Passion Profiles is a collection of real stories from people who love what they do. If you know someone who has a story to share we would love to hear from you.
Interview with an Author
On Being Present
Samantha Reynolds has made a priority of finding balance in her life. Her list of accomplishments, both personal and professional, is impressive: she is the mother of a young boy, has a second child on the way, is the president and founder of Echo Memoirs (a Vancouver-based company that writes personal and professional history books), and writes a poem a day for bentlily.com, a website she began after the birth of her son. It’s a dizzying array of responsibilities, and yet it seems perfectly suited to her impressive ability to carefully weigh and appreciate the important parts of her life. When we meet, she is present, dynamic, and kind, and she makes it clear throughout the entire interview that I have her full attention.
Balance is, in large part, the reason why she started bentlily.com two years ago, in the hopes of slowing down and noticing her life. To be present, as her website says.
“I had my son in September 2010, and started a poem a day in January. I would say, for me, the surprising ease of doing it every day is that the stakes are low. When I’m doing something every day, it’s like okay, here’s my ten to fifteen minute window, and if it’s not Pulitzer Prize-winning, then there’s always tomorrow. So it’s not this pressure to do something remarkable, and yet the body of work at the end of my life will be a behemoth. I’ve always been really clear with bentlily, although I love to write, it’s actually less about the writing of the poem, and more about the process of just noticing my life. That’s the bait that gets me to remember to notice my life more often, during the day, knowing that I have to squeeze some sort of observation out at the end. I actually don’t think too much about the quality of the work. I feel almost always satisfied with the fact that I’ve juiced out an observation from the day. My husband always laughs, because he’s a writer as well and a really thorough editor, like, ‘You’re going to read it again?’ You know? Whereas at Echo Memoirs, doing these full, multi-year long projects, our Creative Director would strangle me if he heard me say that. But with the daily poem, the feeling is the satisfaction of noticing something that day, especially as a new mother.”
This emotional touchstone is contrasted by the magnitude of her career, as she runs a multi-million dollar company. Echo Memoirs takes the history of individuals and companies, and crafts them into beautiful tabletop books. Projects can take months or years, and the final product is beautiful and personal.
“We didn’t spend that long on each project when I started the company in 1999. They were much shorter, smaller projects; wedding books, tributes to people’s kids. We still did biographies, but they were much smaller in scope. It fairly quickly became clear that that wasn’t quite fulfilling enough, that I wanted to dig in and just get deeper into our clients’ lives, the fabric of their emotions, the backstory. That takes time. Of course that takes money, and so our budgets went up, so that’s been an evolution of earning the privilege of now saying to a client, ‘To do our best work, we need about eighteen months to two years.’ And it’s not for everyone, it’s a big investment, but we will pour our souls into curating your life, to create the most compelling story of your life or your company’s history. I’m really passionate about giving other people the inspiration and the tools to start capturing these things. The catalyst for me was missing the chance to get my grandmother’s story; she went into dementia but she didn’t die for ten years. I’m a bit of a missionary when it comes to encouraging people to the immediacy of getting your father’s reflection on his first job, or whatever.”
With projects that require such an emotional investment, and take a considerable amount of time, I ask her about the days that inspire her, and validate the choices she made in her career.
“I love pitching to potential clients, being in a room or even on a call, with someone who’s keen enough on the idea that they’ve invited the conversation. For me it’s this wondrous discovery process, where I get a charge from re-explaining what we do for first-time ears. It’s a way of reminding me why I started this. It’s this discovery process of ‘What’s the story you’re telling?’ and ‘Who are you? What are some of the flashpoints in your life that you really want to draw attention to?’ It’s that moment, it’s the first date, this person is so fresh and new and I don’t know anything about them.
For the insatiably curious mind, I’m never intimidated by that, it’s thrilling.”
The way she speaks about her business and her life, she is driven by a passion that certainly has a direction, and so I ask how she wants Echo Memoirs to grow in the future.
“I’m really happy with where we are. In terms of the type of work that we do, I think for right now, I feel the luxury of the time that we have earned the right to ask for, and so I don’t feel yearning for more time or bigger budgets. What would be interesting, as we look ahead to the next decade, is whether we will need to shift to more digital products. Whether it will become so common to read on Kindles that people will have less of an appetite for paper. To date there hasn’t really been a good solution for coffee-table books that are visually rich. Do we want to stay old-school, or keep up with tech-progress?”
“Bentlily is a victim of my unrelenting ambition. I find it hard to do things on a small scale. What started as a very private, personal project to keep me engaged with my son in his first year of life, and kind of savouring the experience, became quickly this public, somewhat ambitious project. So I’m aware of my propensity as an individual and as an unapologetic entrepreneur. I just have to rein it in, a little bit, in making sure it stays true to the roots of why I started it. I have my own ambitions for it, but I want to make sure it’s very aligned with the original intention, which is to keep me savouring the moments of my days. When it has occasionally veered into, ‘Okay, how do we build more traffic?’ I’m quick to bring it back. I have done a book, and I will continue to do a book of a collection of poems every year on a limited edition basis, and I think there’s a bigger market out there for the poems, and that’s one of my goals. But I just have to keep it a little bit in check with the real soul of it, because it’s the risk of being too ambitious, as it maybe gets away from what originally made me happy. It’s important to me to keep Echo Memoirs a little bit reined in, to that degree too, that for me, running a company this size is really fun, but running a company twice this size wouldn’t be as fun. There’ve been times when I put the brakes on the growth of the company and said ‘I don’t think we’re quite ready to grow so fast.’ That said, late at night when you’ve just put your kid down, and you’re tired and nauseous because you’re pregnant again, it’s tempting to just go to bed. But it’s motivating to have a few thousand readers that appear to be hungry for your next poem. It’s nice to build that audience. That’s the balance. It’s as much about the poem as it is about noticing your life. Slowing the pace down, and I think that’s the art of happy parenting. I’ve always been a crap meditator, and this is my meditation, to force that savouring.”
We finish, and she speaks graciously of the interview, and smiles warmly as I fumble with the camera. Although she was not distracted at all while we spoke, I get the impression that as soon as I leave she will be immediately returning to a project that she had been working on when I arrived. As I walk away, I find myself noticing little details around me, unconsciously mimicking the philosophy of Samantha Reynolds: when life is filled with responsibilities, always be present.