Allison Slater Tate ’96’s career has ranged from TV production to blogging about parenting, and her college experience has been useful at every turn. “In some ways, I’ve been way out of the Princeton track,” she says, “and in other ways, Princeton’s never left.”
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Editor’s note: This interview was recorded during Reunions at Blair Hall, just as the Alumni Battle of the Bands was beginning outside. We apologize for the background noise.
For this episode of PAW Tracks, we spoke with Allison Slater Tate, Class of 1996, who says that Princeton had an immediate grip on her imagination.
Allison Slater Tate: There’s so many stories in a college, and I — I think that just fits with my whole English major/writer brain so much. I came to visit Princeton, and of course, it looked like a castle to me. And this was way before Harry Potter, but I’m sure now it looks like Hogwarts to children. But to me it just looked like something so different from anything I’d really seen growing up, and I just couldn’t believe you were allowed to live in these buildings that looked like fairy tales to me. And then when my dad brought me back, we were — we landed in Newark, and we rented a car, and we were driving down Route 1, and he —it was, like, all the perfect things, it was sunset and we’re coming up approaching Washington Road — and he points off in the distance and points to the tower in Holder Courtyard, and he’s like, “When you got to Washington Road, you always knew you were home.” And I was like, “I feel like I’m home. Like, this feels right.” It just felt so very literary. Especially in comparison to strip-mall Florida. So it was just a magical place.
Then they put me in Butler, and (laughter) I was like, “This is not what I signed up for, actually.”
OK, those waffle ceilings and brick-and-concrete exteriors didn’t scream collegiate gothic. But Tate, who is now a freelance writer and popular blogger, managed to find the experience she’d envisioned in the classroom.
AT: I had a great experience as an English major. I loved, loved my professors, and I still keep in touch with Elaine Showalter. And I only — the only people I know who keep in touch with their professors from college went to Princeton. Like — and the fact that I still have, you know, the head of the English department from when I went here emailing me and saying, “I read your essay, and, you know, I loved it and I’m so proud of you,” like, nobody — that doesn’t happen, you know? So I feel, like, super lucky to have that kind of connection. And of course it means more than anybody else. I don’t care if anybody likes it, but if Princeton liked it, if Elaine Showalter thinks it was good, then I’m good. That’s all. That’s the pinnacle right there.
So what was it about Showalter that made such a positive impression?
AT: Well, she’s head of the department, and of course when I was coming up here, I had, like, that, you know, is it going to be all, like, old pipe-smoking men, you know, teaching me English? I was a little worried about it. And so then there’s this woman teaching English who’s, like, this feminist, and she’s so smart, she’s incredibly smart, and she’s also, like, so in the world. And that was — I always felt like — I had a little bit of impostor syndrome, because I grew up in a household with 22 television sets, like, and a subscription to People magazine. You know? Like, my dad [03:00] is brilliant, but he’s very into pop culture. And so I got here and I was like, “Is it going to be — you know, am I going to be scholarly enough for Princeton? Am I intellectual enough?” And Elaine, I asked her early on sophomore year if she would be willing to have lunch with me sometime to talk about potential, like, thesis topics. I thought, “Maybe if I ask her now, she’ll meet with me, you know, when I’m a junior or senior.” And she was like, “Yeah, how about tomorrow? Let’s have lunch.” And so we met up, and of course I’m totally intimidated, and she — we spent the entire time talking about MTV’s The Real World, and discussing the intricacies of it and the different people on it and who we liked better. And I thought, “I didn’t expect to be talking about MTV with my English professor from Princeton.” And I ended up taking two seminars with her, and when I was a senior, she and I talked about how much we both loved My So-Called Life, which was created by Winnie Holzman, class of 1976. [04:00] And she said, “You should write your senior thesis on My So-Called Life.” And I said, “Am I allowed to do that?” And she said, “I’m the head of the department. If I say you can do it, you can do it.” I was like, “OK.” So I wrote about My So-Called Life and I wrote about Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, and conveniently, since Joyce Carol Oates was here and could, you know, talk to me right here, and Susan Minot’s Lust and Other Stories. And I wrote about female adolescent protagonists in American culture and literature and the emergence of the female adolescent protagonist voice. And just having that validation that the things that I liked were valid and legit subjects to talk about, it was really, really encouraging and inspiring. And especially — she was writing about television for People magazine when I graduated. And to know that somebody who’s considered so brilliant and so academic [05:00] could write about television for People magazine, like, that’s sort of the basis of everything I’ve done, you know, is to take those subjects seriously was a concept that — she definitely gave me permission, you know, by being so encouraging about it. And by setting that example.
Tate went to work in television after graduation, first in New York City, on the Late Show with David Letterman, and later in Los Angeles. She eventually switched career paths, with an unexpected assist from Princeton.
AT: I started having kids and I wondered, like, what I would do next. I was on the TigerNet list parent-net. I made a lot of really good friends with alumni who were much older than me and, you know, now much younger than me. And Lisa Belkin, class of ’82, was on that list and when I was writing in every day begging for solidarity, as I had not slept in maybe a year and thought that maybe parenthood was actually going to kill me, Lisa wrote to me and said, “You can write. Like, you need to write.” And I thought those options were over, you know? Like, I was a stay-at-home mom, I was having kids right and left, apparently, I didn’t know how to even button my shirt correctly at that point — I felt like a mess. And Lisa said, “This could be something for you. You need to write.” And she was writing for the New York Times at the time, and she created the Motherlode blog, and she asked — she said, “I want you to write for me.” To be asked to write for the New York Times when you’re, you know, out of the workforce and kind of feeling like nobody — you can’t even form a complete sentence, it was super empowering. And she’s been a great mentor for me. She went on to work for the The Huffington Post, she’s the one who asked me to write for The Huffington Post, and when I said, “I don’t think I can do it,” she said “I know you can.” And then the third thing I wrote for The Huffington Post [07:00] was “The Mom Stays in the Picture,” that went really mega-viral, and Lisa called me that day that it went mega-viral and said, “This is it, Allison. This is your career.”
I think that writing about parenting has helped me be a better parent, helped me feel OK when I’m not a better parent, and even 10 minutes before I came up for this, I had somebody come up to me and say, “You don’t know it, but you posted something one day several months ago, that, like, made me feel not alone.” And I’m like, “Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned doing this, you’re never alone. Anything you feel, someone else feels it.”
In some ways, I’ve been way out of the Princeton track, and in other ways, Princeton’s never left. You know, it’s kind of always been there.
Our thanks to Allison Slater Tate for sharing her story. Brett Tomlinson produced this episode. The music is licensed from FirstCom Music.
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