Photography by: Dana Veraldi
Amy Woodside is the founder of OKREAL, a website offering inspirational advice and mentorship to women at all stages of their life and career. Like OKREAL itself, Amy is very much a real talk kind of person. She is both kind yet direct, an excellent listener, and willing to lend her wisdom to anyone who might benefit from it. Are you curious about the self-help genre? We are, particularly because it seems like a difficult and often misleading genre to navigate without prior knowledge. If there's one person I trust to give honest advice about how to dip your grey matter safely into the world of self-help, it would be Amy. Read on to find out more!
GAL: You used to write poetry. Do you still write?
AW: No, it’s a bummer actually. I don’t do any writing. Before I started OKREAL, I had always been a writer. Writing for myself, or writing little editorial or creative pieces here and there. I used to love reading and writing poetry though, and I haven’t done it in so long. It’s really sad, actually.
GAL: Do you read poetry?
AW: I don’t read poetry as much anymore. I love Charles Wright’s poetry. I got really into Anne Sexton for awhile. Eileen Miles has some nice poetry.
Girls at Library: What was the first book you fell in love with that turned you into a life long reader?
Amy Woodside: It is called The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. I read a lot of her books when I was a kid. I remember being so entranced. And then following that, the Little House on the Prairie books.
GAL: Do you ever re-read those kinds of books as an adult?
AW: When I went back to New Zealand this time around, I actually found (the books are still in my childhood home!) my Little House book and I started reading it. It’s so fun. I remember the whole series well but I only re-read the first book, Little House in the Big Woods.
GAL: That must be nice, going back home to New Zealand and seeing books you haven’t seen for awhile.
AW: I leave a lot of stuff in New Zealand. My diaries are in New Zealand. It’s cool because your mom isn’t going to throw away those books that have been there for years.
GAL: Does it feel like home when you go back?
AW: It feels like going home, yeah. I mean, this definitely feels like a home, and I call this place my home, but New Zealand is on a different level. Whenever I go home I’m reminded of this whole other part of who I am that has been lying dormant. You’re like, "Oh! Nature! Family! Mortality!" We just live in such a bubble in New York. Everyone is so caught up in their work, which in some ways is great because it fosters that ambitious side of who you are. Having the luxury of going back to New Zealand is so nice. It grounds me. It gives me such perspective on life.
GAL: What is the power of story?
AW: As a young girl you start to self-identify through reading. You're trying to figure out who you are, which sounds grandiose, but I think you latch onto these characters, and are like, I’m that girl! I’m her! Im her! You kind of create yourself with this measure, of what you read. As an adult, I think that learning from others helps you see yourself more clearly. I think that stories and fiction, again, help you figure stuff out, in a way that you can’t do on a conscious level.
I also think always desiring to learn is important, and having perspective is important, and reading grants you both of those things. Storytelling is the whole reason your world expands. Otherwise you live in a place that’s tiny.
GAL: How often do you read?
AW: Daily. More on the weekends. If I’m reading a novel, I’ll try to read once a day, sometimes I might go a week without reading. But if I’m stuck in a book – like right now I’m reading Marlena by Julie Buntin – I’ll read at least half an hour a day before I go to sleep.
GAL: Do you have a current or forever favorite book?
AW: I loved Lolita. I feel like that’s a clichéd answer, but I’ve always loved that book, so I’m sticking to it. Nabokov has such a lyrical way of writing prose. So I would say that’s something I could re-read over and over again. I love Cheryl Strayed. I love Tiny Beautiful Things. But in terms of favorite favorite stuff, nothing compares to those books you read as a kid. I keep going back to those books – like Little Women. That’s a forever book.
GAL: Which character do you identify with most in Little Women?
AW: I always liked Amy. When the movie came out, she was this blonde pretty thing and I just wanted to be her! She ends up with the next door neighbor which was lovely. She was mischievous and a bit of a tomboy, plus she had my name. That means everything when you’re a young girl!
GAL: How do you choose the books that you read?
AW: I’ll read what people tell me to read. Angela [Ledgerwood] walked into The Wing the other day and was like, "Oh my god you have got to read this book, it's incredible! I’ve just finished crying on the subway!” so I downloaded it immediately. People who I respect and I trust whose opinion I value, and who are kind of like me in a way. If such a person tells me to read a book it’s probably a good one. Also, all of those lists we all look at. The New York Times bestseller list, all the lists.
GAL: Do you have a favorite bookstore in NYC?
AW: I live right by Mast books so that’s really nice. I actually love getting books on the side of the road in New York. I think it’s the magic of finding a book randomly in Washington Square park. You feel like you’re in the movie of your life. Also the Strand, and McNally Jackson.
GAL: Let’s talk about how much you love your Kindle.
AW: Oh my god, yes! I actually really miss reading real books because I haven’t done that in so long! But my apartment is bursting at the seams. It’s a hazard how many books I have in my space. There are also books in my husband’s studio in Brooklyn, and in New Zealand, so there are books everywhere. I had to get the Kindle for logistical reasons, and you know what, I blow through books because of it. I feel like I'm betraying the romantic side of me, but I don’t care because I read more. I don’t discriminate.
GAL: Why do you read?
AW: The escape. Not only that, but it’s an enriching escape. It’s such a good way to let go. Also, just for the joy of it.
GAL: We have a friend who has a “Sanity Shelf” dedicated to books she returns to again and again, to reread for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your Sanity Shelf?
AW: I think the things that make me feel my best are humorous books. I don’t usually read self-help books to figure myself out. I feel like I do so much of that with work, so if I want to feel better, I’ll read humorous books. Caitlin Moran’s book is a great example. She’s so funny. I think lightness is really important. Mary Karr, too. The Liars Club is a book I can get absorbed in over and over.
GAL: Tell me about your self help pile.
AW: I laugh about it. It’s funny, it’s such an interesting genre and I think it needs to be taken with a big grain of salt. I think that being objective about that kind of thing is really important. Some of it is helpful, some of it isn’t.
GAL: Do you think it can be a dangerous genre if you have a hard time being objective about it?
AW: Yeah. And I think that’s why with OKREAL I just have women tell me their stories. Advice and morale and all these kinds of lessons and wisdom come out of that, but it’s always rooted in real life. So I think that’s the danger in self help – you might have somebody who is essentially telling you one specific way to think or be. I think a successful writer is someone who can say “Look, this worked for me, but it might not work for you.” You have to be so careful I think. As both a reader and as an authority figure you have to be really careful.
GAL: Do you have a favorite self help recommendation?
AW: I love Cheryl Strayed. I think she’s a really smart, very real person. That’s what I find attractive about certain people. When somebody might have more of a polished façade, I am less likely to trust them. But Cheryl is great. I love the whole Elizabeth Gilbert, Renee Brown, Glennon Doyle Melton crowd. The title of Jen Sincero's You Are A Badass seemed a bit over the top / self-help-y when I first saw it. I completely judged it by its cover. However, I ended up reading the first two pages, loved it, and interviewed Jen for OKREAL as a result. Reasons not to judge a book by its cover.
GAL: Is there a book that you recommend to your OKREAL audience?
AW: We have a lot of creative people who join our mentor circles, and there are titles that frequently come up. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert is one. It comes up again and again. A lot of people also recommend The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. I recommend Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke.
GAL: Did you read Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love?
AW: I did and liked it, but from a different perspective. I liked it as a beach read, and I have nothing against easy reads, but Big Magic is far more substantial and helpful. I think Eat Pray Love felt a bit more basic.
GAL: Please name three books you recommend reading, and the reasons for your choices.
AW: Sally Mann, Hold Still—a beautiful story of womanhood, work, and the intersection of both.
Caitlin Moran, How to be a Woman. It's hilarious.
GAL: Any New Zealand authors you'd like to recommend?
AW: Janet Frame, An Angel At My Table—Autobiography of Frame’s life after a suicide attempt and being committed to a mental hospital / undergoing extensive electric shock therapy / was scheduled for a lobotomy when they realized she had won a literature award and cancelled it.
Katherine Mansfield, short story collections, Bliss & The Garden Party—died at 34 but did some beautiful work in her short life.
GAL: If you were to write your memoir, what would you title it?
AW: Ok so, I had to text my mother because I was like, what the heck do I say? Let me give you some backstory. I texted her saying, “Mum, if I were to write a memoir, what would the title be?” and she said “I Screamed and Screamed” which I thought was hilarious. Let me give you a little backstory. When I was a kid, I had a kidney disease and was really sick so spent a few years homeschooled and in bed. When I went to school, I was always performing and loud and talking and wanted to be the center of attention, so I decided to participate in a speech competition. I was only, I don’t know, maybe 6 or 7, and I wrote the speech about being sick. I stood up in front of the whole school and the opening line was “ I screamed and screamed.” It was about me surviving, and a little motivational story. So I think I have to stick with that. Also I won the speech competition!