Teresa Leo has enough material for 10 impressive resumes. There is no street on the Philadelphia literary map that she hasn’t covered, from columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer to editor of the Painted Bride Quarterly. And now, after 10 years as a technical writer for Penn’s Information Systems and Computing, she’s lending her creative energy to Penn’s literary arts hub, the Kelly Writers House, helping put together a jam-packed schedule of 150 programs per semester.
Leo, who stepped in this year as acting director while Director Kerry Sherin is on leave, is no newcomer to the Writers House. She’s been volunteering on the Writers House Planning Committee since its founding in 1995.
We caught her during one of those rare pauses at the Writers House and asked her about what drives and inspires her.
Q. How did your interest in writing come about?
A. I started writing at an early age, even before high school. I can remember [being] 7 years old, scratching things down in a notebook and always loving English in school. I come from an immigrant Italian family, and there were a lot of storytellers in the house. My grandmothers had some great stories of their lives, things that they did and coming over to this country.
Q. What are some of the recent writings you’ve done?
A. The most recent thing I was working on was some essays about a trip I took to Vietnam in February of 2000. It was an amazing experience there. The trip I took was backpacking from Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City] to Hanoi, pretty much taking every means of transportation available. So the creative non-fiction stories were [about] people I met along the way, their stories and what the country was like 25 years after the war. I was also doing some freelance writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The background is that I had a column for a year between 1999 and 2000, and when I was going they asked if I’d like to write a commentary on globalization in Vietnam so that’s what I did too. But that wasn’t how the trip started, that was sort of an aside.
Q. Do all of your writings start from the personal?
A. It always starts from the personal. [But] like any other writer, you try to broaden it so that other people can feel something from it or can relate to it in some way. Otherwise, it seems it can become [too] personal.
Q. How do you deal with the fear of overexposing yourself?
A. I also write poetry, and I think poetry is where I bury other kinds of truth. In poetry, I can be more cryptic. I can use the form of poetry to really tackle some subjects that I might not be willing to express in a more open form, like the essay. In the essay, I feel like you’re not leaving many stones unturned. Whereas in poetry, you can maybe hint at it and then move away from it.
Q. How did you go from ISC to the Writers House?
A. I came to Philadelphia to go to Temple University to get the MA in creative writing and my concentration was poetry. I didn’t want to teach so I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. It turned out that there was a job at Penn in Information Systems and Computing for a staff writer [with a] technical focus.
I really didn’t know much about computers at all. I did all of my master’s work on a typewriter and this was 1990 so I was a little behind the eight ball.
But they were actually at that time looking for someone who could write end user documentation for people who might just be like me, the novice. So if I could come in and learn it and write about it then maybe I could be able to instruct other people to do it. So I was the perfect test case in a sense. I enjoyed it. I ended up staying for 10 years.
It’s a different kind of writing, but if you really love writing you’re adaptable. I’ve done journalism, creative writing and technical writing. Each one lends to the other. Technical writing was an incredibly positive force for my poetry because the idea of precision and getting the right word—no excess, you get right down to the core of it—in conjunction with the love of language and literature really help me become better as a poet.
Q. Is it going to be hard to shift gears and go back to ISC?
A. The good news is that I’m still on the [Writers House] Planning Committee so I can always be involved in some way. It will be a little like shifting gears [but] I didn’t just go from IT to this. I was editor of the Painted Bride Quarterly.
Even when I was doing the technical writing, I was doing this: I was a contributing editor for CrossConnect, which is affiliated with the Writers House, and I still am. And I am contributing editor for the American Poetry Review. So those things were always happening. But I love it because it all really fuels you. It’s all so inspiring, and I don’t think I would have it any other way.
Originally published on December 13, 2001