Interview with Shanna B. Tiayon: “Writing begins in my head until I have a somewhat flushed out structure.”

Shanna B. Tiayon is a writer, speaker, and small business owner who focuses on promoting wellbeing and raising awareness of the ways people may infringe upon the wellbeing of others.

Her company, Wellbeing Works, is dedicated to helping build workplace cultures that prioritize employee wellbeing. Shanna’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including Pipe Wrench Magazine, Narratively, Long Reads, Yes!, The Guardian, and Food & Wine. Her writing has been recognized with several awards, including being a 2022 National Magazine Award Finalist and being featured in the 2020 Best American Travel Writing anthology.

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Hi Shanna, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, we’re so glad to have you here with us today! Can you tell us more about your experience as a National Science Foundation and Ford Foundation Fellow and how it has influenced your work as a writer and speaker?

I have two sides of my academic experience. One where I was deeply enriched as a grad student immersed in rigorous coursework, reading, thinking and researching – expanding my sociological imagination. The very same sociological imagination that fuels so many of my professional pursuits today, especially my business, writing and speaking. 

I write and speak on topics of wellbeing and the ways we may infringe upon the wellbeing of others and my company focuses on employee wellbeing. Most of my work focused on the ways we may infringe upon the wellbeing of others has dealt with race and racism in the U.S. My doctoral training allows me to explore this topic in nuanced ways, creatively interlacing truths about our society with narrative. 

Receiving both a National Science Foundation and Ford Foundation Predoctoral fellowship reaffirmed my belief in myself (that I was smart and capable) and eased some of the financial challenges associated with grad school (by lessening my Research Assistant hours). Ford also exposed me to other racial and ethnic global majority scholars doing interesting work, creating a critical mass of Black and Brown brilliance in one space. 

Your speaking topics often revolve around topics like mental health, stress, work-life synergy, and the impact of racism on wellbeing. Can you share a personal story or experience that has inspired or informed your work in these areas?

The other side of my academic experience is that there was a cost for my sociological imagination – my wellbeing. About three years into my doctoral program I realized I was in the worst mental and physical health of my life. 

In fact I had been feeling pretty bad for close to a year, but ignored it in an effort to push through the program and manage personal priorities. I had recurring gastrointestinal problems, unexplainable breakouts, constant lethargy, frequent low mood and body aches and pains. I consulted medical doctors and specialists and none of them could find anything physically wrong with me, it turned out my symptoms were a result of stress. 

It took me a year to nurse myself back to a state of physical and mental health and I vowed never to feel that way again. It was that experience that propelled me to care so much about wellbeing, not only my own wellbeing but the wellbeing of others in both personal and professional spaces. Life really is too short to accept feeling awful as the norm. 

You were a 2022 National Magazine Award Finalist and recognized in the 2020 Best American Travel Writing anthology. Can you tell us about a particularly memorable project or piece of writing you have worked on?

I really enjoyed the piece that was recognized as a Finalist in the National Magazine Awards for Profile Writing – If We Can Soar, in Pipe Wrench Magazine. The story was about a group of Black men in South Central, LA who raise and fly acrobatic pigeons – the Birmingham Roller.

I got the idea for the story after watching a documentary, Pigeon Kings, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the men. What kept going through my mind was why? Why of all the hobbies they could do pigeon fancying is what they chose. And from there like a ball of yarn my curiosity led me down one rabbit hole after another (I am a sucker for a good rabbit hole), until I’d spoken with about a half dozen of the men and fell completely in love with their stories.

Stories that they felt were, nothing special, but that were magical to me, especially set against the backdrop of what was happening in South Central at the time racially and politically. That’s what I like about narrative nonfiction, the ability to take something someone feels is nothing special and expose its extraordinariness. 

Can you share some tips for writers on how to manage stress and balance their mental and physical health while working on a writing project?

Stress is not necessarily a bad thing, the foundational definition of stress is our mind and body’s response to a demand for change. If we have the personal, physical, emotional, financial, etc. resources to respond to that demand for change then it likely will not lead to mental distress, but when we feel we lack the resources (think: enough time to meet a deadline, a key source for an article backing out or personal life gnawing away at your writing time) that’s when we set off a stress response that can lead to mental distress. 

The first step is awareness, being aware of your signs of distress and when you may be experiencing a stress response. Writers tend to be really good at being in their heads and being analytical about others, but less so ourselves. Our capacity to recognize a stress response when it happens can limit the amount of suffering it causes.

Look at my example of my grad school experience, I was suffering for over a year before I realized it. So check-in with yourself frequently to know how you’re doing at any given moment. Then you want to try to interrupt the stress response to put yourself back in control. Lastly, when possible try to flood your body with feel good hormones like serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins that counteract the negative impact of the stress hormones. I recently wrote an article for Greater Good magazine that provides more detailed guidance.

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

When I am actively working on writing a piece I spend a lot of time in my comfy chair in my home office staring out the window and people watching. For me writing begins in my head until I have a somewhat flushed out structure, then I put pen to paper (or more like fingers to keyboard). Sometimes my kids come into my office and see me doing this and they ask what I’m doing and I reply, “working of course!”. They give me the most confused look when I say that as if to say, “you call that work, looks more like sitting to me”, Lol! 

Once I have a basic structure in my head then I like to map things out. If it’s a particularly complicated piece I will use visual aids like whiteboarding, cork boards with small pieces of paper reflecting different parts of the story or key dates, scrap paper. I am notorious for sketching things out on scrap pieces of paper that later go missing. I want to be more electronic, but there is something about the tactile experience of writing that I can’t let go of, no matter how inefficient. 

Once I build it in my head, map it out in the real world in some physical and non-electronic way, then I start to write it on my laptop, building it out piece by piece and smoothing it as I go along. I like to do the actual writing first thing in the morning when my mind is freshest.

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

Hmmm, that’s a good question and a hard one. But a book that really shaped me as a writer and an individual was Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, this book really is my canon for narrative nonfiction. The book beautifully tells the story of three protagonists, connected only in that they participated in the Great Migration, motivated by a better life for them and their family. The story turns the mundane into a poignant critique of American history and a critical analysis of Black America.

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

I’m actually not reading anything terribly exciting right now. I did recently start taking a newspaper on the weekend as a way to control my intake of the news and what’s happening in the world, picking and choosing what I read, versus consuming the news and it has actually been fun. I’m reading about a variety of things that I would have otherwise not known.

But when I’m not reading books that help me in my business, I do have by my bedside David Goggins new book Never Finished (his first memoir is one of my favorites) and A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell (I’m interested in the craft of this book; which required the synthesis of a lot of data and interviews to create a narrative).

What does your current writing workspace look like?

One of my favorite places in my home is my office, because it’s the one space that is just for me. I can legitimately kick people out! Also, because I have a really comfy chair and ottoman that faces a bay window and a small table next to it, that usually has fresh flowers and a cup of something hot. I love that place and that is where most of my writing projects begin. 

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