In a town like Montclair, it’s tough to stand out as a writer. Between the journalists and novelists and poets and essayists, not to mention the website commenters, it seems like everyone is writing something. Hillary Frank, who can count novelist, essayist, writing instructor, and mom to a toddler as just a few of her achievements, wants our kids to know that writing is more about being interesting than perfect. Naturally, she also wants to help them to get as close to perfection as possible. To that end, Hillary recently opened Dog Star Tutoring, where she focuses on helping students develop stand-out essays for private school and college admission.
In the two years since arriving to Montclair from Philadelphia, Hillary has not only discovered favorite haunts around her new home, she has become a true member of the community as a resident, parent, and instructor at the Montclair Cooperative School. Despite her busy schedule, Hillary Frank found time to answer a few questions for Barista Kids.
What brought you to Montclair?
The week after my daughter was born, my husband found out he got a job in the city. Within a few months we needed to pack up our stuff and leave Philadelphia. We were reluctant to move to NYC with a baby and wanted to try out a place with good schools, where we could imagine staying long-term. I’m a Russian Jew and my husband is Latino, and it was important to us to find a commutable community that welcomed diversity, especially now that we had a multi-ethnic daughter. Montclair fit the bill.
Favorite places to spend time, eat, get some caffeine?
Red Eye Cafe, Petit Parisien, and Bluestone for coffee + eats. And for spending time, I find myself in Milk Money a lot. Especially in the winter. It’s a nice way to get out of the house and find cute used treasures. Plus, my daughter can’t get enough of the play kitchen.
How did you get started in writing and developing stories?
With a shiny red boombox and a microcassette answering machine.
When I graduated from college I heard the radio show This American Life and just desperately wanted to write for them. I sent in essay after essay and received rejection after rejection. Then, after studying the show in a lot of depth, I decided to do something different: I recorded a friend of mine talking about his obsession with the end of the world. His obsession was surprising because it was secular, not religious. For example, he used to go jogging every day—not for the exercise but so that just in case the world ended he’d be able to run from wild dogs. I recorded the conversation using my parents’ microcassette answering machine. I fed the clips of tape I wanted to use into a shiny red boombox and read my script around the clips. It was very amateurish and you could hear clicks from the buttons all over the place. But it got the attention of the show, and the day after I sent it in, Ira Glass, the host, called me and asked me to start doing stories for them.
In your new business, Dog Star Tutoring, you hope to help teenagers tell their most interesting stories to admissions officers. What have you seen as the most common roadblock to successful story-telling?
People get hung up on telling admissions officers what they think the officers want to hear. This tends to lead to writing in cliches. Or writing about something that everyone else will write about. Admissions officers do want something but what they want is to be surprised. I like to tell people, Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear; tell me something I’ve never heard before.
What is one piece of advice you’d give to a teenager just starting the application process?
Think about what makes you different from all of your peers (there’s always something that makes you feel like nobody on the planet gets you, right?) and write about that. But explore it, don’t complain about it.
How has parenthood affected your method of storytelling? Has it changed how you view the teens with whom you work?
Well, just in a practical sense, I need to get my work done much more quickly than I did before. I can’t linger on stories thatmight work. I have to really care about a story to pursue it. I’ve seen this play out in my pet project, The Longest Shortest Time, a podcast and blog for new parents. I get lots of submissions from new moms and dads wanting to tell their stories on the podcast. If a story doesn’t make me think, I can’t bear the thought of not telling this story, I just leave it be.
As for working with teens, I can completely identify with a parent’s desire for a child to be able to attend the school of his or her dreams. I mean, I still care deeply about kids being able to express their stories in a way that matters to adults—that’s why I started the business. But after having a kid of my own, I think I suddenly felt a switch to where I identified more with parents than with kids.
What is a favorite story that you’ve told?
One of my favorite recent stories is a piece from my podcast that I call “The Emperor’s New Onesie.” It’s about a clothes-horse mom whose toddler refuses to get dressed and goes naked for an entire month. The mom gets help and finds out her kid isn’t just “difficult,” like many folks had been telling her; she has a sensory processing disorder. This is one of those stories that I knew, as soon as I got the submission, I would be a happier person for putting it on my podcast.