Professional fiction writer Kate Reed Petty began teaching Creative Writing for Social Designers in Spring 2020. When she’s not writing or teaching, Kate serves as a communications consultant who specializes in working with civic and nonprofit organizations. As an editor, writing coach, workshop leader, and strategist, Kate has worked with organizations including Friends of the High Line, Women Make Movies, McCann Global Health, the Baltimore City Office of Sustainability, and the New York City Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity.
Her debut novel, entitled TRUE STORY, will be published August 4, 2020 by Viking Books.
What is design for social innovation?
During the incredibly first few months of COVID, I have felt so lucky to have been welcomed into the community at DSI. Working with the students and faculty over the spring 2020 semester has been a true inspiration—everyone has demonstrated the combination of hopefulness and practicality that I associate with the discipline of social design.
Design for social innovation takes two types of courage: First, the courage to envision a better world, and second, the courage to do the hard work of thinking through everything it takes to actually make change happen. Watching this community figure out creative ways to show up, to support each other, and to keep hope alive in the midst of a pandemic will be a touchstone for me for a long time.
What would you like to say to prospective students about the program & the course you are teaching?
The goal of the “Creative Writing for Social Designers” course is to give designers access to the power of creative writing so that they can more fully understand themselves as well as inspire audiences. We are working together through a set of techniques and exercises that build muscles for both of these goals—each student is writing a piece of creative nonfiction, for example, while also practicing with grant reports, research reports, and other, more-standardized professional documents. I’ve designed the course so that all students, no matter what level of existing skill, take the next step in developing both a personal and a professional writing practice.
Can you talk a little bit about your background and the work you do outside of DSI?
My career reflects the same resonance between professional and personal writing that I just described in designing the course.
Professionally, I’m a freelance writer specializing in social change organizations; I support clients in producing all kinds of content, from 280-page white papers to 28-minute TEDx talks to 280-character tweets.
On the more personal side, I’m a literary fiction writer. My debut novel, entitled “True Story,” is forthcoming from Viking on August 4, 2020 (and my publisher would like me to say that it is available for preorder now). “True Story” is a book about men, women, and the politics of storytelling. It traces the fifteen-year fall-out of a high school rumor about sexual assault; the novel switches genre and style as it goes, mirroring the way that stories and testimonies get pieced together into public narratives.
My novel is obviously very different from my professional work, but it does wrestle with the same question, and which I think is especially important for anyone working in social design: As a society, how do we make space and overcome bias so that we can truly hear everyone’s stories, and not just stories told by the powerful?
Can you talk in more detail about a project that you are working on?
As I’m getting ready to promote my novel, I’ve been working on a series of nonfiction essays about feminism, the #MeToo movement, and the politics of storytelling. For example, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of a “he said, she said” story—which is a kind of storytelling formula or pattern that, when overlaid onto the facts, often ends up distorting those facts, and shuts down the possibilities of justice.
But, it’s been very challenging to maintain focus on these pieces, as things with COVID-19 are changing so dramatically every day. It’s been therapeutic to work on writing exercises in tandem with my DSI students, as a way of processing what we’re all going through now.
If you could give one piece of advice to students starting DSI, what would it be?
In my class, I encourage everyone to develop a daily writing practice. Five days a week, students are writing by hand, either for 20 minutes or two full pages. It’s a surprisingly satisfying way of generating ideas, as well as of processing emotions and experience. It’s the most effective way to overcome writer’s block, and to write more quickly. The secret of writing is that it’s a little like jogging—it’s always strenuous, but it does get easier if you do it regularly.