Books are the most intimate form of communication.
As part of my series about “How to write a book that sparks a movement” I had the great pleasure of interviewing Ali Wenzke.
Ali Wenzke and her husband moved ten times in eleven years, living in seven states across the U.S. Now, she helps the millions of people who move each year by providing practical tips on how to build a happier life before, during and after the move on her blog, The Art of Happy Moving. Ali is happily settled in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and three children. She doesn’t plan on moving any time soon. THE ART OF HAPPY MOVING: How to Declutter, Pack, and Start Over While Maintaining Your Sanity and Finding Happiness is her first book.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the “backstory” about how you grew up?
Thank you for having me. Let me start by saying that I never imagined I would become a “moving expert.” I was born and raised in Miami, Florida, and I only moved once (to a house nine miles away) before going to college in Massachusetts. Then, after college, my husband and I moved ten times in eleven years. We moved from Massachusetts to Maryland to Ohio to California to Illinois to Tennessee and back to Illinois. We didn’t plan to zig-zag across the country, but we followed our dreams and that’s where they took us. Although it sounds like a lot of moves, it’s not that unusual. The average American moves 11.7 times in her lifetime.
What was the moment or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world?
My husband, Dan, and I moved from Chicago, IL, to Knoxville, TN, with our three young kids. We couldn’t wait to settle down in our “forever” home. Six months later, we realized we made a mistake. The city wasn’t a right fit for us, and I was lonely. For the first time in our many moves, it was surprisingly difficult to make friends. As someone who had moved before, I wasn’t shy about putting myself out there and introducing myself to strangers. It was so much harder this time, and I talked to other people who found themselves in the same situation — living in a new city, wondering where to find that first, good friend.
So, I started writing about the emotional aspects of moving. How do you make friends in a new city? How can you help your child through the transition when she feels like her world has been turned upside down? How can we make the most of the fresh start that moving offers? Thirty-five million people move in the United States every year. We should be talking about moving and how to help one another through this stressful and exciting life event.
What impact did you hope to make when you wrote this book?
I want people to know that they are not alone. There are 35 million people going through what you’re going through right now. If you’re worried about moving logistics or about your future or about building a new community, you’re in good company. Talk about it. Let people help you. Reach out to family and friends when you need them — before, during, and after moving day.
I’d love to create a national welcome wagon movement where everyone shows kindness to the new person at work or at school or in the neighborhood. One small gesture makes such a difference, so let’s make that part of the conversation and let’s help each other adjust to a new place. We celebrate every other life milestone, so why not moving?
What moment let you know that your book had started a movement?
Since my family and I moved so often, decluttering became a way of life for us and I needed to find a way to make it fun for my three kids. That’s why I created “The Toy Store Method”.
This is how The Toy Store Method works: I gather all of the kids’ toys from around the house and then I arrange them by sub-category in our basement. There’s one section for Legos, another for Barbie dolls, and another for board games. Then, I invite my kids to go “shopping” for any toy they want to keep. They place a sticky note on the toy to “purchase” it. At first, the kids seem to pick every toy, but they start to lose steam and eventually a pile of toys gets left behind. Thanks for the happy memories, Elmo, but now another kid gets to love you.
My kids look at decluttering differently now. They don’t ask themselves, “What do I want to get rid of?” They ask, “What do I want to keep?” Reframing the question has made a difference and they love shopping at the toy store to see what toys they want to keep.
Readers from my blog started sending me pictures of their kids “purchasing” books and toys at theirtoy stores and it warmed my heart. Learning to declutter is a lifelong skill that will help kids when they go to college or when they move into their first apartment.
What is the most moving or fulfilling experience you’ve had as a result of writing this book?
I host family workshops where I help kids transition to a new school. At first, the kids look down at the floor. Their nerves are palpable. Then, we practice body language and ice breakers, and we do some role play. After some fun games, the kids giggle and start to feel more comfortable with one another. In less than an hour, the workshop transforms the kids. Instead of fear in their eyes, I see confidence.
After one of my workshops, two eight-year-old girls ran up to me with wide grins. They gasped to get each word out, “We’re both eight AND we’re going to the same school AND we have the same teacher.” They tried to contain their bounces. I glanced at the moms as they watched their daughters. They smiled with relief and I knew what they were thinking, “Everything is going to be okay.” As I left the workshop, the moms planned a playdate and the girls talked non-stop about what they would do together at their new school. This is why I do what I do.
Can you articulate why you think books in particular have the power to create movements, revolutions, and true change?
Books are the most intimate form of communication. The reader commits to spending a few hours with a book, curled up on the couch or lying in bed. It’s just the reader and the book — no ads, no “likes,” no audience influencing the enjoyment of the book. As a reader, the words in a book speak directly to us and every book seems to find us at the time we need it most. Whether we search for advice, solace, or diversion, the books we choose provide that for us. Books can create true change because they touch us when we feel most vulnerable — in a private place, alone, and with our own thoughts.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a bestselling writer?
For Mother’s Day, my daughter covered my office door with drawings of me writing that included inspirational messages. One poster she created read, “One more hour writing, one more mover helped.” I write every day and I take chocolate breaks when I need them, but it’s this idea that I’m helping someone that motivates me to write.
I write because I know how stressful moving can be. When I meet with people about their moves, I offer advice, but more importantly, I listen. There are usually tears involved. Since I can’t meet with every person who moves, I started a blog and wrote a book. When I write, I try to answer the question, “How can I help?”
What challenge or failure did you learn the most from in your writing career?
One challenge of being a writer today is the emphasis on social media. Being the nerdy writer that I am, I went to the library and studied books on how to Tweet and how to start an Instagram account. It took me several days to do what a twelve-year-old could do in minutes. I finally got the hang of it after a steep learning curve.
There are some aspects of social media that I love, such as meeting new people and connecting with readers across the world. On the other hand, spending time on social media is time spent away from writing and the people in my life. It’s a balance that I’m still trying to figure out.
Many aspiring authors would love to make an impact similar to what you have done. What are the 5 things writers needs to know if they want to spark a movement with a book?
To spark a movement you need to:
1. Not expect to spark a movement
Before you start writing, consider your goals. Do you want to be on The New York TimesBest Sellers list? Do you hope to land a movie deal so you can walk away from your day job? In order to spark a movement, those dreams can’t be your primary goal. You need to write because you care, because you are passionate about whatever you are writing about. You can’t guess what readers or the market will want. You must find satisfaction in knowing that your story has been written and that you shared what matters to you most — regardless of the book’s commercial success.
2. Be authentic.
To spark a movement, you need to be you. Let’s take Marie Kondo, for example. Kondo blesses a home before she starts to tidy it. She talks to clothes and books to thank them for being a part of her life. Kondo squeals when she finds an item that sparks joy. Her authenticity is endearing and none of us could imagine Marie Kondo without these details that make her who she is. Be authentic and your passion will get others passionate.
3. Find a way to help others.
To spark a movement, you need to help others. How are you trying to make the world a better place? Before Marie Kondo, you might not have thought that tidying could change lives. Before The Art of Happy Moving, you might not have considered that people need help with their moves. Tidying and moving are not sexy topics, but these are the ways that Marie Kondo and I thought we could make a small difference.
4. Connect with other people in your field.
To spark a movement, you can’t do it alone. Reach out to others in your field and connect with them in person or on social media. When I started to write about moving, I connected with Move for Hunger, moving companies, realtors, home stagers, and others involved in the moving industry. I soaked in their expertise and we helped each other as we tried to achieve the same goal: to make moving a happier experience. Whatever your passion is, find others who share your commitment to the cause.
5. Listen to your readers.
To spark a movement, listen to your readers or your clients. This movement is about them, not you. If you do community events or are active on social media, listen to what people want to know. As you build a platform, you can be the voice of the people who want your help. Provide them with the information and stories that they need to make their day better.
The world, of course, needs progress in many areas. What movement do you hope someone (or you!) starts next?
I hope for a movement where we connect with other people face-to-face, because we need strong social relationships to feel happier and healthier. Even though we know relationships are vital to our well-being, we still spend hours on screens each day and only minutes socializing with friends.
Many communities host screen-free weeks to remind kids that bike riding with friends or reading with mom can be more rewarding than an afternoon playing video games. I wish we had a similar movement for adults where we all put our phones away for one week. People would talk to each other at school pick-ups or in the grocery check-out line. We would invite friends into our homes instead of clicking “like” online. We would recognize there was someone new at school or at work, and we would make an effort to welcome them into the community. Instead of staring down at our screens, a smile or a kind word would make everyone’s day a little better.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for these insights. It was a true pleasure to do this with you.
Thank you for having me!
About the author: Sara is an author and writing coach with a private practice in Chicago. She has appeared in Oprah, Good Morning America, NPR, The View and Katie Couric. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tri-Quarterly, Good Housekeeping, Parenting, IO Literary Journal, and Psychobabble. Her first book Bringing In Finn was nominated for ELLE magazine Book of the Year. www.saraconnell.com