In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by Janis Kearney, co-founder and president of Read.Write.Share and published author. Hailing from the Southeast Delta Region of Arkansas, Janis's journey to the White House under the Clinton Administration seemed an unlikely one. However, her passion for storytelling and her experiences at the University of Arkansas would take her all the way to the president's personal diarist.
Listen as Janis details her path to the White House and how she found success as a storyteller.
0:00:05.5 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education in your life today. I have with me today Janis Kearney, who is a successful writer, journalist, and lecturer, who grew up in the Delta Region of Southeast Arkansas. She is the author of the book, Cotton Field of Dreams, which is a memoir of her childhood and her journey to the Oval Office. Janis, thank you for joining me today. I appreciate it.
0:00:54.6 Janis Kearney: Thank you for having me. Glad to be here.
0:00:58.4 Matt Waller: You know, I can't imagine being born in the '50s, early '50s in Gould, Arkansas, that anyone in your family or any of your friends would think that you would become a author, and that you would wind up working in the Oval Office someday. Was it a big surprise to the people that you were around growing up?
0:01:23.0 Janis Kearney: Yes, it was. It was a big surprise to them, and I guess to me as well. We were taught to dream down where I grew up on Barna Road, so we did dream really big. But I don't think the role that I ended up with in 1995 as President Clinton's personal diarist, than anything that I could have dreamed about. It was a little too big even for us.
0:01:51.7 Matt Waller: How did you get interested in writing?
0:01:56.4 Janis Kearney: That's a great question because I cannot even remember when I started writing. I just remember that, as for as long as I can recall, I have loved writing. But I give my dad credit for instilling a love for literacy, for books, for reading, just a deep curiosity, I got that from him. And besides that, he was an amazing storyteller. So I always wanted to be that storyteller that he was. And though I'm not an oral storyteller of his level, but I write. That's my form of storytelling.
0:02:37.5 Matt Waller: What was it like growing up in Gould, Arkansas?
0:02:42.0 Janis Kearney: In the '50s, early '50s, when I grew up, it was a... For my family, it was a lot of work. We were small farmers. My dad was a sharecropper. So we did cotton, we chopped cotton in the summer starting when we were about seven years old actually, until we graduated from high school. And so it was work, it was church, and it was school. Those were the three most important things to my family. And my father and mother instilled in us this deep sense of responsibility. They tried to kind of structure us into responsible citizens. And that started from church, doing things for our neighbors, being good stewards of ever we were given. So a lot of structure, a lot of learning, a lot of giving us a sense that we could. I think it was a great childhood and a great environment. And that's what I write about in my book, Cotton Field of Dreams.
0:03:49.6 Matt Waller: Let's talk a little bit about that book in a minute, but you've written several books, but...
0:03:55.1 Janis Kearney: The first one was actually in 2004. It was widely published in 2005. And that was Cotton Field of Dreams. That was my first book.
0:04:05.3 Matt Waller: Oh, okay.
0:04:06.2 Janis Kearney: Yeah, I've written a couple several since then. 2006, I wrote a book actually for a gentlemen from one of the islands. And he came to me and asked me to write his book. And that's also about the same time that I wrote a book on President Clinton's legacy. And we called that an oral biography because I went around the country interviewing people about his legacy. And I focused mostly on his legacy with the Black community, because that was something that most people found just really amazing for a southern president who had been governor for many years, how did he nurture and create this relationship that he had.
0:04:54.0 Matt Waller: Well, let's talk about that for a moment. How did he do it? What happened there?
0:05:00.0 Janis Kearney: I can't explain it. It's like people asking my dad, "How do you explain living a 107-years-old, and producing 19 children who all, you know, were able to do a lot of the things they were able to do?" It just happened. But his was unlike what many people thought. Many of my friends who I met at the White House and in Washington, DC would say, "Now, is it real? Is it genuine? Was he like this always?" But he was. As long as I knew him, he was like it. And when I talked to people who knew him a lot longer than I did, they said the same thing. Now, did he realize that that would help him politically? Of course. He was a smart politician. But I don't think that took anything away from the fact that he genuinely had a connection with people who weren't like him, people who didn't grow up like him. There were very few people that I knew that was like that, but he was. In fact, as far as I could tell, and as far as many people that knew him better than I did, they believed that he was genuine in those relationships.
0:06:16.4 Matt Waller: You later wrote a book called, "Something to Write Home About: Memoirs of a Presidential Diarist".
0:06:24.3 Janis Kearney: That was a memoir about those years in the White House under President Clinton's presidency.
0:06:31.9 Matt Waller: Did you live in Washington, DC during that time?
0:06:35.8 Janis Kearney: Yes, my husband and I lived 10 minutes from the White House. We both worked at the White House. He was Director of Presidential Personnel, and I was the president's diarist for five years. But before that, I was Director of Public Communications for the US Small Business Administration. And when I first went to Washington, DC, I worked in the media affairs office at the White House.
0:07:01.1 Matt Waller: On a daily basis, what did you do as a presidential diarist?
0:07:06.4 Janis Kearney: As a presidential diarist, I was the chronicler of his presidency. My days were spent kind of shadowing him, shadowing his activities, keeping up with everything that was going on, what kind of policies were being enacted during his term, who did he meet with, I sat in on meetings, I travelled some with him, not always, but I travelled some with him. So I was a person who was responsible for chronicling, documenting the Clinton presidency.
0:07:44.4 Matt Waller: So I know you've been there, but the Presidential Library in Little Rock, I would imagine you must have had some input [chuckle] on...
0:07:53.3 Janis Kearney: Well, I started sitting on the meetings and I made my opinions known, but I don't think anyone had as much input as President Clinton. He wanted a library that was... Again, like he thought the White House belonged to the people. He wanted this library to be there for people of all persuasions, no matter where you're from, and no matter what level you are. So yeah, I think we all, because we believed in that too, I think we all had a part in that.
0:08:28.1 Matt Waller: Yeah, there's one section in that library that I really like. It's his presidency by year.
0:08:36.2 Janis Kearney: Mm-hmm.
0:08:36.3 Matt Waller: And it's focused on the international portion of what he was dealing with.
0:08:41.2 Janis Kearney: Mm-hmm.
0:08:42.6 Matt Waller: And it is so remarkable that the global change that was transpiring at that time...
0:08:50.4 Janis Kearney: Right.
0:08:51.9 Matt Waller: I would imagine it would be hard to keep up with all that as a diarist.
0:08:57.0 Janis Kearney: Well, gratefully, I was part of his Oval Office staff, and I had access to documents, and information, and talk to people, and sat in on meetings, so I had unbelievable access. But also I was given time to actually digest that and transcribe it after I'd sat in on meetings and all of that. But things were happening really, really fast. I tell people I had a front row seat at the White House, but to remember everything that was happening, I had to go back and look at what I had written down, of what I had documented.
0:09:39.5 Matt Waller: Well, back to Cotton Field of Dreams. Tell me a little bit about the inspiration for that book. And what are the key takeaways?
0:09:49.6 Janis Kearney: Inspiration was my parents, TJ and Ethel Kearney. All the gifts that they gave us without really knowing, I don't think that they were giving those gifts to us. The way that they raised us, creating people who could give back, find a way in our lives to give back. I don't think they ever thought of it like that, but that's what they did for all of us. And we have conversations often about that. And I wanted to write this book to say, "Thank you" to my parents for that. It was so hard. They raised 17 children. They were extremely, extremely poor. They were sharecroppers, my dad tried very hard to own land, but he ran into some of the same things we hear about from time to time, of poor Blacks trying to get land. So they sacrificed a lot to make sure that we were able to go to school. Several of my siblings went to the University of Arkansas. Several of my siblings left home early, went to prep schools, and then went on to Ivy League schools. We've just been extremely, extremely blessed, but also prepared by the way that my parents raised us. So that's really what that book is about. In spite of everything, they were able to pretty much create miracles.
0:11:20.1 Matt Waller: Yeah, that's remarkable. So, are you still writing?
0:11:24.6 Janis Kearney: Oh, yes, definitely. Right now, I'm working on a book on Mahalia Jackson, who was called the Queen of Gospel for many, many, many years, from New Orleans, once considered probably the best known American outside of people like Frank Sinatra and people like that. But she has an amazing story, amazing struggles, because she grew up in the priest of the rights era down in New Orleans. So her story is pretty fascinating and I'm writing that.
0:12:03.9 Matt Waller: How did you find out about her story? Or what got you on the idea of writing the book about...
0:12:10.3 Janis Kearney: Yeah, it's really strange because my husband and I lived in Chicago for a while, and that's where she lived for most of her adult life. And during that time we met and befriended the man who lived in her house, who had bought her house that she had lived in most of her life. And when he moved there, he found that she had left a number of her documents, a few boxes of books and documents and information. And he asked if I was interested in writing about her because he knew that I was a writer, and he shared that information with me. So it took me a while to go through it, but finally I did, and I was really just mesmerized by her story.
0:13:00.3 Matt Waller: So Janis, we really want students in the Walton College to write well. And I think the key to writing well is wanting to write well, if you've got the desire. 'Cause it's hard work. Would you mind speaking to that a bit?
0:13:18.2 Janis Kearney: Sure, sure. And my love for writing, it comes from being around people who were great communicators. But I think the first thing for someone who isn't a natural writer is how important it is to communicate, how important it is to get your thoughts across to the person who's reading what you're writing. And it makes all the difference in the world and how people perceive you when you write well, when you string a sentence that makes perfect sense, or even inspires the reader. So writing is so very powerful, it is extremely powerful. And if I wasn't a natural writer, if I didn't feel like God had given me a gift to write pretty well, I would take writing courses. I would go to presentations by writers and learn what I could about writing, because it's powerful no matter what you do in life. It really speaks to who you are and how well you think. So I advise whatever courses people are taking, whatever you plan to do for the rest of your life, make writing really a part of it.
0:14:34.9 Matt Waller: I wouldn't say I was a natural writer by any means, but I did want to improve. And I also enjoy reading, and so sometimes I would be reading... This has been true for, I guess, a lot of my life, and I'll come across a paragraph or a sentence that you can tell is well written, inspiring, powerful, memorable.
0:15:00.0 Janis Kearney: Mm-hmm.
0:15:00.1 Matt Waller: And I would stop, and look at it, and think about it. And I think to this day, I have certain patterns I've developed in my writing, that come from some of these paragraphs and sentences I've dwelled on. Even sentences, some of the most powerful sentences that I have read in books are quite short.
0:15:19.9 Janis Kearney: Mm-hmm, and some of the worst are quite long. [chuckle]
0:15:22.6 Matt Waller: Yeah. [laughter] That's a good point. Yeah, every now and then you read something, you're like, "What does this mean?" You know?
0:15:32.6 Matt Waller: But that's part of the hard-work of writing, isn't it? Like taking those sentences and say, "Okay, I'm not satisfied with this." There's a lot of art to it.
0:15:43.3 Janis Kearney: Yes.
0:15:43.7 Matt Waller: And a lot of creativity.
0:15:47.5 Janis Kearney: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. You're completely right. And one of the things I always tell writers is, yes, you write for yourself. That's the first thing writers are told. Write for yourself. Write what makes you happy. But if you're writing and you need someone else to understand what you're saying, if you need to inspire someone, then you're not just writing for yourself. So you really need to make sure that you are getting your point across as effectively as possible.
0:16:20.0 Matt Waller: Janis, would you mind telling us a little bit about how your education has prepared you for life?
0:16:28.6 Janis Kearney: Well, I would say that... I can't say that every class I ever took at the University of Arkansas, I've used in my everyday living. But I can say the experience of attending the university, this environment of knowledge, acquiring knowledge, meeting new people, learning new cultures, learning about myself, things that I didn't know about myself, that whole experience, I don't think you could duplicate it. I could have duplicated it anywhere else. So the university or that experience of education has stayed with me throughout my life. In every day that I do whatever it is I do, write or speak or whatever, I'm using something that I gained from my education at the university.
0:17:28.6 Matt Waller: Janis, thank you so much for taking time to visit with us. And I think your podcast interview will inspire students to try to develop their writing skills further. And thank you for the contributions to mankind you've made through your work and your writing. I really appreciate it.
0:17:49.9 Janis Kearney: Thank you, thank you so much.
0:17:54.5 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be Epic podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching, "BeEpic podcast", one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now be epic!