We had the good fortune of connecting with Kelly Dawson and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kelly, what role has risk played in your life or career?
This sounds funny, but I enjoy taking risks — I think it’s the only way to see what I’ve made of, and on the flip side, to perhaps let others know my capabilities, too! When I’ve taken risks, I don’t necessarily see them as entirely negative. They can be scary, but I think the alternatives are usually worse. I’d rather be scared than frustrated, bored, or the most awful of them all, regretful. You know, as long as I don’t die.
I think anything outside of my comfort zone can be considered a risk, from the butterflies I get introducing myself to someone new, to traveling to places near and far, to doing something bananas like quitting my job to go freelance five years ago. That was probably the biggest risk I’ve taken in my life and career, since being self-employed is essentially like saying, “Hi, I struggle with work-life balance.” At the time, I felt it in my bones that I could make it on my own. I’d been writing for years at that point, had been an editor, and knew how the system worked from the inside. And more practically, I had a supportive network I could lean on to help me with everything from throwing assignments my way to proofing an email. I wasn’t necessarily ready, and I don’t think your career should move at the pace of being “ready.” But I identified the risk of venturing out on my own and thought, “Try me.” At my core, I am a competitive lil’ hustler.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I feel lucky that writing has been a consistent passion throughout my life — even when it’s not going that great, it’s still going well enough. I contribute to many national publications these days, for instance, I’ve written for Dwell since 2015 and Architectural Digest since 2017, but when I was just starting my career, I got plenty of passes. No one, seriously no one, wanted to hire me. Nevertheless, I continued writing for my local community newspaper (which I did throughout high school and college), and one day, the editor-in-chief asked me to cover for the architecture editor by attending a Dwell on Design event. I wrote the story and sent it to Dwell with the subject line “Hire me.” I thought the worst thing they could do would be to ignore it, but I got an email asking me to write something within the week.
I used to say to my mom, “If only one editor would say yes to me, I would show them what I can do.” A lot of being in the creative field is honing your craft, but a good chunk of it has to do with luck. It’s important to put your head down and work hard, but also, keep a lookout for risks that can pay off. Most of the time, you only need one person to believe in you. And when they do, don’t waste it.
About four years ago, around the same time that my career in design writing was gaining speed, I was also thinking of ways to get involved in advocacy work. I was born with cerebral palsy, and noticed how I didn’t have any connections with other disabled adults, nor did I see any disabled adults being portrayed for their average, everyday lives. When you don’t have an example of what your life could be, it’s hard to feel comfortable planning ahead. What are your options? Who do you go to for support? Who can tell you, ‘Here’s how it went for me?’”
At the same time, all of the wider examples I saw didn’t seem entirely accurate. I generally didn’t feel sad about my disability, but despair is usually what I encountered in shows and movies. I also didn’t feel like my comings and goings were an astounding difference from that of a non-disabled life, either, so feeling inspired by a disabled body moving through the world didn’t appeal to me. I earned a master’s degree from the London School of Economics in media communications in 2013, and focused my dissertation on disability representation, but I wasn’t doing much with it — other than personally feeling like my experiences were part of a bigger story. I found advocates who had been doing the work for a long time, like Emily Ladau, and they encouraged me to consider writing about my disability publicly. I should also say that my non-disabled friends, people who had listened to me speak about this privately for a very long time, were also on the same page. So I wrote an essay about how Anthony Bourdain pushed me to travel, even with cerebral palsy, and that started a new side of my career. Since then, I’ve written disability essays for publications like Vox and Cup of Jo, been a two-time guest host on the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, acted as a four-time guest editor for Refinery29’s Voices of Disability, and worked for Google on a disability-focused event. It’s been pretty cool.
I like to joke that I write about design in the morning and disability in the afternoon. I’m grateful to have this balance, since advocacy work can be tiring due to its vulnerability, and I’m excited to see what’s next. I had a lot of hesitations around expanding my career this way — I thought that if I spoke about being different, I would alienate readers and editors — but it actually made me a stronger writer and person. The best part is that many people have reached out and told me how they’ve felt seen in my words, or felt like they could better relate to a loved one who is disabled.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
The best and worst part about Los Angeles is that it takes a while to understand it. L.A. is huge — it’s 400 miles wide — so there’s no way to get a grasp of it quickly. In fact, there are parts of this city that I’ve never been to, and I grew up here! I love that L.A. evades a lot of its stereotypes just by that fact alone: It’s impossible to say that everyone here is vying to be a movie star, or that everyone lacks substance, simply because of its scale. You will find what you’re looking for here, or you will be pleasantly surprised.
I grew up in the South Bay, so that’s where I’m most comfortable. I think the Strand is a great way to get acquainted with life down here, so I would most likely start showing someone around with a stroll on this oceanside path. If we were in Hermosa, I’d start us off on 22nd Street at the Green Store to get coffees to go, and then we’d get breakfast downtown at the pier. If we were in Manhattan, I’d work our way up from that pier to Uncle Bill’s Pancake House, and a spot at the counter for pancakes.
When I travel, I like to pick two or three things I really want to do somewhere, and then everything else can be left to spontaneity. That way, the trip doesn’t become a checklist and I can have moments of just taking it easy. And in a place like L.A., you’re just not going to be able to do everything a guidebook says! I think Griffith Observatory is a mandatory stop at sunset when you’re showing people around L.A., and if it’s summer, then a visit to Dodger Stadium or the Hollywood Bowl is also a must. (The Greek Theater is great, too.) Grand Central Market is fun for an afternoon, and while we’re downtown, I think happy hour at Hotel Fig (find room for the tacos!) or the Ace (Best Girl!) is a solid bet.
As far as food goes, I am forever recommending Little Dom’s for dinner or Leo’s Tacos for a if-salsa-spills-in-the-car-who-cares feast. And if you’re renting a car, and let me tell you right now to rent a car, the best thing you can do is drive a long stretch of boulevard listening to KDAY somewhat late at night. If you absolutely need to see the Walk of Fame or the Sunset Strip, that’s how to do it.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I couldn’t be a successful writer without my mentor, Ann Friedman and the writers’ group she cultivated for a few of us lucky up-and-comers years ago. Having their support has undoubtedly bolstered my career, and made it possible for me to feel comfortable taking risks. Also, I have to say thanks to my forever work bestie, Megan Beauchamp. Everyone deserves someone like her in their corner—she’s just the smartest and coolest.
Other: My consulting agency is called At the Crosswalk, atthecrosswalk.com.
The lead image is by Laura Bertocci, the beach image was taken by me, and the image of me on the couch is by Megan Beauchamp.