What Amy Krouse Rosenthal taught me
I first connected with Amy Krouse Rosenthal when I sent her an email in the late summer of 2009 to tell her how much I had enjoyed one of her books.
You may have heard Amy’s name lately. She was the Chicago writer whose essay, “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” became a sensation after it appeared in The New York Times in early March. Nearing the end of her journey with ovarian cancer, she composed what amounted to a dating profile for the man to whom she had been happily married for 26 years.
By the time Amy died on Monday at 51, millions of people had read the column, which, like all of Amy’s writing, celebrated the world’s small delights (taster spoons, pancake breakfasts) and the preciousness of love and life.
On Amy’s website, she called herself “a person who likes to make things.” By any measure, she made a lot of things. She wrote 28 children’s books — whimsical, creative, clever — and two idiosyncratic and inventive memoirs. She created uplifting, homemade videos (in one, she had bystanders cheer for commuters exiting a train at day’s end as if they were marathoners), delivered TED talks and loved visiting kids at schools.
All of her work inspired two reactions: (a) it made you start noticing little things and moments and appreciating them in new ways, and (b) it made you want to be friends with Amy.
Both of those explain why I felt compelled to email Amy to tell her how, while reading a library copy of her memoir “Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life,” I had noticed a smudge at the bottom of a page. Looking more closely, I saw that a previous borrower, after accidentally smearing mascara there, had penciled a note to future readers because she “thought it was in line with this book to write about it.”
Amy didn’t respond immediately, but a few days later, at a shivah, I ran into my friend Julie, who had relocated from Los Angeles to Chicago. Knowing that I was a writer, she immediately asked if I had heard of Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Had I heard of her? I had just written to her!
Julie told me she was helping Amy with a movie project, a sort of crowd-sourced create-a-thon called “The Beckoning of Lovely.”
When Amy finally replied to my email, she had learned through Julie that I had once been a writer at People magazine. In her note, Amy expressed — in the gentlest and least self-promoting manner possible — how wonderful it would be if People ran a story about her film project.
It was less a pitch than a prayer. “That’s my little note,” she wrote, “scribbled down in earnest, placed in a small metal tin, and buried in the ground that is cyberspace. Thanks for listening.”
I politely explained that I didn’t work at the magazine anymore, and since the movie was in its early stages, it probably wasn’t ripe for a People story just yet.
You’d think that would be the end of it, but it was just the beginning of a lengthy exchange of emails, one writer to another.
Amy asked what I’d been working on lately. I told her I had just sent out a proposal for my own memoir, about my son Ezra, who has autism. Amy kindly offered to introduce me to her literary agent. I told her that what I could really use was help with an idea Ezra himself had, for a children’s book.
She asked if I was comfortable sharing the idea. I did, and she wrote back almost immediately: “i love this idea. and i love the serendipity that just happened 10 minutes ago at lunch. i have to talk to you.”
I phoned, and Amy told me she had just come from a fruitless brainstorming session with Tom Lichtenheld, the illustrator who was her creative partner on many books. Ezra’s idea was just the kind of thing he was looking for. So she connected me with Tom.
That conversation led to a collaboration. Soon Tom was at work on a children’s picture book based on an animated video called “Alphabet House” that Ezra had created at age 12.
On my book tour, I was about to start a reading at a suburban-Chicago bookstore when a petite woman with red hair approached me to introduce herself. It was Amy. I can still picture her, standing in the back through the whole event, a big, supportive smile on her face.
I learned later that Amy’s life was full of the kinds of coincidences I had experienced. Another mutual friend first met her when they struck up a conversation in a Miami bookstore. It turned out they were both Jewish writers who lived in the same neighborhood and belonged to the same synagogue a thousand miles away, in Chicago.
I’m not sure that these things happened to Amy more than to the average person. She was just more open to them. And more open in general: to people, to connection, to inspiration, to whimsy.
Still, it was difficult to fathom how a person could bring so many ideas to fruition. I often show my writing students a TEDx talk in which Amy explains how she utilized what she called the crevices of life, “those 20, 30, 40 minute interstices that dangle in the space between the real thing I just finished and the real thing I have to do next.”
Watching that lecture now, I am struck by one sentence Amy says: “It seems that tight parameters and small windows of time can yield the biggest results.”
They certainly did for her. In the last weeks of her life, facing, as she put it, “a deadline, in this case, a pressing one,” she penned the piece about her husband. Those 1,320 words generated far more attention than anything she had created in her five decades, making newscasts and headlines across the globe.
I couldn’t help but notice one small thing: an article under the headline, “A Wife’s Final Gift.” It appeared on page 53 of People magazine. If you scribble a note to the universe, your prayer might be answered. You just have to be open to it.
Tom Fields-Meyer, a Los Angeles writer, is author of “Following Ezra” and co-author of “Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism.” He teaches in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and assists individuals in writing memoirs.