Interviews / Journalists

Interview with Sarah L. Kaufman: “I just write until it feels time to stop.”

Sarah L. Kaufman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, author, journalist and educator. For more than 30 years, she has focused on the union of art and everyday living. As the chief dance critic and senior arts writer of the Washington Post from 1996-2022, she wrote about the performing arts, pop culture, sports, science and personal expression.

She is the author of the award-winning nonfiction book The Art of Grace (W.W. Norton), and a contributing author of Balanchine: Celebrating a Life in Dance (Tide-Mark Press). Sarah teaches in the Writing Program of Harvard University’s Extension School and is at work on her next book.

She was a Nieman Fellow, class of 2021, at Harvard and the McGraw Professor of Writing at Princeton University in 2018 as well as a visiting lecturer in the Humanities Council. Sarah is a faculty member of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and a co-founder and director of the Institute for Dance Advocacy and Journalism at the Kennedy Center, which trained college students in critical writing.

A former French-American Foundation Journalism Fellow at Le Figaro in Paris, and U.S. Senate Page, Sarah attended the University of Maryland and earned her MSJ from Northwestern University. Her first book, The Art Of Grace, was a Washington Post Notable Book of 2015 and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award Winner.

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Hi Sarah, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Your first book, The Art Of Grace, was a Washington Post Notable Book of 2015 and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award Winner. Can you talk a bit about what inspired you to write this book?

Hello, and thank you for inviting me! I wrote this book because, as a dance critic and chronicler of beauty and grace for some 30 years, I simply wanted to learn more about what moved me most. I wanted to deepen and broaden my understanding of all aspects of grace, and to follow them through time, cultures, geography and everyday life.

The more I contemplated why grace is so enduring and seductive, the more I sought to develop theories of grace, because I couldn’t find them anywhere. There are books on love, and books on beauty; books on civility and wellness—but where was the wide-ranging book on grace, on the social, physical and spiritual aspects of grace? The ordinary, everyday, you-and-me grace? This absence seemed odd, considering that grace underpins major religions, and it has been a prized quality in the arts since ancient times. Grace has been cherished as a character trait for centuries. What connects these different aspects of grace? How can we bring them all into our lives? 

But before I got to those questions, I had an “aha” moment that got me thinking about grace in general. I’ve always loved classic movies, and I decided to write an essay on the way actors moved and gestured in the films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In studying movies from that era, I realized that some of the legendary stars—Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and others—possessed something unusual. 

They had an elegance that seemed entirely natural. Watching them—especially Grant—the word “grace” just dropped into my mind. The beautiful way these performers moved, walked, leaned on the mantelpiece or conversed over dinner—their upright bearing and subtle body language expressed something about their inner qualities (or so they made us think!). Here was a dancer-like awareness, embodied by non-dancers.

I became very excited about the whole notion of grace, and this drove me to ask more questions, especially about the social and spiritual aspects of grace. How do they relate to the physical? Is grace inherent, or can it be learned and acquired? Pursuing this research was a great challenge, and a great pleasure.

In the book, you examine the concept of grace in a wide range of contexts, from sports and movies to fashion and music. Can you share an example of a particularly surprising or unexpected instance of grace that you discovered while researching for the book?

Inclusiveness impresses me the most. As a somewhat shy person, I put a lot of value on this, because social settings can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming to me. I write about one night in a cramped, dark dive bar in New York, where the band was terrific but no one was dancing and it was too loud to talk. Everyone was slumped on stools or against the walls; the dance floor stood empty. 

Then a trio of strippers showed up, like the Three Graces. They trailed chiffon and feathers; they sparkled and mingled and ultimately they coaxed the crowd to dance. Folks who’d wandered in alone, groups who clung together in the corners, those who’d felt inhibited—suddenly we were all moving to the music like one great body. These fearless ladies modeled ease, freedom and tolerance. They transformed the whole scene with a gentle magic. Yet it wasn’t magic at all. It was the redemptive power of inclusion, melting away the hard edges.

You discuss the importance of small acts of kindness and elegance in our daily lives. Can you give us an example of a small, everyday moment that exemplifies grace, and explain why you find it significant?

I was recently laid off from my job at the Washington Post, amid a series of cuts that included the entire Sunday magazine staff, the KidsPost staff that catered to young readers, and other talented writers, editors, artists and photographers. It was bewildering, to be sure—devastating for readers and for the arts sector in particular. But the kindness we all received! Astonishing. Personally, I’ve been overcome by the generosity and warmth of readers, colleagues, friends, dance artists and the whole arts community—just an overwhelming response.

One brief encounter stands out. A neighbor who was out walking her dog came up to me with a big smile and said, “Congratulations on your freedom!” She added a saltier postscript I can’t repeat here, but it made me laugh so hard I could scarcely breathe.This was such a refreshing, positive perspective, and she is absolutely right. Freedom. What a gift, and I’ve been enjoying it every day. I’m working on a new book. I finished writing the book of a musical with a friend.

I’m teaching a writing class for Harvard’s Extension School and planning new courses. I have more book ideas I’m eager to dive into. I’m busier than ever, and every day I do what I love most: writing. Life has worked out beautifully, and my neighbor’s graceful message about freedom inspires me every day.

In The Art of Grace, you explore the role of grace in social situations, such as hosting a dinner party or navigating a difficult conversation. What advice do you have for readers who may struggle with social grace, and how can they work to improve in this area?

I rely on rehearsal. You can’t anticipate everything, of course, but in advance of an event I try to think of a few things to talk about with the people I’ll see. Are there connections I can make, or questions to ask about family or recent travel, anything that’s not too personal? Preparation works for me—this is what I learned as a dancer, as a reporter and as a critic. 

I love to host intimate dinner parties, and when I’m thinking about the menu I always plan one or two items I’m super comfortable making. A new recipe will give me stress. I learned this from a professional chef who I feature in my book: If you want to experiment, try a new appetizer or two. But the main meal should be dishes you know you can nail. Then you’ve got your safety net on the back end, so once you get through the very beginning—taking coats, offering a drink and a nosh—you know you’re headed to your comfort zone. 

I approach difficult conversations similarly. I rehearse in my mind what I’ll say, what the response might be, how to fine-tune my part to emphasize true openness, patience and respect. Most people like to be helpful. Appeal to that impulse. As a reporter I learned to frame questions about difficult areas as an appeal for help: Can you help me understand …? I’m curious about …? Then simply listen. It’s important to be curious, to seek to understand.

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As a faculty member of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and a co-founder and director of the Institute for Dance Advocacy and Journalism at the Kennedy Center, you are passionate about training the next generation of writers. What is the most important piece of advice you give to your students?

I always tell them that you have to start somewhere. Everyone was a novice once; enjoy the beginner mentality. It is precious. Don’t let a perceived lack of experience stop you. Research, read, watch and listen all you can. Most importantly, write with honesty and empathy for everyone—and for yourself.

Your work has been featured on national radio and television, including NBC News, CNBC, The PBS NewsHour and On Point with Tom Ashbrook. How does it feel to have such a wide reach, and what role do you think journalism plays in shaping public discourse?

I’m very grateful for the steady interest in my work. I think the topic of grace— and how to get along— is eternally intriguing. 

Journalism has a large public influence, of course, but increasingly there are other ways to spread information. What journalism from time-tested, respected news sites offers is something like a seal of approval. I say “something like” a seal, because it’s not a guarantee, of course. But readers can expect some measure of accuracy and professionalism from the major news sites, given their history, mission and standards. When we rely on other sources—social media and so on—we need to be smart and question the methods and agenda behind the information.

You were the first dance critic in 35 years to win the Pulitzer Prize. Can you describe the moment you found out you had won, and how winning this award has impacted your career?

I was on assignment in Jackson, Miss., when I found out. I was there spending several days with the members of a dance company called Ballet Magnificat, which is the nation’s oldest evangelical Christian ballet company. They are passionate, hard-working people and fascinating artists who create all original works and have a large following, and getting to know them and their audiences was a profound experience.

Just after the last performance, I was waiting in the theater for the dancers to come out and show me their tour bus, when I got a call from the Post’s executive editor. I couldn’t tell anyone except family until the next day’s official announcement, so I ran outside to call my husband, hiding behind a tree so I could jump around a bit.

I finished up my interviews, went to dinner with one of the directors, got very little sleep and flew home the next day just in time for the celebration at the newsroom. It was exciting, for sure. There’s been an impact, of course, primarily in raising the profile of dance writing, and that’s given me more opportunities to shine the light on extraordinary artists and their lives.

Can you tell us about your writing routine? What does a typical day look like for you?

I like to write first thing in the morning, after coffee, when the day lies open and waiting. I don’t aim for a specific word count; I just write until it feels time to stop. My body tells me when I’ve been sedentary for too long. That’s when I take a two-hour pause to swim— it’s soothing, invigorating and meditative, and it’s the best time to think over what I’ve written and take new perspectives. I take care of emails and other random things mid-afternoon, and then go back to writing for a while, or researching for a new section. Before I leave, I list what to work on the next day. I always read before going to bed—that feeds my writing in subtle ways and returns my thoughts to what I’ll work on in the morning.

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

I’d like to take a long walk with Katherine Anne Porter. She’s vastly underrated today, but her writing has a unique grace, ease and brightness. Sharp, clear brightness, like sunlight. She had a hard life and tackled difficult subjects—Nazism, war, tuberculosis, human aches and pettiness—and writing-wise, she was a perfectionist while struggling to make a living. I’d like to know how she managed her time. Mostly I’d want to listen to her views on creativity and the human condition and supper, too. We’re both from Texas, so we have that in common.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?

I’m reading a wonderful book called Encounterism: The Neglected Joys of Being in Person by Andy Field, an artist and writer based in London. His mission is to create encounters between strangers—isn’t that wonderful? And scary, just a little bit, though his point is to move beyond that. His book is beautifully written and terrific fun. I’ve just finished All the Available Light, a collection of essays about Marilyn Monroe. I never tire of watching her best films nor of reading about her. I’ve always got a novel on hand; most recently it was Margaret Atwood’s Bodily Harm. I’ve also been on a music kick, reading biographies of musicians. The last was a juicy analysis of Stevie Nicks’ songwriting, Mirror in the Sky, by Simon Morrison

It occurs to me that there’s a common thread here, with Katherine Anne Porter, Marilyn Monroe and Stevie Nicks—groundbreaking women who enjoyed varying degrees of fame but who haven’t been recognized as much for their creativity, for the depth and originality of their art.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

I’ve converted a small sunroom into my office; the light is lovely. I like the intimacy, and being surrounded by books and old family things from generations past.

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