Name: Dorothy Reno
Claim to fame: Author of short stories, book review for the Washington Independent
Wise words: "Humans are meant for hardship. It’s an extraordinary teacher and it makes us nicer people. I’ll keep my scars and pain because it’s like a tunnel into my soul."
Dorothy Reno, like many women, has gone through several transformations in her life. This driven, elegant woman from Canada’s east coast has been a graduate student, a social worker, a government policy analyst, a consultant for prestigious Washington think tanks and the World Bank, and many other things in between.
Today’s incarnation of Dorothy is a short story writer and a book critic for the Washington Independent who lives in DC with her husband and their newborn son, Léon.
Poised, put-together, and whip-smart, Dorothy moves through these fluid identities with a seemingly effortless grace that belies a difficult childhood and private fears about perfection and failure that have lingered through her adult life. But sometimes it is the hard-won graces that are the most impactful.
Because of this, an undercurrent of resilience and determination flows through her life’s story.
“Some people are born with less privilege and less choice, I know this because I was one of them” she said when we spoke on the phone one morning in early March, just weeks before she gave birth to her son. “But having barriers and a shorter range of options doesn’t mean people should sit down and give up. I’m not just talking about striving for social mobility, but of course that’s part of it. I’m also talking about grow as a human – growth of the mind, growth of the heart. I’m talking about the will to someday generate wisdom.”
When I first met Dorothy, I had no idea of the hardships that this intelligent and vibrant young woman had had to overcome on her path to success. But what I did know is that I wanted to get to know her better, to sit in conversation with her and learn about the experiences and influences that shaped her into the fascinating woman I so admired. So when I had the idea for this interview series, Dorothy was one of the first women I contacted.
I hope you enjoy getting to know her through this piece as much as I did.
On Gendered Ambition
To call Dorothy Reno hard-working would be an understatement. From the gruelling hours she spent working on her master’s thesis while holding down a full-time social work job, to her regimented approach to creative writing, her powerful work ethic is the driving force behind much her success.
But it wasn’t always this way. The first in her family to attend university, Reno admits to struggling in her first year, “I was mess, I didn’t know what I was doing. All the sudden I was in these classes with fancy, smart, private school kids.” She shared with me the story of being in class and sitting beside a guy she described as “ from a good family and in the military reserves and a jogger” whose notebook was filled with beautifully-written, structured, organized equations and thinking to herself “that’s what success will look like.”
She noted that moment as a turning point that helped her start running her life in a more regimented way. “In a lot of cases, when I saw someone who was really ambitious and making things happen, it was like a kick in the ass. Left to my own devices in my natural habitat, I would say that I’m not type-A. But I had to learn to be that way in order to get things done.”
Dorothy credits many of her professional accomplishments to that relentless drive, but she was also quick to admit that it hasn’t come without a cost. “I always felt sneered at for my ambition” she said, “some people think that I come on strong -- I’m direct, I look people in the eye, I clack around in high heels and I’m not afraid to start giving directives if I find myself in a disorganized situation.”
"There's a lot of resentment against young women who are enthusiastic"
She shared that, throughout her 20s, her ambition was often met with suggestions that she should “calm down”, a highly gendered -- and highly frustrating -- piece of advice. “In some ways I see the wisdom in it, but sometimes people don’t come from a good place with it” she said, “there’s a lot of resentment against young women who are really enthusiastic -- it triggers people.”
Left unchecked, these unsolicited opinions and unwelcome assumptions about a woman’s professional choices can shape and warp her career in small but significant ways. In recent years, Dorothy has found power in owning the narrative of her career and her life.
She shared a story of being at a small dinner party six months after her last contract with the World Bank had ended where someone referred to her as a ‘housewife’. “You know, it was my worst nightmare” she said, “I looked at the guy and said ‘you know what? I am kind of a housewife right now, I write but I also clean up and cook supper’.”
Her reaction was out of character, but it signalled a broader change in her approach to dealing with others’ assumptions about her choices: “It’s strange, but it felt really good to say that. I didn’t fight it. It’s not that I saw myself as a housewife, but it was that I didn’t care if that was how he saw me. My old self would have done something like mail him a copy my degree” she explained, “it was just one of those moments where I didn’t need to control the narrative.”
On Unexpected Motherhood
At one point during our conversation, Dorothy stopped and said to me “life will give you the thing that you’re not asking for, and it will be the right thing.” I immediately burst out laughing, the kind of knowing laugh that you just can’t help when something rings so true, “I think I want that on my tombstone” I said.
The most current example of this motto in action in Dorothy’s life is the birth of her son, Léonin March. While Dorothy had always planned on having a family of her own, she had all but written off the idea in the last few years, as twists and turns in her life took her in new directions that took her off the ‘course’ she had set for herself, “I thought when I was 30 I had to have everything done. But then I didn’t get married until I was 32, and then I changed countries and had to start all over again.”
Like many women, Dorothy patiently waited for the “right time” to start her family, assuming that she would wait until she was secure in a full-time, permanent job before she would feel ready to start trying. But last year she turned 34, started a brand-new career in writing, and assumed thatit was just never going to happen. She also worried about how a baby would fit into their busy, ever-changing lives. “And then it happened!” she laughed, “we’ve been given a chance and it’s going to mess us up for a while, but that’s okay.”
"It can feel like a cold war between the people who have kids and the people who don't"
One of the unexpected benefits of this surprise addition to her family has been a reprieve from the invasive line of questioning that most childless women in their 30s are familiar with: “so, when are you going to have kids?” She noted that, at a certain point, it becomes an expectation and begins to divide what she called the ‘kids’ and the ‘non-kids’, and that the women who choose the latter group -- for whatever reason -- are often viewed negatively for their choice “a woman who is in her 30s who doesn't have kids is a paragon of selfishness.”
At the time of our interview, her son’s birth was still a few weeks away, but she was already anticipating the multitude of ways in which her life was about to change. When I asked her about how she felt about managing motherhood and a creative career like writing, she replied that it wasn’t the time management that she was concerned about, but her own will, “I’ve heard that women just don’t care anymore and just want to be with their kid!” she continued, “but it might be good for me to have those parameters. I think sometimes the more squeezed people feel, the more productive they are.”
On Healing and the Hard Work of Making Art
These days, the focus of Dorothy’s ambitious energy is her budding writing career. Recently, she has had work published by Red Tuque Books and was a finalist in the DC Larry Neal Writers’ Competition in 2014. In addition to her work as an interviewer and book reviewer for the Washington Independent, she is also at work on a collection of short stories, titled The One That Got Away.
You would be forgiven for assuming that, based on her laser-focus on writing these days, Dorothy has always been intent on pursuing a creative career. In reality, like many passionate people, Dorothy stumbled across writing almost by accident, as a way to work through a difficult period in her life.
It was the summer of 2008 and she had just begun a demanding job in social work at a local indigenous health centre. Only a few months before she and her fiancé had called off their engagement a week before the wedding. “It was such an intense period in my life” she shared, “my heart was broken, and many of my clients at the centre were also sad and broken.” To cope with the intensity, she turned to literature that mirrored her experiences, finding comfort in the classic dramatic works of Homer and Shakespeare. “These works were hard to read and understand at first” she acknowledged, “but they filled me up with so much beauty that it made me want to write. When you take in beautiful art, it goes inside and fills your heart.”
Soon she started writing her own poetry, which she admits was “really bad and mostly about my darkness and hurt.” Throughout her time at the health centre, she wrote dozens of poems. It wasn’t until an odd dating experience a few years later that she would discover her current literary love: short stories.
“I had this funny experience and I just decided I wanted to write a short story about it” she said, “I stopped sleeping and eating lunch and I just wrote its a short story, it was terrible and it didn’t make a whole lot of sense but while I was writing, it felt like this force came and inhabited me. It was so intense. Poetry was something I had to drag out of myself, this was different.” Although she never pursued having the story published, she began writing others.
It was the concise nature of short stories that appealed to Dorothy, “I liked the idea that a first draft of a story could be written and it wouldn’t take years.” But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a tremendous amount of work, thought, and planning that goes into each individual story, let alone each individual draft. “Each draft I write is an individual event” she explained, “sometimes I tell myself if I’m working on tough changes, I say ‘okay, just sit down this morning and see if you can do one page’.”
And, as other writers reading this will know, the physical act of sitting down to write isn’t the only challenge that creatives face. Writing, even fiction, can be an intensely emotional process, requiring the writer to delve deep into past experiences and emotional states to draw information and inspiration for their works.
Though she is clear that her short stories are not directly autobiographical, Dorothy does draw on her own emotional life in her pieces, “those of us who write fiction, we take our experiences,, twist them around, and make them unrecognizable.” She says that this act, akin to standing naked in front of the world, requires fearlessness. “It’s like going to therapy and doing it publicly. We’re so vulnerable, we have to peel our skin back for a living.”
But Dorothy has found that it is through the act of revealing exactly the thing you don’t want to reveal that the best stories can emerge. “That’s what people want to connect with, they want to know secrets, they want to know that they’re not alone. They need the grit. They want to see the dirt under the rug.” Although these moments and experiences and emotional states may be scary or embarrassing or dark, in the end they will be what makes readers feel less alone, she said.
And, for that reason, she is grateful for all that she has experienced in life -- the good and the bad: “Humans are meant for hardship. It’s an extraordinary teacher and it makes us nicer people” she said, “I’ll keep my scars and pain because it’s like a tunnel into my soul.”