January 17, 2020

Five Questions with LaDonna Witmer Willems: Writer & Editorial Director at Dropbox

On her journey to discover and empower her own voice, LaDonna Witmer Willems has been a newspaper journalist, advertising copywriter, copy director, and poet. Currently, she is one of the editorial gurus on the Dropbox Brand Studio team in San Francisco, creating and facilitating the most powerful expressions of the Dropbox voice. She’s also working on a book.

When LaDonna joins us at In/Visible Talks 2020, she’ll talk with us about “Permission to Speak: How to Unleash the Power of Your True Voice”. Here are some insights into her creative life.

What is your relationship to the creative process?

“Tempestuous. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.”

How or where do you find inspiration?

“In books. I read all the time: 95% fiction, 5% memoirs. I find inspiration in the wild. I love the city, but I grew up on a farm, and a country girl resides forever in my heart. My entire self expands when I’m out in nature, blowing in the breeze. I find inspiration, too, in people who are truly, unapologetically, and wonderfully themselves. That includes my nine-year-old daughter, who loves foxes and dragons and dreams of an improbable hybrid of the two (called a ‘dragonfox’, natch). She doesn’t give two figs what anyone thinks; she hates princess movies and will not be persuaded otherwise; she runs around barefoot all the time; climbs the highest trees; writes seven books at one time (each of which is either about a dragon or a fox). She is an ‘ocean saver’ who believes she can save the world from climate change. I stand in constant awe of her fierce spirit.”

What was one of your biggest creative challenges?

“Coming to work in tech. No, seriously. Dropbox is my first tech job, and I had massive reservations about it, having been firmly in the, ‘Tech bros are totally evil’ camp for years. But when I crossed to the other side, I had to learn that age-old lesson all over again, that things aren’t always as black-and-white, good-and-evil as we’d like to think. I was happily surprised and more than a bit humbled to find myself surrounded by the most kind, hopeful, lovely, and creative people. So in this particular example, my creative challenge was opening my mind and leaving my personal bias behind. I’m glad I did!”

When did you first realize you needed to be in a creative field?

“When I was quite young. I was a doodler and a daydreamer. I wrote plays for my friends to act out (we recorded them on my mom’s tape player). I used to climb to the top of the peaked roof of our farmhouse in Illinois and sit straddling the ridgepole with my back against the chimney, reading a book and ignoring my mother’s increasingly annoyed (and loud) calls to, ‘Get in here and do the dishes!’ I remember telling my dad I wanted to be a ballerina and a veterinarian when I grew up. He told me I’d better stick with the veterinarian thing because ‘art doesn’t pay the bills’.”

Who is one of your heroes and why?

“Chanel Miller. I read her memoir, Know My Name, a few months ago and found it to be really amazing. I bought her book initially because I had followed the Brock Turner trial and had been deeply moved by Emily Doe’s victim impact statement. When I heard that Emily Doe was shedding her anonymity and publishing a book, I knew I had to read it. From the very first paragraph, I was overwhelmed by what a gorgeous writer she is. But her book is more than just eloquence—it’s a powerful emergence of a woman who has taken back her voice and her identity and her name. A woman who has stepped forward into the light, because she never deserved to be shrouded in shadows in the first place. Chanel is a powerhouse of hope, and her Instagram posts are so full of truth and joy. I really, deeply love her and am so glad she is using her voice.”

Bonus Round: What drives you to create?

“The need to stay sane. I get itchy (and twitchy, and bitchy!) if I’m not writing something for myself. Usually that’s poetry. I’ve been in a writing group with the same two women for years, and that’s been incredible—not just because it gives me writing deadlines, but because it’s an excellent form of therapy. Every night before I go to bed, for the past eight years, I’ve written one or two sentences about my day in one of those One Line A Day journals. And I just completed NaNoWriMo 2019 (National Novel Writing Month) and wrote 51,545 words in 30 days. That was kind of a big deal. For me, there is no satisfaction in the world like seeing your words on a page and knowing you wrote them just for yourself. Not for work, not at the request of anyone else, just for you.”