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What Makes You So Smart, Creativity Cultivator?

Noah Davis talks to creative Oni Hartstein about reading, drawing, creating communities, and how a trip to Disney World changed her life.
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Oni Hartstein is one of the few people to get suspended from elementary school for cutting her lunch period to read in the library. She grew up to be a travel writer, comic, and supporter of creativity, helping found (Re)Generation Who, a Doctor Who convention, and Intervention, dedicated to online creativity. She talked about reading, drawing, creating communities, and how a trip to Disney World changed her life.

What was your education like growing up?

(Photo: Courtesy of Oni Hartstein)

(Photo: Courtesy of Oni Hartstein)

I didn't have a standard family. I was abandoned by my birth parents when I was several days old and raised by my grandmother. Education was always important to them, but we didn't have a lot of money. I didn't necessarily go to the best schools. Because we didn't have money for vacations or anything, I would go and read books. The library was huge for me. It was always said that I would go to college. It was a desire that my family always had, but only four out of my grandmother's 10 children went to college. [Editor's note: Hartstein considers herself one of her grandmother's children.] College was important, but the tools to do it weren't exactly easy to come by.

What did you gravitate toward in the library?

It's so funny that going to Disney World changed my life. I was able to see all the positive things. The optimism at Epcot that you can do anything you want. Something clicked.

At first, my grandmother brought me to the library because there was a summer reading club. When I got old enough, I would just go by myself. I was a shyer kid. Being able to go to a quiet place where no one was going to threaten to beat me up was huge. It was definitely more on my own. I would get in trouble in school because I would try to cut study hall and lunch to go to the school library.

That's not something you hear every day.

One time I actually got suspended for doing it. The librarian thought it was funny. A few of my friends and I who were doing it would help out in the library as well as just reading. We'd straighten books and tend to the library. It was a cool atmosphere that was supportive to us. She was on our side.

What were you reading then and how did your tastes change?

When I was little, I really liked the Dr. Seuss books. I grew quickly to liking Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl books. I would try to read the classics. I really loved The Three Musketeers and The Black Arrow. They were technically above my level but for whatever reason my family historically loved books. They would bet me that I could read Mark Twain or whomever. I really liked books that were engaging and had stuff about kids growing up.

Did you feel like you were smart when you were growing up?

I didn't, really. I actually was told the opposite constantly. Up until my mid-20s, I struggled with thinking things were too hard for me. People told me I was dumb every step of the way. I kind of wish that I had figured out that I was smart sooner, but I think because I figured it out later in life, it's easier for me to tell the next generation of kids that come to my events that childhood, growing up, and awkward moments are not forever. Somebody's opinion of you doesn't necessarily mean that you're dumb; it just means that you don't get along or that they think something different. It's been very easy for me to turn some people's opinions of themselves around, which is something I take a lot of pride in.

It's strange that people would tell a child who was reading advanced books that she was dumb.

I am legally blind without eye correction and for the longest time, my vision problems were not diagnosed. It would appear that I wasn't understanding things, but it was actually that I couldn't understand what they were saying. My vision problems are pretty complex, to the point where glasses don't correct them fully. That was mistaken for, "She just doesn't want to learn" or, "She's stupid." But really, I just needed to be closer to the chalkboard.

And you studied art at Carnegie Mellon.

I was in a pre-college art program. My high school art teacher believed in me and lied about my age. I was a couple years too young to be in the program, but she got me the full scholarship in there. It was supposed to be that you were a senior in high school, and I was a freshman or sophomore.

The intellectual capacity of Carnegie Mellon students is quite high. Did you feel like you fit in there even though you were so young?

I really liked it. Everybody was only a couple years older than me, so it wasn't too bad. Plus, I was really focused on doing the work. The teachers were great, and the opportunity was phenomenal. It wasn't a case where I was being scrutinized or micromanaged. I would go off on my own and do the drawing assignment, like going into a cathedral and drawing it. That gave me the time to really think through things and how to think about things. It wasn't just about doing the assignment like in high school. First, we would have to think conceptually. We had to think about why we were doing something and what those choices meant. That was amazing.

You went to college at Rutgers.

I went there for four-and-a-half years. I went for gender studies. I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do. They didn't have an art program in the main college. I'm more into cartooning and commercial art, and the art program they did have was more for modern and high-brow art. That's great, but it wasn't what I was looking to do. Also, you had to fully commit to that program and drop academics to do it. It's really hard to make a full-time living as an artist, so I wanted to make sure I could get a back-up job if I needed it. I stayed in the main Rutgers program. I actually did get an exception to go to their art school for a few semesters, but I ended up finishing with a gender studies degree.

That's an interesting combination.

It was a weird, tumultuous, not-sure-what-I-wanted-to-do time. I was still finding out who I was. I don't think I really became me until I was 28 or so.

What were some of the things that helped you become you?

Being raised in poverty made it really tough. I would have to make do with the less good stuff or borrow something from somebody else. Once I graduated and I had a job, I had more control of my finances. I could pay things off. I could actually breathe a little bit. That's really what made me settle down to the point where I didn't have to struggle as hard. I could focus on who I was as a person. I wasn't just an entry-level person. I was getting promotions and raises. I was starting to see that being positive and doing a really good job was working. It wasn't that I couldn't do things. I was definitely accomplishing them.

In 2008, I got a raise, and I went to Disney World. As funny as it is, the positive attitude that a lot of the cast members have there made a difference, even if they are told to act like that. I think I had gotten very depressed from how hard my life was. It's so funny that going to Disney World changed my life. I was able to see all the positive things. The optimism at Epcot that you can do anything you want. Something clicked. I said, "Whenever I feel sad, let's not be so pessimistic, and let's see what happens." Immediately, my life turned around for the better in every single way just because my attitude changed.

The Internet made it easier to find people who are interested in the same things. Do you think that's alerted how you approach creating and running the conferences and other things you do?

I do. It's definitely a lot easier than it was 10 or 15 years ago to start stuff like this. I don't want to guess where I would be without the Internet because it's been 99 percent of what has enabled me to reach people. In the old days, you had the gatekeeper. You had to have a record label, a TV show, or somebody packaging you. There's far more community. People are less focused on the fact that certain people have to be perfect. You see Vogue where everyone is perfect, and there's certainly an audience for that, but a lot of people sense that real authenticity is refreshing. They can tell that they aren't perfect and that they make mistakes. That's how we know you're one of us and how you can cultivate a better community by being yourself.

What do you read now?

Recently, it's been a lot of marketing books, sadly. I've gotten a job being a marketing manager so I'm trying to make sure I understand everything. I'm really into Sluggy Freelance, a Web comic that my friend Pete Abrams does. There's a comic called Skin Horse that I've just gotten from my friend Shaenon Garrity, who writes it, and I'm looking forward to digging into that. I haven't had a ton of time. I'm midway through Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. I started reading it and found it depressing, which I could have expected given the title. I have not read it in the last few weeks, but I'll probably pick it up next week and finish it. It's amazing. I love Vonnegut. I'm all over the place.

Who should I talk to next?

Nicole Dieker. She's a geek rock musician who blogs and shares about how she makes her money. She's recently moved into freelance writing and has done an amazing job at it.

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