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What Makes You So Smart, Writer and 'Nerd Musician'?

Noah Davis talks to Nicole Dieker about getting an education in rural Missouri, the specific type of smarts you need to be a freelancer, and reading the Time archive.
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(Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Dieker)

(Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Dieker)

Nicole Dieker always knew she was one of the smart kids. It's a role she has embraced later in life as a freelance writer and an "occasional nerd musician" who once uploaded a song to YouTube weekly for 100 straight weeks. She spoke to Pacific Standard about getting an education in rural Missouri, the specific type of smarts you need to be a freelancer, and reading the Time archive.

What was your schooling like growing up?

I lived in a number of different places. I was born in Portland. But I grew up in rural Missouri, in a town called Canton. There are 2,500 people there. I went to what's called a rural route school. They take all the kids who are within 15 or 20 miles and bus them in. I lived in town so I didn't get bused in, but the school served a large area and there were only 500 students in grades K-12. It was all one building.

It was a really interesting educational environment. I think we had more freedom than in other schools, but we didn't have too many resources. We had a microscope. [Editor's Note: Later, Dieker emailed to clarify: "Our school totally had more than one microscope. Not many more, but more than one."] I went to a school that was really small. I got a very good basic education there, but a lot of what made me smart I got from going to libraries, from talking to my family, from Internet happenings. It wasn't from junior high. I followed my own interests.

How encouraging were your parents in helping you to follow your own interests?

They were incredibly, incredibly interested. They both teach. My father is a dean at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, and my mom has taught piano lessons at the college level and out of the home. From the very beginning, they were both really, really, really, really into education. We were the sort of family where my dad would give me a math workbook at the beginning of summer vacation and expect me to have it finished by the end of the summer. They were very involved. It was very lovely.

It was a small school, so did you have intellectually curious peers?

The peers found each other. There was a small group of self-labeled "smart kids." We were probably small enough to count on one hand, but we were there. We did weird stuff that kids do. We made radio plays, reel-plays, and movies, you know? If we had had YouTube, we would have been the most amazing kids ever. I did have peers that were interested in reading, making things, and exploring, so that was pretty cool.

Did you feel like you were a smart kid?

Oh, I always knew that I was a smart kid. [Laughs.] There were evidence-based facts, like I came into kindergarten and already knew my colors and my shapes. In the first grade, I already knew how to read. I already knew math. It was like, "What am I doing here?" There was that. And then you start reading all these books. There are a lot of children's books about really smart kids, like the Anne of Green Gables books. You read them, and you think: "Oh, this looks like me. Therefore, I must be smart too." And then you start shaping your behavior to that because that's what smart kids do. They make up literature clubs in their classrooms. Smart kids put on radio plays. It's a cycle of what a smart kid does that you pick up on.

But yes, I always knew I was smart. There was no moment of discovery there. [Laughs.]

You have proudly embraced the nerd handle. When did you start feeling like a nerd?

Nerd is such a weird word because it means so many different things. I was told I was a nerd more than I discovered that on my own. I wasn't really socially awkward. I didn't have zero fashion sense or the other stereotypes about nerds. I was much more like a theater geek.

Now, saying you're a nerd is something different. I fall back on the John Green definition that means you're enthusiastic about life, enthusiastic about learning, enthusiastic about things. When that started being the definition of nerd, I was honored. Let's nerd it up.

What defines a "nerd musician"?

I sing about math and science and robots. I also play where nerds gather. I've performed at comic conventions. I've been at Wayward Coffeehouse, which is a Firefly-themed coffeehouse. That's pretty much it.

You're a successful freelance writer. I think being able to do that takes a certain kind of intelligence.

I think the idea that you can make connections very quickly is a key. My parents got the CD-rom of the entire Time archive when I was a kid, and I basically read the entire thing. I have this breadth of culture and knowledge that I've picked up. I can use that to connect people and events to stories. I already have the base level of "what is American culture" and then I build off of that. I think a lot of really good and successful freelancers and writers have. A lot of freelancing is about finding A and B and figuring out what makes them related.

What do you read these days?

I read a lot. My favorite thing is my Tumblr, and on my Tumblr, I have a mini series called "Stuff Nicole Reads," where I write little reviews of the books I read. I'm like four books behind. On my bookshelf right now, I have Patrick Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear (since I finished reading The Name of the Wind, the first book in his Kingkiller Chronicles), Lucy Knisley's graphic novel Displacement, Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist, Terry Pratchett's Dodger, and John Jantsch's The Referral Engine: Teaching Your Business to Market Itself.

Why freelance writing?

Mostly, because I'm very good at it and people pay me money. It's great. I love this career. I've tried other things that I have been reasonably good at but people haven't paid me as much money, so I decided if this is great, people are paying me for it, and they keep offering me more jobs, why not? I love it. I hope I get to do it for another decade and a half.

Who should I talk to next?

Next, you should interview Angela and Aubrey Webber of The Doubleclicks. They're a sister music duo who put out some of the most incredibly creative musical work I know. They're musicians, but what they do is more than "just music"; they combine music, video, crowdsourcing, and social media to create this continuous explosion of songs, shows, and ideas. Also, they sing about dinosaurs.

What Makes You So Smart? is an ongoing Q&A series.