37 Questions with Gwen Ito

Originally published in July 2022

Block Club senior copywriter Gwen Ito knows the value of good storytelling—both from a branding perspective and a personal one. In this installment of 37 Questions, a humble nod to Vogue’s 73, the wordsmith and grammar lover talks about the hardest part of writing, her favorite vices, and the lessons she’s learned from her family.

  1. Are you a coffee or a tea person?

    Both. I start the day with a cup of black coffee (dark roast). I also like all kinds of tea: English Breakfast, Earl Grey, and various green teas.

  2. How do you like to spend your weekends?

    Doing one or all of the following, but not all at once: taking a walk in Delaware Park and capturing some great shots of Hoyt Lake on my phone; relaxing with a good book or scribbling down ideas for a new essay or poem; watching a movie; working out at my local JCC about an hour or so before closing, when it’s not so crowded; meeting a friend for coffee; or taking my 90-year-old mom for a scenic drive.

  3. What was the last movie you watched?

    In the movie theater, that would be Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. Streaming, it would be the 2021 remake of West Side Story.

  4. How were they?

    Roadrunner was very good but a bit of a downer. I knew Bourdain had his demons, but it was painful to watch the interviews with the friends he left behind. I enjoyed the new version of West Side Story just as much as the 1961 movie, which I’ve seen several times. It’s edgier and more layered than the original.

  5. Before starting at Block Club, you were previously a client. What do you recall about that experience?

    I was managing marketing for my high school alma mater more than 10 years ago. I needed new collateral for a table display, and I hired Block Club to produce it. I remember Patrick convincing me to go with a certain-sized card that would be different from the typical handout. He was right; they worked out beautifully.

  6. You have an extensive copywriting background. What’s one trick that has served you well over the years?

    I sometimes read my copy out loud, especially during the editing and proofing stage. It’s a great way to gauge the overall rhythm as well as catch any inelegant repetitions.

  7. What do you find hardest about writing?

    Getting started. I’m an incorrigible procrastinator and overthinker. When I have trouble getting a flow going for work, I sometimes turn to music. My two go-to albums are Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. If I’m stuck on a piece of personal writing, I go for a walk or just start freewriting.

  8. Miles Davis once said, “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” How did you first find your voice?

    I started scribbling down stories and poems when I was six or seven. More than 50 years later, my writing is very different, yet at times, I still feel like that curious kid looking out at the world and trying to capture it in a few words. I’d say it has taken me a lifetime—years and years of writing a variety of pieces (long, short, personal, professional), each with a different purpose and perspective. And I think I’m still refining my writer’s voice. At least, I hope so. Because that means I’m continuing to grow as a writer.

  9. How do you find a client’s voice?

    I start by reading and listening to any existing communications in order to study and feel the client’s established brand. I take note of certain terms and phrases as well as any stylistic nuances. Are the sentences concise, or long and flowery? I pay attention to the tone. Is the client’s voice generally expressed through a modest and helpful tone? Is there a bit of swagger?

  10. Where do you look for inspiration?

    For my writing, I look to other writers. I find inspiration from a well-crafted sentence, a paragraph rich with details, a smart headline. For another kind of inspiration, I turn to the work of political historians like Heather Cox Richardson, whose newsletter, Letters from an American, I have been following since the beginning. And of course, my daughter is a constant source of inspiration.

  11. What’s one thing your daughter has taught you?

    The power of unconditional love

  12. Out of everything you’ve written, what’s your favorite and why?

    I don’t think I have one favorite piece, but a few memoir essays and poems come to mind. One poem was inspired by parenting and divorce, and the other expresses the mixed emotions of starting down the path of being my mom’s caregiver. I think both capture difficult transitions in an honest, ultimately loving way. I also wrote a magazine article about Hillary Clinton for a series on powerful women back in 2006. I guess that’s a favorite, too—not because of the writing per se, but because of the daylong adventure leading up to my brief meeting with Clinton.

  13. What was Clinton like?

    Utterly calm and cool on a very hot and humid summer day. I didn’t detect a bead of sweat on her, and we were standing just a few inches apart. It was almost surreal.

  14. What’s your favorite time of year?

    I love the first few weeks of autumn.

  15. What’s something you’d like to accomplish this year?

    For me, feeling accomplished means learning new ideas and expanding my perspective. I once worked with a data scientist who was both brilliant and humble. He liked to say, “On a daily basis, I strive to confront my own ignorance.” What a refreshing mindset.

  16. How do you measure success?

    I measure my own success by the ability to be true to myself. I could never do something I didn’t believe in.

  17. What’s something you don’t believe in?

    Toxic individualism. We like to focus on our independence as human beings, and yes, personal freedom is important. But we’re still connected to each other, and for society to work, we have to embrace our interdependence, too.

  18. What stresses you out the most?

    Going through airport security, filling out forms, filing paperwork

  19. Speaking of airport security, where do you want your next big trip to be?

    I’ve traveled in Europe and lived in Japan, but right now I’m fascinated with the Caribbean. So, I guess my answer would be Antigua in the West Indies. After my first visit there with my daughter, I came home and read Jamaica Kincaid’s memoir, A Small Place. Her reflections inspired me to seek out another book, Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day. Reading it, all I could think about was going back to the island someday and looking for things I missed the first time.

  20. How do you handle making hard decisions?

    I remind myself that I’m making the best decision I can at that moment. There are very few “wrong” decisions. I think what matters is how you handle the consequences of the ones you make.

  21. What’s one piece of advice you’d give your younger self?

    Just one? Don’t measure your worth by the expectations of others. Or, don’t fall for the bad boy again. He’s never going to change.

  22. Besides bad boys, if you could change something with a snap of your fingers, what would it be?

    For starters, I’d undo Citizens United.

  23. What’s something you’re surprisingly passionate about?

    Seeing the humanity in every person. To me, it’s why we’re all here.

  24. You spend a lot of time with your mom. What parts of her do you see in yourself?

    Growing up, I identified with my late father, who was a history professor and also a terrific writer. I knew I shared my mom’s musical sensibilities, but beyond that, I wasn’t sure what we had in common. As she’s aged, I’ve gotten to know her better—or from a different vantage point, I should say. I now see that a lot of my inner strength was inspired by the example she set when I was growing up.

  25. What trait do you value most in other people?

    The capacity for empathy

  26. If perfection was a place you’d visited before, where would it be?

    There’s no such thing as perfection, but these places come pretty close: Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, either in fall or spring; Paris when it’s raining and a light mist is covering the streets; Old Orchard Beach, Maine, at low tide early in the morning, when you can walk across the sandbar and hear the seagulls circling overhead; and Hodges Bay in Antigua, West Indies, at night, with the moon casting a mysterious and breathtaking light on the water as the tree frogs are whistling.

  27. How was the food in Antigua?

    The food was some of the best I’ve ever eaten.

  28. What dish would you recommend visitors try?

    Roasted pumpkin and ginger soup. I had it three times at different places during my stay, and each time it was delicious. When I got home, I tried to recreate the taste using a crockpot recipe—with mixed results.

  29. What’s your favorite vice?

    I don’t smoke, and I don’t drink anymore, so I guess it would have to be binge-watching episodes of Law and Order: SVU. For me, they’re like a package of Top Seedz crackers. I can’t stop at one.

  30. What’s one thing you couldn’t live without?

    I wish I could change this question to something I could live without. But if it has to be something I couldn’t live without, then I’d have to say, family.

  31. Now, what’s one thing you could live without?

    The online comments section of The Buffalo News

  32. What’s a skill you wish you possessed?

    I wish I had the ability to assemble a piece of equipment or furniture without having to rely on a set of directions.

  33. What piece of furniture in your house says the most about you?

    All the pieces in a given room would say, in unison, “Well, she obviously doesn’t care if we match.” But the one that says the most about me? Maybe the oversized coffee table in the middle of my living room. It has piles of books I’ve read and want to keep especially close, as well as books I plan to read. Or maybe the big bookcase near the front staircase. Someone built it for my dad in the 1960s. I retrieved it when I put my parents’ house up for sale years ago.

  34. Who’s your favorite poet?

    That’s a hard question because I don’t have a favorite. I try to read widely when it comes to poetry, so I appreciate the works of many different poets.

  35. What are some poems you would recommend?

    Check out Lucille Clifton’s “Blessing the Boats” and “Memory.” Also, “Love Comes Quietly” by Robert Creeley.

  36. What words do you try to live by?

    Stay curious. Be kind. Do your best.

  37. Finish this sentence: Gwen Ito is                    

    A bit uncomfortable talking about herself in the third person…lol.

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