in me.  I had taken care of everyone's children––those of friends and family members––for 20 years, so I thought I knew what I was in for.  I was blown away.  I remember seeing Diane Keaton on Oprah a few years ago, and she said, "I am madly in love with my children."  That's how I feel.  And like Keaton, I find myself writing down things that they say and find constant comedy in every little moment.  My kids are hilarious.  I'm exhausted, but it's a blast.

Q: How has your faith life strengthened your journey, both regarding helping to raise a family and guiding your career path?

A: Faith plays a role in all that I do, but that was not always the case.  I was raised Catholic, but I looked at confirmation as my graduation from Catholicism.  I was always pondering the spiritual world, silently, but I practiced nothing in high school, college, or my twenties.  Honestly, I lived a rather wild and adventurous life.  It was an experience in 1994 while in Bosnia-Herzegovina that changed my life.  I don’t share it with many, but I came home from that trip and was suddenly at daily Mass, praying throughout the day, and asking that God guide me.

The timing of that conversion of heart seems so deliberate to me now.  As soon as I stopped worrying about what I wanted out of life, I seemed to naturally drift toward opportunities that would utilize my talents for a greater good––stories about the selflessness of others, a book that brought seekers back to a spiritual path, being able to live by example as much as possible during unexpected illness, and certainly in my role as a mother and teacher to my children.  There is no job more important than that of a parent.

Q: You once shared with me your desire to have a children’s book published. Is that dream still alive?

A:  I wrote a children's book, “Lucy's Light,” a few years ago.  Children's author and former SCBWI board member Ester Hershenhorn went through it for me, and she was quite masterful in pointing out how the story could evolve.  It's based on a true story told to me by my grandmother, and involved how children would light their paths on a Midwestern farm in the early 1900s.  That's all I'll reveal.  After reworking it, the story received a rousing applause when read aloud at Chicago's Newberry Library during a children's book writer workshop.  Esther encouraged me to send it to an agent in New York, and so I went to the top––Sheldon Fogelman Agency.  They were supportive and things seemed hopeful, but it was turned down in round two.

I'd like to pitch it to another agent, but the book has been "shelved" as they say.  I was hit with cancer again in November of 2009, opted for radical surgery, and thought I had beat it.  This past December we discovered that the cancer has now spread to my spine, ribs, and liver.  I had surgery two weeks ago, will begin taking Arimidex next week, and chemo will likely start in eight weeks.  Doctors are moving in stages so that they can see what will slow this down.  It's stage four, so I appreciate any prayers you and your readers can send my way.  My children need me.  So, yes, the dream of finding a home for “Lucy's Light” is still alive, but right now I'm simply concerned with staying alive.

Q: What can you share with other writers about what makes a writer not just good but exceptional?

A:  Well, I don’t know that I’m the most qualified to answer that question.  But two things quickly come to mind.  First, read.  The more you read, the more you discover styles and will find your own voice.  Secondly, it's all about description.  Describe everything, but use few words and make those words count.  I recently read “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak.  He has a descriptive, literary gem on every other page.  Whether you like the book or not is up to you, but there was so much succinct descriptive brilliance in this book that I swallowed it whole.  "Her teeth were like a soccer crowd, crammed in."  And thus, he has painted you a vivid picture.  I also love that the story is narrated by Death, who admits to being haunted by humans.  I'm in awe of that which is both well crafted and honest.  The artistry shines through.

Carrie, thanks again for so beautifully sharing your insight with Peace Garden Writer. Know that our prayers will be with you in the journey ahead!

Roxane, this was my pleasure and a privilege.  Thank you.

Carrie Swearingen, 2011
Q4U: It's your turn. Any questions for Carrie? At the very least, please keep her in your prayers! Thanks.


Karen E. said...

Great interview -- thanks so much to both of you!

Mary Aalgaard said...

"The Book Thief" is on my stack. I think I'll read it next. Great interview. So inspirational and honest. What an amazing career. Carrie, I'm praying hard that you'll recover and spend many many years with those precious children. Life is a wonder. Thank you for your words today.

Laura Marcella said...

This is a wonderful, inspirational interview. I admire Carrie and everything she's done with her writing, career, and family!

My thoughts and prayers are with you, Carrie!

Christina said...

So much tenderness, wisdom and heart in here! Roxane, thank you for bringing us Carrie. I ate up every word! :) And I might jump around on my reading list to get to "The Book Thief" faster, Carrie. I ordered it on Amazon the day we spoke about it! :)

God has been so generous in the talents he bestowed on you. And it's a lovely thing to see how you have put them to use -- and continue to.

Lots of prayers for you and your precious family!

Carla said...

Great interview! Sending lots of prayers and love your way!

C said...

Thanks to all of you for your lovely comments, and especially for the prayers. Miracles do happen. I tucked two of them into bed tonight. ---Carrie

clara54 said...

Great interview- wonderful & inspiring insights. Look forward to reading Lucy's Light & The Book Thief has been added to my list of books for purchase.

Thanks to you both for bringing Carrie's story to us!

Peace and blessing abound!


Kim said...

Roxane and Carrie--What a treat to read this inspiring and encouraging interview! Carrie--you are in my prayers and constant thoughts!

ps. I love your comment on miracles--what a world it would be if everyone shared your attitude!!

Donna-Marie Cooper O'Boyle said...

I'm looking forward to reading this again now that dear Carrie has passed on to Eternal Life. Thank you for doing this interview, Roxane.

God bless!