Proust Questionnaire for Lone Writers: Gretchen Stahlman

Gretchen Stahlman is in focus for this edition of the questionnaire. Here is what Gretchen has to say:

Question 1: If you could invite five people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would they be? What would you serve for dinner?

I would invite my father’s parents, Oscar and Helen Stahlman, about whose lives I’ve been writing the past few years. I’d like to ask them if I got it right, did I tell the important stories about their lives, the ones that really mattered. If I invite them, I’d have to invite my father and uncle because I know how much they’d love to see their parents again. And I’d invite my son, Nick, because he, as a Marine like my father, is the living result of the lives they lived. We’d laugh until we cried, then cry until we laughed again.

I’d like to have Granny’s chicken and dumplings for dinner. Since it would be a bit mean to ask her as a guest to cook, I’d help out by baking buttermilk cookies, my specialty, for dessert. Granny would say those were “real good”.

Question 2: If you were stranded on a desert island, which five books (or objects, movies, CDs, etc.) would you want with you?

The practical, tech writer side of me says water, shelter, and food would be good since these are hard to come by in the desert. But the dreamer says I’d like unlimited pens and paper so I can write in all that lovely solitude, coffee because it’s so darn good, and I’d like my son Paul with me because he is never dull, as magnificently annoying as he is goofy. And a pillow. A pillow would be nice. I could use it to rest my head or to whap Paul when he gets too irritating.

Question 3: Which item on your desk says the most about you, and why?

I think it’s the flowering plant because constant growth is so necessary and beautiful. I’m hoping it’s not the sleeping cat who is as lazy as the day is long.

Question 4: Which of your personality traits or natural abilities is most suited to technical writing (that is, which skill do you use the most in your day-to-day life as a tech writer)?

I always want to know why things are as they are.

Question 5: Conversely, which traits or abilities do you lack as a technical writer (that is, what do you find hardest to overcome or most challenging about tech writing)?

I’d prefer to just write and not have to report hours and track invoices and such. Fortunately, I have a great bookkeeper who does that for me. She’s also my Mom.

Question 6: If you could go back and choose another career, what would be it be?

I’d still choose to be a writer, probably a columnist, but if writing was completely off-limits, I’d be a photographer.

Question 7: What is your proudest moment, either professional or personal?

Neither of my kids are very academic so I accepted early on that I would not be driving around town with a “Student of the Month” sticker on my car. My son Paul, who has a learning disability, got caught helping out other disabled kids in a kind way, and was nominated by his teacher. I was so proud of him for winning, not for academic excellence but because of the sort of person he is. This was four years ago but I still have that (very faded) sticker on my window.

My other most proud moment was when my son Nick became a United States Marine. Although most advised him not to enlist in this time of war, he followed his heart and that’s not always so easy to do.

Question 8: If you could send a message to your younger self (approximately 18 years old), what would it be? What would your younger self reply?

Look, it’s gonna take you 20 years to learn to write well enough to write what it is you really want to say. Start now. Don’t wait. Get on the stick, girl!

Question 9: What do you want to do when you retire?

Same thing I’m doing now: writing about things that matter to me.

Question 10: If you were to die and come back, either as a person or thing, what would it be?

I’d like to be Hope, in whatever form that might take. With hope, there is always the potential for a better day. Without it, there is no reason to get up in the morning.

Gretchen Stahlman is a writer living in upstate New York. Her company, The Write Angle, is celebrating 20 years of creating fine technical prose. She is the author of Prairie Points: A Quilted Memoir of Four Generations and is in search of an agent or publisher to bring this work to market. Her current non-technical work is creating “The Year in Red”, a blog of writing and photography at

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